1890: Depression and Experiment
South Australians celebrated the golden jubilee of their province in 1886-87 with fanfare and an International Exhibition, but their satisfaction was tinged with gloom. By 1890 they had experienced several years of economic depression which was to last until after 1900. It was relieved for some by the success of South Australian investors and workers in the rich, new silver-lead mines at Broken Hill, and by the middle 1890s on the Western Australian gold-fields.
The surge of settlement into the northern wheat-lands in the 1870s had been halted by three years of severe drought from 1880 to 1882. Although good seasons returned in the middle 1880s, climatic uncertainty was now an accepted fact of rural life with its ripple effects on urban prosperity.
The sale of Crown Lands, which provided the funds for building the railways in the 1870s, slumped with the onset of the drought. Worse still, there was evidence of soil exhaustion. Average wheat yields trended ominously downwards from 0.39 tonnes per hectare in the early 1870s to 0.28 tonnes by the early 1890s and were not to climb again until 1905.
The challenge of depression stimulated many South Australians to seek more effective ways of coaxing productivity from their frugal land and fickle rainfall in 1885. South Australian politicians once again showed their capacity for social experiment by being the second Australian Parliament to levy an income tax.
More concerned with creating wealth than taxing it were those who developed new technologies for clearing the extensive mallee woodlands, experimented with superphosphate on wheat crops, and developed systems of fallowing and dry farming. Others began draining the swamps of the lower Murray and the South-East, and established the first irrigation settlements on the River Murray.
There was some consolation for those who remained in South Australia during the long depression. The settled areas had a geographic compactness rare in lands of pioneer settlement, while communications and services for most of the South Australian population were well-developed and accessible. Some 2700 kilometres of railway line had been built at a cost of £10 million and there were 3220 kilometres of macadamised roads. Few farms were more than a days return dray ride from a railway siding or coastal jetty. For every 1000 people, South Australia had 7.2 kilometres of railway opened, compared with the 3.2 kilometres of railway per 1000 people in Victoria and New South Wales.
The close pattern of small towns ensured that rural folk had access to commercial, retail and social services with minimal travel. Among their well supported services was a flourishing system of literary institutes. These provided libraries of technical knowledge as well as morally uplifting leisure reading through the community, the size of the bookstock reflecting both the age of the town and the size of the local population.
In 1891 census showed that 42% of South Australians lived within a 16 kilometre radius of the Adelaide Post Office. Outside this area only eight corporate towns had more than 1000 people. The largest with 4000 people was Port Pirie, newly booming as a wheat port and smelting centre for the silver-lead mines at Broken Hill.
The largest concentration of people outside Adelaide was on the Moonta-Wallaroo copper fields with 11 600 people. The Renmark Irrigation Colony was established in 1887 but only 367 people lived there in 1891 according to the 1891 census.
Almost the whole of Eyre Peninsula, apart from small clusters around Port Lincoln and some other small ports, was virtually uninhabited, as were the lands east of the Murray and North of Border Town.
The hardships of farmers on the drought-afflicted northern lands resulted in a comprehensive revision of the land laws. In 1888 the Crown Lands Act abolished sales of land on credit and substituted the principle of leasing of Crown Lands, either in perpetuity or with eventual right of purchase. (the classification 'sold land' on the 1865 map has been defined as 'alienated land' on the 1890, embracing both freehold land and Crown Leases other than Pastoral Leases.)
These were radical departures from the long-held principle of establishing farmers on freehold land sold at a uniform minimum price regardless of quality. It was a sensible modification of policy for the environment of the marginal regions, and signified a trend towards finer tuning of land management.
Although South Australia was the colony with the most meagre timber resources, it was the pioneer of forestry in Australia when an Act of 1873 granted landowners a tree planting subsidy. More important was the declaration of Forest Reserves of which there were 91,000 hectares by 1890, with 4000 hectares enclosed for forest planting in several districts, especially in the southern Flinders Ranges east of Port Pirie.
South Australians were the vanguard of the Australian pastoral advance into the arid zone. Quickly recovering from the droughts of the 1860s, they had penetrated to the interior deserts and optimistically taken up Pastoral Leases, some of which were never stocked. By 1884, 62% of the total area was under Pastoral Lease, a figure never again to be reached. Most holdings were on the average fewer than 2500 square kilometres; the largest lessee, Sir Thomas Elder, held 27,000 square kilometres.
By 1892 some 36% of the cattle, 26% of the sheep and 10% of the horses were grazing in the Pastoral Leases, the highest proportion of South Australia's livestock ever recorded in the arid zone. During severe droughts at the turn of the century, lasting damage was done to the vegetation by excessive grazing.
Livestock from the interior were driven along designated stock routes with regularly spaced reservoirs, tanks, bores and wells, built and maintained by the government. In the central zone of the railway to Hergott Springs and Oodnadatta was a vital lifeline for the remote pastoral stations.
Compared with 1865, South Australian communications systems had developed impressively by 1890. There were some 9000 kilometres of telegraph line with 220 stations, including the international link to Darwin via Alice Springs. Maritime navigational aids included fourteen lighthouses covering most of the sea lands east of Cape Borda, and one lighthouse guiding the paddle-steamers on the lower Murray lakes. No Australian colony depended so much on coastal shipping for dispatching its farm produce.
The rail network comprised four separate systems with three awkward break-of-gauge stations. The broad-gauge system of 836 kilometres radiating from Adelaide served the early settled farmlands and stretched across the uninhabited mallee to join the Victorian system at Serviceton. The first Adelaide-Melbourne express ran in 1887. The broad-gauge tracks met the River Murray at Morgan, Murray Bridge and Goolwa, where wool from up-river stations was transferred for shipment at Port Adelaide.
Narrow-gauge tracks of nearly 1900 kilometres had been built cheaply and quickly during the 1870s wheat boom. Extensions deep into the interior were made in the 1880s to Oodnadatta in the far north and to Cockburn on the Broken Hill route. The line to Cockburn produced 42% of the entire rail revenue in 1890. The South-East had a separate narrow-gauge, light-rail system which generated little traffic. There was also a narrow-gauge system focusing on Wallaroo which did a flourishing trade in copper ores and grain to the nearby ports.
The rural basis of South Australia's economy was mirrored in its infant industrial structure. In 1891, the 915 'manufactories' employed 13 500 people mainly in handicraft and simple farm-related industries. As in 1865, pride of place was still held by the widely dispersed flourmilling industry. Its eighty-one plants were the most labour-efficient industry, employing only 5 % of the factory work force but using 50% of the total machine horsepower. Although almost every country town had its flourmill, the economies of large-scale production were eventually to make most of the mills redundant.