John Egge (c. 1830-1901), a Chinese riverboat captain was Born in Shanghai, China, and came to Australia in 1852 in the boat, Queen of Sheba, owned by Francis Cadell. When Cadell opened the Murray River trade with paddle steamers, John (on the books as “John Bull”), served as the cook in each new ship Cadell launched. In 1856 he assumed by deed poll his Scandinavian surname. Whilst establishing a piggery on Hindmarsh Island in Lake Alexandrina, South Australia, he met an English girl, Mary Perring, whom he courted by swimming the river to visit her, his clothes piled on his head.
John and Mary married on 8 April 1857 at St Jude’s Church of England, Port Elliott, and together had eleven children. In 1859 the couple worked their passages up the Murray to Wentworth, where they set up a business hawking pies and pasties which they baked in camp ovens. By 1863 they owned a bakery and butchery, were general dealers and kept a boarding-house to cater for the many single men in the area. About 1867, Egge chartered the Teviot to trade on the river as a floating shop. Next he chartered the Moria to carry cargo and in 1868, he bought the Endeavour to ply the upper Murray between Echuca and Albury.
By the 1870’s, Egge was one of the biggest traders on the river, operating from his large store near the wharf at Wentworth. He was said to pay up to £1000 a month in customs duties. The Murrumbidgee was his most elaborate boat, fitted with polished counters and mahogany showcases. For years he advocated Federation, foreseeing that it would end the poll tax he repeatedly had to pay when he berthed his boat in the different colonies, through which the Darling and Murray rivers flowed. (Egge became a naturalised British subject in 1868). One flamboyant exhibition increased his reputation; during a particularly high flood, he brought the Prince Alfred out of the river and floated it down the main street of Wentworth.
Wentworth’s citizens presented Egge with a testimonial and a gold ring set with diamonds when the family left in 1888 to live in Adelaide for a time, where their children went to school. Often in court suing or being sued for non-payment of bills, Egge put a value on apologies: “I’m ten pounds sorry”, he would say. “How sorry are you?” He was generous to religious and social groups, making his boats freely available for dances and river picnics. Many a hard-up shed hand or station hand got a free ride. During the shearing strike of 1891, angry mobs held up riverboats that tried to carry strikebreakers, but picketing shearers cheered his boats from bend to bend.
The drought of the 1890’s forced him to cease operation on the river. Egge died at Wentworth on 11 September 1901 and was buried with Wesleyan rites in the local cemetery. Four sons and three daughters survived him. In the “White Australia” of the first half of the twentieth century, his family conveniently lost knowledge of him as a Chinese. That would not have upset him, as he always maintained that he was not an alien. In the 1970’s, however, his descendants rediscovered his true character
To commemorate Australia’s bicentennial, a huge tapestry was presented to the Chinese people and now hangs in the Great Hall in Beijing. The only name and place mentioned on the huge tapestry is Captain John Egge at Wentworth New South Wales.
A statue of John Egge sits on the Wentworth Wharf, where his boats would have been moored. “John Egge Lane” has been named in memory of our wonderful pioneer who put Wentworth on the map as far as the river trade was concerned. The lane is significant because it was where his home was situated at the time of his death.