Books & Literature

Book Review: Port Adelaide, by John Couper-Smartt

HISTORY: This much-anticipated new edition of the definitive history of Port Adelaide (first published in 2003, long out of print), boasts a wealth of new material and images – and a stunning new design.

A thoroughly enjoyable, informative and educational history book on Port Adelaide.

This is a new edition of Port Adelaide which was first published in 2003. It has a brand new layout with more fantastic images and information. It is a big book in all senses of the word. While it is a “coffee table” book in physical size, it in no way relies on volume rather than substance.

The book starts as every good book should, at the beginning. The details of the geography and geomorphology of the area provides an understanding of the myriad of problems encountered as the area was settled and grew. By the time I finished this section I was wondering why this area was chosen for a port at all as the channels were narrow, shallow and surrounded by mangrove swamps, but chosen it was. A map gives some idea of how the area developed over eons, with the Port River now forming just a small part of what would have been the estuary of a substantial river.

Author Dr John Couper-Smartt is a retired psychiatrist, who now spends his time writing books and screenplays. He has a particular interest in Port Adelaide and is a keen yachtsman. The book is well written and comprehensively researched. Couper-Smartt’s narrative is highly readable, never getting bogged down in too much detail. On every page there is a photograph, map or illustration to highlight a point in the story, which adds immeasurably to both the depth and enjoyment of the narrative. By the time you have finished each chapter you feel you have learned a lot without feeling lectured or crammed.

The chronological chapters discuss many different aspects of Port Adelaide’s history: from the original inhabitants, the Kaurna People, through early settlement and migration, the pubs of The Port, wartime, and manufacturing industries, to religious freedom, education and the future for The Port. I have a particular interest in the history of transport and the book was a mine of information. Did you know that when Governor Hindmarsh read the Proclamation of the Colony of South Australia in December 1836, there were only two horses, two mules and one cow available to transport people from The Port? For most it was a gruelling three-hour walk into Adelaide, along a rudimentary track which eventually grew into today’s major roadways that we all know and love (or hate).

The discussion of railways was of particular interest, demonstrating then, as now, the tension between private and public investment in railways. The rise of the railway system was a reliable transport method when no other means could cope, bullock carts having limited capacity and being far slower, improving the functional movement of goods coming into and out of the ports. The author also notes how the frequency of decisions made in haste to suit an immediate need, in time, resulted in problems being built into the system that eventually had to be solved, usually at great cost and inconvenience. On South Australian Railways, such decisions led to over a century of operating with three different track gauges. The rise and fall of the local tramways is also covered and it is sad to realise that practically none of this infrastructure exists today.

The layout of the text, historic pictures, illustrations, and maps is wonderful. Many of the images have detailed descriptions which add further historical information and interest. In addition there are sidebars of historical notes telling a short history of why things exist, or why areas or streets or buildings have their names. To enjoy the book one could read from cover to cover or pick the topics of particular interest, and eventually you will read all of it. Along the way you will discover many “Did you know?” questions to throw at family and friends. For example, did you know that GMH at Woodville once employed more than 6,000 workers at the site? Or that Ford once had an assembly plant in Adelaide? A thoroughly enjoyable, informative and educational history book—once again a terrific Wakefield Press publication

Reviewed by Jan and Robin Kershaw.

This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not Glam Adelaide.

Distributed by: Wakefield Press      
Released: November 2021
RRP: $95

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