The little town of Red Cliffs in post-war Victoria was fast becoming Australia’s biggest soldier settlement, but for the returned veterans, cutting a new life out of tough Mallee desert scrub was a monumental challenge.
- Big Lizzie was considered to be the world’s largest tractor of her time
- It pioneered an innovative wheel design for smashing through sand dunes and thick scrub
- The giant machine took a year to build and two years to drive to its destination
Thanks to the ingenuity of inventor and blacksmith Frank Bottrill, Big Lizzie reduced years of back-breaking work for the new settlers.
His design and the whopping monster of a machine, hailed as the largest tractor in the world for its time, took a year to construct.
Between 1915 and 1916, deep in Melbourne’s industrious suburb of Richmond, MacDonald and Co got busy building.
Once completed, it took another two years to navigate the prime mover cross-country — a 550-kilometre journey to the north-west of the state.
Big Lizzie travelled at a slow pace, completing one or two miles per hour along bullock tracks that lead her to a new home.
Powerful wheels no match for country
Botrill’s innovative wheel used six-foot bearers that enabled it to scale hundreds of sand dunes and crush harsh, thick scrub.
It was called the dreadnought Botrill and became an essential tool for mining and farm equipment until it was superseded by caterpillar track designs years later.
In the beginning, Frank Botrill, his wife Margaret, brother Reuben, and nephew Jack Gates all lived aboard the 10-metre, 45-tonne Big Lizzie, along with their provisions which included several chooks, a parrot, and 20,000 litres of fuel.
The mechanical marvel also pulled two mammoth trailers.
It is estimated that the 7,000 pound cost to build Big Lizzie would exceed millions today — a daunting proposition for anyone heading into the harsh unknown.
But thanks to the four trail blazers, the Mallee owes a debt of great gratitude.
According to the Red Cliffs Historical Society records, Big Lizzie arrived in July 1920 and went to work easing the burden of the WWI returned soldier settlers and their families by helping them to clear new blocks.
Many of the soldiers were living with post-war injuries, and the harsh landscape and scorching arid climate made clearing the land by hand an impossible task.
Before arriving in Red Cliffs, Big Lizzie was used to flatten more than 20 hectares of scrub a day and cart over 900 bags of wheat on its two gigantic trailers from broadacre farms in the Millewa to Merbein.
In 1918 she also helped set up new areas of the Merbein district.
It was in 1918-19 that Frank further modified Big Lizzie.
According to Jack Botrill’s nephew: “At these places, one cable 100 feet long was used to pull the trees and a team of four men was required.”
The clearing modifications were further improved by Frank when he arrived in Red Cliffs to increase its removal capacity, which then employed up to sixteen men.
Late Red Cliffs local Julia Cotching was just a child in 1920 when Big Lizzie thumped into town and described her arrival.
Search for Lizzie
After Big Lizzie helped establish Australia’s largest soldier settlement, she seemed to go missing.
In 1969 Ern Wolfe, a former Mildura shire president and avid historian, went in search of the mighty tractor after receiving a tip from a friend that she was rusting away on Glendenning Station in western Victoria.
The late Mr Wolfe lead the push to bring her back to Red Cliffs and together with the community they restored her in time for the Red Cliffs 1971 Golden Jubilee.
One hundred years on, the grand old tractor stands proud in the heart of Red Cliffs and continues to enjoy the enduring legend of her formidable past achievements.