Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron
Feb 28, 1853
William Randell had a pleasant surprise when a letter came back from the governor’s office, on official letterhead, with the following response: We applaud your initiative, and your desire to begin trade on the River Murray. We ask you to take your vessel to Goolwa, on Thursday next, where we would like to review the vessel and reward you appropriately for your endeavours. We also require that any cargo be reviewed for customs purposes.
‘In other words,’ drawled Tom, ‘they’ll award us some paltry amount then claim it back in customs duties.’
‘Still,’ mused William, ‘at least he’s taking us seriously – and we simply won’t pack any cargo.’
While they prepared for the journey downriver, Ebenezer arrived from Gumeracha with a cargo of fruit for the dignitaries who would board the Mary Ann in Goolwa, all grown on the family property – apples, pears, peaches, and golden drop plums.
With a hired man joining them as general deckhand and stoker they set off on the eighty river miles to Goolwa, including the crossing of a violent Lake Alexandrina. Steering into the teeth of a twenty-five-knot southerly wind was a sobering experience for William, the waters of the shallow lake whipped into short-period swells that broke over the bow, and filled their eyes and lips with salt.
The Mary Ann, forced to prove her mettle in conditions she had not been designed for, showed that despite her shallow draft, she could maintain steerage in anything the Murray could throw at her. Even so, the vessel’s speed bled away to the point that it became impossible for her to reach Goolwa on the appointed day.
‘The Governor will wait for us until tomorrow at least,’ William promised as the crew powered on through a blustery night. They took bleary-eyed turns at the helm, then finally rounded Point Stuart and anchored in the relative calm of Goolwa Channel after dawn, damp but unbowed by the experience. Each of the brothers managed a few hours’ sleep before ensuring that the Mary Ann looked her best.
Finally, they steamed into Goolwa, to the pounding blasts of an unexpected nineteen-gun-salute. ‘A reception fit for an admiral,’ cried William. ‘Nineteen guns, and look at that crowd!’
Not only was Governor Young waiting on the wharf with his wife and official entourage, but there was also a large contingent of spectators. They were mostly well-dressed local gentlemen and ladies, with daughters like dutiful shadows and boys in suits running rampant. Finely-groomed hounds on leashes growled at dock-side mongrels.
As the Mary Ann steamed gently alongside, wharfmen tied her snugly to the bollards. And while Governor Young greeted the intrepid Randells warmly, a catering team from the Goolwa Hotel swarmed aboard with trestles and plates of hams, pickled tongue and baked vegetables.
Not to be outdone, the young ladies of Goolwa had been cooking for several days. Dressed in gowns befitting a ballroom, they came armed with a feast of cakes, confectionaries, and pastries, throwing admiring glances at the intrepid Randell brothers as they went.
Governor Young mounted a dais, with the band conductor’s baton pausing mid stroke. His Excellency spoke of progress, made a lot of Captain Cadell’s boat that would soon be on its way, and pointed to a barge being constructed for the Scottish Captain at the Winsby Brothers’ boatyard adjacent to the wharf. Still, Young did heartily congratulate the ‘back-country ingenuity’ of the Randell boys and the industriousness of South Australia’s children that would one day make the state great.
With a flourish befitting a magician, Governor Young promised to make available the sum of three hundred pounds, drawn from the Crown moiety of the Land Fund, to be mailed at a later date, as a sign of encouragement and a reward. When the repast was ready, the official party, led by His Excellency and Lady Augusta, walked the gangway into the paddle steamer and examined the rough but solid carpentry that characterised the vessel.
Elliot had artfully ensured that the boiler pressure was so low so that no sign remained of expanding metal or steam hissing through seams, but the chain-wrapped vessel caught even the Governor’s eye. ‘That one won’t get away from you, Mr Randell,’ he commented drily, and it took William some moments to understand that the taciturn Governor had just made a joke.
The meal went well – the Gumeracha fruit being a particular favourite, and the men who complimented William on both the boat and the food were names he had seen in the newspapers since his youth, but never dreamed of meeting like this. Apart from His Excellency the Lieutenant-Governor and Lady Young, there was Mr Torrens, the Colonial Treasurer, Mr Finniss the Colonial Secretary, Mr John Morphett, Speaker of the Legislative Council and all their wives, along with a few sons and daughters. William found himself the object of attention of both the Lady Augusta and a Mrs Maturin, who appeared to be as flirtatious as she was highly placed.
When the meal was over, and the tables and remaining food removed, there was a shaking of hands all around, and the band played as the Mary Ann steamed at a sedate pace away from the wharf, the new deckhand also raising what canvas her mast would carry to save on fuel.
At the helm, William was quiet and thoughtful, inspired by this entrance into the higher echelons of the Colony. The Governor had said that the ‘Murray River would one day be a canal of commerce, alive with steam boats of all kinds, bearing passengers and goods into the interior, and the wealth of a nation back to Mother England for the glory of the empire.’ At that moment, proud and excited, steering out into a beam sea, William could almost see that future unfold before his eyes.
Later, after the lake and into the calm of the river, Tom joined him, and together they enjoyed the serenity of a river sunset.
‘So we can head off for the Darling now?’ asked the younger brother.
‘That we can. But how about a family day first. I know Father’s been itching to get down for a look.’
‘Good thinking.’ Tom smiled. ‘Tis strange. Father was never a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of the boat, yet I’ve a feeling that he’s proud of what us ‘as done now.’
‘I think so too,’ said William. ‘And I’m proud that us has made him proud.’
©2021 Greg Barron
No post for the next two Sundays as I’m off on a research trip. It’s a good chance to catch up on any episodes you’ve missed at: https://www.storiesofoz.com/category/beyond-the-big-bend/
Illustration: The Goolwa in 1854, etching by JH Adamson (State Library of South Australia)