South Australia on the Eve of War

South Australia

on the Eve of War

South Australia
on the Eve of War

Edited by
Melanie Oppenheimer
Margaret Anderson
Mandy Paul


In this book the twelve contributors have aimed to provide readers with insights into what kind of society South Australia was in 1914 and how that would help us to understand the responses to a war that consumed the state and its people for the next four years. At the start of 1914 South Australia was in very good shape. Publicly funded immigration had been reintroduced in 1911 to solve the shortage of labour and make expansion easier. However by the end of 1914 it had to put men, women and resources into the war effort while at the same time battling with a massive drought, with the lowest rainfall ever recorded and the Murray River drying up again.

The authors have highlighted interesting issues which occurred during the years leading up to 1914. Among them are the adjustments to statehood and its involvement in the Boer War in which more than a thousand South Australian men and a few women took part.

Other issues covered are politics and legislation, the changing role of women and the modern family. The years before the war were an optimistic time for women. The average number of children born in a family declined from eight to four, particularly among the educated women. This was often achieved by withdrawal, abstinence or abortion. House work became easier with all kinds of new labour saving appliances.

In 1895 women had gained the vote and the right to stand for election. From the 1880s they were able to manage and control their own property. Still they had a long way to go yet. They suffered many inequalities within marriage. There was certainly no equality when it came to matters of divorce. The Commonwealth government introduced a maternity allowance in 1912 which did at least help the larger families. The Vaughan government appointed the first female Justices of the Peace in 1915 and from 1911 women were able to to practice the profession of law.

The protection, but mainly control, of Aboriginal people, loyalty of non-English migrants and problems with the administration and development of the Northern Territory has also been highlighted. Since 1863 South Australia had been responsible for its development which had been very costly but not very successful. The greatest achievement had been the completion of the Overland Telegraph line between Port Augusta and Palmerston (Darwin).

It was generally assumed that white man could not work productively in the tropics. This made it possible to import native labour, Kanakas, Chinese, Tamils and Japanese for the Broome pearl industry. The sorry evidence of this group can be seen at the Broome cemetery where more than a thousand of them are buried. Most had died from the bends. No wonder South Australians wanted to get rid of the Northern Territory. They achieved this goal when in 1911 the Commonwealth took over.

Boosting agriculture and opening up the country was seen as an important development. To this extent the South Australia’s British Farm Apprenticeship came into being with the importation of young English boys who were to work as an apprentice for a number of years on a farm staying with the family. Other industries were also expanding, one of the best known being that of Henry and Edward Holden. There are also chapters on the White Australian Policy, a case study of Eyre Peninsula and town planning. Adelaide was the third largest city at that time.

The last three chapters are the most thought-provoking as they deal with the treatment of Irish migrants, especially the Catholics among them, Indians, Afghans and Germans. As early as the 1850s the Irish migrants had been disliked and even feared. It took a long time for this to change. Indians too had a hard time of it, as did the Chinese, Japanese and Afghans. Their solid contribution was unknown, conveniently forgotten or deliberately omitted.

From the 1890s Australians firmly believed that their country should be a white man’s paradise. In 1893 South Australia refused to renew hawking licences of the Afghans, Assyrians and Chinese. Three years later the South Australian Parliament passed a Coloured Immigration Restriction Act, well before the Commonwealth passed its contentious White Australian Policy.

Members of Parliament had been busy legislating on a wide range of issues which resulted in the introduction of driving licences in 1907, the first Australian state to do so. Two years later the first electric tram competed with horse transport. There were still 250.000 horses in South Australia in 1913. Railway construction was started between Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie in 1912 and a State Industrial Court established. The long fought-over River Murray Waters Agreement was concluded in 1914.

With a little more leisure time available both men and women played sport. Australian Rules Football, horse-racing, cricket, lacrosse, tennis and boxing all had their players and supporters. Most people still went to church although there were four times more pubs than churches. Adelaide also had a thriving vaudeville, concert and theatre scene for general amusement. The census of 1911 listed just over 400.000 people living in South Australia, excluding Aborigines. The Australian born numbered 86 %, 11 % came from the United Kingdom and 10 % had a German background.

On the eve of the war South Australia was the most German of the Australian states. German South Australians and their British ‘cousins’ could look back on almost seven decades of collaborative endeavour based on mutual respect, if not admiration. The only time there was some friction was during the Boer War when many Germans supported the Boers. Yet within days of the outbreak of war German South Australians throughout the state were subjected to harassment and openly proclaimed charges of treachery. Within months some of them found themselves behind barbed wire in the concentration camp, an English invention used in the Boer War, established on Torrens Island. Later German place names in South Australia, and other states, would be changed, German language publications banned and German schools closed. One still wonders, even after a hundred years, why and how this could have happened when everyone knew about the economic, cultural and political contributions made by German migrants. It all happened again during the next war.

Review by Nic Klaassen

South Australia on the Eve of War, PB 234 pp, with index and end notes is available at $29.95, from
Wakefield Press
Telephone 08 8352 4455


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