A safe haven for bushrangers
The unmarked border area between the colonies of NSW and South Australia and later Victoria was a lawless area and safe haven for bushrangers and criminals. A Gold Escort passing through the disputed country made the area even more appealing.
The border looked good on paper
The South Australian border must have looked neat when it was drawn at longitude 141 degrees on the map in London. The reality was very different. With no physical markers like mountains or rivers to mark the boundary of the colonies, police could not enforce law and order as they could not claim with any surety that they were in the correct state.
A few seconds made all the difference
The government was forced to act. After four years of dogged perseverance, toil and extreme hardship the border was surveyed and marked. Calculating the position of the 141st parallel was done using a chronometer (a very accurate timepiece). The calculations are relatively simple but depend on the chronometer being extremely accurate. An error of a few seconds placed the border approximately three kilometres west of the 141st parallel.
South Australia cheated
South Australia felt cheated and bullied by the wealthier golden colony of Victoria. They had lost much of their man-power to the goldfields, the colony was in drought and now Victoria has stolen a three kilometre stretch of land running from Nelson to the Murray River.
Bitter border legal battle ends up in London.
Decades of political bickering followed by a bitter legal battle through the Australian high court, saw the matter before the Privy Council in London. The Privy Council ruled against South Australia. The border would stay as marked.
But where exactly is the border?
In the days when communications took months, The Privy Council London was unaware at the time of their ruling bushfires had destroyed many of the marker posts and blazed trees leaving no evidence of the marked border. In 2021 some 250 kilometres of the state border remains legally undetermined. The full story of this 150 year battle can be found in the book The Disputed Country.
The railway station and customs house at Serviceton was in the disputed country and travellers often refused to pay tariffs. The argument was that because it was uncertain which colony the station was in, it was illegal to collect tariffs. Local tales are told of bushrangers and criminals using the disputed country to avoid capture, knowing that the colonies had no jurisdiction in the area.
A bushranging career begins
Donald Short took up an area of 32,000 acres in the Disputed Country just north of present day Serviceton and named it Cove Run. Ironically, Short thought he had taken up land in South Australia but it was later found to be part of Victoria. Among the men Short employed was a flash, swarthy young bush-rider going by the name of Daniel Morgan, nicknamed Bill the Spaniard. Morgan was sacked by Short and in retaliation, vandalised the station store, stole a horse, saddle and bridle and took off along the disputed country towards the Murray River.
Capture at gunpoint
Short, assisted by a native tracker rode after Morgan and captured him at gunpoint on the banks of the Murray River. As Short went to dismount, Morgan shot him through the knee, permanently maiming the squatter and allowing Morgan to escape.
Returning to the scene of the crime
Donald Swan took up Cove Run in 1854 . Unfortunately, Swan was unaware that the well-sinker he engaged was the notorious Dan Morgan. The bushranger again robbed the station, left Swan tied up all night and escaped on a stolen horse.
Bill’s Gully, a bushranger’s hideout
Morgan then set up camp in a small gully where he continued his bushranging ways. For the most part Morgan was a loner, but occasionally would team up with other bushrangers and criminals. Bills Gully is located to the south east of Kaniva and is now a peaceful camping area with an old country hall. Camping fees apply.
Wells poisoned to stop the Gold Escort
A common tale is told of the poisoning of wells through the desert part of the Gold Escort. The most well-known poisoning of Little Desert wells is Jimmy Matthews Spring, also known as Matthews Well or Poison Well. Matthews Spring is located on the northern side of the Little Desert south of Kiata. The spring provided water for the travelling public in the 1850s. It was allegedly poisoned by bushrangers when the Gold Escort came through in 1852. Legend has it that Tolmer allowed his dog to drink from the spring first. After some time, the horses drank and then the men. (Jimmy Matthews was a wild dog trapper who lived near the spring in the 1920s).
The well on Winiam station, used by the Gold Escort was also allegedly poisoned. The Gold Escort was tipped off and bypassed the well. It is not known if Dan Morgan was involved in either event.
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