Adelaide in 1936: A Year of Great Promise

The real history of South Australia doesn’t begin under a gum tree on a hot January day in 1836, but exactly 100 years later, somewhere along King William Street.

No Governor Hindmarsh, swatting flies, inspiring newly-arrived settlers with hard-work- and-perseverance-will-make-us-great. Instead, a shortish Australian of German descent, Gustav Hermann Baring, standing on a buckboard, focussing his small 4 x 5 camera, keeping a black sheet over his head as pedestrians (the few there are, most people are in their starchy Methodist churches this warm Sunday morning) get in the way of the photo and Baring calls “Stop, wait, can’t you see what I’m doing?”

Baring, the man with a bent for cello, songwriting, advertising, photography, producing a large family, making money, prospering, having hope (by the truckload), always telling his large brood, “It’s the future you’ve got to think about.” Born in Langmeil (now Tanunda) but still motivated by the same zest that was, at that very moment, building autobahns and preparing for the Berlin Olympics. But none of that mattered to Baring. He believed in South Australia, and particularly Adelaide. This place would have a bright future. His children would prosper, as long as everyone worked, believed.

We were taught this at school: we were the lucky state (as the factories began closing, even then). The product of civilisation; a system of free settlement where people invested in their future, endured a difficult boat trip, waded ashore at Glenelg (where Souvlaki Bros now stands), and got started. Sleeves pulled up, cellulose collars removed, hi-ho, off to work we go. We were meant to be inspired by all this, but in the years that followed, these stories began to sound hollow. So what if we’d done the paperwork properly, everyone’s brother and uncle seemed to be out of work, Chrysler just closed, Mitsubishi, Holden (it’s a long list).

Anyway, Baring needs to keep working. He wants his new book, Progressive Adelaide, released as soon as possible. People are paying good money for advertising (“Bidomak, For Nerves, Brain and that depressed feeling”). It’s the year of South Australia’s centenary, and Baring’s latest offering will feature photographs of every building within the square mile of the city. Each will be cut and pasted together to form a streetscape, a reminder, a tribute to the old Queen, but mostly, as a way for Baring to make money.

Here’s how it works. Baring photographs (say, for instance) Miss Elsie Tonkin’s toilet salon at 10 King William Street. He (or his associate Les Kyte, who owns an advertising agency in the same Chesser Street building) then goes into see Miss Tonkin and explains how her business will soon be appearing in Baring’s new book, and would she like to purchase an advert in said publication. The idea being, most shop-owners (aware of Baring’s standing around town) would jump at the opportunity. If the offer was refused, the business might find itself cut out of the final streetscape, or at least presented in a much smaller (out-of-scale) size to the more willing businesses. In this way, Baring makes his own Lilliputian city with big buildings shrinking, and little ones growing under the influence of their advertising dollar.

miss-sym-choon-ad-1936-Stephen-Orr-Adelaide-Review
Old advertisement from Miss Sym Choon’s “China Gift Store”, image courtesy of City Streets (Wakefield Press)

So Baring’s off, shooting across the road on quiet Sunday mornings, beginning in 1934, as his brood of children wait at home. This small, genial man was a South Australian tintype, a positive image laid down on a plate, highly reproducible, his black and white eyes staring at us down through the years. As with most of our pioneers. Silver chloride faces full of optimism. Baring’s offspring have flourished, as have a million others. As we, the descendants, now try to make sense of who we are. Like other Australians? Now, perhaps, gloomier, more despondent after 30 years of No Frills governments squandering the promises of the past. Or is this optimism still in our genes? Have we developed a chip on our shoulder, or preserved our feeling of being special?

Baring has moved on to Preece’s bookshop in the 1896 Beehive Corner building. Sets up, focusses, curses a few old girls waiting for a tram. One looks in Preece’s window and sees a copy of a new literary journal called Phoenix. Little does she know, in five years’ time, a few students from the university around the corner (including Max Harris and Geoffrey Dutton) will rename the journal Angry Penguins and make their own mark on the local and national literary landscape.

Ern Malley and his sister, Ethel. More of Baring’s progressive Adelaide, although Baring wouldn’t have known who the Jindyworabaks were, Rex Ingamells, John Dowie, Dorrit Black – the dozens of pre-war artists and writers who rose, like tea cakes, to fill the vacuum of Adelaide’s cultural AGA. All of them, Horace Trenerry painting his Willunga landscapes, young Jeff Smart scribbling at school. Like there was something in the water. Like the place was full of possibility, and not so big that these young, still-forming voices might be drowned out. Much the same thing that happened in the 1970s when Richard Meale moved to Adelaide to teach a new generation of Australian composers, Jim Sharman arrived to run Lighthouse theatre (cue Geoffrey Rush, Kerry Walker, John Wood, Robert Menzies, and many others), Patrick White, even, promising his own Westward Ho! to escape the Moore Park developers.

In 2012 Adelaide photographer Mick Bradley and writer Lance Campbell published a new version of Baring’s book. They’d spent several years following in Baring’s footsteps, re-photographing the city and presenting it strip by strip, street by street, beneath Baring’s original. Campbell described Baring as a “little rotund man with a donut of hair”. Baring’s grandson, Graham, remembered his pop sitting on a chopping block in his Mile End back yard, explaining, “It’s where I do my thinking, my boy.” And he was a man of ideas, as much as action.

Gustav-Hermann-Baring-1936-Stephen-Orr-Adelaide-ReviewGustav Hermann Baring, image courtesy of City Streets (Wakefield Press)

Baring is still at it. Moving south, past the pots of pansies and rhododendrons being established for South Australia’s birthday. In a few months the city’s floral festival will begin. Displays on and around city buildings, parklands, squares. Then, on September 13, one of Adelaide’s infamous hot northerlies will blow a dust storm across the city, but the gardeners will return, replant, water, refuse to yield to the vagaries of weather and, to quote the writer Ernestine Hill (helping Daisy Bates write her book My Natives and I in the adjacent Advertiser building), “it was a poor heart indeed that did not rejoice”.

Then the celebrations will really begin. Adelaide Oval, November 28 and 29. School children from around the state dressed up (sweltering in the heat, many fainting) as the soldiers, settlers and shopkeepers that have been busy for the last century. Fifty thousand mums and dads watching from the stands, and mound, the iconic scoreboard in its prime. Followed, a few weeks later, by a four kilometre long street parade. Sixty-five floats winding their way through city streets as a quarter of a million people gather to witness the marvel, never before seen in the City of Churches.

The message from the state government and Adelaide City Council was clear. The Depression is nearly (or soon will be) over. Time to adjust attitude, refocus on the important things: civic values, community, hard work, thrift, love of Empire. Maybe my pop was at Elder Park that night. Married in 1935. Built a house in Pennington, adjacent to the factories setting up in the outer west. Burleigh Avenue, a proud little street with proud little houses, roses along the fence-line, fruit trees that used to hang heavy in the late summer shadows, kids playing street cricket, like some cliché of a better Australia. What was he thinking, old Jack, as he stood watching the ‘Good Ship of 1936’ explode, only for the ‘Good Ship of 1937’ to light up, brightening everyone’s future?

mini-golf-north-terrace-1936-Stephen-Orr-Adelaide-ReviewThe now-defunct mini-golf links on the corner of Pulteney Street and North Terrace, image courtesy of City Streets (Wakefield Press)

Baring photographs the Prince Alfred Hotel, formerly run by horse breeder (and founder of Richmond Park stud) James Henry Aldridge, and prior to this, his father, George Aldridge. George had his Bert Edwards moments, giving away food to the poor after a big banquet, but he wasn’t a man to be messed with. His grandson, the famous pianist and composer George Percy Grainger (named in honour), described how “he would not endure a Jew or a bookmaker in his hotel; if such a one got in, unbeknown to him, he would (on learning the awful truth) storm up to the poor man’s door, shouting ‘I’ll have no Jews (or bookmakers) in my hotel. Out you go!’”, throwing the man’s luggage down the stairs.

Rose Aldridge (later Grainger) was perhaps Adelaide’s most unique daughter, imbuing a love of all things Aldridge, Adelaide and Nordic in her son. Like many, hers was a love-hate relationship with the city, a sentiment still seen more than half-a-century after her death in Paul Kelly’s Adelaide: ‘The wisteria on the back vernadah is still blooming, And all the great aunts are either insane or dead…’ The gothic sentiment that reappears in so much writing about the city. Strangely enough, the love of the place that seems to go hand-in-hand with this sense of frustration and desire to escape for greener (eastern) pastures. Maybe no one who grows up in Adelaide ever escapes it. The city’s best writer, Barbara Hanrahan, tried to get away to London, but returned – to her mother, and Aunt Reece. Her feel for the city and beaches, Mile End, Baring’s still horse-shitty roads, drips from every page of her writing. After staying with relatives in the Hills, she remembered “rising while it was still dark…watching the sky turn pale and frayed with light; seeing houses jump forward from the darkness; hearing the cold voices of first roosters…”

And here he is now. It’s after lunch, and Baring’s hungry. He’s exposed enough plates, recorded the eastern side of King William Street on this, an unremarkable Sunday morning in 1936, a year of great promise, and change, yet to learn the full horrors of European fascism, the loss of so many sons, the upsetting of a sort of utopia, an experiment in what a society should look like. And now, all the years later, we’re left asking, have we, the children and grandchildren, realised this potential? Sometimes it seems not. Still, we continue, like Baring. Getting up, cleaning our equipment, catching the train to town, trying to make it better, regain our Paradise by the Torrens.

Stephen Orr’s Datsunland, a collection of stories, will be released this month by Wakefield Press

Header image: Bank Street and the Eagle Hotel, image courtesy of City Streets (Wakefield Press)

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