Adelaide Hills - Towns, People, and Things We Ought to Know

Source:  SA History Newspaper Articles

The reader is advised that these "Chronicle" articles were first published in 1932-1937 primarily as light reading / entertainment and cannot in any way be considered to be scholarly. You are advised to independently check the veracity of the content, as no sources have been cited.

Members of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are advised that this text may contain names and images of deceased people.  Readers should also be aware that certain words, terms or descriptions may be culturally insensitive and would almost certainly be considered inappropriate today, but may have reflected the author’s/creator’s attitude or that of the period in which they were written.

#40  - Mount Barker (part 1 of 2)

#41  -  Mount Barker (part 2 of 2)

#57  -  Meadows (part 1 of 2)

#58  -  Meadows (part 2 of 2)

#59  -  Echunga (part 1 of 2)

#60  -  Echunga (part 2 of 2)

#61  -  Aldgate, Stirling, Crafers and Mt Lofty

#62  -  Aldgate, Stirling, Mylor, Scotts Creek

#63  -  Hahndorf  (Ambleside)

#64  -  Balhannah

#65  -  Woodside

#66  -  Lobethal (Tweedvale)

Towns, People, and Things We Ought To Know  -   No 64 Balhannah

By Our Special Representative, No. LXIV  -  Extract From Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 - 1954) dated 28 September 1933

Balhannah And Its Pathetic Story Of James Turnbull Thomson

One of the most human stories in connection with the pioneering of South Australian towns is that of Balhannah, which dates from 1839.  It is the romance of a young man who arrived in South Australia full of hope and energy, and finished his career in circumstances, which — well, you had better form your own conclusions.  

The story of Balhannah is chiefly the story of a human life — the tale of James Turnbull Thomson. 

I have read many a high-priced biography which held nothing of the interest of the plain narrative of this old pioneer, who appears to have had such splendid opportunities for succeeding, but lacked the temperament to take advantage of them.  The story of Thomson's life is more like a fascinating romance than a record of the everyday events of an ordinary man's existence. 

But was Thomson an ordinary man?  You must supply your own answer to that question.  To my mind he was not.  He was a misanthrope.  He was a woman-hater.  He quarrelled and made enemies where he could have made friends.  And yet, apparently, he was a good fellow at heart.  At all events he was one of those absorbingly interesting characters that psychologists love to study.  And, when he died, his death was in keeping with his stormy life.  No stone marks his grave.  It is forgotten and uncared for.  But you must form your own judgment as the story progresses. 

Beginning Of Balhannah

In the "Register" of December 21, 1839, appeared an advertisement which was virtually the birth notice of Balhannah.  It was headed "New Township Near Mount Barker," and called the attention "of newly arrived emigrants, and the public of South Australia generally," to the excellencies of section 4208, on which it was proposed to establish a new township.  Now, if you look at a survey map you will find that section 4208 is the town of Balhannah. 

But the advertisement left no doubt on the matter.  It proceeded to state that it was part of Mr. Dutton's splendid survey, recently appropriated, which is now being laid out after having been carefully selected for a township called Balhanna. 

After describing minutely its location in the valley of the Onkaparinga, the notice says, "the soil is exceptional, and the black wood and magnificent gum trees it bears are only sufficient to adorn landscape . . .  There is close at hand an abundance of stringy bark," and the town will offer "openings for industrious laborers, mechanics, farm servants, &c., seldom to be met with, while for country residences and gardens the abundant water and strong soil combine to form it it an eligible retirement at a moderate distance from the city." 

So you see, even in 1839, when the city itself had scarcely emerged from the tent stage, and its streets were still filled with stumps it was intended to grub out when there were sufficient funds, people were already turning their eyes to the hills as sites for country homes. 

James Turnbull Thomson 

Now I want to introduce you to rather an interesting early day character — James Turnbull Thomson.  He was the man who laid out and named Balhannah.  I didn't know anything about James Turnbull.  Neither, apparently, did anyone else.  Then I bethought myself of that walking encyclopaedia on South Australian affairs, ancient and modern — Mr. A. T. Saunders. 

So I rang him up.  Did he know anything about James Turnbull Thomson?  Yes of course he did; in fact, he had his diary.  And that is why I am able to tell you the rather pathetic story of the man who founded Balhannah in 1839. 

Thomson was a Dundee man.  He came into this world of stress and strife in 1810.  And he stayed in it until 1876, when, one day, his body was found in the scrub near the North Arm of the Port River.  His career, in between, makes remarkable reading.  Whenever I hear of a man coming from Bonnie Dundee, or Glasgow, or even from Aberdeen, I immediately suspect him of being an actual or potential millionaire.  But James Turnbull Thomson wasn't.  He was one of those unfortunate people with whom every thing seems to go wrong. 

They went wrong with him in Dundee — where he failed in business.  Then, in 1839, he took passage in the good ship "Georgiana" for Australia, and on August 28 of that year he stepped ashore at Holdfast Bay with a big stock of hope in his heart, and a small quantity of cash, which had been given him by his father, in his pocket. 

But things continued to go wrong.  He found house and shop rents in Adelaide "enormously high."  Everybody was talking land.  It was the quick road to fortune.  So J.T.T. decided to expend half his stock of money in building, and to reserve the other half for developing his 80-acre section, No. 4208, which became Balhannah.  In December, 1839, he took up his residence on the block. 

Naming The Village 

I remember that when my old friend, Rodney Cockburn, wrote his articles on South Australian nomenclature, there was a controversy in the papers about how the name was bestowed.  Well, I suppose Thomson's own words for it ought to be good enough.  Here is what he wrote about it in 1839:— 

"I entered (my section) in December, and immediately advertised part of it for a village, calling it after my mother and sister, Hannah."

It is from the ambiguous wording of this entry and the fact that it mentions two people, that confusion has arisen.  After studying the entry in the diary carefully, it seems to me that both women were named Hannah.  There was no Belle.  The name given to the village in the original advertisement is "Balhanna."  "Bal," of course, is Celtic for "village."  So are "Bell" and "Bally," variants of the same word.  This view finds confirmation in an entry in Thomson's diary, dated July 30, 1852, made after Thomson had returned from a journey to see his people in Dundee. He writes:— 

"My Balhannah has wandered also, for the neighborhood for miles is all called Balhannah, and my mother's name and place are forgotten. I shall raise a lasting stone to her memory, on which Hannah Turnbull may be remembered when James Thomson is forgotten by all whom he has helped."

A Dreamer And A Reader 

One does not read very far this early record of the founder of Balhannah without coming to the conclusion that Thomson was not a money-maker.  He was a dreamer and a reader.  The diary is punctuated by references to books.  He tells us periodically what he is reading.  He refers to the reading of others.  He was rather apt to look on the gloomy side of things.  There is a vein of melancholy running through his writing. 

He kept a hotel, but he didn't mean to.  He built the place soon after he started the village, and let it to a tenant.  The tenant cleared out at the end of 12 months, and he had to run the house himself.  Evidently he didn't like it.  The entry on the subject concludes characteristically, "Fortune will smile some day, and take a turn in my favor." 

His despondency continued to grow on him.  An entry made in 1843 laments 

"I cannot now summon the same energy I could at one time.  A sort of oppression hangs over me, and clogs every exertion, and without, I may say, any friend or companion (he was a bachelor) I sometimes lose hope altogether.  To return to Britain would be to return to penury and utter dependence.  I can earn my bread by labor at the worst, but it is not yet come to being another man's servant.

A bitter outlook for a man of 33. 

An Early Settler's Home 

It is to Thomson, too, that one is in debted for a glimpse of the lives of the earliest settlers.  On April 27, 1843, he called on one, Henry Kilner, a young man well connected in England.  Thomson had walked to Mount Barker and back to Balhannah, and was terribly hungry. 

"His habitation is indeed colonial," he writes.  "He had been liv ing with another person until recently, when he built a slate barn which, by the shrinking of the horizontally-laid slabs, is nine inches open above.  There are two openings for doors, with nothing to close them and the gable ends are also open.  A skillion, some six feet by eight feet, leans at the back, but has no door hung upon its opening, and the slates are an inch open.  Several chests form seats and a table, and on a rough stretcher a servant sleeps.  He himself slept there also, but, having straw in the barn, now takes his bed there, along with an old army captain, Faner, who is living with him, and a boy."

"I was hungry, and asked the boy, who was alone at the time, for the damper, which I found along with Lord knows what in an old packing box.  It was of flour roughly crushed in a steel mill, a degree coarser than bran and, having been taken too soon from the ashes, ate very much like cold crowdie.  The books visible were an old and tattered volume of the 'Athenaeum,' a dictionary of arts and sciences, a torn volume of poems in the parlor, the first volume of 'The Town,' and a school geography book lying in the barn.  So much for a youth of good connections, a reasonable education, and a mind far from wanting in cultivation.

Share farming was known even in 1843.  Thomson records having made, in May of that year, a contract with "Samuel Jaschke, a German at Hahndorf," for ploughing some 20 acres of land.  "I find the seed, which will cost me about 6/ an acre, and he ploughs and puts in the crop, having one half of the whole to himself, the straw remaining on the land for dung.

Adelaide Accursed 

Reading between the lines one comes to the conclusion that things were not going too well with Thomson in 1843.  He made several journeys to the city, and waxes extremely bitter about the business people of Adelaide.  For instance, on June 17:— 

"I have been three weeks from home.  Found Adelaide and all that are in it accursed.  Lying, swearing dishonesty, and even common theft are thought little disparaging to men even well in the world, and in society.  A clever, roguish evasion of the laws of God and man excites applause, rather than condemnation.

Or this:— 

"Been to town.  Adelaide Is a very wretched place indeed, and I know not when it may improve.  Not until the world blows astern of me, I suppose.

Probably the weather had affected Thomson's outlook.  He was a moody man, sensitive to external conditions.  The week he spent in Adelaide was a fearfully wet one.  Here is his picture of Adelaide in 1843:—

"The weather has been wet for a week.  Adelaide is in a woeful state of dirt from its want of pavements.  Even Hindley street, which was ballasted with broken stones, is as bad as any part . . . .  The middle of the town is a series of pools of water of various depths, and requiring some pilotage to traverse it without an immersion.

Early Adelaide was a Mecca towards which all sorts of pilgrims came.  Men followed whatever occupations they could to gain a living.  You couldn't pick your job those days.  You either had to take what was offering or starve.  Here is a case in point related by Thomson.  For obvious reasons I have suppressed the name of the doctor. 

"Dr. William — was also a shepherd for the South Australian Company, having come to South Australia like a great many others with more speed in their heels than wit in their heads, and, withal, being a jolly dog, had found it to his great advantage to take 10/ a week and rations for following a flock of sheep, as many a better man has done before him.  He practiced physic at the same time with some success, until he found that the duties of both could not be attended to, and therefore made choice of the profession, and removed himself to live as a lodger with Sandy — , whose hut is more central than the other, the hut being a rude or temporary building where human bipeds dwell until they better their conditions." 

Balhannah Inn 

I told you that Thomson ran his own hotel at Balhannah.  He also established his own brewery.  He built it himself.  He made his own malt from wheat.  The first beer was made on August 18. 1843, "with the help of W. Milln" (?Milne).  He acknowledged also assistance from W. Johnston, presumably the founder of the Oakbank Brewery. 

Thomson was always in hot water over the hotel.  He showed a strong bias against the licensing authorities and the revenue officials.  He either could not or would not pay his license fees.  In 1844 he was fined £10 and costs for carrying on without a license.  This is what he says about it:— 

"I shall have no license; shall sell to none more than a few whom I know well. I shall cheat the revenue if I can, and to all the extent I can." 

By 1844 he was financially involved.  He had been speculating heavily with money borrowed at 20 per cent.  That was the current interest of the day, and how business could stand such a handicap is more than I can tell.  His houses in the city were mostly empty.  Then he lost the Balhannah property.  It was in June, 1844, that he mortgaged some 28 of his 80-acre section to his father.  Later in the same year he gave up practicaly the balance of his property to creditors with £30 cash, to pay a debt of £300 at 20 per cent. 

Sold His Dog For Glass Of Beer 

I think one of the most touching things in Thomson's record is his reference to the sale of his dog for a glass of beer.  He had now fallen on evil times.  He had taken passage to Sydney in the brig "Emma," and it was there that the incident occurred. 

"Yesterday I sold my dog 'Help' for one glass of ale, on condition that it never should be transferred, but, when wearied of, should be destroyed.  Mr. Clark and his wife undertook the condition, and poor 'Help,' after I left the house, wept at the parting, he being in a detached yard.  I would have wept, too, had I not run away, for 'Help' has been my help for nearly nine years."   

There is no doubt that the founder of Balhannah had a bad time in Sydney.  He was hard up.  He mentions having applied to a friend for a fortnight's provisions — which were refused.  Then, presumably he wrote to his father, a clergyman in Scotland, for there is mention of the receipt of a sum of money from home.  This enabled him to return to Scotland, where he was not too cordially received by his relatives.  He left Adelaide for Sydney in 1846, and left Sydney for London in 1848. 

On August 15, 1850, he returned to Adelaide.  In 1852 he applied for a licence for his old hote l— and got it.  He expresses surprise at this — and so do I, after reading his various tirades against the authorities.  His bete noire was Francis Davison, the special magistrate at Mount Barker, and founder of Blakiston, "who for about 11 years has annoyed me because I exposed him."  The nature of the "exposure" is not stated. 

Local Feuds 

At this stage one is struck by the growing moroseness of James Turnbull Thomson.  He is at war with the world — particularly the little world around Balhannah.  Especially is he at enmity with a family named Morris, who had had the audacity to establish a rival pub — the Golden Cross.  He accuses them of smashing 54 panes of glass in his windows.  This trouble, which like many similar things grew with the years, started in 1855.  Thomson had applied to the licensing authorities for a general and storekeeper's licence.  It was refused.  At the same time an application by E. Morris for a licence for the Golden Cross was granted.  There you have the genesis of the bad feeling between the parties.  It was at this stage that Thomson again started brewing.  He declared that his profit on each hogs head of beer was £2 5/. 

I told you he hated women.  One entry in his journal states, "I have never sought women in my youth, nor now at 38."  On one occasion he encountered one of the Morris girls, and raved at her to such a degree that he was fined £1 for abusive language, and bound over to keep the peace. 

But the culminating point of an his misery came in 1857, when, having overstepped the bounds in his war with Morris, he was sent to gaol.  Morris had applied for a renewal of his licence.  Thomson opposed it with all the bitterness of his constantly increasing misanthropy.  He declared that Morris kept a disorderly house.  Morris sued him for slander, and got a verdict for £150.  Thomson was granted a new trial, but ordered to pay the costs.  He couldn't pay them.  His money was done.  So he was sent to gaol for a year. 

The war between Thomson and Morris was the more bitter because the hotels were practically side by side.  Thomson's hotel was a two-story brick building with a gable roof.  It was a place of eight or nine rooms, of which three were upstairs.  Such is the irony of Fate that Thomson's has since been pulled down to make room for additions to the Golden Cross, and the residential portion of that house now covers the site. 

His Sad End 

Indicating the warped point of view which became habitual with Thomson in middle life is this pathetic entry, made in July, 1856: — 

"I am 46 years old.  My hair is scanty, and grows very slow.  My beard has snowy hairs, mixed with red, whlch the comb draws out.  Once it was over my breast; now it barely covers the collarbone." 

The founder of Balhannah was a broken man when he came out of prison.  Though he still had 19 years of life left to him they were full of misery and gloom.  He had no heart to continue the journal, and there is no further entry until 1863, when he opens it to record that he is going blind. 

Then one day, August 26, 1876, some men exploring the thick scrub which grew in the vicinity of the North Arm at Port Adelaide, came across a body.  It was that of James Turnbull Thomson.  He had died of exhaustion and exposure.  In his pocket was cash to the value of £39, and a cheque for £5.  You would have thought the authorities would have used this money to bury him decently.  But not a bit of it.  He lies in a pauper's grave in the Woodville Cemetery.  There is no headstone or any other emblem to mark his resting place.  He is just forgotten dust.  Such is the history of the founder of Balhannah. 

I am glad I applied for the information to Mr. Saunders, for I think the tale I have given you, based on the authentic documents of the old pioneer, is one of the most interesting I have handled.  I thank Mr. Saunders for placing the MS. at my disposal. 

Link With Thomson 

At the home of Councillor H. A. Spoehr one morning I talked with Mr. J. C. Grasby and Mesdames J. Johncock and A. Tidemann.  Mrs. Johncock is a living link with Thomson.  She knew him in the days when he strutted about Balhannah as its unthroned king.  In the soldiers' institute there is a portrait in oils of the old man.  Mrs. Johncock says it flatters him, with its well-kept red beard and neatly brushed hair.  Her recollection of the strange old pioneer is of a man of medium height and of boney frame, with unkempt reddish hair, and untidy ginger whiskers which had not known a razor for many years.  He walked with a stoop as he grew older, and had a curious habit of swinging a red handkerchief in his hand.  Legend says that when he first came to South Australia he wore knee breeches, but I would not like to give you that for fact. 

The Three Towns 

What is not generally known about Balhannah is that it is composed of three towns — Balhannah, Gilleston and Blythetown.  Gilleston was named after Osmond Gilles, South Australia's first Treasurer, who owned the section on which it was laid out.  Blythetown is named after an old Scotch settler, James Blythe.  All are now included as Balhannah.  This probably is what Thomson meant by his allusion to his town having wandered. 

There is a mine at Balhannah with rather an interesting history.  Personally I am always sceptical about mines, and the fact that local people are prepared to risk their last shirt on the gold contents of the interior of this one did not impress me unduly.  Mining is like punting — it is usually a "dead cert" which in the end turns out to be deader than you thought.  I don't say that of the Balhannah mine, because I don't know anything about it. 

All I know is that it was found in 1865 by one, James Powell, who was digging a drain along the foot of a hill near Bonney's Hat, when he discovered an outcrop which turned out to contain copper and bismuth.  Those were the days of the copper craze, and the mine was worked for that metal and bismuth.  The fact that it was said to be rich in gold was never taken into account.  But when the blocks of bismuth were taken out of the moulds half an inch of gold was found adhering to the bottom.  I was told that samples of ore sent to London averaged 1,000 ounces to the ton, but it was not explained to me why a mine averaging 1,000 ounces to the ton had to close for want of capital. 

Since those distant days the mine has lain idle.  How with the revival of interest in what might lie in the bowels of the earth almost every person I met in Balhannah asked me what I thought of the prospects of the mine.  Well, I didn't see it, and I didnt see it because I wouldn't have known anything about it if I had.  When yon don't know anything about your subject the wisest plan is to leave it alone.  So I record the existence of this "dorado" — and leave the rest to you. 

Seventy-five years ago there was no coach to Balhannah.  The mails had to be taken in a spring cart to the bottom of what is now Vimy Ridge, where they were picked up by the mail cart from Mount Barker, and taken to the city.  The first postmistress was Mrs. Addison.  The first school was established 70 years ago on land given by Osmond Gilles, and the state school today occupies the same site. I could not ascertain the name of the first teacher, who was succeeded by Augustus Whiter and H. Fenwick — all in the sixties.  The first church was St. Thomas Church of England, a small brick building around which the present church was erected before the original was demolished.  The Rev. Fulford was the first minister in 1848., and was succeeded by the Rev. W. B. (later Canon) Andrews.  The Rev. H. N. Drummond is there now.  The Primitive Methodists followed about 70 years ago.   


  • The approach to Balhannah is along a picturesque road, lined by magnificent gum and pine trees.  Residents claim that the district is the greenest part of the hills. — McKenzie, photo.