The woman likely to become Australia’s first saint, Mary MacKillop is just one of many notable figures that make South Australia’s historic Penola special.

Story By Ian Glover

Country towns are drawn to emphasise their association with historical characters. Gulgong, NSW, relishes its link with literary figure Henry Lawson; Glenrowan, Vic, is famous as the site of bushranger Ned Kelly’s last stand; and Bunbury, WA, proclaims its connection to eminent explorer and later politician John Forrest.
The South Australian town of Penola, however, has a list of local luminaries that puts most others in the shade. Adam Lindsay Gordon, the celebrated bush poet, was first stationed here as a mounted policeman in the 1850s and spent most of his 16 years in Australia in the district.
Poet John Shaw Neilson was born in the town in 1872 and his name is perpetuated in the annual John Shaw Neilson Acquisitive Art Prize, for which artists visually interpret his poetry.
Scottish-born poet Will Ogilvie was associated with the district in the early 1890s. He was a favourite of RM Williams, who once famously took a taxi from London to Scotland to see him and subsequently published Saddle for a Throne, a collection of Ogilvie’s bush poems.
Lawrence Wells, last of the traditional inland Australian explorers, was born at nearby Yallum Park pastoral holding. Interestingly, the town cemetery houses a memorial not to Wells but to his cousin Charles, who perished on Larry’s most ambitious overland quest, the Calvert Scientific Expedition.
John Riddoch bought Yallum Park from the Wells family in 1861. Pastoralist parliamentarian, and founder of Coonawarra, he was known as the local squire and described as the “Father of the South-East”. The Riddoch Highway, which runs between Keith and Mount Gambier in South Australia, is named in his honour. His grandson, the polar explorer John Rymill, was born at Penola Station and named his Antarctic exploration yacht Penola.
Most significantly, this town is where Blessed Mary MacKillop co-founded the Australian teaching order, the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, with Father Julian Tenison Woods in 1866. Mary MacKillop was beatified in 1995 and is close to being canonised, which would make her Australia’s first saint.
Situated on the terra rossa terroir that has made the elegance of Coonawarra cabernet famous throughout the world, Penola really doesn’t need a pantheon of local heroes to enhance its reputation. It’s a friendly town with good restaurants and two pubs, one of which, the historic Royal Oak, was built by the founder of Penola, Alexander Cameron. But there’s much more to the town than what you could find in many other places of similar size.
Penola has always been rather extraordinary. Established as a private township in 1850, by the 1880s it boasted the largest library outside of Adelaide, creating a cultural tradition that still exists today. Each May, the Penola-Coonawarra Arts Festival is held. It features not only the John Shaw Neilson Acquisitive Art Prize and Robert Rymill Memorial Prize, but a variety of exhibitions and workshops – many of them at Coonawarra cellar doors – a film night, comedy and drama, opera and cabaret performances, photography, literary events, and of course, food and wine.

This story excerpt is from Issue #66

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sept 2009