I grew up on the Murray – on the New South Wales side – in an irrigation settlement called Koraleigh, some 17 miles upriver from Swan Hill, where we grew oranges, and grapes for sultanas. Some of my father’s older family members were involved in the paddle steamer trade for many years. There is mention in the customs register at Mildura of my great grandfather William Bennett as captain of the steamer Sapphire in 1897.
The family had the steamer Britannia, which is understood to have been a hawking boat, and in later years, my grandfather, George, and two of his brothers worked as fishermen and owned several steamers. One great uncle carried an old Ford car on his boat which he drove on and off as needed. One day he left it parked on the river bank and it rolled back into the water. He simply drove it out again. Doubt you could do that with a modern car.
The fishing steamer Alawein (front) and steamer Britannia at the rear. Moored at Piangil, Victoria.
My grandmother told a story from the late 1910s of my grandfather, when he was her fiancé, running the family steamer onto a sand bank one night and being teased because he must have had eyes for her rather than for the river. Of course, she claimed she was asleep at the time and nowhere near the wheelhouse.
The Murray River system that supported the paddle steamer trade included the Murrumbidgee and Darling rivers and the myriad of lesser streams that fed them. Not all the rivers were fully navigable as flow was seasonal, including on the mighty Murray, whose waters came from the melting snowfields of the Great Dividing Range at its eastern end as well as what fed in from the other major watercourses along its route. Australia is a relatively dry continent and the rivers were subject to drought and flood as well as normal seasonal fluctuations. Within this river system, the paddle steamers were most prevalent on the three major watercourses.
The advent of the steamers in the 1850s was a result of a competition launched by the Governor of South Australia to test the navagability of the Murray. What followed was a transport system that allowed pastoralists to change from raising cattle, which had to be driven many months overland to market, to raising sheep for wool, which could be collected and carried to market on the steamers. Railways soon connected the river ports to the coastal ports where most of our wool made its way to the mills in England.
This was a lucrative trade for the various colonies and there was competition between them to catch as much as possible of the wool and goods trade resulting in tarrifs (custom duty) being imposed across colonial boundaries, and the building of railway lines to capture the trade for the various capital cities. The first railway line was built from Melbourne to the Murray River port of Echuca, a distance of about 100 miles, passing through the Bendigo goldfields, and much of the river trade was directed to Echuca.
Not to be outdone, the New South Wales government built a line from Sydney to Deniliquin on the Murrumbidgee River to capture the wool trade of the Riverina — the area between the Murrumbidgee and the Murray — while in South Australia, the Darling River trade was drawn to Adelaide when a railway line connected it to the river port at Morgan. Rail transport eventually killed the paddle steamer trade, but in the 1870s and 1880s it was at its peak, with over 100 steamers operating on the rivers.
The fictional steamer Mary B, owned by Emma Berry and her brother in law Daniel.
Wirramilla, as drawn by Emma Haythorne aged 10.