Kapunda was a keystone in the early development of South Australia. It has the distinction of being the oldest copper mining town in Australia, but not the oldest copper mine. The honour of this goes to Noarlunga, where a copper deposit was discovered and worked on the banks of the Onkaparinga River in May 1841. Discovered in 1842 Kapunda can be considered the birthplace of Australia's commercial mining history. Mining dominated the town for more than thirty years. When the mine closed in 1877, the town became the centre for a thriving pastoral industry and later the home of the world's largest private landowner, Cattle King Sir Sidney Kidman. He made the name Kapunda once again famous throughout Australia and the world for thirty years with his yearly horse sales.
During its mining days it produced equipment such as cornish boilers and other machinery for mines all over Australia. Not only that, it also supplied the northern mines with transport facilities and miners, including August Helling. By the time the mines closed the town had a population of well over 2,000 people with a similar number of people living around the town.
Before the discovery of copper, land in the area was occupied by a number of pastoralists and some Aborigines who occasionally annoyed them by killing their sheep. Francis Dutton and Charles Bagot almost simultaneously discovered the copper in 1842 but as their families only had the land on leasehold, it was kept a secret until they had bought the land at the going rate of that time of $2. an acre.
A few Cornish miners, who were already in South Australia, were hired and mining was started in January 1843 with an official opening by Johann Menge. Soon more Cornish miners from Cornwall were engaged and before long the town had a truly multicultural society. The largest group in the early days was the Cornish, most of them miners, followed by the Welsh who were mainly concerned with the smelting and engineering aspects of the mine. Another group was the Irish who assumed the labouring duties and some farming. Many of the Catholic Irish settled at St John's or Johnstown, about 5 kilometres to the southeast of the mine. The Germans were often involved with the smelting and farming whereas the English controlled the mine and town.
Each of these ethnic groups had different reasons for migrating to South Australia. The English sought wealth, the Irish escape of famine and the Germans religious freedom. They all contributed to the development of the mine and town, although there were the occasional disagreements, feights and even riots between the different groups.
Dutton sold his 25% share of the mine for more than $30,000 in 1846, entered politics and eventually became Premier of South Australia before returning to England. There were several pastoralist/mine-owners who would enter politics and become Premier. John Baker part-owner of the South Kapunda mine, John Hart, William Morgan, Sliding Rock and Sir Henry Ayers of the Burra are just a few to mention.
Irishman Patrick McMahon Glynn, solicitor, became involved with the local newspaper and later became the first South Australian to be appointed Attorney-General for the Commonwealth of Australia. Kapunda itself has produced more than thirty members of parliament including six Premiers. One Kapunda descendant even became Prime Minister of Australia. Kapunda marble was used extensively for South Australia's Parliament House.
Kapunda can claim a few "firsts" as well. Among them having the first horse whim, first Cornish beam engine and the first open cut mine in Australia. It had the first mining company houses built for its workforce and now has the oldest surviving mining building. In 1866 the town's District Council was formed and in that same year one of Australia's first Australian rules football clubs started playing in Kapunda. In November 1870 Miss Thorne lectured at Kapunda on 'Young Womanhood'. The attendance was very large and the lecture was delivered 'really well' according to the local newspaper reporter. Miss Thorne had also been lecturing at other towns in the north and on Sundays preached in the Baptist Chapel at Kapunda when seats, aisles and platform of this large building were crowded, and many people had to be turned away.
Long after the closure of its copper mine Kapunda had its own gold rush at the Moppa field. Within a few days claims were pegged out, tents went up and a blacksmith opened up for business. While nothing startling had been discovered like in Bendigo or Coolgardie, the field provided employment for a large number of men, during the 1890s depression, who otherwise might have walked the streets in search for jobs.