History of Adelaide

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Colonel William Light, on his planning of Adelaide, faced enormous problems, not the least of which was the constant criticism of his choice of site. In the dry environment, his prime motivation was the steady water supply and fertile land provided by the River Torrens. Numerous sites had been investigated, including Kangaroo Island, where whalers had developed a settlement some time before.

There's a sense of difference about Adelaide. She was planned - she didn't just 'happen'. Light started with a distinctive grid pattern, which covered one square mile exactly, then surrounded it with a belt of parkland, which, over 150 years later, lends an air of tranquillity to the now bustling city. 'South' Adelaide was to be the centre for business and North Adelaide the residential area. Light named the new city after Queen Adelaide, wife of the British king at the time, William IV.

Adelaide's founding was based on an ambitious social plan, conceived in an English prison by Edward Gibbon Wakefield, who was serving a sentence for abducting a teenage English heiress! His theories were supported by influential and visionary businessmen, many of whom later settled in the colony.

Critical of the convict system of colonisation, he suggested that crown land in the colonies be sold and the proceeds used to set up a fund to assist free labourers and their families to emigrate. Once those labourers had worked for a few years, they would then be in a position to buy their own land. The new settlement was to be the 'Athens of the south' - a free settlement, offering civil and religious liberty. As a free settlement, it was unaided by convict labour or funding from Britain.

After coming ashore at Glenelg, the first settlers endured tough times, living in makeshift shelters and with few comforts, but so too did the local indigenous population. Prior to 1836, the area was populated, for many thousands of years, by the Kaurna people. It was known as Tandanya,
meaning red kangaroo. While the philosophy behind the new colony sought to protect such groups, the reality was less than the ideal. Within fifty years, the Kaurna population had fled to the nearby hills.

Religious freedom attracted free-thinking dissenters and non-conformists. Within two years, German speaking Lutherans from Silesia sought freedom from religious persecution in the new colony. They settled in Klemzig, Hahndorf, and their churches dominate the landscape of the Barossa Valley.

The young colony experienced the extremes of boom and bust. Booms came with a good harvest, resulting in a building frenzy, and the discovery of copper, which led to a mining boom. While saving the colony from 'bust', gold mining interstate drained Adelaide of her able-bodied workers and caused hardship until a way was devised to bring the gold and associated earnings home.

In the following years, a variety of groups settled. Irish men and women came to work and escape the potato famines of their homeland; Cornish miners arrived; and many Polish settlers went to the Clare Valley, where, today, Polish Hill is not only a respected wine label but a locale commemorating their contribution. Afghans came to work camel trains in the outback and helped on the construction of the railway line. The famous Ghan train honours their contribution.

The aftermath of the World Wars saw rapid expansion in the population of South Australia. Following World War Two, immigrants arrived from Malta, the Netherlands, Italy, Austria, Belgium, Greece, West Germany and Spain, bringing with them the many cultural delights South Australians now like to call their own. In recent times, it is Asia, rather than Europe that is the source of new migrants, adding to the cultural diversity of the state.

Despite the multi-cultural nature dating from early times and Adelaide being less 'under the thumb' of the Church of England than other British settlements, the city carried an air of puritanism and was frequently disparaged as 'wowserish' (an Australian term meaning the infliction of rigid or narrow morality).

How then, did it come to be a place renowned worldwide for its wine production, its significant contribution to the arts and its progressive legislation? This is the nature of Adelaide, the delightful sense of difference, still evident 150 years after foundation.

In the early days, Adelaide led the way in allowing women to stand for parliament and to vote. The city was quick to legalise trade unions and instituted the secret ballot. In more recent times, she has set the pace for Australia with legislation on a range of social issues.

The first exported wine was sent to Queen Victoria from the Adelaide Hills, made from grapes planted just a year after the first settlement. The Barossa and Clare Valleys, McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek and the Adelaide Plains were all early to establish vineyards and wineries.

Early settlers bemoaned the lack of cultural pursuits. In time though, a strong arts presence developed. The Queen's Theatre, still standing in Adelaide, represents the only remnants of such an early theatre. Adelaide University, the Art Gallery, Institute Building and State Library on North Terrace made important contributions to the state. North Terrace is now Adelaide's 'cultural boulevard', with these buildings conveniently placed within metres of each other.

The birth of the famous Adelaide Festival in 1960 and the parallel Fringe Festival left no doubt that Adelaide was indeed the 'Athens of the south'. Held in even numbered years, the festival soon set a standard for all Australian arts festivals. The construction in the 1970s of The Festival Centre saw a permanent home for the deserving event.

It's difficult to gauge just what it is that made Adelaide the city she is today - but the answer lies somewhere between the visions of a passionate English prisoner, a far-sighted and artistic military man and those who pursued their dream of a new life beyond familiar horizons.