August 2019

Early history of the minerals industry in Tasmania

  • By H B Somerset, AusIMM President 1958 and 1966

This is an edited excerpt of a presidential address that was delivered at AusIMM’s 1958 Annual Conference, held in Hobart

It is a very great privilege for me to be able to address you tonight and I am deeply sensible of the honour which has been done me. I am equally sensible of the inadequacy of my training for the position of President of your Institute. 

May I say at once, what a very great pleasure it is to have so many members from the mainland states visiting us here in Tasmania. We do hope that you will find pleasure and profit in your stay. 

Since the Annual Conference is always held in the vicinity of one or other of the great mining fields, it has become the practice for the presidential address to review the history of the particular field and to indicate its place in the economic structure of the country. 

I propose to follow this practice and to try and present to you a short picture of the mineral industry as it has existed in Tasmania. None of the information is new: it is available in diverse and remote geological reports and in publications such as Witham’s Western Tasmania and the more recent Peaks of Lyell [Geoffrey Blainey]. The last composite approach was written 20 years ago by P B Nye and published as a Geological Survey Bulletin. 

I have enjoyed preparing this address because on occasion I find it refreshing to look back and see what was known and what was accomplished in the days when the going was a little tougher than it is now, and to speculate upon the reasons that drove men to do what they did. 

I shall therefore discuss the search for minerals in this state; the discoveries over the years; the elation with which the new fields are greeted; the disappointments attending some of them; the mines that have come and gone; and the mines that have survived-up to the point where they started on their way. 

The resurgence of prospecting in Tasmania has brought the mining industry again into the headlines. Almost one-third of the state is involved in this new venture and characteristically it is the rough and relatively uninhabited part, whence the great weight of metal has been obtained in the past. It is very important for Tasmania, as it is a new approach by new methods. From the point of view of public relations, the industry is fortunate in the spectacular nature of the prospecting methods now employed. 

In this country and in America the advent of the Geiger counter brought prospecting into the province and the mind of the person in the street and for the first time since the great gold rushes the ordinary citizen was in a position to go prospecting. That they required, apparently, no geological or mineralogical knowledge whatever, and, furthermore, that they could apparently look anywhere they liked, made the position the more attractive. 

It was only slowly borne in upon their mind that uranium, though apparently plentiful, did not freely occur in economic quantity. It was realised that reactions in the Geiger counter need not necessarily indicate uranium. It became apparent that the scintillometer provided a better approach, particularly as it was capable of being operated from aircraft. And the scintillometer was out of the range of the ordinary person’s pocket, and interest tended to die away. Nevertheless, the uranium boom did stir the public imagination and did bring prospecting again into the public mind. 

In Tasmania, the use of a helicopter to run electromagnetic surveys in the rough country of the West Coast has again attracted the attention of the public and the news commentator – perhaps more so than the magnetometer surveys run earlier in conjunction with aerial photographic work. 

Changed scale of prospecting

Over the years, not only the methods but the basis of prospecting work has changed. It has been said many times that nearly all accessible outcrops have already been tested and that the big mines of the future must be found by geophysical rather than by visual methods.

The high cost of this type of operation has had two main results. It has inevitably concentrated operations into the hands of the larger mining companies, and it has meant that very large areas must be made available for prospecting – areas commensurate with the finance that must be provided. The present Tasmanian Government has appreciated this point and has made available under special prospecting licence, with due regard to the rights of existing enterprises, a considerable area of Western Tasmania for geophysical prospecting by three companies.  

‘The resurgence of prospecting in Tasmania has brought the mining industry again into the headlines.’

In the southern section, the Mt Lyell Company and the Electrolytic Zinc Company, well and favourably known in Tasmania, are operating. In the northern section, the Electrolytic Zinc Company is associated with Rio Tinto Limited, known in Australia for its operations at Mary Kathleen, and overseas for its development of the Blind River field in Canada and for the mines in Spain which have operated for a thousand years. 

The early stages

This is not the first time that a Tasmanian Government has supported a mining venture. In the 1850s, the colony was in a desperate pass. The Victorian gold discoveries had resulted in half the men of the island leaving for the mainland fields and the government of the day was concerned to stop the drift of the population. 

The Victorian Government also had its troubles. The exodus to the gold fields, particularly to Ballarat, had the government at its wits’ end to keep the services of the capital functioning. All normal business was at a standstill and the garbage was rotting in the streets. Casting desperately about for means to correct the position, the Victorian Government hit upon the idea of savagely increasing the fees payable by miners on the diggings. Implementation of this idea, intended primarily as a deterrent to prospective diggers, resulted in the unfortunate episode of the Eureka Stockade, an incident which has been exaggerated beyond its real significance – as is the way with actions bordering upon the revolutionary.

Victoria had a surfeit of gold. Tasmania had none. Overlooking the troubles associated with its possession, the Tasmanian Government of the day determined to locate some gold, hoping that the consequent rush of diggers from other parts of Australia – and indeed the world – would reverse the existing trend of population. For this purpose, the government turned to a clergyman, William Clarke, who already possessed a reputation based upon a prediction that gold would be found near Bathurst in New South Wales. It had indeed been discovered there later by Hargreaves in 1851.

Clarke was a competent geologist. His confident assertion that gold would be found west of the 146th parallel of longitude was sufficient for the government which was already under pressure from certain Hobart interests. An expedition was fitted out and despatched in 1860 to prospect the Eldon Range, rugged country within the area indicated. The logic of this proceeding was pointed out by the Hobart Mercury [newspaper] which contended that the Eldon Range must have been the source of the traces of gold found in various river beds – ‘after all,’ it reasoned impressively, ‘the gold must have come from somewhere.’

Since 1854, sporadic prospecting by small parties had been going on in and around Macquarie Harbour, where access was practicable by sea, but Gould’s expedition was the first organised prospecting in the state. It was government sponsored and the information at its disposal was limited and hardly reliable, but it was led by Charles Gould, a competent English geologist, and it was headed for really rough country. There was every chance that something would be found, but the expedition found nothing at all. 

‘Victoria had a surfeit of gold. Tasmania had none.’

Two years later Gould led another government expedition to the Eldon Range and his miners camped in the Linda Valley for over a week. They found nothing – in an area where most of the gullies were worked for gold in later years. Nor did the smaller parties around Macquarie Harbour do better. By 1864 even these minor operations drifted to a close and the gold field along the 146th parallel was accepted as a myth and interest languished.

Nevertheless, William Clarke was not far out in his general appreciation of the geological position. The mineral deposits of Tasmania are restricted to the west, the north-west and the north-east of the state. They are genetically associated with the granites and porphyries of the Devonian period.  

The rocks intruded were basically the Lower Palaeozoic and Pre-Cambrian systems of the west and north-west, while in the north-east, gold was associated with the Mathinna slates and sandstones. 

With the exception of some tertiary gold at Cygnet, no primary deposits occur in rocks younger than the Devonian. Of the non-metallics, the bulk of the coal is in the Triassic, the oil shale is in the Permian and the limestone occurs mainly in the Lower Palaeozoic. 

The discoveries

Historically, coal was discovered in 1820, and mines were opened in many places in the 30s and 40s. Gold was found at Mangana in 1852 and the alluvial and reef gold fields were opened in the 60s and 70s. Tin was discovered at Mt Bischoff in 1871, silver-lead at Zeehan in 1882 and copper at Mt Lyell in 1883. In the 80s and 90s tile silver-lead fields of Read-Rosebery, Farrell and Dundas, the tin-fields of the north-east, and further gold fields were discovered. By 1900 all the major fields were known. 

‘With the exception of the Pioneer and the Arba, all the important tin discoveries in the north-east were made between 1874 and 1876.’

Tin in the north-west

In spite of the early emphasis on gold, Tasmania’s first mining boom was not gold, it was tin. James ‘Philosopher’ Smith was an unsuccessful farmer and a born prospector. After years of arduous endeavour, operating single-handed in wild country, he discovered tin at Mt Bischoff in December 1871. 

This discovery marked a new era in Tasmania, as it came at a time of trade depression. It had an extraordinary effect on the development of the state, which was at the time languishing because of the tariffs imposed by Victoria upon agricultural products from Tasmania. Only the year before, Anthony Trollope had written that it was sad to visit a British colony that had seen its best days.

The mining industry was stagnant. The eastern coalfields and the silver-lead prospects of the north-west had failed to reach expectations and only two gold mines remained in operation. It was a fortunate circumstance for the state that the dogged perseverance of the Philosopher had at last been rewarded – though his own disappointment was extreme when he found that the resinous-looking mineral he had discovered was only tinstone and not ‘horn silver’ as he had hoped.

Mt Bischoff had been named by Rellyer in 1828 for the then Chairman of the Van Diemen’s Land Company. Fifteen years later James Sprent placed a trig-station on its summit, quite unaware of the mineral wealth on which he and his party were standing. Thirty years later, Smith found the tin after approaching the mountain from the north through an area thick with horizontal scrub and tangled bauera, both of which render progress on the ground arduous, if not impracticable. 

Mt Bischoff was for long the greatest tin mine in the world. The operating company formed in 1873 called up only £1 on its 12 000 £5 shares. The £2.5 million paid in dividends represented over £200 per share. For years the shares stood at around £80 on the exchange. The value of the 80 000 tons of concentrates produced was £5.5 million – £70 per ton! And the grade was just over one per cent.

It is to the credit of the state that James Smith could have done well out of his discovery – over a third of the 12 000 shares were allotted to him and his associates: he received £1500 in cash, and from the people of Tasmania £250, a silver salver and an illuminated address. The government’s contribution was substantial – a pension of £200 a year. Smith sold his shares for a trifle before he received a dividend. 

Tin in the north-east

Fired perhaps by the discovery of Mt Bischoff, George Renison Bell prospected for tin far over in the north-east. He located it in the Boobyalla River early in 1874, though little tin was recovered from this particular lease. 

With the exception of the Pioneer and the Arba, all the important tin discoveries in the north-east were made between 1874 and 1876 – around Mt. Cameron, on the Blue Tier, at Weldborough, Derby and Branxholm.

The alluvial ground was worked from the grass roots to depths of up to 100 feet, but these workings soon gave way to deep lead operations which could only be undertaken by the larger companies. The field alternated between activity and idleness according to the price of tin, and gradually the accessible deposits were worked out. By 1925 only the Briseis and the Pioneer were left operating and today even the Briseis has closed, defeated by the price of tin and the great depth of overburden.

The Briseis Company worked the famous Cascade Lead down towards the Ringarooma River. From the incomplete records available, some 22 000 tons of tin were recovered from this lead to the value of £3 million, of which £500 000 was paid out in dividends.

The basis of the deep lead system was the old valley of the Ringarooma River, with many tributaries coming in from the east. The old river valley was filled with some 500 feet of sediments and up to 200 feet of tertiary basalt, and at no point in its course has the present Ringarooma River cut down to the ancient bed. The deep leads that have been worked are all the old tributaries – the Branxholm Creek, the Valley Creek, the Cascade River,
the Man Creek, the Weld River and the Wyniford River Leads. The main Ringarooma River Lead was not worked on any part of its length and only after most of the activity had died down was its course known with any degree of accuracy.

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