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In parallel with the plans for a national capital for the recently created Commonwealth of Australia, the New South Wales Government was creating its own nation-building scheme based on a vision of greening the parched interior by damming the waters of the Murrumbidgee River for irrigation. Walter Burley Griffin was to be intimately involved in this scheme in addition to his work on the national capital.

The vision

In the late 19th century Sir Samuel McCaughey proved how irrigation could change agricultural landscapes through irrigation works on his North Yanko property and demonstrated the capacity of the Riverina plains for intensive farming and opportunities for diversified crops and livestock. McCaughey was a powerful figure in the colony of New South Wales at this time and was a Member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly (the upper house). He used his position to promote a largescale government-funded irrigation scheme in the area and received encouragement from the findings of the Lynne Royal Commission into the Conservation of Water which handed down reports in 1885, 1886 and 1887.

The cause gained momentum in the early 1900s when Hugh McKinney, an engineer with experience of irrigation works in the Punjab area of India, noted the similarity of the Riverina–Murrumbidgee plains to the Punjab topography. A Water Conservation and Irrigation Conference chaired by the Minister for Public Works, Charles Alfred Lee, paved the way for the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (MIA) Scheme, with the Barren Jack Dam and Murrumbidgee Canals Construction Act 1906 providing the initial legislative framework. Construction of the huge Burren Jack (now Burrinjuck) Dam on the upper Murrumbidgee River, to be the second largest in the world at that time and capable of holding sufficient water to irrigate 640,000 hectares of land, commenced in March 1907 with the consteruction of initial site facilities. The building of a narrow gauge railway to provide access to the site was also commenced.

Nation-building schemes gained a new impetus in 1910 when the Labor Party was elected to power at the federal level on 13 April and in New South Wales on 21 October. The new state government gave added momentum to the MIA Scheme with the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Act 1910 which also provided for the handing over and vesting of the works, when completed, to the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Trust for administration and the collection of revenue. The Minister for Public Works, Arthur Hill Griffith, was appointed as the first chairman of the Trust in 1911.

It soon became apparent that the vastness of the scheme was beyond the competency of the Trust, and so the Irrigation Act 1912 saw the Trust superseded by a Commissioner for Water Conservation and Irrigation (the WC&IC). The Commissioner was granted the power of control over all of the water conservation and irrigation works for the state of New South Wales.

The first Commissioner, Leslie Augustus Burton Wade, was appointed from 1 January 1913. Born at Singleton in June 1864, Wade was a civil engineer with the Department of Works and had been appointed as executive officer and secretary to the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Trust in 1911. He was now at the height of his career, with the power to fulfil his grand vision of creating a huge oasis of prosperous, intensive farms operated by energetic families recruited through a world-wide campaign.

Wade’s vision went beyond the physical infrastructure and the farms. He was looking to new railways to service the area, new business enterprises to handle and market the produce, processing facilities, power generation, and domestic water supplies and commercial service centres to support the expected population. The crowning glory would be new cities and towns that reflected the grandeur of the scheme and the prosperity it would bring to inland Australia.

Enter Griffin

The news that the young and gifted Chicago architect, Walter Burley Griffin, had won the international design competition for the national capital at Canberra and the subsequent controversy over the action by federal bureaucrats to ignore Griffin’s core concepts in their own plan for the city was followed with close interest by Wade. When in August 1913 local architects brought Griffin to Australia to promote his concepts, Wade saw an opportunity to put his vision into practice.

Two urban designs were required. The town of Leeton, named after the prominent MIA supporter Charles Lee and located at North Yanco on part of Sir Samuel McCaughey’s property, had already seen buildings erected by the Trust and 140 town allotments were sold there on 3 April 1913. There were more ambitious plans for a city of 30,000 people further west. Named Griffith after Sir Arthur Griffith, another Minister for Public Works, this was to be established on a greenfield site five kilometres north of ‘Bagtown’, the temporary headquarters of the WC&IC there, for which old cement bags from canal construction works were used as the main building material.

Wade met Griffin in Sydney during his visit and evidently communicated his desire for the architect to undertake his urban design work before his departure from Australia, for Griffin wrote to Wade from Honolulu during his return voyage on 28 November 1913 with preliminary drawings for the tops of the water towers for Leeton. Griffin explained that: ‘under the difficulties of ‘trade’ rough sea and [the] shortage of implement [the drawings] are not exemplairs of draftmanship.’ Nevertheless these drawings set out the classic design features for the most lasting legacy of Griffin’s work in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (MIA). Griffin stated:

I think the design is simple enough to lay out and easy of execution without much form work. The bulk of the pattern is made up of simple uniform sections of moulding which can be run by a plasterer with a template. All can be easily carried out by a plasterers [?] of whom you have a good class to hand. … Note that observation walk is kept all inside shell of tower and carried by vertical end bearings according to suggested disbursement of reinforcement. Yours W B Griffin
Griffin had been appointed as Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction on 18 October 1913 and returned to Chicago to wind up his affairs before taking on the position. Marion Mahony and Walter Griffin, Walter Griffin’s sister Genevieve and brother-in-law Roy Lippincott arrived in Sydney on 9 May 1914. Griffin was immediately drawn into a hectic round of meetings and political intrigue associated with Canberra. He wrote to Wade on 20 June 1914 from the office of the Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction in Melbourne stating: ‘This is to let you know that I am not dead, though I have nearly submerged.’ Griffin was sending blueprints of the Griffith railway line and advised that he hoped to talk design issues over with Wade in Sydney the following week.

Nevertheless Wade, in his annual report for the year ending 30 June 1914, said that an ornamental parapet had already been constructed to Griffin’s design for the concrete water tower at Leeton and that Griffin had been entrusted with the design of the balance of the township not already thrown open. Griffin was also undertaking the urban design for Griffith, including the terminus for the Barellan to Griffith railway then under construction.

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Decorative detail at the top of one of the two water towers at Leeton, 2004. Photographer Noel Thomson


Evidently reflecting Wade’s hopes and ambitions, the design drawings for the MIA towns reflect a grandeur and scale estranged from the reality of the Australian rural landscape. The drawings were prepared by Roy Lippincott, probably at the office located at 183 Greenwich Road in the Sydney suburb of that name. Coloured sketches on silk were also prepared for each town, the colouring being done by Marion Mahony, and these were mounted in fine cedar frames for exhibition. The originals of these items are now with the State Records Office of NSW.

For Leeton, Griffin proposed a new town centre around a prominent hill. Two water reservoir towers on top of the hill were to provide the main entrance to the town. A grand central plaza would lead from the towers, complete with ornamental pools and a fountain. The drawings depict large buildings with typical Griffin geometric forms similar to those that grace the Griffin drawings for the national capital.

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Perspective of Leeton town centre and civic buildings with the two water towers in the distance. State Water Corporation, courtesy John Newland


As noted above Griffith was to be developed on a greenfield site and the vision was to be on a grander scale than Leeton. Taking ‘a modest estimate of 30,000 for the population’, Griffin planned his city around a one and a half mile radius circle. Like Canberra, the urban design featured a distinctive radial pattern with wide tree-lined streets, ring-roads and parks. Griffin saw the focal point to be a grand circle, the centre of government administration, crowning the central hill. Based on similar principles to those used for Canberra, Griffin explained:

These most important structures of the city will command the commercial axis and dominate the vistas in every direction…The central group thus governing the public architecture of the town as well as its affairs comprises the headquarters of the irrigation district, the Town Hall, the court house and subordinate public offices.

The key landscape effect was to be achieved by the main irrigation channel, which Griffin saw as: ‘a sweeping curve round the central portion of the city and by two enlargements of the waterway’. The plan envisaged Griffith as a significant railway focal point that would ‘carry on effective exchange and transfer business arising through its special facility for direct shipment’. The railway station was to be a prominent feature at the centre of the town and the yards were to be designed to achieve a minimum of switching and re-handling.

Dashed hopes

Fate dealt Griffin’s hopes of implementing his vision on the Riverina plains a savage blow. Leslie Wade suddenly took ill and died on 12 January 1915 aged just 50. With his key promoter gone and the hopes of building a strong and independent nation about to be swept aside on the battlefields of Turkey and Europe, enthusiasm for the grand scheme waned.

Leeton got its circular street pattern and water towers, the first of which was completed in 1915, with their classic Griffin features. For years they were framed by the typical ‘outback architecture’ of the School of Arts building erected by the WC&IC in 1913. A railway connection was made with Narrandera in 1922 and the infrastructure of a typical Australian rural town emerged over the years. The town’s main commercial centre, Pine and Kurrajong Avenues, boasts some of the finest Art Deco architecture in Australia, reflecting the era of the town’s establishment.

Griffin’s road pattern was adopted for the town of Griffith, proclaimed in 1916, but the scale of the centre and its architecture fell far short of the early vision. While the local economy has enjoyed economic prosperity in recent years, the town population in 2005 was barely half that envisaged by Griffin and Wade in 1914.

Leslie Wade was buried in Sydney’s Waverley Cemetery, the officers of his WC&IC erecting the headstone on his grave. It is located just behind the James Stuart tomb, probably the best built of Griffin’s early structures in Australia.

Griffin Heritage

While Griffin’s visions were only realised in small part, both Griffith and Leeton proudly promote their links with the architect today. Griffin’s Art Deco water towers at Leeton are prominent landmarks of the town and the adjacent Griffin Fountain was officially opened in December 2003 to commemorate the 75th birthday of Leeton Shire Council.

At Griffith a heritage study completed in 2005 has identified the Griffin plan and ideas as an important part of its heritage, worthy of closer focus in future planning, plantings and interpretation. The study report has 62 proposed new listings and 13 proposed precincts to help tell the story of Griffin’s vision. Recommendations are put forward to enhance this through revised development controls to reinforce the streetscape intended by Griffin, and through design guidelines for new development and targeted street tree planting to reinforce the street hierarchy. A comprehensive tourism programme to promote Griffith’s heritage offers opportunities to attract interest, investment and jobs. A programme of interpretation, preservation, plaques and walking trails would assist in achieving these opportunities.

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Perspective for the City of Griffith. Walter Burley Griffin Society Incorporated Collection, courtesy Bob Meyer


Bob McKillop is an agriculturalist specialising in international development issues. He also writes widely on Australian history issues, focusing on settlement and rural communities. With his wife Kerry, he is the proud owner of a Griffin home in Castlecrag. Bob acknowledges the assistance of John R Newland, an engineer who saved many of the key documents used for this article when he was working for the NSW Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission.

Further reading

Bowmaker, A E, A brief history of Leeton. Leeton, Rotary Club of Leeton, 1968.

Buch, A R, ‘Charles Alfred Lee (1842–1926)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 9. Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1983.

Griffin, Walter Burley, letter to L A B Wade, Honolulu, 28 November 1913, WC&IC HO 13/4456

Griffin, Walter Burley, letter to L A B Wade, 151 Collins Street, Melbourne, 20 June 1914, WC&IC 2368, 25 June 1914.

Griffin, Walter Burley, ‘The City Plan of Griffith’, Irrigation Record, Vol. 3: No.6, 1 June 1915, No.7, 15 June 1915.

Kell, B M, From Wilderness to Eden: a history of the City of Griffith, it’s region and its people. Griffith, Council of the City of Griffith, 1988.

Nairn, Bede, ‘Arthur Hill Griffith (1861–1946)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 9. Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1983.

Newland, John R, ‘Griffin and the town planning of Leeton and Griffith’, Walter Burley Griffin Society, News update, March 1997.

Newland, John R, The Goondah-Burrinjuck Railway. Australian Railway Historical Society, 1994.

Report of the Commissioner for Water Conservation & Irrigation for Year ended 30 June 1914. Government Printer, 1915.

Water Resources Commission, A Story of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Scheme. Water Resources Commission, mid 1990s.