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Captain John Egge, Wentworth River Captain & Pioneer
Let us introduce you to CAPTAIN JOHN EGGE - 'A Champion of the Rivers'
and a remarkable pioneer of the town of Wentworth and of the river-trade industry.
You will find his simple grave in the local cemetery, inscribed with his name and two lines of verse - "So loving, so faithful, so kind - Hard in this world his equal to find". Capt John Egge was a legend in his lifetime and a key figure in the development of navigation along the Murray, Darling and Murrumbidgee rivers.
John Egge was born in Shanghai, around 1830, and came to Australia as a crew member of the vessel under the command of Capt Francis Cadell. Cadell traded between Port Adelaide and Melbourne, with a major interest in the navigation of the Murray. Egge was the cook on the PS Lady Augusta during the race with Capt William Randell's vessel, PS Mary Ann, in 1853, for the honour of being the first riverboat to navigate the Murray.
John Egge was born 26th April 1829, at Shanghai, China 'on the banks' of the Yangtze River - he died on 11th September, 1901 at Wentworth, NSW, 'on the banks' of the Darling River.
|Wife Mary (nee Perring), born 3rd October, 1839, either in Totnes, Devon, UK or South Australia - she died 1st June, 1891 at Wentworth, NSW.|
In 1856 Egge bought land at Goolwa, SA and leased property on Hindmarsh Island. It was here that he met an Englishwoman, Mary Perring, whose parents Peter and Jane Perring from Totnes, Devon, UK, were landowners on the island. Not having a boat of his own he courted Mary by swimming across the Goolwa Arm in the evenings with his clothes tied on his head. His determination paid off, for he and Mary married at St Jude's Church of England, Port Elliott, on 8 April, 1857.
When Wentworth was proclaimed a town in 1859 John and Mary came to settle in the new town, working their passage up the river, John as a cook and Mary as a stewardess. Richard, their first child, was born here in 1869. John and Mary had eight surviving children - all born in Wentworth.
John Egge, the businessman, started in a very small way - he baked pies and pasties in a camp oven and sold them door-to-door from a basket he carried over his arm. By 1861, he could afford a proper oven and a shop to house it, he opened a bakery. In 1863 he opened a butcher shop, and had a boarding-house constructed, which proved a sound investment in an area with many single working men. Around 1866 he chartered his first river-boat, the PS Treviot, and so began his successful venture into river-trading. He acquired the PS Moira and PS Endeavour - an interesting boat - its top and sides were constructed of nail cans - it was one of the first boats to run regularly between Echuca and Albury, and Egge was now employing as crew some of the people he had formerly served as a cook and steward.
By the early 1870s Egge was established as one of the biggest traders on the Murray-Darling and his onshore business interests had expanded at the same rate as his river trade. At various times he ran a general store in town as well as a store on the wharf, which supplied station properties with bulk goods and served as a depot for his boats. he leased or owned four hotels over the years, and owned residences and property as well as holding shares in various companies. The Shire Municipal Rates records reveal that 20 years after arriving in Wentworth he paid rates on 11 different properties. The 'Melbourne Journal' of 1881 reported that John was paying something like £1,800 to £2,000 a month in customs duties and was renowned as the merchant with the best credit in all the colonies.
In 1891 John Egge reconstructed SS Murrumbidgee as a floating department store with mahogany showcases and polished counters with retail and wholesale sections. The grocery and hardware departments offered 'every conceivable article in these lines', with his new venture - the sale of boots and shoes, drapery and fancy goods. This boat was talked about all along the river and because the freight charges on river transport were at least two-thirds the cost of overland transport, the goods could be purchased at very reasonable prices. By offering household goods at regular intervals 'at the right price' life on the rivers was made more tolerable for women and children and so they ventured from the coastal cities.
John Egge was in Australia years before 1000's of his compatriots came from China during the gold-rush days. When discriminatory legislation was passed against Chinese, John was required to pay poll-tax of £10 every time he crossed state boundaries, which for him was often. He was eventually granted an exemption by the governments of NSW, Victoria and SA who consented to recognise him as 'an Australian merchant'.
Egge was hugely popular and highly respected all along the rivers. His integrity, generosity and business acumen inspired admiration even at a time of anti-Chinese feeling in Australia. He did adopt totally the European ways, clothes and language (it was almost as if he had forgotten his mother tongue) and could certainly work as hard as 'any man' - had had done it all - all labourer, farmer, cook, steward, businessman and skipper and had shown himself to be very capable at whatever he did. He also was known to try 'anything' - during a high flood (possibly 1870) he sailed the PS Prince Alfred, down the main street of Wentworth. He commanded respect from his employees, and even was considered hard-headed and shrewd in his business dealings - customs officers especially regarded him as a wily trader, who had all kind of tricks to avoid paying duty (yet as mentioned before he certainly paid his 'dues').
Touching tributes printed in the local paper, the Federal Standard, on the deaths of both Mary Egge in 1891 (aged 50 years) and John Egge in 1901, speak volumes for the esteem in which they were held. At the time of his death John had been the longest resident of Wentworth - 41 years. He certainly deserves the title of Wentworth Pioneer.
On the weekend of 8th and 9th September, 2001, a family reunion was held with family members coming to Wentworth, from near and far, to commemorate the centenary of the death of Capt. John Egge, a remarkable gentleman - their distinguished ancestor.
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