We found so much more to Penola, on the South Australian Limestone Coast than just the famous Coonawarra wineries. The historic pastoral town also has a well preserved history and a number of notable former residents. These include St Mary MacKillop, Australia’s first saint.
We had run out of time to explore the history of Penola during our previous visit. We had only visited the park commemorating Mary MacKillop’s first stable-yard school. So on our most recent visit, we were keen to spend a morning walking the Penola Heritage trail with the “Pawesome Foursome”.
Scotsman John Riddolph planted the first Sauvignon grapes in the region, establishing the Coonawara wine industry. However it was his kinsman, pastoral squatter, Alexander Cameron, who established the township of Penola in 1850. Both names feature prominently in the town’s history.
Petticoat Lane Penola
Petticoat Lane is a little piece of history we stumbled upon almost by chance. We were looking for somewhere to give the “Pawesome Foursome” a good walk on the way to the Mary MacKillop Centre, when we turned into the historic laneway.
The heritage listed laneway preserves the history of some of the earliest homes in the district. Visitors can stroll by the collection of stone and timber homes, some dating back to the 1850’s. Here we found a number of the homes preserved as a living museum. Period furnishings and story boards depict the day to day life of the original Penola settlers. Even the heritage gardens still grow the herbs, vegetables and lavender from that era. There were very few creature comforts for these early settlers.
We were amazed to find that you could simply walk in and explore many of these cottages free of charge. There were no guides, just walk in as if you were going for a “cuppa” with Granny Sharam.
A number of the historic cottages now also operate as unique bed and breakfasts, while others sell souvenirs, antiques and bric-a-brac
Sharam’s cottages are the oldest of these original homes. The slab cottage dates back to 1850, when Alexander Cameron asked Christopher Sharam to come to Penola to work as his bootmaker.
Sharam built this first blackwood slab cottage in 1850. The fireplace was the centre piece of the home, where family members gathered. Here meals were cooked and baked, with chairs and couches to gather around the fire. Family members continued to live in the home until 1941, when the National Trust acquired the building.
The heritage herb and vegetable plot to the rear of the cottage has been maintained as it was during the 1850’s. Visitors are free to help themselves to the produce for a gold coin donation. It would seem the honesty system is working, as the garden is flourishing.
A second timber slab cottage was built adjacent to the original cottage to house the Sharam’s growing family. I suppose building a second house was easier in those days than extending the original.
The parlour or “best room” was reserved for guests and not used on a day to day basis. Granny Sharam apparently never lit the fire in this room, using the fireplace to store butter to take advantage of the chimney’s cool draught.
Walking along the laneway, vintage petticoats hanging on the old prop clothesline give an authentic feel.
Surrounded by a two acre lavender garden, Wilson’s cottage was built in 1856 from Mt Gambier stone and local mud. In the day’s when kitchen fires posed a danger in the old slab cottages, pressed metal was used to minimise the risk of fire. The neighbouring home, Gammon Cottage actually built a fully detached kitchen away from the main house.
Today it is home to an antique and bric a brac store, where the smell of lavender products still permeates the air.
Detatched kitchen at Wilsons cottage
At the end of the laneway we come to the town’s main historic tourist drawcard, the Mary MacKillop Centre. Here you find the old 1860’s schoolhouse, Cameron’s original farmhouse, the current church and the Mary MacKillop Centre.
About Mary MacKillop
Mary MacKillop and Julian Tenison Woods co-founded the Australian order of the Sisters of St Joseph in Penola in 1866. Fr Woods and Mary shared a concern for the lack of education in South Australia, working together to establish Catholic education across the southern state.
Mary had spent a number of years working as a governess, firstly with her uncle Alexander Cameron on Penola Station. Returning to Penola in 1867, she was ordained as the first Sister of St Joseph. Together with Fr Woods, she began her mission to bring education to all children, regardless of their family’s income.
Mary and her sister, Anne initially established a school an a disused stable. Before long, their schoolroom was built in the chapel grounds, taking their first pupils in 1867.
The Sisters of St Joseph were committed to providing education for under privileged children. By 1869 more than 70 sisters had joined the Sisters of St Joseph and were educating children in schools in Adelaide and across South Australia.
Mary’s work to assist the poor took her to many remote areas around Australia. Her ongoing fight for her cause saw her excommunicated in 1871, a ban which was lifted a year later. St Mary MacKillop was declared a Saint in 2010, a century after her death.
The Josephite order she founded are still continuing her work today.
Mary MacKillop’s Penola
The Mary MacKillop Centre houses exhibitions detailing the work of Mary MacKillop and Fr Woods. We wanted to enjoy our long walk around town with the dogs, so we opted out of the centre itself. But there was still much to enjoy.
Fr Wood’s 1859 stone chapel was built on this site. Before this services had been held in the local courthouse. The current church is not the one from which Mary commenced her work, however it is still significant to her story.
In the grounds of the Mary MacKillop Centre stands the original Cameron Homestead. Here Mary taught as a governess for her uncle, Alexander Cameron from 1860. The building was demolished on Penola Station, and relocated to the centre in 2009, forming part of the displays depicting Mary’s life.
Like many of the slab houses we had seen on Petticoat Lane, we found it incredible that such large families were raised in these tiny homes. Not just the physical space, but the searing summer heat and freezing winter cold would have been very uncomfortable.
The Presbytery also served as the convent for Mary’s growing order of Josephite nuns.
St Joseph’s Church, Penola
The current St Joseph’s church, built in 1924, stands on the site of the original 1859 stone church. At the rear of the church a shrine to St Mary MacKillop was completed in 1998.
I was somewhat in awe to visit this shrine to someone who fought so hard for the education for our children we take for granted today.
Mary MacKillop’s Schoolroom
Mary and her sister taught in this 1867 schoolhouse not far from St Joseph’s chapel. The building today houses an interactive display of the schoolroom during Mary MacKillop’s time. From 1866 the sisters established a school in an old stable to educate children regardless of income or social class. Within a few years the sisters had established 24 schools across South Australia to continue their work in educating the disadvantaged.
Penola Heritage Walk
Once we had explored the Mary MacKillop centre, it was time to discover a little more of the history of Penola. It was a sunny winter’s day, so we grabbed a map from the tourist centre to take the “Pawesome Foursome” on the Penola Heritage walk. A one hour walk takes you past many of the interesting old buildings in Penola.
Many buildings are listed on state heritage register and some are owned and maintained by National Trust.
John Riddolph built St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in 1872. The architecture of the stone building seems to be reminiscent of his Scottish heritage.
Penola’s heritage streetscape
The walk takes you past many private and public buildings, many now listed on the state heritage register. These include the old 1850’s Cobb and Co station which now operates as bed and breakfast accommodation.
Taking the “Pawesome Foursome” for a stroll through the leafy parkland, we came across two significant local buildings, currently under restoration with the National Trust.
The 1850’s Bond store was used to house liquor in the days before Federation when taxes applied to goods arriving from Victoria.
Adjacent to the old Bond Store, Ulva Cottage was built in the 1860’s for the daughter of Alexander Cameron.
We could have spent all day exploring the history of Penola, so a good reason to return on our next visit south.