Modern day motorists who suffer the undulating stretch of road between McLaren Vale and Willunga should spare a thought for the saga of Hawker’s stumps, memorialized in the names Stump Hill Road and Stump Hill Café at the McLaren Vale Visitor’s Centre.

James Hawker arrived in SA in 1838 and stayed as Governor Gawler’s guest at Government House. For several years he helped survey the roads leading south from Adelaide. But, missing the social activities of the city, he resigned from the Survey party and returned Government House as assistant to the Governor’s Private Secretary. He then joined his family in pastoral pursuits at Bungaree Station in the North of SA. He died in 1901.

In December 1838 Hawker was appointed to John McLaren’s survey party as fourth officer. His first task was to survey a road from the Horseshoe Bend at Noarlunga towards Yankalilla. The country was mostly scantily timbered, so he soon finished his portion of this road.

In 1839 Hawker was instructed to survey the road, one chain wide, from Horseshoe Bend through the McLaren Plains to Depot Creek at Willunga, where a police station and survey camp were being set up.

Initially the timber was mainly sheoak and easily cut down and hauled to the sides of the road. Then the line of road passed over about four miles of open land called Bay of Biscay ground, composed of little hillocks and indents like small waves of the sea. Further on, the heavy gum timber and fallen logs necessitated either deviating around the huge trees or removing them. As Hawker had no horses or bullocks, the latter course was impracticable

The problem was discussed with Captain Sturt, the Surveyor-General, when he inspected progress in September 1839. Sturt was reluctant for the road to deviate because it would lengthen the journey and would be unsafe for vehicles travelling in darkness. He suggested blasting the trees with gun-powder and the necessary supplies were sent to Hawker’s camp.

What followed next is best told in Hawker’s own words:

“After superintending the boring of the holes for the charges, and seeing the proper amount of gunpowder inserted, and the fuse made the proper time length, I entrusted the firing to a seaman named Howe, who had been a gunner in the Royal Navy. I took it for granted that the fuses had been properly tested before being sent to me from the Commissariat Store, but this had evidently been neglected, and in consequence Howe met with a painful accident, and I only escaped by an extraordinary coincidence from ending my career in a very summary manner. In Howe’s case, the charge exploded before he was a sufficient distance away, and he was the recipient of hundreds of small splinters in his chest and arms, fortunately none very deep, but they were extremely painful, and it was many days before the whole could be extracted by aid of forceps. He refused to go to town and his comrades did the surgical business for him.

Thinking that Howe had made some blunder in lighting the fuse to fire the charge, and as I knew I should be held responsible for any serious accident, I determined to light the fuses myself. A long and heavy gum log had to be removed – the largest we had as yet to operate on – and three heavy charges were inserted, nearly 2lb. of sporting gunpowder… I was very careful to cut the fuses a good length, so that I might have plenty of time to clear out, but my carefulness was unavailing. The mass of gum wood, fully half a ton in weight, was cleared out, and I remained, but before I had time to make the slightest attempt to move, the whole three charges exploded. I was in a sitting position and the huge block of wood passed so close to my head that my straw hat was sent yards into the air as well as the log. My hands were also considerably scorched. The concussion from the explosion must have tumbled me on to my back, or else it was the sudden blast of air as the log passed me, and which evidently blew my hat off.

I did not attempt any more blasting, but sent a report to the Surveyor-General, with some of the fuses supplied to me. These were tested and found to be so dangerous that the whole stock in store was condemned…”

Hawker was then instructed to clear as much timber as possible by hand and to saw large trees off about 3 feet above the ground. The grubbing of the butts and roots was to be left until proper appliances and time were available for this purpose.

What was left in the ground went by the name of ‘Hawker’s stumps’ until some years after they were removed. The road wound in and out of these stumps. Years later Hawker wrote:

“Many were the colonial blessings attached to my name for having left them. For bullock drivers, who occasionally in the dark made a smash of some part of the dray, there was excuse; but for the travellers who had imbibed at the one hotel in Willunga more than was necessary to carry them home, to complain that they were obliged to sleep under one of Hawker’s stumps because it was impossible to get past the others, there was certainly no justification. On a later visit to Willunga I was considerably chaffed. ‘Come and see your stumps, old boy!’. ‘I’ve got a bill against you for a smash of my trap, owing to your blessed stumps’. I never went again to Willunga until the stumps had disappeared.”


Source : James C. Hawker, Early Experiences in South Australia. E S Wigg & Son: Adelaide, 1899.

Contributed by Faye Lush

Willunga National Trust

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