A Year-Round Holiday The Histories of West Lakes

A Year-Round Holiday

The Histories of West Lakes

A Year-Round Holiday
The Histories of West Lakes

Susan Marsden


In a rather unusual approach Susan Marsden has told the history of West Lakes by starting with today’s events and working her way back through nearly 200 years of fascinating and intriguing stories and characters. They cover an extensive and environmentally complex region between the city of Adelaide, Port Adelaide, Glenelg and the coastal sand dunes. For a long time this area was seen by most people as a wasteland of polluted swamps, dunes, reedbeds, mangroves, sand, mud, mosquitoes and snakes.

Transforming this wasteland, which was often flooded as well, into a modern suburb was seen as nothing more than complete madness, especially after several costly and unsuccessful attempts had been made since the 1830s.

As the subtitle of the book The Histories of West Lakes suggests there are several ways to tell the stories which saw the changes from this so-called wasteland into well-planned and well-groomed waterways and suburbs. There is the environmental history, the ecological and cultural history, which includes Indigenous as well as the later detrimental settlement of European migrants, resulting in total dispossession and uprooting of the Aboriginal culture. Surprisingly some of the ancient ecosystems have managed to survive.

The area originally supported a huge variety of native flora and fauna. As early as 1837 Quaker missionary and botanist James Backhouse visited the area. Later he published detailed descriptions of Port Adelaide and the plants he had identified. Another visitor was the much better known John Gould. After criss-crossing the area for eight weeks and observing the numerous beautiful birds he published his now famous colour plates. Charles Sturt, who lived for some time at the Reedbeds shipped out many birds to Gould after his return to England.

Aborigines were soon deprived of their land and food supplies and punished if they used the settlers’ food supplies to stay alive. Within twenty years many had died from introduced illnesses and diseases. When remnants of them were moved to Eyre Peninsula or other areas the Kaurna Society at the Reedbeds had been completely destroyed.

As it turned out, not too many people were pleased with Col Light’s choice which as early as 1838 was called Port Misery. JW Bull stated that nothing in the world could surpass it in everything that was wretched and inconvenient. When Count Ferdinand Von Muller arrived in Adelaide in 1847 he started collecting specimens from the area the very next day. They were preserved and are now held in British, German and Australian institutions.

The natural resources of the area were exploited. Birds were caught and sold to ship masters at Port Adelaide or other interested visitors until well into the 1950s. Native pines were cut indiscriminately for fire wood and mangrove trees for wharf construction. Both coastal and inland sand dunes were depleted for its use in glass manufacturing or just landfill. Even oil drilling was tried for a short time.

The reedbeds and neighbouring sandy areas were settled almost from the first day of colonisation. The Thomas family lived there in a tent for six months before moving to Adelaide. Within in short time many colourful people took up temporary or even permanent residence. Among them were Aborigines, Afghans, unemployed men and tent dwellers during the summer months. It was also used for War Games from Fort Glenville and even for playing golf.

Marsden has dug up some very entertaining, sad and funny stories about some of these characters. One of them is Nudie Bill who lived there for 20 years and Saltbush Bill who ran the Saltbush Riding School while living in a caravan until evicted by the Woodville Council in 1967. Colin Hayes born in 1924 had his early beginnings here. There were dairy and other farms, several of them owned by women. They supplied eggs, milk and vegetables to surrounding households and the St Margaret Hospital.

There are other histories too. Among them is that of the many attempts made by governments, private individuals and/or companies to improve or develop the area. People have lived in these wastelands often for many years, among them farmers, hunters and those who valued their own company. It was not until 1969 when government and private enterprise combined their efforts that success was finally achieved. Even those combined efforts needed more than 30 years before completing this Herculean task.

One of the first schemes to redevelop the Port Creek area as a harbour was conceived by Frederick Estcourt Bucknall in 1877. He had married widowed Rosa Haussen whose husband had run the Hindmarsh brewery with Catchlove. He built Estcourt House, also known as Bucknall’s Folly and hoped to attract private enterprise for its commercial development.

After this had failed, and many others after it, a new Government scheme in 1917 proposed to make part of the area a soldier settlement. Within a very short time this turned out to be a colossal official bungle as soldiers were charged almost four times the value of the land before they even got started. In 1949 Thomas Playford’s LCL Government came up with the Greater Port Adelaide Plan. It also turned out a failure.

Years of more negotiations and changes of plans, which now involved also private enterprise and changes in governments finally resulted in three indentures. The last indenture of 6 April 1970 gave the go ahead for the West Lakes Scheme whereby the costs were shared between government and West Lakes Ltd with close cooperation of Regional governments. The main development took place during the Dunstan Government with Des Corcoran responsible for West Lakes.

Population was expected to reach 20,000 but the highest number ever was reached in 2001 when there were 10,176 residents at West Lakes. When construction started it provided a handsome income for 12 year old Joseph Pankovits who with his friends collected empty bottles left by the workers. Excavation for the lake started in 1970 and was completed in 1977. It had involved shifting 6 million cubic metres of material. The whole project was a gigantic and spectacular engineering achievement.

The planning and replanning required land transfers, survey negotiations, an Act of Parliament, fundraising, forming and dissolving of companies, committees, contracting teams, councillors, governments ministers, the South Australian Housing Trust, engineers, labourers, architects, builders, trades people, public servants, marketing and the householders who bought or built their own homes.

While the project was progressing West Lakes Ltd was marketing a lifestyle, with landscaping a big selling point and only released small amounts of land at a time. To get a cash flow the company built the first houses around the edges of the Upper Port Reach on land that didn’t require much engineering work. Marketing drew attention to the project and encouraged building companies to add impetus to the early development.

The project encountered many problems but with real cooperation between everyone involved they were solved sooner rather than later. Among the more serious were the repeated flooding, dust, smoke from burning mangroves, loss of wildlife, fear of sinking houses, shortage of sand, fencing or no fencing, and buying out shack and home owners, some of whom had lived in the old wastelands for many years.

The West Lakes Mall and the stadium were opened in 1974. West Lakes was officially opened by Des Corcoran in 1977, followed by Don Dunstan’s opening of Delfin Island in 1978. West Lakes was soon called the most successful suburb in the world. During 1987 the Australian Submarine Corporation was looking for land and houses for its workforce, many of whom came from interstate or overseas.

With West Lakes steeped in sports, not just Australian Rules Football but also bowling, canoeing, golf, rowing, swimming, tennis and windsurfing, there is naturally the history of Football Park. The idea of building a stadium was first mooted by the SANFL in 1971. The first game played at the stadium was on 4 May 1974. In 1977 a crowd of 56,717 watched Port Adelaide win their first Grand Final at Football Park. The first AFL match was played there in 1991.

The final achievement of the West Lakes Scheme in successfully creating an urban environment that was also a major recreation place drew state, national and international attention. It had been an ambitious plan to transfer a polluted wasteland of stunted mangroves and reedbeds, which had thwarted many earlier development proposals, into a pleasant and much sought-after Wonderland for a year-long holiday. Susan Marsden has told these histories of West Lakes in a well-researched and detailed account which is both remarkable and stimulating.

Review by Nic Klaassen

A Year-Round Holiday by Susan Marsden,
257 pp, with numerous colour and b/w photographs,
bibliography, extensive notes and index is available at $39.95, from
Wakefield Press
Telephone 08 8352 4455


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