Read his story
Scottish-born Walter Paterson (1811-1894) arrived in Adelaide with his young family in 1839. He farmed at ‘Greenbanks’ in Mount Barker with his business partner, Thomas Lambert, and later acquired ‘Yunkunga’ near Wistow. He purchased Nixon’s Mill at Windmill Hill in 1844 and operated the mill for nine years.
Paterson was an ingenious inventor and woodsmith and created all manner of farming implements and machinery. He made some useful improvements to the Ridley stripper, a South Australian-designed reaper and thresher that transformed the harvesting of wheat in the 1840s.
Paterson’s wife Helen, who died in died in childbirth in 1842, is memorialised by a sundial marks the site of her grave near Wellington Road.
Walter ‘Wattie’ Paterson (1811-1894) was born in Banffshire, Scotland. He arrived in Adelaide aboard the Resource in 1839 with his wife Helen (née McGregor, 1814-1842) and their three children, Elizabeth (5), Helen (3), and William (2). They went to Echunga, where Paterson worked as a carpenter for John Barton Hack. Their daughter Ann was born in Echunga in March 1840.
After about six months Paterson began to freelance as a builder, and in 1841 he formed a partnership with fellow Scot Thomas Lambert (1790-1870) to farm ‘Greenbanks,’ forty acres on the southern side of the road to Wistow, opposite the site of the modern-day hospital on Wellington Road. They planted wheat, which they paid in kind as rent to landowners John Finnis and William Dutton.
In the early 1840s the partners acquired land to the south-east of Mount Barker near Wistow. There Paterson built the substantial stone homestead ‘Yunkunga’ – named after the Permangk name for Mount Barker summit – which has recently been restored on Hender Road. In 1851 Paterson and Lambert dissolved their partnership, with Lambert taking ‘Greenbanks’ and another property called ‘Bungarula,’ and Paterson retaining the ‘Yunkunga’ estate, with its two-storey house and stone barn. Paterson’s older brother John (1809-1898) came out from Scotland to join him in 1848. John established ‘Greenhills’ at Wistow, where he farmed for the rest of his life.
Walter Paterson was one of the most well-known identities of early Mount Barker. His principal occupation was farming, but he had an innate flair for invention, and combined this with exceptional skills in carpentry and, in later life, blacksmithing. If he needed a special tool for a particular job he would simply design it and then create it.
He is credited with erecting the first house in the Mount Barker township, built for Duncan McFarlane, down the hill from where the Catholic Church now stands. He operated Nixon’s Mill, on Windmill Hill just off Mount Barker Road between Mount Barker and Hahndorf, for nine years between 1844 and 1853, during which time he also built some associated workers’ cottages and a sawmill. In the 1860s, Walter Paterson & Sons were “Manufacturers of reaping, threshing, and winnowing machines, ploughs, harrows, wagons, drays, spring carts, pagnells, buggies, tilburies, &c., farmhouse ovens, and all kinds of iron and brass castings.”
Since he seemed able to turn his hand to anything, Paterson’s reputation came to verge upon myth. In his obituary of 4 May 1894, the South Australian Register wrote:
In his spare time, between seeding and harvest, he built a threshing machine, the first in the colony. It was all of wood, even to the cog wheels, and for several years did its work well. He also built a bullock-dray, plough, harrows, and in fact made everything required on the farm, even a clock, all of wood, and took contracts to build houses for new settlers.
While Paterson’s ingenuity is not in doubt, one has to question the plausibility of the wooden clock.
The Register chose not to add the oft-repeated but dubious claim that flour from Paterson’s mill won a medal at the London Exhibition of 1851 (where Mount Barker farmers John Frame and Allan Bell earned gold medals for their grain), or the assertions that Paterson sowed the first wheat in the Mount Barker district and was among the first to make wine. The columnist did, however, indulge in some blatant overreach by claiming that “The deceased was for many years acknowledged to be the oldest resident in Mount Barker district and all districts east of Mount Lofty Ranges,” when even the prominent John Dunn, who died in the same year as Paterson, was nine years older.
An invention called the Ridley reaper, or Ridley stripper, is associated with Paterson’s legacy. In 1843 John Ridley (1806-1887), who had arrived in South Australia from Durham in 1840, was a miller dependent upon grain for flour production. The problem was that the infant colony’s population could not provide sufficient agricultural labour to harvest crops with the traditional method of sickle and scythe. In response, Ridley invented the world’s first machine capable of harvesting grain directly from a standing crop. The Ridley stripper, which was capable of both reaping and threshing grain, was an invention of international significance. It revolutionised the wheat industry, and in South Australia it also triggered the rapid expansion of associated industries such as flour milling and machinery manufacture, giving the colony an important economic boost in its critical early years.
Ridley had numerous collaborators in his work on the stripper, including John Dunn, who by his own account worked as an engineer for Ridley between 1842 and 1844. At the same time, there were several similar kinds of reapers and strippers under development in parallel. One such prototype was the brainchild of Mount Barker farmer John Wrathall Bull (1804-1886), who later complained that Ridley had imitated his concept. Walter Paterson was implicated in the controversy not only because he reportedly constructed a version of Bull’s design, but also because he made several acknowledged improvements to Ridley’s stripper. His principal change was to the way in which bullocks or hourses hauled the machinery, from pushing it from behind to pulling it from the leading edge. Paterson was wont to comment that Ridley may have built the first stripper, but he built “the first one that worked.” Given his reputation for mechanical genius, and the fact that, as the Register noted, he had already constructed an original threshing device, there were occasional outbreaks of speculation that he may have been the originating mind behind Ridley’s machine. In fact, however, Paterson only became aware of the Ridley stripper after John Dunn had brought one up to Mount Barker for a demonstration, and his improvements did not alter Ridley’s fundamental design.
An article published in 1952 implied that Paterson may have failed to insist upon proper recognition for improving the Ridley stripper because of his “modest, self-effacing” nature (Advertiser, 12 January 1952, p. 6). Whether or not this was meant ironically, the comment does not tally very well with what one can surmise about Paterson’s character. For a long time he was a member of the Strathalbyn and Mount Barker District Councils, and he was a founding member of Agricultural Society of Mount Barker. He was never shy about putting forward his opinions in the newspaper (especially in relation to farming matters), and it appears that he loved an audience. He was an enthusiastic amateur lecturer on the pseudoscience Phrenology, which involved the analysis of bumps on the skull to account for character and mental ability. His well-attended talks on this subject, which would often last more than two hours, would typically be rounded off with an invitation to the crowd to “come forward and have their heads examined.”
Walter Paterson lies alone in his grave. His marriage suffered no childhood mortalities and he had no unmarried children. His wife, Helen, was not interred with him because she had died giving birth to their son John (1842-1918) at the age of 28, not long after the family’s arrival at Mount Barker. Paterson was left with five children under the age of ten, but he never remarried, remaining a widower for fifty-two years.
Helen’s death occurred before any permanent public cemeteries had been established in the Mount Barker area. Paterson and Lambert marked out a twenty-foot-square burial plot at ‘Greenbanks’ and buried her there, on what is now a triangular reserve bordered by Hurling Drive, Wellington Road and Wattle Street. The only other person to be interred at the site was an infant child of Paterson’s friends, Jane and Alexander McDonald.
In 1936 a memorial sundial was erected at the site of Helen’s grave by her descendants. It was designed by Diana Paterson, granddaughter of Helen and Walter. Still standing, it consists of a stone column incorporating two cog wheels salvaged from a stripping machine built by Paterson, perpetuating his reputational association with Ridley. A matching sundial monument was erected at Wistow at the same time, honouring the pioneers of the area.
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