Good Country: Mannum’s steam-driven dreamers

I can confirm that William R. Randell, the man who put the first steamboat in the River Murray (in 1853), was not the inspiration for the 1928 Mickey Mouse cartoon Steamboat Willie. However, as Randell, the “father of Mannum”, was born in Devon, England, he may have spoken with a West Country accent and sounded like a pirate.

Mannum, established in 1854 alongside the picturesque River Murray, is a buzzing town, popular with domestic and international tourists. To feel Mannum’s spirit, take a cruise, where you can absorb the river’s mystery and observe its history. The stunning honeycomb cliffs of limestone and sandstone are remnants of a prehistoric time when whales were the first River Murray creatures to blow steam. The lime-green willow trees that were introduced to stabilise the riverbanks now monopolise them. From the tiny blue wren to the dashing cormorant, everyone’s competing for resources. Human life also abounds, with their slow boats, speed boats, jet skis and water skis all melding into one buzz of river life.

Another way to feel Mannum is to learn more about Captain W. R. Randell. Randell’s ironclad determination represents the people of Mannum, who’ve faced unfathomable obstacles. The Ngangurugu people were devastated by European smallpox; the Mannum farmers have endured drought, floods and rabbit plagues; and the river folk’s livelihoods have often been determined by politicians and the competing railway industry. Rail transport (that never reached Mannum) eventually helped kill the river trade.

Randell, a true visionary, worked at his father’s flour mill in Gumeracha. He envisaged how the river could be excellent for transporting supplies to the Victorian goldfields; these supplies included the flour his father’s mill produced. He therefore resolved to put the first steamboat on the river— although he’d never seen a steamboat before. Narrowly beating the flashy, cravat-wearing engineer Francis Cadell, Randell achieved his dream. In 1853, he took his steamboat Mary Ann out on its maiden voyage on the Murray. Randell soon grew a successful river-trading business, transporting wheat and other goods (including leeches for doctors). Another dream Randell achieved was to marry Bessie, a fellow Devonian who also spoke like a pirate and proved herself a brave and diligent river woman (even giving birth on a paddle steamer while her husband acted as midwife).

Evidence of Randell’s rich romantic imagination was to name his house overlooking the river, ‘Bleak House’, after Dickens’ novel. Having said that, the name of the Randell family’s general store was slightly less exotic and inspired … Bogan Store.

David Shearer was another remarkable Mannum dreamer, who created, using steam power, Australia’s first self-propelled car, in 1898. He also invented important farming machinery. If Randell was the “father of Mannum”, then David Shearer was its cool, eccentric uncle.

A notable modern Mannum river man is skipper Dick Bromhead. He converted the vessel Amphibious to a paddle steamer for the TV series The River Kings and also converted her into a landing craft for the film Gallipoli (with the scene filmed at Coffin Bay).

Bromhead recalls being surprised as a PAC student that in his Australian history textbook, “there was only one line that said river boats were used to transport wool”. Part of the reason for this cultural neglect is that although the American writer Mark Twain immortalised river life on the Mississippi, the great early Australian writers (such as Lawson and Paterson) wrote about the bush. There was no Australian Mark Twain.

When asked about why he loves the river so much, Bromhead says “there’s some mystique about what’s around the next bend. The river changes all the time. The light in the water’s different; the seasons and the wildlife are different”. He continues, “A lot of us river folk have a dream known as the Big Trip: to travel the navigable part of the Murray and go from the sea to Yarrawonga.” I get the Big Trip’s appeal. While I gaze upon the murky khaki waters, shadows appear from a squadron of pelicans wheeling above. As I welcome the sun and soft breeze and inhale the disturbingly pleasant diesel from PW Mayflower’s 1940s tractor engine, with my partner and daughters nearby, I think there are worse ways to spend a Sunday.

Header image: Shutterstock

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