Inside the Collection

Paddle steamers – one of Australia’s inland pioneering transport systems

Model of a paddle steamer painted in red and white. The steamer has a wide lower deck with an upper deck with a small cabin for the helm as well as an exhaust chimney. The model is mounted on a wooden pedestal with a plaque at the bow.
Model of the paddle steamer Wallaby made by Trevor Watson in 1975. Powerhouse Museum collection. B2248.

Have you been down to Echuca in Victoria on the Murray River (the NSW and Victorian border) and been for a ride on a paddle steamer? The story of the paddle steamers is one of Australia’s amazing inland pioneering transport systems on a par with the camel trains, bullock drays and Cobb and Co coaches.

The Murray River was first navigated in 1853 by William Russell and Francis Cadell who responded to the South Australian Government’s 2,000 pound competition to open the Murray as a waterway. From then on numerous paddle steamers began travelling inland with stores and passengers and returning to port laden with wool. The paddle steamers which came to trade along the inland rivers of the Murray, Darling and Murrumbidgee were an Australian design. Some 300 were built of local red gum.

Black and white photograph of a paddle steamer travelling along a river pulling a heavily loaded barge
Paddle steamer Lancashire Lass pulling a barge with 1158 bales of wool at Wilcannia, NSW, c. 1905. Photo by G. Young, courtesy of State Library of NSW.

Paddle steamers were flat bottomed with a broad beam for greater stability. They usually had two or more decks, and were propelled by steam engines driving paddles, either at the rear or more often the side. Their carrying capacity was increased by towing barges with goods such as wool, sheepskins, hides, tallow, station supplies, timber and farming equipment. Loading the wool bales onto the barges and lashing them together was a skilled job. Up to 2,000 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 with barges capsizing. Barges were 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 the steamers and barges were 100 feet (30.4 m) while on the Darling, with its tighter curves, 50 foot (15.2 m) lines were used. River regulations stipulated that all steamers must stop at night, but few tied up before 10.30 pm and if there was a full moon many would travel through the night.


Black and white photograph of multiple paddle steamers docked along a river bank being unloaded.
Paddle steamers unloading wool at Bourke, NSW, photographed by George Bell (attributed), published by Kerry and Co, Sydney, 1890-1900. Powerhouse Museum collection. 85/1284-753.

Other types of paddle boats on the inland river systems included hawking boats fitted out as travelling shops which called at isolated homesteads and timber cutters’ camps. They remained profitable and popular until the 1920s. Another vessel, the “Etona”, was equipped as a travelling mission boat to provide religious instruction to the isolated settlers along the Murray until 1912. It had a small chapel accommodating about twenty people, complete with an altar and organ.

Low water, overhanging trees, sandbars, driftwood, dangerous currents and sudden shallows were everyday hazards for paddle steamers. Snags, where red gum trees which had fallen into the river, presented the most dangerous problem. They were impossible to spot in the brown water of the Murray and frequently caused holing and sinking of vessels. From the beginning, the South Australian and Victorian colonial governments ran snagging steamers which were small vessels fitted with powerful engines, winches and strong tackle to drag snags out of the river.

Paddle steamers navigated sandbanks by rushing the small ones and winching across the large ones. Because of the seasonal variation in river height, the boats could only be operated for about eight months of the year. Sometimes river levels fell so quickly that paddle steamers and their barges would be trapped in pools, occasionally for months at a time. When the rivers were in flood the vessels could paddle almost anywhere but it was easy to get lost as familiar landmarks disappeared. Some boats were found miles from the river, left high and dry after the floods receded.

A hand-drawn map of a river system with key landmarks and warnings identified. On one bend is the label ‘Bad stumps’.
River navigation chart, 1870-1890. Powerhouse Museum collection. 86/1251

One of the most interesting objects from this period of transport history in the Museum’s collection is a river navigating chart used by paddle steamer captains on the Darling River between 1870 and 1890. The river course, landmarks, woolsheds, hotels, mills and homesteads from Wentworth to Menindee, NSW, are hand drawn with notes about rocks and dangerous areas. The chart is made of heavy sail cloth and measures 39 metres in length. It is mounted on rollers which were wound on as each section of the river was passed.

By the first decade of the 20th century the river trade was rapidly disappearing to the growing network of roads and railways. Gradually more and more steamers and barges were tied up at the river bank waiting for work which never came and were left to rot. By the 1930s there were only about thirty paddle steamers still in service while the trade was completely finished by the end of the 1960s.

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator, Transport

14 responses to “Paddle steamers – one of Australia’s inland pioneering transport systems

  • I very much doubt that they were unloading wool at Bourke. Bourke was after all the port that wool was shipped from, rather than into.

    • I thought this exact same thought too before I researched Bourke Railway and found that it reached Bourke in 1885, which would have diverted wool transport from the Upper Darling through Bourke to Sydney.

      • Dear Frank
        It sounds like you are well versed in the history of paddle steamers in Australia.
        I’m trying to date an iron hull sidewheel paddle steamer, that I think might have been used in NSW from about the early 1840’s. It would be great if I could send you an image
        Many thanks


  • Thank you for comment. Yes, you are correct that Bourke was a river port for paddle steamers transporting wool up until 1885 to both Victoria and South Australia. However, in that year the railway from Sydney reached Bourke to capture this lucrative wool market for New South Wales. From 1885 paddle boats transported wool from properties along the Darling River and off-loaded it at Bourke from where it was railed to Sydney.

  • Hi Margaret

    Interesting article. It wasn’t William Russell, but rather William Richard Randell who was the pioneer navigator of the Murray Darling River system and I don’t think he was responding to the SA Government’s announcement of the prize money, rather he was looking for a new market for his flour being produced at his father’s mill (which he leased) at Gumeracha.

    Interesting that you use a model of a paddle steamer that never was, as an illustration of a paddle steamer.

    In my 40 years of research on this very topic, I have found only two or three instances of barges capsizing because of their high wool loads.

    Boats being found miles from the river – I have only found one instance of this actually happening.

    See ya on the river

    Frank Tucker

  • I was reading your article and my great great grandad worked and was captain on a few of the boats and we have 2 river chart maps. 1 is over 6metres long and the other over 10metres. I think they are on silk but it could be old sail material. Can anyone direct me where I could take them to be looked at.

  • My father in-law, who was raised in northern Victoria in the early 1900s use to tell stories about the Marray paddle steamers, all of which were captivating. On several occasions he mentioned that they typically preferred to use a species of timber in the firebox that left almost no ash. My father in-law passed away about 10 years ago and I cannot remember that story. I vaguely remember gray box or tallowood but the latter is abundant in Western Australia. As time past this mystery timber became harder to get so they resorted mainly to river red gum which was plentiful but not quite as good as it produced more ash. Could anyone verify this story and/or define the mystery timber type ? With thanks , Greg

  • Looking for any pictures of a paddle steamer called the Providence. It met its demise in Manindi, the boiler blew and killed all on board.

  • Hi Patsy
    I have had a look at all my sources and have been unable to located any photos of the ‘Providence’. By all accounts it was a spectacular and tragic explosion graphically detailed in newspaper reports of the day.
    THE PROVIDENCE EXPLOSION. (1872, November 21). South Australian Register (Adelaide, SA : 1839 – 1900), p. 7. Retrieved September 30, 2019, from
    Best wishes
    Margaret Simpson, Curator

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