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 '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.