Image Irrigation

Spiritualist entrepreneur Alfred Deakin ignited the ‘vital spark’ of irrigation in rural Victoria

Speech commemorating the launch of the exhibition ‘Alfred Deakin: The Man’ at the Alfred Deakin Prime Ministerial Library in Geelong, Victoria, August 10, 2011. This is part of the author’s focus on entrepreneurship, climate change, sustainability, and the biosphere.

Intro slide
Alfred Deakin, Entreprener


This article commemorates the 2011 launch of the exhibition ‘Alfred Deakin: The Man’ at the Alfred Deakin Prime Ministerial Library in Geelong, Victoria, Australia.  We apply the modern concept of ‘entrepreneur’ to thrice-Australian Prime Minister Alfred Deakin.  We use historical records, including Deakin’s own writings, to uncover his ‘enterprising personality’ as a social and business entrepreneur

The period of analysis is 1885-1890 when Deakin was in his late twenties and was serving as Minister for Water Supply and President of the Royal Commission on Water Supply.  Deakin’s vision of an irrigated Murray Basin drew upon his Victorian liberalism and on his spiritualism, viewing water as ‘life force’ that could provide the ‘vital spark’ to the land through engineering and irrigation science.  His vision and self-efficacy saw him travel throughout the United States and Mexico to examine irrigation works, dams, weirs and canals in search of technology to ‘free the soul’ of inland Australia. 

Dreamer and water entrepreneur

Image of Alfred Deakin
Enterprising Mr. Deakin. National Portrait Gallery, Canberra. Gift of Ronald A Walker 2009.

Alfred Deakin – the dreamer, the believer, the achiever, known as the Father of Federation and the Father of Irrigation in Australia. We take an in-depth and more personal look at Alfred Deakin the man. My topic is ‘Alfred as Entrepreneur’, for he was imbued with that enterprising spirit that possesses some of us.  True, Alfred was a failed business entrepreneur and director of some very dubious companies.  It is a miracle that he did not end up discredited and in insolvency as many of his friends did.  But on the other side, Alfred was an enormously successful social and political entrepreneur, charismatic and communicative, risk-taking and forward-thinking. 

On a personal note, I discovered that Alfred and I were connected—emotionally and even personally–and this motivated me to examine his life as a social and political entrepreneur. In the course of this research I discovered that Alfred actually visited my home town of Indio, California as he road throughout the ‘Wild West’ on a research tour of America.  I discovered to my delight that not only did he have well-known traits of an entrepreneur.  Like myself, he was a visionary and dreamer of grand projects, and an admirer of American entrepreneurship.  He was also a researcher. One amazing discoveries was that Alfred was a competent survey researcher.  He used a 75-question survey instrument of great concision to interview the great engineers and irrigationists of America, and his book, ‘Irrigation in Western America’, should merit a posthumous doctorate. 

Young Alfred

The field of academic entrepreneurship is rife with definitions, and I won’t bore you here with the literature wars, but here are two definitions that fit Alfred to a tee:  An entrepreneur is ‘a person who habitually creates and innovates to build something of value around perceived opportunities (Bolton & Thompson, 2004); someone who ‘[pursues] opportunity beyond the resources [he] currently controls’ (Stevenson & Gumpert, 1985). 

Image of Alfred Deakin
Postcard showing the Hon Alfred Deakin, by AR Burnet, after Deakin was voted one of ‘The Ten Best Citizens of Victoria’ by the Herald, around 1906. National Museum of Australia.

These characteristics of opportunity seeking, taking risks beyond security, and having the tenacity to push an idea through to reality all combined in Alfred Deakin to make him a singularly enterprising personality.  He reminds me of the mission of the Starship Enterprise ‘to boldly go where no [one] has gone before’. Alfred had an attitude to life, an attitude of exploring, of developing, of leading and of taking initiatives.

In the entrepreneurship literature, you are more likely to be an entrepreneur if you know one (Klees, 1995).  Alfy had a school mate, the sociable but cheeky Theodore Fink (1855–1942), who influenced Alfred’s enterprising affairs—for good and for bad–throughout his life.  As Deakin biographer John Rickard writes, ‘Fink was a born entrepreneur, organising lotteries (nibs, penholders and blotting paper serving as school currency), and starting the school paper’, to which Alfy contributed.  Alfy emulated his friend by starting a club for essayists and championing a law court (Rickard, 1996, p. 29). 

Alfred went on to study law half-heartedly at Melbourne, but he only gained a certificate; not surprisingly, his law career never proved to be successful.  I believe that he recognised early that his lot was not for a ‘compliance discipline’.  He didn’t want to manage someone else’s affairs.  He had what psychologists call a strong ‘internal locus of control’, where a person believes that he can control events–or better said, that events result primarily from the own behaviour and actions.  These are another two characteristics of entrepreneurs. Alfy had a drive for self-employment and to become sole proprietor of his own destiny. 

This was very early the case when, through the brilliance of his writing and oratory, he came in contact with David Syme, the media mogul of fifty-year career as publisher and editor of ‘The Age’ and ‘The Leader’ newspapers.  Deakin became Symes’ journalistic protégé and this ultimately enabled him to earn his living. Between 1878 and 1883, when he was elected Prime Minister, Deakin wrote regularly for Syme’s newspapers on a wide variety of topics. An omnivorous reader and assiduous writer, Deakin filled an endless stream of notebooks and diaries.   

Alfred excelled at journalism, which became his major occupation for some years and provided a useful source of income for most of his life.  One of the rare facts that I discovered in my research is that even when he was Prime Minister he wrote ‘secret commentaries’ on Australian politics under the by-line ‘Our Special Correspondent in Australia’ for the London Morning Post from 1901-1914– (Deakin & La Nauze, 1968).  IVery few people knew of this secret activity, including the Australian Tax Office offices, where Deakin religiously declared his yearly earnings of £500.  

One of the hallmarks of an entrepreneur is to think creatively and very much out of the box.  A quintessential Victoria liberal (not at all in the sense of the word today), Deakin was an advocate of temperance, a writer of dramas, essays, poetry and treatises on subjects as diverse as funerary architecture in India and anti-sweating legislation, and a five-act blank-verse drama of a Renaissance-era Flemish painter. 

Typical of many liberal Free Thinkers of his day, he was also a spiritualist. This community supported such liberal causes such as the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage. Alfred’s search for a Higher Truth drew him to its mystic endeavours.  At one point he even took post-mortem dictation from John Bunyan, who died in 1688 (Grosz & Maloney, 2008-2009).  Denounced in the papers for ‘outraging religion’, Deakin did withdraw from the spiritualist movement, but if he were alive today he would probably have sought inspiration in animism.

Alfred Deakin’s Enterprising Biography

Let us begin with his essential details.  Alfred was the child of English immigrants who immigrated and had settled in Collingwood, Melbourne by 1853.  Alfred was born three years later at 90 George Street, Fitzroy, later moved to South Yarra, and entered Melbourne Grammar School. 

Alfred’s father William worked as a storekeeper and water-carter, then moved to become a partner and manager in Cobb and Co., the famous stagecoach company founded by American entrepreneur Freeman Cobb, who ran American-imported stagecoaches to and from the Victorian goldfields.  Freeman Cobb’s name is synonymous an enterprising company using the latest methods and equipment, and his management style was one of bringing out the best in people (Austin). Alfy worked as a manager at Cobb and the tall tales of the Yanks must have sparked his imagination about the American Wild West.  

At Melbourne Grammar, Alfred was not a serious student at first, distracted as he was by his dream world and reading of world literature.  However, he was soon discovered and came under the influence of the school’s headmaster, John Edward Bromby (1809–1889), whose oratorical style Deakin emulated.  Bromby was furtively proud of his pupil; when Deakin  was elected to Assembly in 1879, Bromby noted the boy’s success in his diary but quipped wryly, ‘Would that it had been in a better cause’ [than politics] (Australian Dictionary of Biography Online).  Bromby equipped Alfred with the gift of oratory.  Indeed, Alfy was a very charismatic communicator.

What led Alfred Deakin to earn so many several memorable sobriquets in his long and distinguished career? Affable Alfred, Father of Irrigation, Father of Irrigation, Father of the Liberal Party, Minister for Water Supply, Attorney-General, and Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Australia not once but three times?  I am going to make the argument that Alfred Deakin was a very enterprising character. 

Alfred and irrigation: successful social and political entrepreneur

Alfred’s is a story of vision and achievement in the face of adversity. 

In the 1880s, northern Victoria was a sunbaked wasteland suffering a severe drought, with much native scrub and native animals on the verge of perishing.  Its only asset was the lazy Murray River crawling across the sandy plain.  Amazingly, settlers had no knowledge of irrigation yet scratched their paltry subsistence just back from the Murray’s bank praying for rain and sending their miserable product via steamboats plying the trade to lonely stations from the lower South Australian reaches up to Swan Hill.  Aboriginal bands still roamed the banks and the mail coaches made the last trickle of European civilisation until their lifeline was sucked out.  One writer called The Mallee (Murray Darling and Riverina bioregions) ‘a Sahara of hissing winds’.  It was an outpost region where every white man was still a pioneers and every white woman a heroine (NA, 1928).

Irrigating the Murray
Irrigating Mildura Orchards, by JW Lindt, 1890. State Library of Victoria H96.160/1915

Ever optimistic in the fight against nature, Parliament in 1883 passed a Mallee Pastoral Leases Act dividing the Murray frontage into small blocks to give access to water.  This was in the time of the great Australian innovation, the Stump jump plough, so with water from the edge, soon the paddle steamers were taking great loads down the Murray.

Stump Jump plough
Stump Jump plough conquered Australia’s outback

The next challenge was to create small fruit-growing blocks.  This is where Alfred enters the scene.  In 1884, he was serving as both Attorney-General and Commissioner for Public Works and Water Supply, and was appointed president of a Royal Commission on Water Supply. 

Alfred was a ‘vitalist’ in that he believed that irrigation science and engineering could finally reveal the long-still ‘life force’ that had been shrouded by the melancholy silence of inland Australia.  This element is often referred to as the ‘vital spark,’ ‘energy’ or ‘élan vital’, which some equate with the ‘soul’. Through irrigation, Deakin felt, ‘the gloomy legends of interior wastes’ could be disproved (Cathcart, 2009, p. 202). 

Irrigation in Victoria in 1885
Irrigation in Victoria in 1885

Irrigation also appealed to Deakin’s notion of Jeffersonian democracy. This meant equality of opportunity by opening up land to small holders while the State safeguarded the rights and property of citizens. It also appealed to his support for temperance and civic virtue, where the yeoman farmer could be independent from corrupting city influences.

Research trip to America to study irrigation

At age 29 years old, with Pattie, his wife, two journalists and an engineer in tow, the President of the Royal Commission wasted no time in setting off for America to investigate the miracle of irrigation that was occurring in California and the American West.  What he found was indeed a blossoming of the deserts where hydro-engineers and water-preneurs had made the sandy soil extremely productive with oranges, grapes, even date palms. 

They embarked in January 1885 on the long voyage through New Zealand and Samoa to Hawaii and onward to San Francisco, arriving there on 26 January 1885 to a bay so large, he wrote, that it could ‘contain all the navies of the world safely’ (Deakin, 1885b).  He remarked at the marvel of electric lights, and was impressed that the warehouses were larger than on Smith Street in Collingwood. 

Deakin's Trip to America
Deakin’s Irrigation Research Trip to America in 1885

Thus began an investigative tour of America that went from coast to coast and even down as far as Mexico City to view the intricate system of Aztec canals.  Deakin and his entourage spent every waking moment examining irrigation works, weirs, dams and canals throughout America from San Francisco to Boston.  In two-and-half months they used the marvellous train system and the luxurious Pullman coaches on steam locomotives of the day.  This would have been some of the first professional tourism of its kind.  Remember, the transcontinental railroad had only been completed in 1869 when the ‘Golden Spike’ was driven to join the rails from East to West coast.  You can imagine what the mid-eighties were like in the United States from all of the Hollywood cowboy movies.  Ned Kelly may have already been caught and executed, but Wyatt Earp and his brothers were just fighting the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Deakin’s travel diaries were as if a tornado were touching paper (Deakin, 1885b).  Furious penmanship reveals the brilliant mind that was recording impressions on everything from canal construction to fine opera and theatre performances.  A map of 1880’s US railroads helped me to chart his trip from San Francisco first down through the fertile Central Valley of California and over the Tehachapi into the Los Angeles basin, where he was particularly intrigued with the Spanish missions.  He carried on over the Banning Pass and down into the Coachella Valley where I grew up, where water pours off the mountains into underground aquifers that made this below-sea-level valley an oasis.  Through Phoenix to El Paso, where he took the great journey all the way down to Mexico City especially to visit the Aztec lakes and canals. 

Image of Southern Pacific railroad around 1900

The party returned to El Paso and dashed across the deserts and prairies through New Mexico to Kansas City, Missouri. Touching down in Chicago he attended a play before racing along Lake Erie to Buffalo, New York, where he took in Niagara Falls.  Down through the Catskills to New York City, he was especially thrilled to see the Brooklyn Bridge and the elevated rail.  He visited Boston to see the Boston Tea Party site and Concord to view where the ‘shot heard round the world’ was fired, but his most cherished words are for his visits to Ralph Emerson’s grave and to Thoreau’s famous Walden Pond.  In Washington, DC, he visited the patent office then raced back to see ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ at the Star Theatre in New York.  Back through Chicago this time he diverted northward toward Denver and other irrigation sites in Colorado, all the while taking in the opera.  Finally he crossed the Great Nevada Desert and viewed the glamour of Lake Tahoe and Yosemite Valley. 

Alfred meets the Chaffey Brothers and convinces them to come to Mildura

William Chaffey
William Chaffey was an irrigation planner who with his older brother George developed what became the cities of Etiwanda, California, Ontario, California, and Upland, California in the United States of America, as well as the cities of Mildura, Victoria and the town of Renmark, South Australia, in Australia.

Now I have taken you across the continent not speaking in detail of the most important meeting of the entire trip.  Shortly after arriving in San Francisco, Alfred was advised to get in touch with the Chaffey Brothers of Los Angeles, and in his third week in America, on 11 February 1885, he met George and W.B Chaffey, who had established the successful Etiwanda irrigation settlement about 60 miles east of Los Angeles near the area where I call home. 

George Chaffey
George Chaffey (1848-1932), by unknown photographer. La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, RWP/31907

Journalist J.L. Dow comically describes his arrival in The Age (Dow, 1885).  The day before Alfred had been telling his usual ‘tall tales’ about Australia trying to out-do the Americans about the size of stations and numbers of sheep.  ‘If you want to know the biggest sheep man in all Australia’, he said, he shore last year 1,000,000 sheep across three different states’, to which the Americans’ jaws dropped.  Arriving the next day at the train station in Ontario, as George Chaffey found Alfred in the crowd, a figure emerged waving a sheet of paper.  It was the Western Union agent, who for all to hear read out the telegram announcing Deakin’s arrival:  ‘Four gentlemen from Australia will have breakfast with you and treat them very well.  We like them very much. They are more like Americans than ordinary tourists, and they carry with them the champion liar of the United States’. 

George Chaffey . . . this is what rang my memory bells.  I remembered as a student visiting Chaffey College near my home.  As part of their model colony, the Chaffey brothers envisioned a local college that would provide a quality education to the citrus growing families in the expanding ‘Inland Empire’.

Born in Ontario, Canada, George Chaffey (1848-1932) was an irrigation pioneer, engineer, inventor and entrepreneur, and his younger brother William Benjamin (1856-1926) was agriculturist and irrigation planner (Norris).  By the early 1880’s the Chaffeys had joined other Canadian families in the Santa Ana River irrigation settlement. The large profits that flowed from the Riverside venture encouraged George and William to become partners in the new irrigation colonies, named by them Etiwanda and Ontario, on the Cucamonga Plain, the site of the then-longest telephone line in the world, from Los Angeles to Ontario. 

These settlements were based upon the purchase of land and water-rights by the Chaffeys at a low price, and resale to settlers in 10-acre (4 ha) blocks, with a mutual irrigation company to distribute water on a non-profit basis. Much of the success of irrigation at Etiwanda and Ontario was due to the use of steam driven pumps and cement pipes in the main water channels. Planned towns, social institutes and prohibition were features of both colonies, which were regarded as model settlements throughout western America. (Powell, 1989)

You can imagine Alfred’s first meeting with the Chaffeys.  After seeing hundreds of acres planted with citrus and vine irrigated by latest technology, recalling the Australian drought, and the potential of the Murray Basin, Alfred would have said something like ‘Boys, let me tell you about the Murray’.  He was so persuasive that within one year the Chaffeys had sold out their entire holdings in California and brought £300,000 to Melbourne as ‘foreign investors’. 

Alfred was impressed by two factors in what he saw.  Naturally he was impressed by the engineering technology of the steam-driven pumps and water works which had made a desert into a prosperous (and temperant!) farming community of productive blocks.  Beyond this, another thing struck him: 

It is not only the design of an ingenious implement, or a clever piece of engineering . . .  The most potent factor in the achievement of American successes is the untiring energy and self-reliance of the people, [who] . . . unfettered by tradition . . . and original in idea, have conquered difficulty after difficulty . . .(Deakin, 1885a, p. 25)

This Victorian liberal was impressed with the ‘civilising effects’ of private entrepreneurial ventures and companies. 

It permits of society, of the establishment of schools, churches, and libraries, and the enjoyment of comforts which cannot be secured in isolation.  It furnishes in fine a framework for communication organisations and the beginning of local government (Cited in Powell, 1989, pp. 109-110).

Realising his vision

Successful orator Alfred Deakin
‘YOUNG AUSTRALIA. VICTORIAN MEN OF THE TIME’. Daily Telegraph in Sydney on 20 February 1886.

Affected by what he had seen, after his return to Victoria in May 1885, Alfred personally compiled the copious notes, diaries, and records from his 75-question survey into a report entitled Irrigation in Western America (Deakin, 1885a).  Written at immense speed, it nonetheless became a classic in the irrigation literature in both the United States and Australia and still resides with pride of place in the Jefferson Reading Room of the Library of Congress in Washington.  He then oversaw the passage of the Water Supply and Irrigation Act 1886. His speech recommending this Act to Parliament waxed eloquent on the potential for irrigation to develop Victoria into a haven of egalitarian plenty and liberty. Using his eloquent and persuasive oratory, he made it difficult for critics to development their points without being branded as miserly and narrow-minded.  Different from American practice, though, Deakin’s Act vested all rights to water use in the Crown, provided for the government construction of major irrigation works, and envisaged a series of Trusts managing irrigation at the local level.

Irrigation in Western America title page
1885 – Royal Commission on Water Supply Irrigation in Western America, First Progress Report. A. Deakin
Chaffey Bros Red book
Chaffey Bros Ltd promoted their irrigation colonies through The Australian Irrigation Colonies, known as The Red Book,

In October 1886, the Chaffey brothers received agreement from the Victorian government on favourable terms.  The Opposition called it a ‘Yankee land grab’, a sinister sale of birthright to foreigners (Powell, 1989, p. 122).  But newspapers in London ran full pages advertisements and the company even had offices on Queen Victoria Street, London E.C.  Early progress was spectacular and by 1890 there were 3,000 residents in a full replica of Ontario, California, replete with prohibition and an agricultural college. 

By 1887, two entrepreneurial ventures had been created on the Murray River. Built by the Chaffeys, Renmark (under separate contract with South Australia) and Mildura (in Victoria) were irrigation colonies involved in the cultivation of fruit.  The sites were run-down cattle stations where soil, climate and the level of the Murray River proved to be conducive to vines and citrus.  Paddle steamers were available for local freight, but the railheads were more than 250 km away on bush tracks. 

Unfortunately, the Victorian land boom collapsed in 1891 and capital dried up for further development.  The River proved less navigable during drought than they had foreseen, and land transport of fruit to Melbourne resulted in damage and blemished produce.  Settlers did not adapt away from pip fruit, and they were not experienced in vines for sultanas, not to mention wine, since the community was temperant.  But the real catastrophe was the ‘Invasion of the Yabbies’ who found the irrigation canals quite to their liking and undermined the levies.  Worse yet, lack of finance prevented the all-important concrete canals, which had made the California experiment so productive. 

The Chaffey had mistakenly expected to find an American system of governance that allowed private ownership of water and land grants to aid new enterprises.  In a break with US law, the Victorian Act decreed that no private individual could control the river or the use of its water.  The control of the river was in the hands of the Crown.  Water was too valuable to be in the hands of the capitalists and private monopolists. Indosoing, Deakin had been seeking to avoid the ‘water wars’ that plagued California.  But this meant there was no incentive for private capital to persist.  Having expended their own capital and unable to borrow, the Chaffeys filed for bankruptcy in December 1895, amid allegations that they were a gang of swindlers who had shaken down the government for their own private gain. 

W.B. stayed behind in Mildura and for forty years dedicated himself to the Australian Dried Fruits industry, and today the irrigated Murray basin represents one of the largest and richest dried fruits areas in the world. 

Brother George was quite undeterred by failure and delighted in thumbing his nose at the Victorians, as he must have said, ‘Boys, I have another grand project in mind.  I’m going back to California to divert the entire Colorado River westward and flood an arid but fertile desert’.  In 1901, George did indeed turn the water westward to create the largest irrigated area of one million acres in the world.  The complexity and variety of problems associated with this eventually successful irrigation project attest to George Chaffey’s abilities as a master builder, manager, diplomat and of course entrepreneur. 

In the end, the Chaffeys are still revered and the Victorian government eventually yielded to popular support for irrigation by bailing out the Mildura scheme. 


Alfred’s enterprising spirit and his visionary achievements show us that we have a grand legacy to live up to.  Like successful entrepreneurs everywhere:

  • Alfred attracted talented and innovative people dedicated to discovery and innovation.
  • He exploited innovations that serve the public good.
  • He leveraged ideas and discoveries for a better world.


Austin, K. A. Cobb, Freeman (1830–1878) Australian Dictionary of Biography Online,, (Vol. 2011).

Australian Dictionary of Biography Online. {Australian Dictionary of Biography Online,  #2691}  Retrieved 20 May 2011, from

Bolton, B. K., & Thompson, J. (2004). Entrepreneurs: Talent, temperament, technique: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Cathcart, M. (2009). The water dreamers : the remarkable history of our dry continent. Melbourne: Text Pub.

Deakin, A. (1885a). Irrigation in Western America.  n.p.:  Retrieved from

Deakin, A. (1885b). Travel Letters from America. Hand-written diary. Digital Collections Manuscripts. National Library of Australia.      

Deakin, A., & La Nauze, J. A. (1968). Federated Australia: selections from letters to the Morning Post 1900-1910: Melbourne University.

Dow, J. L. (1885, nd). Americans and ‘Big Things’, The Age.            

Grosz, C., & Maloney, S. (2008-2009). Alfred Deakin & John Bunyan. The Monthly:                Australian Politics, Society, & Culture.

NA. (1928, 24 November). Irrigation Journey, Sidney Morning Herald.            

Norris, R. Chaffey, William Benjamin (1856 – 1926) Australian Dictionary of Biography Online,, (Vol. 2011).

Powell, J. M. (1989). Watering the garden state : water, land, and community in Victoria, 1834-1988. Sydney ; Boston: Allen & Unwin.

Rickard, J. (1996). A family romance : the Deakins at home. Carlton South, Vic.: Melbourne University Press.

Stevenson, H. H., & Gumpert, D. E. (1985). The heart of entrepreneurship. Harvard Business.              






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