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George Calder (1839–1903)

by R. J. Macdougall

This article was published:

George Calder (1839-1903), mariner, was born on 15 October 1839 in Stirlingshire, Scotland, son of John Calder, sea captain, and his wife Janet, née Smith. In his teens he became a seaman on vessels sailing in the Firth of Forth, near Edinburgh.

Calder left Scotland in June 1859 in the crew of a sailing vessel bound for Victoria. When he arrived in Melbourne he signed off, and soon afterwards became chief officer on a Melbourne-owned barque, carrying cargoes and passengers along the east coast of Australia, and to Adelaide, Tasmania and across to New Zealand. In April 1861, during a voyage to Tasmanian and New Zealand ports, Calder was promoted to replace the captain who was dismissed by the shipowners at Launceston for drunkenness and inefficiency. On 3 December 1863 at St James's Church, Melbourne, while briefly captain of the Sea Breeze, he married 19-year-old Sarah Dodd, daughter of a shipwright. Soon after, he joined the shipping agents McMeckan, Blackwood & Co.

In 1870 Calder made the first of his voyages in connexion with the laying of the overland telegraph line from Port Darwin to Adelaide. As captain of the steamship Omeo he was commissioned to carry cargo to Port Darwin and to investigate how the project might be assisted from the north. Early in 1872 he returned with telegraph equipment and with directions to navigate the uncharted Roper River as far inland as possible. He succeeded in taking the ship to within 40 miles (64 km) of the construction party, naming Calder Range on the way. In Adelaide on 15 November he was accorded a public ovation and presented with a gold watch for his 'able services' to the expedition.

In the mid-1870s Calder was in charge of the Omeo on the New Zealand run. He was master of the steamship Otago when it ran aground in thick fog off the west coast of New Zealand on 3 December 1876. All the passengers and the cargo, which included five boxes containing 5000 ounces of gold, were saved and the ship later refloated. In 1880-84 he was captain of the Claud Hamilton on the New Zealand and Adelaide run. From then until his retirement in March 1887 he was in charge of the Adelaide Steamship Co.'s South Australian which ran between Melbourne and Adelaide, and Adelaide and Fremantle, Western Australia. With a gratuity, Calder purchased the leasehold of the Malvern Hotel, Melbourne, but he lost money in the bank crashes of the early 1890s and in 1893 had to relinquish the business.

Making his home in South Yarra with five unmarried children, Calder wrote his memoirs, Stirring Events, Ashore and Afloat, published in Melbourne in 1897. The book included a lengthy section on sea ports around the world, with advice to young mariners. In poor health in his last years, he died in hospital in Melbourne on 24 February 1903, and was buried in St Kilda cemetery survived by two sons and five daughters; his wife, a son and a daughter had predeceased him.

Select Bibliography

  • Register (Adelaide), 16 Nov 1872.

Citation details

R. J. Macdougall, 'Calder, George (1839–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 27 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 October, 1839
Stirlingshire, Scotland


24 February, 1903 (aged 63)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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