Mount Gambier

Mount Gambier

History

The area was originally inhabited by the Buandig people who reputedly called the Mount Gambier area ‘ereng balam’ or ‘egree belum’ which supposedly meant the home of the eagle hawk.

1800

The first European to sight Mount Gambier was Lieutenant James Grant sailing the HMS Lady Nelson. He sailed down the coast on 3 December 1800 and observed what he thought were four islands. On closer investigation they proved to be two mountains and two capes which he duly named Gambier’s Mountain (after Admiral Lord James Gambier who had commanded the fleet at the Battle of Copenhagen), Cape Banks, Cape Northumberland and Mount Schank

The Buandig were the first Aborigines in South Australia to see sheep and to experience the arrival of Europeans with herds of sheep.

1839

The first squatters into the area were the Henty Brothers who had established huge property holdings around Portland in western Victoria. Realising that the government of South Australia had little control over this far-flung extremity of the state they simply moved sheep and cattle into the area in June, 1839.

At this time a vast forest wilderness lay between the settled parts of Victoria and South Australia and where the country was of tertiary limestone and, in most parts, covered with sand; thus it was for all practical purposes, a desert. A rough wiry grass, some coarse timber, with an abundance of wild flowers met the eye; but any prospective farmer would have turned despairingly from it. However, where the sand disappeared and the rock showed itself, a greener, richer reward was found for there was soil of the most fertile description. Trees of varied kinds grew in luxuriance and an oasis of beauty arose.

In 1839, Stephen Henty, went on an exploring trip with two companions in the direction of Mount Gambier, seeking suitable land for pastoral purposes and, finding a little rise in the vicinity of the Valley Lake, he built a hut. In the fullness of time, at the behest of local citizenry, a suitable block of Mount Schank basalt rock was inscribed with the words: “S.G. Henty, 1839, Henty’s Hut, 1841” and unveiled at this site. At an address given on the occasion Mr Crouch intimated that Henty had another hut near the modern-day Cave Garden Reserve in the center of the city, and went on to say that the men who assisted him in establishing the run, by driving livestock overland, were Jim Sneyd, Joe Frost, a native of Sydney named McCoy and Paddy Hann, an old soldier, as cook.

At a later time, writing to the Governor of New South Wales Stephen Henty said:

“To those who have not seen Mount Gambier it may seem strange when I say I ascended it on the north-east side and was scarcely aware of my exact position until I reached the brink of an enormous lake which I can never forget - quite beyond my powers of description. At this time I was not certain whether this beautiful country belonged to the South Australian colony or I should have applied for a special survey in that locality for at this time I believe no European had ever seen the country but my own party.”

Alexander Tolmer mentions the presence of Henty’s station in 1844 so it is clear that he was still squatting but, of course, his occupation was tainted with illegality because he held no occupation licence from the authorities in Adelaide. This resulted in him being dispossessed by E.P.S. Sturt by means of a licence issued in his name on 10 April 1845 and he was to say later ?we were subsequently deprived of our cattle stations by the chicanery of some unprincipled individuals in search of sheep stations.”

So slow was the South Australian government to react that they managed to farm the area around the lakes for five years before they were ordered back to Victoria. How successful this operation was is open to debate as the Hentys and their workers spent much of their time fighting with the local Buandig Aborigines who were unimpressed with the arrival of Europeans on their traditional grounds. There was also a major issue over sheep. The Aborigines quickly developed a taste for mutton which infuriated the settlers.

1844

In April 1844, and predating Mr Sturt’s appearance in the district, two brothers, Edward John and Robert Rowland Leake took possession of Glencoe Station where, in the course of a few years, the former died and his brother became the sole proprietor. In 1857 he was elected to the House of Assembly as a member for the seat of Victoria.

1847

The first sale of freehold land took place in 1847 when four sections from 1100 to 1103, inclusive were granted to Mr Evelyn P.S. Sturt at £80.1s. per section and he remained in occupation until 1853 when he left to take up the position of Chief Inspector of Police in Melbourne. In the interim period he laid out the town of Gambierton and sold his freehold land, including the infant township, to Hastings Cunningham, while portion of his leased land went to William Mitchell - some of which was to become part of the Moorak Station at a later time under the stewardship of Dr W.J. Browne.

1840's - 1850's

In the same decade, and into the 1850s, pastoral runs were taken up in what was then called the “new country” near the border and settled by squatters who had come either from Victoria to spy out the land, or trekked overland from settled areas contiguous to Adelaide. They were more than pleased with what they saw and many of them and their descendants remained there at the turn of the 20th century, having accumulated great wealth. Among these pioneers were The Arthur brothers at Mount Schank in 1844, Mr Heighway Jones at Lake Cadnite in February 1846 (later to be known as Kybybolite Station), Mr Donald Black at Kongorong in 1846, Mr Alexander Stewart at Mosquito Plains in April 1846, Mr Edward Townsend, who took up the Cadnite Creek Station in March 1847, and Mr Adam Smith at Hynam in July 1847.

Once the Hentys had been removed (in 1844) the land was given to Evelyn Sturt, a brother of Charles Sturt who had explored the Murray River to its mouth. A township of sorts began to emerge in the 1840s. The Mount Gambier Hotel was built by John Byng in 1847, a blacksmith and a general store set up business near what are now the Cave Gardens, and in 1849 a Dr Welh arrived with a handmill for turning wheat and barley into flour. He was later to build a substantial millhouse on Commercial Road.

The town was formally established by Hastings Cunningham in 1854. He called it Gambier Town. During that year 123 allotments were surveyed and by 1860 lots of land in the township were being offered for sale.

1887

By mid-1887 the Naracoorte to Mount Gambier railway was ready to be opened and its completion was most important, because it not only united previously disjointed local systems into one compact and harmonious whole, but it was to link, permanently, the rich districts of Mount Gambier and Penola to Adelaide. Until then it was much easier for residents in those two towns to travel to Melbourne than Adelaide and, of course, the post was proportionately much quicker with Melbourne as well.

1890's

By the turn of the 20th century, and with the pending federation of the Australian colonies in 1901, the citizens of the South-East were considering the desirability of seceding and becoming part of Victoria and many grievances were aired in support of their desire. Firstly, they stated that if they had a broad gauge railway all the way to Adelaide they could increase the productivity of their holdings, for the loss of time occasioned by the break of gauge at Wolseley, and the double handling, were fatal to much of the perishable products forwarded to the city markets.

If this was to be denied, they considered that a railway line to Victoria connecting them with Portland would enable them “to transfer our business and our sympathies to Victoria.” Indeed, in the late 1890s, a cry for a railway extension from Casterton to Mount Gambier was taken up on the Victorian side, while at the same time Portland was working hard in the same direction and Melbourne merchants were sending their travellers to the district where prices were cut for the purpose of obtaining orders.

1954

The city of Mount Gambier was created in 1954. It is now recognised as the most important centre in south-east South Australia.

2010 - ?

Today Mount Gambier is sustained by a range of industries. There is a very active timber industry sustained by plantations of radiata pine, the surrounding area is noted for sheep and cattle raising and the soil is rich enough for both grain crops and vegetables to be grown.

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