Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Egge, John (1830–1901)

by Eric Rolls

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

John Egge (1830-1901), by unknown photographer, c1890

John Egge (1830-1901), by unknown photographer, c1890

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 21275

John Egge (c.1830-1901), Chinese riverboat captain, was born in Shanghai, China, and came to Australia in 1852 in the Queen of Sheba, owned by Francis Cadell. When Cadell opened the Murray River trade with paddle steamers, John, on the books as 'John Bull', served as cook in each new ship as it was launched. In 1856 he assumed by deed poll his Scandinavian surname. While establishing a piggery on Hindmarsh Island in Lake Alexandrina, South Australia, he met a Devon girl Mary Perring, whom he courted by swimming the river to visit her, his clothes piled on his head.

John and Mary married on 8 April 1857 at St Jude's Church of England, Port Elliot, and were to have eleven children. In 1859 the couple worked their passages up the Murray to Wentworth, New South Wales, where they set up a business hawking pies and pasties that they baked in camp ovens. By 1863 they owned a bakery and butchery, were general dealers and kept a boarding-house to cater for the many single men in the area. About 1867 Egge chartered the Teviot to trade on the river as a floating shop. Next he chartered the Moira to carry cargo and in 1868 bought the Endeavour to ply the upper Murray between Echuca and Albury.

By the 1870s Egge was one of the biggest traders on the river, operating from his large store near the wharf at Wentworth. He was said to pay up to £1000 a month in customs duties. The Murrumbidgee was his most elaborate boat, fitted with polished counters and mahogany showcases. For years he advocated Federation, foreseeing that it would end the poll tax he repeatedly had to pay—despite becoming a naturalized British subject in 1868—when he berthed his boat in the different colonies through which the Darling and Murray rivers flowed. One flamboyant exhibition increased his reputation: during a particularly high flood, he brought the Prince Alfred out of the river and down the main street of Wentworth.

Wentworth's citizens presented Egge with a testimonial and a gold ring set with diamonds when the family left in 1888 to live for a time in Adelaide, where their children went to school. Often in court suing or being sued for non-payment of bills, he put a value on apologies: 'I'm ten pounds sorry', he would say. 'How sorry are you?' He was generous to religious and social groups, making his boats freely available for dances and river picnics. Many a hard-up shed hand or station hand got a free ride. During the shearing strike of 1891, angry mobs held up riverboats that tried to carry strikebreakers, but picketing shearers cheered his boats from bend to bend.

The drought of the 1890s forced him to cease operations on the river. Egge died at Wentworth on 11 September 1901 and was buried with Wesleyan rites in the local cemetery. Four sons and three daughters survived him. In the 'White Australia' of the first half of the twentieth century, his family conveniently lost knowledge of him as a Chinese. That would not have upset him, as he always maintained that he was not an alien. In the 1970s, however, his descendants rediscovered his true character.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Howell, South Australia and Federation (Adel, 2002)
  • Hemisphere, 28, no 1, July/Aug 1983, p 35
  • Northern Territory Times, 25 June 1887, p 3
  • Observer (Adelaide), 10 Mar 1888, p 31, 21 Sept 1901, p 33.

Citation details

Eric Rolls, 'Egge, John (1830–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/egge-john-12902/text23307, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 30 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

John Egge (1830-1901), by unknown photographer, c1890

John Egge (1830-1901), by unknown photographer, c1890

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 21275