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William Richard Randell (1824–1911)

by John C. Tolley

This article was published:

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William Richard Randell (1824-1911), by unknown photographer

William Richard Randell (1824-1911), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 9439

William Richard Randell (1824-1911), paddle-steamer owner and politician, was born on 2 May 1824 at Sidbury, Devon, England, eldest son of William Beavis Randell and his wife Mary Ann. With his family he migrated with free passages to South Australia in the Hartley and arrived at Glenelg on 20 October 1837. The family lived in primitive conditions till his father, who was general stock manager for the South Australian Co., first built a house near Hackney Bridge and soon took up land at Gumeracha, where he erected a flour-mill.

Educated at Exeter, England, and at Adelaide, Randell later held land with his father along the banks of the Murray; it was here, while minding cattle, that he 'became determined to be the first man to put a steamboat on the river'. With his brother John he rented his father's flour-mill; in 1852, aware of the gold-diggings, he 'thought it time to start the steamboat' though he had never seen one and his father opposed it. Carpenters and his brothers Thomas and Elliott cut timber for the hull at Gumeracha and the frame was carted by bullocks over the hills to Mannum. The engine was built in Adelaide by a German engineer and a blacksmith made the boiler to Randell's novel design. The hull, 56 feet (17 m) long, was completed in February 1853 and in March the steamboat Mary Ann, having cost about £1800, made a successful trial run. Randell's first trading voyage began on 25 March but low water below Lake Bonney forced him to return to Mannum. On 25 August he set off again with about twelve tons of stores. Near Swan Hill the Mary Ann was overtaken by Francis Cadell's Lady Augusta with Lieutenant-Governor Sir Henry Young and his party on board. Continuing further upstream than the Lady Augusta Randell reached Maiden's Punt (Moama) in New South Wales. For his feat the South Australian government gave him £300. A further £400 and a testimonial were later awarded him by citizens who felt that he had been insufficiently rewarded.

In 1854 Randell extended the Mary Ann to 75 feet (23 m) but it was still not big enough for his purposes. Next year he joined it with a new hull, mounted the single paddle-wheel between the two hulls and renamed it Gemini. In this unconventional vessel he sailed up the Murrumbidgee River to Lang's Crossing (Hay) where he established a trading store. On later voyages up the Darling River he went as far as Walgett, 1650 river miles (3056 km) from the sea. He then gave up milling and built a house at Mannum.

Randell had married Elizabeth Ann Nickels on 24 December 1853 and they made their home at Gumeracha. Later he moved to Wentworth to supervise his trading as well as his growing fleet. In 1861 he was appointed a justice of the peace for New South Wales. In the 1870s he returned to South Australia; he lived first at Mannum, where he installed a dry dock, and later at Gumeracha in the family home, Kenton Park, with a redecorated dining room resembling a paddle-steamer saloon. In 1873 he became a justice of the peace for South Australia. He controlled his various activities until 1899 when he handed over to his son, Murray. His most serious loss, costing £6000, occurred in 1863 when his paddle-steamer Bunyip and its barges were destroyed by fire on the Murray River; Randell was lucky to escape with his life.

In 1883 Randell became first chairman of the Gumeracha Butter Factory. In 1893-96 and 1896-99 he represented Gumeracha in the House of Assembly. In parliament he favoured water conservation and irrigation, village settlements, working-men's blocks and women's suffrage and opposed protection and taxation change. He was not a prolific debater. Though the oldest member of the House he was still agile, travelling each week from Gumeracha while parliament was in session.

In 1910, in failing health, Randell moved to North Adelaide with a testimonial from the people of Gumeracha. He died on 4 March 1911 survived by five sons and four daughters, leaving an estate sworn for probate at £9000. The No. 1 weir and lock at Blanche Town on the Murray River in South Australia was named in his honour.

Select Bibliography

  • J. E. Monfries (ed), A History of Gumeracha and District, South Australia, 1839-1939 (Adel, 1939)
  • M. M. Kinmont, Family Portrait of William Richard Randell (Adel, 1951)
  • I. Mudie, Riverboats (Adel, 1961)
  • Parliamentary Debates (South Australia), 1893-99
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1853 (96)
  • Honorary Magistrate, Jan 1911
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 19 Mar 1893, 2 May 1903
  • Pictorial Australian, 1893
  • Observer (Adelaide), 27 May 1893, 18 July 1896, 27 Nov 1909
  • Register (Adelaide), 20 June 1896, 6 Mar 1911
  • H. B. Hoskins (ed), A Historical … Survey of Mannum, no 1516 (State Records of South Australia)
  • J. C. Tolley, Notes on the History of the River Murray System (held by author).

Citation details

John C. Tolley, 'Randell, William Richard (1824–1911)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 16 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Richard Randell (1824-1911), by unknown photographer

William Richard Randell (1824-1911), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 9439

Life Summary [details]


2 May, 1824
Sidbury, Devon, England


4 March, 1911 (aged 86)
North Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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