John Barton Hack and Stephen Hack and the early days of South Australia

Chequered Lives

Chequered Lives
John Barton Hack and Stephen Hack
and the early days of South Australia

Iola Hack Mathews
with Chris Durrant


Chequered Lives, is a detailed and fascinating story of an extended English Quaker family who came to South Australia to start a new life, a new business and make a lot of money. The first two members of that family were John Barton Hack and his younger brother Stephen Hack. Making use of the Hack family papers, numerous letters to and from the extended family, diaries, memoirs, bills, newspapers, government gazettes and secondary sources, the authors have produced a highly readable and very interesting account of the two brothersí varied fortunes, successes and failures in an attempt to achieve their ambition.

To a smaller extent it also relates the stories of their wives, brothers, sisters, children, in-laws and friends; their joy and tragedy as well as the family division. It is set against a background of a very young colony, with endemic speculation, buying and selling of land, particularly in Adelaide, but little investment in agriculture or infrastructure, resulting in high prices and high unemployment and numerous bankruptcies.

John Barton, always referred to as Barton and his brother Stephen were the sons of Stephen Hack (1775-1823) and his wife Mary Barton who were married on 7 February 1800. They were to have ten children, among them Barton born on 2 July 1805 and Stephen in 1816. Barton married Bridget Watson on 9 July 1827 and Stephen married Elizabeth Wilson. Barton and Bbe, as Bridget was known, were to have 14 children while Stephen and Elizabeth only had three.

On 31 August 1836 Barton, Bbe, their six children and brother Stephen left for Portsmouth on the Isabella, captained by John Hart. Having bought preliminary land orders to the value of £243 they were entitled to free passage for as many as 12 servants or labourers, but the £250 for their own transport they had borrowed. However, they also took with them two Manning cottages, a small sailing boat, cabin luggage some essentials and their dogs. The rest of their belongings would come later by another ship. They left behind a debt of some £2000, in todayís value $250.000!

They arrived at Launceston, Tasmania on 4 January 1837. Here they bought additional supplies needed for South Australia, such as a dray, cart, plough, 400 sheep, bullocks and other supplies to the value of £1600, which was paid for with a bill of exchange. Most of these goods would be shipped later by John Hart. When the Hack family arrived in South Australia with their seven employees they soon had one of the Manning cottages up on the sand hills at Glenelg. All other 700 migrants and government officials still lived in tents or rush huts.

Being the only ones with a bullock team they were soon earning good income carting goods for other people. When on 17 March 1837 lots were drawn for the town acres they obtained numbers 21, 345 and 702. Unallocated lots were sold on 27 and 28 March and Barton bought a further 61 acres for a total of £360. A week later the whole Hack family moved from Glenelg to the second Manning house which Barton had erected on North Terrace. The Glenelg cottage was dismantled and rebuild next to the one on North Terrace.

Once settled in their new home the family made an effort to become friendly with as many people as possible. New friends included Captain John Hart, Dr TY Cotter and his wife Jane, Rev. Charles Howard and his wife Grace, John Morphett, Robert Gouger, James Hurtle Fisher and Sir John Jeffcott. The brothers also made friends with the Aborigines and Stephen even tried to learn their language.

The Hack brothers decided to become merchants, importing goods from Sydney and Launceston for resale in Adelaide. They soon became leading citizens and Barton was on the committee to name the Adelaide streets which naturally included one named after himself, Barton Terrace. The brothers were the first contractors to the government digging a canal, established a stockyard, dairy and market garden on the 13 acres in North Adelaide and imported the first vines. Stephen became an expert bushman and explorer.

On 4 May the Schah arrived from England with all the goods left behind in London by the Hack family but the ship and cargo from Launceston was lost at Cape Nelson. It was not insured and Barton still had to pay £1377 for it. The Hacks now bought cargo direct from incoming ships which was then resold.

On a brighter note Stephen had made a clear profit of £300 with his bullocks and another £100 profit supplying the Buffalo with 20 tons of water from the Torrens. Although pregnant with her seventh child, Bbe also made weekly profits selling milk, skim milk and butter. Profits were reinvested and when cash was not available shortages were paid for with overdrafts or letters of credit. Seldom was money sent back to England to pay for their debts left behind on their departure.

At the end of the first year Stephen and John Hart went to Sydney to buy cattle to be overlanded to Adelaide. He was the first to do so but not the first to arrive, being beaten to it by Joseph Hawdon and Charles Bonney. While in Sydney they bought the schooner Lady Wellington for £1800 and cattle for £7140. Stephen arrived back in Adelaide in May 1838.

Meanwhile Barton had started building a two-storey house in Hindley Street while Bbe was running the dairy, bringing in £16 a week. In April Barton and partners bought a whaling station at Encounter Bay. In 1839 the Hacks bought two Special Surveys and established dairies on both of them. As if this was not enough they also rented land at Yankalilla and bought another 1225 acres. It was Stephen, still only 23 years old, who managed the rural properties, employing 36 men on the Three Brothers Estate with 1000 head of cattle, 60 bullocks, 30 horses and 30 pigs. They were now landed gentry!

Barton who stayed mostly in Adelaide set on numerous committees. He was Chairman of the Adelaide Chamber of Commerce, as well as the South Australian Agricultural and Horticultural Society. He was a director of the Joint Stock Pastoral Company and the Adelaide Auction Group, Trustee of the Plympton North Methodist Church, after having changed his religion, and a member of the SA School Society, Literary and Scientific Association, Mechanics Institute, Botanic Gardens Board and the Association for the Prosecution of Felons.

The Hack family was doing well. Not only was business expanding and making profits, the family too was growing all the time apart from the children born to Bbe and Barton. In September 1838 George Dean, a cousin of Barton, arrived from England with his wife and children followed in October by Bartonís brother-in-law Dr John Knott and later Henry Watson, brother of Bbe. Next came Quakers Joseph Barritt and Joseph May and family who were followed by Bartobís sister Priscilla and others.

After some deaths in the family it was decided to leave unhealthy Adelaide and move to the Three Brothers Estate in the much healthier Adelaide Hills. They sold their 1000 acres at the Little Para and most of the Hindley Street property. By the middle of 1840 the two-storey house at Echunga was completed and occupied. By the end of 1840 it was plain to see that even though profits were made, they were not enough to cover all the outstanding debts which kept growing due to their continuing buying spree. They now owed £11,000 (more than $1 million).

Meanwhile the South Australian economy had very much the same problems, lots of money going out but little coming in. Governor Gawler was recalled and replaced by George Grey who had strict instructions to rein in expenditure. Both speculation and employment stopped, banks pressed for settlement of outstanding accounts with the result that both land and property were sold at rock-bottom prices.

With the deepening of the financial crisis the Hack brothers suffered great financial losses. In December 1841 the firm of Hack, Watson & Co was wound up owing some £4000, most of it to Jacob Hagen. To cover it, almost all property had to be mortgaged to Hagen at penalty rates. At the start of 1842 Barton had abandoned all his businesses except the farm at Echunga. When repayments fell overdue in February 1843 Jacob Hagen seized the estate and the Hack brothers were declared insolvent.

Stephen finished up in prison and fell out with his brother, which lasted for many years. Stephen made his last payment in 1849 while Barton took another ten years to make his final payment. They may have been down, but they certainly were not out. The authors have clearly shown that the brothers did anything to regain their previous prosperity and standing in the community.

In 1843 Barton tried to make a farm out of virgin bush with the help of his sons. That same year he became the first person to make wine. It didnít seem to make any difference. In 1844 they had to give up the farm in Echunga and they were back where they had started in 1837, earning a living as carriers with bullock teams plus large debts.

Stephen, his wife and their two children returned to England on 14 August 1844 but Barton started carting ore for the Glen Osmond, Kapunda and Burra mines to Port Adelaide. Eight years later he and his four older sons went to the Victorian gold diggings and returned with 40 lbs of it worth £2000. Not being able to settle down in England, Stephen moved to South Africa where he remained until 1853 after which he returned again to South Australia.

He became superintendent on John Bakerís runs in the Northern Flinders Ranges. In 1857 he was appointed by the government to lead an expedition in the North West. In 1858 Barton and Stephen established a dairy farm at the Coorong but Stephen soon sold his share to Barton and went back up north.

Once again Barton started borrowing money wherever he could. Once again the venture failed to make a profit. In 1861 he tried his hand at a sheep station at Coonalpyn while Stephen did at Tintinara. By 1862 Barton was again in debt to the tune of £1658. A year later he had moved to Adelaide and taken an office job.

At the age of 64 he joined the Railways Department where he remained until his retirement in 1883 at 78! He died on 4 October 1881. His wife Bbe had died on 20 July 1881, aged 74. She had supported him in all his ventures, born him 14 children and never complained. Stephen returned to England in 1865 where he died on 14 May 1894 aged 78. Mount Hack in the northern Flinders was named after Stephen.

Both brothers had led very chequered lives. Both had been enterprising and hard working but Barton was the optimist who took huge risks in business. Whatever the results he fought back to revive his fortunes. Both brothers made a significant contribution to the founding of South Australia, they were true pioneers.

Through their extensive research the authors have shown that there were no guarantees in the rough and tumble of colonial life where many others also tried to make a fortune as soon as possible. Even though the bookís 265 pages are cramped with facts and figures, Chequered Lives is an easy to read, great story and well told.

Review by Nic Klaassen

Chequered Lives by Iola Hack Mathews and Chris Durrant,
with extensive notes, index and photographs,
is available at $29.95, from
Wakefield Press

Telephone 08 8352 4455


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