Celebrating 150 years!

Keith Conlon on the microphone

Barr Smith Library: Keith Conlon on the microphone, 5UV 1974

Lumen is honoured to have distinguished alum Keith Conlon as guest editor of this section.

Here he gives his “potted history” of our University and our state, the two being inextricably intertwined.

The University of Adelaide motto, Sub Cruce Lumen, refers to the Southern Cross, but it was a galaxy of stars that aligned to bring it into being in the 1870s.

This year’s 150th celebration takes its timing from just one of a series of moments and movements that allowed a small city, less than 40 years old, to realise an audacious concept.

After all, there were only four universities in all of England at that time. What’s more, South Australia’s economy had been devastated by the exodus of workers to the Victorian gold rush in the 1850s.

They say success has many parents. We might say the same for significant dates. This year we are celebrating the 1874 enabling legislation that resulted from a remarkable turn of events two years earlier.

The statue facing North Terrace of a gentleman sitting comfortably commemorates the crucial role of Walter Watson Hughes, a colourful character without whom we might have been waiting a lot longer for Adelaide’s first university. A former merchant ship captain who made a quid in the opium trade, Hughes became fabulously wealthy after a copper mining boom on his Yorke Peninsula sheep station.

Another star aligned when Hughes offered a huge gift to an embryonic Union College for Presbyterian and Congregationalist pastors. As part of his generosity two foundational Chairs were created. The Hughes Chair of Classics, Comparative Philology and Literature was established (along with a Chair in English Language, Literature and Moral Philosophy) and endures to this day.

Many nonconformists had been attracted to South Australia because of its firm ‘no state religion’ policy. That and its many reformist ideals led the University’s Professor Douglas Pike to give his definitive history of South Australia the title, Paradise of Dissent. Generously, clerics involved thought a university might be achievable and of great benefit to the province. Thus, in 1872, a University Association was formed – its first meeting was chaired by Anglican Bishop Augustus Short, an energetic scholar who would become the first Vice Chancellor overseeing teaching in 1876. More celestial moments were yet required, however.

Without extraordinary gifts for professorships and more from Thomas Elder, the brave endeavour would likely have failed. The founding donor Walter Watson Hughes said so himself. More serendipity - Elder’s firm was a major investor in the Moonta and Wallaroo mines bonanza. More beneficence came in his will when he died in 1897. It included funds to build the Elder Hall. His statue stands close by.

Unveiling the statue of Walter Watson Hughes 1906

unveiling the statue of Walter Watson Hughes 1906

Another underplayed but inestimable and continuing gift emphasised the centrality of the University of Adelaide in the city and state’s culture, education and sense of maturity. The Government granted five acres of Park Land on North Terrace for its physical home.

Then, the finesse and gothic grandeur of the 1882 University Building (later called the Mitchell Building) evoked its lofty aims. It is hard to imagine how it housed the entire University, with its five professors and nearly 300 students by the 1890s, along with its library that doubled
as a graduation hall.

Why does the 1936 Bonython Hall sit squarely at the end of Pulteney Street? It was very much about preserving and expanding on that precious land on the city’s edge. The dream of some city councillors of a road straight through to North Adelaide was permanently dashed. The significant gift of John Langdon Bonython, proprietor of The Advertiser and long-time member of the University Council did much more than that, of course. It was an important provider of work during the Great Depression.

The University founders could surely not have contemplated the growth of their institution, both physically and educationally as is witnessed by the city campus alone that now stretches to the Torrens/Karrawirra Parri, absorbing the old Jubilee Oval on the lower level. In the 1930s, the University came down the hill in grand style with the opening of the magnificent Barr Smith Library. Its architect, Walter Bagot, wrote that “climate is the dominant factor”, predisposing it to a Mediterranean classical form. Christopher Wren’s Kensington Palace was also an influence.

There is a striking photograph where past and future collide. In 1932, the brand-new building stood in the background of pastoralist Sir Sidney Kidman’s ‘jubilee rodeo’.

It was extraordinary wealth grown on vast pastoral interests that allowed philanthropist Robert Barr Smith to bestow very substantial gifts in his lifetime, and his son Tom to offer a permanent endowment and a new library bearing his father’s name. The recently restored Reading Room has been an inspiring study refuge for thousands of students over nine decades.

For the Centenary of the University of Adelaide, the founding 1874 legislation was celebrated. Its physical landscape on North Terrace had changed dramatically to house huge increases in staff, students and departments. An Open Day program noted there were now about 9,000 students and 600 academic staff.

Though most funds came from the Australian government by the 1970s, then Vice-Chancellor, Sir Geoffrey Badger, looked back at the generosity of its founders and pointed out that the “University is still heavily reliant on the goodwill and support of the community which it serves”.

Laying the foundation stone of the University building now the Mitchell building

laying the foundation stone of the University Building (now the Mitchell Building) 1879.

Fifty years on, Adelaide’s first university is celebrating its 150th anniversary of commemoration. There will no doubt be a heightened sense of challenge in the near future as the University of Adelaide era ends and the amalgamated Adelaide University begins. May the history, heritage and stories of its first 150 years and the centrality of its educational, scientific and cultural contributions to the state continue to be celebrated.

The histories and futures of both the University and our state have always been intertwined – and this, I hope, will continue long into the future.

Tagged in 150th, Lumen Autumn 2024