Archaeologist Uncovers a Very Irish Settlement in South Australia


Just outside the town of Kapunda in South Australia lies an area of farmland called Baker’s Flat. For ninety years or so, this field was home to a community of Irish famine emigrants. They had been almost completely forgotten until an Irish archaeologist started digging around.

By Elaine Kavanagh.  

The story of Baker’s Flat is a fascinating tale. It features a group of Irish famine survivors who, against all odds, established a thriving settlement in a strange land. The Flatters, as they came to be called, were squatters who stuck together in the face of ongoing eviction attempts; they were outsiders whose traditional way of life earned them a bad reputation in town.

Since 2012, Irish archaeologist Susan Arthure has been piecing this story together. Recently, she uncovered evidence that reveals much about how these Irish famine migrants and their descendants lived – and may even help us understand why they were looked down upon by the wider community.

Irish Famine Migrants

The town of Kapunda sprang up after the discovery of copper in 1842 led to the opening of a mine. During the mine’s early years, settlers arrived from England, Wales, Cornwall, Germany and Ireland. The English, arriving first with money to invest, established themselves in the town. Welsh and Cornish miners followed, finding their skills in demand at the mine. The Germans took up farms outside of town.

Irish migrants, fleeing the famine, began to arrive from around 1854, but they chose not to settle in the town. Instead, they opted for the vacant land at Baker’s Flat which was rent-free and close to the mine. Here they built houses and stocked the land with cattle, goats and poultry. The men mostly worked as labourers at the mine; the women looked after the land and animals.

Aerial view of the Baker's Flat excavation sites where the Irish famine migrants settled

A bird’s eye view of the Baker’s Flat excavation sites

There aren’t many historical accounts of the Flatters but the few existing records paint a picture of a community labelled with the standard nineteenth century Irish stereotypes. According to Susan, the Flatters were looked down on because of their rent-free occupation of the land, their refusal to leave and the apparent chaos of their lifestyles.

A Method to the Madness

Susan’s latest discovery has shed new light on the lifestyles that set the Flatters apart in the eyes of the townsfolk. She and her colleagues have discovered the remains of a uniquely Irish settlement called a clachan buried under the ground at Baker’s Flat.

Clachans were a type of settlement common among the Irish before famine devastated the countryside. A clachan was like a village without pub, shop, school or church; its defining feature was shared management of the land. Homes and farm buildings were typically clustered together in a disorganised way, with farmland being controlled jointly. It was an effective way for small landowners to make ends meet.

“To the outsider observing Baker’s Flat, the settlement would have appeared disordered and almost impossible to read or understand,” says Susan. “However, the archaeology reveals that it wasn’t all chaos and dirt at Baker’s Flat, that there was order. And this order took the particular form of the clachan.”

A Misunderstood Community

In Susan’s opinion, the Baker’s Flat settlers didn’t deserve their bad reputation. They probably weren’t so different from the townsfolk; after all, their children went to school and most of the men worked in the mines. Plus, an analysis of glass, ceramic and bone artefacts found at the site indicates that they used the same implements as the wider community.

“What is different at Baker’s Flat” says Susan, “is the way they chose to live: building houses in the Irish tradition, living close together and making decisions jointly. And this is what led, in my opinion, to the dominant narrative of the community being chaotic, haphazard, dirty, rebellious.”

Susan thinks it’s important to remember that the first generation of Irish migrants left a homeland devastated by famine. “It’s possible that what they saw or experienced at home influenced how they lived,” she says. “There are many reports in the newspapers of the day about drunkenness on Baker’s Flat and I wonder if this was a way for those people to deal with past trauma and the difficulties of carving out a new life in a very different country.”

Susan Arthure walking the land at Baker's Flat

Susan Arthure in action

A Forgotten History

So, what drew Susan’s attention to Baker’s Flat? Back in 2012, when she was starting work on her Masters in Archaeology, a colleague at her university told her there had once been a large Irish community near Kapunda that was now forgotten. That was the start of it for Susan. With great support from the landowner and local community, she began walking the land and researching the history.

Since then, Susan has led two excavations at the site, one in 2016 and the second in 2017. She’s currently doing her PhD at Adelaide’s Flinders University, where fortunately, lots of archaeology students are willing to help on digs. After the last excavation, Susan worked with eight students for almost a year cataloguing and analysing the findings. Only then could they fully understand the artefacts they had excavated.

South Australia is often dismissed as the least Irish of the Australian states, and Susan was determined to shed new light on the Irish of colonial South Australia. She thinks that being Irish helped her to see what others missed – that there was more to this site than a group of people living close together.

More Clachans Down Under

The Baker’s Flat clachan is the first of its kind in Australia, but Susan thinks there could be more. “The critical thing here was access to land,” she says. “On Baker’s Flat, the Irish controlled a large section of land, something which eluded those who settled in the cities. It’s also likely that many of them knew each other, either from old family connections, friendships made on the voyage over, or relationships established on arrival.

“They were also leaving Ireland at a time when the clachan way of living was very common and familiar. So, for that generation of migrants, if they had access to enough land as a group, I think it’s very possible that they would have built other clachans in rural Australia. We just haven’t found them yet!”

Archaeologists working on site at the Baker's Flat dig

Some of the archaeology students at work

A Very Irish Settlement

Now that Baker’s Flat is revealing its secrets, perhaps it will inspire a search for other clachans. But whether more are discovered or not, the story Susan has uncovered is certainly an interesting one. Baker’s Flat was a thriving community, home to around five hundred people during the mining years. “Even after the mine closed in 1879, the Flatters didn’t leave,” says Susan. “They stayed because, by then, they had established a strong, vibrant and very Irish settlement.”

The site even included a “dance floor” of sorts, a place where the Flatters gathered to socialise. In 1936 it was described as “hard as cement from the thousands of feet that gaily kept the time to the piper’s or fiddler’s tune.” Later, an oral history recalled that it was a “hard patch of earth, and fires kept going to liven the scene.”

Eviction Battles

According to Susan, the Flatters’ occupation of the land appeared to have been sanctioned by the landowners at first. However, from about 1875 eviction attempts began in earnest. “Over the next thirty years the Irish worked together consistently and collaboratively to repel invasions by surveyors, fencers and bailiffs, and to fight their cause through the courts. The result was an Irish settlement that was seen as set apart from the broader Kapunda community, that was marked by social closure to anybody identified as an outsider and that was defended assertively.”

The Kapunda Herald tells of one such eviction attempt in 1880. One morning, three men arrived at Baker’s Flat, tools in hand, ready to erect a fence on the site. They were met by scores of “wives and mothers, who turned out to drive off the would-be despoilers of their hearths and homes” armed with brooms, sticks and shovels.

The men set about their work, despite threats from the women. They dug a hole for the first post and had moved onto the second, when suddenly a Mrs Callaghan sat herself into the hole, declaring “you will have to sink a hole through my body before you sink a hole in the ground.” At this point, the men decided to retreat “leaving the fair army in triumphant possession of the field.” They later said they were very glad to get safely home.

A run-down traditional Irish cottage with tatched roof

The Flatters built their houses in the traditional Irish style. Image Mary Bettini Blank on Pixabay.

Strength in Numbers

Other historical records lay testament to the strength of the collective. Six affidavits taken in 1893 record that the occupiers were offered the land “on reasonable terms” but all refused. One man, Thomas Jordan, stated that the occupiers “had already held two meetings to consider their position” and that “unless they could run their cattle on the whole of the said section they could not live there and until they were forced to leave they had all determined to remain.”

Another occupier, Michael O’Brien, said “it is no use my buying the land because if I did the others would go against me” and that any person who did buy the land “would not be allowed by the other occupants … to live there.”

Baker’s Flat continued to operate until at least the 1920s, when only a handful of people remained on the site. So, where did these people go? “There are some people living in the area and many more in the cities and rural towns around South Australia that could be descendants of the Baker’s Flat families,” says Susan. “I think there’s a good chance that for anybody of Irish descent living in South Australia today, if the first of their family arrived in the latter half of the nineteenth century, they could have spent some time on Baker’s Flat.”

The presumed last resident of Baker’s Flat, Miss Annie O’Callahan, died in 1948. Within a few years all the buildings had been knocked down. Today it appears to be just an ordinary field. And were it not for Susan’s dedication and hard work, this fascinating history would still be lost to us.

Find out more about Susan’s work at Baker’s Flat at her wonderfully named blog, which features stories about the lives of the Flatters.

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