Wilson, South Australia.


As a result of a decade of excellent rains and many good seasons during the 1870s, farmers soon ignored Goyder's Line and believed that 'rain would follow the plough'. They moved north and east forcing the government to resume pastoral leases and resurvey and subdivide them for agricultural blocks and new towns to service them.

During this very same time the railway from Port Augusta was pushed north to reach Marree by 1883. Along the railway several new towns were surveyed, including Wilson in 1880, on land which had previously been part of the Kanyaka pastoral run. It did not impress the local reporter who wrote in October, 'The government have begun surveying another township about three miles north of this place in about as waterless a spot as they could have picked'. The town was to consist of 174 blocks with the railway through the middle. There would also be three railway cottages on the northern site of the town

The town of Wilson was proclaimed on 6 January 1881 and named by Governor Jervois after General Sir Charles Wilson. When established, its main purpose was to serve the new farming districts and their communities. With an average rainfall of 30 centimetres a year, and hopes of more, farmers flocked to Wilson and its surrounds to buy properties of 500 or 1,000 acres, at one pound per acre. In their haste to join the land rush many did not realise, or if they did, ignored the fact that most of the land had no natural water supply. One of the early farmers was James Grigg. He had taken up land in the Hundred of Appila in 1874. After battling for seven years he sold his holding to George Hollitt in 1881 and joined the rush to Wilson.

A year later, in January 1882, it was reported that most of the farmers had finished reaping but there was no transport to send it away. All the surface water was exhausted, the settlers having to fall back on the wells. 'There is to be some competition in the storekeeping line here, as Mr. Webber, late of Bignell and Young, is about opening a store here; more power to him. The temporary hotel lately used by Mr. Fitzgerald being altered for a store. The Government seem to have quite ignored our petitions which were sent in some time ago. I suppose we will have to agitate again'.

Map of Wilson

They built their two-roomed stone or weatherboard cottages and with great hopes put in a wheat crop as soon as possible. Unfortunately for the young Wilson farmers and their families, the unusual wet seasons had ended. Many of those who had sown a crop obtained little more than seed wheat for the next season, while some did not even manage that.

Regardless of the initial setback a Hotel, general store, butcher and a Wesleyan chapel were opened during 1882. A school was also conducted in the chapel with as many as 15 students attending. In 1882 the children were taught by W.J. Tasker, while T.Schneider had the job in 1883 and Christina Linklater from 1884 till the middle of 1886 when Marion S. Tims was appointed. She resigned at the end of 1887. By 1885 the average attendance at the school was 20 students. Its highest average attendance number was 51 between 1894 and 1896 when Albert Canning was there. He remained at his post until 20 July 1901.

Not all business owners lived in town though. Henry Gadd for instance was still living in Hawker while conducting his business in Wilson. Gooch & Hayward from Port Augusta opened a branch in Wilson and later Farina as well.

By June 1883 the railway siding was very busy with wheat shipments. About 3,000 tons from Wilson and the surrounding area was loaded despite a crippling drought. Undaunted by these and other problems the residents petitioned leading milling companies to establish a flourmill in their town, rather than at Hawker. It now had a number of offices and a goodshed on the western site while the station master's house and additional offices as well as sheep yards on the eastern site of the line.

That same year the local reporter admitted that the township had been kept alive by the coming and outgoing teams for the goldfields in the north east. A year later he was happy to report teams coming through from the Umberumberka silver fields. In 1884 a branch of the Commercial Bank was opened and it was expected that Wilson would ultimately rank second to none north of Port Augusta. Progress was slow though and in January 1887 business was very dull, owing to the wheat coming in very slowly and payment of accounts ever slower. Farmers tried doing all the work themselves and in consequence harvesting was delayed even more than usual.

On 8 January the town was rocked by a severe earthquake at 8 pm. 'They heard a sound as of a mighty rushing wind, with throbbing and trembling of the earth which sometimes lifted up a couple of inches. Every house shook for more than a minute. People ran out into the streets, some wondering if the end had come. Others expected the earth to open up and swallow them. Our new Post and Telegraph Office suffered most, some of the plaster of the ceiling fell and small cracks are apparent in the walls'. It did not stop the reporter from hoping for a 'good old quake', which would open up a sea canal between Port Augusta and Wilson for the sake of being able to enjoy a good bath.

Good or poor harvests, rain, hail or earthquakes, the Wilsonites made the best of it and carried on. In September of 1887 a well attended concert was held with songs and recitations from the school children who had been trained well by Miss Tims. Among some of the children taking part were Miss Wylie, Miss Moyses, Miss Tims and Ella Tucker. Mr W.L. Collins also sang several songs and was followed by Mr H. Moyses. All were much gratified by the well merrited applause.

After the large silver discoveries near Broken Hill silver fever spread to South Australia as well. Hundreds of claims were applied for and dozens of new deposits opened up. Old mines, from as far south as the Talisker to the Beltana silver mines or even further north in the Flinders Ranges, were reworked. Naturally the residents of Wilson also suffered from the silver fever and many had a try at registering a claim, buying shares or even dig a hole or two themselves.

Although Wilson had most of the essential services there was one that was greatly missed. Residents had to travel to Hawker to see a doctor and many women gave birth in Hawker rather than risk any problems at home. Roy Neal was one of the children born in Hawker during 1890. His parents operated a store in Wilson sending goods to Farina, Marree, Blinman, Parachilna and even all the way to Oodnadatta. Roy's sister would later marry Alfred Smith, the local station master at Wilson.

Gillick Arms Hotel, taken by Ellen Need #1904

By 1887 the population of Wilson had grown to 70, occupying 18 houses. J.Collins was the postmaster and remained in that job until 1894. The Gillick Arms Hotel kept changing publican. From 1884 until 1886 R. Luke was its publican. In 1887 and 1888 it was T.Wilcocks, in 1889 F.Fitzgerald. John Andrew Fitzgerald remained on the job until his death on 26 April 1893 and was replaced by Mrs Ellen Ward.

One aspect contributing to the slow population growth was the high death rate, particularly among children. In 1888 local carpenter William Littlewood Wilson and his wife lost three of their children. Ellen Agnes on 27 January, aged 7 months, Leonard Shaw on 8 October aged 8 weeks and on 13 October Lillian Frances also 8 weeks. Three years later their son Henry died on 28 February 1891. He lived for only 17 hours.

Wilson Hotel 1943

Walter Clare Barnes, one of nine children of Thomas Barnes, had more luck. Born in 1894 he lived long enough to marry Lucy Francis in 1917. They had three children, Alan, Elsie and Velma. His wife Lucy died in 1934 but Walter remarried in 1949 to Miss D.V. Smith, a school teacher from Hawker. His father, Thomas Barnes, born in 1846 in London died on 30 April 1927 and was buried at Hawker.

The early 1890s had some good seasons and 1893-4 gave a record harvest. This resulted in additional men taking up farming. One of them was William Logan, born at Kilburnie, Scotland in 1832. At the age of 61 he, and his wife Isobel, took up a block near Wilson. Their daughter Violet later married John McNeil and lived in Wilson for some time.

The school soon noticed an influx of new people when it had as many as 50 students enrolled. Unfortunately the 1896-7 season was a complete failure and several men left the town for work elsewhere. On 3 February 1897 the temperature inside the school was more than 40 degress while a dust storm was covering everything in a think layer of 'Willochra Plain Dust'. A few weeks later the local paper reported 'plenty of dust and heat but no rain. Residents are again out of drinking water'. Eight months later the same paper reported, 'crops are out of the question as far as wheat is concerned'. Some of those who left town travelled all the way to Western Australia either to check out new land or have a try at gold mining. Many left their families at Wilson to look after themselves as best as they could.

Wilson Station Yard taken by Ellen Need #1904

Barely six months later beautiful rain was recorded and it was reported that 'the wheat and feed are coming on splendidly and the look of the country begins to do the eyesight good'. Everyone was in good spirits and a tennis match, organised between Hawker and Wilson, was won by the Wilsonites.

At the turn of the century the town was at its peak. It had a school with 50 students, church, carpenter, saddler, post office, hotel, with Mary Ann Matthews at the bar, general store, greengrocer, blacksmith, fruiterer and a butcher. McNeal hawked his wares and George Parker was foreman ganger at the station. The town's population had reached about 75 and if those living around the town were included it would make well over a hundred. After this the fortunes of the town began to decline slowly. More men were leaving for the Western Australian goldfields and as a result of improvements in transport fewer people stopped at Wilson. By 1910 only 15 students attended the school. However it was able to keep going and Vida Levett Read, born 19 February 1893, was teaching at the Wilson school from 1912 until 1915.

Postmaster J. Irwin resigned on 30 May 1914 as he went to live further south at Black Rock. He was replaced by Arthur Thomas Edwards from Hawker who remained until January 1920 when 'owing to the dry season in the north' he sold his business including the post office. This time it was taken up by Catherine Ellen O'Connor, a 49 year old widow. After many transfers it finally closed on 5 November 1954 when the last three families still living at Wilson would be served twice weekly from Quorn.

The 1916-17 harvest was again a bumper crop but large losses were suffered from a mice plague. To make matters even worse, the next year was a drought year resulting in an exodus of farmers and the temporarily closure of the school. As before, residents were resilient and would not give in. They even managed to build a new Memorial Hall in 1921 when the population was still 87. The first stone for this building was laid by James Michael Gillick on 15 October 1921. Slowly but surely many of the farmers started to switch from wheat to sheep in an effort to make a reasonable living.

Ruins of Wilson School 2006

During a meeting of the Great Northern Juvenile Athletic and School Exhibition Association at Beltana on Easter Monday, 13 April 1925, when Richard J. Rudd was the teacher, Wilson was able to send several of its students. Among them were Jack and Gertrude Rowe, Will and John Hall, John Mates, Mavis Beckman and Mabel, Edna and Alma Ward. This yearly meet was attended by school children from far and wide, including Copley, Quorn, Willow Plain, Farina, Gordon, Hawker, Blinman and Lyndhurst.

During a painting program between Quorn and Marree, the Wilson railway building was to be painted on the outside. Repair and maintenance costs were kept to a minimum. On 11 November 1958 a severe windstorm blew the roof of the goods shed away. It was considered to be too costly to repair and was offered for sale and removal. It was bought by E.H. Reschke from Hawker for 5.

By 1933 the town population had declined to only 56 and as a result both the post office and general store closed. A serious drought in 1939 did not help to improve the situation. During 1942 both the school, on 9 May when the average attendance had slumped to six, and hotel closed. By this time the surrounding country had been consolidated into two large holdings under the countrol of the Rowe family. From than on the decline was very rapid and irreversible. In 1947 the last wheat crop was sown and five years later the last farmer left followed by the last resident in 1954. After almost 75 years of hope and much disappointment, Goyder was proved to be correct and Wilson had ceased to exist.

Many of the early pioneers are buried at the Wilson Cemetery.

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