Silver Mining in South Australia

Silver mining
South Australia.

The first mineral which attracted the attention of the early settlers in South Australia was not copper or gold, but silver. This was discovered at Glen Osmond which gave rise to Australia's first mine, the Wheal Gawler, in 1841. Ever since the discovery of this deposit South Australians have been involved in the production of this mineral. Recenty it has been mined in the Northern Flinders Ranges. Port Pirie has been smelting the galena from Broken Hill to produce silver and lead for nearly hundred years.

One of the companies formed in England to mine the silver and lead deposits at Glen Osmond, brought out Captain Pascoe and ten Cornish miners, with their families. When this company suspended operations these Cornish people dispersed throughout South Australia, some of them going as far afield as the Northern Flinders Ranges, where they worked in the copper, gold and silver mines. Very little remains of the old silver mines at Glen Osmond, apart from some of the old shafts, adits and the chimney, the oldest mine building in Australia.

Other deposits were discovered, but the next major discovery of silver was made near Cape Jervis. This became the Talisker mine, which gave rise to the nearby mining town of Silverton. Once again we find some familiar names among the miners, captains and leaseholders, such as W.S. Whitington and Captain W.H. Price. Other deposits which were worked for a short time, but mostly without any great financial success, were at the Aclare, Almanda, Kangarilla, Strathalbyn and Scott's Creek mines.

The first discovery of silver in the Northern Flinders Ranges was made in 1869 when Mr Flett found an outcrop at the Beltana mine. This deposit was worked for a short time under the guidance of Captain Samuel Terrell, while he was stationed at Blinman. However it was not until the early 1880s that a real interest was shown in the silver deposits of the Northern Flinders Ranges. It was only after the fabulous discoveries just across South Australia's eastern border at Silverton and Broken Hill that interest in South Australian deposits, which had been rather low, increased to a new level which could be called silvermania.

At Silverton in New South Wales Charles Chapple was doing rather well for himself as a sharebroker. Chapple had migrated to South Australia in 1863 and managed pastoral properties, such as Umberatana station (1874-1877), before he became involved in mining. At first he worked as a promoter but later became director of mining companies, such as the Paull's Consolidated. His famous advice 'Pawn your.....shirt to buy these shares' sometimes paid off, but more often than not had disastrous results.

One of the first silver deposits mined in the Northern Flinders Ranges was at the Avondale mine. This mine situated about three kilometres South West from the Mount Lyndhurst Trig Hill was worked in 1884 when Captain James Adams was in charge. The ore from this silver deposit was easily raised, and a large quantity of it was sent to London, where after assaying, the results were not considered payable. However it had served its purpose just the same. People were once more reminded that silver was present in the Northern Flinders Ranges.

After his visit to the Northern Flinders Ranges in 1884, Henry Y.L. Brown, Government Geologist, reported that galena had been found in the Mount Serle area. Assays made from these specimens by G.Goyder Jnr. gave as much as 8 ounces of silver per ton. Three years later they did not need to be reminded any more. Silvermania seemed to have been replaced by Silvermadness! Speculation was rife and on a grand scale.

Numerous silver companies were started during the years 1887 and 1888. Sometimes several companies a day were formed, often with very similar names. This led one newspaper reporter to point out that 'The revival and extension of the mining industry in the North means a great deal for the colony in general, and it should mean a good deal for Port Augusta in particular. The failure of agriculture as a reliable industry in the more northern areas, and the consequent falling off in exports and decrease in trade have naturally exercised a depressing influence on the port and commercial depot of the North. But Nature's compensating balance is rarely found to err; what she denies in one way is most frequently made up in another; and the scantiness and irregularity of the Northern rainfall is beginning to be atoned for by the mineral wealth which is being discovered and looked for in the comparatively arid districts'.

It continued with saying that 'The Barrier mines have done a great deal for South Australia, though the trade which has arisen in consequence thereof is only a second hand one - New South Wales taking the Customs revenue derivable from imports to the field. Port Pirie, too, as the nearest seaport by rail to the fields, has derived great, and probably will derive still greater, advantage from the ore and fuel traffic of the Barrier. Port Augusta is handicapped by rail distance out of the Barrier trade - at least so it seems, though the superiority of its harbour and shipping facilities might well counterbalance the few miles of extra railway freightage. But now the aspect of Northern affairs has changed the Winnowie, Wirrialpa, and Mount Serle silver fields are being opened up and promise to revolutionise the business of the North'.

One of these newly opened mines which was "to revolutionise the business in the north" was operated by the Great Gladstone Silver Mining Company Limited, which had its office at Comstock Chambers, King William Street Adelaide. Among its directors were W.B. Rounsevell, M.P., A. Frost and William McConville. They proposed to work their property, near Yeralina Creek. During August of 1887 Henry McConville of Avondale station, advertised for tenders to work the property. The successful tenderers were to supply their own rations, tents, powder and fuses. Six months later several shafts had been sunk on the property, but very little silver had been located. Still it had provided a new impetus for miners and promoters, who were often parliamentarians.

During 1887 and 1888 the South Australian members of parliament must have been extremely busy people. Apart from their normal(?) work, most of the members were also on the board of directors of one or even more silver mining companies operating in the Northern Flinders Ranges and elsewhere. The Jubilee Silver Mining Company, which had two claims near Wirrialpa, counted four members of parliament among its directors. They were S. Solomons, L.L. Turner, J.H. Howe and J. Martin. The Wirrialpa Silver Mining Company was directed by P. Santo, S. Solomon and J. James. During the second part of 1888 Captain Doble was in charge at Wirrialpa, taking over from Captain W.H. James who had opened up the mine and now desired to go back to Adelaide.

T.A. Masey intended to erect smelters at the Wirrialpa silver mine as he was convinced that the deposit was superior to the mines around Silverton in New South Wales. He was also convinced that before long the Wirrialpa mine 'would be sending home bullion'. Some of the silver specimens from this mine were of such high quality that a block weighing almost four tons was sent to the International Exhibition, to be held that year in Melbourne. Captain Doble, who had only very recently arrived in South Australia, came from England where he had been contracted by Masey, who considered him an expert.

Within a very short time Captain Doble had two open hearth furnaces installed to enable him to convert galena into regulus. This would reduce its bulk and make transport, to the proper smelters where it could be converted into pure silver, much cheaper. In 1890 ownership of the Wirrialpa silver mine had changed to the South Australian Mining and Smelting Company. This company had not given any attention yet to smelting, but restricted its effort to working the Blinman and Wirrialpa copper mines. However it proposed to put the Wirrialpa silver mine into a separate company with a London based directorate.

Other companies which operated in the area were the Great Nevada Silver Mining Company, with sections 10,449 and 10,450 totalling 160 acres at Wirrialpa. Two of its directors were P. Sando and T. Scherk. The Great Comstock Silver Mining Company listed as its directors P. Sando and L.C. Grayson, who were to look after a capital investment of $4,000 and twenty-four mineral claims at Blinman. R. Homburg, another member of parliament, was connected with the Imperial Mint Silver Mining Company and its $150,000 capital tied up in claims number 11,425 and 11,426 at Mount Serle. Other members of parliament who were directors of mining companies were W.A. Horn, Sir J.W. Downer, L. Grayson, H. Gore, L.L. Turner, F. Basedow, J.C.F. Johnson, J.C. Bray, S. Tomkinson, J. Lancelot Stirling, C.C. Kingston, Sir Thomas Elder, Sir Samuel Davenport, Sir William Millne, G.C. Hawker and many others.

Most of these silver mining companies never went any further than the x marked on the maps of the plains west of the Flinders Ranges or in the Ranges itself. A few were listed on the Adelaide Stock Exchange but most did not even manage that. One of the best known, and most successful areas in the Northern Flinders Ranges was the Ediacara mineral field. This field had been worked for copper more than sixteen years before, but not proven to be very successful. When Ulrich visited it in 1872 he reported, The Beltana mine lies in low rangy country, about 18 miles west of Beltana Station, halfway between the southern point of termination of the Mount Deception Range and Lake Torrens ... A lot of ore left on the ground is but of a middling quality, but might, as well as a great quantity of cupriferous mullock thrown out, be brought to a good percentage by dressing.

Even though nobody was working it at that time, the Beltana Copper Mining and Smelting Company Limited, with J.S. Scott as Secretary, had an office at Temple Chambers in Adelaide. With the rich discoveries in Silverton and Broken Hill in the early 1880s, miners in South Australia, the Northern Flinders included, started paying much more attention to the ground over which they walked. Some even remembered old copper mines, abandoned long since, that contained silver as well. An early discovery (1887) was made by W B Greenwood, Overseer on Beltana Station.

When the Ediacara field was subjected to a closer examination it was not long before the miners realised that this silver-lead mineral was widely spread. Soon there were mines as far as the eye could see, Ediacara, New Ediacara, Ediacara Consols, New Ediacara Consols, Beltana Broken Hill and Beltana Winnowie to name but a few. During 1888 there were more than a hundred miners working on the Winnowie Mine alone! Richards' Boarding House, often called the "Winnowie Coffee Palace", catered for them all.

The Ediacara Silver Mining Compamy Ltd., formed in May 1888, was a syndicate of 640 shares of $200 each. This company held as many as twenty-one mineral claims. Most of its initial effort was concentrated on claim number 11,771 which was west of the claim held by the Beltana North. In the town of Beltana Mr Molesworth, an ex-lecturer on chemistry and geology was now engaged as an assayer and mining agent. He worked at the "Mining Exchange" in Beltana for five days a week. On Saturdays the building was used for dances. After they had finished, the floor had to be cleaned, as the next morning the Mining Exchange was used for Church services. However during the five days Mr Molesworth occupied it he assayed minerals, made predictions, and most of all gave the answers everyone wanted to hear, 'Yes, there was silver'.

Specimens from the Ediacara mine were assayed by Molesworth as containing thirty-five ounces of silver to the ton. Some days later samples of ore were assayed and found to contain as much as forty-eight ounces per ton. What is interesting here is the fact that twenty-five percent of the shares in the Ediacara Silver Mining Company Ltd. were owned by residents of the Northern Flinders Ranges, even though they had a face value of $200 each. Some of the northern owners were F.M. Buttfield who had three shares, P. Doig three, A. Doig one, J.W. Duck two, S.P. Richards two, and Mrs M. Gibbs owned four shares.

All of them were residents of Beltana. Two shares found their way to Mount Lyndhurst Station, two to Blanchewater, one to Haddon Downs and one share each to Winnowie and Sliding Rock. One wonders how many had to 'Pawned their.....shirt' to be able to buy these shares or to be able to pay the later calls on them. Considerable excitement occurred when a report was printed disclosing the discovery of rich silver ore on mineral claims held by Mr Doig, which adjoined those of the Beltana Broken Hill Mine.

The Doig family already had a long connection with the mining industry. They had taken out copper, gold and silver claims, owned shares in many mining companies, and now not only actually operated their own claims, but also were involved in providing the miners with their daily needs as they had done previously at Blinman, Sliding Rock and Beltana.

Many businesses in Beltana looked after the miners' needs on the silver fields. At the same time it could be argued that directly and indirectly silver mining contributed to the expansion and economic progress of Beltana and its residents. With the many mines opening up around the town several of the miners took up residency in Beltana. Those who lived on the mining sites, and many did, still ordered most of their supplies from the town. One of the local businessmen lost no time to advertise his business as C.R. Shepherd and Co. Carpenters and Builders, Cabinet Makers, have commenced business at Beltana and Winnowie and are prepared to contract for any kind of Building or Carpentering work. A Stock of Timber, Galvanized Iron, Ridgecapping, Palings, Bricks and other Building Materials always on hand. Mining Companies will save money by engaging us to do their work.

It did not take too long before the residents of Beltana had a petition organized to be presented to the Minister of Mines, asking that smelters be erected at their town, rather than anywhere else. They argued that: with the Sliding Rock to the east, the Ediacara and others to the south, and the numerous copper mines all round the district, smelters should pay handsomely, besides helping to develop the mineral resources of the north and give employment to hundreds of men... Without a doubt this northern country will in time become a great mineral producing country.

During February several more silver mining companies were incorporated to mine the Ediacara, Winnowie and Wirrialpa fields. One of these was the Mabel Silver Mining and Prospecting Syndicate with a capital of $1,000. It had dug a tunnel for a distance of twenty metres but had not been able to locate any silver. Another one was the Mabel Extended Silver Mining Company with a capital of $1,400, four mineral leases, and an office at Melvin Chambers King William Street Adelaide. After two months of digging in the shimmering heat of nearby Lake Torrens, only two men remained at the mine, but no lode or vein had been located as yet.

The Great Extended Beltana Silver Mining Company with a capital of $20,000 was to work claims number 11,830 - 11,837 and claim number 11,901. It was incorporated on 21 February 1888. Its claims had previously belonged to Charles William Litchfield of Coombah, New South Wales. The promoters of the Great Extended were Adelaide based, with ninety-eight percent of the shareholders also coming from there. Not one single share was taken up by residents of the Northern Flinders Ranges. The life of the Great Extended was very short. On 29 October, eight months after its incorporation, it was wound up again.

The Beltana Broken Hill Proprietary Silver Mining Company, incorporated on 21 February 1888, did much better. This company had four mineral claims on the Ediacara field, which it had bought from the Broken Hill Miners Prospecting Syndicate. The promoters were also from Adelaide, but its shareholders came from Broken Hill, Silverton, Adelaide and a good number of places from the Northern Flinders Ranges. Among this group were John Gibbs who took out five hundred shares, E.H. Blewett 125, F.M. Buttfield fifteen, J. Dobson five and H. Shepherd forty-five shares.

All of them lived in Beltana. Farina residents also bought into this company. Among them were J.J. Doig who had acquired 240 shares, A.S. Lewis 120, J. Napier 105 and P. Provan had bought ten shares. Miners on the Winnowie field were also convinced that this was something special. Several of them had small parcels of shares, in particular J. Cuttmore who held two, John Jenkins five, M. Eddy five, J. Richards twenty and E. Curtis fifty-five.

The Beltana Broken Hill Silver Mining Company, perhaps more than any other, represented South Australia's hope of having its own Broken Hill. Captain Lewis and his men had already undertaken extensive exploratory work on the property. Several shafts and some drives had been completed and enough ore exposed to enable Captain Lewis, when handing in his first report to the Board of Directors of the Beltana Broken Hill Silver Mining company to say that 'After careful examination of the lode itself and its surrounding strata I have come to the conclusion that the lode in your property is of sedimentary origin, and that it will be found to extend over the whole of your property... From the recent tunnel, as I understand, the 5 tons of ore was obtained which was taken to Dry Creek Smelting Works, the return from which (32oz.), if it can be maintained... will render yours a very valuable and dividend paying mine judging from the economical manner in which it can be worked'.

Captain Lewis also explained that he intended to put in another tunnel into the hill which would be large enough to use a horse to 'facilitate the removal of the ore'. Apparently he was successful in his attempts as large quantities of good ore were obtained soon afterwards. Captain Lewis now planned to build a furnace for the purpose of assaying the ore.

Soon there were still more companies which hoped for the same good results as those of the Beltana Broken Hill and the Ediacara Silver Mining companies. The Winnowie Consolidated Silver Mining Company Ltd., with a capital of $200,000 hoped to work its ten claims at Winnowie. But during April 1888, Captain Bennett had only two men working on one of the company's claims. Naturally they were employed on that claim which adjoined the Ediacara claims in the hope that their lode would extend into their own property. After four weeks work it seemed that their gamble had paid off. They were coming across some very rich ore. Unfortunately the men had to leave it, as the blasting material needed to remove it, had not yet arrived on the field.

The Flinders Silver Mining Company Ltd. was a more modest affair. It had issued one hundred shares to the value of $20 each to work a claim at the old Wirrialpa Station. The Wepowie and Niltibury Silver Mining Syndicate had ten claims on the Moolooloo run which they hoped to open up with a capital of $4,000. The Victoria Mint Silver Mining Company Ltd., with a claim at Mount Serle, next to the Imperial Mint Silver Company, hoped to raise $8,000 with the issue of two hundred $40 shares. Another company with claims at Mount Serle was the Beltana Comstock Silver Lead Mining Company N.L. The Mount Roebuck Silver Mining Company Ltd. had two claims, no.10,972 and 10,973 at Blinman, an office at Melvin Chambers, King William Street Adelaide and five directors, including P. Sando and T. Scherk.

The Beltana South Silver Mining Company had two claims at Beltana next to those of the Beltana Broken Hill and had high hopes of being able to raise $120,000 to work them. Many other silver mining companies had "Beltana" as part of their name. There were the Beltana King, Beltana Edith, Beltana Winnowie, Beltana Wheal Terrell, Adelaide Beltana and the Beltana North Silver Mining Company. Finally there was the Centennial Silver Mining Company Ltd. with an office at Beltana and four mineral claims of Trebilcock's Gap, where silver, copper and gold had been found. One of its directors was F.M. Buttfield also of Beltana.

The Black Range Blocks Silver and Copper Mining Syndicate, with a capital of $1,000 had four hundred acres at Blackfellows Creek but found little copper and no silver. The Great Winnowie Central Silver Mining Company Ltd. with $100,000 and two claims at Ediacara had among its directors J.W. Downer, L. Scammell, W. Milne, H.W. Hughes and L.A. Jessop. Unfortunately a large number of parliamentarians on the board of directors did not necessarily mean that large amounts of silver would be found.

At times one could be forgiven for thinking that there would be no more land left to stake a mineral claim on. During the first two weeks of March 1888 more than 450 mineral application were made for sections in the Northern Flinders Ranges. Many familiar names appeared time and again on the application forms, for instance E.H. Blewett, A. and E. Bralla T.C. Cotter, C.M. and S.C. Hantke, C. Mottram, Edith Gason, E. and A. Hantke, F.M. and Helen Buttfield, Leslie Buttfield, A. Braddock, Anna and Marion Doig, Victor Hantke and James and Michael Darmody.

All these claims and mines needed huge amounts of timber. It was used for the miners' personal fires, their huts, timbering of shafts and drives, but most of all for the boilers and furnaces. As it turned out, there seemed to be both enough land and timber to satisfy everybody's demand. However on 4 March Corporal Richards of the Beltana police station asked his superiors in Port Augusta to supply him with 'Bills or Placards, warning people against cutting gum timber in the neighbourhood of the Winnowie mines'. Obviously he was concerned with the rapid destruction of this natural resource, which was also against the law.

Land to peg out mineral claims was still available though. There was even land available which was supposed to contain silver. As late as June 1888 the Mount James Consolidated Silver Mining Company Ltd. was formed to work the nine claims it had bought from Frederick Hayward. These claims were situated near Mount James, north of the Ediacara silver field. Most of the shareholders in this venture were from Adelaide. Only two residents, A.E. Russell and Jason A. O'Brien, both of Marree, showed enough faith in it to be persuaded to buy shares in this company. Just as well, as six months later the company had ceased to exist.

The Mount James Consolidated was incorporated at a time when silvermania and its excessive speculation on both the Adelaide Stock Exchange and on the silver fields had run their course, for more than one reason. During July 1888 it was reported from Beltana that 'The silver boom being over, the gold fever has broken out, and the excitement is immense. The new discovery is about 25 miles north of here and it is reported that there are about 50 men now there, many of whom are finding gold. However, I would advise anyone in work to be very cautious about leaving for the field until the value of the find is proved. At present it is confined to a very limited extent of country. The silver mines are being deserted for the gold fields, and all operations will have to be suspended, I expect, for the present. There is one store open on the gold field already, and before Wednesday there will be three, and one, if not two, butchers will be at work. Wood is plentiful, and water can be got by carting a few miles'.


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