Penola is the oldest town in the south-east region of South Australia and cherishes its historical buildings. Penola is also the "home town" of the Coonawarra, one of South Australia's most productive wine growing areas. The town is also famous as the central location in the life of Mary McKillop, Australia's first saint.
Where is it?: South east. 388 km south east of Adelaide
Petticoat Lane, the oldest residential part of Penola, allows you to wander through a village of historic timber and stone cottages which retain much of the charm and character of yesteryear. Red gum kerbing as well as rose and lavender plantings enhance the lane's character as an example of days gone by. Petticoat Lane is a State Heritage Area.
There is an excellent pamphlet, 'Walk with History at Penola', which is available free of charge from the Tourist Information Office. It covers all the major buildings and locations in town (a total of 33 destinations) and provides interesting information about the most significant buildings). Some of the buildings mentioned include:
Woods-McKillop Schoolhouse (1867). In the same grounds is the Mary McKillop Interpretive Centre (1998)
Old Mechanics Institute (1869), Arthur Street. Houses the Penola/Coonawarra Visitor Centre and Hydro Carbon Centre.
Bond Store, Bowden Street. Built to store liquor from interstate for customs duties.
Ulva cottage (1850s), Bowden Street. Home of Alexander Cameron, founder of Penola.
Mary McKillop Park, Bowden Street. The site of the stable where Mary McKillop began teaching in 1866.
St Mary's Church (1873), Arthur Street.
Toffee & treats shop (1870), Church Street. Premises of bootmaker, Christopher Sharam.
Never Too Old Antiques (1892), Church Street. Balnaves Building.
Royal Oak Hotel (1873), Church Street.
Stone house (1880s), Cnr Church & Riddoch Street. Built as the Bank of South Australia.
National Australia Bank (1868), Church Street.
Old Post Office (1850s, extended 1876), Cnr Church and Riddoch Streets.
Cobb & Co. Booking Office (1857), Riddoch Street.
Gammon Cottage (1860s), Petticoat Lane.
Wilson's Cottage (1860s), Petticoat Lane.
Sharam's Cottage (1850), Penola's first house, a fine example of a slab cottage. It was the home of bootmaker, Christopher Sharam.
Former Church of England Rectory (1860s), Petticoat Lane.
Presbyterian Church (1870), Cnr Arthur and Portland Streets.
McAdam Slab Hut (1850s), Cameron Street.
Bushman's Inn (1860), John Street. Originally part built as a boarding house.
Old Railway Station, Clarke Street. Now a private residence.
Yallum Park (1878-80), Millicent Road, 8 km west of Penola. Victorian mansion built for John Riddoch. Said to be the best preserved Victorian house in Australia.
Old Hospital (1850s), Cnr Riddoch and Portland Streets. Built as a residence. Later the town hospital. Now a private residence again.
Wynns Coonawarra winery
Coonawarra Wine region: To the north of the town lies the famous 14 km long strip of terra rosa soils of the Coonawarra which have produced excellent red wines for the past century. Along the road from Penola to Coonawarra (a distance of only 7 km) there are a total of 21 wineries.
Famous colonial poets, Adam Lindsay Gordon, William Ogilvie, and Penola born John Shaw Neilson, left behind a legacy of poetry inspired by their experiences of rural life in the district.
Cobb & Co. Booking Office
The local Aborigines were the Bunganditj or Booandik group who lived on a diet of kangaroo, wallaby, emu, wombat, fish, roots and seeds. They had lived in the district for tens of thousands of years but, with the arrival of Europeans, their numbers declined rapidly. It is said that five Aborigines are buried in the Penola cemetery but there is no evidence of their graves. The last of the local Aborigines died in 1902.
The first Europeans into the area were the Austin brothers who arrived in 1840 and established a run of 109 square miles based on what is now Yallum Park (see Coonawarra for more details). But the gold rushes of the 1850s ensured that their dreams were not realised.
The man who was known as the Founder of Penola and the 'King of Penola' was Alexander Cameron (1810-1881). He arrived in Sydney in 1839 and that year set out with his uncles and a range of animals and travelled 1500 km from Sydney to the famed 'Australia Felix', west of Melbourne. In 1841 Alexander crossed into South Australia and by 1844 Penola Station had been established. By 1850 Cameron had built a pub, the Royal Oak, to supply liquor to the increasing number of travellers who were coming through the Penola area. It was around this time that he gained freehold title to 80 acres stretching north from the hotel. This was to be the site for the township of Penola. Christopher Sharam, a bootmaker, built his house on this land in 1850. He was quickly followed by a Mr Hailes, a blacksmith.
Later that year Cameron added another 80 acres to the original holding.
The real beginning for the settlement of the area occurred when John Riddoch purchased Yallum in 1861. Riddoch was one of those larger-than-life characters who seem to squeeze five lives into a single lifetime. He grew up in poverty in the highlands of Scotland (a result of the Highlands clearances) and in 1851 emigrated to try his luck on the Victorian goldfields. Within a few years he was a successful shopkeeper and wine merchant on the Geelong goldfields.
He acquired 35,000 acres on which he ran 50,000 head of sheep. In keeping with his exalted status he lived like a local lord (as can be seen for the richness of Yarram Park).
By 1863 Penola had acquired an unusual status in South Australia. It boasted the largest library outside Adelaide. Not surprisingly, given its literary tradition, the poet Adam Lindsay Gordon, came to the district and often stayed with John Riddoch. Three years later (1866) Mary McKillop, Australia's first saint, built the first of many schools she was to construct in Australia and New Zealand. This remarkable woman established a concept of egalitarian education which ensured education for children regardless of their family's income or their social class. She founded the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart.
Another significant figure around this time was Father Julian Tenison Woods, a Catholic priest, who in 1866 actively assisted Mary McKillop to form the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart.
Around 1890 John Riddoch formed the Coonawarra Fruit Colony and 2,000 acres from Yarram Park were subdivided into smaller holdings of 10-30 acres which were sold, at very reasonable terms, to a group of farmers with the express idea that they all became vineyards and orchards. The secret of the district's success was a strange rectangle, known as the 'Coonawarra cigar', of terra rosa (red soil). Here, according to grape growers, was perfect soil which would produce perfect grapes which, if the locals knew what they were doing, would produce near-perfect wines, particularly red wines.
It was out of this that the Coonawarra vineyards grew. In fact Riddoch insisted that the 'blockers', the people who purchased the 'blocks' of land, had to plant one-third cabernet sauvignon to two-thirds shiraz. It is no accident that today eighteen of the district's twenty one vineyards have, among their crops, healthy acreages of both cabernet sauvignon and shiraz grapes.
The vineyards were more successful than the wineries but wine wasn't really part of the Australian diet. It was not until the 1960s that the exceptional soils of the area, and their ability to produce superb red wines, was fully realised. It is worth noting that of the 21 wineries in the Coonawarra-Penola district only one, Wynns Coonawarra Estate, dates from the nineteenth century (1896). Of the rest one (Rouge Homme) appeared in 1954, seven came into production in the 1960s, four in the 1970s, five in the 1980s and three in the 1990s.
It is significant that Penola is associated with two of Australia's most distinguished poets. John Shaw Neilson was born in the town in 1872 (his home is now the tastings and cellar door for Hollick Wines and Adam Lindsay Gordon worked in the area as a mounted policeman from 1853-54.