September 16, 2013

Tolmer's Tale: Saving Adelaide from ruin

David Ellis

STRANGE as it may sound, Adelaide as we know it today may well have never come about had it not been for the achievements in the 1850s of a resourceful Police Commissioner who not only saved the city from bankruptcy, but also the potential abandonment of the entire fledgling colony of South Australia.

And yet despite such seeming heroics, not only was he never accorded any official recognition, rather he was demoted and ultimately sacked.

It was only a public Testimonial with funds given by appreciative South Australian businessmen and others that accorded him any praise at all – while now, 123 years after his death, a winery in the State's famed Coonawarra is giving fresh kudos to his deeds by naming a ripper new drop of red after him.

Alexander Tolmer was born in England in 1815, ran away to sea as a teenager, fought in Portugal's Civil War, and once back home joined the 16th British Lancers… all by the time he was 17. But he quit the Lancers after a few years too, and in 1840 with wife and son sailed to far-off South Australia, where his cavalry skills saw his quick appointment as a Sub-Inspector of Police to establish a much-needed Mounted Police Branch.

He and his men quickly threw themselves with gusto into hunting down cattle thieves, bushrangers and sly-grog makers, while also settling land disputes between squabbling settlers and Aborigines; so successful was he in fact, that in just twelve years he was appointed Commissioner of Police.

But the colony by then was in deep financial trouble. With the discovery of gold in Victoria, 20,000 men (most of the male population) had fled Adelaide for the goldfields, and with no workers farms and coal mines closed, shops and other businesses tacked "Gone to the Diggings" signs to locked doors, and the fledgling colony's banks were drained of deposits as hopefuls withdrew whatever they had to take to Victoria.

Repayments to banks for business and housing loans collapsed, and one observer summed-up Adelaide as "a ghost town resembling the cities of Southern Europe during siesta."

It was then that Commissioner Tolmer had a brilliant idea. Why not provide a gold escort service to safely bring back to South Australia the gold that miners were winning from the ground in Victoria, so that instead of it going into the banks of Victoria, it would revitalise the South Australian economy?

Governor Sir Henry Young enthusiastically agreed, and a month later Tolmer and a party of mounted troopers set off with a sturdy spring-cart for the near-600km journey to the diggings at Mt Alexander outside Bendigo, arriving there just ten days later.

Within a day of setting up camp, Tolmer and his party had accepted gold from a near-300 South Australian miners, and when after several more days they felt their spring-cart could carry no more, they departed for Adelaide with 5,200 ounces of gold worth an estimated 18,356 pounds ($36,712,) a then-precious fortune.

And over the next two years a total of eighteen "gold escorts" brought an amazing 28,502 ounces, or almost ten tons, of gold from Bendigo back to Adelaide. It was valued at the time at 1,182,000 pounds ($2,364,000) and was enough to avert both the threat of Adelaide's bankruptcy and the abandonment of the Colony of South Australia – prospects already in consideration in the highest quarters.

But while Commissioner Tolmer's ingenious scheme had saved Adelaide and South Australia, his absences leading the first few gold escorts had seen management of the Police Force collapse into disarray. Enemies, and he had plenty with his renowned short-fused temper, plotted against him, and were joined by those from Adelaide society's Old Boys' Network miffed at the up-start Tolmer's appointment as Police Commissioner in the first place.

Within months they had him demoted and then dismissed, accused of neglect of duty.

Tolmer subsequently dabbled in several other government appointments, and even unsuccessfully tried his hand on the land. He died of kidney disease aged 74, and was buried in a pauper's grave at South Australia's Mitcham Anglican Cemetery.

Coonawarra's Penley Estate has now released a premium 2010 Tolmer Cabernet Sauvignon in recognition of "the extraordinary feats of an extraordinary man in saving Adelaide from bankruptcy." Details on (08) 8363 or


[1] ADELAIDE's picturesque streetscapes of today could have been vastly different had it not have been for Commissioner Alexander Tolmer. (South Australia State Library.)
[2] SAVED Adelaide from bankruptcy, and died a pauper – Alexander Tolmer. (South Australia Police Historical Society.)
[3] ONE of many signs and markers along the route of the Gold Escorts from Mt Alexander near Bendigo to Adelaide. (Monument Australia.)
[4] TYPICAL busy 1850's goldfields scene in Victoria. (Victoria State Library.)
[5] A CROWD gathers to watch as police gather gold (in boxes on footpath) in 1850s.
     (Museum of Victoria.)
[6] 123 years after his death, Alexander Tolmer's grand achievements are recognised
      today in this Penley Estate Tolmer Cabernet Sauvignon. (Penley Estate.)
[7] VISITORS can raise a glass to Alexander Tolmer at the modern Cellar Door at
     Penley Estate in South Australia's famed Coonawarra. (Penley Estate.)
[8] ALEXANDER  Tolmer in uniform at the time he created the Gold Escorts. (South
     Australia Police Historical Society.)

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