William Chace, bullock driver, South Australia

William Chace,

Bullocky extraordinary

Bullock power and muscle were the backbone of the early South Australian transport system. They linked the various settlements and mines when no real roads existed. They brought in the supplies and took away the produce, often to far away harbours, mines and townships. This was especially the case after copper was discovered in Burra in 1845.

In ideal conditions a lumbering bullock team could travel at three and one half miles per hour, but north of Adelaide most travelled slower because of heavy loads, varied surfaces and climatic conditions. This was especially the case between Kapunda and Burra, because of the terrain and track conditions, teams travelled at about one mile per hour. To cope with the sections of hard ground bullocks were shod with two bullock cues per foot to accommodate their cloven hooves.

A route to the north was successfully pioneered by teamsters handling bullock teams. This route became a main road that became known as the Great North Road. The journey from Burra Burra to Port Adelaide would occupy a bullock team from eight to ten days and often longer. On return trips the drays carried stores, machinery, and other goods to the mine and mining community. In October 1846 it was reported that nearly four hundred drays were employed for that purpose. For the first six years of the mine’s existence nearly 80,000 tons of ore were sent by bullock dray. John Merritt and William Chace were two of the teamsters who with bullock teams and drays hauled copper ore from the Burra Burra mine to Port Adelaide.

The northern half of the journey from Port Adelaide to Burra was rough and took two thirds of the journey time. Northward from Adelaide and Port Adelaide to Kapunda and later to Burra small stopover towns sprang up along the route, roughly at nine miles intervals, the distance that a bullock team could usually traverse in one nine-hour day. Leaving Burra to go south, depending on the route taken, stopping places could be; Davies (now Hanson), Hanson (now Farrell Flat), Black Springs, Manoora, Saddleworth, Riverton, Springfield, Marrabel, Hamilton, Allendale, Tarlee, Kapunda, Freeling, Wasleys, Gawler and Salisbury.

The inns at these places were the evening haunts for the hundreds of bullock drivers who took the copper to Port Adelaide. Overloaded drays could overbalance causing severe strain on the animals, especially the polers. Four wheeler wagons were able to carry more, but were only used once the better roads were established. On poor roads heavily laden wagons could capsize and injure an entire team, killing some beasts, not to mention the bullocky.

In the earliest days of the Burra Burra Mine there were two main routes between Adelaide and Burra, although if the condition of the track warranted, other routes were used. The faster travelling traffic, horse drawn carts and coaches carrying passengers turned off at Gawler for Kapunda, up the valley of the River Light to Apoinga, then on to the mine. The slower bullock drays and wagons carrying goods to Burra and returning with copper ore mostly took the shorter route bypassing Kapunda and headed straight for Saddleworth and then on to Black Springs where they joined the coach route for the last two days of their journey to Burra.

There was never a single route used to cart copper from Burra Burra to Port Adelaide during the 1840s. The only two constants were the first two day’s journey south of Burra past important sources of fresh water at Porter Lagoon and Black Springs outside the Black Springs Inn, and the last leg from Gawler through Dry Creek and the Grand Junction to Port Adelaide.

South and west of Black Springs roads fanned out with routes through Saddleworth and Riverton following the River Gilbert, bypassing Kapunda; through Waterloo, Marrabel and Hamilton on the western side of the River Light along the stretch known as the ‘Dirty Light’ to Kapunda; and past Apoinga Lagoon, along the Tothill Belt between the Tothill Range and the Dirty Light also passing through Kapunda. In the early 1850s before the railway reached Gawler teams headed west from Black Springs on the ‘Gulf Road’ through Mintaro to Port Wakefield.

In 1848 the Patent Copper Company was formed to smelt copper in Australia. Equipment to build a complete smelting works and Welsh smelters arrived from Wales. The company’s first move was to establish a means of continuous delivery of copper ore from Burra to Adelaide. The winter track between Port Adelaide and Burra was a quagmire and in summer teamsters suffered from sandy blight (ophthalmia), temperatures were high and water and stock feed were scarce, consequently the bullock teams mostly operated between Burra and Port Adelaide in autumn and spring.

Before 1850 those bullock teams travelling south from Burra to Kapunda wended their way south through the Tothill Belt and Tothill Creek near Marrabel and came out on the road near the small settlement of Springfield near Marrabel. However, in good seasons, when roadside pastures were plentiful and drivers were not so thirsty, the teams went straight on from Tothill Creek Post Office along the eastern side of the River Light, and onto the road near Allendale.

The towns grew and attracted saddlers, wheelwrights and blacksmiths to service the copper wagons, and grog shanties and inns opened along the track to cater for the weary and thirsty bullockies. There was a crude roadside inn known as the Sod Hut about eight miles south of Burra, a popular overnight stopping place run by an Irishman Daniel O’Leary who travelled to Australia aboard the Lysander with John and James Merritt.

The Hanson Arms serviced what is now the town of Farrell Flat, and the Emu Hotel opened in 1844 catering for the teamsters at Emuville near Black Springs. The Stone Hut was a small tavern beside a waterhole in the River Gilbert, immediately north of what is now Pioneer Park in Saddleworth. At Tothill the Australia Arms Hotel looked after the needs of the bullockies and their teams. Most hotels and wine shanties kept a supply of fodder on hand.

Bullockies were renowned for their profane use of language and their heavy drinking along the track. History shows that John Merritt, although industrious and respected by his Adelaide peers, imbibed more than the occasional social drink. Drunkenness was an occupational hazard and occasionally drivers died, crushed to death after falling from their drays in a drunken stupor. Rightly or wrongly bullockies were accused of not caring for the very road verges that supplied sustenance for their teams.

At the beginning of summer 1846 the Register reported: some large crops and stacks near the Dry Creek had a narrow escape, the cause of combustion having been one of those lighted pipes which some folk carry everlastingly in their mouths, to the frequent annoyance of other people, and the imminent risk of the combustible property with which the colony abounds; especially during the season of harvest. The north road now swarms with teamsters, and consequently with smokers—they feed their bullocks and horses at free cost on both sides of the road, and the least they can do is to be very careful not to burn up what they cannot eat.

In September 1848 the miners went on strike and in October William Chace, an Irish teamster, organised a carriers' strike. In a letter published in the Register, addressed to the 'Gentlemen Directors' of the Burra Burra Mine. Chace set out his concerns for general information, and with the advice and consent of some five hundred men:

We feel dissatisfied with the present prices of cartage down at two pounds fifteen shillings per ton of 21 cwt. to the ton. We beg leave to state that this price is not sufficient to meet our expenses in the first place, the Para Plain is now nearly all private property, and we cannot expect to run our bullocks upon it. We have already been told by several parties that we should not run them on their land, so that we must purchase hay for our teams. Eight bullocks will consume one truss of hay each, at two shillings per truss, say sixteen shillings for each trip, at an average of three weeks to the trip.

Then there are our own rations, which, at eight shillings per week, will come to one pound four shillings per trip, if we meet with no delay. For wear and tear per trip, we cannot reckon less than, say, eighteen shillings; our wages per trip of three weeks, at fifteen shillings per week (the same as we pay if we hire), amounts to two pounds five shillings; total expenses, five pounds three shillings, for three tons of copper ore delivered at the Port, for which the present payment is eight pounds five shillings; leaving a balance in our favour of only three pounds two shillings, if we kill no bullocks.

Last summer we lost from two to three hundred bullocks, and we may fully expect to lose more this season if we go; as the feed that is still unenclosed is much worse than it was, and the cattle more apt to stray. We wish the price to be raised to three pounds five shillings per ton down from the Mine between the 1st of October and the 1st of April; and to three pounds fifteen per ton from the 1st of April to the 1st of October; return loads to the Mines from the Port to be three pounds, winter and summer.

We likewise decline to stow any more copper ore in the sheds at the Port; we mean to stick out against this as an infringement upon our rights. We wish to obtain those prices, Gentlemen, because nothing less will fairly pay us, and we earnestly wish you to take this into consideration and grant our requests; if not, we see but one alternative, that is, to lay our whips aside until our lawful object is obtained. In the same newspaper edition, two pages further on, another letter appeared, very much in the style of William Chace, under the pseudonym ‘A teamster,’ calling on his fellow teamsters to strike. It is a valuable insight into the lot of the bullock driver.


Gentlemen— ‘The Press,’ that all-potent engine of modern times, is solicited by the poor bullock-driver, to help his starving team along the road, and through the ‘pinch’. Listen to our story, Gentlemen, and when you have heard but ‘gentle roundelay,’ give us a pull, and when you are hard up, by ‘All the blood of all the Howards,’ all of us will hitch on, and double-bank you through the mud and over the hill. Let what will, you shall never stick for a pull or a pound, any day of the week.

Now to work. The Burra Directors have just now endeavoured to diminish the pay of the labourers and others at the mine to a guinea per week. This is unjust, because the pay of the labourers about Adelaide is 4s per day all the year round; and at hay and wheat harvest more, while provisions there are about 40 per cent, cheaper than at the mine. We, the drivers, sympathise with the demand of the labourers for increased pay, and we are prepared to insist on an increase in the price of the cartage for ourselves, and we will show you good and rational ground for the increase; or, if we cannot, we’ll have none of it.

Now then — A good team of eight bullocks, dray, and apparatus, costs about £100. This team can only be used about 7 ½ months in the year; the rest of the time must be spell time. During the 7½ months, only ten trips can be made. The general average of load will be 2 tons and a half weight, or 2 tons 12½ cwt of actual weight, which will give, for each trip, 137s 6d, or 6s 6d per day, for this most wearisome and exhausting labour; and that, too, when everything goes smooth.

Now I affirm, and my brother whips will re-affirm what I say, that not a score out of hundreds on the road have made, or in the nature of things can make, 10 successful trips in the year. I say 10 trips, without serious loss or breakage; if so, how much does the owner and driver get?— Why not labourers’ wages. The mechanic in town, or elsewhere, gets his 7s or 8s per day; but, mark! he has no anxiety in his mind after his day’s labour is over. He has his clean, soft bed, and, perchance, his own house and smiling wife, dreaming of heaven. He has his well-prepared and punctual meal.

He has his evening to himself by his own ingle, or is at his club-library, or Mechanics’ Institute. On the Sabbath he can go to church with his well-dressed little ones; he has ‘his day of rest’. Does the poor bullock-driver, this poor ‘pariah’ of Australian society, does he have any rest? Look at him on the road, belted and bearded, covered with dust and perspiration. When does he get a comfortable meal, a soft bed, a wash, a shave, or a Sabbath! Perhaps he has to walk hundreds of miles to find lost bullocks.

Last week I met a man who had sold his all to buy a team, and who on this, his first trip, turned out his cattle at the Five-miles Stump, and had been walking after them for more than three weeks, without once hearing of their ‘whereabout’. I myself have had two pairs adrift this six months. I now hear that I may perhaps pick them up at the She Oak Wells, on the Sydney side, so that I have the delightful choice of a journey of 400 or 500 miles for a chance, or at once to abandon them. Will 6s 6d per day compensate for this?

This is not the worst of it either. The Burra people pretend to weigh the ore at the mine, at the thing they call a weighbridge. I call it a steal trap. And why?— It is so uncertain in its operations that it mostly weighs over the actual weight 8, 9, 10, and even 15 cwt in the load; so that after the journey of 200 miles is done, and the bullocks are done— the driver finds that he is done. The true weight at the Port shows the error of the mine weight, and the poor driver is mulct 10s per cwt for all the ore said by the ticket to be short delivered.

I know cases where the drivers have at the mine requested their ores to be re-weighed, or weighed by some other means than the weighbridge, —which has been refused as troublesome. They have then battened them down and padlocked them up; never left them, and even slept upon their drays until the load has been delivered at the Port; the weight at the Port, has shown the error at the mine; the Directors and their semi-professional Secretary have stopped the whole of the cartage for the alleged loss.

I know other cases where three drays in company, one of them protested against the weighing of his load, as the quantity appeared to him small. He was refused any other means (than the steal trap) of re-weighing it. On his arrival at the Port, an error appeared of 8 cwt. Himself and his two mates volunteered affidavits that no loss had occurred, or could occur from the precautions taken. These three men be known to me; two of them are consistent members of Christian churches, and for either of them, had I the means, I would be bound for a large amount. Yet with all the representation made of the care used, and the moral certainty of error in the well-known inaccurate ‘steal trap,’ the Secretary refused to pay the driver.

Now, Gentlemen, mark the liberality and justice of the Board. Other cases occur where the weight has been in the driver’s favour us much as 15 cwt in the load. In the case of alleged loss they have made the driver pay for loss, or rather alleged loss. But do they, in equal justice, pay him 10s per cwt for the excess in their own weighing? No. Then, with the Burra Directors, what is sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander. In the name of all that’s just, if the weighbridge at the mine is not intended to rob the driver, why then not pay him for the excess, as well as mulct him the deficiency?

Now, Gentlemen, have I made out our case— If so, let my brother whips knock off driving until some new and equitable arrangements are made. What I want for us is the honest thing.

1st — A true telling weighbridge.
2dly — A deduction on real loss of the carriage price only.
3dly — For the three spring months of October, November, and December,
£3 per ton for the ore of 20 cwt. to the ton.£3 10s per ton for the three summer months.
And £4 per ton the six winter months; with half these prices for back carriage.

I think this a rational and a moderate advance, warranted at once by the severity of the labour, and the cost of accident, and if this proposition is not cheerfully assented to by the Board, I for one shall knock off, and turn my bullocks into beef, or go to the Reedy Creek and other mines.

One word to my brother-whips. Stick to it, lads. It’s right and just. Stick to it. Don’t yoke a beast after the first of November, until these arrangements are fully made. Meet at the Stone Hut. Let us who have horses take care of the bullocks of those who have none. Let us be all sober, and show the colony that we, bullock-drivers, can do something besides drink grog and ‘talk bullocky’.

Show, I say, that we have shrewdness to perceive and the will to enforce that which is true and right. Shall the Directors, who by a turn of luck, by a ‘happy accident,’ have been whipped round from ‘clowns to gentlemen,’ shall they twist us round their little fingers as they like. Let us show them that we can talk as well — write as well — and, if need be, fight as well for our rights, as any of the ‘snobs’. I am, Gentlemen, and Brother-whips,

The road to the Burra Burra,
October 7th, 1848.

A team of eight working bullocks in the above quoted article was valued at £100. It is interesting to compare this value with the estimated value of £200 given nine years earlier. Three years after settlement in 1839 working bullocks were selling at £50 the pair, and good horses from £100 to £150 each.

The newspapers generally denounced the actions of The South Australian Mining Association and the directors reacted strongly with notices of trial for libel against the editors in respect of leading articles published in the Observer and Register newspapers “making very strong remarks in reference to the conduct of the Directors of the Mining Association, which have been interpreted, to imply a charge of corruption against the whole or a portion of their body.” The Editor of the Register apologised exonerating the Directors from all corrupt motives.

The jiggery-pokery of the Mining Association directors show the phenomenon of spin is not new. In an attempt to sway public opinion they declared “practically there is and has been no strike” and “the suspension of the underground operations at the mine had been determined on previous to the visit by the Directors to the mine in September last, and previous to any intimation of a strike. That determination was duly carried into effect. Since then, surface operations have gone on as usual; and there has been no want of labourers, or of miners, and other skilled artisans, for all the work which the Association have in progress.”

The directors dismissed William Chace’s denouncement of the Burra Directors as rubbish and “that they did not know of discontent among the carriers of ore, or of any intention of a strike by them.” For some months the Mining Association had banned Chace from carting for them.

William Chace soon after advertised for his ‘brother-bullock drivers’ to strike again, this time at O’Leary’s Sod Hut Inn, a day’s travel south of the mine. On 17 October 1848 the carriers stopped carting to Burra. About eighty to one hundred bullock drivers camped at the Sod Hut and sent word to the storemen of Burra that if they wanted their goods they had to come out to the camp and get them.

Later, William Chace was sent by Adelaide brothers, Doctors William James Browne and John Harris Browne, to explore the Flinders Ranges north of Port Augusta for suitable land and discovered the Arkaba, Wilpena and Aroona country. Hans Mincham, a historian with a long time interest in the Flinders Ranges, credits William Chace with discovery of the 29 square miles mountain basin known as the Wilpena Pound. In 1850, piloted by natives, Chace found the Wilpena and Willowicannia Creeks.

The Browne brothers applied for leases in the area in December 1850. In June 1851 the Register reported “new pastoral country has been discovered north of Mt Eyre. … It is a mountainous country and the ranges rise to a height of about two thousand feet. There are several streams some of which are said to run the whole year.” The land was described by a surveyor in the same article as, “a piece of level land capable of depasturing five hundred head of cattle, surrounded by perpendicular rocks which rise to a height of a thousand feet, and there is only one point of ingress or egress, a narrow swampy gorge, which the cattle will not willingly pass. It has been named the pound. Mr C N Bagot claims the honour of discovering this new country.”

The Chace Range on Arkaba station’s eastern boundary is a lasting record of William Chace’s discoveries and endeavours in the area.


With special thanks to Lance Merritt for permission to publish this article.
It is part of his, as yet unpublished, manuscript Merritt's Grand Junction Inn.


Bullocks have been used for more than a hundred years in South Australia. In August 1905 they made news when a horse, belonging to R. Salmon was gored to death at Quorn. That same month a team of bullocks, who had just been yoked at Eurelia, was attacked by a stray bull. It took six men to separate the animals. One bullock was badly injured while the others were 'much knocked about'.

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