Twenty one year old Samuel McCaughey had landed at Melbourne in April that year and then walked 200 miles to his uncle’s farm at Horsham, Victoria to take up a role as a ‘Jackeroo’, an inexperienced hand working as an apprentice on a sheep station. He excelled in the role and was soon station manager, and as his obituary said, was eventually to become ‘one of the greatest forces in the development of the sheep breeding and wool-producing industry of Australia’.
Having learned his trade on the Kewell and Walmer Stations he decided to go into business for himself, and in 1860, in partnership with David Wilson and John Cochrane, he acquired a one third share of Coonong, a 42,000 acre sheep station near Urana in the Riverina region of New South Wales. Water shortages made the venture troublesome; drought and other problems caused the others to give up their stake and Samuel became sole owner of Coonong Station in 1864. He went on to acquire the Singorimba and Goolgumbla stations and by 1872 held 137,000 acres. Later Rockwood and Barenya, in Queensland, were added.
Goolgumbla, near Jerilderie, his second purchase, was managed by his brother John; he later went to the Darling Basin as part owner of Toorale and Dunlop Stations, and he managed them until he came to live at Yarrabee Station. This land at Yarrabee Station, on the Yanco Creek, near Narrandera, Samuel had purchased in conjunction with his brother John. Subsequently John McCaughey became the sole owner of Yarrabee, which he held until retirement in 1924.
Samuel McCaughey had returned to visit his widowed mother at Tullynewy in 1871 and returned to Australia with yet another of his brothers, David, to help in the management of his growing holdings. David McCaughey was destined to become owner of Coree Station and it was to his son Roy that Samuel eventually sold Coonong, his first property. Roy McCaughey, born 2 October 1898 at Coree station, Jerilderie, NSW, was the fourth child of David McCaughey (died 1899), brother of Samuel. He served as a 2nd Lieutenant (1915-16) and Lieutenant (1917-18) with 46th Battery, 1st Divisional Artillery, Royal Field Artillery during the Great War. It was on his return to Australia that he bought Coonong from his uncle's estate in 1919.
It is impossible to list all the family holdings but it may suffice to say that at times Samuel McCaughey owned or had a share in twelve sheep stations in New South Wales and three in Queensland, these with a total area of about 3,250,000 acres. Indeed, by the time the Commonwealth of Australia was officially created he had the largest flock of sheep in the world, a flock crossbred with imported ewes and rams from many parts of the world, and he was reputed to shearing over one million head around the end of the 19th century.
He was a wealthy man and his business made him a pioneer in other areas. He was one of the key developers of the merino sheep breed in Australia, though details of this achievement, sometimes disputed, are not relevant here. He pioneered the development of mechanical sheep shearing, essential as he had so many sheep. It is, however, worthy of note that he worked with another Irishman on this venture, a certain Frederick York Wolseley, originally from Kingstown, Co Dublin. He had arrived in Australia in about 1854 and by the 1880s he had developed the first machine-powered wool shears, first demonstrated at McCaughey’s Dunlop Station in 1888. He subsequently returned to England in 1889 and set up the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Company. He resigned from it in 1894, but the next year the company’s general manager, a certain Herbert Austin, produced the first Wolseley car!
McCaughey, since much of his holdings were in arid areas, became a pioneer of irrigation. Richard A. Rawling (1918-1921), a newspaper correspondent in Newport, N.S.W., recalled one anecdote about a not-so-old widow visiting the North Yanco station and being driven around the property by determined bachelor Sir Samuel. On return to the magnificent homestead she said "It's all wonderful, Sir Samuel", then a trifle archly "but of course you know there is one thing needed". "Yes, I know" said Sir Samuel, "water, more b -- water". Exit widow.
His attempts to convey the annual floodwaters from the Murrumbidgee River to his nearby parched land, some of it in the area explorer John Oxley had in 1817 described as desolate plains 'unlikely to be visited by civilized man' thereafter, are said to have been the inspiration for the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (MIA). McCaughey certainly built an irrigation system, his main canal running 30 miles. Other sources say he constructed around it a complex irrigation system with some 200 miles of channels and used two steam engines to pump water from the Murrumbidgee Basin, and that it was his success that persuaded the government to build the Burrinjuck Dam, completed in 1927. It is certainly true that it is around his infrastructure that the Government’s Murrumbidgee Irrigation Scheme was developed. Many Australians believe the ‘bread basket’ he helped create failed when the UK joined the European Union and gave priority to European suppliers.
Sir Samuel McCaughey and his brothers David and John, indeed wider family, were very wealthy men and hence their importance in the Great war, for they were immensely patriotic. Samuel had paid £10,000 (£1 in 1900 is worth about £86 today) to send an Australian contingent to the Boer War in South Africa, something that helped get him a knighthood in 1905. He also, perhaps less appreciated in London, intervened in the Home Rule Crisis after 1912 and helped to bankroll the Larne Gun Running of 1914 which armed the Ulster Volunteer Force. He also contributed £10,000 to the Dreadnought Scheme. The Dreadnought Fund was originally set up to purchase a Dreadnought battleship in preparation for possible war in Europe, though the money was not required and was used to fund the Dreadnought Farm Scheme through which English teenagers were brought to Australia to be trained to work on farms. This would probably have met with his approval because he was one of those patriotic Australians who believed at the immigration of key personnel into agriculture, engineering, education, etc was essential for the proper development of Australia. Indeed, he continued the work after his death by leaving very substantial sums of money, then £1,000,000 - £1,250,000, to the Universities of Sydney and Brisbane, and other substantial monies to various schools.