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Umpherston sink hole gardens in Mt Gambier South Australia.
Image by denisbin
Brief History of Mt Gambier – the second city of SA after Adelaide (region population nearly 35,000, urban 28,000).
Lieutenant James Grant aboard the Lady Nelson sighted and named Mt Gambier in 1800 after a Lord of the Admiralty. The first white man to traverse the area was Stephen Henty of Portland in 1839 when he sighted the Blue Lake. He returned with cattle and stockmen in 1841. He later claimed that had he known the lake and volcano he had discovered in 1839 was in SA he would have immediately applied for an 1839 Special Survey. But Henty thought he was squatting on land in NSW and he was not an official SA settler so the government ordered him off the land in 1844. Thus the first official white settler of the South East and the Mt Gambier district became Evelyn Sturt, brother to Captain Charles Sturt, who took up an occupational license in March 1844 and a property he named Compton just north of the present city. In April 1844 Governor Grey and a party of assistants including the Assistant Surveyor General Thomas Burr and artist George French Angas explored the South East naming Robe and doing the first surveys. Evelyn Sturt became the first to have an occupational license to squat and the first purchase freehold land near Mt Gambier which he did in 1847- a section of 77 acres when 80 acres was the norm. He left the district in 1854 selling his freehold land to Hastings Cunningham who in 1855 subdivided some of this land thus creating the town of Gambierton. The town lands were adjacent to the site of the first police station selected near what is now Cave Gardens by the government in 1845. A small bush inn also operated at this spot. The first streets were named after early locals such as Evelyn Sturt, Compton, Ferrers and Crouch (built the first general store before the town was created) etc. The town grew quickly because of the mild climate, fertile soils, plentiful water and the influx of settlers from across the border in what was to become the colony of Victoria. Cunningham himself was a great benefactor and donated land for the first school in 1856. In 1861 the town name was changed by act of parliament to Mt Gambier. The Hundred of Mt Gambier (along with three other hundreds) was declared in 1858 and began the closer settlement of the South East.
Unlike other areas of SA the South East was seen as paradise for pastoralists and the optimistic pastoralists flocked to the area with their flocks in 1845. The large runs locked up the land and prevented farmers from settling in the region except for the fertile lands around Mount Gambier. Here small scale farmers had small properties and grew potatoes, hops, and later had dairy cows as well as growing wheat and oats. Land acts in the early 1870s designed to break up the big runs only partially succeeded in the South East where most station owners bought up their lands freehold. It was after 1905 before the big pastoral estates were really broken up for farmers and closer settlement, except for near Mt Gambier. Apart from Evelyn Sturt the other early white settlers of the South East in 1845 were Alexander Cameron at Penola, John Robertson at Struan, William Macintosh and George Ormerod at Naracoorte, the Austin brothers at Yallum Park (later John Riddoch), the Arthur brothers (nephews of Governor Arthur of Van Diemen’s Land) at Mt Schanck( now Mt Schank) and the Leake brothers at Glencoe. In fact in 1845 nineteen leasehold runs were taken up in the South East with a further thirty runs in 1846 and most had several 80 acres sections of freehold land near the main homestead. Most had got to the South East from Casterton and Portland in Victoria as the swamps near the coast were too difficult to traverse except for the country near Robe. Many of the estates were huge. Evelyn Sturt on the Compton/Mt Gambier run had 85 square miles as well as his freehold land; Robertson had 135 square miles at Struan; George Glen (and William Vansittart) of Mayurra had 110 square miles; the SA Company had 159 square miles on the Benara run; the Leake brothers had 194 square miles on Glencoe; Hunter had 56 square miles on Kalangadoo; Neil Black of Noorat Victoria had 45 square miles on Kongorong run and 101 square miles at Port MacDonnell and the Arthur brothers had a huge run at Mt Schanck. By 1851 almost 5,000 square miles of the South East was occupied by Occupational License and most licenses were converted to 14 year leases in that year. A third of all leasehold land in SA was taken up in the South East because of its higher rainfall and suitability for pastoralism and a third of all sheep in the colony were in the South East. When Hundreds were declared in the South East in the late 1850s and early 1860s pastoralists bought up the land. In one case John Riddoch of Yallum Park owned the entire Hundred of Monbulla. Another pastoralist W. Clarke who had purchased Mt Schancke station from the Arthur brothers in 1861 owned SA land valued at £1.25 million when he died in 1874 and he had 120,000 acres freehold in Victoria, 75,000 acres freehold in SA( Mt Schank) and 50,000 acres freehold in each of NSW and Tasmania! Mt Schanck was changed in Schank in 1917 when German place names in SA were changed as Schank without the second “c” is an old English name!
In the 1850s Mt Gambier was a shanty village as the South East was a region of large pastoral estates and little agricultural farming and very low population numbers. It was far from Adelaide and remote and it was only after the Princeland episode in 1862 with the threat of possible secession to a new state that the Adelaide government began to invest in the South East and really encourage settlement there. The Border Watch newspaper was established in 1861, the Mt Gambier Hotel opened in 1862 and the Mt Gambier Council was formed in 1863.By the early 1860s Mt Gambier had almost 1,000 residents making it one of the largest towns in SA after the copper mining centres of Burra, Kadina and Moonta. By the 1881 SA census Mt Gambier had 2,500 residents making it the biggest town outside of Adelaide. In 1865 four iconic historic buildings were erected-the Courthouse, the Gaol, Christ Church Anglican and the Post Office and Telegraph Station. The flourmill which later became the Oat Mill opened in 1867 as wheat farmers had now taken up lands around the Mount. Mt Gambier was growing into a fine prosperous looking town with churches, stores, banks, hotels and fine residences. In the 1870s the rural population increased dramatically with tenant potato farmers on Browne’s Moorak estate and intensive hop growing in several localities such as Yahl and OB Flat and Glenburnie etc. Also in 1876 the first commercial forestry was started at the behest of George Goyder. A tree nursery was established on the edge of Leg of Mutton Lake in 1876 on a site selected by George Goyder himself. A stone cottage for the first nurseryman Charles Beale was constructed and it survived until demolished in 1969 but the nursery closed in 1929. The nursery propagated eucalypts, Oak, Elm, Ash, Sycamore, and North American pines. Pinus radiata was first grown at Leg of Mutton Lake and was being dispersed to other areas by 1878. Pinus canariensis was also grown in the 1880s. Pinus radiata is now the most commonly grown commercial forest tree in SA and Australia. Also in the 1870s the first hospital was erected and Dr Wehl, the town’s doctor for many years was in residence.
In the mid 1880s the first rail line was laid as the railway lines pushed out from Mt Gambier to Naracoorte. The service to Naracoorte began in 1887 and connected on with the line to Bordertown and Adelaide. By 1897 a railway connected Mt Gambier to Millicent and the port at Beachport. The railway line across the border to Heywood and Melbourne was not completed until 1917 as the SA government resisted a line that would take goods and passengers from Mt Gambier to Port Melbourne rather than to Port Adelaide. Mt Gambier railway station used to be a hive of activity with daily trains to Adelaide and an overnight sleeper services several times a week. Passenger trains to Mt Gambier from Adelaide stopped in 1990 after Australian National took over the SA railway network. Freight services stopped in 1995 and the railway line and station was formally closed. The railyards and other buildings were cleared in 2013.
The Buandik Aboriginal People.
The Buandik people are commemorated in a city street but by little else. Yet they were resilient and determined fighters opposed to the white settlement of the South East. Their occupation of the Mt Gambier district stretches back to around 20,000+ years but their dated occupation from archaeological sites goes back to about 11,000 years with their myths and legends including stories about volcanic activity at Mt Gambier. The last volcanic explosions were about 4,000 years ago. Both Mt Schank and Mt Gambier were important places to the Buandik for ceremonies, hunting, access to water and stone implement making. A government report in 1867 noted that the Buandik people in government care were few in number mainly sickly and elderly. The younger people had presumably moved out into the white community. But back in the 1840s the Buandik were a force to be reckoned with. There are no common stories of Aboriginal massacres but white pastoralists certainly retaliated when sheep were stolen. On Mt Schank station the Buandik were so troublesome that shepherds would not venture out to care for sheep alone and the Arthur brothers gave this trouble as their reason for them selling the run in 1845. In 1845 the government established a police station at Mt Gambier, which the Protector of Aboriginals visited, to ensure that pastoralists did not massacre the Buandik.
William Vansittart and Vansittart Park.
Vansittart Park has been a focal point of Mt Gambier since 1884 for activities such as family picnics, political rallies and speeches, bike racing, band rotunda concerts, bowling greens, sport oval, grandstand (1927) and Anzac memorial services. But who was William Vansittart? He was an Anglican reverend from England (Vansittart is a noble and political Anglo-Irish family in the UK) who arrived in SA in 1847 as a young bachelor. He was never licensed as a minister in SA but he developed his passions for making money and horse racing here. He mixed with the elite of Adelaide like Sir Samuel Davenport, the Governor and was a friend of Hurtle Fisher and he was Master of the Hounds. In 1850 he purchased 35 acres at Beaumont where he built Tower House and 80 acres at Mt Gambier. He imported a thoroughbred horse from Hobart called Lucifer. Ironic that a minister of religion would have a horse called Lucifer! His horses raced in Adelaide, Salisbury, Gawler, Brighton and Clare as well as in Mt Gambier and Penola. In 1851 he also took over the 110 square mile 14 year lease of Mayurra run with George Glen of Millicent. In 1852 he returned to England for a short time and on his return he purchased more freehold land bringing his estate to around 800 acres. Not long after in 1854 his horse shied, he was thrown against a tree and died of head injuries but he died intestate with an estate worth over £10,000. Glen bought out his share of Mayurra; the Beaumont house and property was sold in 1867 as were his race horses and his brother Captain Spencer Vansittart eventually inherited the Mt Gambier property. In accordance with William’s wishes 115 acres were set aside to provide income for a scholarship for boarders at St Peters Boys College which happened from 1859. Later in 1883 Spencer Vansittart offered 20 acres to the Mt Gambier Council for a memorial park at the “nominal” sum of £400 which hardly seems “nominal”. The Council raised a loan and purchased the land and the park is still enjoyed by the city’s residents and visitors. Captain Spencer’s widow sold the last package of 300 acres of land in 1912 thus ending the Vansittart links with Mt Gambier. The Vansittart scholarship is still available for boarders from the South East and is operated by a group of College trustees.
Some Historic Buildings in Mt Gambier and a town walk.
Your town walk is basically straight ahead along Penola Road towards the Mount itself which becomes Bay Road( the bay is at Port MacDonnell) once you cross Commercial Street which is the Main Street. There are just a few diversions to the left as you face the Mount. The coach will collect you at the Mount end of the walk near the Old Courthouse.
If you a good walker check out the fine houses in Jardine Street at numbers 1, 7, 9, 11, 12, 17 and 22. They range from cottages to Gothic and turreted mansions including the home of Jens the hotelier. This detour will add another 10 minutes to the walk if you elect to do it.
1.Catholic Covent. Sisters of Mercy setup a convent school in 1880. This wonderful convent was not built until 1908 in local dolomite stone & limestone quoins. Note the fine stone gables with small niches for statuary, the well proportioned arched colonnades and upstairs oriel windows – the projecting bay windows with stone supports. This is one of the finest buildings in Mt Gambier. The convent closed in 1986. Now Auspine.
2.Wesleyan Methodist Church Hall/Sunday School. Across the street is pink dolomite neo-classical style Wesleyan Methodist Sunday School Hall. Hundreds of children attended Sunday School in those days. It opened in 1904. It is now commercial offices. (If you want to walk up Wyatt Street beside the Sunday School and turn right at second street which is at Gray you will see the old two storey Methodist Manse at 101 Gray St. It was built in 1868 and sold 1941. As you turn into Gray Street the Salvation Army Hall is on your left. Allow 10 minutes for this detour before returning to Penola Road).
3.Methodist Church now Liberty Church. A Gothic large church built in 1862 by the Wesleyans. Opened by minister from Portland. Additions made 1877 with new entrance. The old lecture hall and Sunday School was beneath the church. Note the buttress on corners and sides. Became Uniting Church 1977 and closed 1994 when services moved to St Andrews Presbyterian Church. Behind the church (walk through the car park) in Colhurst Place is LLandovery two storey mansion now a B&B. Built 1878 for a flour and oat miller who had his mill in Percy Street.
4.St Paul’s Catholic Church. This impressive Gothic church with huge tower with crenulations was opened in 1884 and will be open today. There are 1966 extensions to the rear of it. The Presbytery is behind the church facing Alexander St. it was built in 1901 when the church was free of building debt. The first thatched bush church was built in another location in 1855. From 1857 the priest was Father Julian Tenison Woods, explorer, academic, horseman etc. A second church opened in 1861 in Sturt St and is now demolished. It closed in 1885 as this church opened. The bells came from Dublin. The church fence and gates built 1936.
5.The Mount Gambier Club. Across the street is the Club. It was built in 1904 for a local distiller as chambers for lease. The wealthy pastoralists of the South East formed an exclusive men only club in 1913 and it has used the upper floor of Engelbrecht’s chambers ever since. They purchased the whole building in 1920. The Club is a beautifully proportioned classical style building with pediments, balustrades, window entablature, and perfect symmetry. Look down the sides and you can see it is made of Mt Gambier limestone blocks.
6.Mt Gambier Caledonian Hall. Next door is the Scots Club. Its prominence signifies the Scottish links of many Gambier residents. The hall was opened in 1914 and opened by the former Prime Minister Sir George Reid, another Scot. It has classical features but is rather ugly and neglected these days. It is now a night club.
7.The Trustees Building. Next to the Caledonian is the Trustee Building erected in 1958. Its blue and bone tiled façade is typical of 1950s architecture yet the rectangular appearance has a slight classical look about it. It is on the SA Heritage Register. Accountants now occupy it.
8.Turn left into Percy Street and go along here beyond KFC for one town block to the next corner for the Oatmills (now a coffee shop and cinemas). Milling and brewing were two of Mt Gambier’s prime 19th century industries. The 4 storey complex here was started in 1867 for Welsh Thomas Williams who eventually had five flour mills. His mill was called Commercial Flourmills. A new owner converted the mill from wheat milling to oat milling. A new oatmill was built in 1901 and operated until 1975 producing Scottish porridge oats. The mill has now been restored with café, shops and cinemas. Return to Penola Rd.
9. Mt Gambier Hotel. No hotel could have a more remarkable origin than the Mt Gambier. An African American John Byng built a weatherboard hotel near here in 1847. The third licensee Alexander Mitchell, another Scot, took it over and moved the hotel to this corner site in 1862 as an impressive two storey hotel which was unusual at that time. The western wing was added in 1883 and balconies affixed in 1902.
10.Cross towards the Mount with the traffic lights then turn left into Commercial Street East.
11.Mt Gambier Town Hall. Marked as the Riddoch Gallery this fine Venetian Gothic style building is impressive with its coloured stone work contrasting well with cement rendered horizontal lines and vertical panels around windows and doors. The upper windows are mullioned with stone divisions between the glass. It was built in 1882 with the clock tower added in 1883 after a donation. The first Council meeting was in 1863 with Dr Wehl as chairman held in a hotel. Later the Council hired a room at the Foresters Hall and then they purchased this site in 1868 with a weatherboard room. This was used until 1882.
12.Mt Gambier old Institute. The Literary Institute was formed in 1862 and a foundation stone laid for a reading room/hall in 1868 by John Riddoch. The single storey institute opened in 1869. The upper floor was added in 1887, so that it would match the new Town Hall. It is built in a similar style- Venetian Romanesque as the windows and rounded and not arched as with a gothic structure.
13.Captain Gardiner Memorial Fountain 1884. The fountain was presented by Captain Robert Gardiner the grandfather of Sir Robert Helpman (his name was originally Helpmann). The fountain was made in Melbourne .Gardiner was also a benefactor of St Andrew’s Presbyterian -he donated the pipe organ in 1885.
14.Jens Hotel. After demolishing an earlier hotel (the 1847 hotel of John Byng) Johannes Jens had the first section of his Jens Hotel built on this corner in 1884. An almost identical eastern wing was erected in 1904 and the Spanish Art Deco section in 1927. Turn right here and go behind the Town hall to the Cave Gardens.
15.Cave Gardens. This spot was an early water supply. A garden was created in 1893 and then improved and reconstructed in 1925. This sink hole has recently been upgraded again and it is lit at night.
16.Post Office. This important communications centre was erected in 1865 as a telegraph office/post office. This is till one of the finest buildings in Mt Gambier and a rare example of the Georgian style for the city. . The single storey side wings were added in 1906 in a sympathetic style. It is still the main city Post Office.
17.Norris Agency Building. This superb Italianate building was completed in 1900 as chambers for businessmen. Owner was Alexander Norris who died in 1917. The façade is pink dolomite with cement quoins and unusual lined decoration work above the windows and door each contained within a triangular classical pediment.
18.Farmers Union Building. Another classical style building built when this style was out of fashion in 1914.Erected for Farmers Union as a large two storey building. It has none of the grace of the Norris building next door. FU was formed in 1888 in Jamestown by Thomas Mitchell, a Scot and others to provide cheap rates for grains, seeds and superphosphate but in the early 1900s they branched into products for dairy farmers and the marketing of milk products. The Mt Gambier district had plenty of dairy farmers. It is now owned by a Japanese company Kirin but it still markets its chocolate milk drinks as Farmers Union. Upper floor has double pilasters (flattened pillars) with top volutes but little other decoration.
19.Savings Bank Building on the corner. The former Savings Bank in Gothic style is unusual for commercial premises in Mt Gambier. It is constructed of weathered local limestone and was built in 1906. Note the different cut stone for the foundations, simulated turrets on the corners and by the door to break the façade appearance and the stone line above the lower window which then divides the façade into equal thirds.
20.Macs Hotel. This hotel was built in 1864 and is largely unchanged except that the upper floor was added in 1881. The first licensee was a Scot named John MacDonald. The double veranda supports are very elegant.
21.Roller flourmill now a painted hardware store. Built 1885 as a steam flourmill in pink dolomite. Note the small 12 paned windows set in much larger indented niches in the walls on the northern wall. (Sturt St.)
22.Christ Church Anglican Church and hall. Dr Browne of Moorak donated half the money for the construction of Christ Church in pink dolomite and with an unusual gabled tower. Church and tower completed in 1866. Adjacent is the Jubilee Hall built in 1915, destroyed by fire in 1951, and rebuilt exactly the same in weathered local limestone blocks with the original foundation stone still in place. It has the single Gothic window in the street facing gable and a crenulated square tower. Adjoining it is the 1869 Sunday School with the narrow double pointed Gothic windows. It was extended in 1892. The lychgate is more recent as a memorial to a regular church goer, Margaret French who died in 1927.
23.The old railway station just visible along the rail lines to your right. The first rail line was to Beachport in 1879 and the second to Naracoorte (and so to Adelaide) in 1887. Portland and Melbourne line opened 1917. A spur line to Glencoe was completed in 1904. First station was erected in 1879. It was demolished for the erection of the current station in 1918 which is similar in design to those in Tailem Bend, Bordertown, Moonta etc. Bluebird rail cars started on the Mt Gambier run in 1953 when the old 3’6” gauge line to Wolseley was converted to 5’3”. The last passenger service to Adelaide finished in 1990 and the station closed for freight in 1995. The railyards were cleared in 2013 and the future of the station is bleak. The rail lines to Beachport and Glencoe closed in 1956/57.
24.The Old Courthouse, 42 Bay Rd. It has a great low wall suitable for sitting on. This well designed Georgian style Courthouse opened in 1865 and the similarly styled side wings were added in 1877. The front veranda, which is not Georgian in style, was added in 1880. In 1975 the Courthouse was granted to the National Trust for a museum. The adjoining new Courthouse opened in 1975 at the same time. Note the “blind” windows to the façade but the same rounded Georgian shaped, 16 paned windows on the sides.
The Blue Lake, Mt Schank and Volcanoes.
The jewel in the crown of Mt Gambier is undoubtedly the volcanic cone, the crater lakes especially the Blue Lake and the surrounding Botanic Gardens and parklands. The Botanic Garden on the north side was approved in 1872 but nothing happened about plantings and care until 1882. The first pleasure road through the saddle between the Blue Lake and the Valley Lake was created in the 1861 as a more direct road to the then newly created international port named Port MacDonnell. That is why the road is called the Bay road. Surveyor General George Goyder explored the lake surrounds himself in 1876 when he selected the site for the government tree nursery. Later the government established the first sawmill on the edge of the crater reserve near Moorak homestead in the early 1920s. The Centenary Tower was initiated in 1900 to celebrate the centenary of Captain Grant sighting Mt Gambier. It took several years to complete and was opened by the Chief Justice of SA Sir Samuel Way in 1907 but it was completed in 1904. The whole complex is a maar geomorphological formation which originated during a volcanic era about 28,000 years ago but in a second phase of volcanic activity 4,000 to 6,000 years ago the cones and lakes of Mt Gambier were created along with the cones of Mt Schank and Mt Burr near Millicent. Mt Gambier was the most recent volcanic explosion in Australia. The crater lakes are: Blue Lake, Valley Lake, Leg of Mutton Lake and Browne’s Lake (dry). The Blue Lake is linked to the aquifers beneath the deep layers of limestone which underlay the entire South East. Blue Lake is about 72 metres deep and some of the water in it is estimated to be about 500 years old but it is mixed with rain runoff each year as well. The Lake provides the water supply for Mt Gambier. Deep in the lake are examples of the oldest living organisms on earth- stromatalites. The lake changes colour from grey to vivid blue each November and reverts in the following April. The change in colour is related to the position of the sun and reflected light from suspended particles in the lake which reflect blue green light rather than brown grey light. Secondly the suspended matter only occurs because the water near the surface rises in temperature in the spring and it is this which causes the particles to precipitate out of the water. The precipitated matter settles on the bottom of the lake ready for a new cycle the following spring. Like the Blue Lake various sink holes in the district have linkages to the underlying aquifer through the layers of limestone too and they include Cave Gardens, Umpherstone, Piccaninni Ponds, etc.
Moorak Station and Tenison Woods College.
Moorak station as originally known as Mount Gambier Station established by George Glen in the 1840s. The leasehold was later taken over by David Power who in turn sold it to Fisher and Rochford who in turn sold the estate as freehold to the Scottish Dr William Browne who had established Booborowie run with his brother in 1843 north of Burra. The Browne brothers dissolved their partnership around 1865 and John went to live at Buckland Park and William took up residence at Moorak. William had purchased Moorak Station in 1862 and built the grand Moorak homestead in impressive Georgian style onto a smaller house there. William died in 1894 and the Moorak Estate passed to his son Colonel Percival Browne who was to disappear on the ill-fated voyage of the new steamer the Waratah in 1909 which disappeared during a storm off Durban, South Africa. Also on that voyage was Mrs. Agnes Hay (nee Gosse) of Mt Breckan Victor Harbor and Linden Park Estate Adelaide and some 200 other poor souls. Around 1909 the Moorak Station was subdivided for closer settlement and in the 1920s the Marist Brothers purchased the homestead with a little land for their and monastery and opened the Marist Brothers Agricultural College for boys in 1931. That college in turn merged with the Mater Christi College in 1972 to become Tenison College. (Mater Christi College had been formed in 1952 by the merger of the St Josephs Convent School (1880) and St Peters Parish School but the primary section of St Peters broke away in 1969 from Mater Christi College and formed a separate St Peters Primary School. This primary school in turn merged with Tenison College in 2001 to form Tenison Woods College!) The College name commemorates the work of Father Julian Tenison Woods who arrived in Mt Gambier in 1857 to work in Penola and Mt Gambier. It was he who encouraged Mary MacKillop to take her vows and establish her Sisters of St Joseph.
Dr Browne’s manager of Moorak Estate in 1868 introduced hops as a viable crop in the South East and large quantities were grown for about 20 years. Other early experimental crops grown included tobacco, cotton and flax. Dr Browne and Moorak were also important in the potato industry. Dr Browne leased around 830 acres to 20 tenants for the express purpose of growing potatoes. He was keen to emulate the British aristocracy although he was a good Scot with being a manorial style landlord with tenant farmers. Potatoes were also grown from the early years at Yahl, OB Flat and Compton near Mt Gambier. The potatoes were carted down to Port MacDonnell and shipped to Adelaide for consumers. As one of the major wool producers of Australia William Browne contributed roughly half of the funds for the erection of Christ Church Anglican in Mt Gambier. The Moorak estate consisted of around 11,000 acres of the most fertile volcanic soil in SA with another 2,000 acres in a nearby property, German Creek near Carpenter’s Rocks. Dr Browne ran Silky Lincolns on Moorak for their wool as Merinos did not fare well on the damp South East pastures. About 2,000 acres was in wheat, about 2,500 acres was tenanted to other farmers and around 4,000 acres were in lucerne, clover, rye and other pasture grasses. William Browne returned to live in England in 1866 so his sons could attend Eton and military training colleges there. He made regular trips to SA about every second year to oversee his many pastoral properties here. When he died in 1894 he left 100,000 acres of freehold land in SA to his children who all resided here as well as leasehold land. He was an extremely wealthy man. Son Percival took control of Moorak. Before Percival’s death Moorak Estate was partly purchased by the SA government in 1904 for closer settlement when they acquired around 1,000 acres. After Percival’s death a further 6,300 acres was acquired for closer settlement and the remainder of the estate was sold to other farmers. The government paid between £10 and £31 per acre for the land. Percival Browne was highly respected in Mt Gambier and a reserve around the Blue Lake is named after him. The fourth of the crater lakes of Mt Gambier is also named Browne’s Lake after the family but it has been dry for decades. In 1900 Colonel Browne planted the ring of English Oaks around what was to become the oval of the Marist Brothers College.
There is a memorial by the station to William Browne as founder of the Coriadale Sheep Stud. The great Moorak woolshed was demolished in 1939. The Union church which opened in 1920 was used by the Methodists and the Anglicans. It is now a private residence. Moorak hall was opened in 1926. New classrooms were added to the Moorak School in 1928 and the first rooms opened in 1913. The cheese factory in Moorak opened in 1913 as a cooperative and was sold to Farmers Union in 1949. They closed the factory in 1979. Most of the cheese produced at Moorak went to the Melbourne market. The first cheese maker at Moorak was trained at Lauterbach’s cheese factory at Woodside. Moorak was one of a circle of settlements around Mt Gambier that had butter/cheese factories. These towns were: Kongorong; Glencoe East; Glencoe West; Suttontown; Glenburnie; Mil Lel; Yahl; OB Flat; Moorak; Mt Schank; and Eight Mile Creek.
In the 1860s this tiny settlement was a tobacco, hop and potato growing district and it persisted with potatoes up until recent times. Today Yahl is little more than a suburban village of Mt Gambier with a Primary school with approx 120 students. The old government school was erected in 1879. It had a Methodist church built in 1880 which operated as a church until 1977 and it had a large butter factory which had opened in 1888. The butter and cheese factory was taken over by the OB Flat cheese factory in 1939 and the two operated in conjunction with each other. The OB Flat cheese factory closed in 1950 and all production moved to Yahl. The factory finally closed in 1971. The township of Yahl also had a General Store and a Salvation Army Hall which was built in 1919.
Sink Holes: Umpherston Gardens and Cave Gardens.
James Umpherston purchased land near Mt Gambier in 1864 which included a large sink hole or collapsed cavern with a lake in the bottom. He was born in Scotland in 1812 and came to SA in the 1850s with his brother William. William purchased his first land at Yahl in 1859. James Umpherston was a civic minded chap being a local councilor, a parliamentarian in Adelaide for two years and President of the Mt Gambier Agricultural and Horticultural Society for 13 years. When he retired from civic life and farming in 1884 he decided to create a garden in his sinkhole. He beautified it and encouraged visitors and even provided a boat in the lake for boat rides. Access was gained by steps and a path carved into the sinkhole walls. However after he died in 1900 the garden was ignored, became overgrown and was largely forgotten in 1949 when the Woods and Forests Department obtained the land for a new sawmill at Mt Gambier. By then the lake had dried up as the water table had fallen over the decades. In 1976 staff, rather than the government, decided to restore the Umpherstone gardens. The cleared out the rubbish that had been dumped in the sinkhole, restored the path access, trimmed the ivy and replanted the hydrangeas and tree ferns. In 1994 the Woos and Forests Department handed over the land around the sinkhole to the City of Mt Gambier. It was added to the SA Heritage Register in 1995.
The rich, as Voltaire said, require an abundant supply of poor.
Image by Renegade98
Top photo: Leo Russell
Middle photo: Steph Goralnick
Bottom photo: Leo Russell
From Adbusters #74, Nov-Dec 2007
The Empire of Debt
Money for nothing. Own a home for no money down. Do not pay for your appliances until 2012. This is the new American Dream, and for the last few years, millions have been giddily living it. Dead is the old version, the one historian James Truslow Adams introduced to the world as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”
Such Puritan ideals – to work hard, to save for a better life – didn’t die from the natural causes of age and obsolescence. We killed them, willfully and purposefully, to create a new gilded age. As a society, we told ourselves we could all get rich, put our feet up on the decks of our new vacation homes, and let our money work for us. Earning is for the unenlightened. Equity is the new golden calf. Sadly, this is a hollow dream. Yes, luxury homes have been hitting new gargantuan heights. Ferrari sales have never been better. But much of the ever-expanding wealth is an illusory façade masking a teetering tower of debt – the greatest the world has seen. It will collapse, in a disaster of our own making.
Distress is already rumbling through Wall Street. Subprime mortgages leapt into the public consciousness this summer, becoming the catchphrase for the season. Hedge fund masterminds who command salaries in the tens of millions for their supposed financial prescience, but have little oversight or governance, bet their investors’ multi-multi-billions on the ability that subprime borrowers – who by very definition have lower incomes and/or rotten credit histories – would miraculously find means to pay back loans far exceeding what they earn. They didn’t, and surging loan defaults are sending shockwaves through the markets. Yet despite the turmoil this collapse is wreaking, it’s just the first ripple to hit the shore. America’s debt crisis runs deep.
How did it come to this? How did America, collectively and as individuals, become a nation addicted to debt, pushed to and over the edge of bankruptcy? The savings rate hangs below zero. Personal bankruptcies are reaching record heights. America’s total debt averages more than 0,000 for every man, woman, and child. On a broader scale, China holds nearly trillion in US debt. Japan and other countries are also owed big.
The story begins with labor. The decades following World War II were boom years. Economic growth was strong and powerful industrial unions made the middle-class dream attainable for working-class citizens. Workers bought homes and cars in such volume they gave rise to the modern suburb. But prosperity for wage earners reached its zenith in the early 1970s. By then, corporate America had begun shredding the implicit social contract it had with its workers for fear of increased foreign competition. Companies cut costs by finding cheap labor overseas, creating a drag on wages.
In 1972, wages reached their peak. According to the US department of Labor Statistics, workers earned 1 a week, in inflation-adjusted 1982 dollars. Since then, it’s been a downward slide. Today, real wages are nearly one-fifth lower – this, despite real GDP per capita doubling over the same period.
Even as wages fell, consumerism was encouraged to continue soaring to unprecedented heights. Buying stuff became a patriotic duty that distinguished citizens from their communist Cold War enemies. In the eighties, consumers’ growing fearlessness towards debt and their hunger for goods were met with Ronald Reagan’s deregulation the lending industry. Credit not only became more easily attainable, it became heavily marketed. Credit card debt, at 0 billion, is now triple what it was in 1988, after adjusting for inflation. Barbecues and TV screens are now the size of small cars. So much the better to fill the average new home, which in 2005 was more than 50 percent larger than the average home in 1973.
This is all great news for the corporate sector, which both earns money from loans to consumers, and profits from their spending. Better still, lower wages means lower costs and higher profits. These factors helped the stock market begin a record boom in the early ‘80s that has continued almost unabated until today.
These conditions created vast riches for one class of individuals in particular: those who control what is known as economic rent, which can be the income “earned” from the ownership of an asset. Some forms of economic rent include dividends from stocks, or capital gains from the sale of stocks or property. The alchemy of this rent is that it requires no effort to produce money.
Governments, for their part, encourage the investors, or rentier class. Economic rent, in the form of capital gains, is taxed at a lower rate than earned income in almost every industrialized country. In the US in particular, capital gains are being taxed at ever-decreasing rates. A person whose job pays 0,000 can owe 35 percent of that in taxes compared to the 15 percent tax rate for someone whose stock portfolio brings home the same amount.
Given a choice between working for diminishing returns and joining the leisurely riches of the rentier, people pursue the latter. If the rentier class is fabulously rich, why can’t everyone become a member? People of all professions sought to have their money work for them, pouring money into investments. This spurred the explosion of the finance industry, people who manage money for others. The now- trillion mutual fund industry is 700 times the size it was in the 1970s. Hedge funds, the money managers for the super-rich, numbered 500 companies in 1990, managing billion in assets. Now there are more than 6,000 hedge firms handling more than trillion dollars in assets.
In recent years, the further enticement of low interest rates has spawned a boom for two kinds of rentiers at the crux of the current debt crisis: home buyers and private equity firms. But it should also be noted that low interest rates are themselves the product of outsourced labor.
America gets goods from China. China gets dollars from the US. In order to keep the value of their currency low so that exports stay cheap, China doesn’t spend those dollars in China, but buys us assets like bonds. China now holds some 0 billion in such US IOUs. This massive borrowing of money from China (and to a lesser extent, from Japan) sent us interest rates to record lows.
Now the hamster wheel really gets spinning. Cheap borrowing costs encouraged millions of Americans to borrow more, buying homes and sending housing prices to record highs. Soaring house prices encouraged banks to loan freely, which sent even more buyers into the market – many who believed the hype that the real estate investment offered a never-ending escalator to riches and borrowed heavily to finance their dreams of getting ahead. People began borrowing against the skyrocketing value of their homes, to buy furniture, appliances, and TVs. These home equity loans added 0 billion to the US economy in 2004 alone.
It was all so utopian. The boom would feed on itself. Nobody would ever have to work again or produce anything of value. All that needed to be done was to keep buying and selling each other’s houses with money borrowed from the Chinese.
On Wall Street, private equity firms played a similar game: buying companies with borrowed billions, sacking employees to cut costs, and then selling the companies to someone else who did the same. These leveraged buyouts inflated share values, minting billionaires all around. The virtues that produce profit – innovation, entrepreneurialism and good management – stopped mattering so long as there were bountiful capital gains.
But the party is coming to a halt. An endless housing boom requires an endless supply of ever-greater suckers to pay more for the same homes. The rich, as Voltaire said, require an abundant supply of poor. Mortgage lenders have mined even deeper into the ranks of the poor to find takers for their loans. Among the practices included teaser loans that promised low interest rates that jumped up after the first few years. Sub-prime borrowers were told the future pain would never come, as they could keep re-financing against the ever-growing value of their homes. Lenders repackaged the shaky loans as bonds to sell to cash-hungry investors like hedge funds.
Of course, the supply of suckers inevitably ran out. Housing prices leveled off, beginning what promises to be a long, downward slide. Just as the housing boom fed upon itself, so too, will its collapse. The first wave of sub-prime borrowers have defaulted. A flood of foreclosures sent housing prices falling further. Lenders somehow got blindsided by news that poor people with bad credit couldn’t pay them back. Frightened, they staunched the flow of easy credit, further depleting the supply of homebuyers and squeezing debt-fueled private equity. Hedge funds that merrily bought sub-prime loans collapsed.
More borrowers will soon be unable to make payments on their homes and credit cards as the supply of rent dries up. Consumer spending, and thus corporate profits, will fall. The shrinking economy will further depress workers’ wages. For most people, the dream of easy money will never come true, because only the truly rich can live it. Everyone else will have to keep working for less, shackled to a mountain of debt.
_Dee Hon is a Vancouver-based writer has contributed to The Tyee and Vancouver magazine.