State Library of South Australia logoDownstream, the River Murray in South Australia
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Who 'owns' the Murray?: Early years


In the period between 1829 and 1836, Charles Sturt and Thomas Mitchell explored the Murray-Darling region. Sturt named the river Murray after Sir George Murray, Secretary of State for the Colonies, on 23 January 1830 at the junction of the Murray and Darling Rivers near the modern town of Wentworth. In the late 1830s, drovers began to move cattle and sheep to Adelaide, following the Murray River. In 1850, the Murray was defined as the border of New South Wales and Victoria. The 'whole of the watercourse' was deemed to be in New South Wales, a statement made much of by representatives of New South Wales later when asserting the rights of that colony to the River Murray waters. The first paddle-steamers began operating on the Murray in 1853. This prompted the commencement of snagging to remove obstacles on the river and improve navigability.

1863 Conference

At the first intercolonial conference in Melbourne in 1863, it was recognised that improving the navigability of Australia's inland rivers would aid commerce and trade. It was decided that the works required to maintain or improve navigation were the responsibility of the governments who had jurisdiction over the individual rivers. There was no attempt made, however, to clarify who could carry out works on rivers, such as the Murray, which flowed through more than one colony. In the 1880s the first mass diversions of water from the Murray for irrigation began. As the Murray has an unreliable flow of water in its natural state, it was recognised that large scale diversions would render the River almost waterless in dry spells. This was a particular problem for South Australia, as the colony relied on the river for its water supply and a substantial portion of its trade was dependent on steamer transport.

South Australian Royal Commission on the River Murray 1887-1894

South Australia established a Royal Commission on the River Murray in 1887 to investigate the issues of irrigation and navigation-how to utilise the waters for irrigation without adversely effecting the navigability of the River. It was hoped that the Commission would communicate with similar bodies appointed by the New South Wales and Victorian governments. However, when the Commission made its final report six years later, very little headway had been made, as the Commission had not been successful in consulting formally with New South Wales and Victoria.

Federal Convention
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The River Murray question and Royal Commission thereon
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