Master Mariner on the Murray                             

George Vining Rogers 1832-1910

Rebecca Jane Fox 1844-1886                             

Paternal grandparents of Valdis Muriel Skidmore

A problem father

George Vining Rogers was born in Droxford Hampshire on November 18th1832, the son of Emma Cobden and John Blyth Rogers, a doctor of Droxford. His mother died from tuberculosis when he was only 4 years old leaving George, his two older brothers and younger sister in the care of their father. The 1841 census shows his brothers and sister at boarding schools in nearby Alton, but George aged 8 is at The Cedars in nearby West Meon with his grandmother Mary Ann Rogers and grandfather, also named George Vining Rogers, a surgeon. At the same time George’s father was living in Droxford at Fir Hill with two servants but not with any of his family as he had disgraced himself as a profligate and an alcoholic and was not capable of looking after his own children. They were fortunate their grandparents and mother’s relatives, the Cobdens, could take care of them

The only trace of George after 1841 until his arrival in Australia, I found in a letter written by his grandmother in September 1851. Mary Ann Rogers reports that George was working for his Uncle Charles Fiers (husband of his aunt Sarah Cobden) in the flax manufacturing trade in Ireland (that I have subsequently discovered to be in Belfast). She also reports that his brother Frederick had gone to Australia. 

Attracted to Australia

George's elder brother Frederick had travelled to South Australia around 1851 to try gold digging and then buy land but had been unsuccessful. He wrote back home to his uncle Frederick Cobden to tell him to warn George not to come out to Australia as the experience was not what it was cracked up to be by the misleading and exaggerated advertising. But George either didn't receive the message or didn't believe him, as the next record of George is at the age of 22 when he arrives in Port Adelaide, South Australia on the migrant ship Flora Kerr on March 4th 1855. It is said he emigrated to Australia to get away from his father.

The Flora Kerr left London on November 17th 1854. It was fortunate that George arrived safely, for a report from the Whitechapel County Court in The Shipping Gazette of June 11th 1855 reveals the installation of faulty pumps in the ship, whose malfunction would have caused the deaths of all passengers and crew, should the ship have encountered a storm. 

After George's arrival, he earned a living for a short time working in a vineyard. This was probably the very early one owned by Frank Potts near Langhorne's Creek where his brother had been staying, 64 kilometres (about 40 miles) south east of Adelaide, and also on the main route from Adelaide to the Victorian goldfields.

Rebecca's family - weavers of Derg, Northern Ireland

Rebecca* Jane Fox came from Castlederg in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. She was the fourth child of John Fox and Matilda (nee Scott) and was born at Ganvaughn on January 9th 1841 then baptised two months later at St. John's Church of Ireland, Castlederg, in the Parish of Skirts of Urney. She had two older sisters and three brothers. The family lived at Ballylennan near Castlederg where her father was a weaver by trade, as was his father.

Like the rest of Ireland, County Tyrone suffered during the 1840s and ‘50s from the potato famine and mass emigration, and particularly in County Tyrone, the industrialization of the linen industry, the mainstay of the economy, eventually wiped out the small cottager/weaver. Rebecca’s family would have been in this category, probably having a small farmlet alongside their handloom weaving cottage industry. However in 1849 Rebecca’s mother Matilda died at age 40 and was buried in the parish churchyard in Castlederg. John would have struggled on but his eldest child Catherine was only 13 years old, and if living, the youngest was under 12 months.  

St. John's Church Castlederg, Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland where Rebecca's mother Matilda was buried and all their children baptised. Photo: Yvonne Abbott 2018                                                              

I cannot fill in the gap between 1849 and 1855 when they emigrated and I don’t know what happened to the three sons, but at some point,  Rebecca, her father and sisters, as government emigrants, went to Liverpool and on May 23rd 1855 boarded the ship Admiral Boxer to sail for South Australia. Rebecca was 14, her father 38, and her older sisters: Isabella 16, and Catherine 19. In the ship’s manifest John gives his occupation as an agricultural labourer, and the girls' as domestic servants, indicating the type of work they would be seeking in Australia. The South Australian Register of Wednesday 22nd August 1855 describes the ship’s arrival:

'Arrived on the 21st August with 384 Government emigrants. This ship was well adapted for emigrants, being lofty and well ventilated. The discipline and management in this ship were excellent. All the people expressed themselves well satisfied with their diet and treatment. The casualties consisted of 3 births and the death of one infant child. 153 young women arrived by this ship, adding to the accumulating numbers of those who can find no employment.'

So, job seeking would be competitive. A story passed down was that when the family arrived at Port Adelaide, John left his daughters at the wharf in the care of a minister of religion. John then went to the market garden area north of Adelaide. I can’t verify this but they all must have soon found work and settled in Adelaide. Eventually Isabella married Michael Halloran in 1859, and Catherine married William Verner in 1861, was widowed in 1865 and then married David Davies in 1867. John Fox died in 1894 aged 79 years, at the home of his daughter Isabella, in Wakefield Street, Adelaide. He is buried in West Terrace Cemetery, Adelaide.

Port Adelaide c. 1847. Lithograph by J. W. Giles from painting by G. F. Angus Source: State Library South Australia                                                                                                   

The Tam O'Shanter Bridge, at Port Adelaide, built in 1851 demolished in 1857. Photo: 1856. Source: State Library South Australia                                                                                                                                       

Isabella Fox Moore?

Interestingly I have found a baptismal record for an Isabella Fox Moore. The baptism took place at Holy Trinity church in Adelaide on January 15th 1860, and the mother’s name in the register is given as Rebecca Fox, single woman of King William Street. The Australian birth index records the child's birth took place in Hindmarsh on April 18th 1859, the father was Allen Mason Moore and the mother was Rebecca Jane Fox. I think this could be our Rebecca, but what happened to the child, and what happened to Allen Mason Moore?

Marriage in Milang

Eventually Rebecca met George Vining Rogers and on the 5th January 1863 at Milang, situated on the shores of Lake Alexandrina South Australia about 75 kilometres (46 miles) from Adelaide, George age 29 married  20-year-old Rebecca. The wedding took place at the home of Mr. and Mrs. De La Hoye and was conducted by C. D. Watts, a Congregational church minister. George is described as a boatman on their marriage certificate.

Master Mariner

What brought George to Milang was probably the prospect of earning a good living from Milang’s economic boom that lasted from the 1860s to 1880s. The settlements of Milang situated on Lake Alexandrina, and Goolwa at the mouth of the Murray River, developed into busy ports, managing goods transported along the Murray by steamer between Adelaide and around the coast to Victoria and the other eastern states. This provided much economic stimulus for these growing communities on the Fleurieu Peninsula of South Australia. The goods included wool from the Darling and Upper Murray stations which horse and bullock teams then transported to Port Adelaide, and wheat shipped to Milang’s flour mills and shipped back as flour. Overseas goods shipped to Adelaide also had to go through Milang before reaching the eastern colonies. Therefore there was work in running trading vessels, small and large. Frank Potts of Langhorne's Creek, mentioned earlier, was also a boat builder in Milang and built two boats that George most frequently captained: The cutter Souter Johnny and the paddle steamer Milang.


The Milang c1900, captained by George Vining Rogers on the Murray River. Source: State Library of South Australia, Milang Collection                 

Sailing in his blood?

In the South Australian Directory for 1870 George is described as a boatman. How did George attain the skills of a boatman? Life at sea was not unheard of in his family. His grandmother's father and brother were in the Royal Navy, as was his uncle Alfred Rogers who was a sea captain. Did he learn maritime skills on his voyage to Australia? His time spent in Belfast around 1851 was when the port of Belfast was rapidly developing. Perhaps he became interested in trade and boating due to this exposure. He clearly gained his sailing skills somewhere prior to January 1859 when we have a definitive record of him as a boatman, transporting 101 bags of wheat in the Souter Johnny to Goolwa.

His knowledge of the lakes and sailing was sought when in August 1863 there was a Coroner's Inquest into the death of the Reverend James Reid whose body was retrieved from the water and his boat found in pieces. As George had been with Police Trooper Hunter when the boat's remnants were found, he was asked his opinion of the situation. George, who knew Reverend Reid, described the wild weather on the day Reid went missing, and gave his opinion that Reid was too inexperienced and his boat not safe enough to cross Lake Alexandrina in those conditions.

At Goolwa on August 27th 1884 George qualified as a Master Mariner, which entitled him to be a 'Master of a Steamer trading on the River Murray.' This would have opened up much greater opportunities for George's work. He was now qualified to captain the paddle steamer Milang.

George Vining Rogers’ Master Mariner’s Certificate 1884. Source: Marine Board South Australia                                                

Names reflect family connections

It is clear from the following evidence that even though George may have been escaping his father, he still had much affection for and pride in his Rogers and Cobden relations. The names given to their 10 children attest to this. They were all born in Milang, but only five survived to adulthood:

1. Emma Millicent (name of his mother and his sister) born 23/11/1863, died 15/8/1946 in Adelaide when 86 years old. She was a sewing teacher and ‘a clever girl’ according to her father. Known for an eccentric habit of always wearing hats, even to bed.

2. George Vining (named after himself or his grandfather) born 12/5/1865, died 11/7/1934 in East Malvern, Victoria. He married Fanny Caroline Mulcahy in 1891 at South Yarra and had nine children.

3. John Blyth (name of his father and great grandfather) born and died in June 1866, 1 day old.

4. Ida Mary Finniss (probably named after the first Premier of South Australia, Boyd Finniss and the town named after him) born 26/6/1867, married widower Charles Frederick Amiet and had one child - Eugenie. Ida died in Coburg, Victoria 17/11/1919 age 52. In his last years, George lived with Ida and her husband at Tyntynder South, Swan Hill where they had a farm.

5.Theodore Murray (probably named after his father’s cousin Francis Murray) born 19/1/1869, died 11/7/1944, Adelaide. He married Elizabeth Brockensha in 1892 in Adelaide and had four children. The 1909 electoral roll shows he and his wife at 11 Loch Street Coburg, not far from his brother George in O’Hea’s Street. Theodore is described as a storeman on the electoral roll.

6. Charles Fiers Cobden (his aunt Sarah Cobden married Charles Fiers, a merchant from Genoa) born 21/6/1871. He died at Milang 20/12/1880 at age 9. George worked for him in Belfast before emigrating to South Australia.

7. Mary Anne (name of his grandmother and an aunt) born and died in 1873.

8. Francis Heron (Rogers are related to the Herons of Galloway, Scotland) born 13/2/1874, death date and place unknown, but he was alive in 1910 when George died.

9. Fanny Sale (named after Manchester lawyer William Sale who married two of his aunts, not simultaneously of course! - Millicent and Priscilla Cobden). Fanny was born 16/1/1876 and died the next year at Milang.

10.Lucy Fanny born 8/9/1878 is also at Swan Hill on the 1903 electoral roll with her sister Ida and also in Coburg with Ida and Charles in 1914 and 1919. Her occupation was a machinist. She died in a private hospital in Adelaide on 2/8/1951.

Links to England

Many of their names reflect the importance George attached to his family connections (as far as I know the names do not reflect Rebecca's relations). In 1932 his daughter Emma wrote to her English cousin Bertram about herself and her father. She mentioned she had some old photos: 'Dr Joseph Rogers & Mrs Rogers, Richard Cobden's old home Dunford House with Mrs Fisher & Mrs Fiers seated on the lawn Father's sister Mrs Cooper, Letitia Caroline Rogers & Mary Amelia Rogers’. Also she had some books ' 2 Volumes of the Life of Cobden'. Of course, these would have belonged to her father. In her letter she describes him as ' a very quiet reserved man and seldom spoke of his relations' but that 'he often mentioned his sister Emma Millicent (Mrs Cooper)'. She then asks if there were any others in the family. It seems strange she did not know about Frederick who came to Australia. Perhaps he and George had a falling out.

Letter to grandma

A letter George wrote to his grandmother Mary Ann Rogers in 1872 survives in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It shows his affection for her and his uncle Frank Rogers, and that he also kept in contact with his sister. Again, there is no mention of his brother Frederick.

'Milang October 7th 1872

My very dear Grandmother

It is now so long since I wrote you last I suppose you will think I have quite forgotten you but such is not the case. I often think of you and wish I could see you again - I heard from Emma last mail she told me that you were well - I was sorry to hear that her husband is not so well off as formerly when I left in Birkenhead. He seemed to be doing well but we must all expect some ups and downs in this world and God knows I have had my share since I have been living in South Australia............ 

When you get this it will be the beginning of Winter, with us the commencement of Summer. Another month and the Farmers will be busy haymaking The Sheep farmers are now busy shearing and the steamers are coming down the Murray with wool piled nearly as high as the funnel. Some of the stations are very large carrying from 20,000 to 200,000 sheep and extending over miles and miles of country……..

My wife and youngsters are all well. I now muster 6 fine Boys and 2 Girls. The oldest our Emma is 9 years old is at School and promises to be a very clever girl

And now dear Grandmother I must close this letter as the English Mail closes in 2 hours time and I have a long distance to go. Whether I shall ever see you again in this world or not I don't know but I hope I shall so with love to Uncle Frank 

Believe me, your affectionate Grandson

G V Rogers'

Page one of the letter George wrote from Milang in 1872 to his grandmother in West Meon, Hampshire UK. Source: The Family Papers of J.E.T. Rogers                                                                                                                          

He mentions he has had his share of 'ups and downs' but unfortunately he was in for more 'downs’.


Only a couple of months before George wrote this letter, he had applied to buy land in Milang. If he did eventually own this land then by 1879 he would have lost it as he was declared bankrupt in June and July that year. But it was only a couple of years later that George was a trustee for another debtor so he must have got back on his feet quickly and re-established a good reputation.

Charged with assault

In November 1859 George was charged with assault by Ferdinand Kruse, a competing boatman in Milang. Kruse didn't bother turning up to the court, so the case was dismissed and Kruse ordered to pay costs. So that was at least one win for George. 

But many years later a terrible incident occurred that must have been very stressful and disturbing for George and Rebecca.

A shocking act of vandalism

The Southern Argus of April 20th 1882 sadly reported:

'Great indignation is felt by the inhabitants of Milang at a dastardly act which was perpetrated between Sunday night and Monday morning, of last week, in the cemetery. A marble tombstone erected by Mr. G V Rogers over the graves of three of his children was dug up and pushed face downwards on the graves. The villain probably being frightened and disturbed, left his abominable work unfinished for the time, but the friends going again to the graves next morning, found the stone smashed to pieces. Up to the present time the police have not been successful in securing the offender, but it is to be hoped that e’re long he will be caught and severely punished.'

Eventually Thomas Crispin was arrested and charged with destroying a monument. The case was heard in the Supreme Court in Adelaide where Crispin pleaded 'not guilty'. Witnesses were called, one saying Crispin was heard making threats against George whom he accused of taking his wood and water. The Evening Journal of June 9th also reported Crispin was also heard to say ' that he would lay in wait for George Rogers and put a bullet through him, and that he would be  "upsides" with him.' The paper also reported that another witness 'saw the prisoner enter the cemetery with a spade and go round a corner. Evidence was given as to the mutilation of the monument.' However although the judge believed the evidence was strong, he said there was not enough to convict, so Crispin was acquitted.

This must have been a most distressing time for George and Rebecca who may not have been able to afford to replace the monument. Very fortunately and kindly the local stonemason Mr. H. Fraser, generously donated a replacement of the original marble headstone. I wonder if that was actually installed as the one we see today in the Milang cemetery has also been broken at some point, but thanks to Denise Quinn of Milang, a volunteer who looks after the cemetery, the stone has been patched up and re-erected. 

Partly repaired headstone of John Blyth Rogers, buried 1/6/1866 age 24 hrs; Mary Ann Rogers, buried 7/3/1873 age 10 hrs; Fanny Sale Rogers buried 22/12/1877 age 1 yr 10 mths; and probably the grave of their mother Rebecca Jane Rogers (nee Fox) buried 26/7/1886 age 42; and her son Charles Rogers buried 20/12/1880 age 9 years. Milang Cemetery, South Australia. Photo: Euan McGillivray 2017                                                                             

The ferry warp incident

1882 was not a good year for George and Rebecca. Early that year an incident on the Murray river at Wellington occurred when George's boat broke the ferry warp (the wire that draws the ferry crossing the river). George had to appear before the Adelaide Road Board to explain his part in the incident which he claimed was unavoidable. The ferryman however said George could have steered his boat away from the wire as it was clearly visible in the river. The Board agreed with the ferryman and George was to pay the costs of repairing the wire. On March 18th 1882 the South Australian Weekly Chronicle reported that George had asked the Board for leniency as he had a large family to support. Whether or not he still had to pay I don't know.

Rebecca’s death

Rebecca died of tuberculosis and tubercular disease of the intestines at the age of 42 on July 20th 1886 in Milang. She was buried on the 27th July in the Milang cemetery probably in the same grave as her children. George's eldest, Emma was 23 but his youngest two, Lucy and Francis, were 8 and 12 respectively. It's possible that Emma, and Ida who was about 19, took responsibility for looking after their younger siblings as George would have been away a lot. George jnr. was 21 and already working away from home.

River cargo

George certainly had his share of tragedy and challenges, but his life was also full of productive work and social engagement. The 1860s and 70s were the boom years for Milang. Records from the 1860s onwards show he was busy mainly transporting produce such as bags of wheat and bales of wool between Milang, Goolwa and Wellington. Sometimes the cargo included items such as the frame of a house, empty casks, other foodstuffs or just ‘sundries’ and mail (the Milang was sometimes described as a mail steamer). Sometimes he also delivered medical and other supplies to ‘Raukkan’, the Point McLeay Aboriginal Mission on Lake Alexandrina. Vessels such as his were vital in maintaining all kinds of communications between the ports of Goolwa, Milang, Wellington, Meningie and as far as Salt Creek along the Coorong.


Wool wagons at Milang c1876 in front of the wool stores. Source: State Library South Australia                                                 

Milang jetty in 1880. Source: State Library South Australia                                                                                                           

Tourism on the lakes

In 1887 when the rail connection between Adelaide and Melbourne was opened, the decline of Milang and Goolwa as major ports was imminent. They were superseded by the town of Murray Bridge, upriver past Wellington, ideally located with its rail and river interchange. A branch rail line to Milang added pressure to the river trade. Milang also lost its mail subsidy and this had a detrimental effect on town and port business. One course of action to maintain the town was to encourage tourism and George's boat Milang was redirected into this enterprise.

In 1889 the Mount Barker Courier and Onkaparinga and Gumeracha Advertiser reported that 'an old Lakes skipper, Mr George Rogers and with him as engineer Mr. James McLellan, both of whom are favourably known to Lakes' residents - left the Milang pier about 1 o'clock in the afternoon, and the excursionists had an extremely pleasant passage'. George took tourists twice a week in the Milang from Milang to Meningie. On one such trip in 1896 to the Lake Albert races, George was admired for navigating the difficult and narrow passage between Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert at Point McLeay where he had to work smartly the avoid the mud banks which had in recent times become a real problem. The same difficulty was encountered in 1900 but without success:


                  Southern Argus January 18th1900

I imagine the passengers were not too happy about being stranded overnight. It is worth noting that George was 68 years old at the time, and the rescue is testimony to his physical fitness.

The Milang Regattas

From around 1877 until at least 1903, George was involved with the running of the Milang Regattas. His usual role was of handicapper as well as a committee member. One news report in 1902 noting 'Capt. G. V. Rogers again demonstrated his abilities as handicapper, his judgment proving excellent.' (Southern Argus January 2nd 1902) The regattas were a colourful affair and usually attended by hundreds of visitors even in bad weather. Apart from sailing races of all classes of boat, the regatta included such events as the greasy pole struggle, donkey race, tug o' war, duck hunt, plank race and comic song. Racism was clearly evident with a 'natives poling race' on the program (one newspaper noting that 'five darkies competed'). In the Regatta of 1877 George won second place in the 'Traders' race' sailing the Souter Johnny.

Royal Commission into the River Murray

The condition of the Murray River was of concern even back then. There was a Royal Commission into the River Murray following the Federation Drought (1895-1903). George as one of the river users gave evidence as to the river's health. The increased salinity of the river was of concern. After stating his occupation and years of experience George gave testimony that 'Saltiness increased in late years. Four or five years ago Lake water used for drinking - now it's not.' The impact of farming upstream in Victoria and New South Wales extracting large amounts for irrigation during this drought had impinged on the downstream farmers and towns around the Murray mouth and also on the Aboriginal Mission at Pt. McLeay. At that time the authorities' concern was only for preserving water for irrigation and navigation. The Royal Commission resulted in agreements made between the states for water extraction and storage - environmental flows were not considered an issue. (how little has changed.**) 


Main street of MIlang c1912. Source: State Library South Australia                                                                                            

Final days in Swan Hill

By 1908 George had retired from the river trade, and was living in northern Victoria with his daughter Ida who was now married to Charles Amiet, a grazier of Tyntynder South near Swan Hill. George's youngest daughter Lucy also lived with them. In 1933 Ida's daughter Eugenie wrote to their English relations about her grandfather: 

'Grandpa never tired of telling us of his schooldays and the pranks he played. On one arm he had the name George Vining tattooed in Indian ink, for which he was punished ......... Grandpa was of a very retiring disposition and made a few good friends, a trait which we all inherit. He passed away at the age of 78, active and alert right up to the last.'

George's death certificate states he died on 29th November 1910 at Tyntynder South, Swan Hill Victoria. The informant was his son-in-law Charles Amiet, farmer of Swan Hill. He states George had been in South Australia 57 years and in Victoria two years and that his occupation was a 'publican'. I have not been able to verify this occupation, but it seems curious that he would be engaged in this in his last years. Cause of death was senility and sudden heart failure. He was 79 years of age and is buried in the Anglican section of the Swan Hill cemetery.


The Milang on Lake Albert c1895. Source: State Library South Australia                                                                                   

Ann Hurley



*spelt Rebecka on her baptism registration

**'It was during the Federation Drought, when in 1902 flows to the sea fell from an annual average of 14 000 GL to just 1740 GL, that the jurisdictions co-operated and established an Inter-State Royal Commission on the River Murray to enquire into the conservation and distribution of the waters of the Basin amongst New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia for the purposes of irrigation and navigation, together with any necessary works and measures for doing so.' - Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission report Bret Walker SC 2019.

Click here to continue to George Vining Rogers and Fanny Caroline Mulcahy’s story