Premier Don Dunstan was a man of vision. Melbourne house painter Mr John Nash thought he was too, predicting that an earthquake and subsequent tidal wave would strike Adelaide’s coastline on January 19, 1976.
The reason for the imminent catastrophe was that God (if you believe) wasn’t happy (allegedly) with us becoming a ‘sin city’ (apparently) and we therefore had to be punished. With the social and criminal reforms of the Dunstan government and its reshaping of 1970s South Australia, Adelaide had (according to some) started to slip down that slippery slope. Dunstan had overseen increases in welfare, the liberalisation of drinking laws and censorship laws, and the abolition of the death penalty. Also under Dunstan, male homosexuality was decriminalised, and the age of majority was lowered from 21 to 18 years old. It was a time of immense change, and I guess some people didn’t like it.
Unsurprisingly, when the time came, John Nash’s infernal vision was pretty much washed out to sea, but not without leaving its impact on many Adelaideans who heeded his grim warning. On media reporting of Nash’s dream, many Adelaide folk upped and left, fearing that the soothsayer’s prediction of an earthquake and tidal wave was true. En masse, beachfront properties were offloaded at bargain-basement prices – snapped up, obviously, by sceptics and outright non-believers. The previous owners fled inland – many seeking sanctuary as far away as towns in the Riverland region of the state. Many ‘escapers of the wrath of God’ were of Greek and Italian backgrounds – the most God-fearing and superstitious of society, perhaps?
It’s written in the archives that an Adelaide executive penned a memo to his staff, comprising young Greek and Italian women. They had been wanting to stop home because of the supposed threat of earthquake and tidal wave. The executive reinforced to them that they had the Premier’s assurance that nothing was going to happen. “If he is wrong and it does happen, it is no good staying home to die… Far better to come to work and die here because you will be covered by workmen’s compensation for getting killed on the job!”
Then there were the ‘brave’ ones who stayed to confront the threat, head-on. Premier Don Dunstan was one of those people. As leader of the state, it was his job (and within his beliefs) to call for calm, and to reassure people that it was to be a non-event. As the very convenient midday deadline approached (Nash later denied he had even suggested a time) Dunstan stood on the balcony of the Pier Hotel at Glenelg (situated where the Stamford Grand now stands) and reassured the tide-defiant masses that they had nothing to fear. Since they were there by choice, I’m guessing the beachgoers were most likely giving the two-fingered salute to the big wave prediction, poking fun at it in a good old Adelaide way.
Under Dunstan’s stewardship, the time until noon was counted down, and… well, nothing happened. The crowd erupted in a unanimous cheer as the Premier announced it was all over, red rover (my words, not necessarily his) and that Mr Nash would not be welcome in South Australia again (his words, not necessarily mine).
It was such a big news event that media teams from around Australia converged on Glenelg, as did a television crew from the BBC in England. I’m not sure the story would have the same oomph now… or would it? Would we take it seriously at all?
While it’s easy for us to consider Nash to be just another loony, Brett suggested during our podcast discussion that, rather than being an attention-seeker, Nash may have genuinely believed his vision of a holocaust for Adelaide. He actually may have had our best interests at heart. It’s a good point, and adds some balance to the story. However, at the end of the day, now some thirty-seven years later, I think the tide is still out on John Nash and his forecast for the untimely demise of Adelaide.