Chapter Eleven: RIVALS OF THE RIVER

Moama, on the New South Wales bank, was the only township between Goolwa and Albury on that first trip of the Albury under Captain Johnston.   Several river towns were surveyed shortly afterwards, and the first land sales were taking place in Echuca, opposite Moama on the Victorian side.   It was a vital spot on the Murray, near the junctions of the Campaspe and the Goulburn, and the shortest distance on the river from Melbourne.   All round was good grazing land where squatters had settled, with permanent water assured from the river. About 1847 James Maiden, a local settler, built an inn and stockyards on the bank and set up a punt for crossing stock.   Quite a considerable settlement had grown up around Maiden’s Punt by the time young William Randell reached it with the Mary Ann in 1853.   Judging from Randell’s glowing account of his reception, this Maiden must have been a very kindly man.

By the time the Albury was on her way upstream, a go-getter from Lancashire, Henry Hopwood, had established himself two miles downstream from Moama, with “a new punt of superior construction”, had built an inn and a general store, and called the place “Echuca” from the aboriginal word for “the meeting of the waters”.

He was completely ruthless, and set out by all means, fair and foul, to outdo his New South Wales rival across the river. The recognised signal for the punt rope to be slackened when a steamer came up-river was a blast on her whistle. The Albury gave the signal and passed the Echuca punt without mishap;    but on reaching Maiden’s Punt she came up against the taut rawhide rope with terrific force.  The impact threw George Johnston, who was standing on deck, down into the stoke-hold with great violence, breaking a leg and two ribs.   Poor Maiden, who had not heard the whistle, felt himself entirely to blame.    Captain Johnston had broken the same leg twice before;   he was less upset than the punt-owner.  He was carried ashore to Maiden’s Inn, his ribs were tightly bandaged and his leg was firmly splinted.    Maiden, a good bush surgeon, supervised the work himself.    After a lavish dinner – and even with a couple of broken ribs George Johnston had a great appetite – the Captain was taken back to his steamer and went on his way undaunted.   Tom and one of the deckhands set to work to make a handy pair of crutches for him.    He stayed in the wheelhouse for the rest of the voyage, his only regret that he could no longer dive overboard for his daily swim.

Maiden never got over Johnston’s accident, which the disagreeable Hopwood advertised as much as possible, delighted to show up the inefficiency of his rival.  Disheartened, Maiden sold out to two other men who were more or less forced into selling to Hopwood a few years later.   By 1862 Hopwood had become the dictator of the upper Murray, with a pontoon bridge as well as the only punt between Wahgunyahm up near Albury, and Goolwa.  He held the most strategic position on the river, and he had behind him the energetic and determined support of the whole Victorian Government.

Thus came into existence Echuca, Goolwa’s greatest rival on the river, both as a port and as a shipbuilding centre.   Echuca was 150 miles from Melbourne and Goolwa only 60 from Adelaide, but Port Melbourne was already established as the leading shipping centre, and the South Australian Government had lost its lead through hesitant and dilatory wharf works at Goolwa.

Echuca, half-way house on the Murray:  the town that set the “top-enders” and the “bottom-enders” at each others’ throats; the town that first tapped the rich river trade with a railway, and sucked and sucked like a vast geographical funnel, gathering up all the produce of the rivers, and pouring it straight down to Melbourne;  the town that drained the life-blood from Goolwa, and ended up by killing itself as a river port.

But George and Tom Johnston knew nothing of this melancholy future.   As they wound their way up to Albury on that first trip they talked of the rivers, the boats they would own and the fortunes they would make.    On the sharp bends young Tom had to stand by to heave down on the wheel to get her round; though going upstream was easier than coming down, when the current would take her stern and try to swing her out of control.  All the same it was a great feat of endurance and fortitude, for the skipper would scarcely leave the wheelhouse for a moment while they were running.   In spite of the high river, there were rapids and hairpin bends to contend with, and huge unyielding arms of dead trees sticking up in the middle of the narrowing channel.  Tunnels of overhanging trees caught the overhamper of the Albury, and dead boughs smashed through paddle-boxes. Cadell had written to Captain Johnston:

“Should your wooden stanchions still be up, it is my desire that they be unscrewed and stored at once – carefully preserving the screws.”

Through it all George Johnston on his crutches, and his cousin Tom on the other side of the great wheel, stood in the wheelhouse noting every change of direction, every sandspit and shoal, and any other features which might help later voyagers on this winding enigma of a river.  At last, on the second of October at four in the afternoon they reached Albury.   Four hundred people lined the banks of the river to welcome them, cheering madly as their two fine Glasgow engines came to a stop against the bank, the laden barge coming slowly up behind.  There was a picnic feast for all the townspeople and a banquet in the town for Johnston and his men.   When the healths had been drunk he was presented with 100 gold sovereigns by the townspeople of Albury in recognition of his achievement. Like most Scots, he was a sentimental man, and there were tears in his eyes when he stood up to thank them, leaning heavily on his crutches.  The last few hundred miles of tortuously-winding river had been a tremendous strain,   He had been in constant pain, forced to take his full weight off his broken leg onto his arms, with two broken ribs;   yet he had never left the wheelhouse while the steamer was in motion.

He spoke from his heart when he said, “Ah canna find worrds tae thank a’ you guid folk. It’s no’ me, but Cap’n Cadell ye should be thanking, for we’d no’ be here if it werena for him.”  “Ah hope one day to return tae your imporrtant town, bringing with me Cap’n Cadell himself, the grreat navigator of the River Murray.”

Soon afterwards he collapsed onto his seat and went fast asleep, over come with emotion, fatigue, and a wonderful dinner.   They had great trouble getting him to bed. The ‘Albury’s’ men enjoyed the town of Albury’s hospitality for two or three days, then started downriver again, calling at all the station landings to pick up wool, and making more detailed charts of the river as they went.   They reached Goolwa in the first week of December, having navigated 3,000 miles and opened up the Murray as far as Albury, as Cadell had promised he would.

William Randell continued to be regarded by Cadell as a rival long after their first race.   Some papers found recently by Mr Frank Richards of Renmark among his father’s effects, and presented by the National Trust of S.A. to the S.A. Archives, include many letters from Cadell to his leading skipper, George Johnston.  They are full of advice, admonishments, and requests for information.

“Do all you can to clean the wool off and leave Randell nothing,” he writes to the Melbourne in 1855.. “I hope that Randell has had no chance of copying your charts.   Let the self-opinionated fellow go to the Devil his own way.”  In milder mood a bit later he says, “Should Mr Randell require a little wood when he speaks you, supply him” and directs Johnston to use aboriginal labour where he can get it, “paying what you think fit.”   Perhaps it is significant that this friendly note is endorsed, “Forwarded by the hands of Mr Randell, of the Mary Ann.”

On the first voyage of the Albury he wrote:
To Captain G.B.Johnston.
My dear Sir,

“Lose no opportunity of reporting your progress to me; the safety of your ship is of more importance than the celerity with which you complete your voyage.    You will take good care of the new steamer.

Wishing you a Prosperous Voyage,
I remain, Sir,

Yr. Obedient Servant,
Fr. Cadell.”

On another voyage, when the river was rather low, he sent stern instructions!    “Wahgunyah must be your highest port – go no further!”

Apparently Johnston disregarded this and went on blithely to Albury, as the next letter states in dignified fashion.  “I cannot say I approve of your decision” (to go on past Wahgunyah).

A memorandum to the Melbourne in 1856 complains that woodcutters are not keeping the woodpiles to the standard height of four feet, and the edict goes forth:    “Please measure all woodpiles”.

Already complaints were coning in about non-delivery of cargoes, deficient cargoes, and spoilt goods, due largely to the interference of Victorian Customs officials who undid packages and left them open to the weather.   Apparently crews were not above doing a little trading on their own account, but not if Cadell knew about it.

“Having observed some guernsey frocks go on board at Goolwa, and being told they were “for the Engineer” I interrogated him.   He said they were ‘for hie own use’!  If any private trading is undertaken by the servants of the Company, they are to be immediately dismissed.”  Some of the shareholders in the navigation company of Cadell and Younghusband were annoyed by what they regarded as the dilatoriness of Cadell’s stern Nonconformist skippers.  George Johnston and his sons would never work a boat on Sunday; and even if there was no settlement or landing in sight, the Sabbath would find them tied to a tree from Saturday midnight to early Monday morning.   Competition from the “top-enders” was non beginning, and besides the season on the Darling was short.  “If Captain — was at sea,” one critic wrote, “it would puzzle him to tie up on the Sabbath.    He should say his prayers under steam or at a woodpile, or save them up till he returns to Port.”

An invoice of a typical cargo for upriver in those days reads:

1 June 1856.
154 bags oats                                                     £300
250 bags best Ad. potatoes                         £270
100 bags fine flour,Goolwa Hills                                 £945
To be shipped by the River Murray
Navigating Co. aboard the “Gundagai”.
There were eager buyers waiting all along the Murray and the Murrumbidgee;  and next the Darling was opened up to trade.  The Company should have succeeded, in spite of the competition of Randell’s fleet, now expanded to the Gemini (twin-hulled steamer incorporating the little Mary Ann) and the Bunyip.   In 1856 Cadell was writing in self-congratulatory terms to Johnston:

“I am glad to learn that the settlers are now beginning to see which Boats are the best.  The Gemini has been raised, I hear.”(She had been snagged and sunk).  “I hope that Randell has had no chance of copying your charts… “I think that with a full river you can come down in fourteen steaming days” (this of course would not include Sundays)  Perhaps big George Johnston was not tactful enough with the customers, for Cadell adds the admonition!

“Be careful when speaking of the settlers to the men, always do so with a handle to their name.”

However Johnston soon had his own steamer and went into partnership with Charles Murphy, his engineer. He continued to dodge in and out of the Mouth, roaring with laughter as the surf broke over his game little steamers, until a few years before his death.  Though he always remained loyal to the name of Francis Cadell, and continued to speak well of him in after years, it may not have been the easiest thing to be employed by him.  One of Cadell’s letters suggests that Johnston’s wife, back in Scotland, had approached Cadell’s father, the laird, for moneys owing to Geordie by the River Murray Navigating Company.

One of the Cadell’s letters suggests that Johnston’s wife, back in Scotland, had approached Cadell’s father, the laird for moneys owing to Geordie by the River Murray Navigation Company.  This may have been one of the reasons he branched out into business for himself.   A quaint letter has been preserved from the Johnston papers from 1857, when apparently Lizzie Johnston left to come out and join her husband.  It is from one Peter Cram or Crum, in reply to a letter from Captain Johnston, and is dated

“Mildura Dec 6’.

I received yours by the Lady Augusta by which I learned you was Outside, and I hop to hear of you making many sucksesful trips out and in at the Mouth…

I hav been trying to get some Parrots for you but I am unsucksessful up to this present time…

I had a letter from home dated Sept 6 by which I learned Cockenzie people is well…

Mention of Mrs. Johnston’s leaving by Great Briton on 15 October.  I understand her 2 brothers comed with hir and I suppose the other woman is comen at the same time … Lizer is taking it more seareously than the others, though in good sperets.. “

Whether “Lizer” belongs to Peter Crum or is Liza Johnston, is not clear; but from Cadell’s letters it seems that she was rather reluctant to leave her native village.  Perhaps it was she was persuaded her brothers to come, so adding the name of Barclay to the many Scottish skippers among the “bottom end” men on the River.

go to chapter 12