I'm a Victorian freelance writer & photographer living in the Macedon Ranges north of Melbourne.
Published February 19th 2020
Penola is a small town in the far south-east of South Australia, at the centre of the Coonawarra wine-growing district but probably best known as the home of Mary MacKillop and the site of the country's first free Catholic school.
The former Cobb & Co Booking Office circa 1857 is now a popular coffee shop. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
The first settlers in the district were Scotsman Alexander Cameron and his wife Margaret, who arrived in January 1844 and settled on just over 30-hectares of freehold land. Cameron set up his own private town named Panoola, which was later renamed Penola. In 1850, he'd built the Royal Oak Hotel and did a roaring trade supplying alcohol to a seemingly endless stream of travellers en route to the Victorian goldfields.
Now a private residence Penola's National Bank Building was constructed in 1868. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
A second Scotsman, named John Riddoch, set up the Penola Fruit Growing Colony in 1890 and planted the first grapevines in the district, a move which later led to the establishment of the Coonawarra wine-growing region.
Penola at its peak must have been a hive of activity. Throughout the 1860s Pounsevell coaches departed Penola for Naracoorte, Mount Gambier and Adelaide twice a week and Cobb & Co coaches left for Melbourne three times a week. Regular rail services operated through Penola on the Mount Gambier to Wolseley line between 1887 and 1995.
You'll find Gammon Cottage in Petticoat Lane. It was built in the 1860's and purchased by William Gammon in 1879. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Australia's first saint of the Catholic Church, Mother Mary MacKillop, was canonised on 17th October 2010, becoming Saint Mary of the Cross MacKillop. The Mary MacKillop Penola Centre highlights the life and work of this fascinating woman.
The Melbourne born daughter of Scottish immigrants, Mary arrived in Penola in 1860 to become a governess to the children of her wealthy uncle Alexander Cameron. In 1866, she met Father Julian Tenison Woods and together they established the Australian Sisters of Saint Joseph, a religious order dedicated to developing schools and charitable institutions designed to meet the specific needs of remote Australian communities.
In 1867, she became the first Sister of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart, known locally as the Josephites or the Brown Joeys, and from then until her death in August 1909 worked tirelessly to revolutionise the colonial education system.
Don't miss a visit to the Mary MacKillop Centre, which includes a replica of the first home and the schoolhouse, circa 1867, where Mary taught. Also take a stroll down Petticoat Lane, a pretty heritage-listed site featuring a number of timber and stone cottages.
The original Royal Oak Hotel was operating on this site in 1850. Parts of the present building date back to 1872. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Penola was also home to the renowned poet Adam Lindsay Gordon, who was stationed here for 14 years as a member of the South Australian Mounted Police. A bronze bust of Gordon, a replica of one standing at Poets Corner in London's Westminster Abbey, can be seen in Church Street.
Mary MacKillop's original school building dates back to 1866. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Penola is home to a wealth of history and is the obvious base camp for a tour of the Coonawarra wine region.
Top-5 Things To Do in Penola
1. Take a stroll down Petticoat Lane
2. The Mary MacKillop Interpretive Centre is a must-see
3. Get the local lowdown from the Penola-Coonawarra
4. If you're travelling with kids don't miss the Penola Fantasy
Theme Park, Model Railway and Tea Room.
5. Take a tour of the Nangwarry Forestry and Logging
The Penola Telegraph Station was opened in 1860, the result of a petition by local residents. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Getting There …..
Penola is 383-kilometres southeast of Adelaide, about a 4-hour drive via the National Highway A8 and the Riddoch Highway/A66.
It's 51-kilometres north of Mount Gambier, a 35-minute drive via the Riddoch Highway/A66.
Heritage listed Petticoat Lane is the oldest residential area of Penola .....
..... and where you'll find Sharam Cottage circa 1850, one of several early residences to be found here. Photos: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Why? Penola is home to a wealth of history and is the obvious choice of a base camp for touring the Coonawarra wine region.
When:Spring and autumn are my pick of the best times to visit Penola. The region can be warm to hot in summer and cool & wet in winter. In autumn the explosion of colour in the surrounding vineyards is amazing.
Phone:Penola Coonawarra Visitor Information Centre 1300 045 373 or (08) 8737 2855