Wirrabara Forest, South Australia

Wirrabara Forest

Location of Wirrabara

The Wirrabara Forest, previously known as Whites Forest, on the eastern slopes and foothills of the southern Flinders Ranges soon attracted the attention of timber cutters. During the early 1850s the trees were cut for use as fence posts, building material and firewood. However it also was used at the nearby Charlton mine and Burra mine further south.

Charles Crew, born in London in 1820 claimed to be the first man to live in the forest. On 5 December 1855 he married Catherine Hennessy, aged 20, from County Clare, Ireland. Their first child, William was born in 1857 at Crystal Brook but their second child, Charles, was born in the forest in 1862. On 22 November 1857 blacksmith Edward Atkins and his wife Elizabeth, nee Mashford had a daughter, Elizabeth followed by another daughter, Mary on 8 December 1859. A few years later Henry Bear and his wife Louisa, nee Gladwin, had a daughter, Marianne, on 18 June 1868 followed by a son, William on 25 December 1870.

The Crew family were soon followed by others, mostly teamsters or woodcutters. Among these early families were Edward Dansie, born at the nearby Charlton mine and David Christie. Alexander Bowman, born in Scotland in 1826 moved to the forest in 1860 with his wife Charlotte, nee Kendle. They had been married in Adelaide in 1852 and now Alexander and his sons were cutting and carting timber. The family soon prospered and by the early 1870s they owned five teams of bullocks and wagons which were driven by the Bowman sons. A daughter, Charlotte was born in the forest in 1872.

Life was hard and conditions very primitive. Although the forest was drained by three creeks, White, Crews and the Ippinitchie which eventually become the Rocky River, water was often in short supply. Apart from the water, fresh meat was also expensive and hard to come by. Several of the early timber splitters regularly hunted kangaroos or possums to solve this problem. One keen splitter tried to catch a possum by climbing a tree. Unfortunately he lost his footing, fell and broke his neck. He was buried on 24 May 1863 at what later became known as the Wirrabara Forest Pioneer Cemetery. It was used until 1877.

A few years later many small children died from an epidemic and were also buried at this cemetery. In these early years at the forest it was Claus Bathern who made the coffins, read the burial service, inscribed and erected the red gum ‘headstones’, made by William Dansie, and finally registered the deaths at Burra. Among those buried are members of the Harris, Bear, Carn, Gardiner, James, McCann, Payne, Creamer, Heggit, Irlam, Julian, Ham, Pickford, Talbot, Slade, Cox and Robinson families.

The Bear family in particular was hit hard. They lost two daughters in a matter of weeks. Annie on 20 March 1871, aged 5 and Mary Ann on 25 April, aged two years and ten months. A year later their son William died on 1 May 1872. The last burial at the Pioneer Cemetery was that of Sarah Robinson. When Rosa, wife of Henry Neustadt died on 18 June 1882, aged 61 she was buried in the Jewish section of the West Terrace Cemetery in Adelaide.

German immigrants, and later their descendants, helped with the opening up of agricultural lands in the mid north, as far north as Quorn and Bruce on the Willochra Plains and the Wirrabara area. One of these was Claus Botherim, born in Schleswig Holstein. As a sailor he was involved in the German Danish war and while in the Southern Ocean decided to stay in Australia. He settled near Tothill Creek and married Margaret Murray. In 1863 he and his family moved to the Wirrabara forest where he found work at Norman's Gully.

Claus Botherim changed his name to Bathern and bought his own bullock team and eventually bought land in the Hundred of Apilla. On 27 February 1867 their daughter Alice Ada was born while Claus was working at Beetaloo. On 1 March 1869 they had a son Albert followed by another son, James William on 20 March 1871. Both sons were born at Whites Forest. In 1882 he used thirty bullocks to haul a steam engine into the forest to drive the circular saw. At times he acted as a saw sharpener, scribe, teacher and confidant.


The forest provided a large amount of timber for station buildings, fences, homesteads, shearing sheds, cottages, and mines such as the Charlton, Moonta, Wallaroo and the Burra. One of the early teamsters to cart the timber to the Burra mine was Sam Challinger. Born in Sheffield in 1841 Sam arrived in Adelaide in 1853. For a while he worked there with his father but soon he found his way to Auburn. After having saved enough money he bought his own bullock team to cart Burra copper to Port Wakefield. Later he went further north and brought back the forest timber to the mine. In 1865 he married Ann Bacon, had eight children and took up farming in Melrose, where he became a man of considerable influence.

In 1880 William Eldridge called tenders for carting 80,000 sleepers to Gladstone Railway Station. Wirrabara timber was also used for poles for the Overland Telegraph line, railway sleepers for the Pichi Richi, Petersburg-Silverton, The Great Northern Railway and Terowie lines.

Labour was also provided by inmates from the Gladstone Gaol. In their distinctly marked uniforms male inmates often worked in the Wirrabara forest cutting fire wood and hauling it back to Gladstone for the locals. Firewood and timber for construction were in short supply in Gladstone and most of the carting was done during the autumn when the dirt roads were hard and dry.

When the Broken Hill mines started it was the Wirrabara forest that supplied the charcoal. The piles and planking for South Australia’s longest jetty at Port Germein were supplied from the same source. The jetty was started in 1880 and Wishart, the contractor, employed 30 men, six of them to cart the native Sugar Gum from the Wirrabara Forest.

One of the surviving forest cottages.

During the 1860s a timber licence could be obtained from the government for £5 per year, which gave the owner the right to cut and remove unlimited quantities of the native timber, mostly hardwood, which reached a peak in the 1880s. The timber cutters in turn provided extra income for nearby farmers during lean times to transport it to Laura the nearest railhead. Regular teamsters used bullocks until the late 1920s.

Krichauff 1870 (SLSA)

By 1870 George W. Goyder became aware of the rapid depletion of South Australia’s native forests and recommended the provision for forest reserves. On 7 September 1870 F.E.H.W. Krichauff moved in the House of Assembly 'as to what is the best size of reserves for forest puposes and where they are to be made'. In 1873 Goyder repeated his former warnings and said, ‘I am of the opinion that the cultivation of forest trees throughout the entire province is urgently required, as in whatever direction my duty takes me, the rapid decrease in forest trees is painfully and prominently before me’.

In 1873 an Act was passed to 'Encourage the planting of Forest Trees'. Under its provisions any person planting not less than 5 acres with forest trees was entitled to a Land Order of £2 for each acre established. Only four applications were ever received.

With the help of Scottish nurseryman Edwin Smith, Goyder carried out a survey for possible sites. Dr R.Schomburgh, who had as early as 1866 introduced the Radiata pine from Monterey in California, recommended Wirrabara as a suitable site.

King Tree
This 400 year old native giant has earned its place among South Australia's Famous Trees. Its measurements are, Height 36.5 metres, Circumference at base 11.35 metres, Diametre at chest height 3 metres.

In 1875 Friedrich Krichauff, a German immigrant from Schleswig, while a Member of Parliament was successful in establishing a Forestry Board. Goyder became its first chairman and held that post until 1883. Krichauff was also instrumental in having the first Australian Arbor Day held in Adelaide on 20 June 1889. When Arbor Day was introduced in schools the Mount Remarkable Board of Advice obtained several hundred trees from the Wirrabara forest for distribution to schools in and around Melrose. Sugar Gums were also provided for the Appila Lutheran School, which had been observing Arbor Day for many years.

As early as 1876 tree nurseries and planting trials were started. On 1 January 1877 the government opened its first nursery in Australia in the Wirrabara forest, about 8 kilometres from Wirrabara, and appointed Robert Lucas as nurseryman. He selected a site along the Ippinitchie Creek. He was responsible for the large variety of Australian and overseas’ trees which were planted. Nearly 20,000 seeds of walnut, chestnut, ash, oaks, sycamores, pines, willows and bomboos were put in. The idea being to establish their ability to produce good timber under South Australian conditions. After some time it resulted in Pinus radiata from California being selected as the most suitable tree. Lucas resigned in April 1884 due to ill health.

Twenty-five years after the first plantings it was reported that 'a walk through those glorious American ash trees, which hide the bed of the Ippinitchie Creek from view, is like a stroll though Fairy land'.

The Forest Board Act of 1875 had placed 195,000 acres under the control of a Board with the power to increase it. Its basic functions were to promote the protection and regeneration of natural vegetation and demonstrate the practicability of forestry. In an effort to realise its objectives J.E. Brown was appointed first Conservator of Forests in 1878. When he resigned in 1890 some 225,000 acres were reserved as forest lands

In 1878 some 30 acres of forest land in Wirrabara were leased to four market gardeners, which included Henry Copas who was born in England on 2 December 1839. That same year Alfred B. Curtis, born at Lyndoch on 13 March 1858, came to the forest and was working as a pit sawer. He married Sarah Ann Thiselton of Stone Hut in 1882. In 1879 Milne Durward and his sons arrived to strengthen the workforce even further.


In 1879 the Board employed some of the local Wirrabara residents as cadets for training in forest management. One of the lucky ones was Fred Melville. He eventually became Inspector of Forests in 1914 and Assistant Conservator in 1924.

Between 1881 and 1924 the government made trees available to landowners free of charge. During the first year as many as 200,000 were sent out. When the programme was discontinued in 1924 a total of 11 million trees had been issued. Although seedlings were distributed free of charge to landowners during 1881, the sale from timber that year only realised £1,278. The Board was not very successful and was replaced in 1882 by the Woods and Forest Department. It is now known as ForestrySA.

In all these years when there was a substantial population living in the forest, most of the children went without schooling. It was not until 1881 that through the efforts of Henry Copas, and his committee, a school was finally opened. Its first teacher was Sydney Jackson. The school soon became the social centre for the forest dwellers and remained as such for the next seventy years. Among some of the early teachers were Thomas Henry Bateman, William Roe Bayly in 1883, W. Lawson, 1884 and I. Brooks, later I. Murray, from 1885-1888.

Site of the original school

In 1892 a tennis club was formed and in 1897 the forest school held a gala sports day to celebrate sixty years of Queen Victoria’s reign. In 1910 the Wirrabara Forest Literary Society was formed and remained active until 1951. The forest was also used by community groups from surrounding towns. On New Year's Day 1913, the Salvation Army from Gladstone organised a large picnic which was attended by more than a hundred people.

Wirrabara Forest School

Although the school building was a primitive affair it took nearly thirty years before a proper stone building and teacher residence was opened by Adam Potts in 1910. Church services were also few and far between. Residents mostly had to rely on visiting priests from Sevenhill. Most residents made regular trips into Wirrabara for their shopping, making an enormous contribution to the town's economic progress. It was largely because of the fruit and timber from the forest that the government in 1907 decided that the railway line north of Laura should go through Wirrabara instead of Appila.

Between the 1880s and the 1920s some major updates and expansions were accomplished. There were four sawmills operating cutting sleepers. For the Petersburg Silverton line 200,000 sleepers were cut and more than 500,000 for the Great Northern Railway. By 1887 as many as 22 sawpits were being used and several charcoal burning pits were supplying the Broken Hill mines.

In the late 1880s John Curnow was still employed as a nursery man while Claus Bathern, G. Holmes, John Lee, W. Dansie, H. Robinson and C.Hillier were employed as sawyers. M. Durwood worked as a splitter and W. Durward, J.E. Martin, William Marner and James, John and M. Whalan transported the timber and other loads with their bullock teams. Manager of the sawmills was W. Jesser while Michael Lynch was listed as sawmill proprietor.

Original Forestry Department Building

In the early 1890s John Curnow successfully planted, and reared, some phylloxera-resisting vines. which later proved to be a great success. There were still a good number of teamsters operating from the forest. Among them were W. Brown, Michael, John and James Herring, William Marner and Charles Martin.

Plantation grown pine began to be used in 1902 when Conservator Gill had two twenty years trees cut down and sawn up. They yielded a total of 45 cases used for apple export. They were later exhibited at the Appila and Adelaide Agricultural shows. Later that year tenders were accepted by the government for the cutting and delivering of railway sleepers. Among some of the successful tenders were, W.H. Randall, William Bennett, D. Yates, R. Pycroft, H. Robinson, W. Sizer, W. and E. Dansie and R. Cook. During 1903 the first plantation pine was harvested and four years later Radiata pine plantings were started on a large scale.

In 1914 the first Wirrabara sawmill was replaced and the new machinery was now used to produce flooring, weatherboards, mouldings and fruit cases. To increase the production process kiln drying was introduced in 1925. During these years very few women were employed by the Forest Department. However some of the orchard men did employ females. One female worker was Helen Vogelsang, daughter of 'Father' Vogelsang. She worked for H. Jericho for three years until her marriage to his brother Henry on 5 February 1920. When Helen died on 12 October 1983, aged 87, the last direct link with the pioneer Lutheran missionaries at Killalpaninna and Kopperamanna had been severed.

In 1918 Lewis and Reid contracted to remove 5 million super feet of timber from the White Park plantation. A year later a new saw mill was installed and modified in 1926. Unfortunately it was destroyed by fire in 1933 and closed in 1935. Finally during 1956 the Wirrabara forest was connected to electricity making life much easier for those who were still living and working there.

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