Vivian Lewis in Karoonda, 1913 - 1919

With his withdrawal from Vivian Lewis Limited in 1913, Vivian Lewis began a more private part of his life. Although he maintained a home in Unley, we learn from his obituary a little about his life in Karoonda, a newly formed settlement in the Mallee district, some 150 km east of Adelaide:

For many years the health of the deceased caused him great suffering, and on that account six years ago [in 1913] he was compelled, without withdrawing all his interests, to relinquish the management to the present managing director (Mr. H. B. Crosby, M.P.). It was thought and expected that a change of occupation would prove beneficial to his health, so he took up new country in the mallee, near Karoonda, and had a nice farm, known as Runnymede Park, and in the short time allotted to him while there he did what he could to make the lot of the early settlers and pioneers happier in the district, formed road-making working bees, and started the Mechanics' Institute, which to-day stands as a monument to his industry and generosity.

The claim that Vivian Lewis "started" the Mechanics' Institute at Karoonda is an interesting one, particularly as the building itself, still standing in Karoonda, bears no record of this. Luckily there is a document trail to lead us...

The State Library of South Australia holds a marvellous photograph (B 26031) in its collection. Captioned as "Institute at Karoonda, 1914", it in fact shows the opening of the Institute on 12 August 1914 by Vivian Lewis.

How do we know? An almost identical photograph captioned "Opening of the Institute on August 12", obviously taken by the same photographer within minutes of the State Library photograph, appears in the Chronicle, September 5, 1914 as part of a series of three photographs under the banner "Progressive Karoonda". Together with the other photographs showing “A view of the township” and the “the Railway refreshment room”, we get a glimpse of Karoonda as a pioneer settlement beginning to make its mark in the harsh Mallee landscape. The Adelaide papers of the day gave the opening of the Institute coverage, with both the Advertiser of August 17 and the Chronicle of August 22 carrying this report:

KAROONDA August 12 - The opening of the Institute Hall took place to-day. Mr. Vivian Lewis, of Unley, addressed a large gathering, and spoke in appreciative terms of the building committee. He then turned the key and declared the institute open. Others who spoke were Messrs. W.J. Hockridge and H. Hart (president and vice-president of the Progress Association), R. O'Connor (of Lameroo), W. Mitchell (of Geranium), and C.L. Bruce. Tea was served in the institute. A concert was held in the evening, when the building was crowded. Those who contributed to the programme were:- Misses Mitchell, Beckman, Hockridge, Perriam, Messrs. G. Goudie, W. Canny, Mitchell, E. Mayne, H.E. Matthews, Funel, and M. Canny. An interesting farce concluded the programme. A dance followed. The proceeds amounted to 26.

Although Alan Jones' comprehensive Karoonda East Murray: a history to 1986 (written no doubt to celebrate 75 years of Karoonda) seems not mention Vivian Lewis in relation to the foundation of the Karoonda Institute, Laurence Neaylon's earlier but little-known book History of Karoonda and district 1911-1961 does make the connection. It reproduces the above photograph with the caption "Official opening of the Karoonda Institute by Mr. Vivian Lewis, 12th August 1914" and adds the following information:

Original cost of the hall was in the vicinity of  300, of which Mr. Vivian Lewis lent the Committee  200, so that the building could be erected, and later in his Will forgave  100 of this loan, provided a fence were erected in front of the Institute. This request was fulfilled in 1919 [the year of Lewis' death]

The source of Neaylon's information is not known, but, writing in 1961, it may well have been word of mouth. Vivian's grandson Peter Lewis has confirmed that Vivian's Will was changed - the day before he died at his Unley house "Karoonda" - to forgive the outstanding amount owing by the people of Karoonda.

So it is certain that Vivian Lewis played a major part in the founding of the Institute at Karoonda, at least so far as the financing of it was concerned. But was Lewis the driver who initiated the idea of the Institute? With the limited information available, it's hard to say. Additional information would be welcome.

Beyond the Institute, Vivian Lewis' "built" legacy lives on in the Karoonda district, as the stone homestead at Runnymede park is still standing although no longer associated with the Lewis family. After Vivian's death in 1919, the farm, valued at 11,000, was passed to his son Rupert Percy (Percy) Lewis who ran the land for some years before moving on to another property north of Adelaide. There is also a less-tangible but arguably more interesting remnant: local oral history has it that road metal can still be found between Runnymede and Karoonda which dates from Lewis' efforts at improving roads in the area.

Less is known about the Lewis family involvement in the township of Karoonda. In July 1915, Lewis snapped five quarter-acre blocks of land in "downtown" Karoonda for the bargain basement sum of 5-5-0 each. Two were bought for himself ("Farmer, Unley"), two in the name of his son Percy (who, at age 17 1/2, was listed as "Farmer, Karoonda") and one in the name of his daughter Elsie. In the first release of town land in 1913, the highest price paid for a quarter acre block was 57 pounds, so Lewis new a bargain when he saw one! It is doubtful whether any member of the Lewis family ever lived in the township.

While researching the Lewis involvement at Karoonda, an interesting possibility arose. Walter Torode, noted Adelaide master builder, had long been involved with Lewis motorcycles, and had worked on alterations and extensions to the Lewis premises on Gawler Place South in 1910. Torode's stone quarry at Burdett on the river Murray is only 50 km west of Karoonda, on what is now called Karoonda Road. Could Torode have been involved with Vivian Lewis's building projects in Karoonda? It seems not: local knowledge suggests that the stone for buildings in Karoonda was sourced locally, and there is no reference to projects at Karoonda in Torode's archive held at the State Library of South Australia. Still, if Vivian Lewis "built" the Institute it may just be that he called in favours...

This part of my research is not complete, and I hope to find out more about Vivian Lewis in his time at Karoonda. How much of his time was spent in Karoonda? Was Runnymede Park productive in his time there? Who else was living and working on the property? Did Vivian use a motor car while he was in Karoonda? Was "Runnymede Park" named after the hamlet/locality of Runnymede in the Bendigo/Elmore/Heathcote region of Victoria, where Vivian and wife Margaret (nee Sangster) lived before coming to South Australia in the early 1890s? If so, why? Over to you!

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