The Murray Flats, South Australian History

The Murray Flats.


Gold had been found on the Murray Flats in 1869 and by the middle of that year there were still several diggers earning a living. The Tungkillo Estate Gold Mining Venture was formed to mine in the Tungkillo area. Nothing much was done by the company or by other prospectors, resulting in the editor of the Gawler Times to write that it was ‘a great pity that not more energy was displayed in working them’. This ‘fearful want of energy’, he said, ‘was the bane of South Australia. According to him South Australia wanted ‘more of the Yankee spirit and some of the phlegmatic spirit of the Dutchman extracted’.

A new deposit, discovered in the same area in mid-1870, seemed to give more promise and attracted many eager prospectors, diggers and investors. It soon became known as the Criterion and Alfred Kightly was eager to report that he had just washed at least one pound weight of gold from it and that the quartz was richer than he had ever seen before. This in turn led the Gawler Times to pontificate that ‘all doubts as to the probability of South Australia being destined to become an important gold producing country is now at rest’.

Although no shaft had as yet been started at the Criterion, only a trench of about 30 feet in length had been dug, about four pounds of gold had been obtained from it already. Within a few weeks it was decided to form the Criterion Quartz Mining Company as the owners were satisfied that ‘they had a gold mining property, the value of which had rarely, if ever been exceeded’.

When a start was made with a shaft, it was only about ten feet from the surface that a block of quartz was broken containing gold, ‘exceeding in richness anything yet discovered in South Australia’. The company would sell 250 shares, a quarter of the total number, for £10 each. No instalments this time and therefore no calls. Allotments would be made in order of application, which should be accompanied by a cheque.

In October it was revealed that the Criterion reef had been sold for £27,000 to investors from Victoria, who proposed a grand scheme, not only for the mine but also for working the Murray Flats. The Victorian mining capitalists, among them Joseph Copeland, managing director of the Australasian Mining Association, arrived from Melbourne to inspect the Murray Flats area.

Afterwards they visited the Commissioner of Crown Lands to ask a few favours, as they would like to work the area for its gold. From their observation, they said, they believed that there was a deep lead of gold deposited at a depth of between 300 and 600 feet. Their plans were even bigger than those of fellow Victorian, Arthur Boyle at Jupiter Creek. They would like to organise a company and invest up to £10,000 to prove their theory.

In return for their investment, risks and effort they would like a block of land of at least 10,000 acres, free of charge. After all, the government had only recently offered 400,000 acres to anyone constructing a railway northward of Port Augusta. In case they were successful a small additional reward of £10,000 for discovering a goldfield was also expected. The Commissioner promised to introduce their letter and remarks to the government the very next day.

Both the Chronicle and the Gawler Times were very supportive of the idea. The Chronicle wrote that ‘there was now every hope that we are on the eve of a great discovery’. If this hope was realised it would result in ‘an immense increase of the population and wealth of South Australia. Nothing but a strong conviction that gold is to be found there would have induced Victorian capitalists to make us the offer they have done and as South Australia is not prepared to carry on these workings herself, we hope there will be a liberal determination to give all facilities to our neighbours, and that the Bill may be passed through both Houses without delay’.

It did and William S. Whitington lost no time to put in a claim for a reward as he already had discovered gold on the Murray Flats, near Reedy Creek, back in 1866 and had letters to prove it. But as so many unsuccessful applicants had found out before him, rewards from the government were not only hard to come by, even then, but also very few and far between.

The Gawler Times wrote that a large increase in population would give an immense impetus to almost every branch of industry. Foundries and machine factories would also have plenty of additional work. It could see nothing wrong with the Victorian proposals. After all the South Australian government had paid Selwyn and Hargraves in hard cash for the misleading statements that there was no gold.

Surely then, its editor said, ‘the least we can do, when practical men offer to spend £10,000 of their own money for the equivalent of otherwise useless land, is to agree to such reasonable terms. If we do not, we deserve to remain poor miserable plodders for the rest of our days’. Six months later the same paper still blamed Selwyn and Hargraves for the great harm they had done to South Australia. Many persons had since argued that if so learned a geologist, and so clever and experienced a gold discoverer pronounced South Australia barren of gold, it was useless to make the search.

Another strong supporter of the scheme was John Morphett, who owned a large estate in the neighbourhood. He regretted to say that if the government, trying for a minimum investment of £20,000, instead of the proposed £10,000, did not modify the terms the deal could fall through. This he would look upon as a great loss to South Australia as he did not believe that South Australians had the spirit or the practical knowledge to do it.

The expenditure in wages would be very large and thousands of miners would settle in the area, all of whom would be large consumers of agricultural and pastoral produce, besides considerable quantities of duty paying articles. No sooner had the Bill become an Act than a lease of 10,000 acres on the Murray Flats was issued for a peppercorn rent to W.C. Smith and Joseph Copeland for a term of five years from 1 April 1872.

During negotiations with the government the manager of the South Australian and Victorian Quartz Mining Company arrived on the Aldinga from Melbourne in November 1870 to supervise the start of a new shaft and the construction of buildings. Two men were employed procuring firewood and tools. Very little else was done. By September of 1871 tenders were invited for deepening the shaft to 100 feet. There is no mention of its completion or any gold being found. Even after the lease had been issued no work was done to locate the supposed golden lead. In fact the Murray Flats scheme, and rush, turned out to be one gigantic embarrassment and disenchantment for the government and all those who had supported the scheme.

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