1850: The Province Established
Fourteen years after its proclamation, the province of South Australia had realised many of the hopes of its theoretical designers and practical colonists. Many who came seeking commercial profit, religious tolerance, or the independence of land ownership, had reason to be satisfied. The new environment produced its irritations and minor torments of summer heatwaves and bushfires, insects, dust and poor water supplies. But there were many compensations in the fertile soils, abundant pastures, good supplies of building stone and the unexpected bonus of rich deposits of easily worked copper ores.
The pattern of land sales up to the end of 1850 shows that the principle of orderly expansion from the site of the capital, Adelaide, has been attained in fair measure. The fertile soils of the Adelaide Plains and Southern Vales, the loams along the Gawler River and the valleys and basins of the eastern Mount Lofty Ranges were the logical places for pioneer agriculture.
These areas formed the 'nursery' for South Australian grain farming where adjustments to European farm practices were made though experiment, and where the first important agricultural invention - the harvesting machine or stripper - was conceived and developed in 1843. Vine cultivation was already established on the foothill slopes east of Adelaide, in the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and at Reynella.
Conspicuously avoided by land purchasers and pastoral lessees alike were the dense forests of the higher parts of the Mount Lofty Ranges (although these were cut for timber) and the think mallee scrub north of the Gawler River. The four large rectangular areas of purchased land at Mount Remarkable, Burra and the eastern slopes of the Mount Lofty Ranges were the last of the Special Surveys to be granted. These blocks of 8000 hectares were bought in 1845 and 1846 by copper mining interests. As there was no provision at the time for granting Mineral Leases on Crown Lands the only way copper mining could be undertaken beyond the boundaries of the declared Hundreds was by purchasing a Special Survey.
Small deposits of silver-lead ores were mined at Glen Osmond in 1841, Australia's first metal producing mine, and at Montacute in 1842. Copper was discovered at Kapunda in 1842; the mine opened in 1844. Spectacular finds were made near the Burra Burra Creek in 1845 and more modest finds at Kanmantoo in 1846. By 1850 South Australia was one of the world's significant copper producers, its ores, concentrates and metal accounting for two-thirds of the total value of its exports. As ownership was largely in South Australian hands, profits were retained locally and contributed to the general rise in community wealth.
After 1840, pastoralists with their sheep flocks spread rapidly beyond the confines of the surveyed districts, especially in the open woodlands and grasslands north of the Mount Lofty Ranges and the park-like country of the South-East.
After 1842, annual Occupation Licences gave the pastoralists a temporary tenure, but in 1851 these were replaced by fourteen year Pastoral Leases modelled on New South Wales regulations. However, the important difference was that in South Australia the leases could be cancelled at six months' notice if the land was required by the government for sale.
The extent of Pastoral Leases can be mapped for the first time in 1855. By then a narrow wedge of grazing land extended into the Northern Flinders Ranges, while footholds were established on grassy openings among the heaths and mallee scrublands of the tips of Eyre and Yorke peninsulas. At that time, 80% of the sheep and 65% of the cattle were recorded on the Pastoral Leases beyond the boundaries of the Hundreds.
The human population, on the other hand, was markedly concentrated. By 1851 almost a quarter of the white population lived in the City of Adelaide, with another quarter nearby on the Adelaide Plains in the Hundreds of Adelaide and Yatala. The only other large settlements were the copper mining centres at Kapunda with 2000 people and Redruth and Kooringa with 4000 where half the population was said to be living in caves excavated into creek banks. The diversity of economic products, the growing export trade and the spread of settlement outwards focused attention on the urgent need for 'transport infrastructure'. A Central Board of Main Roads was formed in 1849 to maintain the principal all-weather roads, while District Councils were charged with looking after feeder roads.
In 1850, navigational aids were restricted to a solitary lightship, the Ville de Bordeaux, moored off the entrance to Port Adelaide. The first lighthouse was built at Cape Willoughby in 1852, marking the vital entrance to Backstairs Passage. During the 1850s there was to be much lobbying and debate, and considerable public and private investment in the establishment of ports, jetties, lighthouses, ferries, river navigation, tramways, railways and better urban water supplies.
News of the Victorian gold discoveries reached Adelaide in the spring of 1851. When it became known that the diggings could be reached on foot in less than three weeks, an exodus of South Australians began in earnest, especially from the copper mines. Government workers sank seven wells in natural 'soaks' in the scrub of the Ninety Mile Desert between the Wellington ferry on the River Murray and the more hospitable Tatiara country. This line became known as the Gold Escort Route, and lies south of the present Dukes Highway.
South Australia was faced not only with the loss of much of its work force but also with a severe drain of coin and gold from its banks. A novel scheme was soon devised to make Adelaide a financial centre for the Victorian diggings, by outbidding Melbourne in offering a higher price for gold and using the bullion to back paper currency. When Melbourne banks were offering £3 0s 6d per ounce the South Australian Banking Company offered an effective price of £3 8s 0d per ounce.
A monthly gold escort was established from the rich Mount Alexander diggings near Bendigo, Victoria, where, in 1852, some 4000 South Australians were said to working. Early in 1853 returns fell off rapidly with competition from Melbourne Banks and the escort ceased in December. By 1854, £1.8 million worth of Victorian gold had been melted at the Adelaide assay office, 65% of it arriving by official escort, the rest by individual miners.
The spectacle of troopers riding across the mallee with gold dust bound for the vaults of Adelaide banks was bizarre and short lived. More important was the effect of the Victorian gold rush in spreading wealth among working class South Australian. Hundreds returned from Victoria in 1853 and 1854 to buy land and, as a result, many tenants of the South Australian Company could now purchase the land they tilled. Others extended the frontiers of cultivation by buying land in the hill country between the Barossa and Clare districts.
Many farmers who resisted the temptation to join the gold rushes prospered by supplying grain, flour and other produce to Victoria, some of it carried by the new Murray River paddle steamers, and the rest by sea to Melbourne. Especially productive were the Reynella and McLaren Vale districts south of Adelaide. With an assured external grain market, South Australian farming flourished throughout the 1850s.
Large land sales swelled the Emigration Fund which was controlled by the Land and Emigration Commissioners in London. In 1855 alone, they sent out nearly 12 000 assisted migrants, as many as came in the first five years of settlement. Three-quarters were women and children. Nearly 5500 Irish orphan and pauper girls were sent out in 1854-55, some in the unrealised hope that they would replace farm labourers lost the gold-diggings, while others were destine to work as domestic servants. Requests for labour by the copper mining companies produced a substantial Cornish contingent among the 1855 emigrants. Immigration from Germany also reached its peak in the middle 1850s, partly as a response to favourable letters home from earlier migrants.