Heritage Victoria's Emergency Recovery team are visiting heritage-listed properties in Mildura that were damaged by flooding last year.

The team will assess the condition of the properties including Psyche Bend Pumping Station (H0548), pictured above surrounded by the flood waters on December 12, 2022.

Find out more about Psyche Bend and its history in the following account by Robyn Annear.

Flooding at Psyche Bend
Source: Heritage Victoria

Psyche Bend

Visitors rhapsodised over the pumping plant under construction at Psyche Bend in 1890. The brick engine-house, steep-roofed and austerely ornate, was likened to a cathedral, and the steam-driven pumping engines were ‘bright on all their polished surfaces as the works of a watch’. This temple of progress was the ‘parent’ of a network of pumps and channels designed to carry water from the Murray River to the orchards and vineyards of the newly settled irrigation colony of Mildura.

For much the 1880s, while Melbourne boomed, northern Victoria had been gripped by drought. Government minister Alfred Deakin, exploring ways of ensuring a reliable supply of water to arid districts, visited California, where large-scale irrigation schemes had transformed desert into orange groves. There, Deakin enticed two leading irrigation engineers, the brothers George and Ben Chaffey, to bring their expertise to Victoria. The Canadian-born Chaffeys had successfully founded two Californian irrigation colonies – not just the water supply, but townships and ‘model’ communities.

In Victoria, the Chaffeys entered into an agreement with the government to create an irrigation colony from scratch. They were granted, on favourable terms, 100 square kilometres of parched, rabbit-infested land at Mildura on the Murray River. They would sell farming plots with water rights supplied by an irrigation system drawing water from the Murray. The first settlers arrived in 1887 and the town of Mildura was laid out, with Deakin Avenue at its centre.

Kings Billabong, south-east of the town, presented a vast natural reservoir. In flood seasons, it filled with water from the river, which would flow out as the river level dropped. The billabong was dammed to prevent the natural outflow, and a series of pumping stations was built to distribute water from Kings Billabong via channels to the thirsty farmlands. It was the job of the ‘parent’ plant at Psyche Bend to pump water from the Murray into the billabong, keeping it filled even – especially – in dry seasons. Technically, the Murray belonged to NSW, and that colony’s Premier, Henry Parkes, was irate at the Chaffeys’ taking water from the river for Victorian farms. If, as he said, they were ‘water pirates’, then the Psyche Bend pumphouse was their galleon.

Psyche Bend Pumping Station, c. 2008
Source: Heritage Victoria

The Psyche Bend pump was to be the biggest

In California, the Chaffeys’ irrigation schemes had relied on gravity – melt-water running down from snowy mountains. But on the Murray, powerful steam-driven pumps were needed to draw water up from the river in the first place, then from the billabong and out along channels to the farms. The pumping engine at Psyche Bend was to be the biggest – not just at Mildura, but in the world. A 1,000-horsepower engine drove four mighty centrifugal pumps. George Chaffey had based his design on the engine-room of an ocean liner.

During Mildura’s early years, a small temporary pump at Psyche Bend, along with better than usual rainfalls, kept Kings Billabong full, so priority was given to building the other pumphouses and channelling. Work began on Psyche Bend in 1889, but it wasn’t in operation until 1892. Even then, its ‘leviathan’ pumps were fired up only when the billabong’s level dropped.

In 1892, the Mildura pumps could irrigate three times the land that was under cultivation. Were such extravagant pumping plants necessary? That would be one of the questions asked by a Royal Commission in 1896, after a series of setbacks sent the Mildura irrigation settlement to the brink of collapse. The harvest of 1893 was a bumper, however the low summer river-level left the Murray unnavigable, and the fruit rotted before it could reach the railway at Swan Hill. Then came the great 1890s Depression. Yabbies undermined the earthen channels supplying water to farms, rabbits were in plague proportions, salt was rising, rain destroyed the 1895 crop. Eventually, there was no money to run the pumps, and farms went unwatered. Many settlers left Mildura, and the Chaffeys, deep in debt, lost everything.

The First Midlura Irrigation Trust

To take over the Chaffeys’ works at Mildura, the government formed the First Mildura Irrigation Trust, controlled by a locally elected board of commissioners. The Chaffey brothers were widely reviled as ‘Yankee adventurers’. George returned to California, but Ben stayed on, working hard as a Mildura fruitgrower to pay off his debts and regain local trust. Mildura would go on to thrive, largely as a producer of dried fruit – a creative solution to the district’s remoteness from markets for fresh fruit.

And the pumps would go on. The pumphouse at Psyche Bend shut down in 1959 when an electric pumping station took over. Presiding over the closing ceremony was Herbert Chaffey, son of Ben who, when he died in 1926, was Mildura’s mayor.

Page last updated: 06/06/23