Home » Towns » South Australia » Limestone Coast » Penola, SA

Penola, SA

Major town in the famous Coonawarra wine region

Penola is the major town in the Coonawarra which is one of South Australia's most productive wine growing areas.  The town is also famous as a hugely important location in the life of Mary McKillop, Australia's first saint. Along the road from Penola north to Coonawarra there are a total of 30 wineries. This is the result of an unusual situation where there are beautiful red soils (terra rossa) stretching for 14 km and lying on top of limestone. The area has been producing fine wines for over 120 years. It has a deserved reputation for genuinely high class red wines, particularly cabernet sauvignon.


Penola is located 383 km south east of Adelaide via Murray Bridge and Naracoorte.


Origin of Name

Some sources claim that Penola comes from a Bindjali Aboriginal word meaning 'wild honeysuckle' (those same sources also claim that Coonawarra means 'wild honeysuckle') although another source argues that there is a Bindjali expression, 'pena oorla', meaning 'wooden house' and referring to the first pub, the Royal Oak, that was built in the district.


Things to See and Do

Walk with History at Penola
There is an excellent brochure, Walk with History at Penola, which can be downloaded at https://www.wattlerange.sa.gov.au/webdata/resources/files/walkwithhistory_burgundy.pdf. It covers all the major buildings and locations in town (a total of 40 destinations) and provides interesting information about the most significant buildings). It was compiled in 2006 and some of the information is out of date. Some of the buildings mentioned (which are all up to date) include:

1. John Riddoch Centre
Located at 27 Arthur Street and housed in the Penola Mechanics Institute (1869), the John Riddock District Interpretative Centre is both the Visitor Information Centre and an ideal place to trace the history of the area through pictures and illustrations. The building was designed by W.T. Gore and built by George Gladstone.

2. Bond Store
Located on Bowden Street next to Ulva Cottage, the Bond Store (a very modest stone building) was used to hold liquor and goods in the pre-Federation days when goods coming across from Victoria attracted South Australian state taxes.

5. Ulva Cottage
Located on Bowden Street, Ulva Cottage was built in the 1850s by Alexander Cameron, the founder of Penola. The house was built for Cameron's daughter, Margaret, and her husband, Dr Bayton who was one of Penola's first doctors. Margaret died in childbirth in 1863 and Dr Bayton left the district shortly afterwards.

6. Penola Park
Located on the corner of Bowden Street and Riddoch Highway, this attractive park with a swimming pool and war memorial, was used as the local livestock yards prior to 1935.

7. Mother Mary MacKillop Memorial Park
This small park on the corner of Bowden Street and Queen Street has been named the Mother Mary MacKillop Memorial Park because it was here that she established her first Penola school in 1866. The school was in a converted stable.

8. Church of St Mary the Virgin
Located on the corner of Arthur and Queen Streets and built in 1873 by Michael Harris and William Blight to plans designed by Thomas Artaud, the Church of St Mary the Virgin was built on land donated by Thomas Congdon.  The bell turret and bell were added in 1889. The floor was made from adzed logs and the memorial window was installed in 1886.

11. Local Images
Located in Church Street, this tiny shop was first used as Thomas Oswald’s Saddlers Shop.

12. Toffee and Treats of Penola
Located in Church Street, this single storey building was constructed in the 1860s by Christopher Sharam (see No.33) who made boots on these premises during the 1870s. Over the years the building has been used as a Barber Shop, Billiard Room, Women’s Clothing & Fabrics and an Antique Shop.

13. Balnaves Store
The Balnaves family have lived in the Penola-Coonawarra district since the 1890s when they purchased this store from Simon MacKenzie. Located on the corner of Church Street and Young Street, it operated as a General Store until the 1970s. In 1972 Doug Balnaves became the manager of Hungerford Hill's vineyard. He was with Hungerford Hill until 1988 when he decided to establish Balnaves of Coonawarra - a local producer of fine local wines.

15. Royal Oak Hotel
Located on the corner of Riddoch Street and  Church Street, the current stone building was completed in 1873 to a design by architect W.T. Gore, it replaced an early slab hut hotel (one of the first buildings in the district) which had operated on the same site since the 1840s and was licensed in 1848. The building is now known as Heyward's Royal Oak Hotel..

16. Private Residence
Directly opposite the Royal Oak Hotel is a single storey building which, in 1886, was constructed for the Bank of South Australia. It was short-lived, the bank failed during the depression in the 1890s.

19. National Australia Bank
Located on the corner of Riddoch Street and  Church Street, diagonally opposite the Royal Oak, this building was constructed as a bank in 1868. Like so many buildings in the town it was designed by the architect, W T Gore.

20. Old Post Office and Residence
On the other corner of Riddoch Street and  Church Street is a building which was constructed as the Telegraph Office and residence in 1859. The Post Office, constructed in 1876, was used continuously until the 1960s.

22. Pipers of Penola Restaurant
Located in Riddoch Street, this timber building was originally constructed as a Methodist Church in 1908. In recent times it has been a popular restaurant - Pipers of Penola.

24. Cobb & Co Booking Office
Located on the corner of Riddoch Street and built in 1857, this small booking office was used as the town's main stopping point for the Cobb & Co. coaches.

25. Private Residence
On the corner of Riddoch Street and Portland Street, is the stone house of Donald McDonald who was the licensee of the Royal Oak Hotel from 1864 until 1880. For many years it was the home of Leonard Peake, District Clerk of the District Council.

26. Saint Joseph's Catholic Church
Located in Portland Street, the Saint Joseph's Catholic Church is part of the larger Mary MacKillop Penola Centre. The church, which was consecrated in 1924, stands on the site of the town's first Catholic Church which was built in 1859 by Father Julian Tenison Woods. Priests had been coming intermittently to Penola between 1848 and 1854 and a simple wooden store was being used to hold mass until in 1859 a stone church, a "beautiful little edifice, with its neat belfry" was completed. The Mary MacKillop Shrine at the rear of the church was completed in 1998. It features a stained glass image of Sister Mary.

27. Woods-MacKillop School House
The Woods-MacKillop School House is located on the corner of Portland and Petticoat Lanes. Built in 1867 this was the first Josephite School House. Inside there is information about the Josephite Education introduced by Sister Mary McKillop.

Mary MacKillop Interpretative Centre
The centre is open seven days from 10.00 am - 4.00 pm and comprises a shop, with lots of literature about Australia's first saint, and a research room with extensive records and research material. There are guided tours which include the historic exhibits, the School House, St Joseph's Church and the Mary MacKillop Shrine. There are two major exhibits "Mary MacKillop: Penola - where it all began" which tells the life story and the process of her canonisation and "Julian Tenison Woods: Penola - Ten Years in the Bush and Beyond" which tells the story of Father Woods. There is an exhibit in the School House which focuses on the Josephite Education introduced by MacKillop. Tel: (08) 8737 2092 or check out https://www.mackilloppenola.org.au.

28. Petticoat Lane Heritage Area
Declared a State Heritage Area in 1997, Petticoat Lane contains a number of very old single storey cottages and is a charming reminder of what Penola was like in the 1860s. Some of the cottages are still occupied and others are managed by the National Trust. The masterpiece is Sharam Cottage which dates from 1850 and is the oldest extant cottage in the town. Other cottages of interest include Gammon Cottage (early 1860s) with its distinctive detached kitchen and its pressed metal tiles and Wilson Cottage (1860s). Check out https://www.nationaltrust.org.au/places/petticoat-lane for more information.

29. Gammon Cottage
This National Trust property at 5 Petticoat Lane is a four-roomed stone cottage which was owned in the 1860s by Andrew Adams and purchased in 1879 by William Gammon. It has a detached weatherboard kitchen, stables at the rear and a roof of pressed metal tiles, manufactured by Morewood and Rogers. It is also home to Art House, the smallest art gallery in Penola, with changing exhibitions by local artists and its own blacksmith who works at a forge set up in the old stables at the rear of the cottage. It is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 10.30 am - 4.00 pm. For more details check out https://www.nationaltrust.org.au/places/gammon-cottage or tel: 0421 710 902.

30. Wilson Cottage
Located at 2 Petticoat Lane and owned by the National Trust, this four-roomed stone cottage was built by William Wilson, a superb gardener, and his wife Agnes in 1856. According to the National Trust website, Wilson "used Mount Gambier stone for the front wall and local soft stone that was dug out like clay and left to dry in the sun for the other walls. It still has its pressed steel roof. The original 1856 slab and bark roof home was then used as a kitchen. Wilson’s Cottage is surrounded on two sides by approximately a two acre lavender garden. William Wilson was famous for his magnificent garden, being a most successful exhibitor with his fruit, vegetables and flowers at shows held in Penola. He is also known for showing John Riddoch how well grapes grow in terra rossa soil." The cottage is open Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 11.00 am - 4.00 pm, tel: 0438 112 000 or check out https://www.nationaltrust.org.au/places/wilsons-cottage.

31. Kirkgate
Located in Petticoat Lane between Wilson Cottage and Davidson Cottage, Kirkgate was purchased by the Neilson family in 1902. They added to the front. Sadly it was burnt down in 1976. It was the home of the Neilson family which included the poet, John Shaw Neilson.

32. Davidson Cottage
The Davidson family purchased the land for this cottage in Petticoat Lane in 1861. John Davidson, the son, was a carpenter and he built the house out of sawn timber and constructed a shingle roof. The cottage was leased to the Church of England from 1889 to 1895. By the 1920s it had become a horse stable. In 1987 it was purchased by the National Trust SA Penola Branch and restored.

33. Sharam Cottage
Reputedly Penola's first house, Sharam Cottage was built in Petticoat Lane in 1850. It is located in Petticoat Lane. Sharam's Cottage  was built by Christopher and Ellen Sharam and is now owned by the National Trust. In 1890 John Riddoch divided the terra rosa soil area up into smaller blocks of land which he sold to people known as 'blockers'. There was a covenant on the land that the 'blocker' had to plant one-third cabernet sauvignon to two-thirds shiraz. One of these blockers was Christopher Sharam. He built the cottage out of blackwood slabs and a bark roof out of timber from the banks of a nearby swamp and, in the 1860s, built a second cottage of sawn slabs to accommodate his growing family. His family produced grapes until their Sharam 'block' was sold to Penfolds in 1957.

34. Private Residence
Located in Arthur Street, and very close to the footpath, is the home of Elisabeth Air which was built in the early 1860s. It has been continuously occupied as a private residence since it was built.

35. Miss Thompson's
Located in Arthur Street and constructed in the 1860s, this building has been modified by additions but still looks suitably historic. It was used as a boarding house in the 1950s by Miss Maggie Thompson.

38. Presbyterian Church
Located at 31 Arthur Street, and built in 1870 by James and Joseph Riddoch to a design by the architect William T Gore. The porch and bell tower were added in 1906. Originally the local Presbyterians had met in the Court House and by 1856 a timber building had been constructed in Bowden Street. The SA Heritage Places Database notes that: "The building, constructed of random coursed stonework, was designed to permit extensions such as the tower and portico added in 1906. The dominant architectural style is Victorian Romanesque. There is also a large window with a pointed arch and stone tracery under the main gable. The church demonstrates the strength of Presbyterianism in the South East. In a vote on church union in 1974 Penola decided to remain Presbyterian so that in 1977 the congregation became one of the South East parishes to remain with the Presbyterian Church in South Australia. The church is a very striking example of a well proportioned eclectic building. Significant decorative detail on the red and cream polychrome stonework on the tower and highlighting the entry and window surrounds, which gives the facade an exuberant quality. The window treatment is also unusual." Check out http://maps.sa.gov.au/heritagesearch/HeritageItem.aspx?p_heritageno=16509 for more details.

39. Forester's Hall
Located opposite the Presbyterian Church, and built in 1873, this simple building was constructed as a Forester's Hall. Over the years it has been used for everything from a dentist's surgery to the local Lutheran Church.


Other Attractions in the Area

What is unique about Coonawarra?
Coonawarra is a unique grape growing area. This is entirely due to a 14 km long cigar-shaped strip of terra rossa soil over limestone. The Coonawarra website (https://coonawarra.org) explains: "Terra rossa (Italian for red soil) is a type of red clay produced by the weathering of limestone over many thousands of years and coloured by iron oxide. Free draining yet complemented by the water holding capacity of the limestone, the unique soil influences vine vigour, ripeness and wine flavour."

This is not really the place for an analysis of all the vineyards (a total of 34 with 30 on the narrow belt of terra rossa soil) in the area. For people wanting detailed information on the vineyards check out "Wineries" on the local website - https://coonawarra.org. It lists all the wineries, provides a map, and effortlessly bounces wine enthusiasts through to the dedicated internet sites of each of the vineyard. A cellar door map can be downloaded at https://coonawarra.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Coonawarra-Wine-Region-Cellar-Door-Map.pdf.

Father Woods Park
Located 21 km north of Penola on the Riddoch Highway is the Father Woods Park which has a fascinating collection of chainsaw sculptures. Father Tenison Woods, who was vital to the early work of Sister Mary MacKillop in the area, often stayed on Limestone Ridge Station where he prepared sermons under a large red eucalypt known as Father Woods Tree. In 1951 the park was established on land donated by Jack Gartner as a memorial to Father Woods. Then in 2010 chainsaw sculptor Kevin Gilders transformed pine tree trunks into a series of sculptures depicting Woods as a bush priest, good citizen, scientist and explorer, founder and educator. The sculptures were blessed and the park was re-dedicated as a place of pilgrimage, prayer and contemplation.

Yallum Park
Located at 4325 Mount Burr Road, Penola, Yallum Park is an exceptional Victorian Classical Revival sandstone house, with lots of Italian additions, which was built in 1878-1880 for John Riddoch, eight kilometres out of Penola. It was from this base that Riddoch established his Coonawarra vineyards planting some 95,000 vines in 1891.
Riddoch, who had grown up in poverty in the highlands of Scotland, emigrated to Australia in 1851 and headed for the Victorian goldfields. The Australian Dictionary of Biography notes (http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/riddoch-john-8210) that "After the family migrated to Victoria in 1851-52, John junior was a carter, gold digger and buyer on the River Ovens goldfields. He used the money made from gold to become a Geelong shopkeeper and wine merchant. On 12 May 1854 he married Eliza King at Geelong. After borrowing heavily, in 1861 he paid £30,000 for Yallum Park, near Penola, South Australia. Here he built an Italianate mansion, surrounded with exotic trees and a forty-acre (16 ha) deer park; a genial host, he entertained princes, dukes, governors and Anthony Trollope. John was a loyal friend and patron of Adam Lindsay Gordon who wrote some of his poetry, including 'The Sick Stockrider', at Yallum."
Today Yallum Park is still a wonder to behold with its original William Morris wallpapers, its beautiful gardens and arboretum, its cavernous 15-feet high ceilings, its eleven Italian marble mantelpieces, its gold leaf cornices and its sense of history. Behind the main Yallum House are two smaller residences. One called Gordon House and the other Austin House. These were the original houses. It was in the place now known as Gordon House that Adam Lindsay Gordon came to stay. Yallum Park is now a private home which is open by appointment. There are tours of the building. Check details with the Penola Visitor Information Centre, tel: 1300 045 373 or (08) 8737 2855. Or contact the residence at 0418 854 505. Check out the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/yallumpark.



* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the area was home to the Bindjali Aboriginal people. They lived on a diet of kangaroo, wallaby, emu, wombat, fish, roots and seeds. They had lived in the district for tens of thousands of years but, with the arrival of Europeans, their numbers declined rapidly. It is said that five Aborigines are buried in the Penola cemetery but there is no evidence of their graves.

* The first Europeans into the area were the Austin brothers who arrived in 1840 and established a run of 109 square miles based on what is now Yallum Park.

* In the 1850s a Scottish gardener, William Wilson, took up land and grew fruit trees and vines near the present day site of Penola.

* The man who was known as the Founder of Penola and the 'King of Penola' was Alexander Cameron (1810-1881). In 1841 Alexander crossed into South Australia and by 1844 Penola Station had been established.

* By 1850 Cameron had built a pub, the Royal Oak, to supply liquor to the increasing number of travellers who were coming through the Penola area. It was around this time that he gained freehold title to 80 acres stretching north from the hotel. This was to be the site for the township of Penola.

* Christopher Sharam, a bootmaker, built his house on Alexander Cameron's land in 1850. He was quickly followed by a Mr Hailes, a blacksmith. Later that year Cameron added another 80 acres to the original holding.

* The poet Adam Lindsay Gordon worked in the area as a mounted policeman from 1853-54.

* John Riddoch purchased Yallum in 1861. He acquired 35,000 acres on which he ran 50,000 head of sheep. William Wilson advised Riddoch to grow grapes.

* By 1863 Penola boasted the largest library outside Adelaide. Not surprisingly, given its literary tradition, the poet Adam Lindsay Gordon, came to the district and often stayed with John Riddoch.

* Three years later (1866) Mary McKillop, Australia's first saint, built the first of many schools she was to construct in Australia and New Zealand. She founded the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart.

* In 1866 Father Julian Tenison Woods, a Catholic priest, assisted Mary McKillop to form the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart.

* The poet John Shaw Neilson was born in the town in 1872.

* Around 1890 Riddoch formed the Coonawarra Fruit Colony and 2,000 acres from Yallum Park were subdivided into smaller holdings of 10-30 acres which were sold, at very reasonable terms, to a group of farmers with the express idea that they all became vineyards and orchards. It was out of this that the Coonawarra vineyards grew.

* In 1901 John Riddoch died.

* The last of the local Aborigines died in 1902.

* In 1908 Bill Redman established his own winery in the district. He would dominate the industry for the next half century.

* In 1951 David Wynn purchased the Riddoch vineyards and winery.

* It was not until the 1960s that the exceptional soils of the area, and their ability to produce superb red wines, was fully realised.


Visitor Information

Penola Coonawarra Visitor Information Centre, 27 Arthur Street, Penola, tel: 1300 045 373 or (08) 8737 2855.


Useful Websites

There is a useful local website - https://coonawarra.org - which includes detailed information on all the vineyards and cellar doors in the district.

Got something to add?

Have we missed something or got a top tip for this town? Have your say below.

1 suggestion so far