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Before its proclamation as a British settlement in 1836, the area around Adelaide was inhabited by the indigenous Kaurna Aboriginal nation (pronounced “Garner”). Kaurna culture and language were almost completely destroyed within a few decades of European settlement of South Australia, but extensive documentation by early missionaries and other researchers has enabled a modern revival of both.
South Australia was officially proclaimed a British colony on 28 December 1836, near The Old Gum Tree in what is now the suburb of Glenelg North. The event is commemorated in South Australia as Proclamation Day. The site of the colony’s capital was surveyed and laid out by Colonel William Light, the first Surveyor-General of South Australia, through the design made by the architect George Strickland Kingston.
Adelaide was established as a planned colony of free immigrants, promising civil liberties and freedom from religious persecution, based upon the ideas of Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Wakefield had read accounts of Australian settlement while in prison in London for attempting to abduct an heiress. and realised that the eastern colonies suffered from a lack of available labour, due to the practice of giving land grants to all arrivals.Wakefield’s idea was for the Government to survey and sell the land at a rate that would maintain land values high enough to be unaffordable for labourers and journeymen. Funds raised from the sale of land were to be used to bring out working-class emigrants, who would have to work hard for the monied settlers to ever afford their own land. As a result of this policy, Adelaide does not share the convict settlement history of other Australian cities like Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Hobart.
It was believed that in a colony of free settlers there would be little crime, no provision was made for a gaol in Colonel Light’s 1837 plan. But by mid-1837 the South Australian Register was warning of escaped convicts from New South Wales and tenders for a temporary gaol were sought. Following a burglary, a murder, and two attempted murders in Adelaide during March 1838, Governor Hindmarsh created the South Australian Police Force (now the South Australia Police) in April 1838 under 21-year-old Henry Inman. The first sheriff, Samuel Smart, was wounded during a robbery, and on 2 May 1838 one of the offenders, Michael Magee, became the first person to be hanged in South Australia.William Baker Ashton was appointed governor of the temporary gaol in 1839, and in 1840 George Strickland Kingston was commissioned to design Adelaide’s new gaol. Construction of Adelaide Gaol commenced in 1841.
Adelaide’s early history was marked by economic uncertainty and questionable leadership. The first governor of South Australia, John Hindmarsh, clashed frequently with others, in particular the Resident Commissioner, James Hurtle Fisher. The rural area surrounding Adelaide was surveyed by Light in preparation to sell a total of over 405 km2 (156 sq mi) of land. Adelaide’s early economy started to get on its feet in 1838 with the arrival of livestock from Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania. Wool production provided an early basis for the South Australian economy. By 1860, wheat farms had been established from Encounter Bay in the south to Clare in the north.
George Gawler took over from Hindmarsh in late 1838 and, despite being under orders from the Select Committee on South Australia in Britain not to undertake any public works, promptly oversaw construction of a governor’s house, the Adelaide Gaol, police barracks, a hospital, a customs house and a wharf at Port Adelaide. Gawler was recalled and replaced by George Edward Grey in 1841. Grey slashed public expenditure against heavy opposition, although its impact was negligible at this point: silver was discovered in Glen Osmond that year, agriculture was well underway, and other mines sprung up all over the state, aiding Adelaide’s commercial development. The city exported meat, wool, wine, fruit and wheat by the time Grey left in 1845, contrasting with a low point in 1842 when one-third of Adelaide houses were abandoned.
Trade links with the rest of the Australian states were established after the Murray River was successfully navigated in 1853 by Francis Cadell, an Adelaide resident. South Australia became a self-governing colony in 1856 with the ratification of a new constitution by the British parliament. Secret ballots were introduced, and a bicameral parliament was elected on 9 March 1857, by which time 109,917 people lived in the province.
In 1860 the Thorndon Park reservoir was opened, finally providing an alternative water source to the now turbid River Torrens. Gas street lighting was implemented in 1867, the University of Adelaide was founded in 1874, the South Australian Art Gallery opened in 1881 and the Happy Valley Reservoir opened in 1896. In the 1890s Australia was affected by a severe economic depression, ending a hectic era of land booms and tumultuous expansionism. Financial institutions in Melbourne and banks in Sydney closed. The national fertility rate fell and immigration was reduced to a trickle. The value of South Australia’s exports nearly halved. Drought and poor harvests from 1884 compounded the problems, with some families leaving for Western Australia. Adelaide was not as badly hit as the larger gold-rush cities of Sydney and Melbourne, and silver and lead discoveries at Broken Hill provided some relief. Only one year of deficit was recorded, but the price paid was retrenchments and lean public spending. Wine and copper were the only industries not to suffer a downturn
Electric street lighting was introduced in 1900 and electric trams were transporting passengers in 1909. 28,000 men were sent to fight in World War I. Historian F. W. Crowley examined the reports of visitors in the early 20th century, noting that “many visitors to Adelaide admired the foresighted planning of its founders”, as well as pondering the riches of the young city. Adelaide enjoyed a postwar boom, entering a time of relative prosperity. Its population grew, and it became the third most populous metropolitan area in the country, after Sydney and Melbourne. Its prosperity was short-lived, with the return of droughts and the Great Depression of the 1930s. It later returned to fortune under strong government leadership. Secondary industries helped reduce the state’s dependence on primary industries. World War II brought industrial stimulus and diversification to Adelaide under the PlayfordGovernment, which advocated Adelaide as a safe place for manufacturing due to its less vulnerable location. Shipbuilding was expanded at the nearby port of Whyalla.
The South Australian Government in this period built on former wartime manufacturing industries. International manufacturers like General Motors Holden and Chrysler made use of these factories around Adelaide, completing its transformation from an agricultural service centre to a 20th-century city. The Mannum–Adelaide pipeline brought River Murray water to Adelaide in 1955 and an airport opened at West Beach in 1955. Flinders University and the Flinders Medical Centre were established in the 1960s at Bedford Park, south of the city. Today, Flinders Medical Centre is one of the largest teaching hospitals in South Australia.