Election of the first city council 1840

The Corporation of the City of Adelaide was brought into being on 19 August 1840, by a special Ordinance (Ordinance No. 4 of 1840).

The Ordinance was passed by Governor Gawler and his Executive Council in accordance with the wishes of the South Australian Colonisation Commissioners who had been responsible for organising the settlement of the province. They had made it clear that elected municipal institutions should be established in any town which reached a population of 2,000 inhabitants.

The Ordinance was modelled on the English Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, although the voting procedures contained in it were both novel and complex.

The Ordinance made provision for the regular election of a Council to consist of 19 "Common Councilmen" of whom four were to be Aldermen elected by the Councilmen, with a Mayor to be elected in turn from among the Aldermen (Clause XVI of the Ordinance No. 4 of 1840).

To be eligible for election to the new Council, a citizen was required to be the owner or occupier of a house within the municipality with a yearly value of at least £50, or possessed of personal property to the value of at least £500, and not to be likely to be pecuniarily interested in any foreseeable contract that may arise from the deliberations of the new Council (Clause XII of Ordinance No. 4 of 1840).

Only those ratepayers who were male persons of 21 years of age or more were to be permitted to vote in the election for this first Council. In addition, they had to have been resident in the colony for at least six months, and they had to be the owner or tenant of property within the City valued at not less than £20 per annum. And to qualify they must be living within a radius of seven miles of the City centre (Clause IV of Ordinance No. 4 of 1840).

The boundaries of the City for the purposes of the Ordinance were defined as being the inner limits of the Park Lands originally laid down by the survey and delineated in Colonel Light’s Plan of Adelaide.

The method of electing the Councilmen was unusual in that the Ordinance enable the electors to voluntarily form themselves into as many electoral sections or "quorums" as there were candidates.

The idea of dividing the City into a number of separate electoral wards had not been evolved at this stage and, moreover, the Colonisation Commissioners had suggested that, with the object of giving the minorities a vote, the total number of voters should be divided by the number of Common Councilmen to be returned, the resulting groups to be called "quorums". The electors were therefore required to band themselves together voluntarily and in groups of their own choosing (Clause X of Ordinance No. 4 of 1840).

Each electoral quorum, provided that the members could agree upon a unanimous vote, could return one member to the Council.

If the full number of members was not elected by such quorums, then the balance was to be elected by the ratepayers who had not previously voted in quorums, but each voter could only vote for one candidate (Clause XVI of Ordinance No. 4 of 1840).

Half the Aldermen, including the Mayor as an Alderman, were to remain in office for two years without re-election, while the Councilmen had to retire annually (Clause XVII of Ordinance No. 4 of 1840).

Not surprisingly, in practice the system of electing Councilmen proved cumbersome and confusing. According to W.C.D. Veale, a former Town Clerk of Adelaide whose manuscript history of Adelaide’s early municipal development has not been published and is held by the City Archives (Accession 0029 Item 14 Municipal Affairs Adelaide 1840 – 1852), a Voter’s' Roll was compiled by the Returning Officer (Stanley Stokes) who, after finding the number of voters to be 557, publicly announced that a quorum would consist of 31 voters (the City Archives holds a copy of the original 1840 Voter’s Roll).

However, only two such quorums assembled on election day, 30 October 1840, at the single polling booth, which was located in the centre of the intersection of King William, Hindley-Rundle Streets, where they advanced in a body and signed their names on the forms on which their candidates name appeared.

Thus only two members of the first City Council were returned by quorums, and there remained 17 members to be elected by the normal ballot.

Accordingly, the next day, 31 October 1840, the successful candidates were summoned by the Returning Officer to the South Australian Club in Hindley Street, where James Hurtle Fisher, the former Resident Commissioner of the province, was elected Mayor of Adelaide.

In all 43 candidates stood for election, with Fisher heading the poll with 255 votes.

The first meeting of the Council took place on 4 October 1840, in the office of Robert Thomas, a local printer, located in Hindley Street West, where the first officers to be appointed by the new Council were the City Messenger (William Mc Bean) and a temporary Town Clerk (William Edwards, who remained in the job until 28 October, when David Spence was appointed to the role).

First Adelaide City Council Elected 30 October 1840

Mayor: J.H. Fisher.

Aldermen: J.H. Fisher; A.W. Davis; M. Smillie; G. Stevenson.

Councilmen: N. Hailes; J. Brown; C. Mann; J. Hallett; W. Blyth; W.G. Lambert; H. Watson; T. Wilson; E. Rowlands; E.W. Andrews; J. Frew; W.H. Neale; S. East, W. Sanders; J.Y. Wakeham.

The City Archives holds the Minute Book of the meetings of this first City Council Minutes book – 1840 to 1843 (PDF)

For further information and assistance please contact the friendly staff at the City of Adelaide Archives: