Ship model, P.S. "Wallaby", Murray River paddle steamer, working model, wood / metal, made by Trevor Watson, Australia, 1976
This working 1:24 scale model represents a typical Murray River paddle steamer of the 1890s. Australia's most significant inland waterway, the Murray River was first navigated in 1853 by William Randell in his paddle-steamer, Mary Ann, and Francis Cadell in his steamer, Lady Augusta. Both men had responded to the South Australian government's offer of £2000 in a competition aimed at opening the Murray as a waterway.
From then on numerous paddle steamers travelled inland with stores and passengers and returned to port laden with wool. The opening up of the Murray to navigation saved many inland properties which had lost their traditional bullock transport to the more lucrative gold rush areas. By 1860, about 6500 km of riverways were open to shipping, and large tracts of land were settled as a result. As river transport costs were far lower than overland rates, many rural stations expanded.
Some 300 paddleboats were built over a 70-year period to cater for the Murray trade. Most were built on the Murray: at Goolwa, Mannum and Morgan in South Australia, and at Echuca in Victoria. They were constructed from local timber, especially red gum, with 4 inch (100 mm) thick planking for the hull. These locally designed paddle steamers were also the basis of the trade on the other major rivers in NSW, the Darling and Murrumbidgee. The shallow rivers dictated shape and form, so the vessels were flat bottomed, only 4 or 5 feet (about1200 to 1500 mm) in draught, with a broad beam for greater stability. They usually had two or more decks, and were propelled by steam engines driving the paddle wheels at the rear or, more often, the sides of the vessel. Barges increased their carrying capacity; they were generally towed or sometimes lashed to the side
The majority of the paddle steamers were either cargo boats or towboats. Cargo boats were over 90 feet long and capable of carrying large loads, while towboats were 70 to 80 feet long and designed to pull one or two barges. The latter were more versatile as they could be used when the river was low. Loading wool bales onto the barges and lashing them together was a skilled job. Up to 2700 bales were carried, stacked in the hull and piled in several tiers above the deck. Careless work would affect the stability of the barge, and there were many accidents involving capsizes. The barge was steered by a man standing on a makeshift wooden platform high on top of the wool. An enormous iron helm was connected to the rudder by ropes and chains. On the Murray River, tow lines between steamers and barges were 100 feet long, while on the Darling, with its tighter curves, 50 foot lines were used. River regulations stipulated that all steamers must stop after dark, but few tied up before 10.30 pm, and if there was a full moon many would travel through the night.
Low water, overhanging trees, sandbars, driftwood, dangerous currents and sudden shallows were everyday hazards for the paddle steamers. Snags, where red gums had fallen into the river, presented the most dangerous problem. They were impossible to spot in the brown water and frequently caused holing and sinking of vessels.
Paddle steamers dealt with sandbanks by rushing the small ones and winching across the large ones. Because of the seasonal variation in river height, the paddle steamers could only be operated for about eight months of the year. Sometimes river levels fell so quickly that steamers and their barges would be trapped in pools, occasionally for months at a time. When the rivers were in flood the vessels could travel almost anywhere, and it was easy to become lost as familiar landmarks disappeared. Sometimes a boat was found miles from the river, left high and dry after the floods receded.
By the first decade of the 20th century the river trade was rapidly disappearing due to competition from the growing network of roads and railways. Gradually more and more steamers and barges were tied up at the riverbank waiting for work that never came and eventually were left to rot. By the 1930s only about 30 towboats and cargo boats were still in service, and the trade was completely finished by the end of the 1960s. Today a few restored paddleboats operate for tourists.
This model was made by Trevor Watson in 1975. Although it is called Wallaby, no Murray River paddle steamer was ever given this name.
Drage, William and Michael Page, "Riverboats and Rivermen", Rigby Limited, Adelaide, 1976.
Phillips, Peter, "River Boat Days on the Murray, Darling, Murrumbidgee", Lansdowne Press, Melbourne, 1972.
Plowman, Peter, "The Wheels Still Turn : A History of Australian Paddleboats", Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst, NSW, 1992.
Simpson, Margaret, "On the Move: a history of transport in Australia", Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney, 2004
Video Riverboats Remembered: Murray Paddlesteamers on Film 1920s-1970s, National Film and Sound Archive, 1995.
Assistant Curator, Science & Industry
2 October, 2007
This model was made to represent a typical NSW river paddle steamer of about 1910. Paddle steamers operated mainly on the Murray and Darling rivers from the 1850's until early in the 20th Century.The name "WALLABY" was never given to any Murray River paddle steamer. The model is similar to the "CANALLY" ,built 1874, "TRAFALGAR" built 1877, "LANCASHIRE LASS" built 1878, "PYOP" built1896, "AUSTRALIEN" built1897, "FLORENCE ANNIE", and the "RODNEY". The model is more typical of the Murray River paddle steamers of the late 1890's.