Moonta copper mine South Australia

The Moonta Mine

'Wherever there's a hole in the ground,
you'll find a Cousin Jack at the bottom of it'

In 1861 Irish shepherd Patrick Ryan, while looking after sheep for Captain Walter Watson Hughes, a retired sea captain, discovered copper at a place known to the local Aborigines as Moonta-Moonterra. The Tiparra Mineral Association, renamed the Moonta Mining Company, was formed a year later and named the first shaft after Ryan. A pumping station was also named after Ryan.

Because of the phenomenal richness of the deposits, some of which averaged between twenty and thirty per cent, Moonta Mines was worked without the need to borrow money. All its funds came from the sale of copper. The Moonta Company produced more than $10 million worth of copper. It paid its first dividend in 1863. By 1875 Moonta had a population of twelve thousand and was the second largest town in South Australia, surpassing Cornwall as the largest copper region in the British Empire.

The first four miners to work the Moonta deposit came from nearby Wallaroo Mines which had opened the previous year. Their first job was to sink trial pits. The ore from these shallow shafts was hauled to the surface in a bucket by means of a horse whim. At the surface it was the job of the pickey boys to dress the ore. The rich ore known as prill was bagged and transported to the smelters.

They were followed by Cornish miners and tradesmen from all over South Australia. One of these was John Tonkin, a blacksmith at Kanmantoo, who decided that more and better opportunities would be available at Moonta. Several thousand miners and farmers in Cornwall had the same idea and migrated to work in the Moonta, Wallaroo, Poona, Yelta, Parrara and Paramatta mines or the Wheal Hughes or Wheal James.

Cornish miners usually worked on a tribute system, where they received a percentage of the value of the ore mined. All worked under the directions of Captains. (managers or foremen) Two of the first captains were James Warmington and his brother William. They, and their brother Eneder who arrived in South Australia on the Gilmore in 1857, already had many years of mining experience in Cornwall and America. Unfortunately for them, their early experiences in South Australia were not very happy ones.

In October 1862 James Warmington was dismissed as Chief Captain and replaced by his brother William. Eneder gained the post of Captain at the nearby Wallaroo mine but neither of them was able to establish a satisfactory working relationship with staff or workers. By 1864 miners refused to work and both Wallaroo and Moonta men went on an extensive strike, demanding the dismissal of both brothers. When the company refused to back them up they announced their resignation.

Both Captains died shortly afterwards from cancer. Eneder on 24 December 1864 and William on 24 September 1866. In contrast with the often poor development and lack of scientific treatment at earlier mines, Moonta mine provided an example of prudent ore conservation, technical innovation and sound planning. The man responsible for this envious record was H.R.H. Hancock.

Captain Henry Richard Hancock became Chief Captain and Superintendent of the mines in 1864 at the age of twenty-eight. His appointment followed the ten week strike by the miners who had complained about continuous poor management which threatened their income and employment prospects. In typical Cornish solidarity they formed a union which was promptly disbanded after achieving their aims. Their main grievance had been the Warmington's mining methods which, they said, were twenty years behind the time.

Hancock put Moonta on the map and ruled the mines for thirty-four years. Dressed in his long coat and wearing a belltopper this benevolent dictator maintained strict discipline as he organised and controlled the mines. He was responsible for numerous improvements at Moonta such as the introduction of skips, the invention of the Hancock Jig and the use of kibbles. Hancock was also responsible for the employment of local Aborigines on the mine.

An Adelaide paper reported in 1869 that on 18 May at the Moonta Institute, a tea meeting was held for the benefit of the Aborigines working at the mine, with their lubras and piccaninnies. A goodly number of them are in constant employment and earning between three and four shillings a day.

At the same time Hancock developed an advanced welfare policy, established a school for the pickey boys, and a library for those interested in advancing themselves. His determination to expand and exploit the mines sometimes brought him into conflict with more cautious directors and shareholders. But for the most part, decisions were left to Captain Hancock. In 1876, after many years of large dividends, the Moonta Mining Company became the first Australian mining company to pay a million pounds in dividends. By this time the mine employed more than 1,700 men and boys. Hancock ruled the mines until 1898 when his job was passed on to his son Henry Lipton Hancock.

The government town of Moonta was surveyed in 1863 and town lots offered for sale in April of that year. More than 230 lots were sold, mostly to people from Adelaide. Most miners built their own cottages resulting in sub-standard housing. Among them was the Verran family, who had migrated to South Australia shortly after the birth of their son John in August 1856. They lived first at Kapunda before moving to Moonta where John started work as a pickey-boy. In 1910 Verran became the first Labor leader of the first Labor Government in the world.

Living conditions in and around the mine and town of Moonta were terrible in the early days. With no available surface water most people died from typhoid. During 1873 as many as 327 people died, the vast majority from typhoid, including numerous children. Underground life was not much easier.
During the time of the mine's operation more than 70 men and boys lost their lives.

It was not until the 1890s that Moonta had a fresh water supply. After rain, desperate people would scoop it up from puddles and wheel ruts on the roads. The mine later built a condensing plant and distilled the water pumped from the shafts. This was sold for six pence (five cents) per bucket.

In 1889, as a result of falling copper prices the company amalgamated with the Wallaroo mines and became the Wallaroo and Moonta Mining and Smelting Company with Henry Richard Hancock as its general manager.

Moonta Cemetery


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