The historic Willunga Courthouse sits on the traditional land of the Kaurna people.
Willunga Courthouse and Police Museum, c 1855, Willunga, South Australia
The Willunga Courthouse nestles in picturesque setting in the almond blossom and wine region of Willunga, see location map below.
In 1854 the Willunga magistrate requested the authorities for improvements to be made to the facilities being used for court proceedings. He felt that in using the local Bush Inn “… it was impossible to maintain the degree of order and decorum required in a court of justice…”
In 1855 construction began for both a new police station and courthouse on the Government Reserve site. Sandstone and timbers were sourced locally and the work completed that year. A sum of £800 had been allocated for the project but only £396 was spent. More information is available from the Willunga Courthouse and Slate Museum.
Eventually a police station and other government offices (Post Office and Survey Office) were erected to meet the needs of the rapidly expanding Willunga township. The Police Commissioner at the time reported it would be “very desirable that the Government land, on which this building stands, should be enclosed as soon as possible”. The District of Willunga generally was a rapidly growing agricultural community and at that time, reported to be one of the most important in the Colony of South Australia, with a population of “2,500 souls”.
Housing shipwreck survivors in the Willunga Courthouse
The first occupants of the Willunga Courthouse though were not members of the legal profession but female Irish immigrants, in desperate need of short term accommodation after surviving the shipwreck of the Nashwauk, off the coast nearby.
The Willunga Local Court dealt with a variety of civil and criminal matters, as most local courts do. Debts, insolvency, assaults, inquests, personal injuries, accidents, theft – especially of cattle, unlawfully branding cattle, stealing valuable wood, (in one case a ‘few ends of branches from the said tree’ were produced in court as evidence), assaults and trespass on land were reported.
Today some matters would be recognised as being environmental law – such as cutting timber without a licence and deflecting a stream of water ‘out of its natural course on to the district road, to the injury and prejudice thereof’ (in an action commenced by the District Council of Willunga in 1855).
By 1855 Local Courts generally had been established in nearly every district of the South Australian Colony. Such courts had “full power to try cases of petty larceny and assault, and inflict punishment not exceeding six months imprisonment or a fine of £20.”
On civil matters Local Courts could adjudicate in all cases involving amounts up to £30, except those affecting title to land. Courts such as Willunga which had a Special Magistrate plus two other Magistrates were courts of full jurisdiction. The Willunga Court initially convened one day a month, which drew complaints as being infrequent and an inconvenience.
1851 – minding pigs
One case before the local court in 1851 concerned a dispute over unpaid money. The plaintiff alleged that he had verbally agreed to teach the defendant’s children in the evenings in return for board and lodging. After awhile this extended to minding the defendant’s pigs during the day, for which he said he was to receive a weekly payment of 7 shillings. He alleged that he had not been paid in full.
For his part, the defendant said that he had offered the pig-minding job to the plaintiff for the same amount he had been paying a boy, namely 5 shillings a week over seven weeks. The plaintiff won, but not for the full amount he claimed: Plank v Pethic, Local Court Willunga, Law and Police Courts, South Australian Register, 6 December 1851, p.3.
Beginnings of a community garden?
Citrus trees were, and are, considered essential in a country garden. Etched into the sandstone on the wall on the northern side of the Court building are two inscriptions recording the planting of citrus trees. Citrus trees continue growing today honouring the tradition.
In 1864 further improvements were added to the Court. These included chambers for the magistrate, holding cells and a verandah paved with slate from the nearby Willunga Slate Quarry, which had been operating since 1840. The slate paving can be seen in the image below.
To the south is the former 1941 Police Station at Victor Harbor and an attached Victor Harbor Courthouse (former), and the former Goolwa Courthouse, constructed of a similar style. Five years earlier in 1860 a courthouse at Strathalbyn was constructed in a similar style. For an overview of the Courthouse Gallery click here.
National heritage listing
The Willunga Courthouse has been heritage listed as the Willunga Police Station and Courthouse (Former), High St, Willunga, SA, ID number 6653. It is listed on the Australian Heritage Database, of the Australian Government Department of the Environment. More history can be read there.
B Stead BHS Legal
13 September 2013, last updated June 2023
Onsite plaque information, City of Onkaparinga.
The South Australian Register, 1854, 1855, 1856, digitised newspapers on Trove, https://trove.nla.gov.au.