Arrival by ship brought immigrants to Port Adelaide and it was not an impressive sight; eight miles up the river near a swamp and with wharves, and crude warehouses and houses along muddy streets. A further six miles inland was Adelaide, described in 1848 as being “divided into two unequal parts by a reserve of 200 acres, intended for a park, through which runs the River Torrens, a pretty stream, all surrounded by an extensive plain, lightly timbered. … the town is surrounded by a park which is intended for public walks … the streets and parks are prettily studded with large gum streets.”
Adelaide township may have been a pleasant and green town in early September 1848 and the River Torrens for much of its short length was lined with a dense red gum forest. However, the “extensive plain, lightly timbered” that surrounded it was an open grassy plain interspersed with gum trees and spindly scrub. This was a dry part of the continent where the creeks usually ran dry in the Summer and the River Torrens ended its flow in marshes behind the coastal dunes.
For many thousands of years, the indigenous Kaurna people were sustained by the plants and animals found across the seashore, plains, creeks, and rivers including wild fruits, roots and seeds, fish, shellfish, kangaroos, wallabies, emus and smaller mammals. With the arrival of the white settlers, the land was changed forever – the animals and plants and trees disappeared, and the rivers were muddy.
Early European exploration in the area was “light in nature” Englishman Matthew Flinders and Frenchman Nicolas Baudin explored the coastlines nearby while Captain Charles Sturt passed through quickly along the nearby Murray River searching for its mouth into the sea. The promising reports of the early explorers led to a group of idealistic Englishmen to attempt to establish a settlement based on principles not used in the early days of the other Australian Colonies – the Wakefield Scheme was born. In early 1836 a small fleet of ships with settlers, Governor John Hindmarsh and surveyor Colonel William Light arrived on the coast nearby and after some discussion agreed on the site for the future town of Adelaide.
The town plan fitted the topography with two districts for the town centre along the north and south banks of the River Torrens, a regular grid pattern of streets and spaces set aside for houses, squares, parklands, civic buildings, a hospital, a cemetery, and a botanical garden. Suburban allotments were planned on the surrounding plain between the hills in the east and the coast in the west.
Adelaide - 1848
When the lacemakers arrived in September 1848, Adelaide was a bustling town centred on Rundle and Hindley Streets. However, many other streets were clear of buildings The City of Churches was even in 1848 well-endowed with them. Trinity Church was the first public building erected in Adelaide and it was soon joined by St John’s Church, the Independent Chapel, Wesleyan Chapel, Scots Presbyterian Church, and Baptist Chapel. Prominent buildings included theatres, banks, business houses, schools and the Mechanics’ Institute as well as buildings housing six newspapers, the General Post Office, and a gaol.
In contrast with the port, the city of Adelaide was an impressive sight to travel-weary immigrants.
Adelaide and Surrounds 1848
The Wakefield Scheme plan for Adelaide was impressive.
However, in 1848 most of the development of the town centre was located north of the river with the small village of Thebarton, where many of the lacemaker families settled initially, nearby but to the west and across the river.
Beyond the town centre precinct between the hills and the coast were the allotments that the town plan allocated for suburban housing. Most had been sold in the initial rush of investment in the Wakefield Scheme. However, in 1848 very few of them had been built on.