The Heritage of the upper North: a short history Peter Bell 1 The Region



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The Heritage of the upper North: a short history

Peter Bell

1 The Region

A regional map follows on the next page.



The Upper North of South Australia is the name given to the region centred roughly on Jamestown, about 200km north of Adelaide. It is an irregular rectangle about 170km from east to west and 140km from north to south, bounded by the shore of Spencer Gulf on the west, and extending as far as the towns of Redhill and Yacka in the south, Hallett and Oodla Wirra in the east, and Wilmington and Orroroo in the north. Council boundaries in the region have been subject to considerable change in recent years, but the local government areas making up the region at present are the Port Pirie Regional Council, the Northern Areas Council, the District Councils of Mount Remarkable and Peterborough, the southern part of the District Council of Orroroo/Carrieton (formerly Orroroo) and the northern part of the Regional Council of Goyder (formerly Hallett).

The historical process of settlement in the Upper North is one of the most interesting case studies in Australia – and indeed in the world – of the economic and social changes brought about by the land reform legislation of the 1860s, which transformed an enormous area of land from pastoral to agricultural use in the space of less than a decade. This process has already been studied by a number of historians. Donald Meinig’s superb study in historical geography, On the Margins of the Good Earth, first analysed the South Australian wheat frontier in 1962. This was followed in 1966 by Gordon Buxton’s South Australian Land Acts, in 1968 by Keith Bowes’ Land Settlement in South Australia, and in 1973 by John Hirst’s Adelaide and the Country, which provided a fuller background to the Strangways Act and the politics of the land reform era. Michael Williams’ The Making of the South Australian Landscape in 1974 explored these and the many other forces, environmental, economic, social and political, which have shaped the physical environment we have inherited. Thus, in describing the successive waves of European occupation of the Upper North region, this account is able to draw on some eminent historical studies giving an overview of South Australian agricultural settlement.

The region has also been well covered in more detailed local studies. Because much of the district was taken up by wheat farmers in the 1870s and most of the towns and their civic institutions - schools, churches, council chambers - were established in that decade, the 1970s saw local history flourishing throughout the Upper North as books were written celebrating the centenaries of various milestones in European settlement. Many of these publications have been consulted in compiling this historical account, and are listed in the bibliography of this report. One pioneering study was Nancy Robinson’s Change on Change in 1971. Liz Blieschke’s Plain of Contrast in 1975, Melrose, Child of the Mountain, written by a local group and edited by Jim Faull in 1979, Heather Sizer’s Run North Wild Dog in 1985, and Julie-Ann Ellis’ Hard Yacka in 1995 are particularly notable among the many other works which have maintained the strong local history tradition.

This report has also been able to draw on the research done in the course of earlier regional heritage surveys bordering the Upper North Region on three sides: the Yorke Peninsula – which similarly experienced the sudden impact of settlement under the Strangways Act – the Lower North, and the Flinders Ranges. The City of Port Pirie, the town of Peterborough and the former District Council of Hallett within the Upper North region have already been covered by earlier local heritage surveys.

2 The Land

Topography and climate have determined the principal industries and settlement patterns of the Upper North. The region's agricultural lands and their associated towns are generally located in the valleys between parallel ranges, and this has tended to mould transport links and occupation patterns into a series of topographically controlled north-south corridors, so that the layout of European settlement today reflects the neatness of the landscape. Grenfell Price summarised the influence of geography on human activity in the region:

... in the North Mount Lofty Ranges, between Gawler and Jamestown, relief becomes subdued. The characteristic topography here is one of low meridional ranges separated by heavily alluviated, longitudinal basins and valleys. The striking regularity of this alternate basin and range pattern is well illustrated in the area numerous streams from north and south flow in parallel valleys nicely adjusted, in the main, to the folded and faulted structures. Except where resistant rocks outcrop the divides are low and gently sloping.

The relief, soil and rainfall conditions of the North Mount Lofty Ranges have proved very suitable for the production of livestock and grain, the wheat yields being among the highest in the State. In the drier rain-shadow areas, between Burra and Terowie, wool is the principal product. (Price and Martin 1946, p. 7)

The topography of the region divides logically into three sections from west to east: (a) the plain along the north-eastern shore of Spencer Gulf, (b) the Mid-North ranges (a convenient abbreviation for what are strictly speaking the North Mount Lofty Ranges in the south of the region, merging into the South Flinders Ranges in the north), and (c) the arid eastern plain. The smallest section is the coastal plain of Spencer Gulf from Redhill up to Mambray Creek, sometimes called the Pirie Plains. The plain is mostly narrow, sloping up to the ranges which everywhere form the eastern skyline.

The ranges occupy most of the region, forming a series of ridges running generally north-south parallel to the coast in a band over 100km in width from west to east. The ranges are highest and most regular in the west near the Gulf coast, reaching 960m altitude at their highest point, Mount Remarkable, and forming a rugged, densely forested tangle of mountains from near Wilmington down to Crystal Brook. More typically, the ranges throughout the region rise to about 500m high at the ridge tops. The ranges generally become lower, trend more to the north-east and their intervening valleys become wider as we travel further from the coast. In the south-east of the region they rise again to 930m Mount Bryan east of the line of the Barrier Highway through Hallett and Terowie. From this last ridge the ranges flatten into the inland plain stretching eastward to the New South Wales border.

This topography is reflected in the rainfall, which is mostly brought by westerly and south-westerly winds from the Southern Ocean, although these have already travelled several hundred kilometres over the Eyre Peninsula before they arrive, and shed much of their moisture. The high coastal ranges running north and south from Mount Remarkable in the west have the highest average annual rainfall of the region, about 500mm, which is about the same as that of metropolitan Adelaide. Most of the region has more than 300mm average annual rainfall, except on the eastern plain, where it falls away to below 250mm. (Griffin and McCaskill 1986, p. 51) Average rainfall drops rapidly with distance travelled inland; each parallel valley is drier than the one to its west. The placenames on the map vividly depict the region's climatic range: Crystal Brook and Beautiful Valley in the west, Hell's Gate and Dusthole Range in the east.

Naturally, the vegetation of the Upper North also follows this rainfall pattern. At the time of European settlement, the higher ranges near the coast were clad in Eucalyptus and Callitris forests, the lower ranges of the inland alternating between red gums along the creeks, treeless grassland in the valleys, and mixed eucalyptus forest on the ridges, with open-canopied mallee on the plains. At least that was the theoretical model, but in practice all these botanic communities occurred in irregular patches, depending on the soil. Grassland became more prevalent than trees on the Willochra Plain, and grass gave way to saltbush in the north and east as the average rainfall reduced. In the far east the level plains were covered in mallee scrub, and the stony ridges of the north-east had almost no trees, simply spinifex on the ridges and saltbush on the plains. (Specht 1972)

The lower two-thirds of the region is within the basin of the Broughton River, and its drainage is dominated by the tributaries of that system. Crystal Brook, Rocky River, Yackamoorundie Creek and Bundaleer Creek all flow from north to south down the parallel valley system before swinging west to join the Broughton, which, when it was a much more powerful river than it is now, cut a channel west through the ranges in a great sweeping curve, to flow into Spencer Gulf south of Port Pirie. At the Broughton's mouth, silt carried on the flow has built up a great alluvial fan - a delta which now has only one mouth - which forms a prominent feature of the eastern shore of Spencer Gulf. The gap where the Broughton and its major tributaries cross the coastal range creates an east-west communication corridor which has played an important part in shaping European settlement in the region. The southern tributaries of the Broughton, the Hill River and Hutt River, drain similar country in the Lower North region to the south.

Just south of Melrose and Booleroo runs an east-west watershed, and to the north of it Booleroo Creek and Coonatto Creek run together to form Willochra Creek which flows north, then west through a gorge in the Flinders Ranges to soak into the western plain, or in a very wet year to flow on into Lake Torrens. Further east, in the dry stony hills north of Peterborough and Oodla Wirra, the creeks also flow northward to lose themselves on the plain long before they reach Lake Frome.

Before European settlement of the region commenced about 1842, the land was occupied by three groups of Indigenous people. Most of the Upper North, comprising the inland ranges of hills and valleys, was the home of the Ngadjuri people. The Nukunu lived in the high coastal ranges along the gulf, around Mount Remarkable. The Danggali people occupied the flat mallee plains in the south-east corner of the region, stretching into the east. (Tindale 1974) These three territories closely reflect the range of topographical and climatic environments in the region.

Rain shapes almost all human activity in Australia. But it is not rainfall in its statistically simplest form, the annual average, that has had most impact on European settlement of the Upper North. Rather it is the deviations from that average, the cycles of prolific rain - which the early settlers of the Upper North convinced themselves were normal -followed inevitably by years of drought, that have shaped the economy and the way of life of the region for 160 years.



3 The Explorers

As far as we know, the first Europeans to see the Upper North region were the crew of HMS Investigator in March 1802, when Matthew Flinders' monumental voyage of coastal discovery charted the Gulf which he dutifully named after the Earl of Spencer, President of the Admiralty Board. Hoping he had found a maritime passage to the unknown interior of the continent, Flinders was disappointed when the broad Gulf dwindled at its north end, becoming no more than a creek near the later site of Port Augusta. A party of his naturalists and their staff walked inland for two days to the summit of the most prominent peak visible, Mount Brown in the Flinders Ranges, and looked down on the Willochra Plain. (Feeken and Spate 1970, p. 59)

In April the same year the French explorer Nicolas Baudin cursorily charted the gulf in Le Geographe, and sent Louis Freycinet in Le Casuarina the following year for a longer look. Baudin gave the gulf the far more romantic name of Gulfe Bonaparte, but unfortunately he was a month too late to claim the naming rights. (Robinson 1976, p. 13-14) Although sealers and others were busy on the offshore islands of South Australia and around the later site of Port Lincoln from that time onward, there is no record of another European expedition penetrating to the head of Spencer Gulf until March 1830, when the cutter Dart from Sydney explored its east coast looking for some sign of Charles Sturt, long overdue on his voyage down the River Murray. (Sexton 1990, p. 23)

The formal occupation of the South Australian mainland by Europeans began with the foundation of Adelaide and the proclamation of the Province in December 1836. This commenced a period of land exploration as the colonial administration sought to learn more about the interior. In May 1839 Edward John Eyre set out from Adelaide and travelled north up the east coast of Spencer Gulf to Mount Arden, which had been named by Flinders thirty-seven years before. (Feeken and Spate 1970, p. 128)

Eyre’s party were the first Europeans to set foot in the Upper North region, and that expedition was the forerunner of many more. In 1840, Eyre was again sent north by the Northern Exploring Committee, a syndicate of hopeful pastoralists in search of grazing land. On the way he took a more inland route through the ranges, discovered Rocky River and Crystal Brook, and named Mount Remarkable for 'the lofty way in which it towered above the surrounding hills'. The 1840 expedition is remembered for its discovery of the chain of salt lakes – Torrens, Eyre, Blanche, Callabonna and Frome – which Eyre believed to form an impassable obstacle of one continuous horseshoe lake encircling the northern Flinders Ranges, a mistake which was to persist for eighteen years. It was not until Augustus Charles Gregory, droving stock from Queensland, arrived overland through the 'horseshoe' in 1858 that the true nature of the lake system became clear.

Eyre was followed northward through the region by the luckless John Ainsworth Horrocks in 1841 and a party led by Deputy Surveyor-General Thomas Burr and Inspector Alexander Tolmer in 1842. In the course of his expedition Horrocks named the area north of the Broughton River the Gulnare Plains. Surveyor-General Edward Frome in 1843 continued the search for northern pastoral lands. (Feeken and Spate 1970, pp. 128-130, 154-155 and 250; Faull 1979, pp. 16-18)

The significance to the Upper North region of this episode of outback exploration was that on their way to and from the Far North, all of these expeditions passed through the basins of the Broughton River and Willochra Creek, and each contributed to what was known about the region's geography and agricultural potential. Their aim in every case was the search for pastoral lands, and during the early 1840s there was emerging a good picture of the grazing potential of the ranges of the Upper North.

4 The Graziers

Of the few dozen Europeans who had ridden through the Upper North region, it was probably Deputy Surveyor-General Thomas Burr in 1842 who did more than anyone else to encourage pastoralists to move north. Reporting on the country around Mount Remarkable, he wrote, ‘This country is well wooded and watered and the grass grows as luxuriantly as I have seen in any part of the province.’ (Faull 1979, p. 18) Certainly it was after his visit in 1842 that sheep grazing commenced in the region, but there was also a relaxation of government land administration that assisted the process.

The spread of settlement in South Australia mostly moved outward from Adelaide behind a frontier which at any time formed a surprisingly orderly line. This was in part the natural result of economic forces, as a growing population gradually expanded from a central point into a progressively larger area of land. But the process was tidier in South Australia than in any of the other Australian colonies, for it was partly imposed by central policies on land survey and sales. An important tenet of the Wakefield theory of colonisation was 'concentration' or the expansion of settlement in contiguous blocks. (Meinig 1962, p. 10) This was partly to concentrate economic benefits and hold down infrastructure costs, and of course it also made for administrative convenience. Before taking up land in South Australia, applicants had to wait for surveys to be completed, and these tended to proceed outward in a logical order. The only way to break out of this settlement pattern was to apply for a Special Survey, which was always expensive, usually slow, and was only granted if the applicant could demonstrate that it was justified by special circumstances.

The danger was that impatient graziers would simply drive their flocks out beyond the surveys, and occupy outside land without legal entitlement. This practice of 'squatting' was common in New South Wales, and there it had led to later disputes over land ownership, and deprived the colony of revenue. In 1842 the Legislative Council passed An Act to Protect the Waste Lands of the Crown from Encroachment, Intrusion and Trespass. This created Occupation Licences to give pastoralists annual renewable tenure to an area of land which was identified by a system of landmarks rather than a formal survey. (Love 1986, p. 4) This was a rough-and-ready improvisation on the Wakefield plan, but at least it served notice on the South Australian squatters that their tenure was only temporary, allowed a record to be kept of who was occupying the land, and brought in some licence fees.

The graziers moved their flocks into the Upper North very rapidly after 1842, but the sequence of events in occupying the region is not always clear. There is information to be found in newspaper accounts, Gazette notices of Occupation Licences, and later reminiscences, but these do not always add up to a coherent picture. Sometimes there was a long delay after the application date before the land was occupied; in other cases the sheep were grazing on the land months or even years before the paperwork was done. After runs were established, their boundaries and names remained fluid, both changing by the year.

The frontier of pastoral settlement was moving northward from Adelaide year by year, and had already reached the southern tributaries of the Broughton. Anlaby on the Light River had been taken up in 1839, then Hill River and Bungaree in the Clare district, and Penwortham nearby on the Hutt River were all occupied by pastoralists in about 1841-42. In the three years from 1843 to 1846 the next wave of pastoralists took up much of the better country of the Upper North region, starting with the well-watered country near the coastal ranges. Probably the first pastoralist to stock a run in the region was John Bristow Hughes, who had certainly taken up Bundaleer Run in a choice site on the Gulnare Plains straddling the Broughton River by 1843, and may have been grazing stock there without a licence for two years earlier, perhaps even before Horrocks had named the district. His brother Herbert was on the adjacent Booyoolee Run by 1844, John and William Jacob took up Beetaloo Run, and the brothers Samuel and Frederick White took up the Charlton Run near Wirrabara in that same year. In 1845 Alexander Campbell and Malcolm Gillies took up the Willowie Run, later re-named Mount Remarkable Run, and William Younghusband and Peter Ferguson took up Crystal Brook. The Willogolochee Run, the Wirrabara Run, Koolunga Run and Pekina Run were all stocked by 1846. At the end of this first phase of pastoral expansion, Pekina homestead was the most northerly outpost of European settlement in South Australia.

The annual licences encouraged short-term changes in land ownership, which set up a pattern for many decades. In the turbulent period of pastoral occupation, many of the best-known land owners in South Australia took up land in the region for a time. Wirrabara Run was first taken up by the White Brothers, then successively sold to Charles Brown Fisher, his brother William Fisher in partnership with George Tinline (Manager of the Bank of South Australia), and then to Alexander Borthwick Murray. Fisher also bought Bundaleer from John Hughes. Price Maurice bought the Pekina Run and Daniel Cudmore the Yongala Run, Edmund Bowman bought Crystal Brook, Henry Ayers and Robert Barr Smith each owned Bundaleer for a time, and John Morphett and Samuel Davenport the Baroota Run, John Howard Angas bought the Mount Remarkable Run in 1854. (Cockburn 1925) Sometimes the pastoral families were linked by marriage: Herbert Hughes of Booyoolee married the sister of the White brothers of Charlton Run.

The southern ranges of the Upper North region were superb grazing country, and several of the runs became studs breeding Merino sheep or Shorthorn cattle. Renowned Merino breeder Charles Brown Fisher in his later years expressed the opinion that Bundaleer, Hill River, Canowie and Booborowie were "the pick properties in Australia". He was in a position to know, as he had owned both Hill River and Bundaleer.

For the first ten years, pastoral tenure remained on an annual licence basis, then in 1851 the Waste Lands Act replaced Occupational Licences with Pastoral Leases of fourteen years duration. This greatly improved the graziers' security of tenure, and reduced some of the risks of their enterprise. Encouraged by a series of good seasons, there was a second wave of pastoral expansion throughout the Upper North, extending grazing further into the marginal lands to the east and north. In the following twelve months, Hugh Proby took up the Coonatto Run, John Williams the Black Rock Run. the Browne brothers the Canowie Run, Alexander McCulloch the Eldoratrilla Run, and Thomas Marchant the Mannanarie Run. At the same time, established graziers took the opportunity to extend and consolidate their runs; the Hughes brothers expanded their holdings at Bundaleer and Booyoolee.

The expansion under the Waste Lands Act brought significant changes in grazing practice as the runs moved east and north into drier country. Booyoolee, Bundaleer and Canowie occupied three parallel valleys a few miles apart. But Booyoolee had a major river running through it, Bundaleer a few intermittent creeks, and Canowie only seasonal waterholes; for most of the year it watered its stock from wells, some of them sunk a hundred feet deep. Yet some graziers specialised in these arid conditions; by the late 1860s Alexander McCulloch had acquired a contiguous block of four runs – Eldoratrilla, Gottlieb’s Well, Black Rock and Yongala – where there was no surface water at all. The first lessee of Black Rock, John Williams, had written wryly of his time there: ‘I have been keeping no farmers from settling in a rich agricultural country.’ (Cockburn 1925, p. 179)

Although most of the land suitable for grazing in the Upper North had been taken up by the early 1850s, the total number of Europeans living in the region was still small. The big pastoral runs each employed a few dozen people, who formed a small village at the head station, with smaller numbers at a few out-stations. The runs were mostly unfenced – there were a few stone walls, but steel fencing wire would not become an economical option for another twenty years – and the graziers relied on shepherds to keep track of the flocks and look after their well-being. Living alone or more usually in pairs, a shepherd and a hut-keeper, these workers were scattered across the landscape in tiny wooden huts about five kilometres apart, looking after flocks of perhaps 1,000 sheep, and leading the most lonely and monotonous existence imaginable. Perhaps unfairly, the men who undertook this thankless work were often stereotyped as ex-convicts or worse, and described even by their employers as ‘the dregs of the colony’. (Hayward 1927-28, p. 82)

The contact between European settlers and Indigenous land owners in the Upper North, as elsewhere in Australia, is mostly silent in the historical sources. Certainly there were Aboriginal employees on many of the early pastoral runs, whose knowledge of the country and its resources made the early decades of European pastoral settlement possible. Oral tradition tells of Aboriginal camps near some of the Upper North towns until as late as the early twentieth century, but only rarely are these mentioned in the written record. The well-watered southern Flinders Ranges supported a relatively large Indigenous population, and in the early decades there were violent clashes between hunters and shepherds in the ranges around Melrose, Orroroo and Black Rock, usually initiated by thefts of sheep. While the second wave of pastoral expansion was underway in 1853 a magistrate reported that "The natives in the northern settlements are very bold and troublesome'. (J.W Macdonald to Colonial Secretary 31 January 1853) These clashes were rarely recorded, but one pioneer boasted that he had ‘never missed a black that he got a chance to kill’. (Robinson1971, p. 49) Even Johnson Hayward, the relatively humane manager of Pekina in the late 1840s, recalled that the Aborigines ‘had to be terrified before their depredations ceased’. (Hayward 1927-28, p. 89) He did not spell out what form this terror took, but in 1859 a visitor to the Pekina Run was shown an Aboriginal warrior’s skull, kept in the office as a trophy. (Jessop 1862, vol. 2, pp. 36-37)

Few of the early pastoral runs have large impressive homesteads. Most of the grand homesteads of South Australia - such as Martindale, Poltalloch, Struan, Padthaway and Yallum Park – date from the prosperous late 1870s, when the sheep runs of the Upper North had already been broken up and sold as wheat farms. In any case, most of the wealthy landowners with holdings in the Upper North did not live there. They owned extensive property elsewhere, and installed a manager to look after their local runs. The Whites, McCulloch and Herbert Hughes were among the exceptions who lived on their runs. Surveyor-General George Goyder disapproved of large homesteads, as he made clear when he described the Yongala Run in 1864:

The improvements comprise a large newly-built stone house, woolshed, kitchen, store, men's huts, yards, garden and paddock fences, and two whim wells on the run. Had half the sum expended in building the new house been devoted to well sinking on the west portion of the run, nearly double the quantity of stock might have been depastured on it. (quote in Mattey 1968, p. 22 – the original source cannot be found)

There were small herds of beef and dairy cattle in the Upper North, but generally speaking, cattle were of little interest to pastoralists, because the only market for meat and milk was local domestic demand. For the most part, wool was the sole economic product of the region, and sheep were the dominant grazing animals. Australia produced wool for the Imperial market, and virtually all of the clip was shipped to England. However, because of drought or market gluts, it was sometimes necessary to reduce the size of the flocks, and then sheep were slaughtered for their by-products; during the drought of the 1860s, boiling-down works were established at Pekina and Pinda Runs. In these noxious plants, animal carcasses were rendered down for their fat, which was sold as tallow for making soap and candles. The sale of hides, wool, hooves and bones sometimes added a meagre bonus, but most of the meat had to be discarded as waste.

Before satisfactory refrigeration was developed in the 1880s, the usual way of exporting carcasses of either beef or mutton was in casks of brine, an unreliable product which returned very little profit. The only other means of preserving meat was by canning it, a technology which had been developed in the 1840s. (Farrer 1980) When Booyoolee and the surrounding runs had to reduce their stock numbers after the Strangways land resumptions began in 1869, Herbert Hughes responded by installing South Australia's first meat canning factory. The initiative probably came from his brother John, founder of Bundaleer, who in 1867 had established the Melbourne Meat Preserving Company, which built a large cannery at Maribyrnong. (Robinson 1971, p. 77; Vines 1993; Farrer 1980, pp. 99-108)

The Booyoolee cannery was a significant industrial enterprise; in its first two years the plant exported over 200 tons of canned meat through Port Pirie, as well as tallow and other products. Tinned meat from Booyoolee was supplied to workers constructing the Overland Telegraph Line from Port Augusta to Darwin in 1870-72, and it has been claimed that their shortening of the name ‘Booyoolee Beef’ gave us the generic name ‘bully beef’ for any tinned meat. (Taylor 1980, p. 63) However, there are some problems with this theory; one is that the similarity of the word 'bully' to the French bouillir to boil - seems unlikely to be coincidental, and another is that most of the Booyoolee product was mutton, not beef. The tins were unequivocally labelled ‘Boiled Mutton’, seemingly with little concern for the market appeal of the name. (Gladstone 1980, p. 6)

In its early decades the rapidly-boiled product of meat-canning plants was notoriously unattractive, and encountered strong resistance from consumers who gave it derisive nicknames like ‘red blanket’ and ‘boiled dog’. With supplies dependent on stocking levels, the weather and the wool price, the Booyoolee cannery could not keep up momentum. In 1872 the plant was dismantled and sold to Adelaide stock agents Dean Laughton and Company who planned to re-establish it at Port Adelaide, although there is no record that this ever happened. (Robinson 1971, p. 77)





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