Hahndorf was settled by persecuted Lutherans fleeing for their faith from Prussian and East Germany in 1839. Through their hard work, these people made a significant contribution to the progress of the new colony of South Australia which had become a British province in 1836 and later joined the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. Hahndorf was the first Australian town specifically planned for and settled by a group of non-British immigrants. It is Australia's oldest surviving Germanic settlement.
Hahndorf's initial settlement should be considered related to the colony of South Australia's estimated population which was (excluding the aboriginal population) 3,270 in 1837, 6,000 in 1838 and had grown to 10,300 by 1839. As at December 2011, the estimated resident population of South Australia was 1.65 million.
Between March-May 1839, some two hundred people brought all their earthly belongings over the Mt Lofty ranges and laid out a 'Hufendorf' (farm village) settlement, the only one of its kind ever organised in Australia. This plan dates back to 10th Century Europe and therefore is of historical importance to the nation.
The Hahndorf founders based their whole life around the church and its beliefs and set to work with quick-growing crops to provide much needed produce for Adelaide, the infant capital of South Australia. Throughout the 1840's, many of the original families moved away in search of more and better agricultural land, and their places taken in Hahndorf by more recent arrivals from the European fatherland. By the 1850's, the primitive huts were giving way rapidly to the traditional fachwerk style of farmhouse and barn imported from Germany, together with stone churches, schools and hotels. A small but influential number of British settlers arrived and began intermarriage with the original German population.
Behind the bustle of main street through traffic, Hahndorf's placid village life continued without much change until World War I. Hahndorf's increasing popularity with art lovers visiting local galleries from the late 1960's and the arrival of the South Eastern Freeway in 1974 made the township boom. Developers descended upon the great majority of the town allotments, which had remained farm blocks since 1839, to build modern suburban homes for Adelaide commuters. Tourists began to arrive in amazing numbers to admire the remnants of traditional German architecture and customs, and increasingly to patronise the bewildering number of shops opening to take advantage of weekend trippers. Suburban development encroached on the fields, orchards and outbuildings that were once such a vital part of life in this old town only two years younger than South Australia itself. This aspect was exacerbated when the 'Heysen Tunnels' were opened in March 2000 which made Hahndorf even more accessible from Adelaide, thus increasing the tourism associated pressures on the town.
Some of the town's old buildings in the Main Street have been restored and converted into galleries and shops while still retaining the basis of their original features. Unfortunately, many others have been demolished, or inappropriate additions or alterations have been made, all in the name of 'progress'. Having been a popular tourist destination for many decades has resulted in Main Street providing facilities which cater mainly to the tourist trade. Thus those remaining old buildings which were once houses, barns, stables etc now have only some semblance of their original features and style. Most have newer facades and additions applied by later generations. An area which still retains some historic important residences and associated outbuildings is the northern side of Victoria Street. These buildings are simple and small in scale and reflect the humble character of the original settlers.
Hahndorf also retains its image as the Heysen town, having been the home of the world famous artist, Sir Hans Heysen (1877 - 1968), for many decades. During the early years of the twentieth century, Sir Hans Heysen began committing the township's rural existence to canvas and as a result many people beyond Hahndorf's borders understand something of that time.
All Lutheran schools were closed in South Australia by Act of Parliament in 1917. In the same year, the Nomenclature Act wiped out sixty-nine placenames of German origin in the state. World War I was raging in Europe and anti-German feeling created fear in the villagers of Hahndorf despite the fact they were second and third generation Australians. A number of men anglicised their names before joining the Australian Army. War-time hatreds caused Hahndorf to become Ambleside between 1918-1935, after which the old name was restored to mark South Australia's centennial year in 1936.
Although Hahndorf is currently a prime tourist attraction, this mainly concerns the Main Street traders with their art and craft galleries, coffee and food shops, wine outlets, and similar tourist facilities. Behind this, in the town as a whole, is a strong community comprising the descendants of the original settlers and comparative newcomers who have been attracted to the town because of its enviable life style, facilities and location. Hahndorf is a most pleasant location for retirees and similar persons who have the opportunity to become involved in the many and varied clubs, organisations, churches, and groups which are a very active part of this historic town.
Hahndorf's name was changed to Ambleside in 1917 due to the anti German feelings that engulfed South Australia during the First World War. The town was renamed Hahndorf in 1935 as part of South Australia's recognition of its German pioneers, for the State's centenary celebrations the following year.
In August 2004, Hahndorf was placed on the National Trust of Australia's list of Endangered Places for 2004
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