Effects of Religion and Education in Hahndorf

The following brief historical notes re Religion and Education within Hahndorf were extracted from background notes prepared by Reg Butler for local school students.  Visiting Hahndorf today will let you see the sites of some dramatic and significant events in religion and education which helped shape the town into the unique place it is now.


Along with Bethany, Klemzig and Lobethal, Hahndorf stands as one of a handful of Australian settlements, all in South Australia, to be founded on strict religious principles.  Between 1830-1840, the King of Prussia tried to make all his Protestant subjects belong to a United Reformed Church, which he and his religious advisers had devised.  South-east of Berlin, strong opposition came from groups of Lutherans who lived in small villages all situated within a short distance inland on both sides of the Oder River.

Most of the protesters worked on the land, or were tradespeople serving the farming districts.  Poor and hard-working, these people believed so much in their faith that they were prepared to pay fines, go to prison and suffer other harassment to remain Lutheran.  The group’s leader, Pastor August Kavel of Klemzig, struggled very hard to arrange for four ships to take everyone to the newly-founded colony of South Australia during the late summer of 1838.  Under British rule, these people hoped to re-gain the freedom they had enjoyed before the religious troubles began.

Some forty families travelled with the Danish captain, Dirk Hahn, on his ship, the Zebra.  After a safe arrival in early January 1839, Captain Hahn managed to persuade three dealers in sheep and cattle to sell 150 acres of their new stocklands in the Adelaide Hills for the persecuted Lutherans to erect their own township.  Fourteen families from the ships Bengalee, Catherina and Prince George joined the Zebra passengers in moving their belongings to the site of the new township of Hahndorf between March and May 1839.

Hahndorf’s foundation settlers first gave thanks to their God for bringing them safely to their new home.  This service took place under the shade of a huge gum tree which grew right in the middle of what was to become Hahndorf’s main street.  Afterwards, a shepherd’s hut which the cattlemen had erected before the land was sold became a temporary church, manse and school.  In 1840, a building which served as both church and school was erected on a specially reserved central site behind the main street.  Across the road were houses for the pastor and teacher.

For some years, although many changes occurred in Hahndorf’s population, the town remained solidly Lutheran.  The Pastor was preacher, teacher, doctor and general adviser to the inhabitants and often their link with government and other people beyond the settlement.  From the mid-1840s, the strong wills which had carried the Prussians safely through their persecutions in Europe began to squabble bitterly over religious matters in South Australia.  As a result of these disagreements, in 1854, many families left Hahdorf for other places, while those who remained and could not agree with the majority which held the church built another one for themselves.

In the late 1850s, another group of Germans who had come to South Australia with no great attachment to pure Lutheran doctrines built a Free Protestant Church for their worship.  Nearby, in 1861, a few British settlers, who had begun to arrive in Hahndorf in some numbers in the 1850s, erected a Primitive Methodist Church, where they could hold services in English.  Anglicans built a church, which opened in 1886.  Both St John’s Free Protestant and the Primitive Methodist Churches eventually closed and the neighbouring St Paul’s Lutheran Church acquired their land for its own use.


Until 1857, Hahndorf’s education remained securely under the control of the Lutheran Church.  The first German settlers valued education very much.  Their homeland of Prussia was the first country in Europe to introduce compulsory schooling for all and they wished to keep the advantage in Australia.  Neither the South Australian government, nor many of the British families, felt the same concern to provide schools for all children until much later in the colony’s development.  However, even in South Australia’s German districts, busy seasons such as seedtime and harvest saw many of the children attend irregularly, as parents needed as much labour as possible to get the many tasks completed quickly.

Lutheran teachers held school in the church at first and lived across the road on a very large allotment where they could establish a garden and small farm to produce their own food.  The pastor likewise had room to do the same, although he often received food and firewood in recognition of the respect in which people held him.  At first, teachers grew their own food satisfactorily, because most of them had been farmers or held some other practical job before they became teachers.  Later, if the teacher had little time or inclination to farm, his standard of living suffered, as the church paid teachers very little.  Sometimes, farming families paid part of their fees with garden produce.

Towards the end of the 1840s, constant emigration and marriages established new families of children in Hahndorf and nearby.  Crowding occurred in the existing church schoolroom.  During 1850-1852, the Christoph Liebelt family left Hahndorf for a large farm in the district.  The Lutheran Church gained the family’s allotment in the main street (No 62-64 Main St) on which to build a new schoolroom, together with four blocks of farm land further away, but still within the town, for the teacher to use.

In the 1850s, the Lutherans who had quarrelled with those who controlled the school and church joined with people of British descent to obtain a government-supported school.  Mary Ann Hutchinson, the widow of a British farmer, conducted classes in her farmhouse during the mid-1850s, somewhere on her large block at No 25-31 English St. However, when she re-married and shifted away, the school closed.

Hahndorf’s government school came from an unexpected quarter.  Wilhelm Boehm, the Lutheran teacher, could not persuade the church to agree to a broader range of subjects in the school curriculum.  Part way through 1857, he resigned and opened a private school in his own home - No 68 Main Street, Hahndorf, next to the Lutheran school.  Boehm received government help with his salary and his school grew into the two-storeyed Hahndorf Academy still in existence today, though not as a school.  Between 1876-1881, he retired from teaching and the Lutheran Church bought his building to train Lutheran pastors and teachers along with ordinary scholars.  Between 1882-1912, as the Hahndorf College, Boehm’s school became one of the foremost private schools in South Australia.  He and his successor, Douglas Byard, introduced cricket and football and played against other private institutions such as Saint Peter’s and Prince Alfred Colleges.

The present government primary school came into existence when one of Wilhelm Boehm’s successors at the Lutheran school, Wilhelm Strempel, also quarrelled with the church.  In 1876, he too obtained promises of government assistance under the new Education Act to open a fully funded government school in Hahndorf.  Hahndorf’s flour miller, Wilhelm Wittwer, lent a large room in his two-storeyed home in Hahndorf’s main street (No 85) and then W Strempel moved to the former St John’s Free Protestant Church at No 6 Braun Drive.  Finally, the government bought the No 12 Church St site in use today and built school premises opened in 1879.

Sometimes in co-operation with the Academy next door; sometimes alone, the Hahndorf Lutheran school continued to operate on the site acquired in 1850-1851.  The original building erected was the oldest stone building in the town.  In 1871, the room at present housing the Tourist Information Centre (No 64 Main St)**  opened as the new school.  Teaching continued here until 1917, when the government forced the school to close.  Anti-German tension had become too strong in South Australia as a result of World War 1 then raging.  Nearly thirty years later - in 1946 - the Lutheran school re-opened on a site opposite St Michael’s Lutheran Church.  Unlike in times of old, the Lutheran and government schools co-operate heartily now and Hahndorf’s two Lutheran congregations have joined a united Australia-wide Lutheran Church since 1966.

** Subsequent Note:  This building at 64 Main Street is now owned by the District Council of Mt Barker and  the current tenants at December 2012 are the 'The Farm Shed'.      

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