South Australia's Early Days

Maureen M Leadbeater

Abstract: While we undergo water restrictions in the most severe drought on record, perhaps we should spare a thought for the plight of our pioneer ancestors and consider how they managed.

Colonel William Light chose the site of Adelaide for its closeness to a regular water supply. He rejected other possibilities, including Port Adelaide, Kangaroo Island, Rapid Bay, Port Lincoln and Encounter Bay, because they lacked permanent water.

Light laid out the city with the widest streets, viz Wakefield and Grote Streets, in the centre where they were intended to be the main business streets. However, the early settlers pitched their tents and built their early huts as close as possible to the River Torrens, the source of their water. So the settlement grew around North Terrace, Rundle and Hindley Streets.

In those days the Torrens was not the placid lake we now know. Before the weir was built in 1881, the Torrens at times was a series of waterholes, stagnant pools and a dry creek bed. After heavy rain storms upstream, it became a raging torrent, sweeping away the unwary. Many a settler and his horse were swept away and drowned. Nathaniel Hailes said "the River Torrens . . . was described by some early visitors as a foaming torrent and by others as an insignificant stream - season no doubt accounting for the difference".

Some settlers sank wells, but the water in these could be fresh, brackish or salt, so many settlers obtained their water from the Torrens. Water carters used buckets to fill their barrels and then carted the water to the householders' wooden casks and iron tanks. Usually the water was collected at a ford halfway between Morphett and King William Streets. T Horton James writing of his experiences in 1838 mentions "several pretty good holes which have too much water in them to be entirely exhausted by the sun's heat".

Of course the river was used for other purposes too. In 1839 Governor Gawler had banned people from bathing, washing clothes, or even throwing dead animals into the stream within one mile of the settlement. Police Constables were reminded in 1843 to enforce these restrictions.

The newspapers continued to report complaints and various schemes about Adelaide's water supply. An engineer, Mr Wyatt, constructed a well in North Terrace in 1847. With pumps and steam engine he expected to supply water to the carters to save them "tear and wear, time and trouble of going to the river". A large supply of water was needed in case of fire. Besides, if there was a better water supply, the men and horses employed in water carting could be better employed.

By 1850 there were 30 water carters to serve the population of 11,000 living in North and South Adelaide. In February of that year the Colonial Engineer, Arthur Freeling, reported that water carts were supplying 437 loads of 90 gallons daily. This amounted to 3½ gallons per person per day [16 litres - about 2 buckets of water]. The cost was 1/6 to 3/- a load depending on the distance carted. This was at a time when the average wages were 6/- a day for blacksmiths and bricklayers, 4/- a day for labourers. Water carting was such a vital occupation that water carts were exempt from fees and tolls.

Householders were directed in February 1852 to provide two water casks. These had to be placed in the shade with bungholes closed and a brass tap or wooden spigot and faucet inserted. With many carters joining the rush to the Victorian goldfields, the price of water rose 25%.

A reliable supply of fresh water was needed. One suggestion was to use a steam engine to pump from the Torrens. Another to pipe water from Brownhill Creek was considered too expensive. After 24 years of discussion, proposals and plans, Thorndon Park, the colony's first reservoir, was completed in 1860. Water was piped to the city the following year. Hope Valley Reservoir followed in 1872.

The areas we know as suburbs of Adelaide were, in the early days, villages dotted among the farming lands surrounding the city. Across the plains flowed small streams, including Brownhill Creek, First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Creeks. These were the sole water supply until wells were dug and householders installed underground and rainwater tanks.

In the country, bullockies had always camped near water and settlements grew up at these places. The early townships grew up close to a water supply and likewise land was taken up close to the rivers. Pastoralists could not rely on the creeks which only ran after rains. Soaks and springs were used, wells were sunk, dams constructed and water tanks installed for their stock. Along stock routes water was available every 20 miles. But always water supply was a problem. With one third of the state considered desert country, farmers developed new methods of dry land farming and made better use of their sparse water resources.

In parts of the South-East the opposite problem occurred in winter. Much of the land was under water. Goyder recommended draining the swamps and this was commenced in the 1860s.

The first regional reservoir, Beetaloo Dam, was built 1885-1890 to supply Yorke Peninsula. On Eyre Peninsula underground water was tapped. In 1944 the Morgan-Whyalla pipeline allowed BHP to expand their activities at Whyalla. The Chaffey brothers, George and William Benjamin, were the first to use the water of the Murray River for irrigation. They set up irrigation settlements at Renmark in 1887.

Everyone needed water for drinking, cooking and washing. Farmers needed water for their crops, market gardens and grazing animals. We can only admire our ancestors who managed with little water, with poor quality water, under greater restrictions than we now endure.


Water. South Australia. A History of the Engineering and Water Supply Department, Marianne Hammerton, 1986
A History of South Australia, R M Gibb, 1969
Paradise of Dissent. South Australia 1829-1857, Douglas Pike, 1967
Recollections. Nathaniel Hailes' adventurous life in colonial South Australia, Allan L Peters (ed), 1998
Two Million South Australians, Philip Woodruff, 1984
Various articles in the SA Register and South Australian newspapers
South Australia history timeline