Memories of Gawler 1949-1958 by John H Chambers

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Prepared by John H Chambers c1970


An official census in the latter part of the previous decade showed Gawler with a population of 4427 people to be the fourth largest country town in South Australia. Population increased during the next few years, due mostly to migrants taking up residence in Gawler. In addition to those occupying homes a number of displaced persons from New South Wales arrived in late January 1949. Accommodation was provided for them in what was formerly the Air Force Camp at Willaston. Later in the same year some 400 New Australians (including 85 married couples) occupied the same camp, where a staff of 37 persons was employed. From time to time other people came and went. In 1956, 322 English migrants (including 68 families) were housed at the camp.

Housing was Gawler’s most serious problem in the greater part of this decade.

Some relief came on the completion of double unit dwellings for 47 families in Ey Grove and May Terrace, the SA Housing Trust area just off Barnet Road. Purchase of approximately 60 acres of land at “Duck Flat” (land bordered by Fourteenth and Sixteenth Streets, the South Para River and beyond the railway line at Gawler West) followed by the Trust letting contracts for construction of houses, was only a beginning of relief in the drastic housing position.

The Trust, unlike the mass of people was not seriously affected by a shortage of building materials. Red brick was the walling material almost exclusively used with roofs of corrugated iron. The houses comprised both single and double units; some were for sale and others for rental. The land extended into the Mudla Wirra District Council area. Most of the land had been covered with floodwaters in 1889 and again in 1917, when the South Para River overflowed its banks.

More land of the Evanston (Gawler) racecourse was purchased by the Trust a few years later. The same type of house was built making it evident to the casual observer that here was another SA Housing Trust area.

Other new buildings were nurses quarters at the Hutchinson Hospital costing £34 000 ($68 000),(the hospital grounds were extended by the purchase of 11 more acres of land), the Church of Nazarene, the Zion Lutheran Church Hall and administration offices for the Gawler Jockey Club. The Gawler West Methodist Church also erected a hall and more than £3000 ($6000) were spent on a new front to the Oddfellows Hall, a building that had figured prominently in the town’s early history. Girl Guides Gawler built a small clubroom and a troop of Boy Scouts was reformed after a period of ten years and stables in East Terrace were converted into the troop’s clubrooms.

The era when locally raised slate stone was predominantly used and limestone to a lesser degree in practically all buildings had long ended. Brick (or block) cavity walls had almost replaced solid stone walls. Galvanised iron, which had formerly been almost the universal material used for roofing for many years, was rapidly being discarded, except by the Housing Trust. Terracotta and cement roofing tiles of many colours, were now being extensively used. Cement tiles were being produced at the rate of 2000 daily by Gawler Tiles Ltd of Willaston.

However, careful attention had enabled some buildings, such as [[St. George s Anglican Church|St George’s Church]], Tod Street Methodist Church, the Congregational Church and others to retain their fine slate tiled roofs. Many buildings originally graced with slate tiles, and some roofed with wood shingles, had their roofs covered with less attractive iron sheeting.

A return to the pioneering spirit of the early settlers was evident during this period under review.

Home ownership now depended on the efforts of the individual himself in many cases and the only way to achieve this was doing the building personally. Both the rivers had almost been scraped bare of sand, which was now in good supply at nearby sand pits. Lime, as it had long been, was still readily available. Kilns which had been in use for fifty years and more, were replaced by new kilns (at Willaston), which assured continuity of supplies. Clay bricks were still being produced in quantity in Willaston, but were only available to the privileged. Consequently many persons had to accept an alternative, the cement block or brick.

Cement block making became a commercial undertaking. Using pockets of sand of various colours available in Martin’s Gully, off Duffield Street, blocks of shades of cream and pink were produced in quantity as can be seen in many houses of cement blocks obviously made in the one mould from the one quarry.

As now especial skill was required and labour accounted for much of the cost of the cement block the young and middle-aged men and even women could be seen at weekends moulding and laying bricks and other house construction work.

Later, clay bricks became more readily procurable. A new brick kiln at Willaston was constructed; approximately 100 000 bricks were used in its 43 foot tall chimney. A much taller “stove-pipe type”, reaching 98 feet, was erected at the butter factory at “Goose Island”. Both chimneys were on low lying ground and neither was a landmark comparable to the 70 foot tall chimneys at the Albion and [Victoria Mill|Victoria Mills]] (respectively situated in Cowan Street and Gawler West) before their demolition.

Just as the housing crisis was being overcome, so was progress being made in other directions. John H Chambers had been appointed Registrar of the Gawler Technical School in 1948. It was a part time occupation, and like his predecessor, the late Mr J H Bennett, Mr Chambers was also a teacher at the Gawler High School. Two years later enrolments at the Technical School (and branches) exceeded 1000 students. In 1955, Mr Chambers was appointed full time Principal; total enrolments were then 1007 (Gawler 363). Dedication to education, increases in the number of classes taking new subjects, the scarcity of classrooms and the efforts of members of the Gawler Technical School Council had a bearing on the Government setting aside funds for an Adult Education Centre building with frontages to Finniss and Jacob Streets.

Transference of the Divisional Commonwealth Electoral Office from Gawler, the building, which was originally the telegraph office, then the Gawler School of Mines, reverted back to approved classrooms of the Technical School.

Eight hundred and twenty children were enrolled at the Gawler Primary School in the early 1950s. In 1956 there were 375 students at the High School, 487 at the Primary School, plus another 216 at the Infant School. Additional classrooms had already been constructed at the State Primary School. Enrolments at the Roman Catholic Schools were 160.

Jennifer M McDougall was Tennyson Medallist in 1958. Helen Hay had also won that award in 1943 and Allan Clark brought the same honour to Gawler in 1916.

Gawler High School was raised in status from Class 11 to Class 1 at the end of 1956.

More than 10 acres of land were purchased in Evanston for another secondary school.

The Choral Society, which had been re-established in 1946, and the Barossa Choralists merged and under the title of Gawler-Barossa Oratorio Choir, broadcast regularly for the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

Telephone services were brought up to date with the changeover from the Magneto to the Central Battery System in 1956. Twenty six telephonists were employed at the exchange, to which 769 subscribers were connected. Gawler was the first South Australian country town to have a telephone exchange, established in 1889, there were three subscribers, each of whom paid an annual fee of £25 ($50).

Improved street lighting made its greatest impact since the time the acetylene gas lamp was replaced by the electric light lamp in 1912, when Gawler celebrated its centenary of municipal government in 1957. On the evening of July 1st, Murray Street was ablaze with light. Thirty five units, each with four 40 watt fluorescent tubes lit the street with a light that cast no shadow. Extension of the new improved lighting was later made to the whole street area of the town.

Covering the water tables and installation of underground drainage was a great improvement in the main street. A uniform height of kerbstone had long been needed. The cost of the work was in the vicinity of £12 000 ($24 000). A Liberal Government subsidy made the undertaking of this project possible.

Drainage had long been a problem since the town’s inception. Big works had been carried out to stop the centre of the town from flooding with stormwaters over many years. The difficulty associated with drainage south of the South Para River was the fall of ground level away from the river bank.

Plans and estimates of a scheme to drain a catchment extending over most of the area bounded by the railway line and the South Para River was prepared at a cost of £255 ($510), only to find no government financial aid forthcoming. The scheme was far too costly to be undertaken by the Gawler Corporation.

However, sharing costs with the Housing Trust the Corporation installed drainage to take stormwaters from the part of the housing area at Duck Flat into the river.

Seven acres of land, between the South Para River and the Trust houses, were transferred by the Trust to the Corporation. Land along the northern side of the river had been set aside as parkland by the original proprietors of Gawler, but most of the southern bank was privately owned. Now the public had access to the greater part of both banks in one section, but was soon to be denied access to another section of parkland, known as olive plantation and situated near Dead Man’s Pass. This area was enclosed with a high fence and converted into a corporation depot. The olive trees (100 had originally been planted) were removed, but much of the beauty of this quiet retreat remained as the fine gum trees were retained.

A move to use yet another area of parklands for a different purpose failed. Acting in good faith, the town council granted a portion of Pioneer Park (formerly the town cemetery and later proclaimed parkland) as a site for the erection of a building for kindergarten purposes. Objections came from the Pioneers Association and others. Legal advice was obtained. Council reversed its decision and suggested land for the project be obtained elsewhere.

Land near the Commercial Hotel (now South End) was given by the SA Brewing Company Ltd, a kindergarten was erected thereon. A wrought iron archway at the entrance of the grounds has the inscription “Elsie Ey Free Kindergarten”.

Improvements to the grounds of Pioneer Place followed. Apexians (branches of Apex and Rotary were founded in Gawler) planted lawns and many rose bushes and carried out other work over a three year period.

Councillors were inconsistent regarding widths of streets. They succeeded in efforts to induce the Education Department to cede part of land in which the headmaster’s residence was erected. A section of Porter Street was widened, but despite protests the width of part of Barnet Road was reduced.

This roadway, formerly Old Adelaide Road, was a direct route between Main North Road and the Gawler River Road. Unanimously rejecting an offer to purchase a strip of the eastern side of the road, adjacent to the Evanston Racecourse, made by the Gawler Jockey Club, the town council eventually reversed its decision by an eight to three vote. Land measuring 10 feet by 575 feet was sold for £300 ($600).

Council, however, refused to meet the wishes of the SA Railways to close the level crossings in Warren and Howard Streets. These were only two of the five level crossings in the short distance between Victoria Place and Edith Street.

Mechanisation of Corporation plant was gradual an extended over a period of years. An old horse, “Charlie” was still used about once a week in the mid-1950s. He cost about £70 ($140) per year to keep and became quite stubborn. “Charlie” was used in carting rubbish from the Town Hall yard on one occasion. When the dray was filled the horse refused to budge, eventually the men went for the foreman, but “Charlie” still would not move. So the foreman went for the tractor. With the tractor pushing behind the horse was reluctantly obliged to move his big feet. Each time he stopped on the way to the depot the tractor was used to force him along. The inevitable result was “Charlie” went out of a job.

A more serious problem was increased compulsory contributions to the cost of maintaining the fire brigade. Council resolved to request the Fire Brigade Board to discontinue providing the permanent brigade in the town so that it could be replaced with an auxiliary force. Eventually there was no reduction in service or status. The reason for retaining the existing service was not publicly disclosed, but it is known that a call for volunteers to take up duties as auxiliary fireman brought poor response.

Some other moves to serve the people were highly successful, but a few were disappointing. No objection was raised to the proposal for Council to approve of a women’s rest room centre with toilets for the Country Women’s Association, along with adequate facilities for the Mothers and Babies Health Association in the Market Allotment. This land had never actually been a market place. Attempts to establish a market in the 1870s were abortive. Tenders had been called for the erection of a market building, but a tender received was not taken up. The allotment was fenced in the early 1900s and a lawn planted later. Legal difficulties concerning the use of the land for the new project and other problems arose. A nucleus of a fund came from profits of celebrations in 1949. The swimming pool project also shared in the profits.

Gawler became the first country Blood Bank Transfusion Centre in South Australia. In one fortnight there were 70 blood donors.

Sporting activities increased, although rodeos that had been conducted by the Returned Soldiers League for a few years were discontinued late in this decade.

Daytime trotting meetings were discontinued and replaced with night fixtures (under electric lighting). More than 10 000 people attended the opening night meeting. Electric light cricket was revived. A portion of the Sister Sutton Playground was converted into a croquet court. The Tennis Association was granted a lease of part of the north western parklands on which to establish lawn tennis courts. Tennis teams from Gawler won the Berridge Shield (country tennis championship) on six occasions in a seven year period. The number of football clubs and teams increased.

The Gawler & District Cricket Association and the Gawler River Cricket Association along with other clubs south of Gawler merged, the new body under the title of the Para Districts Cricket Association. A new pitch was laid on Princess Park, adjacent to the Gawler Oval. The Gawler Oval was resown with couch grass seed and a new system of watering installed.

Sixty trees had been removed from the parklands, downstream from the North Para road traffic bridge. Volunteers began excavating here for the proposed swimming pool after having abandoned the previously selected site near the oval railway siding. Advocates of damming the South Para River as preferable to a concrete constructed pool had received a setback. In a report to Council the senior geologist of the Department of Mines stated that there was no geological grounds for preferring any particular site for a weir and if one should be favoured because of other considerations, test drilling would be advisable before preparation of engineering estimates. Cost of construction could only be prepared after drilling costing £500 ($1000) or more. A minimum of six exploratory holes to a depth of 60 to 75 feet would be required. Leakage in any reservoir could be expected to be considerable.

Frank Starling brought clay target honours to Gawler in winning as SA Championship, but Gawler lost its rifle range when army authorities ordered its closure, because two houses were in the danger area. The range had been established 98 years. Targets were situated east of the Main North Road (Adelaide Road) and just off Potts Road. For a number of years marksmen had had their firing restricted to short distances. There was a time when riflemen used to fire from the western side of Adelaide Road, while men with red flags temporarily stopped traffic. When American servicemen occupied the military camp at Sandy Creek, during the war, about 500 men a day fired at the range.

Anglers still caught fish, some weighing in excess of two pounds, in the South Para River, which was still being stocked with trout and perch from Victoria in the early 1950s. “Muddies”, native fish of the South Para, were in unusually good supply and weighed up to three quarters of a pound.

A member of the Adelaide Gliding Club took off from the Gawler ‘drome and established a state soaring record by covering a distance of 192 miles.

The most disappointing feature in sport was the construction of a cycling (saucer) track – six laps to the mile – on parkland near the Angaston railway line. Much labour was virtually wasted on this project, which took many months to complete. The track was seldom used and was soon removed.

By contrast, much satisfaction was experienced when payment of £1000 ($2000) freed the Gawler Institute of debt. The Institute although not playing such a prominent part in public affairs as formerly, was still providing essential services, especially in connection with its library. A reading room for “Subscribers Only” remained open, but the public reading room had long been closed, as had been the museum, with its wide range of curiosities. Among the relics had been two leg bones of the moa, the mighty bird (now extinct) that once trod the pathless woods of Maori Land; specimens of birds, of all sorts and sizes, from the big, unwieldy web-footed inhabitants of the lakes, to the light airy, delicately moulded bright-hued wren. Gone, too, were the alligator (or was it a crocodile?) alongside a big snake, other snakes preserved in jars of spirits, and many insects, as well as many specimens of minerals and two stones from the Egyptian pyramids.

Historical data of the Willaston Memorial Hall, was revealed at a court inquiry. The building remained the property of the Mudla Wirra District Council when Willaston was merged into the Gawler Corporation area and continued to be used by the District Council. The land had been conveyed by William Paxton to the Mudla Wirra Council in 1885, on trust for the erection and maintenance of a school. Council voted £100 ($200) towards the school, the Education Department gave £200 ($400) and district residents subsidised this with gifts.

Early settlers sunk wells for water. Gawler’s first public water supply came from a well at the southern end of Murray Street. Water was struck at a depth of 35 feet, but the well was carried down to 52 feet and tubes were driven down a further 40 feet. Influx of water was at the rate of 6300 gallons per hour.

Now, in search of a plentiful supply of water, a bore hole was put down 221 feet at the Evanston Racecourse. Water flowed from it at a rate of between 3500 and 4000 gallons per hour, but it was so heavily impregnated with very fine sand that the venture was a failure.

A great volume of fast flowing water in the North Para River wrenched both footbridges spanning that river from their supports and wrecked them in 1952. “The Planks”, the less substantial of the two, was re-erected within a few months, but the other (at the Murray Street – Old North Road Ford) was never replaced.

Some months earlier wind gusts exceeding 30 miles per hour drove a hole (7 inches by 12 inches) in the eastern face of the clock in the tower of the post office. The clock, which was placed in service in 1867 was provided by the Gawler Town Council made possible by a special levy on ratepayers. It is a feature of historic interest that the eastern face shows IV where the number VI should appear. It is believed that this error occurred during manufacture of the clock.

Little new industry came to Gawler, but some well-established industries expanded.

  • Egg merchants, H T Brown Ltd, installed a new packing machine and received and packed up to 40 000 dozen eggs weekly.
  • A wooden box-making business started and made up to 14 000 crates weekly.
  • Henderson Spring Works started business in a former building of James Martin & Co.
  • Jeffs Bros Ltd erected three steel wheat silos, each with a capacity of 29 000 bushels, on the former site of May Bros & Co foundry.

New streets in subdivided areas were named mostly after men who had given service in either state or local government. Amongst those honoured were Lynch, Marsh, Rice (mayors), Duldig, Foord, Lawrence, Whittaker (councillors), Richards (town clerk), Crosby and Duncan (parliamentarians).

In most spheres 1949-1958 had been a happy and successful decade.

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