Johann Menge, South Australia's first geologist

Johannes Menge

Father of South Australian Mineralogy.

Johann Menge, was a man of considerable scientific and linguistic skills. He became one of the most important people associated with early South Australian mining. Born in Steinau, Hesse, Germany on 20 January, 1788 he came to Kangaroo Island, on 12 January, 1837. He had been hired by the South Australian Company as their Mine and Quarry Agent and Geologist. It was his task to investigate the potential for water supplies, minerals, including coal, and quarries. 'Professor' Menge, as he was often called, had little formal education but as a result of his extended wanderings through Europe, he spoke many different languages and had gained a good knowledge of Geology, philosophy, medicine and religion. In 1821 he was awarded the honorary degree of Professor of Mineralogy at the University of Lubeck.

Having lived in England for some years, after the death of his wife in 1830, where he got to know George Fife Angas, he obtained his job at $300 per year plus a bonus for any minerals discovered. He left England on the Coromandel. After a short time on Kangaroo Island he was dismissed by the company's manager on 30 June 1838 and Menge moved to the mainland. On the mainland he now explored on his own account covering an area from Mount Remarkable to Cape Jervis. His activities encouraged the spread of settlement, further exploration and an interest in South Australia's mineral wealth. When the first Lutherans arrived in Adelaide it was Menge who assisted in their resettlement from the Adelaide Hills to the Barossa Valley.

In 1840 Menge announced his intention of making up a series of collections of the rocks, minerals, gums and metals he had collected. Strong interest was shown by the Governor, the colonial chaplain and many others. By the end of 1840 Menge had collected more than two hundred mineral specimens and in 1841 his booklet, The Mineral Kingdom of South Australia was printed as were several other papers at a later date. Some of his first discoveries were the copper in the Adelaide Hills and opal at Angaston. On his recommendation George Fife Angas bought 11,200 hectares of land which he called New Silesia, which 'would become the first mining country in all Australia'. The area eventually became known as the Barossa Valley, now world famous for its wine industry.

For a while Menge lived at Menge's Island on the banks of Jacobs Creek on a property now owned by the Cramp family, makers of Orlando Wines. From here he wrote to England that his garden was stocked with the finest vegetables and that he would open a school as soon as he had built his house. Menge would like to teach his students the oriental languages. He was quite certain that the valley would soon flourish with vineyards, orchards and immense fields of corn.

Menge applied several times unsuccessfully for the position of Government Geologist. The Governor however was not interested, nor did the colony have the money. Menge's exploits aided the discovery and development of Burra and Kapunda, officially opened by Menge, which saved South Australia from economic ruin in the 1840s. As a teacher, linguist and editor of the first German language newspaper, he influenced many of the early colonists. Although some of his ideas such as a university, colleges, grammar schools and a school of mines were well ahead of its time, they all materialized eventually. When Governor Grey and his wife wanted Menge to teach them Hebrew he refused because the governor would not establish a School of Mines. Menge left Adelaide in 1852 for the Victorian goldfields with nearly fifty miners to dig under his directions at Forest Creek. Menge died of exhaustion and poor health later that year at the diggings.


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