Personal Recollections of a Septuagenarian
Nathaniel Hailes' Adelaide and Environs 1839-1840
Edited and annotated by Reg Butler, Hahndorf ---- Note: The edited and annotated text of N Hailes' Personal recollections of a septuagenarian is taken from the South Australian section of his autobiography which appeared in the Register of 8 January 1878, 15 January 1878, 23 January 1878, 30 January 1878, 6 February 1878, 13 March 1878, 3 April 1878 and 17 April 1878. These reminiscences concentrate on Hailes' activities in 1839-1840. Sections before those reprinted here contain reminiscences of life in England from the time of Hailes' birth during the Napoleonic Wars; those after 1839-1840 deal mostly with the settlement of Port Lincoln and pioneering trials on the West Coast.
In the year 1838, the world was all before me where to choose. I found myself at liberty to enter on a new sphere of action in the old world, in the new world of America, or in the newer new world of Australia ... After having turned my thoughts to New Zealand ... I chose in preference Australia.
Why I chose this then infantine settlement was attributable to several causes. I had just read Captain Sturt’s interesting work; had been preceded to the colony by several old friends, among whom were the late Mr William Giles, Manager of the South Australian Company, and Mr AH Davis, of the Reedbeds; and, moreover, I had met at the houses of mutual friends Mr Robert Gouger, who had spent some months in the colony and returned temporarily to England, and who, of course, was able to answer enquiries respecting it from personal knowledge ... Among other things, he advised me to procure a plentiful supply of double sole and double upper-leather boots, and referred me to the artisan by whom he had been supplied with similar articles. With a dozen pairs of these I armed or rather legged myself, setting speargrass at defiance.
In November 1838, I secured cabins in the Buckinghamshire, one of the fine old East Indiamen, of I think, near 1,700 tons ...
When, on arrival, after the unusually dry summer of 1838, I looked on the hard, smooth, dark-brown surface of the land, I was only prevented from laughing by recollections of the cost of my boots, which I subsequently disposed of at half the sum ... Had I arrived six months earlier, when tough, strong speargrass was from two to three feet high, I should no doubt have felt grateful to Mr Gouger for his advice. In judging of such statements, the time when and circumstances under which they are made must be taken into account. The River Torrens, for instance, was described by some early visitors as a foaming torrent, and by others as an insignificant stream - season no doubt accounting for the difference ...
I greatly enjoyed my walk from Glenelg to the site of Adelaide. The road was amid an apparently boundless maze of strongly-scented shrubs and magnificent gum trees. The branches of the trees were crowded and enlivened by flocks of parrots, cockatoos, and parroquets, whose florid and diversified plumage rendered the scene immensely picturesque ... Troops of those screaming birds ... accompanied every traveller or group of gaping wayfarers for miles, keeping always a little in advance, and scrutinizing each individual with a rigorous eye. Here and there, a laughing-jackass uttered from the branches his ironical ha-ha-ha ...
Adelaide In 1839
The town of Adelaide, as depicted on the maps, is the very beau ideal of all possible cities. There is an elegance and vastness of design about it that almost makes one blush for the comparative insignificance of London ... It is altogether on too large a scale ...
And yet there are sprinkled up and down the place a few substantial buildings; one belonging to the Company on an enormous scale, another good brick house to Mr Hack, another to the enterprising Mr Gilles, one to Mr Thomas, and a couple of new taverns. The rest of the dwellings are made of very slight materials; and the number of canvas tents and marquees give some parts of the settlement the appearance of a camp. Most of the newcomers settle down on what is called the Park Lands, where they are handy to the little rivulet, and they run up a Robinson Crusoe sort of hut with twigs and branches from the adjoining forest, and the climate being fine and dry, they answer well enough as temporary residences. The principal streets have been laid out in the survey of the town 132 feet wide ... and the squares are all on such a scale of magnitude that if there were any inhabitants in them, a cab would almost be required to get across them ...
Certainly at the outset, the large extent of bushlike township occasioned much individual inconvenience. People began to build in all parts, of it, and very small villages and solitary houses were scattered here and there ....
Not the semblance of a street existed on the land, although all the main streets had been duly laid down on the plan. It was in fact an extensive woodland ...
There were canvas tents, calico tents, tarpaulin tents, wurleys made of branches, log huts, packing-case villas, and a few veritable wooden cottages, amid which, here and there, appeared some good houses ... One of these had been erected for Mr Charles Mann, the first Advocate-General. I think the acre fronted Brown-street; the house fronted a picturesque portion of the Mount Lofty range of hills, the view of which was not intercepted by intervening timber ...
It was easy to lose oneself in the sylvan city, even in the daytime, and at night it was scarcely possible to avoid doing so. The maze-like character of the spot was much enhanced by a multitude of wattles, which occupied spaces intervening between gum or sheaoak trees. Many instances occurred of people having to bush it, as the term was, all night within the limits of the town ...
The only green vegetables then obtainable after the exceptionally dry summer were a few ordinary-sized cabbages at 2s each. All flour came from the neighbouring colonies, and was ground partly from wheat, but more plentifully from weevilly maize and low-class rice ... Sudden and extreme fluctuations connected with the supply of food not only affected families, but sometimes even threaten disaster to small communities. Once, I believe, Mr Osmond Gilles from his personal funds saved the colony from much distress; and on another occasion temporary famine was averted by Captain Duff, a very early and useful colonist ... The Emigration Commissioners in England had made no arrangement for the supply of meat to the settlement, and the stock on hand was nearly exhausted. In this emergency, Captain Duff volunteered to take his vessel to Tasmania and get sheep ...
The times of scarcity alluded to oppressed the educated and trading rather than the labouring classes. Both skilled and unskilled labourers earned large sums of money in the earlier stages of the colony; and men who had never laboured before earned sums large in proportion if they choose to doff their coats and go to work. But the improvidence of many working me, especially overlanders, was astonishing. Shepherds, station-men, woodcutters, carters and other similarly employed would work till a large sum was due, then go to the nearest township to spend it ...
Our Early Buildings
While writing of dwelling-houses, I made no mention of public buildings. The Government Offices consisted mostly of weather-boards, and were scattered over different parts of the forest, as though some special advantage were obtainable through their being so widely separated. The Post Office was at the corner of North Terrace and King William-street, the Treasury and the Supreme Court were in Gilles Arcade, which the Government Store and some other offices were on the Park Lands. The site of the vice-regal residence was close to the present Government House. As I was the bearer of despatches to Colonel Gawler, of course on arrival, I reported myself without delay, and found His Excellency kind, courteous, and communicative. Among other things he told me that the population of the colony - men, women and children - was either one or two above or one or two below 5,000 ...
Government House was an extraordinarily uncouth and repulsive structure. It walls were of limestone and the roof of thatch. It resembled a moderately large barn which seemed as if it had been brought by main force into contact with a tall ugly external chimney. This architectural peculiarity had been erected by the party of marines who accompanied the first Governor, Captain Hindmarsh. The semi-jacks forgot that chimneys are indulged in on shore, so a chimney had subsequently to be erected outside the wall and an aperture made in the masonry to communicate therewith. At a later date, I witnessed the destruction of this primitive palace by fire. The building was no loss, but unfortunately official documents contained in adjoining offices were consumed.
The colony seemed subject to fatalities of this kind. Colonel Light’s house at Thebarton had previously been burned to the ground, and with it papers relating to the origin and very early history of the province were destroyed. The residence of Mr John Brown, on East Terrace, shortly afterwards met a like fate, and involved similar consequences. Thus the destruction of the old Government Offices was the third catastrophe of the kind.
One evening in January 1841, I noticed from my house in Gilbert Street flames proceeding apparently from the neighbourhood of Government House. I was not long in reaching the spot, and, on arrival, found the frail walls and reed thatched roof of the old vice-regal residence in a blaze. A large proportion of the population had collected, and policemen and others were doing their best, but evidently ineffectually, to subdue the flames. Colonel Gawler was superintending the proceedings, and he several times ordered men to desist from placing their lives in peril.
When the excitement has somewhat abated, I asked Colonel Gawler if he had any idea as to the origin of the fire. He replied, in his deliberate emphatic way, looking meanwhile expressively at the face of a person standing by exhibiting a smile of apparent satisfaction. The Governor a short time before had given offence to this man, who was a very eccentric individual, and public opinion ascribed to him the conflagration. He was never formally charged with destroying the old Government Barn.
A Transplanted Village
As already indicated, when I arrived in March 1839, no rain had fallen for several months, so that the Park Lands and adjacent hills were in some parts bare, and in other places nearly so. The eye longed to rest on something more decidedly green than the narrow pointed leaves of the gum-trees and wattles. This yearning was sometimes gratified by the sight of a few cabbages, watermelons, or turnips and radishes, the green tops of which were perhaps more coveted than the roots. These dainties were offered at almost prohibitive prices.
The sellers were generally robust women or slender girls with their hair turned over their heads for a covering, dressed in woollen gowns, generally of dark but sometimes of bright colours, and wearing clean striped aprons extending not much below the knees and usually leaving the ankles and feet bare. Their knowledge of the English language was almost limited to the names of the vegetables in which they dealt and of the coins received in payment. On enquiry, I was informed that they were natives of Prussia; that they and their townspeople had left their native land on account of religious persecution; and that they had, with the assistance of Mr George Fife Angas, collectively emigrated to a place on the banks of the River Torrens. With themselves they imported the name of their village - Klemzig. They were a small but compact and well-assorted community, comprising pastor, physician, tradesmen, agriculturalists, horticulturalists, and people of all needful avocations.
There was a degree of novelty in this mode of colonisation. It most resembled a piece of the old country scooped out, conveyed across the ocean, and inserted in the soil of the new colony. I felt curious to visit this erratic fragment of continental Europe.
I was informed that it was about three miles from South Adelaide, but practically I found it further; and as the river ran through a forest in which had been worn innumerable paths leading to no particular place, it was easy for a stranger to lengthen his stroll indefinitely. I started early on an intensely hot afternoon, and, as I was accompanied by my family, several small pairs of legs began in an hour or so to feel somewhat weary. Sundry blue, white and yellow flowers in the pathway,and whole legions of cockatoos, parrots, and other birds in the branches overhead tended to prevent fatigue. Nevertheless, seeing no signs of the German village and having quite lost my bearings, we at length sat down beside a little lake in the bed of the Torrens almost determined when rested to seek our way back to Adelaide. Presently, I saw smoke rising above the tree-tops about a quarter of a mile ahead, and guessed that it must be from the village chimneys.
We went forward in the direction thus indicated, and were much pleased on approaching Klemzig. It extended along the bank of the river for perhaps a third of a mile. The buildings consisted of earthen walls, newly whitewashed, and straw-thatched roofs. Gardens with rich black mould, small but in excellent order, lay between the cottages and the river, and healthy vines and fruit-trees already gave promise for the future; while enormous melons and vegetables in abundance testified to the industry of the residents. At the back of the line of cottages furthest from the river were strips of stubble land, and here and there might be seen the larger boys and girls beating the grain from heaps of wheat with sticks. A few horses and cows were feeding and numerous fowls were going to roost in the gum trees. We felt as if we were in Germany instead of Australia.
About the centre of the village was the church, with white walls and thatched roof like the other buildings. It was distinguishable by its somewhat greater size and the form of the door, but more especially by a small tower, within which was a bell. We entered and found it then in use as a school. The day’s studies were just being finished. Mr Kavel, the pastor, was teaching some dozen male urchins and his wife a like number of females. These disappeared in all directions on the word of permission being given.
After some interesting conversation, we were introduced to the Galen [the doctor - Galen was a Greek physician of the Second Century AD] of the community, and then made a tour of inspection throughout the village, the inhabitants appearing at their doors or garden-gates with words and smiles of welcome. The former were often unintelligible to me, but the latter could not be misinterpreted.
At length, we reached a house more lofty and spacious than the general buildings. This we found to be the inn, the owner’s name being painted over the doorway. The owner was the moneyed man of the village, and although he had laid in no stock of wines or beer, he contrived to make me very comfortable. We were supplied with excellent tea and coffee. Not contented with a plentiful meal, for which a very moderate equivalent was asked, we were enabled to return home laden with spoils both from dairy and garden.
This trivial but pleasant incident occurred more than thirty-eight years ago. I was over the site of Klemzig a few years since and found myself among beggarly ruins. The river, which at that spot is very picturesque, remained unaltered. Most of the cottages were uninhabited. The white-wash had peeled off in large flakes from the walls, and the dirty strips which remained served only to give the crumbling mud a yet more desolate appearance. There is, however, no need to be regretfully sentimental over this. The thrifty villagers, having during the terms of their leases realized from their small farms sufficient to secure much larger holdings, subsequently bought sections of their own, mostly, I believe, near Hahndorf and Lobethal and in other hilly districts, where their agricultural and horticultural pursuits have been successful and useful as well to the colony.
My First Acquaintance With Natives
One of the strangest and most startling sensations which is experienced by a small white community on settling amid a numerous population of Australian aborigines arises from the extreme contrast of colour and of conventional usages between the time-dissevered races. A short period, however, suffices to blunt the edge of this sensation, for the darker race speedily falls into a new position, though that is a false or at least an anomalous one. It has lost none of the vices of barbarism, and has probably gained the coarser vices of civilisation, besides having contracted various diseases previously unknown; for it is a lamentable fact, to which I can bear personal testimony, that in the early stages of South Australian history, fellows, most of whom were convicts from neighbouring colonies, worked energetically and perseveringly to corrupt the natives, and succeeded to a great extent in counteracting agencies of an opposite nature instituted by the Governor and many philanthropic settlers.
It is a curious and painful problem why aboriginal races almost invariably disappear comparatively soon after the arrival of dominant and Christianised communities. That they do so diminish is undoubtedly the fact. The former numerous natives of Tasmania are entirely extinct, and of those of New South Wales and Victoria, only inconsiderable remnants remain. To come nearer home, many South Australian tribes which were numerous and strong within my own recollection have either entirely died out or have but one or two representatives left. In all too many instances, these are half-castes, or have been transmogrified into anomalous semblances of whitefellows, reflecting unfortunately no credit on any human colour.
We have had some smart brushes with them at the Rufus, Port Lincoln, and a few other places, but these have been rare exceptions. Where the rifle and sword are not the agents of extirpation, aboriginal tribes appear nevertheless to melt away of themselves. As far as they are concerned, Who fights finds death, and death finds him who fights.
There were no natives on the Park Lands of Adelaide when I first walked up from Glenelg, and the few which I saw at Holdfast Bay on landing were picked men, who aided the Europeans on arrival of a vessel. Natives with their domestic surroundings were to me still an unsolved problem. At dusk of an evening at the latter end of April, or it might have been early in May, 1839, I observed several fires springing up on the northern side of the Torrens. This, I knew, indicated a native embranchment.
The night was moonless, the sky was mottled with streaks of clouds and starry patches between. Some fifty or sixty fires, duly reflected from above, and mingling with, almost quenching, the stellar rays, so illuminated the branches of the noble gum-trees which fringed the river, that it is probable all parrots, opossums, and other tenants having vested interest in the said trees had temporarily removed to the then rural districts of Klemzig, Walkerville, Kensington or Unley. Amid the lurid glare and smoke arising from the fires flitted here and there sable garbless figures, streaked and spotted with white, red, and yellow daubs. The whole scene, combined with the accompanying sounds, furnished a most eligible idea of a thoroughly legitimate and respectable pandemonium.
The sounds already alluded to consisted of an unearthly and wailing sort of chant, in which the voices of men, women and children were distinctly and separately perceptible, sometimes one and sometimes another becoming predominant. The voices were accompanied by a dull and beating sound, produced by the open hand, or by sticks struck against the blankets or skin garments of the performers, the said garments being spread on the ground before them. The precision with which time was kept perfectly astonished me. The whole affair produced in my mind the idea of something which I have before described as unearthly.
Presently, harlequin-coloured forms arranged themselves in combined or opposing masses for sham battles, or war dances, or, to use their own term, for corroboree. I determined on closer inspection and proceeded nearly to the spot where the sable gymnastics were being carried on by the Murray and other distant tribes, when, blinded to objects near at hand by fires glaring in every direction around me, my foot struck against something of considerable solidity, which answered the kick with a gruff and emphatic hoo! On looking down, I discovered the object to be not a burnt stump, which of course would not have uttered such an exclamation, but a human head chiselled in ebony. Several other owners of heads as well as the kickee, who were lying about awaiting their turn in the corroboree - their large, liquid black eyes glistening the while like stars of the wrong colour - started up on all sides of me unclothed, and regularly besieged me with appeals, not in their musical vernacular, but in such barbarous hybrid phrases as the following - What namee you? Div me whitey money. You barry goot shentleman; div me tixpence.
That was my first introduction to the Adelaide tribe.
The position in which I beheld the Adelaide tribe that night was similar to that of all other tribes after white men have settled on their hunting grounds. A defined quantity of land which they had roamed over from time immemorial was their own especial inheritance, as distinguished from districts belonging to other tribes, without hindrance or molestation, they had sated their hunger with the flesh of wild quadrupeds and birds which roamed over it, and with roots indigenous to the soil. The former were now scared away, and the latter to a great extent eradicated to make room for the whiteman’s sheep, wheat and potatoes. Driven over the boundaries of other tribes, the trespassers were of course forcibly repelled. The more distant savages were not so abundantly endowed with game and esculents as to be able to share them with dispossessed neighbours. Thus they had necessarily become pensioners on the bounty of those who had possessed themselves of and overrun their wild and scanty patrimony.
Of course, flour and blankets were forthcoming from the Government at stated times. Benevolent individuals - both official and non-official - sought to counteract the adverse influences which were operating against them, but only with partial effect. Private benevolence in such cases is too often exercised without judgement. One individual will give a native food or money without requiring an equivalent; another will employ a strong man all day, say in procuring and cutting firewood, and in the evening furnish him with food scarcely sufficient for his own supper, while perhaps at his branchy sheltering place, members of his family are waiting to share his earnings; while another in return for a slight service, which occupied a few minutes, bestows a coin which will provide ample food for a day or two.
Is it wonderful that these roaming and resourceless tribes should, under such altered circumstances, gradually dwindle and at length disappear? Their accustomed mode of life is rendered impracticable; their ordinary supplies of food are unobtainable; they are brought under the operation of laws which they do not comprehend; and the customs or laws to which they were born they are not permitted to practise and enforce. Unskilled in any kind of labour but those required for the chase or battle, they necessarily become helplessly dependent. It cannot be wondered at that the majority of the Adelaide tribe at the period of which I write had become dirty, abject, whining mendicants.
It is now a rare occurrence to see a group of natives, or even an isolated individual, in the more settled districts. I doubt if a single member of the Adelaide tribe, or of any similar tribe in the neighbourhood, could now be produced. Where are the tribes and families that thirty-eight years ago were distributed over the whole of our now settled districts? They have not amalgamated with tribes beyond the settled districts, that is certain. Where are they?
First Glimpses of the Bush
During the first few months of my residence in the colony, the immediate suburbs of Adelaide had but partially resigned their bush characteristics. It was not only possible but easy to lose oneself in the daytime in almost any direction at the distance of only a few miles. Wallabies, wild turkeys, snakes, and dingoes would present themselves to the equestrian or pedestrian traveller, gaze with astonishment at him and instantly bound, stride, or glide, according to their several tastes and habits, back into the neighbouring wilderness.
My first trip of any length was to Gawler. At that time, no habitation had been erected between North Adelaide and the town which was honoured with the name of our second Governor. It consisted then of three thatched cottages, one of which was the little inn afterwards designated The Old Spot. I arrived sunburnt, dusty and thirsty at the shade of its humble verandah, and beheld its white tablecloth and the long-coveted refreshments which instantly made their appearance thereon.
From Adelaide to Gawler, or vice versa, was at that time a disagreeable ride in extremely hot weather. The wayfarer traversed an open plain on which no human habitation had been erected between the two townships. To meet, overtake, or be overtaken by another traveller was a rare occurrence. In cool moist weather, when a grassy carpet variegated with flowers of diversified hues was spread beneath you, the ride was pleasant enough. Then an emu, a kangaroo, but more frequently a bustard or two, would cross your path, and instantly retreat amid the belt of trees which continuously intervened between the apparently interminable plain and the shore of St Vincent’s Gulf; and drinkable water could be found at convenient intervals. But when the soil was bare and dusty, an unveiled sun scorching from above, and water was only obtainable at distant intervals, the ride was somewhat trying.
On the hill at the northern extremity of what is now Murray-street, and where a populous graveyard has long existed, there was even in the year 1839 a solitary mound which for me possessed some interest. It was unenclosed and without gravestone. It was I believe the first grave dug in that part of the country, and contained the body of one of my fellow-passengers named Pratt. He was a young man of considerable talent, an amateur artist, and had wandered to the banks of the River Gawler to sketch the magnificent scenery, water and woodland which then distinguished the spot.
Not returning from his artistic tour, he was of course, searched for, and after the lapse of two or three days was discovered lifeless on the mossy base of remarkably large and symmetrical gumtree. It was evident that he had died in a sitting posture. Beside him were his portfolio and wallet. His sandwich dinner was untouched. At his feet lay the pencil. Near it was the half-finished sketch of a noble and peculiarly marked giant of the forest. He was known to have been affected by disease of the heart. Shortly after the period of which I write, shipmates of the deceased, finding that his unprotected grave was occasionally molested by wild dogs, caused a railing to be placed around it.
My next journey was a longer one and in the opposite direction - to Encounter Bay. We then called the distance sixty miles. No visible road existed. Colonel Gawler had caused trees to be notched as a guide for several miles, but there was still a great liability to lose the road. The latter half of the journey had to be effected over or through loose sand and repulsive scrub. A glimpse of the colony’s most sterile territory was then obtained.
Very different was the impression produced by scenery between Adelaide and Mount Barker. The ascent of hill after hill over fertile soil, amid majestic trees, thickly-scattered flowers, birds innumerable and fanned by cool and fragrant breezes, had something exhilarating in it. Then glances backward over the apparently diminutive plain and City of Adelaide to the open sea and around as far as eye could reach, and glances downwards at intervals into gullies choked with vegetation, and ravines descending almost perpendicularly to such depths, that objects of fair dimensions at the bottom were dwarfed almost beyond identification.
On return from my first journey to Mount Barker, the night being dark, I lost my way among the hills, tethered my horse, and having rolled into my blanket, lay beside a tree until daylight. In the morning, I was somewhat startled to find that I was within a very few feet of the edge of a precipice, which for a considerable distance had a sheer descent. Had I during the night been aware of my exact position, I should not have slept so soundly and comfortably as I did.
What a beautiful bit of fairy ground, when I first saw it in 1840, was the section of land on which Burnside now stands! I had walked from Adelaide once hot summer day, leaving Kensington, one of the earliest suburban townships, on my left, and followed the course of the creek towards the hills. After crossing the road to Glen Osmond, the creek separated for a short space into two currents and then reunited, forming thereby a delightful little island. On this I took rest for some time, plucking wild flowers, listening to a chorus of small birds, and watching innumerable little niggers of crayfish as they darted about among the white and brown pebbles which formed the bottom of the stream.
After a sufficient pause, I proceeded upwards, when I perceived a man without coat or waistcoat bending over the stream. I had not seen an individual during the last two miles of my walk, and did not expect to find one here. He did not perceive my approach until I was close to him. When he assumed an erect posture, I recognised in him a frequent customer of mine for damaged grain, coarse sugar, and such like commodities. I often wondered what he did with the rubbish he bought. Looking into the creek I beheld the works of a still. I laughed heartily and he did the same. He conducted me to a shady little hut roofed with bark, which was scarcely discoverable among surrounding foliage. There he set before me hunter’s beef, bread, butter, cheese and a good-sized jug of something which had probably the year before been in my auction-room. A very small quantity of the article sufficed.
Some years before the foregoing incident, a gentleman bought from the South Australian Company the section which had been intermediately leased to another party, and placed it in my hands for sub-division as a township. Of course, I immediately inspected the land with a view so to lay it off that as many allotments as possible might benefit by the running water. With much surprise, I perceived that since I first saw the section, it had been cultivated and abandoned. European trees and shrubs were flourishing. The land was disposed of satisfactorily, and Burnside is now a populous as well as a pretty suburb of Adelaide.
Well, if a man won’t let us know
That he’s alive, he’s dead or should be so.
Immigrants to Australia at the present time can gather from their own experience no adequate idea of the sense of isolation from matters European which on arrival was felt by pioneers of 38 or 40 years ago. In those days of sailing vessels from three to six months were occupied in the voyage hither, and any tidings of the world left behind might arrive at any unindicated date thereafter. Twelve months was the average period calculated to elapse between written communication with Europe and receipt of letters in reply. Consequently, anxious surmises relating to aged, sick or peculiarly circumstanced relatives or friends wearied the settler’s mind for months.
In the earlier days of this colony, the interest taken in the comparatively rare arrival of vessels from Europe was intense. The exclamation, A ship in sight, acted with the force of electricity, and was propelled from tent to cottage until the whole Lilliputian community had become aware of the fact. People got up in the middle of the night however cold, dark and dirty it might be - walked to the Post Office notwithstanding the unseasonableness of the hour, and waited until the mailbags were received.
That important public establishment was a weatherboard cabin of two rooms at the north-eastern corner of King William-street. The business was afterwards removed to somewhat more commodious apartments at the north-western corner of the same street. Then succeeded an unambitious predecessor to our present noble building. In all three localities for several years, Captain Watts was the presiding official, one military brother having succeeded another in the office; and each did his best to alleviate inevitable vexations by uniform courtesy, and by making allowance for unavoidable circumstances.
In 1840, I forwarded a letter to London wherein I incautiously enclosed a small lock of hair appertaining to the first Australian-born member of my family. There was an understanding between my relatives and myself that we would mutually post our letters postage unpaid, as we were afflicted by the notion that they were more certain to arrive if payment was conditional on delivery.
Old Colonial Weather
The early days of the colony saw storms of rain descending with almost tropical violence on the smooth and hard baked plains of Adelaide and instantly rushing off as from a metallic surface, flooding in their way gutters, creeks and rivers.
That the climate is not of a deadly nature, I personally furnish an instance; that was Black Thursday, the 5th of February 1851, a day without parallel even in this hemisphere. I resided then at the foot of the hills, between three and four miles from Adelaide. My horse was saddled at the usual hour, and I had ridden a few hundred yards from my gate, when the animal recoiled from a blast which resembled the combined and concentrated vapour issuing from a thousand brick-kilns. I returned to the stable, leaving the saddle on, for I thought that tempest would soon relieve the atmosphere of its sulphurous burden; but as the day wore on, the sky became denser and darker, the air hotter and more noxious. Feeling certain that, for once, business in Adelaide would be suspended, I liberated the horse from his saddle, left him to luxuriate in a cool stable on new hay and fresh-drawn water, and kept down my own temperature by frequent and copious sprinkling of rooms and verandahs with cold water, and the personal imbibition of cups of hot liquids. That day, fruits of all kinds then in season were literally roasted on the trees, having the exact flavour of fruit long submitted to the action of fire. Leaves of trees and bushes and the upper portions of vegetables were so thoroughly calcinated that a mere touch reduced them to powder.
The whole of Australia appears to have been subjected to the inclemency of that unearthly day, and it assumed much greater severity in Victoria and New South Wales than in South Australia. When engaged in gold-diggings in the adjoining colony in 1852, several Victorian settlers narrated to me extraordinary scenes which they had witnessed. Enormous bushfires were burning in every direction, sheep and cattle were roasted alive, and several human lives were sacrificed. In some instances, while one fire was rushing and roaring along, another conflagration would burst forth a few miles ahead as if the eager demon of fire had vaulted unseen over the intervening space. It is a curious fact that the Aboriginals of Victoria uniformly attributed the origin of gold to Black Thursday, which immediately preceded its discovery. I have heard many of them insist on the fact with great earnestness. This is almost proof that they were not acquainted with the existence of the precious metal until its discovery by Europeans.
We used to have extremely cold as well as extremely hot weather in Adelaide. Ice in the streets was not an uncommon spectacle. Frozen gutters we witnessed last winter, but the ice was less massive and more evanescent than formerly. There was also a slight fall of snow, which from its rarity excited great curiosity. Once, and but once, I witnessed a snowstorm here worthy of England. I think it must have occurred in the winter of 1840, but have no means of referring to the correct date. I was at that time editing a newspaper, which was printed at the northern side of South Adelaide, while my residence was at the southern extremity.
The sun had not risen when I left the office. A little sleet was falling, by no means an uncommon occurrence, while hailstones of extreme violence were frequent and sometimes inflicted much damage on buildings and gardens. In a few minutes, the sky grew much darker and a heavy fall of snow commenced - real feathery snow - in flakes as large as sixpences and shillings floating gradually down and accumulating where they fell. By the time I reached home, the ground, trees, roofs of houses and all other objects were clad in an uniform of glistening white. Not a bush nor flower displaying its own colours was visible in my garden and I cast heavy fleeces from my outer garments as I discarded them. Many a game at snowballs I played next day with boys, some of them older than myself, originators of the colony, whom I will not name in connection with such pastime.
Snow in large patches remained visible in the township for days, and the Mount Lofty range of hills presented a strange and picturesque appearance. On riding, even three weeks later, in the neighbourhood of Mount Barker, I saw masses of snow of considerable depth still lying in gullies and other sheltered spots, whither no doubt they had been drifted.
One of the phenomena, probably electrical, that used to startle new arrivals was the whirling dust-column. Multitudinous lines of buildings had not then been erected to curtail the free exercise of their gambols in Adelaide. Some of these columns traversed miles before dissolution, were of extreme height and possessed of such mechanical force that while spinning along, they would catch into their vortex and raise from the ground straw, rags, papers, sticks and all such unconsidered trifles. I once saw moderately-sized account-books and an empty cashbox thus exalted to a very respectable distance from the ground.
One remarkable characteristic of those dust-whirls is that when they have free course for their progress, the surrounding atmosphere is breathlessly still. In 1840, I was taken into custody by one on North-terrace, which was a favourite resort of these pirouetters. I had just descended the steps of the Bank of South Australia, when I found myself in the embrace of of a massive pillar travelling with great velocity. It screwed me half way round, and imparted to me the sensation of being about to ascend into the air. When released from the hug of my dusty friend, I brushed from my face a considerable quantity of his discarded substance, and beheld near me three ladies of my acquaintance, who were clad in white garments; these had been left unsoiled by the unclean monster which had chosen his path close to them. I regret to add they were heartless enough to laugh loudly.
Another phenomenon which I often observed, and which occurred only when the atmosphere was motionless, was the sudden snapping and falling of trees apparently sound, and some of them of gigantic size. The crash which ensued amid surrounding silence was peculiarly emphatic.
Although I have seen thunderstorms in all parts of this colony, amid the hills and on the plains, I have never, either recently, or in the olden time of the colony, witnessed one to equal in sublimity some which many years ago I beheld in England.
The small band of immigrants went to work in real earnest, and in 1839 and 1840, we bade fair to realize Colonel Gawler’s hope that we should soon be not a mere settlement, but a colony. The paralyzing results of official squabbles began to give place to productive energy. The plough and spade, the axe and trowel, were busy in all directions. We began to pay more attention to dress, made fireplaces inside our dwellings instead of outside, constructed public offices of brick and stone, instead of weatherboards and palings, built houses of two storeys instead of one, and in time leaned to carry up a staircase inside instead of connecting the upper window with the ground by a ladder outside.
We even made a start in the ship-building line and commenced our maritime navy by building the OG at Glenelg. The name was chosen in honour of Osmond Gilles and the craft was built for the South Australian Company. Her exact capacity I forget, but I think it did not fall short of eight tons.
Then Colonel Gawler was a military man, one of Wellington’s captains, as his predecessor in the office of Governor, Captain Hindmarsh, was one of Nelson’s heroes; and both were men to whom the country for which they fought were deeply indebted. It was natural that the old Waterloo man should wish to found the nucleus of an army, and accordingly early in the year 1840, such an institution was established.
The regiment consisted, including cavalry and infantry, for no artillery had yet been attached, of 18 commissioned officers, two non-commissioned officers, and one private. The officers, whose uniforms were handsome and displayed an abundance of gold lace, did good service at the levee on the ensuing Queen’s Birthday, which must have been in 1840. We had then begun to practise the genteel, and even to initiate the ceremonious. Not only were military officers at the levee, but the Sheriff and some other civil officers appeared in Court dress. The effect produced by cocked hats, inexpressively tight indispensibles, silken calves, and silver shoebuckles was striking. The worst of it was the dress swords, or rapiers, kept getting between the courtiers’ feet and endangering a salute of the earth.
The most important item of progress was the formation of a Municipal Corporation in 1840, which was stated at the time to be the first purely elected representative body elected in the Australian colonies. The election took place on 30 October. Hustings and polling-booths were erected at the junction of Hindley and King William-streets. Flags and other devices ornamented the novel erections, but no party colours, as parties had not commenced to exist. To the credit of the men of that day be it spoken that nearly everyone voted, and again to their credit be it said not one of those elected had canvassed his fellow-citizens.
The Municipal Council got on very well. If we were not always harmonious, we were never ill-tempered, and I do not recollect that we were ever betrayed into personalities. I once produced much merriment at the expense of a brother Councillor. The subject was bathing in the Torrens, from which stream at that time we obtained most of our drinking water. The proposition before the Council was that notice-boards should be placed along the margin of the stream forbidding bathing at any hour under heavy penalties. The Councillor I allude to observed that measures would not be wholly remedial, as the natives as well as white people were accustomed to bathe there. I suggested that the objection might be overcome by painting the notices in the Aboriginal as well as the English language, a suggestion with which he readily concurred. A loud shout of laughter made him aware of his oversight.