Wyndham History

The Chaffey Brothers & The Werribee Irrigation Colony


“The Chaffey Brothers & The Werribee Irrigation Colony,” Wyndham History, accessed June 3, 2020, http://www.wyndhamhistory.net.au/items/show/419.
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The Chaffey Brothers & The Werribee Irrigation Colony


Chaffey, George, Chaffey, William Benjamin, Werribee Irrigation Colony, De Garis, E. Clement, Market gardens - Werribee South (Vic.),









The name of Chaffey in the development of rural Australia is more commonly linked with the North-western Victorian centre of Mildura, and the South-Australian irrigation district of Renmark rather than Werribee.

However, the Canadian-born Chaffey brothers had also conceived a similar irrigation scheme centred on the Werribee River at, what would become, a new township to be named Chirnside.

George Chaffey [1848–1932]

George Chaffey first migrated to California where he became involved in irrigation schemes, which turned the deserts of Santa Anna into agricultural gold.

Following a decade-long drought in the 1880s the Victoria parliamentarian and Minister for Water Supply, Alfred Deakin visited the American irrigation colonies and was convinced that the Chaffeys could transfer their success in turning the Californian desert into richly, productive farmland to Victoria. The government bent over backwards to make land in the southern colony available to them.

Chaffey was an engineer, inventor, boat-builder, and entrepreneur. He was also an excellent salesman, able to convince bankers to invest, governments to agree and farmers to take up land in his schemes. Not all were successful.

William Chaffey  [1856–1926]

William Chaffey was not the entrepreneur his elder brother was, but still played an influential role in the development of irrigation schemes in both California and southern Australia.

Schemes were set up in South Australia at Renmark, Mildura, Red Hills and in Werribee to note but a few.

Although the eventual collapse of their schemes were due to a financial crisis in Victoria which, as a consequence, meant that much needed funds were no longer available to them, William Chaffey remained in Mildura even after his brother George had gone back to California. William lived long enough to see many of their dreams realised as new settlers, and new irrigators, moved into the Mildura Irrigation District. The scheme planned for Werribee had also failed but the idea persisted.

The Proposed Town of Chirnside.
The Werribee Irrigation Colony

The Chaffey Brothers, on behalf of the Werribee Irrigation and Investment Company, planned for a rural subdivision, which stretched between the river, at what is now known as Riverbend Historic Park and Tarneit Road.  

What the Chaffeys were planning were new settlements of small farms, all irrigated from existing river systems. The Chaffeys would buy up seemingly non-arable land at a cheap price, lay in the irrigation, sub-divide and on-sell at an enhanced price. As a carrot they would promise to build an agricultural college ‘at their own cost, and to be endowed by the setting apart [of] one-fifteenth of all the irrigated land granted to them’.

In December 1888 it was announced that the Chaffeys had secured 1500 acres of land on the Werribee River. Marketed as a ‘Mildura in the Metropolitan Area’, they indicated that the land was to be cut up into small blocks and offered to market gardeners and others.

Around 100 x 10 acre lots and more than 150 house blocks close to the river bend were mapped out. The scheme promised to build a weir across the river and pumping stations to supply irrigated water to the farmers.

Werribee soils were already known to be fertile but the region suffered from long, dry summers and the promise of a reliable water supply should have seen investors flock to sign up for the scheme. Most commentators appeared to support the venture, one newspaper even offering this rather romantic opinion that ‘once the Californian expert gets this water on to the land the little irrigation colony at Werribee will burst forth into Eden-like verdure and Paradisial bloom’; while another, among the many visitors who travelled down from the city to inspect the progress of the works noted that ‘whilst there were several interesting features observable there seemed to be a lack of irrigationists on the estate’.

George Chaffey was so convinced of the success of the scheme that he invested £4500 building for himself the strawberry coloured American-styled two-storied villa, he named 'Quantin Binnah' on the Werribee irrigation colony. By contrast the estate manager E.C. De Garis had a more modest single-storey timber colonial farm-house styled dwelling built for himself. This house was described in the Bacchus Marsh Express as 'exactly the kind of building which Australians should erect'.

The half-yearly report of the Company for 1890 stated that there are 53 acres sown for hay, 58 under fruit and vegetables, and 27 acres in preparation for vegetables.  Where so much had been offered so little had been achieved, less than ten-per cent of the land originally secured was being worked.  Although more than £30,000 had been raised for the scheme the weir was never built.

It was their obvious enjoyment of the profits taken from investors that caused local farmers to grumble.  In the summer of 1890-91 the supply of water from the river was diminished. Farmers who had been in the district long before the arrival of the Chaffeys complained that there was not enough for their needs let alone the newcomers. At no stage did any more than 10 per cent of the 1,468 acres under irrigation get the water they had been promised.

Their dream began to unravel, but it was a financial crisis in Victorian banking that brought them undone. Following the terrible bank crashes of the early nineties the feeling against the Chaffeys became 'malignant'. The channels began to leak, the dread words 'yabbies' and 'seepage' became familiar, and the settlers were even advised that they need not pay at all for their irrigation water! By 1896 the Chaffeys seemed all but down and out. With the banks failing around them loans were impossible to secure. Where the Chaffeys needed entrepreneurs they found closed doors. By the beginning of 1896 the company, Chaffey Brothers Limited was wound up.

George went back to California, William to Mildura.  Little remains today of their plans for the Town of Chirnside. Only one street, De Garis Place near Riverbend Historical Park, named after E. Clement De Garis the estate manager, and a Commissioner of the Investment Company remains.

Irrigation in Werribee South

Where the Chaffeys had planned for their Chirnside irrigation colony is now built over, subsumed under housing estates and shopping precincts north of the railway line, but in Werribee South where new settlers who came to Wyndham in the wave of southern European migration after the Second World War, took up the farmlands along the course of the Werribee River, they have turned the area between the town and the river mouth into a ‘kitchen garden’ to rival anything California could produce.

The new migrant-farmers of Werribee South have made the most of the fertile soils and the available water from the Werribee River without need for any grandiose scheme.


Portland Guardian, 30 November 1888, p.3.

The Bacchus Marsh Express, 13 September 1890, p.7.

The Register [Adelaide] 22 November 1928, p.8.

Peter Westcott, 'Chaffey, William Benjamin (1856–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 7., Melbourne University Press, 1979.



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