Willunga Slate South Australian History

First opened up in 1840, still producing in 2004

Slate at Willunga

Slate was first discovered in South Australia in 1840 by Edward Loud on his property near Willunga. In June of that same year it was reported that the quarry was exhaustless and would become a valuable article of export. By August, when another quarry had also started production, Loud was able to employ about a dozen families. In November 1841 a contract was secured for the supply of 20,000 slates for Sydney. By the middle of 1842 the demand from New South Wales and Victoria for slate was increasing rapidly.

Bangor slate quarry 2002

During the latter part of 1844 demand for slate was strong enough for a quarry to be opened at Brown Hill Creek, near Adelaide, which had very strong slate, fit for flooring or durable street flagging. Since that time slate has been produced to be used for shingles, mantle pieces, fencing, fence posts, paving, roofing tiles, floors, tables, work benches, sills, kerbs, steps, tombstones, blackboards, slates, troughs, vats, pavements, table tops, water and fermenting tanks, cricket pitches, bridges, hearths, posts and pillars. Even sidewalks in Adelaide and Melbourne were made from slate. When powdered slate is mixed with limestone (1:3) it makes a good cement.

Hand operated slate cutter,
built in 1881, still working in 2002.

By the end of 1841 four other quarries, Bastian's, Bangor, Delabole and Martin's had joined Loud's. In 1865 The Original Willunga Slate Quarry Limited was formed by Sampson Bastian, farmer of Willunga, Joseph Butterworth, miller of Aldinga, Charles Sanders, builder of Adelaide, Richard Hill, farmer of Willunga, William Laycock, Joseph and William Daws, all three stonemasons of Adelaide. Their property consisted of ten acres of freehold land and known as Bastian's Slate quarry. This quarry had been worked for twenty years and during the last five years, while worked by seven men, made a profit of 300 pounds a year.

Business was good and in January 1874 the Willunga Slate Quarries advertised for good Quarrymen. They would be paid two guineas per week or, if they preferred, on piecework. They could apply to J. Kernick & Co who operated the quarries at that time.

The slate from this quarry had been used for flagging, roofing and many other purposes and was known to be superior to any slate from England. Bastian was certain that the introduction of more capital would return large profits and offered it to the public for five thousand pound. in shares of five pounds each. The owners were to receive one hundred paid up shares plus the sum of 1800 pounds.

The Delabole Slate Quarry was started by W.B. Male, an early migrant from Cornwall. In 1853 the quarry was bought by John Allen, who worked it until 1860 when he sold it. In September 1865 the Delabole Slate Company, with George Abbott as secretary, advertised for a working foreman, one who understood the workings of a slate quarry in all its branches. He had to be able to keep account of the men's time and communicate occasionally with the secretary. A residence would be provided at the quarry for the successful applicant. In 1867 the quarry was worked by the South Australian Delabole Slate Company with James. S. Scott acting as its secretary. In December 1868 it was able to declare a dividend of one shilling per share.

In 1872 John Allen bought it back and worked it until July 1875. During that month the company Chairman, Henry Thompson, called an extraordinary meeting of its shareholders and it was decided that the company should be wound up. Scott was appointed liquidator. The quarry has later been worked a number of times by different companies until 1915 when production was stopped. Roofing slates from the Delabole quarry have been used on several Adelaide buildings, including the Post Office, Town Hall, Museum and Adelaide University.

Bangor slate 2002

Martin's quarry was opened up by Thomas Williams and Thomas Polkinghorne. It too changed ownership on several occasions and finally stopped production in 1912. With most of the quarries a few kilometres from the town of Willunga, many of the workers and their families lived around the quarries. At Delabole, started in the early 1840s, nearly a hundred people lived on site and even built their own church. The majority of them, as in the other quarries, came from Cornwall

In 1868 Willunga residents built the Saint Joseph School, which was the third school in South Australia dedicated to St Joseph. Mary MacKillop visited the school on several occasions before it was closed in 1882.

St Joseph School

St Joseph Church at Easter

By the 1870s Loud's quarry had long since closed but the other four still employed some sixty men. Even though galvanised iron was replacing some of the demand for slate, the quarries could barely keep up the supply. In May 1872 the Strathmore left Port Willunga with 120 tons of slate for Melbourne. A few months later it was reported that the slate trade provided employment for the Strathmore, which had just completed her second trip from Port Willunga to Melbourne with another 120 tons of slate.

Most of the slate from Willunga was carted by bullock teams to Port Adelaide and to the ports at Aldinga and Willunga. In 1891 two ships a week were loaded, each carrying 20,000 slates. Living in Willunga at that time were J.M.Cornelius and Thomas Martin, both slate merchants and more than twenty quarrymen and labourers. On 29 May 1885, Hugh Chenoweth, aged only twenty-three, was killed at the Bangor Quarry.

The severe and prolonged depression of the 1890's resulted in the decline of the slate industry and only a few men were employed at Willunga and at Mintaro.

Roofing slate

Shortage of building materials after the First World War caused a renewal of the industry. A new plant was opened by Australian Slate Quarries, at the old Bangor quarry, in 1921. The official opening was to be performed by the Governor of South Australia, but as it was too cold he declined. The new works comprised a new dressing mill forty metres long and fifteen metres wide, a hundred horsepower boiler to provided steam and many other engines and machines. The slate was obtained from seventy metres below ground level needing a five ton steam crane to lift the slate from the quarry. The new company also installed an air compressor to operate the drilling and cutting machines. However, a hand operated slate cutting machine, built in 1881, is still in use today.

During the official opening in 1921, Managing director John Dunstan and his sons Basil and Stanley were kept very busy showing everyone around. A demonstration of splitting slate with a wooden mallet was provided by Bill Meverley and John Kernick. Some other men, including Harry Stevens, Jack Reed and Tom Allen showed how the slate was moved from the quarry to the cutting area. Among some of the special guests were J.R.P. Male who at the age of ten had started working in a Cornish slate quarry before coming to South Australia and working at Willunga. Another old timer was G.E. Eden, originally from South Devon where he began his quarry work at the age of nine, before settling down in Willunga.

Slate headstone

During the depression of the 1930s, and as a result of the continuous import of overseas slate, very little work was done in any of the Willunga quarries. As the old experienced quarrymen and splitters retired, very few of them were replaced with young men to learn the trade. By the late 1940s Premier Thomas Playford suggested that migrants with these skills may have to be attracted to keep the quarries operating.

During the late 1960s a Victorian company opened up new quarries, while the Bangor quarry was managed by B.G. Dunstan. Once again Willunga slate was exported to Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia.

Today Willunga's famous slate industry is once again in operation. The new leaseholders and operators are Ken and Marie McAllen. It has also the only slate museum in Australia and is well worth a visit.

Many of the early quarry workers found their final place of rest at one of the Willunga Cemeteries.

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