Mt Barker

Mt Barker WA

Coordinates: 34°37′48″S 117°40′01″E
Mean Maximum temperature: 20°C (68°F)
Mean Maximum temperature: 9.4°C (49°F)
Annual Rainfall: 736.2mm (29inches)

Mt Barker is the Shire of Plantagenet’s administrative centre, situated on the Albany Highway 350km south of Perth and 50km north of Albany, with a population of approximately 1,800. Prior to European settlement, small groups of nomadic Aboriginal people, called the Bibbulmum inhabited the area and named the town’s hill Pwakkenbak.

Mt Barker was first explored by Europeans in late 1829, three years after the establishment of the military outpost at Albany, by Royal Navy surgeon Dr Thomas Braidwood Wilson. Wilson, together with two convicts, the Aboriginal guide Mokare, a soldier and Albany's commissariat officer Mr Kent, set off on December 2, 1829 to explore the hinterland. After reaching Mt Barker which Wilson named after Albany’s commandant, Captain Collett Barker, the party turned west, then south, reaching the coast near the present day town of Denmark. Wilson's report on the area was favourable and upon his return to Albany wrote of one of the local creeks “we observed that its banks were covered with luxuriant grass, sprinkled with yellow buttercups which put us in mind of home” and that the “gently swelling lightly wooded adjacent hills are well adapted for sheep-walks”.

One of the first European land holders in Mt Barker was Government Resident Sir Richard Spencer, who in 1835, bought 1,940 acres of farmland from Captain James Stirling who had been granted 100,000 acres in the area. This farm was an immediate success and although Spencer died in 1839 his wife continued to operate it until her death in 1855. The next landholder was Lieutenant George Egerton-Warburton who married Spencer's daughter Augusta and acquired land upstream in 1842. He named his property St Werburgh after an early English Saxon church.

In 1872 Egerton-Warburton's eldest brother, the squire of Arley Hall in Cheshire and the rector of Northwich, in the north of England, sent £500 for the building of a church on St Werburgh's Road, south of Mt Barker town centre on a hill above the Hay River. The result was a building of great originality, with its ironwork, including the altar rail and chancel screen being made on the family forge. Its walls were made of a mixture of gravel, straw and clay, while the font had once been used for grinding flour. Below the church are the remains of the Hay River Bridge which was built in 1858 and used continuously for 100 years.

By 1835 the infant Albany Highway had reached Mt Barker. Although still a rough track, by 1860 its traffic was sufficient for William Cooper to build the Bush Inn and cater for passing trade. The inn became a regular stopping place for mailmen and a watering hole for local settlers and in 1871 the first meeting of the Plantagenet Road Board was held there. In 1880 it became a stopping point for Cobb & Co's coaches which travelled the Albany Highway, but its importance declined after the arrival of the Great Southern Railway in 1899. Ruins of the old inn can be seen in Marmion Street, off Muirs Highway to the west of the town.

The area around Mt Barker has been agriculturally rich since the days of early settlement and by 1910 there were 75 commercial orchards in the area. In 1917 the Mt Barker Fruitgrowers Cool Storage Co-operative was established. It closed in 1975 and the orchards began to give way to high quality vineyards. Since then, the town has become known as the birthplace of the Great Southern Wine Region, Australia's largest, covering a 200km rectangle from east to west and more than 100km from north to south. The area’s Mediterranean climate makes it perfect country for growing Riesling and Shiraz grapes.

The large natural mound jutting out of the landscape is Mt Barker Hill, 404m above sea level and the site of a 218 tonne, 168m high TV reception mast - the tallest free-standing tower in the Southern Hemisphere. Views from the hill extend north to the Stirling Range and east to the Porongurups, while an elevated concrete lookout tower offers views south to Albany and south-west toward Denmark. On a clear day, the Albany Wind Farm, more than 50km away, is easily visible. During the summer, locals use the hill’s lookout to assess fire risks.

The town centre boasts a good selection of historical buildings including the old police station, which opened in 1868 and is now a museum; the post office and telegraph station, built in 1892 and which now houses the local art society and gallery and the Plantagenet Hotel, which was founded between 1912 and 1914. The hotel’s verandah includes apple motifs, in celebration of the town's former flourishing orchards. Also of interest is the the railway building, built in 1923, restored in 1997 and today the home of Mt Barker Visitor Centre. 

A quarry to the east of town is one of two major sources of spongolite, also called Mount Barker Stone, sought after for its absorbent qualities. It has also been used for building material, with the Plantagenet Players theatre in Marmion Street being a good example. Another building of interest is the Round House built during the late 1950s by Dutch immigrant and engineer Hubertus Johannes Van der Kolk.

Located at the northern end of Mt Barker, beside Albany Highway, this unique structure could be rotated through 180 degrees to exploit seasonal changes. Though the home has fallen into disrepair, it was heritage listed in 2005. The home was hidden by overgrown foilage for many years but clearing for major roadworks in December 2006 again exposed it to public view. The building is currently under restoration, although engineers have said the damage is too extensive for the turning mechanism to be repaired.

Mt Barker first acquired electric light in 1929 as this newspaper article illustrates.

Installation of Electric Light at Mt Barker - Albany Advertiser, February 26, 1929

Thursday, February 21, will long be remembered as a "red letter night" in Mount Barker, when, for the first time in its history the town was illuminated with its own supply of electricity, thus bringing the town into line with her many sister towns throughout WA. Owing to the heavy expenditure of the roads board in providing the district hall, the question of an electric light supply had to remain in abeyance for some time, but through the co-operation of the Mount Barker Co-operative Society, a scheme was devised whereby the society guaranteed to supply the current to the roads board from their plant.

To meet the increased demand the society installed two crude oil engines under the direction of their engineer Mr Stanley. The wiring of the town was carried out by Mr W. Johns, of Albany. To celebrate the auspicious occasion of "turning on" the lights, a public ceremony was held at the power house on Thursday evening last, when Mr E. E. Warburton chairman of the Plantagenet Roads Board, performed the ceremony of switching on the current.

Mr Warburton, in a short speech, related the difficulties that had faced the board and urged as many of the householders as possible to avail themselves of the opportunity of having the electric light laid on. The more consumers the lower charge they would be able to make for the current. Even with their present 10/ minimum they expected a small annual loss.
Mr J. McNeil Martin, chairman of directors of the society, supported Mr Warburton. He stated that when the co-operative society were first approached by the roads board they were rather dubious about the proposal, but after going into figures and providing the consuming public took enough power, it should be a payable proposition.

The larger the consumption then they expected to be able to correspondingly reduce their charges. He trusted that the machinery would function well, and leave little cause for -complaint. In conclusion Mr Martín read a telegram from the engineer who supplied the plant wishing them every success. Mr Martin assisted Mr Stanley in turning over the engines, while Mr Warburton pushed in the switch. After the ceremony, the citizens present were invited into an adjoining room to partake of  light refreshments. A flashlight photograph was taken of the "turning on" ceremony.

For further information contact the Shire of Plantagenet on (08) 9892 1111 - http://www.plantagenet.wa.gov.au.

 

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