Court House and Police Station, 61 High St, Willunga

Willunga was established in 1839 as the new half-way town between Adelaide and Encounter Bay, with a fortnightly mail service provided by the police.   A survey camp, or depot, was set up in mid-1839 near the creek at Willunga to provide facilities for survey staff, police officers and prospective settlers. Three huts were built by Mr. Davis to serve as police station, survey store and post office, as shown in the 1840 sketch by the Surveyor General Capt. Edward Charles Frome on one of his visits to the new settlement.

Farming land had been surveyed and was first offered for sale in October 1839. Willunga township allotments were made available for selection in December 1939, when the Bush Inn had opened.   Across the creek from the Depot on the hill with views to the sea, a wooden cottage had been erected by 1839, known locally as Governor Gawler’s Government House, or the Government Hut. Lady Franklin, wife of the Governor of Tasmania, who stayed here overnight on 31 December 1840 (New Year’s Eve), described it as a ‘Government hut of two rooms, dividing partition not to ceiling, and a brick chimney to one room, brass handles to doors – earthen floors”.   The present Police Station and Court House was built in stages from 1855 to 1872, with major additions, including the cells and stables, being constructed in 1864 by contractor John Wadham.

The new building was initially used as a temporary female immigration depot. An unexpected influx of Irish immigrant women arriving in the Colony caused an accommodation crisis in Adelaide’s immigration depot. So, at least forty young Irish women were sent to Willunga in July 1855, accompanied by a Matron, to live in the new Police building and hopefully find work in the district. The Depot was short-lived and provoked a serious dispute involving the Chairman of Willunga District Council, the Matron and the local Catholic priest. The Depot was closed after six months. (Willunga’s Irish Immigrant Women’s Depot is available for purchase from the Willunga Branch, NTSA)

Finally, in January 1856, the police moved into their new building, and normal law and order activities commenced. Magistrates visited monthly from Port Adelaide. They found the new courtroom much preferable to the rowdy sessions previously held in the local hotel. Court cases presented for judgment ranged from minor offences (drunkenness, assault, straying cattle, child maintenance) to the occasional more serious charge of murder.   Aboriginal people displaced from Adelaide were accommodated here and provided with supplies for a few years from 1858 to 1860.   In 1929, after over seventy years, the police station and courthouse closed to be replaced by a new police station built on Main Road, Willunga.   The police station was leased out to various tenants but, at times, was left vacant and neglected. Under threat of demolition, the dilapidated complex was restored by the National Trust in 1969, and the Court House Museum was opened to the public in February 1970. The Willunga Slate Museum opened in 2005.

Mounted Constable Otto Koch, his wife Meta and five children lived at Willunga Police Station in 1923 and 1924. Otto and Meta’s daughter Ira, who was seven at the time, remembers, “It was a children’s paradise. The area by the creek bank was covered in golden wattle and the path down which the bay police horse, Robe, was brought to the creek to drink was a narrow tunnel through the green.  When there were no prisoners in the cells, the courtyard was a perfect playground for the children, sunny and private.  The creek was also a favourite playing spot. The children used to seize hold of a handful of willow fronds and swing out over the creek and back. In those days, the creek was a deep, wide-flowing stream.  The station was already an old building in the twenties; one night, part of a wall fell in, waking the family but causing no other harm.

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