The Great Murray River Paddle Steamer Race

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by Greg Barron

In 1851, twenty years after explorer Charles Sturt’s journey from the Murray River’s headwaters to the mouth, it was obvious that the waterway had potential as a transport artery. Railway technology was still in its infancy, but marine steam engines were opening rivers up to shipping and trade across the world, including the Mississippi and the Rhine.

The wool industry in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland was developing at a frantic pace, and land transport options simply could not keep up. Piled bales of the world’s best wool often took three months to cart from remote stations to the city by bullock dray, but could, thundered champions of the river, be moved by water in mere weeks. In addition, the newly-discovered goldfields required vast quantities of supplies, much of which could be transported by river.

South Australia, keen to gather revenue from both quarters, decided to kick-start the river trade. The legislature of that state offered a reward of four thousand pounds to the owners of the “first and second iron steamers, of not less than forty horsepower, and not exceeding two feet of draught, that shall navigate from the Goolwa, at least as far as the junction of the Darling, a distance of some 490 miles.”

Scotsman Captain Francis Cadell, always looking for opportunities to heighten his fame and improve his finances, heard the call. An experienced mariner, having started as a midshipman at the age of fourteen, he was in South Australia as captain and owner of the clipper, Queen of Sheba. He was intimate with the governor, and he dined at the finest tables in Adelaide.

The other main player in this drama was not as well-connected but just as interesting. William Randell, at just twenty-nine years of age, was already deeply committed to building a paddle steamer for river trade. His family owned a flour mill at Gumeracha in the Adelaide Hills, and farmland at Noa No near Mannum. He dreamed of trading up the river in his own vessel.

Thus, partly by chance, and partly by design, in August 1853 two paddle steamers became rivals for the title of the first steam-powered vessel to navigate the Murray to Swan Hill.

William Randell’s Mary Ann was home-made from pit-sawn river red gum logs in the Kenton Valley, Adelaide Hills, and assembled on the banks of the river at Noa No. The work was done by two bush carpenters and three brothers who had never seen such a vessel in their lives. The Mary Ann’s seven-horsepower engine was made by a local engineer, and her boiler by a blacksmith employed at the family flour mill. When the newly completed vessel set out to conquer the river she was a rough but elegant little vessel, fifty-five feet long with a “wine-glass” stern.

The Mary Anne replica at Mannum Museum. Photo by the author.

Captain Cadell’s Lady Augusta, on the other hand, was constructed by Thomas Chowne, one of Sydney’s best shipwrights, in a Darling Harbour yard. At just under one-hundred feet she was almost twice the length of the Mary Ann with many times the tonnage. She had twin twenty-horsepower steam engines, and had been built with no expense spared.

Given that the Mary Ann didn’t meet the criteria set down by the South Australian government there is no certainty that William Randell cared much about the cash prize offered by the South Australian government. Yet, he most certainly knew about the plans being laid by the much-lauded Captain Cadell and his Lady Augusta.

Captain Randell’s first trip up the Murray was thwarted by an understrength boiler and the terrible drought of the early 1850s. When the river finally rose enough for him to set off on the journey north, Captain Cadell in his much bigger boat had already rounded the New South Wales and Victorian coasts, and was braving one of the world’s most dangerous river bars, just a hundred miles behind.

Even so, with bullock chains wrapped around her boiler to keep it together, the little Mary Ann was the first to reach the Darling River. It was after that point that the real race was to begin. One evening William Randell and his crew were asleep, some on board the boat and others on the bank, when a shocking noise broke their sleep, and a bright light headed upriver towards them.

It was the Lady Augusta with a grinning Captain Cadell at the helm. Her decks were crowded with accommodation for forty – crew, passengers and dignitaries including the Governor of South Australia and his wife. Many of them lined the rail. The barge Eureka was lashed to one side – a vessel almost as big as the paddle steamer that propelled her.

Somehow, it was proposed, or at least understood, that the two boats should race to Swan Hill. William Randell had not travelled so far to let the arrogant Scotsman beat him. If Cadell could travel by night so could he, and it was dawn when he finally passed the Lady Augusta, which he found tied up to a snag.

The lead changed multiple times over the next few hours, and in the heat of the chase the Lady Augusta took a wrong turn up the Wakool River and the Mary Ann followed. In the battle to return to the main channel both vessels sustained damage from overhanging branches. All night and into the following day they raced, but in the end it was a decision by Captain Cadell to leave the bulky barge Eureka behind with her crew, and race on without it that spelled the difference.

William Randall

When William Randell finally berthed his Mary Ann on the riverbank at Swan Hill, the Lady Augusta had beaten him by several hours, and the rivalry was shelved for group celebrations, and a morning service the next day.

Over the following weeks, Captain Cadell cruised upstream as far as the mouth of the Loddon, while Randell and his much smaller vessel continued as far as Moama. Both men were able river navigators, with a deep knowledge of their craft, but William Randell went on the become the true founder of the river trade, a development so important that the Victorian town of Echuca became Australia’s third busiest port.

Cadell’s river trading company steadily lost money and credibility. He left the country in near disgrace, captained a vessel in the Maori Wars of New Zealand, became a notorious blackbirder and was eventually murdered by one of his own crew members off Banda Island.

Both men are remembered with the names of towns, suburbs, and roads. A replica of the Mary Ann is situated inside the museum at Mannum, South Australia, where William Randell and his wife Elizabeth had a residence. Randell went on to become a member of parliament, and a living reminder of the days when the river became the lifeblood and economic salvation of south-eastern Australia.

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron is a new novel that tells the historic story of Randell and Cadell and their famous voyage up the Murray River. It’s available at






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