Once upon a time …

In this blog, I continue to look at the early days of the market gardeners who lived and worked in what they called the Lockleys area, north of the River Torrens. In the last blog, I wrote about James Ballantyne who had been allocated a soldier settler block on the River Torrens in 1923 which he and his family worked until the late 1970s.

This time the focus is the first Veneto market gardeners who began establishing their gardens from the early 1930s. In 1986 a journalist wrote an article about ‘Italian pioneers in Adelaide’ for the Italian Australian religious magazine, Il Messaggero or “The Messenger.” Thanks to Assunta Giovannini nee Tonellato who first showed me the article ten years ago, we have an account of the early days of Secondo Tonellato. He was one of the first Veneto market gardeners to lease land and called his wife Elisabetta and children, Luigi, Rosina, Albert, Lino and Orlando to join him in 1935. In 1937, Secondo brought his three-month old niece, Assunta, into the family.

Tonellato family, Adelaide, c1945/1946: Back- Luigi, Orlando, Rosina, Lino, Albert.
Front: Secondo, Assunta, Elisabetta. Photo provided by Assunta Giovannini nee Tonellato.

The journalist, whose name is not provided, had evidently talked with the family of Secondo and Elisabetta to document the story of Secondo Tonellato from 1927 and the vision he had to accommodate his wife and children. The Tonellato parents had died in the early 1970s. The journalist gives an overview of the first decades at Kidman Park and the changes that have occurred in the area: the land and the river, work of market gardeners, the loss of the market gardens and the transformation in the population. In 1986 when the journalist published the article there were still some glasshouses and market gardeners in the area. Thank you to Graziella Ledda for assisting with the English translation.


Once upon a time there was a family who lived in a railway carriage …
Once upon a time … it always begins like that, doesn’t it? There was once a large expanse of grasslands, fields and sandhills, bushes that went almost down to the sea, a lazy river, the Torrens, which lost its way in a salty marsh, full of mosquitoes. It was in a south-west suburb, a few kilometres from the famous green belt of the city of Adelaide.

The first migrants whose names people still remember were Piovesan, Berno, Tonellato, Ballestrin, Laio etc. Unlike the Australian rural regions with cattle and sheep farms, this land was dedicated to horticulture. There were a series of glasshouse of which you can still see some examples today. One pioneer, to take an example, began their life in the following way …

Secondo Tonellato came to Adelaide in 1927 from the Province of Treviso. He worked for a boss and when he felt he could stand on his own feet in 1935, he bought a train carriage which had accommodated King George VI when he visited Australia [The Duke of York who later became George VI had visited Adelaide with his wife in 1927].

onellato family, Lockleys 1935. L-R: Nano, Elisabetta, Albert, Lui, Rosina, Secondo, Lino.
Tonellato family, Lockleys 1935.
L-R: Nano, Elisabetta, Albert, Lui, Rosina, Secondo, Lino.

Our Secondo had to provide decent accommodation for his family who came to join him. He paid for transporting the carriage which was placed at the end of the existing Fergusson Avenue, Kidman Park. The carriage was beautiful, as his sons recall today.

Inside it was upholstered with leather and there were etched scenes on the glass windows. The compartments were used as bedrooms and a dining room. There was even a shower! The family cooked outside in a shed.

River Torrens, 1937. Ballantyne family house and market garden in left background. Photo provided by Rae Ballantyne.

In those years, the land was not as it is today. The unpredictable River Torrens, which in dry times, was like a creek painted on canvas, played up when it freely flooded the land destroying the harvest of the farms there. In 1937-1938 an enormous embankment was built in the Kidman Park while the land near the mouth of the river remained marshy, bushy and full of snakes for some years.

As the years passed, Tonellato built a new home for his family. From 1954 and for some years, the famous carriage served as lodgings, a place of safety and welcome for many new migrants who, in increasing numbers, looked for stable accommodation in the area. It was a great shame that it was not preserved as a precious memorial or monument. In the end it was completely destroyed by fire.


The Tonellato vagòn was a significant landmark – and story -for the Veneto market gardener community. Many people have referred to it in their oral history interviews. In 1997, another journalist, Ennio Tessari, wrote an article about the Tonellato vagòn in a report on the Fourth Convention of the Trevisani d’Australia which was held in Adelaide in October that year.

The Tonellato vagòn was also the subject of two blogs by Alex Bennett in April 2021. See: Part 1: https://venetimarketgardeners1927.net/page/2/?s=Alex+Bennett

Part 2: https://venetimarketgardeners1927.net/?s=Alex+Bennett

Madeleine Regan
6 March 2022

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