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History and heritage: The contribution of the minerals industry to the development of Australia

George R Fisher AusIMM President 1960; 1965; and 1967
ยท 1800 words, 7 min read

The following article is an excerpt from an AusIMM Presidential Address delivered at the Annual Meeting of the Institute in Melbourne on 30 May, 1960.


Buildings in Ballarat, Victoria, site of a major gold rush in the 1850s.

As a basis for my address to you tonight I thought it might be opportune if we considered the great history of the minerals industry in Australia, and the contribution it has made to the development of the country. While it is perhaps interesting to review the achievements of the past, there is also the opportunity to examine the developments of the future.

In discussing the contribution of minerals, I wish to discuss the influence of gold, the Broken Hill field, and coal, as I feel that these have made the greatest contribution to Australia's development.


Gold has made the greatest contribution. For simplicity I have divided its influence into three sections:

  1. 1851-1860, when major finds were made and Australia's first and greatest gold rush occurred
  2. 1861-1890, when there were many finds right around the coast of Australia, through New South Wales to Queensland, then to north-west Western Australia and Tasmania
  3. 1891-1910, when large finds were made in south-west Western Australia. Thus, gold finds started in the south-east and were made right around Australia, all major finds being within 200 miles of the coast.
The gold rushes of the 1850s

Shortly after Edward Hargraves discovered gold near Bathurst in February 1851, the gold rush commenced. The fever quickly spread to the new colony of Victoria where gold was found at Ballarat in August 1851. This commenced the greatest finds of all time in Australia.

The gold rush brought great wealth to Australia. During the peak year of production in 1856, over three million ounces of gold were produced for a value of £12 million, and by the end of 1860 Australia had produced 25 million fine ounces of gold, 90 per cent of this having come from Victoria.

The impact of the gold discoveries was tremendous. In Victoria, where the greatest finds were made, people flocked to Ballarat and Bendigo in thousands. In fact, at one time half the male population of Victoria was on the goldfields.

Not only did the people of Australia flock to the diggings, but in the following year people arrived in great numbers from all countries. As a result the population of Australia, which had been only 405 000 in 1850, grew by 180 per cent in the ten years to 1860. This mass immigration gave Australia the fastest rate of growth of any country at that time.

Gold discoveries 1861-1890

The second period of gold discoveries was from 1861 to 1890, when gold finds were made right around the coast of Australia. During this period, 45 million fine ounces of gold were produced.

Gold finds in New South Wales were not as significant as they were in Victoria. However, gold was important in opening up many of the farming and grazing areas in central New South Wales. For example, present day pastoral centres such as Forbes, Parkes and Grenfell all had big gold rushes in the 1860s, and this led to their more rapid development. 

One of the first major discoveries of alluvial gold in Queensland was made at Gympie in September 1867. It came at just the right time for the colony, as it lifted it out of a growing depression.

Within six months of gold being found at Gympie, 15 000 men were on the field, all eager to make a fortune. Some did, and the problem of unemployment in the colony was solved. After Gympie, other finds in Queensland quickly followed.

A consequence of these finds was that extensive railway development resulted, and every major mining field was linked by rail.

Once the railway lines were built they then became the carriers of pastoral goods as well as mining goods. Then, as the mining fields closed, the original town often became a pastoral centre instead of mining. This sequence is particularly evident on the Townsville–Mount Isa railway where Charters Towers, Cloncurry and Duchess were all former mining towns and are today predominantly pastoral.

After the finds in Queensland, gold was next found further around the coast in north-west Western Australia. E T Hardman, the geologist attached to John Forrest's expedition in 1883, had reported very favourably on the area, and a party of eastern miners who arrived soon after found gold near Mount Barrett and Halls Creek. A rush quickly followed. However, Mount Barrett was too far from the base of supply, and most people suffered untold misery, hardship and failure. The lasting result of the find was a telegraph line constructed from Derby to the mineral area and subsequently to Wyndham, and shipping facilities were made at Derby and Wyndham. Thus here again, facilities made for the mineral fields outlived the fields themselves.

In Tasmania, too, important finds were made during this period at Brandy Creek in 1877, and Mount Lyell in 1883.

Gold in the 1890s

The third and last period of gold discovery was in the 1890s when large and important finds were made in Western Australia. During the period 1891-1910, 55 million fine ounces of gold were produced.

Just as gold assisted the country out of a depression in the 1860s, so in the 1890s gold again helped the country out of another depression, this time the worst it had ever had. From the mid-80s there had been a succession of bad seasons and the oversupply of British capital had caused extreme speculation and wastefulness. Land values soared and when the Anglo-Australian banks crashed in 1893, Australian banks also crashed. Australia was·in difficulties and many people left the country.

At the same time that this was happening gold discoveries were made at Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie. These finds were a major factor in stopping the flow of people and bringing the country out of the depression.

The Broken Hill field

The greatest influence in the development of Australian industry has resulted from the Broken Hill field. Just as alluvial gold helped populate the country and aided its development in the 19th century, so it was the Broken Hill field, discovered in 1883, which provided the raw materials and capital for a great deal of development in the 20th century. Broken Hill is the richest silver-lead field of its size in the world, and the field still has very large ore reserves. The fact that Australia is currently the world's largest producer of lead is principally due to Broken Hill, which produces some 70 per cent of the Australian production.

The contribution that the Broken Hill companies have made to Australia's development is in three main areas: Broken Hill itself and the ancillary features such as smelters and refineries; the steel industry, which resulted from the Broken Hill Proprietary Limited; and finally a large number of other industrial enterprises, which have promoted a rapid development of Australia's heavy industry.

The Broken Hill Proprietary Company has been Australia's outstanding company. It commenced in 1885 with a working capital of less than £15 000 and today it has shareholders' funds of £95.2 million.

The whole economy and our industrial life depends for its existence on steel. Australia owes a great debt of gratitude to the Broken Hill Pty Co for its enterprise in developing a most efficient steel industry in Australia.


While steel brought rapid industrialisation, coal is the most important source of power in Australia, and hence its importance is just as basic as steel. In 1958 coal accounted for 3.6 per cent of the value of total mineral production.

The consumption pattern of coal shows the wide dependence of Australia's industry on this mineral. In 1958, approximately 50 per cent of all coal consumed was for electricity generation, ten per cent for iron and steel making and the remainder for railways, town gas, cement, ships bunkers and other uses. Thus coal is a basic material, and because it occurs mainly in the south-east section of Australia, it has reinforced the pattern of population already determined by climate.

Coal was first found near Sydney in 1797, and the first coal mine was opened by the British government in 1801 at Newcastle. An export trade was established shortly after, and in 1814, 150 tons were sent to Bengal in exchange for rum.

When railway construction commenced in the 1850s, coal became more essential to the life of the colony, and other coalfields were rapidly opened. The New South Wales fields at Port Kembla were opened in the early 1850s, and these, along with Newcastle, were of key importance in the industrialisation of the Sydney area and the later emergence of the iron and steel industry.

Other finds were opened in Queensland at Ipswich in 1860, and production became significant at Blair Athol and Bowen in the 1880s; in South Australia Leigh Creek was opened in the 1890s. In Western Australia Collie commenced operations in 1897, and at this time total Australian output was around five million tons per year. At the present time Australian production of black coal is 20 million tons a year.

The future

A study of the history of the mining industry shows the material assistance it has given in opening up a great deal of Australia and enabling more rapid development of the Commonwealth. 

The development of a mine concentrates capital expenditure, and settlement of a large number of people at a definite geographical point. It involves transport of heavy materials and large quantities of consumer goods to that point; and, for base metals, transport from it of quantities of concentrates or metals. It also involves a constant stream of experts and others to and from the new centre. Inevitably such an organisation involves establishment of houses, schools, hospitals, water supply, fuel supply, communications, and transport facilities – road, rail and air.

No agricultural or pastoral settlement can call forth such intense human development so quickly, if ever.

It follows, however, once a mining community is established, that if the country around is capable of pastoral or agricultural development, this will follow automatically, based on the services provided by the mining community. If the country warrants it, it will then be held permanently long after the mine has closed.

This is the story repeated throughout the world and is particularly apparent in Australia.

Our known deposits must be developed and brought to the highest possible standard of economic production. AusIMM, and we ourselves as members, have a responsibility in this.

AusIMM can play an important part by encouraging the presentation of technical information and its dissemination amongst members.

While our predecessors in the industry did magnificent work in assisting in the development of Australia, if we are to carry on this contribution, there are even greater problems to overcome today and in the future. If we can solve these problems, I believe the mining industry can become an even greater influence in the development of our country than it has been in the past.

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