The Border Mistake That Created a Disputed Territory - South Australia-Victoria Border
The Border Mistake That Created a Disputed Territory - South Australia-Victoria Border

The Border Mistake That Created a Disputed Territory - South Australia-Victoria Border

The border between South Australia and Victoria is not where it should be. It all comes down to a mistake made a century ago, and the impact is being felt to this day. In this video I explore the history and go road tripping to find out the story behind Australia’s disputed territory.


Everyone has their hobby. Me, I like maps and I especially like borders, the weirder, the better. So when I discovered that my own state was home to a misplaced border and one that caused a decades long dispute, I knew I had to go and find out more.

Now for most of my life, I definitely thought that this was a straight line. But no, as you can see here on Google Maps, this beautiful straight border that connects South Australia with Queensland and New South Wales, suddenly as we hit the state of Victoria, jumps west, distance around three and a half kilometers.

So I wanted to find out, number one, how did this happen in the first place? Number two, what happened to all the residents in the towns in this disputed area? And number three, what the hell is going on with this river border?

So here's the history. The British made their claim on Australia and started forming colonies. There was the Convict colony of New South Wales, which would later split into New South Wales and Victoria and the freely settled area of South Australia. And it was decided that the border separating SA and New South Wales would be set at 141 degrees. And so this connects to be used by farmers, the colonists needed to work out exactly where the border was. They needed to find this border. And this had never been done before. In fact, this would be the first surveyed border in the country, and the men for the job was Irish born, Henry Wade who was a trained surveyor with great facial hair and his prodigy, Edward White. Now he was an emerging surveyor. In fact, he got in trouble in his youth and was arrested for being drunk and vandalizing a pedestrian bridge.

Now in their first attempt, in 1847, they started at the coast, using pretty basic surveying equipment and making their way north. Now, across this whole way, they didn't have survey markers, so it marked the boundary every so often with piles of rocks and burning the trees on each side of the border. And this was extreme work in the hot outback sun. At one stage his team almost died of thirst, while he pushed north on a horse, that itself died of dehydration, and White it was in such a poor state, that he drank the blood of his horse, just to make it to the river.

But by 1850, after multiple trips, they'd done it, completing the survey and defining the border from the coast the the River Murray. So while this was an incredible achievement, the line was drawn around 3.35 kilometers off in the north and 2.96 kilometers in the south and the area lost by South Australia to Victoria.

Now this mistake was discovered in 1868, when using new telegraph technology that could take accurate timing measurements. So we had a stalemate with the governments aware of the issue, but neither backing down. And they had to work together on a project and this is where things get interesting. It gets more real and involve me taking a multi hour road trip.

So to understand this better, I decided to head into the heart of this territory. It's about five hours from Melbourne to the border and the epicenter of this drama, an unused railway station.

I'm in the historic railway station in Serviceton. A small town in the Australia state of Victoria, but the fact is that I shouldn't be. This entire area only exists in this state due to a surveying error, made over 100 years ago. In the late 1800's as South Australia and Victoria grew in size, there was a need to connect these colonies and the solution was a railway line. They needed to place for customs to change railway gauges, so while this area was still in dispute, it was agreed that South Australia and Victoria would both pay for this station.

I met with Les, a Serviceton resident and custodian, who told me more about the story and he showed me this incredible historic site. The kitchens, the waiting rooms, customs and even the holding cells. These days there's no much in Serviceton, it was population 120 at the last census, there's a camping area and a general store that doubles as the Post Office. And just to explain the rivalry at the time, the story goes that the SA Premier thought that the station and town should be named after him and wrote to the Victorian Premier suggesting that. Spoiler alert, it wasn't. The name? Serviceton. The Victorian Premier's name at the time? James Service.

So while I was in town, I went and found the current border, as well as where things could have been. So I've taken the back road of Serviceton with the GPS to try to find exactly where the border would have been and this is the line of 141 degrees. So while this station did an important job, it didn't resolve the issue at all. So what do you do if neither state is willing to concede?

The South Australia prepared an invasion. The SA government announced that they would be sending in surveyors to sub-divide the land. Victoria responded by saying they would be treated as trespassers and arrested. The SA government thought this wasn't a great idea and they back down on the plan. Instead, this would be fought in the High Court of Australia which was made up of the first Prime Minister of Australia, two beards and two mustaches, and their ruling was for Victoria, saying that the people did the best they could with the best technology of the time and in good faith and you couldn't update a border every time the technology improved. One mustache dissented, saying that the Act said that the border was at 141 degrees and no one else could change that. The case was then appealed and sent to the Privy Council in the UK who made the final ruling, agreeing with the High Court of Australia and giving the land to Victoria. So on the 28 of January, 1914, after 64 years of doubt, the issue was finally resolved. Except for that whole river border thing. I'll get to that.

I think this could have been a historical oddity where after 1901, when the country federated, the idea of state borders pretty much went away. Now that wasn't 'til 2020, when due to the Coronavirus, the states closed and this became a hard border. And this really impacted the people living in Serviceton and the surrounding area. They needed to do things like go through military and police check points, undertake regular Coronavirus tests and get permits for travel.

It's been a struggle to try and get across to go and help and do the things that you need to do as a carer.

This is the temporary place where the guards were set up, the police and the defense force, they were doing the stops for the Coronavirus checks. So this was, again, one of the back roads, the main highway was that way, but yeah, everyone had to get stopped and checked into the computers on the way through. I'm originally from South Australia, but now live in Victoria, so I don't really have a dog in this fight, or maybe I've got two dogs, but West End Brewery does. They're a proudly South Australian beer and they ran a campaign all about reclaiming this territory for SA. ♪ Taking back the land ♪ ♪ Oh yeah ♪ ♪ Taking back the land ♪ ♪ South Australia ♪ ♪ It's no worse than dragging on. ♪

Then I left, oh gosh, four or five cartons of West End Beer, we don't drink it, so we used to give it away as prizes.

I'm not sure it worked, all the people I spoke to in Serviceton were pretty happy being Victorian. And now for that river border.

So here's a simplified, very much not to scale, map showing how the state borders connect. We have New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria and 11 kilometers of the Murray River. Now, most river borders in the world are defined to be in the center of the river.

But since the Victorian Constitution Act of 1855, it was agreed that the entirety of the river was in New South Wales, with the border being the southern bank. So that defines this border, and thanks to the Privy Council and with the other border being pre-defined, we know these two points. But what happens in between just isn't clear. Now one option would be that New South Wales, as they claimed the Murray River, would have rights to all of this area. Now another option is per normal border rules, where Victoria would claim this part.

Now, making it interestingly, the only part of the Murray River in the state and this is what Google Maps goes with. Or maybe South Australia controls this whole River Murray area and supposedly that's what happens on the ground, with state officiary's patrolling this part of the river. So which of these is correct? Well it's a legal gray zone so it's not entirely clear, but if you do travel here, if you do get arrested on the river, do let me know which police officers arrested you.

Thanks for watching this story, it was really fun to explore. Now I've made previous videos about both Victoria and South Australia, so feel free to chose a side and dive into them. I'm Julian O'Shea, catch you next week.

People of Serviceton rejoice. You're actually South Australia, not Victorian. Serviceton is a South Australian town.