Goolwa History at time of Federation of the Commonwealth of Australia

Wonderful to see democracy in action! I wandered into the May council meeting expecting to find a seat near the doorway of the chamber as I usually do, only to find myself among a crowd of people which had filled the gallery and overflowed into the atrium. On asking a fellow ratepayer standing next to me what was going on, I was informed that it was a group of concerned residents protesting a proposal to allow large freight transport vehicles (known as B-doubles) to be routed through the main street of Middleton township. When the Council meeting was called to order, Mayor Keith Parkes invited the speakers for the Middleton residents to make their presentation. On clearly delivering their message through two well-prepared speakers, the group applauded them for the way they had put their case. They listened in dignified silence to those items on the Council’s agenda regarding the issues of their concern had been discussed, then quietly left the meeting. In the way they had presented themselves in their community protest impressed me greatly; well may it be – “Vox populi vox dei”.

A short history of our local Council 1853 – 1997 (Part 4)

By 1892 the Murray River trade had peaked for Goolwa and a decline was beginning to become evident. An incredibly inept decision by the SA Government to build the Adelaide to Morgan Railway to tap the river trade in the upper Murray was beyond reasoning, whilst at the same time building the breakwater and jetties at Victor Harbor to service the river trade from Goolwa. The general feeling around the south was that the metro ‘centralists’ had struck the mortal blow by redirecting by rail the flow of the trade from the north-west bend directly to Adelaide.

About this time there was a stirring interest in some sort of gathering in the Australian colonies and the beginnings of the idea of creating a customs union of the separate settlements around the continent. There were meetings of the colonies which at that time included New Zealand, but it wasn’t until the Corowa Conference of 1893 that the idea of federation of all the colonies into one nation excited the population. The idea was favoured along the Murray-Darling River system and especially in Goolwa where the general population embraced the concept and it permeated the atmosphere. There was a growing expectation in the town that a move should come to advance the federation proposal of national unity resulting from the 1893 Corowa Conference.

In early May 1898 a meeting on the issue was held in Pt Elliot calling together people from the district from Goolwa to Victor Harbor at which Sir Richard Butler, noted federalist and president of the SA Legislative Council, supported by Hon. J H Gordon MP who had been an SA delegate to the Australian Federation Council of 1891, spoke for support of federation. There was an enthusiastic response from the large gathering, winding up the meeting with a vote of thanks to the eminent speakers and three rousing cheers for federation.

Following that federalist meeting, the opposing view was placed before the people of Goolwa on the night of May 7, when the former MHR member for Encounter Bay, Charles Hussey, spoke to a meeting held in the Australasian Hotel opposing the Commonwealth Bill. Hussey was a believer of tariff protection and separate development for the colony. He faced a non-responsive audience who was strongly convinced the way ahead was through federation and free trade along the great river highway beyond colonial borders.

But the opposers of the Commonwealth Bill had not yet done with the people of Goolwa. The noted lawyer J.D. Sutherland from Mt Gambier called a meeting in the Forester’s Lodge hall on the night of June 1st at which he invited a less than willing Mayor of Goolwa, Arch Dowland to take the chair. The controversial nature of the meeting drew a capacity crowd to the small hall. Many people were unable to gain admission as the hall had not even standing room left. Encouraged by size the attendance, Sutherland gave passionate rise to his protectionist views. Response to his message was not to his expectation of support, but the locals were clearly spirited in opposition to his protectionist address. As the meeting ended and gathering broke apart to disappear into the night, so did his argument.

It was now becoming clear that the battle lines had now been drawn between trade protection and separatism vs free-trade and federalism. Three days later, on June 4th1898, following the Goolwa Town Council’s lead, a strong committee which had been formed in Goolwa headed up by Mayor Archie Dowling and his Councillors together with the town’s leading residents, held a public meeting in the Institute Hall to urge electors to vote for Federation. This would be the meeting that would unite the town and district and joining the gathering march to nationhood.

While there was strong opposition to federation existing across the province of South Australia, its strength could only be measured by the up-coming Commonwealth Bill (SA) referendum in 1899. Goolwa owed its existence to its position at the sea end of Australia’s greatest river system along which it conducted intercolonial trade throughout the navigable streams of the Murray Darling Basin. Trade-wise to the port of Goolwa, federation would mean the end of the complexities of customs duty arrangements between the colonies, and the establishment of free trade.

The outcome of South Australia’s 1899 vote for federation was decisive with a vote in favour totalling 65990, against 17053. Significantly, Goolwa community had polled amongst the highest yes votes per capita in South Australia. The landslide victory in the 1899 referendum across the colonies in favour of an Australian federation pushed Westminster to pass legislation to allow all six Australian colonies to govern in their own right as part of the Commonwealth of Australia. This became a reality on January 1st, 1901 adding a third level of government and a people-approved constitution to guide the new nation.

Among those who became known as the founding fathers of the Australian federation, from Parkes who called for a collective of all colonial defence forces into a single body, to those who stood up and led in their local towns and districts for nothing less than full federation, Goolwa’s Mayor Archie Dowland should be so honoured in our district.

* Frederick Archie Dowland (Archie) was a man of much controversy in those colonial days on the cusp of federation. He was born in Goolwa on 23rd April 1867, son of another stormy member of the municipality, *Thomas Dowland, mayor of Goolwa (1887-88). Archie took up a career as a shipping and general commission agent and quickly made his mark in the profession.

In 1894 he was elected to the Goolwa Town Council as Councillor for South Ward, serving in this capacity until 1898 when he stood for and won the town mayoralty. By virtue of his profession he had built a network of connections with his intercolonial shipping contacts though-out the Murray Darling rivers and mercantile ports shipping to the world. He despised the complicated customs regulations that divided the Australian colonies through tariff and other trade restrictions. His flair and natural leadership qualities took him to becoming the town Councillor who picked up on the 1893 Corowa Convention call to national unity. Through his leadership and campaigning against protectionism, he motivated the Goolwa community’s strong support which added to a successful outcome in the 1899 SA referendum for federation.

As a man of high ambition and ability, shortly after the Commonwealth of Australia came into being, he left South Australia and headed for Singapore to enter the wider field of world commerce. Here in the great British port of the far east trade, he became the Singapore shipping manager for Boustead & Co., one of the largest mercantile export companies in the far east. He died in Singapore in 1926, after a short but incredibly active life of 58 years.

Up on the cliff overlooking the Goolwa wharf still stands the old Customs House, a relic of those bygone colonial days. Much of Archie’s business was conducted through this building.The Goolwa Customs office was officially closed on February 1, 1904, along with those of Milang and Murray Bridge.

On January 1, 1901 Goolwa Corporation entered a new era and a new nation which in the three levels of government, local Council’s greatest virtue in the primary layer is that it is, and ever will be, the level of government closest to the people it represents.

* Dowland Street in the Goolwa ward was named in honour of Thomas Dowland and his son Archie, both of whom served as Mayors of the Goolwa Corporation (Goolwa Town Council).

By Frank Tuckwell, June 2019