Blinman South Australian History

BLINMAN,
the first ten years.

On a hot December day in 1859 Robert Blinman, a shepherd employed at H.C. Swan's Angorichina station observed a great mineral outcrop on top of a hill, about thirty metres above a creek. To him it looked not only big, but also promising enough to gamble a few weeks' wages on. He needed at least $10 to make a mineral application to secure the outcrop and the area around it. Blinman's application was approved on 9 February 1860 and surveyed on 10 May 1860.

Map of Blinman

Like most other shepherds, Robert Blinman would not have had too many $10 notes to gamble with, but he was able to convince others of the richness of the copper outcrop. When the lease was issued on 1 January 1861 it was made out in the names of Robert Blinman, Alfred Frost, Joe Mole and Henry Alford. They all contributed to the $80 needed for the first year's rent. Their lease was one of 116 others taken out that year in South Australia and eventually became the largest and most productive copper mine in the Flinders Ranges.

As was usually the case, no sooner had Blinman been granted his mineral application, than numerous other applications were made for sections around Blinman's original lease. As early as 25 February 1862 Robert Blinman and the other leaseholders sold their mine, known as the Wheal Blinman, to the Yudanamutana Copper Mining Company of South Australia, for $12,000. This English company hired Captain Thomas Anthony and work was started in earnest.

Work at the mine was started by stoping away the top of the deposit on the hill, which was a 'splendid' ore body, nearly two and a half metres wide. By the end of 1862 five shafts had been sunk into the deposit, the main shaft reaching a depth of eighteen metres. More that six hundred tons of ore were recovered, four hundred of which were estimated to yield about forty percent copper.

Mining the copper ore, although certainly not a simple process, was at times the easiest part of the total production process. One of the most troublesome parts was transporting the ore to the smelters. With no smelters available at the mine yet, the copper ore was taken along a worse than torturous track via Wilpena and Arkaba stations to Port Augusta. This route was later changed and went through Brachina Gorge.


The old road to the Blinman mine.

The Blinman mine had started to take on an almost permanent character by the mid 1860s. Tents were slowly replaced by a number of substantial pine huts, some of which were occupied by miners who had left the Burra mine. The grass always seemed to be greener somewhere else! A good store of galvanised iron, offices and the Captain's house had all been completed. The Captain's residence was to be the home for most of the captains of the mine. Later several rooms were added. The original part of the house was set into the side of a hill, and contained almost any kind of building material in use during its 125 years of expansion, alteration and renovation.

Still not everything went as well as hoped. Although there were some fine springs in the immediate neighbourhood, no water was available at Blinman. A well had been sunk in the creek to a depth of forty metres, but no water was obtained. The continuous lack of rain during 1863 and later years worried the management, miners, their families and above all the important bullock drivers who relied on fodder growing on the sides of the tracks between Blinman and Port Augusta.

The problem for them was that the whole intervening country was already taken up for sheep runs, and it was only natural that the sheep owners should keep other grass in reserve and send their flocks first to those parts which were available to anyone. What remained on the tracks was therefore scarce at the best of times and gave very little sustenance for the bullocks.

To reduce the wasteful practice of transporting ore rather than copper, the Blinman mine owners began the building of two furnaces. These were badly needed as already more than four thousand tons of ore had accumulated at the mine. Transport remained the one big factor which determined the success or failure of most mining ventures in the Northern Flinders Ranges. Later traction engines were imported by the Yudanamutana Company which now ran both the Yudanamutana and the Blinman mines.

In 1869 a Select Committee, formed to look into the problems of the Northern Flinders Ranges, reported that it was exceedingly rich in mineral deposits and offered a rare opportunity for the profitable investment of Capital. It found that the Blinman mine supported a population of 1,500 persons, and that if transport were offered, many mines of equal or superior value could be worked immediately. Therefore, it was of the utmost importance that a railway to the Far North should be constructed.

During the next twenty years many discussions would start with the prefix 'if a railway was available' or 'if a railway had been finished'. When the railway finally became available to Blinman, the ore and copper still had to be transported through the Parachilna Gorge over a distance of thirty-five kilometres to reach the railway platform at Parachilna.

The only help afforded by the government had been the sinking of wells along the major transport routes. As a result of the large and continuous amount of traffic it did not take long for a hotel and store to be opened at Edeowie in 1863, to cater for the thirsty bullockies and other travellers between Port Augusta and Blinman.

At the Blinman mine several miners and contractors had brought their families and built cottages. Conditions for their wives were difficult if not impossible at times. Both water and firewood had to be brought in from a long way. As very few women had servants, the best they could do was relying on the help of their older sons and daughters. Women also had to endure the burden of repeated pregnancies.

Sadly many women died in childbirth, as did Jane Trevorrow, who was only thirty, on 9 April 1864, and Mary Jane Duck aged 31, on 11 June 1866, who left her husband with four children, the youngest being only fifteen months old. However women whose husbands died, were often worse off than men whose wives died. No pension was provided by the government or the mining company, not even if the death was caused by an accident in the mine.

Sampson Serle, aged twenty-six, died on 17 May 1869 at the mine from inflammation of the lungs. No help had been available for him, nor had there been any for Annie Martin, who had been living in a tent near the mine where she worked as a prostitute. She died on 19 December 1863 from Venereal Disease. Still life had to go on. Regardless of the often uncertain future people did marry, even though it had to be delayed at times because there was no Minister or Priest available.

It was not until 1864 before the government was convinced that the mine was going to be a lasting proposition. In that year it instructed Thomas Evans to survey a town about three kilometres south from the mine workings. This seemed a very good idea as it would reduce the amount of noise, dust and all the other inconveniences caused by the mine. The noise would have been almost deafening at times from the crushers, boilers, winding machinery, pumps, screaming and cursing bullock drivers etc.. The dust problem would have been even worse. Bullock, camel, donkey and horse teams would reduce the tracks, leading to the mine and the immediate area around it, to a fine powdery dust which would penetrate all the tents and houses, and hang in the air for hours. Occasional wind and storms would compound this even further.

Evans laid out 162 allotments and named the town Blinman, after Robert Blinman who had discovered the copper, which had given rise to first a mine and now the town. No other mining town in South Australia has ever honoured a shepherd in such a way. Unfortunately very little else was ever received by Robert Blinman. With six children now, the Blinman family moved once more. This time it was to the Beltana pastoral station. Soon after their arrival, two of their children, Selina and Martin, died of the fever, Selina on 7 January 1862 and Martin five days later.

The congregation of so many miners and teamsters, most of whom were single or had left their families down south, soon caused James Wauhop, the local Mounted Constable, a few headaches. Apart from the normal police duties, James Wauhop also had to look after his wife who had on 14 November 1865 given birth to a daughter. After that it was back to collecting all sorts of statistical information, collecting ballot boxes on polling days, issuing and collection of all kind of licences and fees, arresting serious lawbreakers even though they had no real gaol as yet.

Blinman being a hot and dusty place, and water often very unreliable, it did not take long for some enterprising gentleman to build a hotel. The North Star Hotel, with H.D. Barclay as publican opened for business in July 1863. With the large number of claims taken out and worked around the Blinman it soon became obvious that more services had to be provided to the miners and their families. A post office was opened at Blinman in 1863, and tenders were received for a regular mailrun between Melrose and Blinman. Before long Blinman itself became a mail exchange centre providing weekly runs to the Nuccaleena and Yudanamutana mines.


Faulkner's second hotel.

With the extension of the drought into 1864, and the ever increasing transport costs, the Yudanamutana Copper Mining Company of South Australia was forced to stop mining operations at Yudanamutana and concentrate all its efforts on the Blinman mine. As the effects of the drought were biting deeper, production at Blinman was also slowed down. As a result of the prolonged drought mining was abandoned almost everywhere in the Northern Flinders Ranges, but at the Blinman they struggled through bravely, selling their ore to England, that is if they could get it to Port Augusta.

In 1869 R.A. Fiveash, the newly appointed superintendent, employed more than two hundred men at the mine. When those engaged in woodcutting, woodcarting, raising ore, dressing ore and so on are included, the total number of men working for the company numbered nearly seven hundred! Smelting at the mine was carried out with wood as the expense of getting up coal from Newcastle via Port Augusta was too great. Even the supply of timber was at times in doubt. Some of it came from as far away as Melrose, where farmers were clearing the dense vegetation. They turned this costly process into profit by selling wood to teamsters as backloading to the Blinman mine.

Fiveash was able to smelt about 450 tons of ore a month, which could be increased to a thousand tons a month if a railway and coal were available. Regardless of the $4,000 a year paid for cartage, the Blinman mine had made a profit and paid out dividends to its shareholders, the first mine in the Northern Flinders Ranges to do so!

With the increasing prosperity of the mine and the promise made in 1869 by J. Wallace 'that the Great Northern Railway Company of South Australia would bring the line to the Blinman mine', many more mineral claims were made around and near the Blinman mine. Not only had the mining prospects improved with the breaking of the drought, but business in general seemed to pick up in the north and in Blinman in particular. After the rains, food became available for bullocks and horses, and transportation of mail, supplies and people returned to normal. In 1869 Cobb and Co's coaches resumed their services to the north and called in at Blinman once a week.

The mail was delivered during that year from Burra via Melrose once a week by John McDonald. This arrangement was changed in April 1868 when the mail went via Kanyaka, and was to be carried in a four-wheeled vehicle, drawn by at least two horses and to be licensed to carry at least three passengers plus guard. This time the contract was secured by McDonald and Hoskins, who had the responsibility of delivering the mail on time and undamaged to the postmaster at Blinman.

At times the mail coach was held up by swollen creeks during violent thunderstorms, or had to be pulled out by a team of bullocks. At other times they were not so lucky. During a January flashflood the mailcoach was swept away and driver and passengers had a rather wet and cold night camping on the bank of the creek. Next morning only three wheels could be found a few kilometres down the creek, the coach itself being completely destroyed. This was not really all that unusual. Twenty years before, in June 1852, the Burra mail cart of John Chambers was swept away in the flooded River Light, drowning its five passengers.

Delivering Her Majesty's Royal Mail had other hazards as well. During a September trip in 1870 R. Kirwan, the maildriver, came in for some rough treatment when the reins from his leading horses broke. When he tried to jump out and catch them, he fell and the coach wheels went over his arms. Kirwan escaped serious injury but was severely bruised. At another time the mailcoach was used by a very upset Blinman husband who was in pursuit of his eloped wife and the $200 and a pair of horses she had taken with her.

With the continuous increase in Blinman's population (nearly 1,500 in 1869) many children were roaming the streets and surrounding hills. No doubt they had a good time but received little formal education. This service became available during 1868. School was held in the local chapel which catered for ninety-five students by 1872. The most important service which became available to the residents of Blinman was that of a local doctor. Unfortunately Dr. Andreas Vonnida could do little to save the life of little Flora Williams, aged five who died on 18 September 1869, nor that of John Thomas' two year old son John, who died on 7 July 1870. Little Johnny had been accidentally struck on the head with a pick by little William Morgan, while they were 'playing miners'.

Development of a different nature was the establishment in July 1869 of the Blinman Lodge of the Ancient Order of Forresters with eleven members, followed in November by the Independent Order of Rechabites. Better shopping facilities also became available. The miners and their families had previously been served by hawkers but now they had shops in the main street. Last but not least there was the North Blinman Hotel opened in 1869 by Charles Faulkner, and a brewery by Charles H. Gray and David Hart.

As far as the mine itself was concerned it could not have looked better. Fiveash had invited tenders for shaft sinking rather than using wage labour. Captain Terrell was making great progress underground and thought it 'the finest lode he had ever seen'. Best of all, they had struck water. This had been a major problem in all other mines and would also create problems at Blinman such as the cost of investing in pumping equipment and not being able to mine any deeper until these pumps were installed. On the positive side there was the advantage of a reliable water supply for the town and the mine.

For the time being though there was enough copper ore above the water level to keep everybody busy for some time to come. Captain Terrell did not hesitate to call the Blinman mine 'the best in the colony'. Work on an engine shaft was progressing well and had reached a depth of thirty metres, whereas from some of the stopes enough ore was raised to keep two furnaces going. Captain Terrell hoped to get the engine shaft to the same depth as Hill's shaft where they had struck water.

During January 1872, the Blinman mine was visited by Professor G.H.F. Ulrich, who reported that mine exploration had been conducted in a rather irregular manner, owing to the practice of following only the richer veins, or only working the larger pockets of ore. As a result of this practice immense stopes, or cavities, connected by narrow drives had been formed. Most of the openings underground needed little timbering as the rock was very hard and stable. This he said, was a great saving as timber needed for this kind of work could not be obtained within a radius of seventy-five kilometres.

Ulrich had also noted the very strong influx of water in the engine shaft, which according to him would only get worse as they went deeper. At the same time he saw some advantages. As the mine was on the hill the water could be used to advantage for the crushing and ore-dressing machinery which was going to be erected in the near future.

By August prospects at the Blinman mine had taken a turn for the worse. The supply of ore during the past weeks had declined so alarmingly, both in quantity and quality, that some of the furnaces for smelting had to be stopped, resulting in most of the smelter-men being out of work. Some of the lucky ones, including Captain Jane, were able to find work at the nearby Sliding Rock mine. A few weeks later it was said that the only happy people in Blinman were those who possessed Sliding Rock shares whose value stood now at $100 each.

By the end of 1872 the Yudanamutana Company was reorganised and was now known as the Blinman Consolidated Copper Mining Company of South Australia. Its main objective for the time being was to economise wherever possible. One of the first cuts made was a lowering in the price paid for wood delivered at the mine by carters and cutters. Needless to say that this resulted in a prolonged and bitter strike.

A further attempt at economising at the mine was Captain Thomas Cornelius' introduction of the well known tribute system at Blinman in an endeavour to increase production and decrease cost. Apparently he did succeed and a fair amount of ore was raised resulting in the miners getting very good wages. Maybe their wages were too good, for a few weeks later it was reported that at the last 'survey day' - about three weeks ago - the authorities at the mine 'saw fit to make some important alterations in tributing arrangements, in consequence of which the tributers refused to retake their pitches, and they have been on strike ever since'.

The strike was to last for three weeks, resulting in some of the men leaving for employment elsewhere. However by January the company was advertising again for teamsters and woodcutters, offering thirteen shillings and sixpence per ton for gum, mallee or any other suitable wood delivered at the mine. But it was to no avail. Many of the teamsters had left and no smelting had been done for the past three weeks. In April the writing seemed to be on the wall. Everybody wanted to know what the London directors had been doing. The bank had stopped payment of the mine orders, and as all the men were paid by order (cheque) at the general payday, they realised that they had been working a month for nothing. It was worse still for some of the men who had been able to save their previous cheques and had not cashed them.

William James Paull, the resident manager proposed a plan to the men to keep the mine afloat until he heard from England. Nothing was heard for some months from London, but in Adelaide Francis Joseph Botting sued the Blinman Consolidated Copper Mining Company to appear in the Supreme Court on Tuesday 20 October, 'to recover two hundred and ten pounds for work, journeys, and attendance' owing to him. In November the employees received a month's back pay and the company, which had one of the most promising of copper mines yet worked in the colony, and had been the subject of many optimistic reports in the London Mining Journal, was forced to wind up, after having produced, and sold copper, to the value of $500,000.


Blinman Cemetery

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