Gawler Thematic History - Surveying the Land

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Type of thing Government
Date made or found 2020

Surveying the Land

Given the proximity and immediacy to the greater area of Adelaide, the Gawler region was quickly investigated in the search for valuable, tenable land beyond the city which would be suitable for settlement and development to the new Colony of South Australia. The South Australian Colonisation Commissioner had selected Colonel William Light as Surveyor General and he visited the area a number of times in 1837 and reported well. 11

The government’s ‘Special Survey’ method of land survey and selection was established at the end of 1838, in a move to rescue the Colony’s disastrous financial position. Contentious and subject to great scrutiny and criticism for a number of reasons, for the short period in which they were available, the surveys formed the basis upon which many large landholdings were successfully established. As many of the surveys, including that of Gawler proved, they were used to effectively pick the eyes out of the good land, particularly that which was located along South Australia’s bountiful rivers. By August 1839, only eight months after the first Special Survey had taken place, thirty-two Surveys, amounting to nearly half a million acres had been sold; thirteen of these were to the north and north-east of Adelaide.

Most of the original owners of the Special Surveys also established private townships in the most suitable location and made huge profits from selling town blocks. As thriving self-sufficient communities, they supported the growth in population and spread of cultivation at the time.

Gawler was one of the first country townships to be formed in the British Colony of South Australia; 4,000 acres of land had been selected in 1839 as a speculative venture by Henry Dundas Murray, John Reid and a syndicate of ten other landholders in the ‘Gawler Special Survey’ beside the North Para River.12

Murray, King and Reid had arrived in South Australia in January 1839 and the next month they rode out to the ‘Para Pass’ after Light had recommended the site to them. The Gawler town site was surveyed and devised by July 1839 by the former Colonial surveyor, Colonel William Light under the auspice of his own firm Light, Finniss and Company. As Surveyor General, Light was responsible for the site selection and planning of the town of Adelaide.

Unlike Adelaide, which was planned on a central grid, Gawler’s topography was taken into account to form a triangular town centre. The key features of the Gawler design included Town Acres, wide streets in a grid design and parklands encircling large tracts of common land.13

At the core of the original area selected by Light is that now recognised as the Church Hill State Heritage Area. ‘In both choice of site and layout Light provided the basis of significance which survives in Gawler today. The series of squares on Church Hill, use of parkland reserves to the river frontage, sympathy to topography to the north-south escarpment provide a strong physical and visualcharacter’.14

The township was to comprise 240 acres which was to be made up of 100 acres of allotments (as 200 half acre allotments) and 140 acres of streets, parklands, city squares, churches, cemeteries and other public places.15

Criticism levelled at the original plan is that while well planned for commercial and residential use, it was not well considered for industry or growth. In that regard, further haphazard subdivisions grew around the township to accommodate growth and industrial use activity was fitted into the existing town plan.16 Despite these criticisms with the benefit of hindsight, the original Gawler Town plan is now “hailed as the jewel in the heritage crown of urban development north of Adelaide”. 17

The importance of Gawler as a "key to the north" was recognised very early and although the volume of anticipated through-traffic by road was much reduced by the subsequent initiation of other means of transportation (by sea, rail and the River Murray) in the 1850's, Gawler had by then already become an established commercial centre with its own local industry and trades, serving both the farming districts and its own growing population.


This report has been prepared by the following people:

• Nancy Cromar (Flightpath Architects)

• Deborah Morgan (Flightpath Architects)

• Kate Paterson (Flightpath Architects)

• Douglas Alexander (Flightpath Architects)

The study team would like to acknowledge the assistance of the following people:

• David Petruzzella (Strategic Planner; Town of Gawler)

• Jacinta Weiss (Cultural Heritage Centre Coordinator; Town of Gawler)

• Jane Strange (Senior Development and Strategic Policy Officer; Town of Gawler)

Gawler History Team thanks Flightpath Architects, Ryan Viney and the Town of Gawler for allowing us access to this important document of Gawler History.


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