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Leeton, NSW

Administrative centre of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area - fine Art Deco town.

Leeton is a unique town at the heart of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. Created as part of the development of irrigation in the Riverina district of New South Wales it was initially designed by Walter Burley Griffin at the same time as he was designing Canberra. It was created on a green site in the 1910s and, like Canberra, has an essentially circular design with four street precincts radiating out from the town centre. Its orderly design, concentration of Art Deco buildings, shady and tree-lined streets, 102 ha of public recreation parks and reserves, and its surrounding orchards and rice fields have been central to its unique appeal as a service town for an agriculturally rich area where even the water towers are enhanced by Art Deco ornamentation.


Leeton is 556 km west of Sydney via the Hume and Burley Griffin Highways . It is 152 m above sea-level.


Origin of Name

Leeton was named after the prominent MIA supporter Charles Lee who was the New South Wales Minister for Public Works when the irrigation scheme opened. 


Things to See and Do

Leeton's Art Deco Architecture
There is an excellent brochure - Leeton Yanco Whitton Historical Guide - which can be downloaded at http://www.leetontourism.com.au/f.ashx/76113-Leeton-Historical-Guide-web.pdf. It is a 32-page brochure which covers Leeton's Aboriginal Heritage, Leeton's art deco architecture and the highlights of both Yanco and Whitton.
Leeton has 21 buildings listed in the Art Deco Society of New South Wales' Register. Most of the buildings are to be found along Kurrajong and Pine Avenues. The way to look at Art Deco is to understand that the functional aspects of the buildings are rendered aesthetic and beautiful (in a rather extravagant way) by various forms of decoration. Typically there is neon lighting for ornamental effect. Most importantly facades are rendered, parapets are elaborately sculptured, awnings are suspended, ceilings are ornate, doorways to shops are recessed and they feature curved display windows complete with leadlight glazing, and decorative ceramic tiling is used to impressive effect around front walls and entry porches. Observe and be amazed. Even the town's water towers have been given a sense of extravagance.

Visitor Information Centre
The Visitor Information Centre at 10 Yanco Street is located in the house built in 1913 for the Chief Engineer, a Mr F M Smith, by the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Authority (called the Water Conservation & Irrigation Commission at the time). Today it has a collection of historic photos and a heritage garden as well as visitor information. It is a Federation-style bungalow with weatherboard external sheeting and a corrugated iron roof.

Roxy Theatre
The Art Deco centrepiece of the town, the Roxy Theatre was built in 1929. The proprietor, George Conson, employed theatre architects, Kaberry and Chard, to build a theatre holding 1091 seats. It was named Roxy after the Roxy in New York, the largest picture theatre in the world at the time. £5,000 was spent on sound and projection equipment. In 1933 the red neon sign was lit and in October that year a stage was added. Today it is one of the few remaining rural Australian movie palaces and the town's finest example of Art Deco architecture. It is particularly impressive at night. Tours can be organised. tel: (02) 6953 2074. Movies are shown on Friday and Saturday nights.

Hydro Hotel now Hydro Motor Inn
The impressive Hydro Hotel (1919) was originally built to house executives of the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission who were supervising the construction of the MIA. At the time it was liquor free although alcohol could be purchased with meals. The building was sold to Daniel McLeish in 1924 who built a bar and started selling alcohol. Sadly the bar was destroyed by fire in 2011. It has been replaced by the modern Freckled Duck Bar and Restaurant which features mural painted by local artist, Lee Blacker Noble. The Hydro Hotel offers panoramic views from its upper veranda. The decor is Edwardian with stained-glass windows depicting the development of the MIA. Today the accommodation has been modernised. Check out http://www.hydromotorinn.com.au/ for more information.

Chelmsford Place and the Water Towers
Chelmsford Place radiates out of the centre of Leeton to the north. There is a band rotunda and a beautiful tree plantation. Next to the rotunda are three water towers (1912, 1937 and 1974). Walter Burley Griffin wanted this to be the cultural and entertainment centre of the town. He wanted a plaza with a fountain and ornamental pools. Native trees were also to be a feature. Today it is still a pleasant and broad roadway with a park in the centre of the road, a small fountain, the Hydro Hotel on one side, the Water Towers at one end and the Roxy Theatre at the other. Not quite what Griffin planned but still impressive.

The Water Towers
In his excellent history of Griffin's involvement with Leeton, Bob McKillop explains that "Leslie 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." The result are the most unusual water towers in Australia, possibly in the world. The ornamental towers were the first Griffin structure built in Australia.

Henry Lawson's House
Henry Lawson was sent to Leeton in 1915 by a group of influential friends in Sydney in the hope that he would dry out. He was a hopeless alcoholic by this time. He was to be paid two guineas a week and given a house in return for writing articles and poems publicising the MIA. He accepted and lived at Leeton from January 1916 to September 1917, publishing a number of articles, which were not always favourable. Although the town likes to remember his famous eulogy: "The growing impression of Leeton is as the most cosmopolitan place I have ever been in, and perhaps the most naturally intellectual and democratic. The townspeople all seem extremely kind and cheerful...” He worked on revising early work for publication in Selected Poems (1918). He re-established a friendship with J.W. Gordon (aka 'Jim Grahame') who is thought to be the model for Mitchell, one of Lawson's most famous characters. The two had first met during Lawson's celebrated outback trek to Bourke in 1892-93. Lawson's cottage, in Daalbata Rd, on the eastern side of town, has been little altered. It is now used to house medical students who come to Leeton for country placements.


Other Attractions in the Area

The Murrumbidgee Irrigation Scheme
The history of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Scheme (MIA) began in 1900 when North Yanco station was purchased by Sir Samuel McCaughey, a remarkable man who was both a pastoralist, philanthropist, highly successful experimenter in sheep breeding and inventor-designer-improver of many farm implements.
As early as the 1870s people had realised the potential of the Riverina plains around Griffith and Leeton but realised that the water supply was unreliable and seasonal. It was McCaughey who solved the problem by building a complex irrigation system for his property which included 320 km of channels and employed two steam engines to pump water from the Murrumbidgee. It was a template for irrigation of the entire area and its success convinced the government to initiate large-scale development by beginning work on the Burrinjuck Dam which would store spring waters brought down the Murrumbidgee from the snows in the Snowy Mountains.
Construction on the scheme started in 1906. The result was that it transformed the barren plains into a fertile agricultural oasis. It is now the richest tract of agricultural land in Australia.
The waters of the Murrumbidgee are stored at the Burrinjuck Dam, near Yass, and Blowering Dam, on the Tumut River. The two have a combined storage capacity of 2,654,000 megalitres. The water passes through Berembed Weir and is diverted into the main MIA canal which is 159 km long with a flow capacity of 6500 megalitres per day. Altogether there are 3,500 km of supply channels which operate by gravity flow, and another 1,600 km of drainage channels servicing some 3,100 landholdings owned by 2,500 customers in an area that covers 660,000 ha.
The development of the MIA enabled the subdivision of land, previously used for grazing, into smaller units engaged in mixed farming, dairying, horticulture and sheep-rearing. A cannery opened at Leeton in 1914. Becoming a co-operative in 1935, it established a British Empire record in 1940 by canning 419 609 cans of peaches in a day. The first rice mill in the MIA opened at Leeton in 1951. Italian migrants, drawn by the similarity of soil and climate to Italy, were crucial to the successful development of local horticulture which struggled initially. Today the area is so successful that it contributes more than $5 billion to the Australian economy. It is much more than just vineyards and citrus groves with the local farmers producing large volumes of onions, carrots, pumpkins, capsicums, tomatoes, gherkins, watermelons, rockmelons, wheat, barley, corn, canola and prunes. The statistics for Leeton are impressive: it produces rice which accounts for annual sales of $800 million and almost $500 million from value-added exports. The rice from SunRice, which is owned by 2,000 Australian rice farmers, is exported to more than 60 countries.

Wineries, Tastings and Cellar Doors
There are a number of wineries in the area which are open for tasting and some conduct guided tours. The most sensible approach is to spend time in the Visitors Centre working out which wines you want to taste and getting a good local map and directions to the specific cellar doors.

Leeton is linked to Yanco by a flat 5.1 km cycleway which starts from the Leeton Soldiers' Club. It is a pleasant cycle (or walk) through the rich farmland of the region.

McCaughey Mansion at Yanco Agricultural High School
The founding father of both Yanco and Leeton was the remarkable Sir Samuel McCaughey. He was one of the unsung pioneers of the Australian sheep industry who, at one time, owned 3.25 million acres (1,315,242 ha) of property in New South Wales and Queensland including such iconic properties as Toorale outside Bourke. He built a magnificent red-brick and sandstone mansion/homestead at North Yanco and lived in it until his death in 1919. At his bequest the homestead and 400 acres became the Yanco Agricultural High School. It is possible to visit the mansion which is now part of the school. Tel: (02) 6951 1500. For more details see http://www.leetontourism.com.au/f.ashx/76113-Leeton-Historical-Guide-web.pdf.

Yanco Powerhouse Museum
Located at 13 Binya Street, the Yanco Powerhouse was built in 1913 to drive Samuel McCaughey's irrigation scheme. Prior to its connection with the state power grid in 1950 the powerhouse used 10,000 tonnes of coal annually. It was decommissioned in the late 1950s. The museum, which holds a collection of farm machinery and photographs, is open on the last Sunday of each month from 10.00 am - 4.00 pm. It can be opened by appointment. Tel: (02) 6955 7765.

McCaughey Bicentennal Park
This small 3.6 ha of parkland with small lakes, bridges and a playground is in Binya Street It is ideal for a picnic or a short break. It is now a popular resting point for swans, geese, ducks and waterbirds. There is a statue of Sir Samuel McCaughey in the park.

Fivebough & Tuckerbil Wetlands
Fivebough & Tuckerbil Wetlands, a Ramsar wetland of International Importance, is located only 2 km north-east of the town centre (Tuckerbil is 12 km north-west of Leeton and is generally not open to the public) and is known as a birdwatcher's paradise. The two wetlands contain an estimated 149 species of migratory and wetland waterbirds including egrets, ibis, ducks, geese, swans, magpie geese, grebes, swifts, and terns. There is a comprehensive list of birds at http://www.fivebough.org.au/resources/Fivebough-Wetlands-Bird-Species.pdf.  For more information contact the Visitor Information Centre or check out http://www.fivebough.org.au. There is detailed information about walking paths and bird hides.

Altina Wildlife Park
It is a sad reality that, in spite of vast amounts of land, if you want to give animals real space and you don't have infinite supplies of ready cash, you just have to purchase land away from the centres of population. Altina covers 207 hectares (511 acres) on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River 50 km south-west of Leeton on the Sturt Highway. The park specialises in personalised tours lasting 2.5 hours where visitors experience the park in horse drawn or motorised carts. The park's Australian animals include wombats, emus, freshwater and saltwater crocodiles, kangaroos and Tasmanian devils. The range of international animals include - Addax, African Lion, African Wild Dog, Alpaca, American Alligator, American Bison, Asian Water Buffalo, Banteng, Barbary Sheep, Black Capped Capuchin, Bongo Antelope, Capybara, Common Marmoset, Dromedary Camel, Eland Antelope, Fallow Deer, Giraffe, Himalayan Tahr, Hog Deer, Indian Blackbuck Antelope, Maned Wolf, Meerkat, Mongolian Wild Horse, Ostrich, Red Deer, Red Panda, Rusa Deer, Scimitar Oryx, Scottish Highland Cattle, Spotted Hyena, Wapiti/Canadian Elk, Waterbuck Antelope and Zebra. It is necessary to book a tour. Check out http://www.altinawildlife.com or tel: 0412 060 342.

Walter Burley Griffin in Leeton and Griffith
This is abridged from “Pioneer Work: the Murrumbidgee irrigation area towns of Leeton and Griffith” by Bob McKillop published by the Walter Burley Griffin Society. The full article can be read at http://www.griffinsociety.org/lives_and_works/a_leeton_griffith.html.

In the early years of the twentieth century, because Australia was less than a decade old (literally we were still a child), we went through a phase of “nation building”. We loved Big Projects. One of those big projects, and one which shows that big projects are often very good ideas, was the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Authority.
The first Commissioner was a civil engineer, Leslie Augustus Burton Wade, who was appointed from 1 January 1913. He had 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. The news that the young and gifted Chicago architect, Walter Burley Griffin, had won the international design competition for the national capital at Canberra 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 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.

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 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.

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.

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 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.
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.



* Prior to European occupation the area around Griffith had been Wiradjuri country for over 20,000 years. Yanco is a Wiradjuri word reputedly meaning "the sound of running water".

* The first European to pass through the area was the explorer John Oxley in 1817. He was unimpressed with what he saw: "the soil a light red sand parched with drought, a perfect level plain overrun with acacia scrub ... there is a uniformity of barren desolation of this country which wearies one more than I am able to express ... I am the first white man to see it and I think I will be undoubtedly the last."

* In 1838 the explorer Charles Sturt passed through the area and commented on: "the dreariness of the view ... the plains are open to the horizon, but here and there a stunted gum tree or a gloomy cypress seems placed by Nature as mourners over the surrounding desolation. Neither bird nor beast inhabits this lonely and inhospitable region, over which the silence of the grave seems to reign."

* By 1839 there was open warfare between settlers and the local Wiradjuri. Massacres and atrocities occurred.

* The European settlement occurred when the Yanko (the spelling changed later) station was established in the 1840s.

* The railway arrived in Yanco in 1882 and a township, 6 km south of present-day Leeton, began to develop around the station. The station master and fettlers settled nearby.

* In 1900 agricultural circumstances changed when Samuel McCaughey developed a successful irrigation system at Yanco. He had purchased the North Yanco property.

* The government began the construction of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area in 1906.

* 1912 saw the official proclamation of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Scheme.

* Local settlement started around 1912.

* The first blocks of land for farming were made available in 1912. Italian migrants were drawn to the area by the similarity with areas of Italy.

* There were 600 people living in canvas tents by 1913 when land became available to build houses.

* Italian migrants brought their traditions of viticulture and market gardening to the district. They encouraged a winemaking industry which began in 1913.

* 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.

* Leeton, like Griffith and Canberra, was designed in 1914 by American architect Walter Burley Griffin according to a radial design, with wide, tree-lined streets, ring roads and parks.

* The Letona Cannery was opened in 1914.

* Leeton became a prohibition town in 1914.

* Henry Lawson arrived in the town in 1916 and stayed for nearly two years.

* The railway reached the town in 1916.

* McWilliams built the Hanwood Barrel Winery in 1917 to process grapes.

* From 1919 many returned servicemen settled on the new farms.

* In 1922 the railway reached Leeton. This led to a decline in the importance of Yanco.

* The rice industry was founded in 1924. The local Court House was opened that year.

* In 1935 the Letona Cannery became a co-operative.

* A milling co-op was formed in 1950 as local producers were unhappy with the returns from private millers.

* The first rice mill in the MIA opened in Leeton in 1951.

* Sunburst Foods, the largest citrus producer in New South Wales, was formed in 1974 when eight local citrus-growing families combined to establish a juicing operation.


Visitor Information

Leeton Visitors Information Centre, 10 Yanco Ave, tel: (02) 6953 6481. Open 10.00 am - 4.00 pm Monday to Friday; and 10.00 am - noon on weekends.


Useful Websites

There is an excellent, official visitor information website at http://www.leetontourism.com.au. It provides information about eating and accommodation as well as things to do in the district.

Got something to add?

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5 suggestions
  • What sport is played in Leeton?

    Kay brown
    • Known as a sports mad town, Leeton boasts five very active football clubs – two rugby league, a soccer, rugby union and Australian Rules.
      The clubs all participate in highly competitive regional leagues.

  • and basket ball epicness players
    leeton is the place to be people

  • If travellers are in Leeton over Easter they will be greeted but hot air balloons of a morning which is a town favourite over the Easter weekend

    Brodie Smith
  • My first job was on the local paper in 1991. Fond memories of the place. I’d never seen rugby league before and was astonished by the brutality of the Group 20 Leeton Greenies v Narrandera game at the local oval. Thank God for the town chemist who stood next to me, explained what was happening and helped me to write the story. However, the Greenies’ coach (ex-Manly Steve Prest, will never forget him) wasn’t too impressed with the mugshot I’d taken of him and gave me a dig in the ribs outside the dunny block. I deserved it as I had no idea what I was doing. A good wake-up call for a young city boy.

    The Yanco Ag High School was a really impressive structure and the kids there were fantastic: really respectful, clever and good country stock. Amused to hear that Leeton was once a dry town. Beer flowed like champagne when I was there.

    Can’t remember much about the stories of the day. I remember having a bee in my bonnet about Round-Up and the local feedlots. Other than that there was just masses of sport and a monster piss-up on Anzac Day.

    Did the drive back to Melbourne every fortnight. Have very clear memories of the Newell. Lost two licenses (Vic and WA) and almost a third (NSW) on that brutal road thanks to the newfangled dash-mounted radars used by the local cops.

    I only spent nine months in Leeton but I won’t forget the place. It was such a contrast to everything I’s experienced in my life up to that point.