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Strathalbyn was settled more than 175 years ago (1839) by Scottish immigrants, on land that was a meeting place for the Peramangk and Ngarrindjeri Aboriginal people.

History of Township Name

The meaning behind the naming of ‘Strathalbyn’ has long been the subject of discussion.

The word ‘Strath’ is commonly used in Scotland to denote a wide, flat river valley.  The meaning behind ‘Albyn’ has been less clear.

Dr John Rankine (who is credited with naming Strathalbyn) was a significant shareholder of the “Albion Iron Mills” a company in Glasgow, Scotland.  The most authentic belief is that Dr Rankine wanted a link to his Scottish business interests, but prefered the spelling of Strathalbyn over Strathalbion. (Source: Old Strathalbyn and Its People, Nancy Gemmell, 1985).

Over the years, reference has been made to the translation of Strath-Albyn as the Valley of Scotland or the Valley of the Scots.  Maybe Dr Rankine named the town as a subtle call out to his fellow countrymen to come and join him in the new settlement.


Image: Dr. John Rankine
(Courtesy State Library of South Australia)


Brain -19-11-04006

Aboriginal People and Colonisation

The site of Strathalbyn is particularly important to the Peramangk and Ngarrindjeri Aboriginals.

Early newspaper articles on the Peramangk people (1839/1840) reported that they were generally friendly and acted with kindness to many colonists, showing them what was safe to eat, and how to catch small prey.  (Source: www.trove.nla.gov.au – various articles)

Recollections of some early colonists relate that the site of the township was a periodic meeting and camping place for many Aboriginal people. The banks of the Angas River (which is now overlooked by the Terminus Hotel) would be used for large encampments and gatherings were regularly held on the site now known as the Soldiers Memorial Gardens.

In 1873, Aboriginal people still occasionally camped in the township but in smaller groups, thirteen years later the Southern Argus newspaper reported it as unusual to see Aboriginal people camping in the town at all.

An elderly Aboriginal women, Old Eliza, told enquirers in the 1870’s that in her childhood, the Strathalbyn area was the location of a great tribal battle and that the site of the school building (now the Strathalbyn Library) was the burial place of the dead from this conflict. (Source: Old Strathalbyn and Its People, Nancy Gemmell, 1985)

Aboriginal people from the lakes area would often conduct raids on the grazing properties south of Strathalbyn township. As a result, the Strathalbyn Militia played a part in driving away Aboriginal people from their watering holes along the Angas River. As the town developed and the number of businesses grew, trouble occurred between the townsfolk and Aboriginal people living on a reserve several kilometres to the east of the township near the turnoff to Bletchley.

Many Aboriginal people would work on farm properties or as domestics for food and other supplies. Often they would help by tracking children of the settlers who wandered off. (Source: Old Strathalbyn and Its People, Nancy Gemmell, 1985, Chapter 6:The Alienation of Aboriginal People from the Lower Murray Landscape)

Early Settlement Leading to the Founding of Strathalbyn

The Angas Special Survey, purchased by Captain George Hall and William Mein, was approximately 15,000-20,000 acres of the best land located around the lower River Angas.  The two men sailed to South Australia on the Fairfield arriving around the 30 April 1839.  Among the beneficiaries of the Angas Special Survey were the brothers – John and William Rankine, and family members of Colonel James Dawson who sailed to the colony earlier. (Sources: Old Strathalbyn and Its People, www.southaustralianhistory.com.au, www.jaunay.com, www.sahistoryarticles.com.au)

Matthew Rankine’s 1903 memoirs (the son of William Rankine) tell of his uncle, Dr John Rankine, starting the first cattle station in the Strathalbyn district.  In early 1840 cattle was yarded onto the ‘peninsular’ (where the Soldier’s Memorial Garden’s Rotunda is located) and graziers spent several days camped on the grassy hillside (the land between the River and Colman Terrace). Dr Rankine was already familiar with the land by this time, as he could find his way back to Adelaide through the bush rather than via Mount Barker and Hahndorf.

By November 1840, William and Jane Rankine and three sons, two daughters and a Miss Patterson (who was under their charge) had settled in temporary accommodation on a property they named Glenbarr. By 1842, a substantial two-storey stone house had been erected replacing an earlier dwelling.  This homestead remains today and is part of the Glenbarr Camp and Conference Centre which holds a Highland Gathering  in October celebrating Scottish culture.

In the Adelaide Chronicle of 26 August 1840, the area was reported as the River Angas or the Strath-Albyn district, and that it was especially well stocked and incorporated 12 stations, with many sheep, cattle and horses, and that a town with an inn and store, had just been laid out. The inn, was known as the Strathalbyn Hotel and located where the Terminus Hotel now stands – it was built by Donald Gollan and William Rogers. (Source: Old Strathalbyn and Its People)

The 1840 Census recorded the existence of the township of Strath-Albyn but counted only one dwelling also operating as a general store (most likely to have been the inn mentioned above). In the broader district, the Census recorded 11 land holdings with a combination of temporary huts and more substantial homes (amongst them “Violet Bank” – a substantial home under construction, Glenbarr – a substantial pise dwelling, “Todhillwood” – a good wattle and daub house and “Springfield” – a good pise house).

On 16 November 1841, James Dawson and William Rankine took joint and official ownership of Section 2600 (160 acres), the site of the township of Strathalbyn, and became responsible for further leading the development of the town.  (Source: Old Strathalbyn and Its People)

Strathalbyn Prospers and Grows

Early prosperity came to Strathalbyn, when travellers passed through on their way to the Victorian Goldfields. Later people came by coach and stayed in the town before crossing Lake Alexandrina via schooner or paddle steamer from Milang. Many changed from the Coach at Strathalbyn’s Terminus Hotel (still on the original site) to take the horse tram onto Victor Harbor.

The area changed once the railway arrived in town (1883), the line came down the eastern ranges from Mt Barker to Strathalbyn. The Railway Station was built in 1884 and steam replaced the old horse tram to the South Coast in 1885.

The area expanded rapidly due to the great quality farming land, suitable for grazing, cropping and vineyards. The local stone was cleared from the padocks and  repurposed to erect dry-stone walls on farms (still to be seen today) and used as construction material for the many commercial buildings and homes taking shape in the town.

Dawson Street (opposite the Railway Station) became the main commercial centre after the 1920’s. Dawson Street’s spectacular Savings Bank was built in 1930 and is still used as a financial institution (Bank SA) today.

More Historical Information

DSC_8408-300x200 Strathalbyn National Trust Museum
1 Rankine Street Strathalbyn, Ph: 8536 2656  WebsiteFacebook

DSC_7845   Strathalbyn Visitor Information Centre
20 South Terrace Strathalbyn, Ph: 1300 007 842, WebsiteFacebook

DSC_3062   Strathalbyn Library
Local History & Family Research,  1 Colman Terrace Strathalbyn SA 5255, Ph: 8555 7000

Historical Books

The Heritage Centre in Rankine Street has a large collection of books, photographs and newspaper articles of past events in Strathalbyn. These books are available for sale at the Centre and at Jeff’s Books:

  • Old Strathalbyn and its People, Nancy Gemmell, 1985
  • Strathalbyn Tales from the Past, Brian Simpson, 2004
  • 60 Years in Strathalbyn, Nancy Gemmell & Brian Simpson, 2005
  • 100 Years of Secondary Education in Strathalbyn, Brian Simpson, 2013
  • They Built Strathalbyn, Harold J Stowe, 1973