In January 1839 a fire destroyed the Land Office. In another fire, the private residence and buildings belonging to the colonial commissioner, J.H. Fisher, and the Survey Office and residence of the surveyor general, Colonel Light, were destroyed.
The fire hastened the building of new premises on Town Acre 236 in Victoria Square, which had already been reserved for the erection of public offices and were designed by civil engineer, George Strickland Kingston. On September 18, 1839, the South Australian reported the public offices would be “in the form of an oblong, with a court in the centre, and are intended to accommodate the Colonial Secretary, the Colonial Treasurer, Accountant General, Land Office, Survey Office, etc”. The plan of the interior was considered to be excellent, although regrettably only one storey high: “Such an important building should be erected for ornament as well as use, and should be built in a style that would give it a proud eminence over other buildings for the next hundred years.”
In fact, most of the building was demolished in stages to make way for the two- and three-storey additions that were built between 1858 and 1907. Before then, however, the public offices became the centre of activity during the height of the goldrush in 1852. Here the overland armed gold escorts from Mount Alexander, Victoria, ended their journey. The first two arrivals of the gold escorts in Adelaide were festive occasions as crowds of spectators turned out to watch James Chambers driving his convoy through the town streets towards the Treasury at a mad gallop. Pulling up outside the southern entrance, the treasure boxes were then taken to the strong vaults of the Treasury.
The Treasury vaults were built in November 1850. In the vaults today there is still a brick furnace and a well (re-sunk in 1852), the furnace probably being used to smelt gold before the rush. Rapid preparations were made to receive gold brought in or sent back from the diggings by South Australians, an influx that was to help set the province back on its feet financially.
As an incentive to send gold to Adelaide, the Gold Bullion Act No. 1 of 1852 provided for the assaying of “uncooked” gold and the fixing of a price per ounce far higher than in the eastern colonies. As a further incentive ,the commissioner of police, Alexander Tolmer, organised a system of armed escorts to convey parcels of gold dust from the diggings to Adelaide.
Benjamin Herschel Babbage was appointed South Australia’s mineralogical and geological surveyor in 1851 at the same time as alluvial gold was discovered at Ballarat and Mount Alexander. Also appointed as government assayer, he and his staff of 10 soon found they could not keep up with the amount of gold being brought in. It rose from 5199 ounces in March 1852 to 43,944 ounces in November, after which volumes slowly declined. Babbage’s staff was increased and several additional furnaces and new rooms were built (none of them survive). Each parcel of gold was weighed, assayed, smelted and transferred as ingots to the depositor’s bank, where they could be exchanged for notes. The Assay Office closed in February 1853.
In 1857 major redevelopment started at the government offices. The original 1839 building was demolished in stages as the additions were built. However, part of a wall and an arched window of the 1839 building remains as an interior wall in the 1867 additions, which were part of the south-east front of the original building. The stone wall and surround to the arched window are in Kingston’s style and appear in an architectural plan of 1857.
Other features of the original building remaining are the vaults, furnace and well lying north-south under the 1867 eastern additions, and the courtyard.
When James Milton was appointed keeper at the original government offices in 1840 he started the gardens in the courtyard. Dubbed “Milton's Paradise”, they were in his care for 40 years. His successor, Samuel Benson, maintained this “most delightful miniature garden”, which then became known as “Benson’s Quadrangle”. A fountain was later built there.
In January 1857 colonial architect Edward Angus Hamilton forwarded to the chief secretary designs for additions to the government offices. The new building was to be constructed alongside the original building on the north-west wing fronting King William Street as survey and public works offices. Two storeys high, it would be stuccoed on the outside.
When new registry offices for the south-west corner of the old government offices were proposed in 1858, Hamilton used the same design as the north-west addition. When building began the first stage of demolition of the 1839 building commenced.
Charles Farr’s tender was accepted and the Registry Office was built by 1860. Plans were drawn up in 1858 or 1859 to connect the north-west wing and the south-west wing by a two-storey building. Later a further storey was proposed. These designs were probably prepared by Hamilton before he retired as colonial architect in 1860. The two-storey section was built by a Mr Lines. The extra work did not go ahead until 1865, when the contract was awarded to E. Selway.
In 1866 Crocker and Lawson tendered and constructed the south-eastern wing of the government offices. Two storeys high, it continued in the style of the north-west and south- west sections designed by Hamilton. Hamilton’s design was used by the next colonial architect, William Hanson. During construction the entire east wing of the 1839 building was demolished, except for part of the south wall retained as an interior wall.
From the outside the 1866-67 wing looked like two separate buildings with separate roofs. The facade on Flinders Street matches those of the south-west wing and north-west wing, but the styles of the windows on the east side facing Pilgrim Church vary so as to blend in with the styles of the existing windows of the other buildings.
In 1874 Crocker and Pitman built a three-storey building on the remaining part of the original building on the centre south of the complex. This was finished in March 1876, and accommodated the governor and the chief secretary’s department. The style was similar to the three-storey wing facing King William Street designed by Hamilton.
The first Executive Council meeting in this building was held in the Cabinet Room soon after the completion date. The Cabinet Room was then used by government ministers until November 1968.
The last wing to be built had three storeys and a basement. It was designed by Charles Edward Owen Smyth and carried out in 1907. It provided printing rooms in the basement for the photo-lithographics department, rooms for the Audit Office, the Commissioner of Crown Lands and the surveyor-general’s department, the attorney-general’s department, the photographer, and dwelling rooms for the caretaker.
This building completed the complex on all sides of the internal courtyard. In all, counting the original 1839 building, the Treasury buildings were built in seven major sections. There were also additions in 1852 and 1858, including stables, cart shed and smelting rooms that now no longer exist.
Probably the most dramatic events connected with these buildings occurred at times of great social unrest when unemployed workers marched in protest to the state premier. They included an “invasion” of a meeting of the Executive Council by a delegation on August 21, 1925, and the “Beef Riot” of January 10,1931. The riot occurred during the depths of the Depression and was triggered when the government excluded beef from two ration tickets assigned to the unemployed. Supported by local communist organisers, a huge procession of men, women and children marched from Port Adelaide. As they advanced their numbers increased, but they were met by a phalanx of mounted police who charged the crowd outside the Treasury buildings. Adelaide society was stirred as never before by such violent class conflict, the Register News Pictorial reporting “Fierce conflict outside Treasury buildings. Iron bars, stones and pick-handles used ... Policeman’s jaw fractured, many heads broken.”
The premier watched the battle from an office window. Some of the protesters took refuge in the GPO opposite and many ended up in court.