Port Pirie West Primary School
Image by denisbin
Stupidly the government has now tried to destroy all history and rename this school Port Pirie Primary instead of the original name of Pirie West School.
Prior to white settlement the area was known by the local aboriginal people as “muddy creek.” Samuel Germein named the area Samuel’s Creek in 1839. In 1846 it was re-named Port Pirie by Governor Robe after the first vessel to land here. It took on board sheep from the Crystal Brook run leased by William Younghusband and Peter Ferguson. The ship was the John Pirie. Two years later in 1848 Emanuel Solomon and Matthew Smith laid out a private township on land they had bought from the Crystal Brook run which they called Solomontown. But nothing much happened in Solomontown for the next 23 years until the SA government gazetted and laid out a town further along the harbour from Solomontown which was called Port Pirie. This occurred in 1871 but before then the Pirie district became established as a significant port but without a town. Why? Because the port at Pirie, which is one of the best natural harbours in SA, was the export point for the wool cargoes of the major pastoral runs of the surrounding country. They were Crystal Brook run (285 square miles); Baroota run (65 square miles)- north of Pirie; Telowie run (43 square miles) north of Pirie and into the Flinders Ranges; Booyoolie( 194 square miles) at Gladstone; and Beetaloo ( about 30 square miles) near what is now Laura. For 23 years Pirie was a major port for the export of SA wool.
In 1871 the government surveyed and gazetted a government town next to Solomontown. In the government town the streets were named after the family members of the Surveyor General, George Woodroofe Goyder with the main streets being Ellen, Gertrude, and Alexander etc. This government town was established because most of the pastoral runs mentioned above were resumed by the government for surveying and sale to wheat farmers. In a few years around 1870 the Hundreds of Pirie, Napperby, Crystal Brook, Wandearah, Telowie, Narridy and Booyoolie were all declared. Port Pirie continued as the major regional port but for wheat as much as wool from 1871 onwards. It was also the main service centre for the region. Wheat grew well on the slopes towards the Flinders Ranges, south towards Crystal Brook and inland around Gladstone and Laura. As the new town of Pirie emerged Solomon re-surveyed and redesigned his town of Solomontown in 1873 with a grand church circle in the middle of it for a Jewish synagogue or church. Almost overnight, like many other wheat towns established under the new land sale regulations which permitted land on credit, Pirie emerged from the mangrove swamps and sands near the harbour.
The first wooden churches emerged, hotels were built and most importantly the government created a new larger wharf in 1874. All the allotted areas were quickly taken up for wheat or wool exporters and timber merchants to bring in the materials to build the new city. In 1874 the telegraph line to Adelaide was established, the first of three flour mills was constructed and a start was made on a railway line to Crystal Brook. Early wharf allotment holders included Dunn -flour millers, Duffield – flour millers, Hart – flour millers, Elder Smith & Co – wool handlers, and several timber and general merchant importers. The first government school, Pirie West opened in 1877 and seven hotels were licensed and operating by 1886. Stone for many of the grander buildings came from sandstone quarries near Napperby in the foothills. But the story of Pirie’s early growth was related to the railway. It reached Crystal Brook in 1874 bringing in wheat from areas near that town. In 1876 this line was extended on to Gladstone and by 1877 it had reached Jamestown. In 1880 it reached a new rail terminus at Peterborough which was just being established. The steam engines for this route from Pirie were all landed at the Port Pirie wharf. All the new towns in the hinterland added to the growth and prosperity of Pirie. They included: Redhill (1869); Gladstone (1872); Laura (1872); Jamestown (1872); Koolunga (1875); Crystal Brook (1875); Warnertown and Napperby (1877); Orroroo (1877); Booleroo Centre (1879); and Peterborough (1880).
To maintain law and order the first Court House and Customs House (1875) were built adjacent to the wharves. Exports of wheat from Pirie started with over 200,000 bushels in 1873 rising to over 500,000 bushels in 1875 and then jumping to over 1.1 million bushels in 1876. By 1880 Pirie was exporting over 2.7 million bushels of wheat a year. Pirie surpassed the other major SA port – Port Adelaide by 1878. By 1884 Port Pirie was exporting twice the number of bushels of wheat as Port Adelaide! But Port Adelaide exported more flour than Port Pirie. So within ten years of its founding Pirie was the major wheat port of SA and it was still exporting significant amounts of wool. It had advantages of a deep port and a big hinterland being opened up with new rail lines and new farmers every year.
Socially the Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, Congregationalists and Baptists had all established churches. But unlike most other SA towns Pirie attracted two immigrant groups in the 19th century. There were the Italians and the Greeks, long before the post World War Two immigration to other areas. Why? Because Pirie was an international port. Sailors told stories to friends back home and the first Italian fishermen settled in Pirie in the early 1880s. Most stayed year or two and then returned home to Italy but more kept coming. Around 75% of the early Italian settlers came from one town- Molfetta in Puglia. By 1900 Italian women were settling in Pirie also and the Italian community became a permanent residential group thereafter. Most resided in King and Prince Streets in Solomontown which were known as Little Italy. The first Italians to turn to wheat farming and tomato growing did so at Napperby in 1902. Others followed suit and by the 1930s many were workers in the Pirie smelters. A Fascist Club was formed in 1929 to support Mussolini in Italy but when World War Two broke out a number of Italians enlisted with Australian troops. The Italian community always worshiped at St. Marks Catholic church and Saint Anthony’s Catholic Church at Solomontown. They established the ritual of the Blessing of the Fleet for early September each year in 1929 .On this date a processions travels from St. Mark’s Cathedral to St. Anthony’s Catholic Church at Solomontown.
A few Greeks settled for short periods in Pirie from the 1875 but a community as such did not emerge until 1912. More Greeks came to Pirie during and after World War One when there was an exchange of territories between Greece and Turkey. When a survey was done of alien Greeks during World War One the majority in SA, lived in Port Pirie, not Adelaide. One notable immigrant was George Polites who worked in the smelters but grew tomatoes at Napperby on his land there. Son Con was born in 1919 at Napperby. He is now a major SA landowners and developer. As Pirie was the centre of Greeks living in SA in the 1920s it is not surprising that the first Greek Orthodox Church in SA was established in Port Pirie in 1925. They employed the first Greek priest in the former wooden Anglican Church. This building was used until the current white painted Greek Orthodox Church was built between 1957 and 1960 in Florence Street. By 1925 when the first Royal Commission into Plumbism( lead poisoning) was held there were 362 Greek men employed in the Pirie smelters alone. The Napperby School was the first in SA to start Greek lessons in SA in 1945! The Greek Orthodox Church in Pirie is pictured above.
But the factor the sealed the industrial fate of Port Pirie and lead (pun intended) to it becoming the first regional city in South Australia was the establishment of smelters for the Broken Hill silver, lead and zinc mines in 1889.The rich lodes at Broken Hill were discovered in 1883. The SA government decided to cash in on this and built a railway line to the NSW border in 1887 of 3’6” gauge. Several options were considered for such as a line including lines from Morgan or from Terowie or from Orroroo but the line built was from Peterborough connecting with the existing line from Port Pirie. But a private railway company was needed to cover the last distance to Broken Hill within NSW. Hence the Silverton Railway Company was formed. Now all the supplies of timber and food were railed from Port Pirie to Broken Hill providing a boom for Pirie merchants and shippers. There were a number of mining companies in Broken Hill and they adopted different responses to the problem of smelting their ores. Some ore was smelted in Broken Hill but water was limited and fuel had to be railed from Port Pirie. Some was railed and shipped to Port Adelaide but that was expensive. Some was railed to Pirie and then shipped to Germany for smelting. Eventually in 1889 the minor British Broken Hill Company decided to build their smelter in Port Pirie. This was followed by Broken Hill Propriety, the major mine deciding to do likewise in 1892. It took over the British Broken Hill Company smelter and enlarged it. In 1915, the smelting of five companies was amalgamated and BHAS, Broken Hill Associated Smelters developed the Pirie smelters into the largest in the world.
But what was the effect of the 1892 decision to concentrate smelting in Port Pirie? It increased the population and it gave the town a reliable electricity supply. By 1891 Port Pirie was the largest settlement in SA outside of Adelaide with 4,000 people, but the Copper Triangle (Moonta, Wallaroo and Kadina) was still the major population area outside of Adelaide with around 12,000 people. But ten years later in 1901 Pirie was by far the largest country town in SA with 8,000 people. The smelters also led to Pirie’s rise as an industrial and commercial centre.
The city already had shipping agents, timber merchants, importers and exporters, many law firms, a bustling School of Mines (from 1902) and the usual range of town businessmen. But the smelters brought a bigger professional class to the town of engineers, industrial chemists and smelter managers. Pirie soon had wealth and wealthy suburbs. But it also had many unionised workers. The three main industrial groups in Pirie were the railway workers, the wharfies and the smelter workers. In 1885 a Working Men’s Association had been formed to prevent non union labour being employed in the town. The first showdown came in 1888 when town businessmen were told that non union wharfies could not work in Pirie. The shipping companies acceded to the demand. Then in 1890, like unionists across Australian, there was great sympathy with the striking wharfies in London. All three union groups threatened to strike in sympathy and all three groups got wage increases and concessions. The power of the unions was realised and Pirie was hence forth a fully unionised town. In 1891 following this success the unions met and formed a Trades and Labour Council in Pirie which eventually became the Amalgamated Workers’ Association of Port Pirie in 1901.
As the unions came together they realised their political force and as the largest population outside of Adelaide the Pirie workers decided the state election results in this region. Any political candidate had to have their support. Pirie was the only SA town to ever have political muscle as the union members voted as a block. Many later state politicians started out in Pirie and began their political careers there. During the major communist inspired strikes of 1917 in Australia, Port Pirie remained calm. One of the local union leaders and strike organisers was Percy Brookfield who went on to become a Member of Parliament. In 1923 he was assassinated by a mad man on Riverton railway Station. Overall Pirie remained relatively calm in 1917 because of the new smelter manager Sir Gerald Mussen. He established the BHAS shop in the town to offer workers lower prices for clothing and other goods. He later made significant donations on behalf of the BHAS to the Pirie War Memorial Gates depicted above and in 1918 he provided funds, materials and support for the Playground in a Day project. The playground, designed by the government Town Planner, Charles Reade who also designed Colonel Light Gardens, included a lake, play equipment and gardens and paths. It was located opposite the Pirie West School in the George Goyder surveyed town parklands. This was a great family boost for poor children in Pirie at that time. Alas it no longer exists and it is not even marked with a plaque only the entrance gates.
The smelter was the main employer in the city for decades and consequently Port Pire was the largest city outside of Adelaide until the rise of Whyalla in the 1960s. Port Pirie was declared the first provincial city in SA in 1953. It had been made the cathedral city of the Catholic Diocese of Port Pirie in the 1953 when the new St Mark’s Cathedral opened and the old cathedral in Peterborough lost its status as such. Apart from employment from smelting, the town has always been a major port for the export of grain, and is currently the second port in SA. The Mallyon designed Anglican Church in Port Pirie became the Anglican Cathedral for the Anglican Diocese of Willochra in 1999. Pirie is one of the few regional centres in SA to boast a festival theatre complex, named after Keith Michell, the famous actor who grew up in Port Pirie. Unfortunately Port Pirie no longer has a railway service or station. The original railway station Ellen Street was built in French Empire style in 1902. Then in 1937 Port Pirie got its first direct rail connection to Adelaide via Redhill and Snowtown. Prior to that the rail service to Adelaide went via Peterborough on a very circuitous route. A new railway station opened in Port Pirie in 1967 so that Ellen Street station could be closed down thus ending trains travelling up the middle of the main street. In turn this station was closed in 1982 when the line from Adelaide to Port Augusta was standardised and Port Pirie bypassed. That station is now the City Information Centre and Art Gallery and well worth a visit.