West of Narrandera, the Yanco Creek flows south through the property operated by Richard and Jane Carter not far from where it comes out of the Murrumbidgee River; but there is a peculiar anomaly for this watercourse which would normally have followed the low parts across the plain in a meandering fashion.
The aberration is that for some 20km, there are various sections which are absolutely straight, and the significance of the deliberately re-aligned creek intrigued Richard, for he immediately understood its connection with a enterprising pastoralist, who is considered to be the ‘Father of irrigation’ in the Riverina, Sir Samuel McCaughey.
His name might not be so well known these days: but by the time the Commonwealth of Australia was officially promulgated, he was in control of the largest flock of sheep in the world, and reputed to shearing over one million head around the turn of the 19th century.
One of those Victorian-era entrepreneurs who did so much to establish the Merino in Australia, McCaughey was knighted in 1905 for his pastoral success; but more importantly, he was further recognised for his philanthropic bequests which achieved so much in advancing educational opportunities for many and establishing families on their own land.
It is a story of endeavour, ambition and vision which Richard Carter, a sheep breeder living west of Narrandera thinks is still relevant and he is eager for more people to be aware of McCaughey’s example.
“It is the most extraordinary story, an exciting story because his track record rather points to education for the sake of giving people the chance they might never have,” he said.
“He is known for his success in establishing irrigation in the Riverina, and for his contribution to the development of the Merino, but I wonder how many people really know about his influence on education.”
It seems more than a coincidence: more like serendipity the Carter’s are now living and raising sheep on a small patch of country which was once an important station in the McCaughey pastoral empire, because both Richard and Jane were educated at institutions financed in some way through the McCaughey bequest.
It is an exciting story because his track record rather points to education for the sake of giving people the chance they might never have
“It is an interesting connection … to come here and buy this farm, because Jane had been to Sydney University where his portrait painted by Sir John Longstaff hangs in the Great Hall and I was educated in a classroom which had also been financed through McCaughey’s estate.’’
In 1900 Sir Samuel McCaughey bought North Yanco station, near Leeton, where he constructed a complex irrigation system with some 322km of channels and used two steam engines to pump water from the Murrumbidgee; his success persuaded the government to build the Burrinjuck dam which was completed in 1927.
The magnificent mansion he built at North Yanco was bequeathed to the state for educational use and is now the centre of the Yanco Agricultural High School, and a portrait painted by Frederick McCubbin holds pride of place in the entrance foyer.
Richard said his thoughts often turn to the tremendous influence of Sir Samuel McCaughey’s legacy, especially in relation to education, but also his other philanthropic and pastoral gestures.
“I want to see the story evolve to the point where the legacy of Merino pioneers like the Peppin brothers, Samuel Marsden, Elizabeth Macarthur and Eliza Forlonge, among many are recognised by a wider audience for their contributions,” Richard said.
“But especially McCaughey who had the foresight to initiate irrigation in the Riverina, but who was also a great philanthropist who left the bulk of his fortune for education.
“He was a visionary … he didn’t take, he gave … his way forward was educating people and I would argue his education was to teach people to seek knowledge.”
Of course McCaughey was not the only pastoralist who made a fortune growing wool on the western plains, and then made bequests to further education and agricultural research in Australia.
His uncle, Sir Samuel Wilson considered higher education an ultimate goal and the Wilson Hall, at the Melbourne University was named after him: the University of Adelaide was endowed in part from the generosity of Robert Barr-Smith, pioneering South Australian pastoralist, and after whom the Barr Smith Library is named and the Waite Agricultural Research Institute, was endowed by Peter Waite who made his fortune grazing Merino sheep in the north of South Australia.
“I would like to see these people more widely recognised,” Richard mused.