The Adelaide Park Lands, a social history
by Patricia Sumerling
When first created by Colonel William Light in 1837 the Adelaide Park Lands comprised some 2300 acres, completely surrounding the city but within one generation they had been reduced by 240 acres. The remaining acres have become a distinctive feature and integral part of the life and character of Adelaide. They have been loved and hated, used for recreational, institutional, legal and illegal purposes, but they have survived and been preserved to a large extent.
Since their inception, the Adelaide Park Lands concept has been used in more than 200 towns and villages in South Australia. The Park Lands themselves have been listed on the National Heritage Register for some time now but little has been written about their cultural and social history. Even less has been documented about their abuse, both by people and governments. All this had to wait until professional historian Patricia Sumerling set out to clearly show their importance and document not only their wealth of history but also their social, economic and cultural importance for the people of Adelaide, then and now.
Originally used by the local Aborigines they were also used by South Australia’s first European settlers. For a considerable time Emigration Square was used until its occupants had built or found their own housing. Although William Light never specifically said what the Park Lands should be used for, he certainly would not have meant them to be for public hangings, quarrying, brickmaking or the cutting of trees for firewood. Yet all this was done for many years.
Whereas almost everyone was impressed with their beauty, this had dramatically changed within the first ten years of settlement. During these years they were not only neglected but also vandalised. It took another ten years before a real attempt was made to look after them and try to rehabilitate them.
During the 1850’s the sorry state of the Park Lands was voiced regularly, ‘wherever the eye wanders it encounters broken fences…excavations varied by heaps of broken bottles, old clothes and rubbish, with other more obnoxious abominations’ such as the drainage of slaughterhouses. Cattle were grazing on most of the land, several quarries were operated and river sand was removed by the cart load.
By the mid-1860s some seven kilometres of fencing had been completed and more than 11,000 trees planted. Two years later the riverbanks had been planted with thousands of willow slips, bamboo shoots and iris plants to stabilize them and protect them against flooding. Slowly their looks improved and by the 1870s they even looked respectable. But there was still the continuing damage from quarrying and sand carting.
A real change became evident after the election of Edwin Smith as Adelaide Mayor in 1879. It was during his term of office that the River Torrens was dammed to create a lake and the Park Lands made available to the public to play their sports. When Smith relinquished his office those who came after him were inspired by his example and followed his plans of beautifying the Park Lands.
By the next decade the total area of the Park Lands had been further reduced. More than 600 acres had been taken since 1837 as successive governments claimed more and more of them for their building programme. Right from the beginning of settlement governments had encroached on the Parks and still do today by building a government house, parliament house, railways, hospital, school, universities, gaol, library, cemetery, botanic gardens, zoo, migrant hostel, festival centre and other structures. Large areas have also been leased to private enterprise for cattle yards, sporting facilities, hotel, restaurant, boatsheds, golf links, convention centre, city baths, grand stands and other facilities.
It took until 1880 to have the Park Lands fenced, all 120 kilometres of them. Within twenty years most of it was taken down again with only thirty kilometres remaining by 1972. As late as the 1960s a thousand livestock were still grazing on the Park Lands.
On South Australia’s first Arbor Day, held on 20 June 1889, children planted 757 seedlings in the south-east corner of the Park Lands where Greenhill and Fullarton Roads meet. A further sign of progress and different attitude towards the Parks was shown when finally in 1891 it was decided to fill in and landscape the quarry behind government house, which had been used since the 1850s as a rubbish dump.
Real and major improvements became visible soon after the appointment of August Pelzer as City Gardener who remained until 1932. His successors had to cope with a new problem – car parking. As there were not too many fences left, kerbing had to be installed to stop cars being driven, or parked, on the Park Lands.
As a result of World War II and the resulting lack of labour and capital the Park Lands once more became neglected. After a few years they were considered no better than cow paddocks. Thankfully there have been many improvements, additions and alterations since that time to make the Park Lands what they are today.
In The Adelaide Park Lands Patricia Sumerling recounts tales both enchanting and bizarre from their earliest European settlement until the present day. Where once the Aborigines held their corroborees there are now the many ethnic groups to hold their cultural festivals and dances. They are now also used for weddings, jogging, circuses and flying model aeroplanes.
Fireworks, balloon ascents, tightrope acts and parachuting were replaced later by rifle shooting, army and police training and the digging of air raid shelters. The Park Lands have also been used for some illegal activities such as betting, gambling, fist fights, bashings, sex, rape and murder. However the dominant activity during their entire history has been sport. Sport of any kind has been played, among the earliest being, hunting, horse racing, coursing, kangaroo chasing and ostrich racing.
Among the more organised sports have been athletics, polo, baseball, rowing, archery, netball, lacrosse, tennis, hockey, cycling, cricket, swimming, golf, lawn bowls, horse racing and many, many others. Patricia Sumerling has something to say about every one of them. Her story is illuminated by hundreds of black and white photographs. The book is not only very informative but also interesting and a pleasure to read.
Review by Nic Klaassen
Patricia Sumerling was awarded Historian of the Year in the South Australian History Awards, presented at Government House on Monday 29 July 2013.
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The Adelaide Park Lands, a social History by Patricia Sumerling,
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