Between 1860 - 1870, the 'Copper Triangle' of Moonta, Kadina and Wallaroo was home to the largest copper mining operations in the Southern Hemisphere. Over 2% of the Australian population lived in the district at that time and the Moonta Mining Co. was the first mine in Australia to pay a million pounds in dividends

South Australia was the first place in Australia where metal ores were discovered and the copper mining industry had its early heyday in the 1840's and 1850's following copper discoveries at Kapunda and Burra. High grade copper was mined in the district during this period but by the 1860's these first generation mines were beginning to fade.

Further to the west at the top of the Yorke Peninsula, Captain Walter Watson Hughes, a retired sea captain, ran sheep on one of his properties. Hughes had earlier sought copper on a property he owned south of Burra, and eventually found traces of copper ore near the beach at Wallaroo. Hughes observed that tree roots in the area sometimes burnt with green flames, an indication that copper was present.

James Boor, one of Hughes' shepherds, was walking his sheep about 5 miles from the coast when he found, amongst the earth and pebbles thrown up from a wombat's hole, a green stone as small as a pea. He showed it to Hughes who identified it as a carbonate of copper. It was 1859 and Hughes engaged 4 miners from Burra to sink a shaft by the wombat's burrow. The shaft found rich copper ore and Hughes quickly pegged mining leases.

The mine needed capital so Hughes invited Scottish merchants in Adelaide, Thomas Elder, Robert Barr Smith and Edward Stirling to join him in a small syndicate. The money invested in the mine was repaid handsomely and profits earned led to the foundation of the Elder Smith pastoral house and made Hughes a mining magnate.

Hughes' sheep station was known as Walla-Waroo, a native name for wallaby's urine, and his mines became known as the Wallaroo Mining Company (at the now township of Kadina). Smelting operations to treat the copper ores were consequently established 5 miles away on the coast at Port Wallaroo in 1861. Initially only rough copper was produced; high grade ore and matte copper were exported for further smelting and refining. Soon however the company extended its operations to treat all of its own ore.

Also in 1861, another of Hughes' shepards, an Irishman known as Patrick Ryan, on passing the new smelters observed the green copper ore and so searched for similar ore where his sheep grazed. On finding copper ore in a wombat hole (at a location where the township of Moonta now exists), instead of taking it to Hughes he showed the rocks to cronies at the hotel at Port Wakefield, forty miles to the east. A syndicate was formed with the publican which then applied for the mining lease but were unable to have this granted until they accurately specified the land. Hughes heard of Ryan's find and persuaded him to say where it was. The Irishman had already promised to support the publican's syndicate but he agreed  to enter a syndicate with Hughes and Stirling.

The Hughes syndicate was now behind in the race as the publican's syndicate had surveyed the land they wanted for the lease and had started on horseback for Adelaide to register it. Hughes sent his messenger on the same mission, providing fresh relays of horses along the way. His man rode for 18 hours and reached the Lands Office in Adelaide a few minutes after it opened. The other syndicate was already there but the clerk in the office interviewed Hughes' messenger first and accepted his application for the mining leases. The other syndicate protested all the way to the Privy Council but Hughes retained the rich mine.

Ryan received 6 pounds a week until the Moonta mine should pay dividends on his one-tenth interest. Unfortunately he drank away his success in the pub and died less than a year after finding a mine which became the first in Australia to pay a million pounds in dividends.

Hughes and the Adelaide Scots were the largest shareholders of both the Wallaroo Mining Company and Moonta Mining Company, and they resolved to smelt all ores at the Wallaroo smelters. By 1866 Wallaroo had 36 smelters and burned approximately one-tenth of all the coal shipped from Newcastle in NSW. The 2 mining towns of Moonta and Kadina  and the port of Wallaroo, all connected by railways, became known as the Copper Triangle and grew to make South Australia an economic powerhouse for nearly 60 years.

Wallaroo smelters, 1902

For nearly 30 years the Moonta and Wallaroo mines were operated by these two independent companies, although they shared the smelters, the port and the railway network, their shareholders and boards of directors were nearly identical and they held their board meetings on the same day. 

In 1875 Moonta, with a population of twelve thousand, was the largest town in South Australia after Adelaide, and Wallaroo was one of the largest seaports in the state as water transport was the best means of bringing in coal for the smelters and shipping out copper.

Headframe of Taylors Shaft, 1905

Low copper prices forced the two companies to eventually amalgamate in 1889, which became the Wallaroo and Moonta Mining and Smelting Co. Ltd, and was the largest mining company in South Australia, under the management of Captain Henry Richard Hancock and later his son, Henry Lipson Hancock. Hancock and his son would prove to be among the most competent and effective mine managers in Australian history and between them they ran the Copper Triangle for nearly 60 years.

Captain Henry Richard Hancock

By 1917, the value of copper produced from the district exceeded the total for all mineral production from the rest of the State since foundation in 1836. However, activity and prosperity collapsed at the end of the First World War owing to a fall in world copper prices. Further problems were caused by limited ore reserves at Moonta Mines and severe shortages of coal because of strikes in the eastern States.

The two thousand workers at Moonta and Wallaroo refused to accept a drastic cut in wages, and in 1923 the company went into voluntary liquidation. Large stockpiles of accumulated ore and precipitates kept the smelters operating until 1926.

In total the smelters operated for 65 years, producing over 300,000 tons of copper metal as well as significant quantities of gold, silver, lead and sulphur-based by-products.

Mining Methods

The copper ore occurred as irregular lodes filling steeply dipping cracks in the country rock. The initial grade of ore worked averaged 30 per cent – a very high figure by modern standards – but by 1908 the average grade had dropped to 4 per cent.

The first miners at Moonta were Cornishmen, using methods developed in Cornwall over several centuries. A miner began his working life as a ‘picky boy’ whose job was to sit at a table or conveyor belt sorting good ore from waste. After a few years he would join a team working underground at the rock face sinking shafts and opening drives, known as ‘tutwork’.

Miners showing promise would then be invited to join a ‘tribute’ team working the exposed ore body and paid on the amount and value of ore shifted. Tributers tendered for an area underground and could make a very good living in rich ore zones. The tribute system was supervised by mine ‘captains’ appointed by the Company. While the lodes were rich and ore could be seen by candlelight, the tribute system worked well. However tribute mining was abolished at Moonta in 1910 owing to falling ore grades.

Cornish miners at Hughes Shaft, 1894

Miners worked under extremely uncomfortable and dangerous conditions. Working long shifts in near-darkness surrounded by dirt, dust and deafening noise, with their clothes saturated by water seepages, they were in constant danger from rock falls or premature explosions. Miners were also susceptible to lung diseases caused by long exposure to dust and foul air.

The early miners, working by candlelight, gouged ore out using a miner’s pick. For many years, blasting was carried out using explosives placed in holes driven by steel bars and sledge hammers until mechanical drills, designed by Captain Hancock, were introduced.

At the surface, ore was hand sorted and high grade ore sent directly to the smelters at Wallaroo. Lower grade material was crushed and ore separated from the waste or ‘tailings’ by rapidly moving sieves or ‘jigs’. Improvements to the design and operation of these jigs, patented by Captain Hancock, contributed greatly to the mine’s profitability, by enabling more efficient separation of low grade ore.

Cornish Beam Engines

Large scale copper mining would not have been possible without the beam engine. Developed in Cornwall during the early 18th century and modified by James Watt, the engine worked through a combination of steam and atmospheric pressure. Pressure from the cylinder operated a heavy rocking beam providing the motion necessary to drive pumps, winding gear and ore crushers.

Many deep mines encountered water and beam engines were used to dewater the workings. A wooden pumping rod extended downwards from one end of the beam to a plunger pump in a sump at the bottom if the mine. The downward stroke of the rod forced water to the surface through a column of cast iron pipes.

Although expensive to import and install, Cornish beam engines were very reliable and cheap to operate. Hughes pump at Moonta extended to a depth of 400 metres and worked continuously at four stokes a minute for sixty years without a major breakdown.

Back to top