We know the Riverland is famous for these, but did you that there was a time when it was also famous for these? Yep! The Riverland: opium capital of Australia!
It happened during the Second World War at Loveday near the River Murray town of Barmera. Loveday was one of about twenty towns around the country where special camps were built to hold Australian residents from Italy, Germany and Japan who were thought to be a security risk.
And it was one of the biggest; at one stage it was home to almost six thousand men. It had three main compounds and three smaller wood-cutting camps and it covered more than 100 hectares of cultivated land. The site was chosen because the government owned the land, there was power and water, it was near a highway and a rail line and thought to be far enough from the sea to discourage escape. It wasn’t. But more about that later.
Local historian Max Sholz knows more about the history of Loveday than most, and he dedicates his days now to keeping that story alive. In 1941 when the first camp opened, max was a boy of 10 and he remembers it like it was yesterday.
Max: Firstly everyone was scared of all these foreigners coming in but the fears were soon put to rest because they found out they were well guarded and everyone worked together.
The camp commandant, Colonel Dean had a farming background, and he could see the potential in the land near the camp. The internees couldn’t be forced to work, but most did and the results were astounding. Loveday became the only internment camp in the network to be self-sufficient and profitable but there were some troubles for Colonel Dean to deal with, as Max explains.
Max: Once the land was cleared they also found they had a drift problem so he went out and found bamboos around the place and they dug furrows and buried the sticks into furrows and the bamboos shot at every node and it wasn’t long before they had all the bamboos. They had about two acres in between the bamboo and that stopped the drift and they could grow anything.
About 25 hectares of opium poppies went in to supply morphine to the Australian Military Forces and by 1944, Loveday was the largest producer of raw opium in Australia. More than half of the morphine that went to the war effort came from these poppies. Pyrethrum daises were another big crop. Kenya had been the major supplier before the war and there was serious demand for insecticides for troops fighting in the tropics. Loveday harvested almost ten tonnes of flower heads to help provide that.
The camp also grew amazing vegetables, and not just for the table.
Max: Before the Second World War, Australia imported nearly all vegetable seeds from America. Colonel Dean saw an opening to grow vegetable seeds and supply the Australian market.
And that he did! Loveday produced almost 20-thousand kilograms of seeds at a very tidy profit! It also boasted one of the biggest piggeries in the country, more than seven hundred animals could be raised at any one time and it sent more twelve-hundred to market. The pigs were fed from food scraps and any waste from the gardens. Behind me you can see the ruins of that piggery today. This was also the scene of Loveday’s version of the great escape courtesy of some German civil engineers who wound up at Loveday. The entire camp tried to get out by tunnelling near the piggery. They got caught between two lots of barbed wire.
They also ran around five thousand chickens in the camp poultry farm, supplying both meat and eggs for military and hospital use. It’s estimated that almost half a million eggs were produced at Loveday.
The interns did what they could to try and make their confinement more bearable and their huts feel more like home. Some grew their own vegetables, others landscaped and planted flowers. The Japanese in particular worked hard to create a sense of place. They used bamboo from the windbreaks to make little huts and to weave baskets, they constructed wonderful gardens complete with water features, little bridges and their own Shinto shrine.
The camp closed in 1946, and the army literally just up and walked away from everything. They even left crops in the ground, which, as Max tells us was a blessing for a company you might have heard of.
Max: there was about twenty acres of tomatoes and Berri Fruit Juices, Berri Co Op were canning stuff for the army and Colonel Dean said there’s twenty acres of tomatoes get stuck into it do what you like we’re walking away. So that’s how the famous name Berri came to be in the juice market
For those who spent the war at Loveday, Max is a living link to its history.
Max: I had a gentleman from Tasmania, looked at me and cried.
At its peak, Loveday’s population was more than 7000. Today, precious little remains of those camps except concrete shells and bamboo windbreaks. Just walking around here you can’t help feel a sense of isolation and loneliness you wonder what it must have been like for the internees plonked here in the Second World War.
We’ve been really lucky to have Max as our guide this afternoon and it’s important that they continue so if you have anything at all from your family history connected with Loveday, Max and the National trust at Barmera would love to hear from you.