State Library of South Australia

Transcribing Tales: Thistle Island calling the mainland

Date: 28 September 2015

A handwritten notepad of radio messages transmitted to and from Thistle Island in 1936 gives a fascinating glimpse into life on a remote island. The notepad was part of a donation of family letters and memorabilia from the Wade family. It has now been transcribed and researched by volunteers Peter Anson and Kathy Hurley for everyone to discover online as Personal Record Group 1463/1.

The lofty slopes of Thistle Island seen at far right from Port Lincoln looking across Boston Bay in 1846 by George French Angas B1527613
The 'lofty slopes' of Thistle Island seen at far right from Port Lincoln, looking across Boston Bay in 1846 by George French Angas [B 15276/13]

Thistle Island is located 9km offshore at the mouth of Spencer Gulf, 40km from Port Lincoln. It is home to sea birds, fairy penguins, seal colonies and the beautiful nautilus shell. In 1838 the South Australian Company set up a short-lived whaling station on the island, and it later became a pastoral lease. In 1935 Christopher and Norah Wade with their two young children Bill and Mary, and Norah's mother Mary Ann Nicholas, left their remote sheep property Panaramitee near Yunta in the far north. They moved to the even more remote Thistle Island, where Bill wanted to breed horses and pigs and run sheep. Shortly after their arrival Bill installed a land station wireless telephone; previous communication was only possible by boat or carrier pigeon.

The boat most commonly used to deliver supplies to the island was the ketch Oscar Robinson, but there are also references in the message notepad to Stormbird and Jennifer, and the tourist and passenger ships Moonta and Minnipa. There is also a reference to the yacht Martindale which was sailed around the waters off Port Lincoln by John Andrew Tennant Mortlock of Martindale Hall, who would go on to be the State Library's greatest benefactor.

A story in The Mail of 18 January 1936, readable on Trove, quotes Chris Wade saying 'I was prompted to buy this property because of Mrs. Wade's keenness for island life. Our 10 year old son, Bill, is able to operate the radio set'. Norah Wade is quoted as saying 'Wandering about the island, one sees a variety of landscapes in miniature. There is something awesome about the high cliffs and the towering bluffs, but then one can retire into a sheltered little retreat from which the wild sea and the rugged coast cannot be seen, and feel at peace with Nature. This is a pleasant, interesting kind of life made more attractive by the wireless link with civilisation'.

The Wades left the island in the 1960s, and in 1986 it was sold to a company which created 30 allotments along the coast at Whaler's Bay. Perhaps inspired by their island experience, Bill went on to a career in electronics and Mary in geology.

Notebook of radio messages

Radio telephone message book kept by Christopher Wade 1936

Inside the cover of the message notebook are recorded the main radio frequencies:

V H U 7 Thistle Island
V H U 8 Port Lincoln
5 W J. PT LINCOLN
COIL No 3 DIAL No 68

Most of the messages are for delivery of food, clothing and farm supplies, but there are also medical problems, for instance:

4 May 8am
Messages
Colin Slater has dislocated his shoulder get someone to come down soon as possible to take him up to Lincoln

8 May 8am
Messages
Ask the doctor how long Slater will be in hospital so that we know whether to get another man down or not

9 May 8am
Messages received
Slater is progressing satisfactorily but it will be necessary to keep him under observation for a month and it will be 6 weeks before he will be able to do full work
Sent
Ask Broadbent if he knows any good boy who can come down for a while

11 May 8am
Messages received
Slater asks if he comes under the Compensation Act. He is looking for a boat to come down
Sent
Tell Colin he comes under the Act but it won't cover all expenses

12 May 8am
Sent
If Colin is coming down ask if he can feed the pigs at the North End and Parker will come up here and start ploughing. Tell him to see the saddler and have the collars done at once to be ready to come down
Received
Saw Colin who says his shoulder is comfortable though still tied up will see him again and give him message

And this sequence of messages doesn't bear thinking of!

18 July
Send down 1 large or 2 small bottles child worm syrup

21 July
Alter order for worm syrup to 2 large bottles

There are poignant messages relating to farm animals:

21 Jan
Messages sent
Ring Elders ask for Mr Williams or Mr Luxmore say that Mr Cane's mare has not foaled she is very fat and has a big gut but may not be in foal shall we ship this trip or not
Message received
Cane leaves it to your discression to ship mare if not in foal ship by Oscar Robinson

And hard-headed messages relating to livestock:

16 June 8am
Messages
Ask if there is any room on the Oscar Robinson for a few cattle. Also ask McFarlane if there is any chance of selling small killable stuff to the local butchers. If so what is about the price per 100 they are giving

17 June 8am
McFarlane says that the butchers are swamped with beef at present as everyone is sending in cattle

This record of comings and goings gives a small insight into life on Thistle Island. Such day-to-day documenting of life in South Australia, especially in remote parts of the state, is part of the social history of our state and worthy of transcribing. Unfortunately there are very few photographs in our collection that show Thistle Island clearly. The State Library would love to receive offers of more letters, diaries and photographs to build a better picture of life on our remote islands.

Story by: Carolyn Spooner

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