The Early South Australian Pastoral Industry
Despite the intention of South Australia’s founding fathers to make the colony an agricultural paradise, pastoralism developed well before farmers had even turned the first sod. From the start in 1836 the pastoral industry has been, and still is, very important to South Australia. The industry began with the arrival of some sheep, cows and goats in 1836 followed by later additions from Tasmania and the eastern colonies.
It were the overlanders, such as Bonney, Hawdon, Hart, Sturt and Eyre, who really established the pastoral industry in South Australia. Their herds of cattle and flocks of sheep from New South Wales were eagerly bought by the early South Australian settlers.
During the initial period of settlement pastoralists were able to move almost unrestricted into any area they liked and over large distances. While building up their runs they made their own rules, eg first come first serve. This was possible because before 1842 no pastoral or other leases were issued by the government. After 1842 stock owners had to pay $10 per annum for their runs regardless its seize as well as a tax per animal.
To start out as a pastoralist was not too difficult. Very little initial capital or equipment was needed. Once a small herd or flock was obtained all that was needed were good land, water and grass. The pastoral industry was not labour intensive and had no need for the clearing or ploughing of land. However to have any chance of success some capital was needed. Only men with capital could afford to buy enough land at $2 an acre to secure their livelihood. Then the task of settling in and establishing a run began. This required a lot of patience, perseverance and high prices for wool or cattle.
Early pastoralists, or squatters as they were often called, lived a hard and pioneering life, often in isolation with few if any comforts. Individual stations were distant from each other, making socialising with neighbours very difficult if not impossible. For them, and their families 'The Tyranny of distance' was a hard fact of life. Although some of the early larger stations employed a hundred men or more it did not result in the establishment of towns in the northern parts of the colony. This had to wait until the start of mining.
Whereas in New South Wales the early squatters had relied on convicts and emancipists to provide the labour on their stations, in South Australia they had to employ free and paid labour, resulting in a much higher cost of the final product. Even so the first South Australian wool was exported in 1839. Although not generally labour intensive it did need labour at certain times of the year but when needed most it was often not available because those willing to work were employed by mining companies.
For many years there were conflicts between the pastoralists and Aborigines. As their tribal lands were gradually taken over the Aborigines lost their natural food supplies. When they killed sheep or cattle the pastoralists retaliated by killing the Aborigines. In 1865 one of the northern station owners wrote to the authorities in Adelaide, 'I regret to have to inform you that the natives have been very destructive amongst our cattle and sheep, and I greatly fear have murdered a shepherd...we saw nearly 100 sheep dead and disabled, and on the same day the natives killed four head of cattle'.
Shepherds, boundary riders, shearers and managers often interfered with Aboriginal women which in turn created additional problems. Sacred sites were often unintentionally destroyed. However with the scarcity of labour, particularly in the north, pastoralists regularly employed Aborigines.
South Australia’s climate and vegetation were much more suitable for cattle and sheep grazing than the growing of wheat. England had an increasing need for wool and no import restriction on it. Wool did not deteriorate during its long land and ocean transport either. Unfortunately during the early 1840s England suffered from economic instability and a depression resulting in low wool prices for Australian pastoralists. With better economic prospects in England during the late 1840s, several mixed-farmers turned to wool production only and by 1850 South Australia had more than one million sheep.
Potential pastoralists who had arrived after the initial land rush found it much harder to get started. Those who had been before them already had the best land and successfully consolidated their holdings. Some started by working for other pastoralists first, all the while building up their own flocks in lieu of wages. John Chambers, who arrived in South Australia in 1838, started as a dairy farmer in Cherry Gardens. He would eventually own several stations in the north, finance several of John McDouall Stuart's expeditions, and have one of the Gorges (Chambers Gorge) named after him.
Others started by carting ore for mining companies in Kapunda and Burra. With the continuous increase in the size of herds and flocks pastoralists moved away from the settled areas around Adelaide. They now looked for land to the north, east and south of the settled areas. Henry Seymour was able to establish himself successfully at Killanoola in the southeast of the colony.
By hard work and shrewd judgment, plus increases in both demand and the price for wool, pastoralists did well and prospered. By the 1850s and 1860s station owners like Baker, Hawker, Hughes, Bowmans and Angas had built up substantial properties. In 1854 John B. Hughes sold his Bundaleer station for $62,000. They also started building substantial stone homes for their families. Hawker at Bungeree, Angas at Collingrove, Dutton at Anlaby and Duffield at Parra Parra. Several of them became members of the Adelaide Club, founded in 1863. They had come to stay!
Many of them also started buying their land rather than leasing it. Those pastoralists who had arrived after the 1850s found it much harder to succeed and several failed in their attempts. Some reasons for this were the fact that they had no access to fertile regions, almost all had already been taken up. Therefore they had to move to the remote areas where land was often less fertile and water problematic. They also faced much higher transport costs plus regular droughts.
The opening up of areas to the north and south of Adelaide was assisted by the development of suitable ports, such as Port Augusta, Robe and Port MacDonnell. By the mid 1850s John Baker had taken up Angepena station and John McTaggart had established Wooltana station 650 kilometres north of Adelaide. By the late 1850s pastoralists had taken up large runs in the southeast and a few years later were well established on both Peninsulas and as far north as Marree and even beyond.
With an increase in population and greater need for farming land, pressure mounted in Adelaide for closer settlement. To safeguard their estates pastoralists had to part with huge amounts of money buying up land which they had previously leased for next to nothing. Dutton spent almost $200,000 to secure freehold of his land and save it from selectors. By 1857 there were a total of 253 pastoral leases and a wool export worth in excess of $1 million. Although leases were cheap in the north, expenditure on labour, food, transport, well sinking, water supply and fencing were high.
In 1854 John Haimes took up a pastoral lease in the north and had it surveyed by John McDouall Stuart. What followed was considered by many a mad land grab. The Chamber Brothers took up Oratunga and Moolooloo, managed by John Ross, and had them surveyed by John McDouall Stuart in 1855. During that time McConville took up Myrtle Springs. A year later the Mount Coffin run was taken up and became known as Leigh's Creek Station. William Swan obtained the Mount Deception run whereas the Stuckey Brothers settled on Winnowie Station and later acquired both Mount Deception and Umberatana stations. Within a very short time all the land in the Northern Flinders had been taken up.
The future looked good, especially for Thomas Elder and his business partner Robert Barr Smith. In 1859 Smith acquired Nilpena and two years later he bought out John Haimes and established the Beltana run. Within a few years however, Thomas Elder had officially taken over these two stations and by 1867 had the Mount Deception and Winnowie runs added to them.
Thomas Elder and Robert Barr Smith, apart from being very clever businessmen, were also the right men in the right place at the right time with the right amount of money to back them up. With increased success they, and many other pastoralists were able to hire professional managers. With success came also an increase in economic, social and political influence. Although not all pastoralists became prominent public figures, many of them became members of parliament, Justices of the Peace or Philanthropists.
Peter Waite, who had been involved with stations such as Beltana, Blanchewater, Murnpeowie, Cordillo Downs, Mount Lyndhurst and others, donated $200,000 to the Urrbrae Institute. Many were able to have their sons educated in England before becoming leaders of South Australian society. Pastoralist representation in parliament was never less than thirty per cent of the total members of each House for most of the 19th century.
The 1860s proved to be a turning point in the fortunes of most pastoralists. In the north of South Australia, as a result of a crippling drought in some places lasting from 1863 until 1866, the 1860s were a crushing experience with many pastoralists loosing up to ninety per cent of their stock. Many were ruined and gave up their holdings. The drought did however result in improved management of station holdings. With the introduction of fencing, by Peter Waite, reduced stocking rates, the sinking of wells, scooping out dams and the control of dingoes and rabbits, profitability eventually returned.
The 1870s were different, as a result of excellent seasons, and rumours that farmers were leaving for Victoria, the South Australian government, which had passed the Strangways Act in 1869, resumed many of the pastoral leases beyond ‘Goyder’s line of rainfall’. These were cut up and sold as farming blocks. Pastoralists were forced to sell their stock and move even further north into arid and isolated areas. Needless to say that the failure rate of these pastoralists was high. Eventually the move north by both farmers and pastoralists resulted in the ruin of most farmers, some pastoralists and almost all the land.
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