Vale Rob Bowring

SAD FAREWELL TO A RIVER ICON

VALE Rob Bowring OAM – A passionate volunteer dedicated to the preservation and promotion of our National and Regional Maritime Heritage.

1947 – 2021

Rob Bowring OAM devoted a major part of his life to community service incorporating his great love of old boats, history, the Murray River, sport and most of all, helping others.

Boats were in Rob’s blood from an early age through the influence of his great grandfather William Bowring of Mildura/Wentworth, the original owner of the Marion in 1889 who later converted her into a hawking vessel creating a floating department store on the River. 

The Marion was used to hawk stores and carry supplies along the River Darling from Wentworth to Willcannia and was well known in the lower Murray reaches as far as Goolwa stretching through to the upper Murray in Mildura.

Later, towards the end of the paddle boat river highway era, became the Bowring retail outlets in Wentworth and Mildura with the Bowring name still on the buildings there today.

One hundred years later, great grandson Rob took on his life long association with the paddle steamer Marion in 1989 when the vessel was sold to the Mid Murray Council by the National Trust.  Rob was appointed as Works Manager to oversee the restoration of the vessel.

Rob managed over 43,000 volunteer hours over a 3 year period to bring the Marion back to life whilst operating a farming property on the outskirts of Mannum and assisting wife Mon in their retail giftware business – Ballhannah by Design.  His dedication to the Marion restoration was overwhelming with visiting the project on a daily basis to Mon’s dismay.  He used to do his work on the farm, then secretly and quietly drive out the drive, be gone for hours on the Marion, came home at night and work in the office to the late hours to get ahead.

The Marion was refloated in 1992, re-commissioned in 1994 and Rob became Chair of the Mannum Dock. Thousands of people congregated for the re-commissioning at Mary Ann Reserve in Mannum for this auspicious occasion.  The PS Marion was then declared to be the only woodfired, overnight passenger carrying, original boiler paddle steamer in the world.

The majority of what you see at the Mannum Dock Museum was developed by Rob, who was the driving force of many major projects with the support of the volunteers he always attracted to willingly join his ongoing quests.

Mannum is known as the birthplace of the paddle steamer with the first ever paddle steamer being built by Captain William Randell, the Mary Ann in 1853.   For many years, the original boiler was on display at Mary Ann Reserve.   Rob had the boiler moved to the new look Mannum Dock Museum where it could be preserved for future years and in the surroundings suitable for an artefact of such national significance.

River Captain Trevor Bedford recently posted an amazing quote, “Rob Bowring will now stand beside Captain William Randell and Captain JG Arnold as a great man who shaped the township of Mannum”.

Rob has been integral in the development of the Museum and Visitor Centre and has taken it on an upward trajectory for over 30 years and ensured the Museum and its heritage fleet were places of living history and national importance with many world firsts in the Museum’s backyard.  The Mannum Dock Museum is now known as one of the best regional maritime Museums in Australia.

The Late John Norris and Rob spent hours and hours at the Mortlock Library in Adelaide searching for information on the Marion.   They brought back the Clayton Shuttleworth to Mannum which was the original engine from the PS Murrumbidgee at the Birdwood Mill Motor Museum to showcase the oldest paddle steamer in Australia previously destroyed.  Yet another project the staff and volunteers at the Mannum Dock Museum are pursuing for Rob to keep his legacy moving forward in the Museum’s new development which is just around the corner, all thanks to Rob.

One of Rob’s dreams was to take the Marion back to Mildura for the first time in 50 years.  He found out the PS Melbourne was turning 100 so in 2012 a trip to Mildura was scheduled and a committee formed to co-ordinate the celebration.  Owners of the Melbourne, the Pointon family thought they would just have a few school groups in attendance to celebrate, but Rob had other ideas.    

Grants were sourced, a national PR campaign conducted by the Mannum Dock Museum, a flotilla formed travelling from Wentworth including the now, oldest paddle steamer in Australia, the PS Adelaide from Echuca and boats arrived from as far as Goolwa with the PS Oscar W and the PS Industry from Renmark.

It was the largest event Mildura had seen in years with 15,000 people lining the Mildura riverfront to capture a look at one of the most amazing sights of the 40 boats in flotilla formation.

But where was Rob, no not in the wheelhouse of the Marion where he should have been as the Marion came into Mildura, but assisting to sell cruise tickets, which mind you sold out and could have sold out many times over.

In 2014, Chowilla Station near Renmark was turning 150 and as new destinations are always being investigated for the long cruises on the Marion, an overnight cruise was scheduled with a Shearing Shed BBQ with the passengers. 

Rob then decided he would get other boats involved even though Chowilla owners, James and Kerrie Robertson thought that they would quietly celebrate their 150th but once again, Rob had different ideas.

A quiet BBQ turned into a 300-person formal dinner in their heritage shearing shed on the Saturday, 50 plus boats turned up from as far as Mildura and Goolwa culminating in 8000 visitors attending the Sunday celebrations. Another huge success and milestone event in our State’s maritime history due to Rob’s ongoing vision.

The long-lasting relationships and connections forged by Rob through through these events is testimony to him as still to this day, the staff at the Mannum Dock Museum continue to work with Kerry and James from Chowilla and the Pointon Family from Mildura.

Rob cemented the Marion’s association with Rockford Wines over 22 years ago and has been an envied partnership for many years.  The Rockford Steam Powered Weekends continue today and are booked two years in advance, the envy of other heritage boating organisations across the Nation.

The PS Ruby, Marion’s sister ship was having a birthday in 2016 and Rob had the Marion on the move again for these celebrations, it was the first time these vessels would have been together in over 80 years so another sold out trip up the river for Marion and Rob was on the crew as Mate.

Marion hit a sand bar near Waikerie as water levels were low, a phone call was made by Rob to one of his many contacts and more water was let through to ensure the Marion kept on cruising.   His determination, but more importantly his widespread maritime contacts to get the job done was outstanding.

Rob was a walking encyclopedia, his knowledge of maritime history and of course the Mannum Dock Museum’s history was amazing.  He recently finished another maritime bucket list documenting the life and times of the Marion which he collaborated with long-time friend and Marion volunteer Frank Tucker from Mildura.

The All Steamed Up interactive display on the mezzanine floor of the Museum was another of Rob’s projects where he rallied a network of volunteers from both within and out including his close friend Roger Baker, to provide a fun space for kids and big kids to become a River boat Captain for the day.  This unique maritime display would definitely be one of a kind in Australia and is one of the major attractions at the Mannum Dock Museum.

Rob said he would never restore another boat but the opportunity to purchase the PW Mayflower came about in 2014 through a generous donation from Pam O’Donnell and Robert O’Callaghan.  The Mayflower was brought back to her 1913 era.  With the Mayflower, the Mannum Dock Museum now had a heritage fleet thanks to Rob and his volunteers and a cruising vessel where you just turned on the engine instead of stoking the boiler.  Weekly heritage cruises are now on offer at the Mannum Dock Museum expanding Mannum’s cruise offerings with the township fast becoming the Echuca of South Australia.  

One of Rob’s colleagues Dr Ian McLeod formerly of the Western Australian Maritime Museum recently said, “Rob was one of those extraordinary people who had the power to convince others that they should join him on his mission and so, even though I never met Richard the Lionheart, for obvious reasons, I can imagine that the two of them had much in common.  Brave, honest, reliable and dependable and altogether great human beings.”

He had many sayings, “No hurry on the Murray” and “Every volunteer is a good volunteer”.   He protected and admired each and every volunteer and I am sure he was the envy of many organisations with over 150 volunteers on average supporting the Mannum Dock Museum during his 30 year career.   He never wanted his name in lights, never wanted reimbursement for his many contributions, shipwrights were paid out of his pocket during restorations when no money could be found and if there was a piece of wood required or something special for a project, Rob always seemed to find it in his treasure trove on the farm.

Rob was involved in many committees and organisations:

1976 – 2012
Mannum Golf Club, Member (held positions of Secretary and was event organizer for the ‘Fisherama’ event for many years raising monies for the Club

1995 – 2021
Council of the Inland Rivers Association – Member and Chairperson

2000 – 2015
Member of the Lions Club of Mannum, South Australia

2002 – 2003
Chairman, Mannum Primary School and High School Amalgamation Review now known as the Mannum Community College

2008 – 2018
Australian Maritime Museums Council – Committee Member

2014 was a big year, Chowilla, Mayflower restoration and through Rob’s vision yet another event was created for Mannum with biennial All Steamed Up event celebrating steam, engines, blacksmiths and boats with the last event in 2018 attracting over 10,000 people to Mannum.

In 1994 Rob was awarded the Citizen of the Year by the Mid Murray Council and in 2015, Rob was truly recognised for his contribution to Heritage Vessels across Australia and the community with the Order of Australia Medal.  

Rob’s mind never stopped working for the sustainability of heritage vessels and in 2017 he was successful in gaining an exemption under a Federal Act through the Australian Maritime Safety Authority to train our own up and coming Captains and the Heritage Vessel Inland Waters Master ticket was created.  To Rob’s delight, the Mannum Dock Museum now have 3 new Captains to join our roster from the programme. This was a major coup for South Australia’s heritage vessels and their continued cruising future.

Rob has been instrumental in raising close to $3 million in grant money to assist the Mannum Dock Museum/Marion and Mayflower and of course let’s not forget the many fundraisers he did to restore the Marion with no financial assistance from the Mid Murray Council, a feat that should not be forgotten.

The volunteer network he has developed here contributes an average of $500,000 worth of commercial value a year in donated time to the Museum and the Mannum community so doing the sums, let’s say over the past 30 years Rob Bowring has brought close to $15 million dollars to promote and preserve maritime history and heritage vessels.

Over the past 12 months, people were asking ‘Who is going to take over when Rob retires’.  No-one will ever be able to take over from Rob Bowring but together the volunteers and staff of the Mannum Dock Museum will attempt to continue his legacy into the future for everyone to enjoy.  His passion and heartfelt tenacity for the betterment, preservation and promotion of river history and inland waters’ heritage vessels was infectious and empowered everyone around him.

Any Board would have welcomed Rob with open arms as he was unique, certainly not the typical figurehead Chairman, but a visionary, whose energy, dedication and devotion to the Mannum Dock Museum and our Nation and States’ heritage fleets did not diminish even in the last weeks of his life.

Rob’s life was cut short on 27th February through a long battle with Bowel Cancer and in honour

of his last river trip on his recently purchased paddle boat the Miralie and to honour a unique, humble, selfless and great River man who was continually striving to bring economic development to our Council region through maritime heritage and tourism the following poem was written and recited at his funeral:

Mildura to Mannum Meander

By Deb Alexander OAM

The River tom toms are pounding
Have you heard a river celebration is set
No, it’s just the Mildura to Mannum meander, no reason to gather a crowd

I’ve heard the Adelaide is firing up 
And Echuca’s Pevensey and Etona are on their way, 
No, it’s just the Mildura to Mannum meander, no reason to gather a crowd
It can’t be, the Melbourne is on the move and the Rothbury has already left
The Ruby has departed the junction, and now they are nearing Lock 6 with the rest and their best
No, it’s just the Mildura to Mannum meander, no reason to gather a crowd

Can’t be something big as no water to get them down
I heard someone made a phone call and the water is on the bound
am sorry it must be something big as there are now 80 boats in Chowilla town
No, it’s just the Mildura to Mannum meander, no reason to gather a crowd

Natty has the Industry ready and the Oscar has just crossed the Lake
Something is happening, as the boats are creating a long-lasting wake
No, it’s just the Mildura to Mannum meander, no reason to gather a crowd

There are putt putts, classics and cruisers and the Canally has joined up, you have got it wrong 
People are saying don’t miss a mystery flotilla of 200 boats moving and everyone should join this frong
No, it’s just the Mildura to Mannum Meander no reason to gather a crowd

Robert O’Callaghan is in the Barooga and Clive Sterling has shined up Qui-e-ti-tude so it will be the place to be
It’s supposed to be the biggest boating congregation on the river and a once in a lifetime spectacle to see
No, it’s just the Mildura to Mannum meander, no reason to gather a crowd

Sorry I cannot agree, the tom toms are saying 400 boats on their way and I can hear paddle wheelers moving.
Well if you can see them coming, listen quietly as the whistles will soon sing
Do you know who is in the lead, is it E J on the Oscar or Marion’s Trevor B
No, it’s the Miralie leading the pack but the Captain I cannot see

It’s Rob Bowring and just the Mildura to Mannum meander and he is our River King!

Our sincere condolences, and thoughts, are for Rob’s family and for all of you that worked with him and knew him.

Although Rob is irreplaceable and we will all miss him terribly, the staff and volunteers at the Mannum Dock Museum/Visitor Information Centre, PS Marion and PW Mayflower will carry on Rob’s amazing legacy for the years to come!


William Robert Bowring was born in Mildura in 1947. The eldest son of Beryl Annetta Hill an avid golfer and bridge player and William Bruce Bowring a returned Captain who had stoically survived 3 years in Changi during WW1. Returning home in 1945 Bruce joined the family retailing business William Bowring & Co, the general merchant store in Mildura established by his Grandfather and Dad’s Great Grandfather William Bowring.

William Bowring had been an early river pioneer owning many vessels during his lifetime, some 7 paddle steamers and multiple barges such as the Satellite, Paika and Undaunted that worked the river trading posts along the Murray and the Darling. The merchant store established by him opened in Wentworth in 1860 and later expanded to Mildura. William owned the PS Marion as a hawking steamer as part of his fleet in 1900, built a superstructure for trading and imported the steam engine which still operates Marion today. I was named after the Emily Jane another of William Bowring’s steamers that was burnt to the waterline on Christmas day 1899, just prior to him purchasing Marion.

To say Dad was very proud of his family ties to the river and its history is an understatement.

Dads parents were strongly committed to Mildura and he had an active childhood on the river with his older sister Barbara and younger brother Brian who he spent a great deal of time looking after. Dad was 9 years older than Brian and he lived an independent childhood with his little brother tagging along. The boys spent time trapping rabbits on Lock Island and fishing on sandbanks, living a country outdoor life and growing up amongst the river community of Mildura.

I remember my Dad as a practical person, a doing person. I saw him use his golden hands to make anything he wanted to around the farm and in his boats. I witnessed him patiently think through problems and use logic to find the solution, whether that be a broken piece of equipment or a larger decision about the direction his life would take. He quietly influenced those he spent time with and loved. Always there with a short phrase of not a problem when Mum, Tim and I needed help. He generously shifted me to so many houses and workshops at the drop of a hat. Danced with me every time I asked him to and listened to me sing. He planted a love of the river in me and showed me how special it is to be a part of a small community and to be in service. He pursued his passions with single vision, endlessly volunteering for the cause. It’s very comforting to see faces here today that I have seen my entire life and to hear so many people hold Dad in high esteem. It has been my privilege to care for him these last few weeks, and I have never felt closer to my Dad.

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