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The river as a highway: Francis Cadell

Born in Scotland in 1822, at 14 years of age, Cadell went to sea in the East Indiaman ship Minerva.  After serving in many parts of the world including China, Europe and South America, he returned to Scotland in 1846 and studied shipbuilding in Glasgow, in particular the use of steam in ships. He subsequently returned to the sea and after a number of adventurous voyages he arrived in Adelaide in 1852.

Learning of the bonus being offered by the South Australian Government for successful navigation of the River Murray, Cadell began to negotiate with the government. The arrangements reached were for £500 to take a steamship through the mouth of the Murray, £1000 for reaching the junction with the Darling River and a further £1000 for continuing to operate on the river for a year. Cadell then arranged to have his boat built in Sydney, and while waiting for this he travelled down the Murray River in a canvas boat called Forerunner.

His steamship, named Lady Augusta after the Governor's wife, was sailed under jury rig from Sydney and on 16 August 1853 Cadell brought her through the Murray Mouth.  Shortly afterwards, with a barge in tow and a party of passengers which included the Governor, the Lady Augusta proceeded up the Murray. Swan Hill was reached on 17 September. Despite the fact that William Randell was also on the river in his steamship Mary Ann, and that the two boats had passed and repassed each other along the way, Governor Sir Henry Fox Young had gold medals struck to honour Cadell's achievement of "the first successful steam voyage up the Murray."

Cadell enthusiastically tackled the navigation of the Murray-Darling river system, forming the River Murray Navigation Company. The New South Wales government engaged him to clear snags from the Murray and Murrumbidgee, and later in 1857 he built the Grappler the South Australian Government snagging boat. His business extended to shipping ore from Strathalbyn mines from Milang, examining the La Trobe and Snowy Rivers for navigation, and establishing a steamer service from Melbourne, the Gippsland Lakes and the Snowy River. These enterprises failed and in 1861 he was compelled to sell his boats Albury and Bogan. Finally in 1863 his last steamer Wakool was sold to the New Zealand government. He returned to South Australia and in 1867 led an expedition to the Northern Territory to choose a site for the capital, examining the Roper and Victorian Rivers, Anson Bay and Pt Darwin.

The last few years of Cadell's life were spent in whaling and pearling and were as colourful as his early years at sea. When sailing to the Kei Islands near New Guinea, he is believed to have been murdered by one of the crew of his schooner, and the boat scuttled with the body still aboard. Francis Cadell was entrepreneurial and much admired by his associates, and in many ways appeared to eclipse the steadier William Randell.

Further reading

Kinloch, Arthur. The Murray River: being a journal of the voyage of the "Lady Augusta" steamer from the Goolwa, in South Australia, to Gannewarra, above Swan Hill, Victoria; a distance from the sea mouth of 1400 miles, Adelaide: Friends of the State Library of South Australia, 1997. Australiana facsimile editions; no. 212. Facsim. reprint of: Adelaide: W.C. Cox, printer, 1853

Allen, James. Journal of an experimental trip by the "Lady Augusta', on the River Murray, Adelaide: Libraries Board of South Australia, 1976. Australiana facsimile editions; 202. First published, Adelaide: C.G.E. Platts, 1853.

Nicholson, John. The incomparable Captain Cadell, East Melbourne, Victoria: Allen & Unwin, 2004 


Australian Dictionary of Biography online edition See: Cadell, Francis

Bright Sparcs: Cadell, Francis

Cadell's birthplace
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Clearing the River Murray
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Francis Cadell
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'Lady Augusta' and 'Mary Ann' at Swan Hill
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P.S. Albury
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