Chapter Thirteen ROMANCE ON THE DARLING “ME-IA, ELBOW GYURL”

A delightful love story has been handed down from those romantic days, the story of Amelia Shetliff, Goolwa’s first white baby girl, and Andrew Willcock who came to Goolwa at the age of nine.   Every detail of the romance has been lovingly preserved by Amelia’s daughter down to the last lace frill on her wedding dress and the flowers on her wedding cake.  Amelia, if you remember, was born in 1854 in a little wooden shanty on the river bank.   Her father worked night and day to bring in enough money to support his little family and at the same time to build a comfortable home for them and furniture to put in it.   They moved into their house in 1855 by which time Sam Shetliffs work on the railway had come to an end, and he v/as turning his hand to carpentry and boat-building.   Gradually he acquired his own slip and his ambitions turned towards building his own steamers and taking

them upriver.  The Willcocks came to Goolwa in 1858.   They built the two hotels at the top of the main street, the “Australasian” and the “Corio”.   Andrew grew up with Amelia’s brothers. He was the same age as Joe and the two boys were inseparable.  They went to school together and spent every available hour in and around the steamers and the barges and the slips. All the Goolwa Boys thought of nothing but boats.   They either hung around the slips, helping or hindering the builders, and dreamed of building their own steamers and taking them upriver, or else they got in the way of the men down at the foundry.

The men, who spent their days shaping the mighty red gums brought down from Echuca, into hulls for the steamers and barges, were a happy breed who always had time for the lads and would give them an end of timber or a job to do;   but the men at the foundry under the hard eye of Abraham Graham had no time for boys.  It was the foundry, the manufacture of engines and boilers and other heavy machinery, that fascinated Andrew and Joe.   They were always down at Graham’s.   It didn’t matter how often they were sent about their business, back they went, till at last Graham’s foreman George Curzon realised that both boys were born engineers.   If Graham objected to the boys, Curzon would say, “Let them be, they get in no-one’s way, and they’re worth another hand to me, those two boys.”

Eventually Joe Shetliff became apprenticed to Graham at the foundry, and finished up by marrying Curzon’s daughter.  Andrew’s father articled him to an engineering firm in Adelaide, and he served a four years’ apprenticeship with them and then went up to the Northern Territory to operate machinery for a gold mining company.   But like every other Goolwa boy his heart and thoughts never left the River. In 1875 he submitted mechanical drawings of a River Murray paddle steamer for the first South Australian Chamber of Manufacturers’ Exhibition and gained Second Prize, and in the same year he also gained his Engineer’s Certificate from the Marine Board and back he came to Goolwa to the River. Old Sam and young Sam Shetliff in the meantime in partnership with Joe, had been building their own steamers.  The ‘Vesta’ came off the slip in 1868 followed by the ‘Tyro’ in 1872, and the ‘Ellen’, one of the largest and fastest steamers on the river, in 1877.    Both Sams had their Masters’ Certificates,    Sometimes Joe went with them as engineer, though he preferred to work ashore.  Young Amelia had grown into a lovely girl.  Everyone spoilt her.   She was the darling of the family, and the two Sams were never happier than when she went upriver with them.

Amelia could steer the boat as well as either of the Sams.  She was handy with a gun and a fishing rod.  She often got duck for the larder and sometimes an outsize Murray Cod, and although they usually carried a cook, often Chinese, Amelia liked to cook too, especially what she had caught herself.  In later years she used to tell the story of a cockatoo the men had shot – they often brought back galahs and cockies for the pot, which were reasonable eating as long as they got plenty of stewing.    On this particular occasion, the cockatoo squawked while Amelia was dressing it, and she got cockatoo squawked while Amelia was dressing it, and she got such a shock that she rebelled and told them to dress their own talking birds in future!

When Andrew Willcock came back to Goolwa, he spent as much time round at the Shetliffs’ as he had done in the past, but now it wasn’t to talk about engines with Joe. He’d always been fond of Amelia, spoiling her half the time, and tormenting the life out of her the rest, just like her brothers.  But now he found her a sweet girl of twenty-one, and when he came round it was generally to see if  ‘Melie could stroll down to the river with him.  Andrew and his father were planning to build their own steamer, but the meantime he was working on the steamers as engineer.

“I’m going upriver on the ‘Maranoa’ in a few days, ‘Melie. The engineer’s sick, Captn Johnston’s asked me to go up with her.    The Darling’s rising, we want to get up to Bourke if we can.”

“Is Captain Johnston taking her?”

“No, worse luck.    I love a trip with him.    Cap’n Barclay’s going,”

“Hope you don’t get stuck.    There’s only three skippers can really keep out of trouble on the Darling, I always think; Captain Randell, Captain George Johnston and my dad. They seem to have a sort of second sense that tells them the river’s seem to have a sort of second sense that tells them the river’s going to drop in the night.   I’ve seen it drop ten feet in a couple of hours, it’s hard to believe.   I’ll never forget the last trip I did with young Sara in the ‘Tyro’.   They had to winch her over the sandbars nineteen times in a week.   I was glad I was a girl!   They were glad of me, too, I did all the cooking, while the cook gave them a hand!  They were strolling along the river bank towards the wharf, and they walked up onto the headland above the railway cutting.    It was a windy November afternoon and as they stood together looking across the river- towards the Island, the breeze had whipped up the colour in ‘Melief’s cheeks and tossed her curls across her face.   Andrew thought she was the loveliest sight he had ever seen.

“Will you miss me, Melie?” he asked shyly.  She smiled and blushed and there was a mischievous

twinkle in her eye.  “You may see me sooner than you expect, Andrew Willcock.” she answered.

“Dad and Sam are going up the Darling with the “Tyro” as soon as she comes off the slip.

We’ll race you for the first load of wool!   No one’s been up there for months.  Dad wants to get a cargo up to Bourke.”   “I wish v/e could get stuck,” said Andrew.

“Andrew!  What a dreadful thing to say!  You deserve to get stranded like the “Jane Eliza”.    Don’t tempt Providence by saying such things.”

They stood looking down at the wharf.   It was a busy time, and there seemed to be a dreadful muddle everywhere. The wharf was so narrow, and the old hand cranes were creaking and groaning as they tried to deal with the glut of cargo lying everywhere.   The shearing season was at its peak. The ‘Albury’, the ‘Jupiter”, the ‘Wentworth’ and the ‘Cadell’ were all tied up to the dolphins, their barges alongside them all laden with wool, waiting to unload.   The ‘Avoca” and the ‘Lady Daly’ were at the wharf unloading their bales, and the ‘Vesta’ between them loading mixed cargo.   Another four steamers were in midstream waiting to tie up.   Men were running up and down the wharf, in and out of the sheds like a lot of ants, and all sorts shapes and sizes of crates, kegs, bales, hardware, galvanized iron, timber, wheat, skins, every imaginable cargo under the sun, were spilling out of the sheds, all over the wharf, onto the railway line, in one glorious mess.

“I wish to goodness someone would come and straighten all this out,” said Andrew.    “It’ll finish by ruining Goolwa. I’d like to bring the Governor, and the Premier, and every member of the Legislative Council here and make them do a day’s work on the wharf.    They need to have their noses rubbed in it.    They care about nothing but their precious Port Adelaide.”

This was a thorny subject with all the River men.  The punt was coming across from Hindmarsh Island.  They watched the punt-man pulling it along with sticks which fitted into slots in the punt rope.   Two obliging passengers were giving him a hand with a couple of extra sticks.   The punt was heavily laden with Mr Price’s Herefords being taken down to the Adelaide market.   He had a large holding on the Island, and had been the first to import Herefords into Australia. He had fought Dr Hankin, the first settler to run cattle on the Island, to gain his holding.   Dr Hankin had leased the whole Island from the early Government in 1840 for £10, and when Charles Price, a friend of Tom Goode’s, gained a footing on the Island, the Doctor was very angry and went to great lengths to push him off it again.  They watched the cattle being driven off the punt; the finest cattle in the whole state at that time. Suddenly there was a sound of trotting horses and jingling harness and up came the afternoon goods truck from Victor Harbour.   “I’ve got some apples in my pocket for them.    Come on, Andrew, let’s go and talk to the horses.    They do look tired, poor things, what a load to pull on a day like this!” They strolled down to the end of the wharf, where the railway line ended.

“Hello, Mr Ballard” said ‘Melie, “I see you’ve got Fidget and Baldy on together, today.   Where’s Bob?   He usually pairs with Baldy, doesn’t he?”   “He’s gone lame, Amelia.   Fidget doesn’t pull nearly so well, and we’ve got such a load of stuff to get away. Did you ever see such a muddle?   And it’s worse at Victor. There’s wool and cargoes piled high and mixed up everywhere, and I’m told there’s another eight steamers due in tomorrow and the next day.   We need twice the rolling stock and half a dozen good steam cranes.   And much as I love my horses, goodness knows we need steam trains to handle all this cargo.    I don’t know what’s wrong with the folks in Adelaide.   They can’t see farther than their own stupid noses.   We’ve shifted over 15,000 bales of wool this year, in spite of everything.” Melie was nuzzling the two horses and feeding them with apples.    She had known and loved them for years. Every child in Goolwa had sat beside Ballard driving the Railway horses.  She could no more imagine Goolwa without the Truck and the horses, than without the steamers on the River.

Four weeks later Andrew and ‘Melie were talking to each other once again, but the scene was a very different one.   They were in the wheelhouse of the ‘Tyro’ with old Sam and young Sam.   The ‘Tyro’ was tied to a stumpy tree at the river’s edge, and high above them the Darling’s high banks shut out the view of all but their own black mud.   A hundred yards upstream the ‘Marano’ was tied to  another muddy stump. The ‘Tyro’ had her barge tied alongside, but the ‘Maranoa’ had left hers downstream at Mount Murchison.    Both steamers were making for Louth on a rising river, but unaccountably, a fall in the night had stranded them, and they were glad of each other’s company.   They had a nasty feeling that perhaps the river might drop still further, and they could at least help each other over the worst of the bars.   The ‘Tyro’ had a very shallow draught, and ‘Melie had no desire to see Andrew left for months up the Darling.  The two Sams were looking disconsolately at their chart, but Andrew and ‘Melie were trying to hide their smiles as ‘Melie slipped her hand into his.  The river charts were unlike any other chart ever made.  They were drawn on calico with Indian ink, about twelve inches wide, and any length from thirty to two hundred and thirty feet long.   They were rolled up on two wooden rollers rather after the fashion of ancient scrolls and were kept in a box in the wheelhouse, where they were gradually unrolled as the paddle boat made its way along the rivers.  Amelia could follow the charts as easily as her men folk, but today as they unrolled the Darling chart and looked at what lay between Curranyalpa, where they were tied up, and Louth, where their cargo was awaiting them, she had eyes only for Andrew.

For the moon was full and the nights were soft, up there 1300 miles from Goolwa, and Andrew had asked ‘Melie to marry him.  The fresh came a week later.   In a night the river had risen eight feet, as some unpredictable tropical downpour filled the Namoi and the Barwon up at the head of the river.  Three days later the Darling was running a banker, the ‘Tyro’ and the ‘Maranoa’ were thrashing their way along a great river at a steady six knots up to Louth and beyond to pick up the wool from Bourke and Brewarrina, 1600 miles from Goolwa, one of the longest runs the steamers could make.   So Andrew Willcock and Amelia Shetliff became engaged.  They were engaged seven long years, for Andrew’s father died and he had to look after his widowed mother and sister.   He and his father had built the ‘Tolarno’ and launched her in 1879.   Andrew went up and down the river as her engineer.  However, he disliked not being master on his own steamer, and before long he gained his Master’s certificate. From then on he skippered his own boat, so that he was builder, owner, engineer and master of the ‘Tolarno”, which is probably unique in shipping annals, and could have happened
nowhere else but in Goolwa.  At last Andrew and Amelia were married.    From their daughter comes this description of Amelia’s wedding dress:

“It was not white, as became fashionable in later years.  It was a very beautiful patterned shot silk of a brownish colour, with an under-foundation of plain fawn, and the dressmaker’s account was:-

Dress silk                                             £4.          1.            11.

Making dress                                     1.            5.            0.

8 yards lace                                                         16.          0.

4 yards ribbon @ 9 ½ d                                   3.            2.

Buttons                                                                   1.            0.

3 yards Maltese lace @ 2/9                         8.            3.
Linings                                                                    5.            0.
Preservers                                                                          6.
Furnishing                                                           1.            0.

                                                                £7.          1.           10.

Andrew and Amelia began their married life by travelling in the Truck to Port Elliot.   Amelia’s parents had both died . Sometimes she and Andrew lived in the Shetliff’s home, but most of their early married life was spent on the “Tolarno”. The blackfellas living in and around Goolwa always spoke of Amelia as “Me’ia, elbow gyurl”.   The white baby girl with her fair skin, blue eyes, and lovely clothes entranced the lubras, and as long as there were full-blood aborigines in Goolwa to remember, even when she was quite old and her little daughter was almost grown up, she kept her name, till the last of the full-blood aborigines vanished into the past.

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