photo-icon State Records of South Australia GRS 1061/1 item B10196

Exhibition celebrates a ‘city first’ centenary

Cultural Heart

The city of Adelaide has pioneered many ‘firsts’ throughout its history and 2019 marks a milestone for one of the most valuable in terms of its ongoing contribution to the lives of people in the community – the centenary of Australia’s first government archive.

Black and white photo of original archives building
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The original Archives building.

Established in 1919 inside a disused colonial military store (now the Radford Auditorium at the Art Gallery of South Australia), the South Australian Archives Department has come a very long way in its first hundred years. 

Along with changing its location several times (it’s now based at Gepps Cross), State Records of South Australia (as it’s now known) has grown from a handful of documents and photographs to a diverse collection of over 13 million official records. It’s also become a magnet, not just for students and lawyers, but family historians seeking answers to often life-changing questions.

Professor george henderson
photo-icon State Library of South Australia B 4076

Professor George Henderson.

State Records’ centenary provided the perfect opportunity to share the archive’s fascinating story and let more people in on the many treasures they can discover within it for themselves – and that’s exactly what’s been achieved with Professor Henderson’s Department of Historical Records – a free exhibition at the city’s Institute Building until 31 December 2019.

A Professor at the University of Adelaide from 1902, George C. Henderson was the driving force behind the city establishing the nation’s first government archive.

“Professor Henderson’s students were among those doing the Tinline Scholarship (in Imperial History) and needing to undertake original research into South Australian history,” said Helen Chadwick, State Records’ Program and Engagement Officer.

“He saw them going everywhere for information: different government departments, private homes and the library – and realised that if we had a central archive the students would be able to do more research more effectively.”

While we won’t give away all the story here (go visit the exhibition for that!), thanks largely to the Professor’s determination and foresight, the South Australian Archives opened its doors to researchers in 1920 – with George Henry Pitt and Mabel Hardy appointed the first staff: Pitt as Archivist and Hardy, Assistant Archivist.

George pitt in the archives
photo-icon State Records of South Australia GRS 1061/1 item B10196

George Henry Pitt - south australian archives first Archivist inside the original archives building.

One of the firm beliefs of Henderson, according to Helen, was that “looking at the history of a place was a really good way to understand it as well.” – a sentiment echoed by the exhibition’s curator, State Records’ archivist, Rebecca O’Reilly.

“I think to understand who we are and where we're going to in the future, we need to understand our past. Our archive today is a really important resource for Aboriginal families, the Stolen Generations, in reconnecting with the past and finding their families. A lot of government documents hold that valuable information, which they just can't find anywhere else. Coming here can be a pretty life changing experience for some people.”
Rebecca O'Reilly, State Records' Archivist & Exhibition Curator

The stories of Henderson, Pitt and Hardy are just a few to be enjoyed if you visit the exhibition – along with tales of many other past South Australians, both famous and infamous. There are also opportunities to search family history on touchscreens loaded with videos and providing access to historic Passenger Lists and collections of World War I photographs of nurses, sailors and soldiers, that can be searched by surname or ship name.

State records sa centenary exhibition it screen

get interactive at the exhibition - search historic passenger lists and photographic collections from world war i to find family connections.

For Rebecca, curating the exhibition has been a joyous task – and she loves to share anecdotes about past peers she discovered through her own research.

“Pitt called himself the grimy archivist because he thought he looked like a scavenger when he went out collecting records from government agencies in the city,” said Rebecca. “I love the imagery of those two just going around the streets getting files and books. Bill drove the cart and Pitt sat in the little trolley, facing back in case any records fell out. It’s much more romantic than how we collect records today in a big truck!”

Rebecca and helen state records sa centenary exhibition

L-R: state records' archivist Rebecca o'reilly and program & engagement officer helen chadwick inside the centenary exhibition.

One of the more unusual display items recently added was a doorknob understood to have been from the original cottage lived in by South Australia’s first Surveyor-General, and the visionary behind the city’s unique ‘city in a park’ design, Colonel William Light.

“Apparently this door knob is from Colonel Light’s cottage in Thebarton,” said Rebecca. “It was first shown at an exhibition in 1936 celebrating the history of South Australia and the woman who donated it, didn’t come back to collect it. Somehow or other, those uncollected exhibits ended up in our archive and that’s one of them.”

Items in the exhibition are being updated every two months, so be sure to stop in a few times before the display ends on 31 December 2019.

Professor Henderson’s Department of Historical Records exhibition (free entry)

The Institute Building, corner North Terrace and Kintore Avenue
Opening hours: 1 July to 31 December 2019, 10:00 am to 5:00 pm (except public holidays)

State Records of South Australia - Research Centre

115 Cavan Road Gepps Cross
Opening hours: Tuesday to Thursday, 9:30 am to 4:30 pm

For a comprehensive listing of all archives across South Australia – including opening times and access information, visit The Directory of Archives in Australia website.

Enjoy this story? You might also like our article Amazing archives – where Jane Angel from the University of South Australia provides insights into what treasures can be discovered if you pay a visit to some of the archives in her care.

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Skye Murtagh

Skye Murtagh

Skye is Adelaide Living's main driving force. She is passionate about sharing stories from all walks of life. When she's not busy weaving beautiful words together, she's singing a line or two from her favourite song.