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Customs House History

At one time Port MacDonnell could boast of being the second busiest port in South Australia - it is also the most southerly and is situated on one of the state's most dangerous stretches of coast.


The development of the interior, in particular the Mount Gambier region, saw the necessity for a nearby port. Overland freight for supplies before the advent of railways was expensive and dangerous. Sea freight was cheaper and faster, though not necessarily less dangerous. Small ships, ketches and schooners landed goods on the beaches at first. The growing number of wrecks led to demands for a lighthouse, so in 1858 the Cape Northumberland light was completed and operational. The ships bringing fittings for the lighthouse were the first officially recorded vessels into MacDonnell Bay in 1856. The lighthouse keeper Ben Germein was commissioned also to survey the bay and select a site for a port to serve the inland regions. Port MacDonnell was officially declared a port on 4 April 1860. Germein had marked a safe channel to anchorages protected by Cape Northumberland and Breakers Reef. Construction of a jetty began in December 1860. Nearby was a lifeboat shed, built in 1863. This, together with the rocket apparatus would assist many ships in trouble.


A road (rather than a track) was opened to Mount Gambier and assisted the movement of goods. The Customs House was built in 1862, and as well as housing the Customs Offices, the building was used as a courthouse, police station and gaol cells, and telegraph office. After completion, Captain Edward French opened a shipping agency and warehouses. Port MacDonnell began to prosper and in three months to June 1864, 27,000 pounds worth of goods moved through the port.


Agriculture began to prosper, and in addition to wool, wheat became a major export. Potatoes followed as the next largest export. Flour, wattle bark (for tanning), hay, hides and tallow were also exported through Port MacDonnell.


It was during the 1870s that Port MacDonnell reached its heyday. Revenue from customs was second only to Port Adelaide. In the years 1876-1879 exports totalled 604,946 pounds and imports 263,961 pounds.

Large ships sailing directly to England loaded wheat and wool; ketches and schooners brought in supplies and loaded smaller cargoes, notably potatoes. Jetty maintenance was ongoing, and there was demand for a breakwater - this however did not eventuate during the port's heyday. Shipwrecks continued, and the lifeboat and its crew were kept busy.


The residents of Port MacDonnell had rejected the notion of a tramway or railway since the mid-1860s. A railway to Kingston from Naracoorte was opened in 1876; in 1879 a line was built to Beachport and in 1883 to Bordertown, with the final connection to Adelaide in 1887. Cheap rail rates provided stiff competition for the shipping lines, and when finally a rail line was opened between Mount Gambier and Portland in 1917, the death knell was rung.


In 1882 a new lighthouse was activated - the cliffs beneath the old one had become unstable. During the 1880s trade was still good but with a noticeable downturn. By the beginning of the twentieth century tourism was becoming a feature of the town. Coastal steamers called and a coach service ran to Mount Gambier: the concept of a quiet seaside holiday gained force - the absence of the railway was a bonus here. As the twentieth century developed cars became more common, and caravans followed. Caravan parks, and on the waters, pleasure craft, became features of the town and the port.


The fishing fleet replaced the mosquito fleet of ketches that had dominated the 1860s-1880s. Finally in the 1970s the South Australian Government built the long desired breakwater. At 1565 metres, this provides shelter and security for the fishing fleet and for private pleasure craft.


The beginning of the 21st century saw cutbacks in the commercial fishing fleet due to overfishing, but tourism, the 'seachange' phenomenon and the development of marinas on the south coast continue to contribute to the life of Port MacDonnell, no longer the second busiest port in South Australia.


The Customs House

Probably the most important building to be erected in the area was the Port MacDonnell Customs House. Built in 1863 by Mr. Francis Reynolds for £2605, it housed the Harbour Masters Office, Customs House, Court House, Post Office and residence, school teacher’s residence and Police Station and residence. The Post Office had a twelve line telephone switch board, and alphabetically marked pigeon holes for mail. Telegrams came by Morse code to Mount Gambier and were then telephoned through to Port MacDonnell for delivery.


Prison cells and stables were built at the rear of the building. Although the stables have since been demolished, the building still stands as a reminder of the busy trading port in years gone by. Built on such a grand scale, it was the only one of its kind in South Australia. This indicated a fierce confidence in the development of Port MacDonnell as a significant port facility.


Substantial additions and alterations to the complex were made in 1874 and 1938. The Customs House accommodated the Police Station and residence until 1958, when a new station was built in Charles Street. Since 1958 it has had many owners, being used at different times as a restaurant, accommodation and private residence.

Construction began on The Customs House in 1863, taking around three years to complete. Designed by Mr. Francis Reynolds, the iconic building served the flourishing port of Port MacDonnell and is steeped in history.


Port MacDonnell is conveniently located a short drive from Mount Gambier, the leading city in the Limestone Coast region of South Australia. Midway between Melbourne and Adelaide, the region features dominant volcanic craters extensive limestone caves, a vibrant economy and relaxed lifestyle in a Mediterranean climate.

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