Archibald Little

Archibald Little (1812-1903) emigrated to South Australia in 1839. He and his wife moved to Echunga before settling in Mount Barker, where they spent their lives farming. The family is known to historians for a surviving letter that Archibald wrote to his relatives in England, recording his experience of emigration. Other members of his extended family also entered the annals of early Australian history, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Read his story

Archibald Little (1812-1903) emigrated to South Australia in 1839. He and his wife moved to Echunga before settling in Mount Barker, where they spent their lives farming.

The family is known to historians for a surviving letter that Archibald wrote to his relatives in England, recording his experience of emigration. Other members of his extended family also entered the annals of early Australian history, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Archibald Little features in the historical record chiefly thanks to a letter that he wrote to relatives in Scotland at the end of August, 1840, eight months after arriving in Adelaide with his family.

Archibald and his wife Mary (née Rae, 1815-1877) emigrated on the Delhi with a family group including their infant daughter Isabel, who died at sea. Archibald and Mary found their way to Echunga to work at John Barton Hack’s dairy farm, where their new baby John was born. Their time there overlapped with that of Walter and Helen Paterson, who had emigrated eleven months earlier (see Walter Paterson History Post).

Archibald’s letter, written to William and Margaret Rutherford (tenant farmers at Roxburgh, Scotland), offers a first-hand account of the immigrant experience in the early years of European settlement. The letter is now held in the State Library of South Australia and a transcript is available online at

With minor changes in spelling and formatting, it reads in part:

Dairy Creek, Hack’s Station 30th August 1840

Dear Sir

I have been so long in writing home that I am almost ashamed to begin. I have always been so busy or so lazy that I could scarcely find time. We had a fine passage out, but had the misfortune to lose our child, the long passage proved fatal to the greater part of young children. . . .

When we landed it was the heat of summer. Everything in the plains was burnt up, what we thought looked so well at a distance on approaching was but a barren desert. It will cast a damp on the spirits of the most sanguine; many arriving at this season of the year never go farther than the Port, others the length of Adelaide, and set sail the first chance for home again. The plains is beautiful in winter, a great part of it good land especially near the bottom of the hills, and is capable of growing almost any grain, but the crops are often injured by hot winds and droughts. The best land on the East is after getting over the mountains and through the Stringy Bark Forest. Almost all the Country except the plains is encumbered with wood; round about Mount Barker there is more open ground than any part I have seen, there is hundreds of acres with scarcely a Tree on it of excellent land and well watered. . . .

I am anxious to hear how all our friend and acquaintance are getting on, give our compliments to all our friends . . . tell Margaret that we have a little boy since we came here, now four months old.

I would not advise any one to come out because they might blame [me] if they did not succeed as well as they wished, but there are far better chances here than at home and an industrious steady man seldom fails to make himself better. If our father intends coming out he should try and get a situation as manager to some coming out, as there is some difficulty sometimes in getting a good place, but if he cannot get that, I have no doubt but he would be better here than at home. . . . We are all now enjoying good health I hope you will be all enjoying the same blessing.

I remain Yours truly, Archd Little

While acknowledging the high rate of infant mortality at the time, the matter-of-fact way in which the letter deals with the shipboard death of 17-month-old Isabel is nevertheless jarring to a modern sensibility; one wonders what Mary might have had to say about it. It is certainly true that the voyage took a disproportionate toll on the young. Out of 167 passengers who left Liverpool, at least ten young children and infants died en route. Yet Archibald clearly remains confident that, despite their loss and the many hurdles they face, he and Mary have made right choice for the future of their family by making the trip.

When he writes “If our father intends coming out . . .” Archibald may be referring to Mary’s father, Peter Rae (1785-1851), since both his own parents, farmer John Archibald Little (1772-1853) and Janet Little (née Crozier, 1783-1855) were with him aboard the Delhi. In total there were six Littles on the ship, including Isabel and Archibald’s brother William Little (1814-1850). It is often difficult, however, to gauge the size of a family group from the surnames listed in the ship’s manifest. It was common for larger interrelated groupings to travel together, and in this case there were strong kinship and cultural ties between the Littles, the Rae family (also spelt Rea), the Scandretts, the Olivers and the Croziers, amounting to nearly twenty people – including six children – who made the journey together. There were several further marriages between members of this interrelated group after their arrival in South Australia, including the marriage of Archibald’s brother William Little to Jane Scandrett.

Some of the party went to McLaren Vale and Willunga, but Archibald remained focused on the Hills, and in about 1840 he purchased two sections of land along the Wistow road at Mount Barker (part of Section 4464, Hundred of Macclesfield), where he was joined by his parents. He named the farm ‘Glenlee,’ and, apart from a brief and unsuccessful foray to the goldfields back at Echunga, he remained based at the property for the rest of his life. This property is now the location of ‘Glen Lea’ housing estate.

Archibald and Mary had five children including Isabella: two daughters and three sons. Mary died in 1877 aged 62, but Archibald lived to the uncommon age of 91. He lived a quiet life, as recorded in the Courier on 14 August 1903:

The late Mr. Little, aside from sitting as a district councillor in 1855 and (with his son John) being one of the members of the first Mount Barker Volunteer Corps, never took a very active part in public matters, but rather confined himself to the management of his homestead. For many years he regularly attended the Mount Barker Presbyterian Church, and it was with reluctance that, his hearing becoming defective, he had some years ago to discontinue attending the services. Happily, good eyesight and a clear intellect remained with the nonagenarian right up to the end.

Archibald and Mary’s gravestone in the Mount Barker Cemetery additionally commemorates their eldest son John Little, who had lived in the Mid North but returned to farm ‘Glenlee’ after his father’s death. It also features daughter Janet Little, who was unmarried and spent most of her life at ‘Glenlee.’ Finally, there is granddaughter Bessie May Rae Scott, the adult daughter of youngest son James (James had died, aged 45, in Broken Hill in 1892 of “inflammation of the lungs”). Middle son, Andrew Little, married Margaret Hall (daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth – see Thomas and Elizabeth Hall History Post) and was a farmer at Monarto.

The career of Archibald’s brother William Little was markedly different from that of the rest of the family. Prior to emigration he had been a bank clerk in Scotland, and like his relatives he took up farming upon his arrival in South Australia, but he was of an irrepressible scientific bent and possessed an uncanny knack for instrument-making and invention. According to the South Australian of 7 May 1850:

[H]is leisure time was devoted to the study of different branches of natural philosophy, especially optics. With an industry and perseverance that no want of resources could suppress, he proceeded to form tools for the work he desired from time to time to execute; and as one proof of his perseverance and ability, completed a reflecting telescope of sufficient power and accuracy to define with the greatest distinctness, the satellites of Jupiter. To effect this, he ground all the glasses himself, cast the mould for the specula, compounded his own speculum metal, and ground and polished them with tools of his own manufacture. He constructed also several microscopes; and we have seen a garnet lens of his grinding, of not more than a twentieth of an inch focus, combining the utmost correctness with good penetrating power.

By the end of the 1840s William’s star was well and truly on the rise: he had prominent job with the Yatala Smelting Company, a North Terrace address, and an expanding family. Tragically he drowned in May 1850, aged 36, in the wreck of the cutter Jane Flaxman in the St Vincent Gulf, while on a work-related voyage to the Yorke Peninsula. All thirteen men on board perished. William Little was remembered in the newspapers as a good man of “ability, integrity, and unwearied industry,” and his death was described as a “colonial loss.”

Meanwhile back in Scotland, if Archibald Little had hoped to encourage his correspondent William Rutherford to emigrate to the antipodes this never eventuated, not least because Margaret Rutherford died in 1847 aged 38, leaving William with five young children to raise. He remained a tenant farmer and miller on thirty acres at Ferniehirst Mill, Jedburgh until his death in 1881 at the age of 78. None of his children emigrated, with the possible exception of the eldest girl Isabella who, according to one account, may have been given assisted passage to Tasmania by the Launceston Immigration Aid Society in 1857.

It is worth noting that it was a different story on Margaret’s side of the Rutherford family. All three of her brothers emigrated: Thomas (1811-1889) went to Tasmania in 1842, three years later moving to Victoria, while Adam (1816-1881) and John (1817-1883) both went to Victoria in 1853. Adam and John both lived conventional lives, but Thomas had a startling career as a magician, puppeteer, gunsmith, inventor, passionate hot-air balloon enthusiast, and a ‘Ventriloquist, Mimic, Performer of Mechanical Figures, Deceptions etc.’ A full account of his exploits as ‘Professor Rea,’ in a career that was later mired in scandal and disgrace, can be found at

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