The Moonta Mine

'Wherever there's a hole in the ground,
you'll find a Cousin Jack at the bottom of it'

Moonta Miners Cottages
Early Days

In 1861 Irish shepherd Patrick Ryan, while looking after sheep for Captain Walter Watson Hughes, a retired sea captain, discovered copper at a place known to the local Aborigines as Moonta-Moonterra. The Tiparra Mineral Association, later renamed the Moonta Mining Company, was financed with a loan of £80,000 from Elder Smith & Co Ltd. This loan was paid back in the first year of operation. The first shaft and a pumping station were named after Ryan.

Because of the phenomenal richness of the deposits, some of which averaged between twenty and thirty per cent, Moonta Mines was worked without the need to borrow money. All its funds came from the sale of copper. The Moonta Company produced more than $10 million worth of copper. It paid its first dividend in 1863. By 1875 Moonta had a population of twelve thousand and was the second largest town in South Australia, surpassing Cornwall as the largest copper region in the British Empire.

Miners Cottage

The first four miners to work the Moonta deposit came from nearby Wallaroo Mines which had opened the previous year. Their first job was to sink trial pits. The ore from these shallow shafts was hauled to the surface in a bucket by means of a horse whim. At the surface it was the job of the pickey boys to dress the ore. The rich ore known as prill was bagged and transported to the smelters.

They were followed by Cornish miners and tradesmen from all over South Australia who decided that more and better opportunities would be available at Moonta. Several thousand miners and farmers in Cornwall had the same idea and migrated to work in the Moonta, Wallaroo, Poona, Yelta, Parrara and Paramatta mines or the Wheal Hughes or Wheal James.

The government town of Moonta was surveyed in 1863 and town lots offered for sale in April of that year. More than 230 lots were sold, mostly to people from Adelaide. Most miners built their own cottages resulting in sub-standard housing. Living conditions in and around the mine and town of Moonta were terrible in the early days. There was no reticulated water to the area until 1890 when a pipeline from the Beetaloo Reservoir in the lower Flinders Ranges was commissioned. The mine later built a condensing plant and distilled the water pumped from the shafts. This was sold for six pence (five cents) per bucket. Until then the people relied on rainfall, company built dams and soaks in the sand hills at Nalyappa After rain, desperate people would scoop it up from puddles and wheel ruts on the roads. The water collected in the miners' underground tanks was often polluted by waste from animals and the mines themselves.

Epidemics of typhoid, cholera and diphtheria broke out. In 1873 there were 327 burials in the Moonta Cemetery. There are some 300-400 unmarked graves in the Moonta Cemetery of young children who died during these epidemics.

Social Life

Moonta in the 1870's was the largest town outside of Adelaide with some 12,000 people living in the area. There were about 80 businesses in the town including 5 hotels and 3 banks. Horse trams operated from East Moonta and Hamley Flat to Moonta Bay from 1869 to 1930.

Methodism was the main religion. Some 16 churches and chapels were built in the area. The Moonta Mines Uniting Church was built in 1865 and is still in regular use. It has the largest seating capacity of any church outside of Adelaide.

Mine History

Moonta Miners
In October 1862 James Warmington was dismissed as Chief Captain and replaced by his brother William. Eneder gained the post of Captain at the nearby Wallaroo mine but neither of them was able to establish a satisfactory working relationship with staff or workers. By 1864 miners refused to work and both Wallaroo and Moonta men went on an extensive strike, demanding the dismissal of both brothers. When the company refused to back them up they announced their resignation. Both Captains died shortly afterwards from cancer. Eneder on 24 December 1864 and William on 24 September 1866.

In contrast with the often poor development and lack of scientific treatment at earlier mines, Moonta mine provided an example of prudent ore conservation, technical innovation and sound planning. The man responsible for this envious record was H.R.H. Hancock. Captain Henry Richard Hancock became Chief Captain and Superintendent of the mines in 1864 at the age of twenty-eight. Captain Hancock was born in Devon in January 1834 and immigrated to South Australia in 1858.

He was appointed Chief Captain and Superintendent of the Moonta Mine in 1864. His appointment followed the ten week strike by the miners who had complained about continuous poor management which threatened their income and employment prospects. In typical Cornish solidarity they formed a union which was promptly disbanded after achieving their aims. Their main grievance had been the Warmington's mining methods which, they said, were twenty years behind the time.

Hancock put Moonta on the map and ruled the mines for thirty-four years. Dressed in his long coat and wearing a belltopper this benevolent dictator maintained strict discipline as he organised and controlled the mines. He was responsible for numerous improvements at Moonta such as the introduction of skips, the invention of the Hancock Jig and the use of kibbles. Hancock was also responsible for the employment of local Aborigines on the mine.

An Adelaide paper reported in 1869 that on 18 May at the Moonta Institute, a tea meeting was held for the benefit of the Aborigines working at the mine, with their lubras and piccaninnies. A goodly number of them are in constant employment and earning between three and four shillings a day.

At the same time Hancock developed an advanced welfare policy, established a school for the pickey boys, and a library for those interested in advancing themselves. His determination to expand and exploit the mines sometimes brought him into conflict with more cautious directors and shareholders. But for the most part, decisions were left to Captain Hancock. In 1876, after many years of large dividends, the Moonta Mining Company became the first Australian mining company to pay a million pounds ($2,000,000.) in dividends. By this time the mine employed more than 1,700 men and boys. Hancock ruled the mines until 1898 when his job was passed on to his son Henry Lipton Hancock.

Mining Methods

Until the 1890's all work underground was done by manual labour. No machines were used. The shafts were dug by hand using basic tools and blasting powder. To get from one level to another miners climbed up or down step ladders. Some shafts went as deep as 2,500 feet. The ore was hauled to the surface by horse whims.

Engine houses were built to pump the brackish mineralized water from the mines. Hughes' Pump House was constructed in 1865 and worked continuously until the mines closed in 1923. In all there was about 80 miles of shaft and drives in the area.

Cornish miners usually worked on a tribute system, where they received a percentage of the value of the ore mined. At its peak in the 1870's around 2000 men and boys were employed by the Company. Pickey boys were paid 11 pence per day for a 6 day week. 16 — 21 year olds averaged 3/- to 5/- per day and men over 21 averaged 5/- to 8/- per day. The miners were paid on a percentage of the value of the copper they dug out.

In 1889, as a result of falling copper prices, the company amalgamated with the Wallaroo mines and became the Wallaroo and Moonta Mining and Smelting Company with Henry Richard Hancock as its general manager. The mines closed in 1923 for economic reasons; the price of copper fell after the First World War and it was costing the Company £14 more per ton to mine it than they were getting at the smelter.


 Henry Richard Hancock
Moonta Mine Workers 1895
Improved machinery for dressing ore has been in operation at the Moonta Mines for some time. It has been invented and patented by Captain H. R. Hancock, the Manager, and as no particulars respecting the apparatus have hitherto been published a description of it will no doubt be of interest, especially to those colonists who are connected with mining affairs.

The new appliances have been proved to be a great advance upon the jiggers ordinarily in use. Among the points of superiority are mentioned a saving of labour, the capacity for dealing with enormous quantities of stuff, and effectiveness in separating ore from waste; but the most important improvement, and one which specially distinguishes this machinery from other jigging apparatus, is the peculiar movement imparted to the sieves, by which the dressing of the ore is greatly facilitated.

The machine consists of a wooden hutch, the outside dimensions of which are 24 ft. in length, 4 ft. width, and about the same depth. The inside of the hutch is V-shaped, formed by the two sides sloping towards each other, and meeting at the bottom. This space is divided into seven compartments for the reception of the dressed ore, with the addition of a larger space at the end for the ' tailings.' Fitted into the top of the hutch are two sieves, each 10 ft. long by 3 ft. 3 in. wide, the two when in operation acting as one. The wirework is variously sized, that nearest the head of the hutch being gauged to six holes per inch, the next five holes and the remainder arranged according to the nature of the stuff operated upon, and varying from four to eight holes to the inch.

The hutch is placed upon pillows about 3 ft. in height, and at the bottom of each compartment is a valve, through which, on its being opened, the ore or tailings, as the case may be, rushes out with a stream of water into a wagon or wheelbarrow underneath. The barrows and wagons having their sides and ends formed of wirework the water quickly drains off, and the contents are then conveyed to the floors. The crushed ore for dressing is brought by a leathern belt direct from the mills to the sieves, into which it falls mixed with a stream of water.

The peculiar movement imparted to the sieves is the chief characteristic of Captain Hancock's process, and gives it a marked superiority over other methods of dressing. In ordinary systems sieves are alternately raised and depressed with a jerking motion in order to separate the ore from the waste, but in the new process the ore is subjected to a compound motion; whilst being alternately lifted and lowered the sieves are simultaneously moved forward and backward, the extent of the former movement being about five-eighths of an inch, and that of the latter about a quarter of an inch, and in this manner they perform 150 pulsations per minute. This motion at every throb causes the stuff operated upon to traverse about a quarter of an inch, and at the same time forces the particles of ore, aided by their greater specific gravity, through the wirework into the hutch, the lighter refuse being tossed towards the end of the machine, where it is discharged. The solid ore falls through at the head of the sieve, and usually the ore in the first and second compartments of the hutch is absolutely free from rubbish, that in the other spaces not being quite so clean. By the operation here described, it will be observed that the stuff is not raised vertically but obliquely, and thus there is a much greater tendency than in ordinary machines to precipitate the ore and cause it to fall through the wires into the receptacle, whilst the accumulation of 'ragging' is altogether obviated. The double motion of the sieves, which is simultaneous throughout their whole length, is secured by a particular application of compound levers, worked by a cam wheel on a driving shaft, giving motion to the whole, and which is connected with the machinery of the adjoining crushing engine.

The new machine performs its work in a most effectual manner. Every particle of solid is separated from the waste and secured, and if the stuff were not, as it too often is, ' dredgy,' the tailings would leave the machine perfectly free from ore. During the time the improved appliances have been in operation, the average quality of the ore turned out has reached 19 per cent., which is considerably higher than that of the copper dressed by the machine formerly in use.

There are two of the new jiggers at work, one - the first constructed - in connection with Richman's crushing mill, and the other with Ryan's. A third, with a new engine and mill is shortly to be erected near Beddome's Shaft. The mill at Richman's comprises a stonebreaker for smashing the larger lumps of ore-stone, and two sets of rollers, and the jigger dresses the ore as fast as it is produced by the mill The apparatus both for crushing and jigging is tor the most part self-acting, consequently there is a considerable saving in the cost of dressing. The total labour cost of jigging, removing the ore to pile, and tramming away the tailings is covered by 5d. per ton. At Richman's the machine is capable of operating upon 150 tons of orey stuff per diem.
Tributers are greatly benefited by the new machinery. Formerly they were occupied a fortnight or three weeks in getting their ore dressed, whereas they can now have it done in from one-third to one-half the time, and are thus enabled to devote much more of their labour to breaking away stuff underground. The power which the machine possesses of dealing with enormous quantities of stiff has a most important bearing on the prosperity of the mine. Thousands of tons of veinstone can now be profitably treated that formerly would not have paid for the extraction, and but for Captain Hancock's invention would have lain in situ for an ^indefinitely long period. It is worthy of note that the extraction of the poorer ores has often led to discoveries of richer portions of the lode, which otherwise would probably have remained undeveloped for years.

The machines have been made and erected on the mines under the immediate supervision of the foreman-engineer, Mr. F. May, to whom much praise is due for the skilful manner in which he has executed the work.

Captain Hancock has patented his invention in the colony, and has taken steps to secure a similar protection for it in England.  Source