Gawler, South Australia

An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983


Gawler is a pleasant country town 40 kilometres to the north of Adelaide and close to the major wine producing districts of Barossa Valley. The oldest country town in the state of South Australia, in Victorian times it was extremely prosperous, with foundries, engineering works, coachbuilders, brickworks, breweries and flour mills employing large numbers of people.

Agricultural and mining particularly boomed in the 1870s and ‘80s, allowing Gawler to blossom into a town of broad streets, peaceful parklands and striking architecture, home to a number of massive public buildings. Today you can witness the remarkable historical buildings that still line Gawler’s Main Street and celebrate the town’s history through its many local community events and festivals.

This article explores the history and historic public buildings of Gawler as background reading to Odyssey Traveller’s South Australian tours. Our 8-day small group tour of Adelaide and the surrounding area includes the Adelaide hills, the Barossa Valley and the McLaren Vale Wine Regions, the Fleurieu Peninsula, and the Murray River.

Gawler c. 1890 / Gawler History / CC BY-SA 2.0

History of Gawler

The original inhabitants of the Gawler area are the Kaurna Aboriginal people, who numbered around 300 at the time of British colonisation. Laid out in 1839, the Gawler township was South Australia’s first regional settlement.

The town plan was devised by the colonial surveyor William Light, the same designer of Adelaide. Light chose the townsite as a gateway to the state’s north, located at two tributaries of the Gawler River, the North and South Para rivers, and surrounded by rolling hills. He left spacious parklands alongside the rivers and provided three squares as church sites. Other public reservations were for the cemetery, marketplace, and courthouse.

The commercial area developed around the main North road, just within the east boundary of the town, an area which also attracted much of the public building. Only the police station and courthouse remain isolated in the centre of the old town.

Courthouse in Gawler, South Australia / Orderinchaos / CC BY-SA 3.0

Gawler went through a series of times of prosperity and decline. The first real impetus came in 1845 with the discovery of copper nearby at Kapunda and Burra, which resulted in Gawler becoming an overnight stopping place for bullock dray drivers carting ore to Adelaide.

For a short while, between 1849 and 1857, the drays by-passed Gawler, instead taking their melted copper direct to the coast. A mass exodus of the populace to the Victorian goldfields also took place at this time, hurting the economy of the town. Ruin was predicted.

With the rail connection arriving from Adelaide in 1857, however, prosperity and optimism returned to the town. Bullockies were ordered to take their loads to Gawler again and farmers were helped with lower transport costs.

The railways were also the cause of some intense land speculation as industry developed around Gawler. James Martin & Co’s foundry brought great wealth to the town, producing steam locomotives and rolling stock for the Australian railways, as well as agricultural and mining machinery. Industries also developed around Hilfers & Co’s flour milling, and the agricultural and mining machinery of May Brothers & Co.

With prosperity came a modest cultural flowering, which included holding a competition that resulted in the writing of the famous ‘Song of Australia’ in 1859, and the construction of sveral attractive and gracious buildings giving the town a certain charm and sophistication. This air of culture led to its nickname, ‘The colonial Athens’.

When the railways set up their own works in Adelaide in the early 1900s, the decline of Gawler as an industrial town seemed inevitable. Before long James Martin & CO’s foundry was closed and with it the engineering firms and the large workforce of about two thousand men were dispersed. Although never to reach such industrial prosperity again, today the town stands as an historic relic filled with cultural heritage.

Historic Public Buildings of Gawler

Of the public buildings still standing, the oldest is the Telegraph Office, built in 1860. It is characterised by an unusual gaslight above the front door and the impressive use of local stone. Initially a telegraph station, it was subsequently used as the letter carrier’s residence, the Gawler School of Mines, Technical School and Commonwealth Electoral Office. It is today the home of the National Trust Museum.

The old Gawler Post Office and its clock tower date from 1867. The unusual thing to observe is the eastern face of the clock, which has numerals the wrong way round: the numeral four (IV) is installed where the number six (VI) should be. The clock still works perfectly after more than 150 years and is ritually round once a week.

Telegraph and Post Office with Tower in Gawler / denisbin / CC BY-ND 2.0

Although Gawler appears to have been well developed culturally and educationally at an early stage and to have had most of the usual public services, it was on the wave of prosperity and optimism in the 1870s and ‘80s that most of the present public buildings were erected.

The Gawler Institute was built in 1870 on land donated by James Martin. It is notable for two plaques on its walls: one refers to the building as the home of the ‘Song of Australia’; the other to the iron balustrade, which was cast from the first iron smelted in the colony at James Martin & Co in Gawler in 1871. Today the building operates as the Gawler Public Library, host to a magnificent Reading Room.

Next to the Gawler Institute is the Gawler Town Hall, built in 1878. It is characterised by an elaborate balustrade parapet with ornate urns and a false central pediment containing the Coat of Arms.

Gawler Institute Building and Town Hall / Gawler History / CC BY-SA 2.0

The Gawler primary school also opened in 1878 and was one of the first Model Schools after the commencement of public education in South Australia in 1875. The design features Gothic style windows, prominent gables decorated with finials, a tall belfry with a still operational bell, and an intricate air circulation system with prominent roof vents. it has been only slightly altered inside; after the turn of the century, windows were enlarged and classrooms re-floored. Arched storage vaults beneath the building are a curious feature.

Gawler Public School / Gawler History / CC BY-SA 2.0

Some other buildings erected during the prosperous 1870s and ‘80s were the Exhibition Building at the showgrounds, public plunge baths, waterworks, and a fire brigade station.  The baths and fire station no longer exist.

The excellent structural condition of Gawler’s public buildings is a tribute to their materials and to the workmanship of their builders. They were all constructed of the slate known as ‘bluestone’ quarried from the hills behind the town.

Tour of Adelaide City and Surrounds

Odyssey Traveller is excited to announce that we are now offering a tour of Adelaide. Basing ourselves in the city for eight nights, we explore Adelaide city and the surrounding areas in depth. On a walking tour of Adelaide city, we explore the grand 19th century buildings of the city centre, including Holy Trinity Church, Government House, and the Adelaide Gaol. In the city, our guided tour also explores the 19th century pubs and houses of Port Adelaide. We visit the Art Gallery of South Australia, on the city‘s North Terrace, home to the world’s second-biggest collection of works by William Morris, and visit the Botanic Garden. We will also have plenty of opportunity to feast on Adelaide’s famous food and wine, at the city‘s Central Market and Chinatown.

Our Adelaide tour also explores the surrounding regions. We make a day trip down the beautiful Fleurieu Peninsula, stopping for lunch and a tasting at the world-famous Mclaren Vale Wine Region, and drive to Cape Jervis, from which we can view Kangaroo Island. On another day, we take a cruise down the Murray River. Our tour also heads to the Adelaide Hills, touring the wineries of the Barossa Valley, and the traditional German settlement of Hahndorf, known for its traditional German architecture and food.

Odyssey Traveller has been designing tours for mature and senior travellers since 1983. We pride ourselves on offering an authentic experience of the places we visit, with Odyssey tour guide chosen for their extensive local knowledge. We move in small groups of around 6-12 like-minded people. Our tour price includes accommodation, entrance to attractions, group meals and more. For more information on us, click here.

Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to Adelaide and South Australia:

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