LIFE IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA
FROM ADELAIDE TO THE SOUTH EAST OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA
Reproducing a biography by Eileen Kaye first published in The Australasian Newspaper in serial form in 1933.
This series of articles was recovered from The Australasian newspaper by Travis M. Sellers.
Edited by John W. Adams, with permission kindly given by The State Library of Victoria.
It was the middle of November when the ship reached her destination. The little group of newcomers gazed for the first time through a summer haze at the sandy beach, the tea-tree scrub, the eucalyptus forests, and dusty roads of Australia. No railway connected as yet the city of Adelaide with the Port, 17 miles distant. So horse conveyances were secured, and at the end of a long day the travellers found themselves in the capital of the colony.
A DESCRIPTION OF ADELAIDE IN 1853
Adelaide in 1853 was a pleasant enough goal to reach. Like all the cities springing up in those early days on the fair virgin continent, it was fresh and vigorous, and ready with adventures for the adventurous. Recently there had been a period of depression, made more acute by the startling discoveries of gold in adjacent Victoria, which, for a short time, had drained away most of the man power of South Australia. Now this was mending itself, many of the prospectors were returning home with bags of gold, and things were decidedly looking up. Adelaide presented an ambitious front to the world. Here was a town carefully and far-sightedly planned. Its ambitious founders had no intention of letting their protégée grow up like her sister city, Sydney, a medley of narrow streets and straggling suburbs. Adelaide’s destiny was to become a garden city, with broad avenues and stately offices and ample public reserves. In the very early days these bare parks, these wide, unpaved, unlit streets and pretentious sites had seemed almost ludicrous to the handful of pioneers who half apologetically inhabited them- they seemed to make optimistic provision for a development that was never likely to take place. But the foresight of the founders was justified, and by the fifties the city was filling up nicely, and, more important, was well backed by a good rural development. This is how a visitor from England describes the colony about this time:
“At a distance of 30 miles the haze of a large city indicates the site of Adelaide (which had then achieved a population of 18,000). Everywhere else the dappled sides of gentle hills, the enclosures over miles of plain, the hedged gardens, the well-grown orchards and well-appointed homesteads, proclaim the possession of the land by an industrious and thrifty yeomanry- it is England in miniature, England without its poverty, without its monstrous anomalies of individual wealth and extravagances; with a finer climate, a virgin soil, a freedom from antiquated abuses, and a happier people.”
The Colony of South Australia had had a curious history. It was then only 17 years since the first shiploads of emigrants were set down on the empty sands of Kangaroo Island to start a settlement based on a new and idealistic and theoretically infallible plan. Much interest was taken in England after the Napoleonic wars in systematic colonisation. The British public set conscientiously about its self- appointed task of “Calling a New World into Being to Redress the Balance of the Old.” Moreover, emigration was held to be the best remedy for social unrest and unemployment and that horrid apparition, the Superfluous Woman.
Australia seemed the natural field for working out these schemes. New South Wales was already well established, but having started as a convict colony it was not to everyone’s taste. A colonisation plan had been evolved by Thomas Peel, and tried out on the Swan River in Western Australia, which, unfortunately, had ended ignominiously. Now the opportunity brought forward its man, and Edward Gibbon Wakefield arose. In “A Letter from Sydney” (which incidentally emanated from Fleet street) he propounded his admirable idea. This advocated selling the land of any new colony, not very cheaply as in previous schemes, but always at a “sufficient price,” with which labourers proportionate to the needs of the land could be brought out. Thus a perfect balance would be kept between the land under cultivation and the men needed to work it.
This plan found popular support, and in 1830 a colonisation society was established to acquire the lands in Southern Australia, recently discovered by Captain Sturt. Three years later a strong South Australia association was formed, under the patronage of the Duke of Wellington, George Grote, the historian, and the enthusiastic band of “experimental philosophers”- Robert Gouger, George Fife Angas, Richard Hanson, Robert Torrens. Next year an Act of Parliament established the Colony of South Australia, with a Governor and a body of commissioners. No convicts were ever to be sent out, and no land was to be sold for less than 12/- an acre. But- and here was a big but- there was to be no Government support. Angas once more came to the rescue, and formed a company with a working capital of £200,000, with himself as chairman.
In 1836 the first colonists left for their new home, with Captain Hindmarsh, R.N., as Governor. At first all went well. The country was excellent, settlement proceeded smoothly, and the English emigrants were reinforced by hundreds of German Lutherans, who came out to avoid persecution at home. But at the end of five years the colony was in sorry plight. It was only just to the “experimental philosophers,” who were the real founders of South Australia, to remark that their scheme was never given a really fair trial, as the Colonial Office was strongly opposed to any expansion at all in Australia, fearing further expense to the Home Government. The beautiful plan had allowed for everything except the frailty of human nature. The first-comers had naturally chosen the best blocks of land. Later arrivals preferred to buy these at a higher rate than go further out, and so a gamble in land values set in, the land changing hands rapidly at increasing prices on paper, but being put to no use. Meanwhile labourers continued to arrive, and there was nothing for them to do. Governor Gawler, Hindmarsh’s successor, started relief works, and paid in Government IOU’s. When these came in to the Exchequer in London there was quite a sensation- the Colonial Office’s worst fears were realised. They sternly refused to honour the bills, and Gawler was hastily replaced by Captain George Grey, who landed from a warship into an astounded Adelaide in 1841. A resolute and capable man. He “stopped the leak,” and in a couple of years set the young colony on its financial feet again. Things ran smoothly till the early fifties. When the phenomenal and demoralising discoveries of gold in Victoria drew like a magnet all the men in the Continent. Trade was at a standstill in Adelaide; it seemed as though another crisis faced the colony. But it pulled round somehow, and by the end of the decade the population had nearly doubled itself. The country districts were going ahead well. Land was sold mostly in 80-acre blocks, to encourage the formation of a yeoman-farmer class.
It was into this queer, half-formed colony that young Gordon landed in 1853. The goldfields had drawn their usual mixed crowd- broken-down gentlemen, adventurers of every kind, younger sons, university graduates, working men, seamen of all nations, ex-convicts, “ticket-of-leave-men” from New South Wales and Tasmania, Chinese- all united in a feverish desire to get rich quick. Many of them, failing to find gold, returned to their own countries; but many wandered into other occupations and settled down into sturdy pioneers and settlers.
The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1931 – 1954), Saturday 21 October 1933, page 22
Gordon lived with the late Mr. E. Ashwin in a house in O’Connell street, North Adelaide, where also resided Mr. Ashwin’s brother, the late Mr. C. F. G. Ashwin. Miss Ashwin, of Walkerville, a daughter of Mr. C. F. G. Ashwin, has in her possession letters which her father received from Gordon and his father.
Major A. D.Gordon,of Cheltenham, England. extracts from these throw further light on the early life of the poet.
Writing to Mr. Ashwin, Major Gordon said—”I cannot delay myself the pleasure of sending the thanks of Mrs. Gordon and myself for your very great kindness to our son, Lindsay, on his arrival among you. He tells us how kind you and your brother were, and how pleasant you made his first acquaintance with your Dominion.
Your kindness could hardly have been better bestowed, for be is one of the most careless and helpless of God’s created, but, I hope, neither devoid of intelligence and high spirit, and should occasion require will prove a gallant defender of your prosperous community.