River Murray Mission Boats

Maureen M Leadbeater

Following a route beside the Murray River, overlanders had brought sheep and cattle to Adelaide from the beginning of the colony of South Australia. Eventually farmers found their way to the land near the river. Francis Cadell and William Randell showed in 1853 that the river was navigable and paddle steamers became the favoured transport far up the Murray and Darling Rivers, as the transport of goods and people was easier by water than by land.

Small isolated communities were developed. In the 1890s village settlements were established. The settlers were scattered and the communities were too poor to provide a church building, let alone support a minister. There were woodcutters camped along the river to provide the fuel for the paddle steamers.

River boats provided access to those who chose to live on or near the Murray River banks. Stores, household goods and farm equipment were carried upstream, the boats returning laden with bales of wool. Before weirs and locks, the river flow varied and the boats could only operate 6 to 8 months of the year. Snags and sandbars added to the danger.

Some boats were hawkers' floating shops. For spiritual needs there were the mission boats, with dedicated ministers providing not only church services, baptisms and marriages, but also medical help, books and entertainment.

Congregational boat

The earliest mission was provided by a Congregational minister from Tasmania. In “Rob Roy”, a tiny boat described as a canoe, the Reverend Frederick C B Fairey departed Albury in June 1888. As he travelled down the Murray, he visited farms, stations and small towns. He preached to the isolated settlers, gave books to their children and for entertainment he gave “magic lantern” shows of his previous travels by canoe around Tasmania.

His canoe, a mere 3½ metres in length, had been built of English oak and mahogany with a cedar deck. “The canoe was built in the old country by the foreman of Searle & Sons, the celebrated boatbuilders. She is only 12 feet long, 28 inches wide, and 12 inches deep... She is rigged with sails on the Chinese type, but has no centreboard, nor does she carry any ballast, Mr. Fairey's luggage alone being quite sufficient ballast for the little vessel.” [Advertiser 23 Aug 1888]

Having called at Mildura and Renmark, Rev Fairey reached Lake Alexandrina and Point McLeay in August. Unable to cross the Murray mouth he returned to Goolwa to take the train to Adelaide. There he gave lectures at city and suburban churches, including Hindmarsh, Stow, Glenelg and Port Adelaide. He planned to raise funds to further his mission.

However one evening after his lecture in North Adelaide Congregational church, fire broke out. While there was minimal damage to the building, his canoe was destroyed. Most of his lantern slides survived as they were not in the building. It was thought that a spirit lamp, used to demonstrate his method of cooking while on his canoe, had been left burning and ignited bedding. Although he continued to give lectures, he was unable to replace his vessel. The following year he was appointed to the North Rhine (Keyneton) church, with Collingrove added in 1893. In 1902 Rev Fairey and his family returned to Tasmania.

“Etona” mission boats

In 1891 a steam launch transported a Church of England chaplain to provide services for settlers living along the River Murray. The launch, originally known as the “Patroller” when used by the South Australian police, was purchased by Bishop George Kennion using funds collected from his old school, Eton College. Hence the boat was renamed “Etona”. By 1899, with mission work increasing and this boat needing major repairs, it was sold and renamed “Alma”.

A new “Etona”, a paddle steamer, was built at Milang of West Australian jarrah, with galvanized steel top-sides. It comprised a chapel, small galley, saloon and four bunks and was dedicated 22 August 1899 by Bishop Harmer. Reverend William John Russell had been appointed priest in charge of the River Murray Mission. Other ministers who served included Hew F Severn, J F Kenneth Mackenzie and Frederick William Wilkinson. Sometimes the Bishop and his wife would travel on the “Etona”.

 River steamer “Etona” c1900
  [Photo - State Library of South Australia - B 12537]

“The steamer is 60ft. long, 12ft. beam, and the hold 4ft. 6in. deep, while she draws only 2ft. of water, being just half of what the old boat required to travel in.” [Mount Barker Courier 14 Jul 1899]

Services were held on board in the small chapel or in homes, schools, sheds or camps along the banks of the river. Serving from Mannum to Renmark, trips lasted about six weeks with eight trips a year, ministers conducted baptisms, confirmations, marriages and the usual services. Mrs Harmer began a Mothers Union with communication by letters as the mothers could not meet. Poor as the settlers were, their gifts of firewood, bread and milk were welcomed by the minister and his engineer. “The great feature of the present Etona is the tiny chapel. This makes the mission steamer a floating church. Marriages are sometimes celebrated in its tiny area.” [Renmark Pioneer 13 Oct 1911]

By 1912 a number of settlements had built a church or had use of a school for services. Parish priests were appointed and the travelling minister was no longer a feature of the River Murray. The “Etona’’ was sold October 1912 to Arch Connor who used her as a fishing boat until 1944. Abandoned on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River she became a chicken house. During the 1956 flood she travelled on mercy missions. In 1961 she was taken to Echuca and restored. The organ from the “Etona” was presented to North Adelaide Baptist church and is now in the Murray Bridge Museum. Other church furniture had been shared among the churches of the river towns.

Methodist mission boats

The Primitive Methodist minister at Morgan purchased a steam launch in 1894 to bring religious services to settlements and homes along the River Murray. The “Dione” had been built 1873 at Port Adelaide for SA Harbors Board, later used by the Police Department. Reverend William Corly Butler renamed her “Glad Tidings”. On board he kept a library and a dispensary. He worked among the Village Settlements along the Murray until he left for Western Australia in 1897. The “Glad Tidings” was sold as his successor at Morgan did not continue the river service. “The Rev. Mr. Butler ... spent, I believe, every shilling he had in buying and fitting up this little steamer, and for the last three months he has added to his work in connection with his Church at Morgan, the oversight of these settlements. His boat is continually moving up and down the river, and his aim is to supply each settlement with a fortnightly visit.” [Register 11 Oct 1894]

Glad Tidings
 Steamlaunch “Glad Tidings” c1900
  [Photo - State Library of South Australia - B 35167]

The “Glad Tidings” sank in the Murray near Overland Corner in early 1900. The owner, advised to remove the obstruction as it was a danger to others navigating the river, blamed the charterer. No further mention has been seen in newspapers.

By 1907 there were new calls for a mission to serve the needs of the people along the river. Although there were now churches at Wellington, Tailem Bend, Murray Bridge, Mannum, Forster, Morgan and Gillen, there was only one church for every 70 miles. Some settlers had no religious service for five months.

The Methodists purchased a motor boat and the “Endeavour” began mission work on the River Murray 5 October 1908. For the next two years Rev J Moses Gabb, who described himself as “captain, engineer-in-chief, cook, and missionary”, travelled between Swan Reach and Loxton. Rev J M Gabb reported "I have visited a number of homes, fishermen's tents, etc., and have been well received, and had good times in prayer with some. As I expected, I find the life lonely. I feel the responsibility of the boat, and realize that there is a certain amount of danger.” [Australian Christian Commonwealth 6 Nov 1908]

Each trip was arduous. The Methodist Home Mission Secretary joined Rev Lyons on the “Endeavour” for one such trip.“Thursday. A good start was made, and away we went around the Nor’-West Bend and on up to Nikolapka, 14 miles from Morgan, then on again for another 14 miles, reaching Gillen about sundown. On Friday came up to Waikerie, one of the most flourishing of the irrigation settlements. On Sunday preached at Ramco, two miles to the west of Waikerie in the afternoon, and at Waikerie at night. On Monday went on up river to Devlin’s Pound. Tuesday night at Mr Pickering’s, Parcoola. On Wednesday ran on to Kingston, and arranged for service on return trip. Thursday night found us at Pyap. Friday went on to Loxton. Service at Pyap on Friday. A dark wet night, still about a third of the people of the settlement attended. On Sunday morning, whilst going down from Pyap to Moorook. Had a good congregation at Moorook in the afternoon, most of those present being of the Lutheran persuasion. Evening at Kingston, the last and best attended service of the trip. Monday back to Waikerie.” [Australian Christian Commonwealth 17 Feb 1911]

After two years on the Murray Mission Rev Gabb was replaced by H Lyons and A E Jones. But by this time the towns and settlements had developed such that the mission boat was no longer so vital. Parishes were being divided and new ministers appointed to serve the increasing population. In March 1912 the Methodist Conference decided that the “Endeavour” should be sold and mission work be “carried on in the usual way”.

Catholic motor boat

In 1914 when Father Patrick Edward McCabe was appointed to his new parish extending for 200 miles along the River Murray, he opened an appeal for £100 to purchase a motor boat. Sadly after three months he had only raised £59/6/6. He closed the appeal having thanked the contributors (half of them were clergy or religious). Instead of a boat, he would use the money for a buggy and horses to reach his scattered flock. “I very much regret that my appeal has not been successful, and now nothing remains but to utilise the sum in hand for the best interests of my scattered flock. I propose buying a buggy and pair of horses, and hope by this means to carry out successfully my work. I thank sincerely, on behalf of myself and my parishioners, those who so generously contributed.” [Southern Cross 1 Jun 1914]

Dangers, mishaps and the unexpected

While the Church of England ministers on the “Etona” were accompanied by an engineer James MacLennan, the Methodists on the “Endeavour” often travelled alone. The river missionary was required to be resourceful. He had to be able to repair the engine when it broke down. If his boat was stranded on a sandbar, he would have to push her off. Having to get his own meals, his bread could be stale, fresh meat hard to get and, if the rain was heavy, no fire could be lit.

Assisting Gabb in 1910 the inexperienced Rev Harry F Lyons had problems with the engine and the pump. Snags and sandbars in the river were a constant danger. “HOLDER, Saturday, August 27.—The Bishop and Mrs. Harmer paid us a visit on Friday, the 19th, but the service which was to have been held on the 18th had to be dispensed with owing to the steamer Etona grounding on a sandbank, and remaining there for six or seven hours.” [Adelaide Observer 10 Sep 1898]

However Rev Gabb was able to appreciate a surprising incident. “One evening, just after tea, there came a sound of voices singing in the distance. Nearer and nearer they came, louder and louder they sang. Who could they be? Were they members of one of the village settlement choirs? They reached the boat. Mosquitoes!” [Australian Christian Commonwealth 8 Mar 1912]


Enduring hardship and danger, dedicated ministers not only brought religious services to those who lived far apart, but also contact, medical aid and friendship. The missioners on their mission boats were welcomed by the settlers.


Fenton M E, “Etona” and the River Murray Mission 1891 to 1912, Lockleys 1977
Hunt Arnold D, This side of Heaven: a history of Methodism in South Australia, Adelaide 1985
Various newspapers

South Australia history timeline