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History and heritage: Reminiscence of Broken Hill

John Warren, AusIMM President 1902
ยท 2500 words, 10 min read

The following Presidential Address is an excerpt from the Proceedings of the AusIMM No 9, first published 120 years ago in 1903. 

This article is published as part of our #AusIMM130 campaign, celebrating 130 years of AusIMM. Follow the hashtag on LinkedIn for more historic content. 

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In taking the chair at this meeting of the Australasian Institute of Mining Engineers*, I feel it my duty to thank you for the honour you have conferred upon me by electing me President for the current year, especially as Broken Hill is the birthplace of the Institute and myself one of its foundation members.

I will now endeavour to entertain you for a short time with a few reminiscences of Broken Hill from its inception.

Beyond the fact that the mines on the Broken Hill lode have paid to their shareholders in dividends and bonuses no less a sum than £11,896,500, created and maintained a city of 25,000 inhabitants, supplied a large proportion of the revenue on the railways of a sister state, and made their influence felt throughout the commercial centres of the world, very little, I regret to say, is known by the general public as to the form, extent, or vastness of the ore bodies, or the mode of occurrence of the various classes of ore which have been found to exist in them. It has occurred to me that a short paper by the senior mining manager on the line of lode might prove interesting.

There has been great difficulty in getting some of the figures relating to the field, the total output of metals from the Broken Hill mines not being obtainable from the mining department in Sydney; but an inscription on the foundation stone of the technical college recently opened in this city sets forth that the Broken Hill mines started in 1884 and that the value of the output to the end of 1900 amounted to the sum of £45,000,000 sterling. These are startling figures, and in all probability refer to the output from the whole of the Barrier district.

I visited the Barrier in the early part of June 1885, prior to the issuing of the prospectus of the Broken Hill Proprietary Company Limited. At that time the site now occupied by the city of Broken Hill was, comparatively speaking, in its natural condition, being fairly well covered with dwarfed native shrubs.

The outcrop of the Broken Hill lode was very strong, and formed a most conspicuous object from the elevated positions on either side of it. From what is now known as Jamieson's shaft on the proprietary mine, as far north as the boundary of Block 14, it stood boldly out of the surrounding schist to a height of from 50 to 60 feet, forming an enormous crest, from which immense blocks of iron, quartz, etc, constituting the outcrop, had in the course of ages fallen out and rolled to the base of the hill on the eastern side. This gave the crest of the hill an indented or broken appearance, and doubtless it was from this peculiarity that it derived its name of Broken Hill.

The original syndicate which took up this mineral land secured from the mines department eight blocks, comprising in all about 298 acres. Seven of these blocks were located on the line of lode for mining purposes, and the other, which is located on the plain on the north-west side of the lode, was secured as a water reserve, the position chosen being an excellent one. The blocks on the line of lode, commencing from the south, are numbered 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16, and at the time of my visit the only work being done was the sinking of a shaft on the northern portion of Block 13 under the supervision of Mr William Jamieson. The shaft was being sunk in the outcrop and had reached a depth of about 40 feet. The material being penetrated was an oxide of iron (gossan) of the most favourable character for the production of minerals; but as far as I could ascertain, nothing of value had been met with.

The shaft, however, eventually proved exceedingly productive, and is know at this day as Rasp's shaft. Some work had been done prior to this on Block 15; a shaft having been sunk some 50 or 60 feet, exposing carbonate of lead, assaying about 40 per cent of lead and 12 ounces of silver, which was not considered good enough in those days. An open cut had also been made into the iron outcrop on the western side of the hill near the southern boundary of Block 13; the material broken showed chloride of silver, and a few tons of it had been bagged preparatory to its being dispatched.

This large and persistent outcrop of oxidised lode material, composed principally of manganic iron and quartz, and extending for more than two-and-a-half miles in length, was quite sufficient to lead any practical mining man to the conclusion that extensive deposits of mineral of some kind would in all probability be found to exist in depth; but sufficient work had not then been done to enable one to determine what kinds of mineral the lode was going to produce, the indications for copper being in places quite equal to those for lead and silver.·

The strata enclosing the base of the outcrop, where laid bare by erosion, did not appear to be of too favourable a character, being gritty and in horizontal layers resembling drift. This was the only unfavourable feature in the whole formation as far as my experience went, and this has proved to be only superficial.

I did not revisit the field until October 1889, and I need not say that a great transformation had taken place – a well laid-out town having been brought into existence, with a population of over 17 000 souls, and having railway communication established between the mines and the seaboard. The Silverton Tramway Company provided the connecting link between the Broken Hill mines and the South Australian government railway system at Cockburn.

Everything was going on swimmingly at the mines. The seven blocks of land leased by the original syndicates were now being worked by four separate companies. The syndicate, having been floated into the now-world-renowned Broken Hill Proprietary Company Limited, having a registered capital of £384,000 in 960,000 shares of 8/- each, all of which is paid up, decided to confine their operations to Blocks 11, 12 and 13, upon the development of which it has spent in plant alone the sum of £1,246,750. The total quantity of lead produced to date amounts, in round numbers, to 500,000 tons, and the silver to 111,710,549 ounces, or roughly 3385 tons. The quantities and values of other metals – copper, gold, etc – sent to the market must amount to a considerable sum, but the figures are not at my command. During the 17 years this company has been in existence it has disbursed to its shareholders in dividends and bonuses the magnificent sum of £9,768,000, and its vast reserves of sulphide ores, are, comparatively speaking, untouched.

Up to the time of my taking the management of a property in Broken Hill, the class of ore mined and smelted had been confined to the oxidised varieties. These ores were easily mined; but owing to the system of shift work which prevailed in the district, the cost of mining became very high compared with the class of material which had to be dealt with. Several attempts were made to introduce contract more generally in underground work; but the Amalgamated Miner's Association was in great force on the field in those days, in fact their contribution and levies, amounting to 3/-, 4/- and 5/- per fortnight, were deducted from the men's wages at the pay table and handed over to officials belonging to the miner's union. The rate of wages prevailing at that time was 10/­ per shift of eight hours, and the rankest greenhorn sent into a face had to be paid at that rate.

A great deal of loafing was being perpetrated underground, so much so that, notwithstanding the soft character of the ore being mined, the quantity raised per man per shift did not exceed ten hundredweight. Matters drifted on in this unsatisfactory way until about the middle of the year 1892, when, at a meeting of the Mining Managers' Association; the condition of affairs was long and fully discussed, and a resolution carried by a unanimous vote that a letter be written and forwarded to the secretaries of the several mining companies pointing out that, notwithstanding the high value of the products of the mines, they could not under existing circumstances be profitably carried on for any lengthened period, and at the same time recommending that day or shift work should be, as far as possible, done away with underground, and a system of contract introduced.

On Saturday 2 July 1892, communications were received from the secretaries of the different companies approving of the recommendations made by the Mine Managers' Association, and notices were at once posted on the different mines. The news spread like wildfire, and on the following day (Sunday) a mass meeting of the workmen was held on the Central Reserve, at which the proposed contract system was discussed and condemned and a resolution unanimously carried against it; also another resolution that all the men cease work, and the next morning, July 4, every man was called out, and the memorable and disastrous strike of 1892 commenced.

The mines were closely picketed night and day by a cordon of strikers extending on either side of the lode from the south mine to the north mine. A threat having been made that the managers residing on the mines would be starved out, a meeting of mine managers was held early in the afternoon at the house of Mr John Howell, on the Proprietary mine, the house being surrounded by a surging mob of strikers, who attempted to put their threat into practice. During the meeting the family baker drove up to the house to deliver the daily supply of bread but was prevented from doing so by the mob. The groans and howls of the crowd reached the ears of the little party within, who rushed out and 'collared' all the bread in the cart and returned to the meeting, much to the chagrin of the stronger party.

The behaviour of the strikers now became most insulting, and on the following day one of the managers was mobbed in the public street by a body of fully two thousand men, and only escaped by a piece of strategy. It had been arranged at the meeting held by the managers on the previous day that the mine officers of the different companies, and as many others as were found faithful to their employers, should take up their residence on the mines to enable them to better protect the property, but a difficulty arose in provisioning them.

Eventually it was arranged with Mr Chas Eley, the manager of the Silverton Tramway Company, that a truck loaded with provisions should be attached to one of the company's locomotives at the goods sheds and run quietly on to the mines, which was done, the manager of the tramway and several of the mine managers accompanying it. The strikers were holding a meeting on the Central Reserve when this resolve was put into force, and on learning what was being done a general stampede was made for the Proprietary mine with a view to intercepting the train and preventing the landing of the provisions, but in scrambling up the steep bank of the railway they were met by an eccentric member of the Mine Managers' Association, who, while flourishing a revolver in each hand, urged them to come on for he had friends in both places. Happily he was not afforded an opportunity of visiting his friends on that occasion, as, under the protection of jets of steam from the locomotive, and the display of revolvers, the provisions were safely housed and the mob returned to the town.

The following morning, on returning from the township (where I had been in search of something for breakfast) and on approaching the cordon of pickets, I was accosted by a powerfully built Cornishman with the question 'Where be you g'waine?' I replied that that was my business. My questioner then, appealing to the pickets, said 'Can 'e hear what he do say? What odds is that to me?' Then to me, 'Thee'st want a clip under the ear.' I remarked that he might give it me, to which he replied 'I'm off duty or I would.' I suggested that it might be a good thing for him and walked on with my mutton chops.

On 8 July, 50 members of the New South Wales police force arrived from Sydney, and received a very warm reception. Matters in connection with the strike went on as before until 23 August, on which date an advertisement appeared in the local newspaper announcing that the mines would be thrown open for work on the 25th, and that parties having unfinished contracts were requested to return to the mines and complete them, or the work would be re-let to others. On the date mentioned above, the strikers, with a sprinkling of the fair sex, mustered in thousands on the Proprietary mine to prevent, if possible, any men who might feel inclined to return to work from doing so. The tarpots and brushes were very much in evidence and but very few men went in.

Early on the morning of 10 September, a train arrived at the goods station bringing another body of police. The strikers turned out in great force to receive them; although the hour was 1 AM, they assailed the train with road metal and revolvers. The windows of the train were broken and several members of the police injured, one so seriously as to necessitate his removal to the hospital. Mr Eley, the manager of the tramway company, had his upper lip perforated and some of his teeth knocked out by a piece of road metal. Free labourers from the other states and districts began to come in now, boarding houses having been erected on some of the mines to accommodate them.

On 15 September another body of police, 100 strong, arrived and received very little opposition. The police in the town now numbered 200, and matters began to improve and the men to return in small parties to their work. On 6 November the strike was formally declared off and work resumed at the mines on the oxidised ores as before, since the mention of the term sulphides would cause a shock to the nervous system of most of the managers on the field even at this late period.

*Editor's note: the name was changed in 1919 to the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy. 

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