Mining in the Northern Flinders Ranges

Mining in the
Northern Flinders Ranges

During the 1840s, particularly after 1844, the Northern Flinders Ranges were settled by enterprising pastoralists, who often risked life, limb and capital while trying to establish themselves and their runs. Some of these men had been very successful in the eastern colonies when they were first opened up. Pastoral settlement though, did not often lead to establishment of inland towns in South Australia as business and financial dealings were mainly with a coastal capital.

After the 1850s it did not rely on a great labour force either. Nevertheless it did lead to the opening up of the interior, including the semi-arid parts of South Australia. Until 1857, very little government energy was directed towards the discovery and opening up of the Northern Flinders Ranges. Almost all of it was done by enterprising individuals, mostly pastoralists. As well as their sheep, these pastoralists also brought their shepherds. These very shepherds, often bored to the extent that some even committed suicide, were the ones who made most of the early mineral discoveries.

The first mineral discovered, and mined in the Northern Flinders, was not copper, or gold, but the famous red ochre from the Parachilna area. This particular ochre was sought after by many Aborigines, especially members of the Dierie tribe of Central Australia. Tribal elders would send some of their younger members, with a message-stick and gifts to the Parachilna deposit and in return would seek permission from the local tribe to mine the ochre.

On their way to the diggings, these early miners would brave many hardships such as heat, cold, lack of water, unfriendly tribes and shortage of food, just to obtain this treasured mineral. If permission were finally obtained, they would still have to mine this ochre, without pick and shovel, and carry it back for hundreds of kilometres without the benefit of wheelbarrows used by the later white miners.

To do this they developed a method which was just as efficient. They would carry a block of ochre to the nearest waterhole or spring, mix ochre and water into a paste and shape it again into a block, with a slight hollow at the bottom. When all this was accomplished they were able to carry the ochre on their heads all the way back to their own tribal area. Still it seemed worth all the effort, because this was considered the 'proper' ochre and obviously far superior to deposits available at Mungerannie on the Birdsville Track or Lyndhurst, hundreds of kilometres closer to their homes.

These ochre trips came to a sudden stop in 1863 when the manager of Beltana Station shot three of the Aboriginal miners. Some reports state that as many as forty or fifty could have been killed. Very few Aboriginal miners travelled south after this incident. The distribution throughout central and eastern Australia of the ochre though, have made the Northern Flinders Ranges one of 'the oldest international trade routes in the world'. The mining of ochre had certainly not finished. As late as 1950 the Beltana Paint Mine was worked spasmodically by a group of white miners who had again found use for it.

Although the pastoral population was extremely mobile, to the extent that almost every observer was 'forcibly struck' by it, the mining population was just as, if not more, mobile! Within a short time, but particularly during the late 1850s, many a prospector or speculator visited the Northern Flinders Ranges from Oratunga and Blinman in the south to as far north as the Yudanamutana area. They were checking out rumours of supposedly rich finds made by shepherds or Aborigines. Their reports in turn attracted even more prospectors and miners, leading to many more mineral discoveries, especially copper deposits.

Coppermania had moved from the settled districts of South Australia to - and beyond - the Northern Flinders Ranges, and dominated life there in one way or another. In fact, in no other Australian colony did copper have such a dominating effect on the social and mineral scene as in South Australia. Within an amazingly short time, copper became to South Australia what wool had been to Victoria, the main source of its prosperity and rapid development of wealth. Barely twenty years had passed since a similar eagerness to find copper, or any other mineral for that matter, had saved the young and bankrupt colony of South Australia.

Mining as a serious industry had started in 1840 and mines like the Kapunda, discovered in 1842, and the Burra, discovered in 1845, received much publicity in colonial and overseas newspapers. They had also brought new confidence and prosperity to the early settlers and South Australia. Other mines would do the same, time and time again during the next 150 years. It could well be argued that the history of South Australia is the history of mining as for many years the 'mining industry has formed one of the most important and valuable aids to the development of the colony'.

As soon as the first discoveries of minerals became known, serious attempts were made to exploit them. In 1843, the value of copper ore exported from South Australia amounted to $48. That same year also saw the formation of the Australian Mining Company, with the ex-Commissioners Torrens and Palmer among its directors. They were the first of many public servants and politicians to become directors of mining companies in South Australia.

The original intention of the Australian Mining Company was to come to an agreement with the Colonial Office in London for 'a monopoly of all mines in South Australia belonging to the crown, upon the basis of a lease with rights of mining, upon payment of a royalty upon the produce'. This came to nothing and in March 1845, the South Australian Mining Association was formed, 'to enable colonists to preserve mineral wealth from overseas speculators'.

This company may have been successful in many other ways, but it certainly was not able to preserve the mineral wealth of South Australia from overseas speculators or investors. Right from the start, many of South Australia's mining ventures were owned by overseas capitalists. This applied also to the mines in the Northern Flinders Ranges. Of course it is debatable whether South Australia would have been able to develop these deposits without overseas capital, expertise or management, especially in the early part of its history when the population was still very small.

Fortunately not everyone was against foreign investment. Some people actively supported the investment of English capital. For instance, Francis Dutton, part-owner of the Kapunda mine, wrote in his 'South Australia and its Mines', published in London in 1846, 'It needs but to make the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, known, to convince the British public, that the time is come, when their capital ought to be diverted from being employed in foreign countries... to a province which forms a portion of the British Empire, is inhabited by their countrymen, under the rule of British protection and British laws, and which moreover affords them prospects such as few of the vaunted foreign mines can compete with... Those who have already embarked in mining operations in this colony, will assuredly have no cause to regret... In South Australia it is a well known fact that thousands of tons of ore are lying at the mouth of the mines'.

Some years later a similar point was made when a local newspaper reported that the daily increasing importance of the mining interest of South Australia was one of the most striking features of its industrial history. An even stronger opinion was expressed by J.B. Hughes the next year when he said 'I believe it was of the utmost importance to South Australia that mines should be worked by English capitalists'.

Foreign investment or not, mining, in particular copper mining, had commenced. During 1842, the first officially recorded year of mineral production, two tons of copper ore were produced, valued at $207. A year later the value of mineral production increased to $372. In 1844, and with the Kapunda mine in operation, mineral production reached the staggering amount - for that time - of $13,000 earning badly needed export income.

South Australia's huge import bill of that year was $238,000. In 1845 the value of mineral production more than doubled and it kept on increasing in both volume and value every year until 1852, when the goldrushes of the eastern colonies put a temporary stop to it. But it had then reached a value of $750,000, which exceeded the value of both wheat and wool by more than $52,000. Not only that, it amounted also to about half the value of South Australia's imports of that year.

Copper mining and mania made a huge impact on the young colony and although they were interrupted by gold fever, more than once, they were there to stay for several decades yet. South Australia's early mining industry also provided employment, both directly and indirectly, for a large number of the colony's population and 'contributed significantly to the contemporary industrial world's demand' for copper.

Regardless of its real importance to the local economy, the early mining industry in South Australia never really attained the same degree of importance as it had in some of the other colonies. Early South Australia never had windfalls like a Broken Hill or a Mount Lyell.

South Australia's miners earned very good incomes. They earned more than they had ever done before in Cornwall or anywhere else. In 1849 miners were paid at a rate of $3.30-$4.20 per week, and it was said that the large sums they earned enabled them to bring up and educate their children without difficulty. In 1861, the South Australian census recorded 1,908 men as miners, or 3.75% of the workforce. Of this number, 1,264 were involved in copper mining. Five years later the census recorded 7% or 3,500 men as miners, out of a total male workforce of 50,000 producing $1,650.000 worth of minerals. Since that year the percentage of people employed in the South Australian mining industry has steadily declined, as population increased and mining became more Capital intensive rather than Labour intensive.

The 1981 census listed only 4,151 persons employed in this industry or 0.8% of South Australia's workforce. In 1994 the number employed in the mining industry in South Australia was 6,000 or 0.9%. The monetary value of mineral production also declined after 1861, and it was not until 1915, that the figure of $2,000,000 was passed. Since that year the value of South Australia's mineral production increased dramatically until it reached more than one billion dollars in 1989, again earning badly needed income from taxes, royalties and exports for her economy.


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