The first mineral which attracted the attention of the early settlers in South Australia was not copper or gold, but silver. This was accidentally discovered, by Cornish migrants Hutchins and Thomas, in February 1841 at Glen Osmond when the wheel of a passing dray broke off a piece of rock and exposed the silver. The deposit gave rise to Australia's first mine, the Wheal Gawler, named after Governor Gawler. Although economically of small importance it provided a much needed boost to the young colony which was on the brink of disaster. Other mines were opened up soon after in the area such as the Wheal Watkins, Wheal Augusta, Enterprise, Eagle, Wheal Hardy and the Glen Osmond mine.
On 3 March 1841 the Adelaide Chronicle reported that 'During the past week, a discovery of some importance has been made in the Mount Lofty Range. Two miners, from Cornwall we believe, have discovered a splendid vein of lead ore in the mountains, a short distance above Mr Gleeson's. The ore is said to yield 10 percent of silver, and 75 percent of lead...We are informed his Excellency has visited the place, and examined the vein. If so, he will probably make public the results of his investigations'.
The assays of the ore were done by Edward Davey (Davy), James Weston and Dr Cotter.
Before the end of the month a company was formed 'for the purpose of working the valuable lead and silver mine which would commence immediately under an intelligent and respectable body of directors'. Shortly after forty boxes of ore were loaded onto the Cygnet at Port Adelaide for shipment to London.
Within a month of it being worked it was reported that 'a leading member of the bar in this city has during the past week, had the honour of having applied to a decayed tooth the first piece of silver which has been brought into practical use. We believe the operation has proved successful'!
The discovery and opening up of the Wheal Gawler mine resulted in the formation of the South Australian Mining Association and the first mineral export, 31 boxes of ore, from Australia. Discovered at a time of great economic hardship in the young colony, these mines were the first signs that recovery would come from mining. Although the later discovery of copper at Kapunda and Burra resulted in the eventual closure of the mines, they still had provided work, prosperity and an influx of skilled miners from Cornwall and Germany.
The mines at Glen Osmond provided work for more than one hundred miners for several years. Most of the early ore was transported to England for smelting until South Australia acquired its own smelters on East Terrace and at the Glen Osmond Mine. In 1846 the Wheal Gawler mine was bought by Herman Conrad Stakemann, who employed eighteen German miners, and formed the Wheal Gawler Mining Association. Four years later, on 28 February 1850, at a special shareholders' meeting it was resolved to increase its capital by the issue of a further 320 shares of ten Pound each. According to Edward Webb, secretary, this would make it possible for the company 'to realise the expectations entertained as to the great value of this property'.
Wheal Watkins was opened up in 1843 and worked, like the other mines at Glen Osmond, on and off until 1851 when all miners, and a large percentage of the male population, left the colony for the gold fields in Victoria. One of the youngest picky boys to be employed at the Wheal Watkins was ten year old Stephen Pellew Carthew who had arrived in South Australia in 1847 on the Rajah, chartered by the Australian Mining Company. He too left for the gold fields but returned to work at the Burra, Kapunda, Almanda, Wallaroo and Broken Hill mines.
During 1847 two parcels of ore from the Wheal Watkins arrived at Liverpool in England where they were sold for $156. This was considered 'highly satisfactory and would doudless lead to a renewal of the experiment'. In 1855 Wheal Watkins was worked by the Adelaide Silver Lead Company under lease from the representatives of the late Peter Peachey.
The nearby Glen Osmond mine began working in 1844 after Osmond Gilles and his brother Lewis had successfully raised $60,000 in England and formed the Glen Osmond Union Mining Company. This company also erected its own smelting works, to reduce transport costs, and built cottages for its miners in the village of Harrow. In January Gilles had a notice put in the local paper advertising a reward of ten Pounds for information leading to the conviction of any person removing stones or building materials from the mine. In August 1864 the Glen Osmond Quarries and Silver Lead Mining Company declared a dividend of four shillings per share, which amounted to a rate of twenty-six per cent per annum. In January 1870, secretary Abraham Abrahams declared its sixteenth dividend, being three shillings per share.
Later several of the miners and their Captains, who had worked the Glen Osmond deposits, would find work in the mines of the Northern Flinders Ranges. Captain John Rowe of the Wheal Watkins was later in charge at the Mochatoona Mine. Captain Pascoe of the Glen Osmond mine managed the Strathalbyn mine before taking charge of the Nuccaleena mine
After both the Kapunda and Burra mines had been worked out the silver mines at Glen Osmond were reopened again and produced several hundred tonnes. Work finally ceased in 1898 when the last company was forced into liquidation. The last, and unsuccessful, attempt to mine some of these deposits was made in 1916 by the Tarcoola Development Syndicate.