Covering the Goulburn and Murray valleys

The bike riding bailiffs

Alex Nelson and Ted Rawlings enjoyed a good old belly laugh when they recalled the day a water bailiff colleague in the Stanhope area went walkabout and notified no-one.

GUS UNDERWOOD December 24, 2013 6:04am

Former water bailiff Ted Rawlings with an old 1960 licence to kill water rats.

Alex Nelson and Ted Rawlings enjoyed a good old belly laugh when they recalled the day a water bailiff colleague in the Stanhope area went walkabout and notified no-one.

It wasn’t so bad that he had gone missing, but neglecting to shut off an irrigation supply in the district he was responsible for caused all sorts of concerns and problems.

On hearing of the predicament Mr Nelson was asked by his boss to get in his horse and cart and track down where the water was actually flowing to.

It took a bit of trial and error and considerable time but Mr Nelson was able to eventually solve the problem and when the missing bailiff turned up a few days later all was forgotten.

Mr Rawlings remembers vividly the day a Rushworth water bailiff was killed in a car accident while riding home from work in March 1953. Mr Rawlings was told to take over the man’s irrigation section as well as his own until a replacement was appointed.

That meant some days Mr Rawlings had to ride his bike 116km (70miles) to do his rounds.

These are just two of the more vivid memories the two men hold about their days as water bailiffs in the Tongala Deakin Irrigation District which was administered until recently from offices at Tongala and is now Kyabram-based.

Mr Nelson, 91, and Mr Rawlings, 84, are among the last of the former water bailiffs still living who started out in their jobs in the 1940s on bicycles or horses.

They were among the bailiffs who reliably ensured the water was delivered to district irrigators in the western Goulburn Valley from Colbinabbin to Echuca.

Both remained controlling the same section throughout their working lives.

Mr Rawlings recalls that during the 1940s the irrigation season ran from September 1 to April 1 but was later, at the request of irrigators, changed to mid August to mid May and a bailiff was on call seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

‘‘When I started as a bailiff, water was six shillings an acre foot.

‘‘In those days the farmers rang you or met you in the street to put in water orders and you delivered it when they wanted it,’’ Mr Rawlings, who spent 39 years and four months as a bailiff, said. He followed his father William, who spent 33 years as a bailiff, into the job.

An order for water for Mr Rawlings and Mr Nelson involved a trip to the Western Mallee Channel near the Waranga Basin outlet where Jack Binks, who was in charge of the initial water flows from that area, took on the arduous task of hand-winding the mechanisms which released or blocked the water flows down that channel.

‘‘You could be up for most of the night some nights,’’ Mr Rawlings said.

He spent the first seven years as a bailiff riding his bicycle on rough channel banks and roads to meet water delivery orders, often contending with snakes and other hazards such as flat tyres.

Plagues of protected water rats, burrowing through banks and releasing water, were often targeted by the bailiffs who were granted with special permits to destroy them.

Mr Nelson even recalled diving his hand into a channel one day and coming out with a chain which had a set rabbit trap on the end of it. He still shudders to think what would have happened if he had put his hand into the trap first.

The bailiffs’ employer in those days, the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, allowed bailiffs in the mid 1950s to use their own vehicles to do their rounds and paid them a small weekly fee of about £2 ($4) for the privilege.

It wasn’t until the early 1960s bailiffs were issued with vehicles by the commission at the commission’s cost.

Despite their commitment, bailiffs weren’t on a fortune, making a moderate £8 ($16) a week in the 1940s and 1950s.

Both Mr Rawlings and Mr Nelson encountered irrigators spragging water metres to gain free deliveries, but said it wasn’t a regular problem and most irrigators toed the line and were good to get on with.

There were also some side benefits to their job.

Mr Rawlings admits, with a chuckle, to helping himself, along with quite a few other people, to some nice feeds of redfin and cod when diminishing water flows at the end of the irrigation season trapped the fish in pools in channel beds.

At the Mallee Channel when this happened they often turned up with pitchforks because there were so many fish to be taken, Mr Rawlings said.

While Mr Rawlings and Mr Nelson acknowledge computerisation and solar deliveries of irrigation are a stark contrast to their methods through the now doomed Dethridge water wheels, they realise it’s a natural progression.

They also agree on one other thing — the transfer of permanent water rights out of the Goulburn Murray irrigation district is something which should never have been allowed.

‘‘Look what it’s done to the district. It’s just shocking,’’ Mr Nelson said. He estimates only half the land he serviced as a bailiff is now being irrigated.

Mr Rawlings sees it as a case of ‘‘bugger the farmer’’.

‘‘It’s all about getting water into rivers these days for tourism and the environment and no-one seems to be worrying about the irrigator any more,’’ he said.

‘‘It’s really very disappointing.’’

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