Yorketown: Yesterday and Today


Stories of the early days of Yorke Peninsula— when the country which is now Yorketown was thickly timbered sheep land; when agriculture was not thought of; when black and white were in constant collision; and bush rangers thought the inhospitable wilds an ideal hiding place from pursuing police— are told in the article following.


When I was in Yorketown recently the place had the sulks.

I had never before been in a town where there was such unanimity over a public grievance. Everybody told you about it.

The facts were that, after the town had been a corporation for years, the Royal Commission on Local Government Areas had, without as much as "by your leave," reduced its status to that of a district council, and tacked on to it another district which it didn't want.

There is nothing smarts so much as a sense of injustice. That Yorketown has been unjustly treated is not worth arguing. It has. Now it is looking round for somebody to kick. I hope it keeps on kicking — and kicks hard. If it kicked the Royal Commission on Local Government Areas into the deepest part of St. Vincent's Gulf I would be the first to yell "Hurrah."

You have only to set your foot inside the boundary to know you are in a town which is — or was — full of civic pride. Yorketown is solid, compact, well-laid-out, with tarpaved roads and kerbed footpaths. Some of the streets are lined with massive Moreton Bay trees. It is one of the best lit towns outside Adelaide. Its public buildings are dignified and handsome. Architecturally it has some of the prettiest churches I have seen.

Now, in a municipal sense, it doesn't care a hang. Its pride has been deeply hurt— and hurt without justification. That was the spirit I found pervading Yorketown.

One of the first persons I met was Mr. James Ferguson. He is an exmayor with a record of ten years of municipal service. He told me a lot about the peninsula that I didn't know Incidentally he had something to say about the follies of centralisation which I propose to pass on. Mr. Ferguson is a progressive. He came from the land o' cakes. He is an old pressman, having been for years on the staff of the Ayr "Observer."

We were talking about the enormous increase in the cost of government during recent years.

"What can you expect," said Mr. Ferguson, "when the whole country has been run for years on a system of votecatching and centralisation. Take, for example, the number of harbors which have to be maintained on this peninsula alone. Every place which wanted a jetty got one, irrespective of the needs of the place. The only remedy is to adopt the English system of local harbor trusts. There, if the people want a pier, they must pay for it themselves. If they had to do that here you would be surprised at the number of places which would find they could do without one."

That set me thinking in a new direction. I looked into the question of the number of ports operated on Yorke Peninsula by the Government, and their distance from their nearest neighbor port. This is what I found:—

East Side

West Side



Price (10 miles)

Moonta (14 miles)

Ardrossan (12 miles)

Hushes (2 miles)

Balgowan (30 miles)

Pine Point (16 miles)

Victoria (20 miles)

Julia (4 miles)

Rickaby (20 miles)

Vincent (8 miles)

Minlacowie (12 miles)

Stansbury (8 miles)

Turton (12 miles)

Wool Bay (6 miles)

Coobowie (4 miles)

Edithburgh (4 miles)

Eighteen ports in the stretch of 70 miles between Port Wakefield and Edithburgh on one side, and Wallaroo and Turton on the other.

Pioneer Pastoralist Of The Peninsula

The pioneer pastoralist of Yorke Peninsula was Alfred Weaver. He took up the Oyster Bay country (now Stansbury) in 1846. This was the land selected by Charies Parrinton, whose story I gave in the previous article. Weaver landed in Adelaide in 1839 from the same ship which brought out Sir Charles Cooper, first Chief Justice of South Australia. His home in the city was "Woodlands," on the South road. His first run, after the estate mentioned, which carried about 500 sheep, was between Currency Creek end Port Elliot.

Weaver found the Port Elliot property too close to civilisation. He objected to the steady encroachment of new settlers. So he sought a property more remote, and his choice fell on the Peninsula. Charles Parrinton became his manager. The lease was 52 square miles at 10/ per mile. Weaver built a substantial house on the property and went to live there.

Waterloo Bay road. The local tradition is that the name was intended for a West Coast road, and was erroneously gazetted. Anyway it has never been changed. — Wilkinson photo.

But the blacks made things very unpleasant. In the Minlaton article I told you the kind of thing the settlers had to contend against regarding the aborigines. There is no need to repeat it here. It was the common experience of the Peninsula settlers. But there was one incident which happened when Mr. Weaver had been a few years on the property which may be worth giving.

Church with chimneys. It is an old Roman Catholic Church converted into a private residence. photo

The Weaver family were out riding one day when they were overtaken by a large force of natives. The blacks were in full war paint, with spears and waddles. That they were bent on mischief became evident when they sent the gins and picanninies to the rear, and faced the whites in a hostile attitude. To have shown the white feather in the circumstances would have been fatal. The whole party would have been wiped out. Affecting a recklessness he was far from feeling, Weaver wheeled his horse and rode back towards the savages. For a moment they seemed puzzled as to what they ought to do.
Even then the situation might have developed into a tragedy but for an unexpected happening. A series of "cracks" made by a stockwhip diverted the attention of the blacks. Suddenly H. T. Morris, inspector of sheep, cracking his whip, and riding his horse at a gallop, rode in amongst the natives, plying his whip with skill. The aborigines broke and fled into the bush.
It was not long after this incident that the Weaver family returned to the city, and resumed the occupation of "Woodlands." Mr. Weaver died in 1891 at the age of 89. He is buried in St. Mary's churchyard, on the South road.

Had His Own Grave Dug
As you speed along the road between Yorketown and Edithburgh you pass on the right an immense salt lake, some 15 miles in circumference. This is Lake Fowler. It is the largest salt lake on the peninsula. We will wait until we get to Edithburgh before we talk about salt. But it is appropriate here to say something about that remarkable old gentleman, William Fowler, whose name this sheet of water commemorates.
Some time between the fifties and the sixties he held Moorowie, Yararoo, and White Hut stations. He was a conservative old fellow, who hated new-fangled ideas. Yet he is reputed to have been the first on the peninsula to use phosphates. From all accounts, he was a man with many peculiarities, perhaps many inconsistencies. One of his strange acts was to have his own grave dug before he died. Another was to carry a tape measure about with him to make sure that his land was being ploughed to the requisite depth. He was very fond of animals, and on the homestead at Yararoo there was a small cemetery complete with headstones, recording the demise of the family pets.

Typical salt lake near Yorketown. There are over 200 of these in the comparatively small area about Yorketown. photo

In business he was exacting to the penny. On the other hand, he was most generous to those in want. If you met his employes and asked them what he was like, some would tell you he was on old screw, and others that he was a fine "boss." Both woul-have been right. Fowler was a good boss— to the man who did his job. But he had no time for the shirker. He was a mass of contradictions. But the good points far outweighed the bad. His tenants, whom he treated liberally in hard times, will vouch for that. He died in 1901.

Tasmanian Bushrangers
One morning in 1848 four suspiciouslooking individuals turned up unexpectedly at Oyster Bay (Stansbury). They were half-famished, and told an extraordinary story. They were whalers, they said. After harpooning a whale off Kangaroo Island, the animal had dragged them miles away from their ship, until they found themselves in the vicinity of Oyster Bay. Thinking they might get help on shore, they had made for the bay, and had then come on to the homestead at the station. They asked for work, and jobs were found for them.
There were no Telegraphs in those days, and a better place for hiding than the scrub-clad country on Yorke Peninsula could scarcely be found. There was practically no population, the country was wild and inhospitable, overrun by savages, and had no communication with the outside world, except at rare intervals.
Unfortunately for the castaways, Mr. Alfred Weaver, the owner of the station, was just about that time leaving for the city. A few weeks later he encountered Inspector Tolmer in Adelaide. He happened to mention the arrival of the four strangers. The noted police officer pricked up his ears.
Tolmer told Weaver that he had just received information that four desperate criminals of the bushranging type had escaped from Tasmania, and were supposed to be in the vicinity of Kangaroo Island. Tolmer was convinced they were the strangers who had landed at Oyster Bay.
Tolmer's story of the men was quite different from the version of the castaways. They were wanted for murder. They had escaped from custody in Tasmania, he said, and made for Port Sorell, where they shipped aboard a vessel as members of the crew. While at Port Sorell they had cold-bloodedly blown out the brains of a police inspector who had happened on them innocently without knowing who they were. So desperate did the Tasmanian Government rate them, that they offered a reward of £100 each for their capture.
Tolmer decided to send a police scout to Oyster Bay.

It was arranged between Tolmer and Weaver that the police officer, disguised as a rouseabout, should accost Weaver on board the boat as he was leaving, for home, and ask for a job. They were to haggle about the pay in order to avert suspicion, and eventually Weaver was to engage the policeman as a station hand. Needless to say, the policeman carried an exact description of the bushrangers.

A day or two later Tolmer with four other police journeyed to the peninsula. They learned that the four wanted men . were working for Mr. Bowden. After a perilous ride through the scrub, guiding themselves by a compass, and sleeping out without food, they captured two of the men at Bowden's hut, having in the meantime been advised by their disguised comrade that the strangers were the wanted men. The remaining, and worst, desperadoes were working at a hut seven miles distant. I have not the space here to give you the full story of their apprehension, beyond saying that the police surprised and arrested them while they were cooking their evening meal, and that Tolmer carried to his grave the marks of the struggle which took place.

It subsequently transpired that only three of the men were criminals. The fourth was a sailor they had forced to accompany them to handle the boat when they made a sensational getaway from the ship in which they escaped from Tasmania. The fourth bushranger was drowned when the little boat was smashed on the rocks of Yorke Peninsula, as well as another sailor who had been impressed into their service.

After their capture, when they had tired of villifying the police, they coldbloodedly revealed what their plan had been to escape from Oyster Bay. There were two small ships lying off the coast, one of them, by chance, the very vessel in which they had escaped from Tasmania. They had intended to seize this ship, murder the officers and such of the crew as were deemed hostile, and then to make for Western Australia, where they would abandon the ship, and pose as shipwrecked men.

This was the plan Tolmer nipped in the bud. The criminals were returned to Hobart under strong escort, and there paid the penalty of their crimes on the scaffold.

Church With Chimneys

Barley growing is the chief industry around Yorketown. There is a considerable amount of mixed farming. This is rendered necessary by the smaller holdings. The farms of the district range from 400 to 600 acres. Sidelines are found both profitable and necessary. One firm alone sends 5,000 dozen eggs from Yorketown to the Adelaide market. It is claimed that the limestone nature of the country makes it peculiarly suitable for poultry.

Yorketown possesses one architectural curiosity— a church with chimneys, or, rather, with a residence at tached. It strikes an incongruous note. It was the old Roman Catholic church before the present handsome one was erected. When it was put out of commission as an ecclesiastical institution, it was converted for residential purposes by the addition of a lean-to. Now it is the home of Mr. D. Ryan.

I spent a profitable hour with Mr. Richard Wilkinson. He is the proprietor and editor of the "Pioneer." I think there is a freemasonry among pressmen all over the world more pronounced than in any other profession. You will get much the same kind of welcome in Fleet street, New York, or Paris, as Mr. Wilkinson gave me in Yorketown. Newspaper men are never too busy to sit down and talk "shop." Of course, they pick one another's brains.

That was what I did with Mr. Wilkinson. I found him a mine of information. He possesses a most historically valuable letter detailing the laying of the electric telegraph across the peninsula during the days of the Russian war scare. I had no compunction in "pinching" the contents of that document.

It throws a remarkable light on the "red tape" methods of Government departments. It shows how a party of linesmen, short of water in a waterless country, were refused supplies unless they wrote to Adelaide for departmental sanction to fill a five-gallon keg with the fluid. If you can beat that for stupidity I'd like to hear your story. It also shows how the same famished men were compelled to look on at a banquet while a number of departmental "brass hats" celebrated, without being asked if they had a mouth.

This letter has never before been published. It was written to Mr. Wilkinson by the chief actor in the comedy, Mr. E. H. Matthews, an early P.M. in Yorketown. The condition was attached that it should not be published until after the writer's death. Mr; Matthews has now passed on to the Great Unknown.

Comedy Of A Cable

It was during the Russian war scare of 1884 that the South Australian Government suddenly decided to erect a telegraph line across Yorke Peninsula from Yorketown to a point on the western coast, near Cape Spencer. Thereit was to be connected by cable with the Althorpes, and so with Adelaide. Poles of all shapes and sizes, long and short, were hurriedly landed at Turton, and carted to Warooka. The contract was given to Messrs. Crocombe and Cook.

No survey had been made of the country through which the telegraph line was to pass. It was a mass of obstacles. The department, seemingly, knew nothing of the conditions. They merely furnished the contractors with a ground plan of the route, drew red and blue lines across it, and told them to "follow those."

The plan looked nice and easy — all flat, open country. It was a very neat and satisfactory plan from the point of view of the official in the big arm chair in Adelaide. But when the contractors got down to "tin tacks" they found the line had to go over impenetrable scrub, rocks, hills, and almost every object imaginable. Still, it was not their job to question why, and they pushed ahead as best they could, erecting a higgledy-piggledy sort of line with long and short poles as they came, until it looked like a cross between an attenuated boa-constrictor and a switchback. They got the line as far as Newbold's Corner. There they stuck. The country was too wild for them to break through.

The line surveyor in charge was Mr. R. Knuckey. In his dilemma he consulted Mr. Matthews, the postmaster, who. he knew, had a good knowledge of the country. Mr. Matthews advised taking the poles to Corny Point, and then down the coast to Cape Spencer.

This, however, would have involved pulling down much of the line already erected. So Mr. Knuckey determined to push on towards Sandy Point, turning off at Wild Dog Hill.

Knuckey and his guide (James Hannamill) had the very dickens of a job. They were forced back twice by the impenetrableness of the scrub. At the third try they got through. There were places where the teams could not get within miles of the line, owing to the heavy timber. But in the end they cleared a narrow track (21 links) through the scrub and over the high limestone boulders, and got the wire to Cable Bay.

Doings At Spencer

Then one Saturday night, when Matthews and Jim Scott had just returned from doing some line work at Maitland, they found this message for them from Adelaide: — "Proceed at once to Cape Spencer, and select a site for landing the shore end of the cable. Take a man end provisions for a week, and if possible on your way secure the services of a bullock team to bring the end ashore. You must be there not later than daylight on Wednesday, as the Governor Musgrave will be there with cable and barge."

Matthews and A. T. Perry started the following Tuesday. At Sandy Point that afternoon they engaged Isaac Young and his bullock team. When they reached Spencer, about noon the next day there was no sign of the Governor Musgrave. After a wasted day they connected instruments to the line, and asked Adelaide, "What for?" The reply came back: —

"It is now uncertain when the Musgrave will be down. The crew have been put aboard the Protector as Admiral Tryon— he was afterwards lost in the sinking of H.M.S. Victoria after a collision with.H.M.S. Camperdown— has arrived in the Nelson, and the Protector is to act as a tender.'

So here were four men,with bullocks, and provisions for a week, called on to cool their heels for an indefinite period. The provisions, I should mention were intended for two.

Supplies were almost exhausted when the Governor Musgrave lumbered leisurely into port. She brought the cable, and a number of officials of the "haw-haw" type; hide-bound "red-tapers" of the first water.

They "pooh-poohed" the site selected by Matthews for the landing of the cable, and chose one for themselves. When he pointed out they had chosen a rocky ledge which would cut the wires within a week, he was asked in a superior tone what he knew about the hawhaw matter. So he subsided.

The superior gentlemen had the line hauled up a 40-ft. cliff. When it was nicely high and dry they made it secure, and sailed away to Cape Borda to pick up provisions. They returned three days later to find that the waves had done their work. The cable was nicely cut in two.

This time the brass-hatted gentry had sense enough to take the advice of Matthews. They laid the cable at the point he selected. There it was a permanent fixture. Now came the crowning act of folly. Matthews and hie party were short of water. They had to walk five miles to fill a bucket, and to carry it back. There was plenty on the Governor Musgrave. They asked the official in charge for permission to fill their small cask. It was refused. He said they would have to apply to the president of the Marine Board in Adelaide for a permit!

Finally the party from the steamer brought a huge hamper ashore to celebrate the completion of the work. Matthews and his three mates, owing to the late arrival of the boat, had been reduced to a diet of boiled potatoes daily. Now, half starving, they were forced to look on while their "superiors" held a banquet. They were not asked to have a bite.