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The river as a highway: William Randell

William Randell

Born in England in 1824, William Randell emigrated to South Australia with his parents in 1837. His father William Beavis Randell established a flourmill at Gumeracha in c1846. The family also acquired land on the River Murray where William grazed cattle and was inspired to place a boat on the river. The discovery of gold in Victoria was the incentive he needed and he determined to take flour and stores to the diggings using the river as his highway. With his brothers Thomas and Elliott he built the frame for a boat at Gumeracha. A local blacksmith built the boiler. The 56 foot boat, christened Mary Ann for Randell's mother, made a trial run in March 1853 and commenced its first trading voyage on 25 March. He reached Lake Bonney where low water forced him back to Mannum. On 15 August of the same year Randell set out again with 12 tons of stores, unaware that Francis Cadell in the Lady Augusta was also on the River. The latter overtook Randell near Swan Hill, and for some time the two paddle-steamers passed and repassed each other. Randell continued on to deliver stores at Moama, the Lady Augusta returning downstream to collect a load of wool bales.

William Randell received a reward of £300 from the South Australian Government for his feat in proving the navigability of the Murray and its tributaries, and the people raised another £400 as a testimonial. He did not receive the full prize offered by the South Australian Government for a successful navigation of the River, this going instead to Francis Cadell.

The Mary Ann was extended in 1854 to 75 feet, but Randell was determined to build a bigger boat and the next year added another hull, with the paddle-wheel mounted between.  This unusual vessel was named Gemini and Randell steamed upriver to Hay in New South Wales where he established a store. Randell later travelled up the Darling River as far as Walgett, and moved from flour milling to river trading, establishing a sizeable fleet. The New South Wales Government made him a Justice of the Peace in 1861. He returned to South Australia in the 1870s and built a dry dock at Mannum in 1876. For this he utilized the floating dock that AH Landseer had set up at Milang and which was unsuccessful on the shallow waters of Lake Alexandrina. Randell towed the dock upstream using two of his paddle-steamers. Despite some teething problems, Randell's dry dock was a success. It now forms part of the Mannum Dock Museum.

Randell continued to expand and manage his business until 1899, when he passed the business to his son Murray.

During the 1890s William Randell was the Member of Parliament for Gumeracha.  He concerned himself with water conservation, irrigation and 'the abuse of waters upstream' (Linn, p. 130) and village settlements.  William Randell died on 4 March 1911.

The Number 1 lock and weir at Blanchetown were named for him.

Further reading

Linn, Rob. The river flows: a history of Mannum on the River Murray, Blackwood, S. Aust.: Historical Consultants for Mid Murray Council, 1997

Williams, Rod. Pioneering pathways: 150 years since the commencement of the river trade, 1853-2003: Mannum's 150th anniversary, 1854-2004, Mannum, S.A.: Mannum Heritage Centre, 2003


Australian Dictionary of Biography online edition See: Randell, William

PS Marion Mannum Dock Museum

Capt. William Randell
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'Lady Augusta' and 'Mary Ann' at Swan Hill
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Mary Ann's boiler
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P.S. Gemini
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