Fremantle Stuff > Early Days: Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society

Early Days: Volume 6, 1962-1969

A history of mining in the Geraldton district

G. J. Kelly

Kelly G. J. 1962, 'A history of mining in the Geraldton district', Early Days, vol. 6, part 1: 78-96.


Our first mine was a venture in the extracting of basic metals. Launched in an export-hungry little colonial economy and sponsored by the Governor of the day, there came into existence in December, 1849, the Geraldine lead mine on the river Murchison. How it got its start was a story of combined operations perhaps as romantic as the better-known tales of our first gold mines.


In a field survey trip into the Murchison country late in 1848 one of Roe's Assistant-Surveyors, Augustus Gregory, came upon a galena outcrop in the (then) dry bed of the lower Murchison. He made a routine report of his discovery.

The Governor, Captain Charles Fitzgerald, who had arrived in the colony in August, 1848, decided to inspect personally. In so doing he made this one of his first projects and probably his first adventure in the colony. Within weeks of Gregory’s report Fitzgerald was off on the small colonial schooner, Champion, to “Port Grey.” Concurrently, Gregory led a land party to the same spot. Together the two groups—on foot but using pack-horses—made the 70-mile hike needed to effect the outward journey. Along the way they noticed occasional groups of natives watching their progress; that they were being shadowed seems not to have occasioned them any worry.

In these words. Gregory confirmed his earlier high opinion of the lead-rich outcrop:

"We examined the lead vein tracing it 320 yards along the bed of the Murchison River which was nearly dry. Throughout the whole length the lead vein appeared to be one solid mass of galena.”

This was also group opinion, and. having reached it, the group was not minded to delay their return to the comforts of the "Port Grey” base. It was this part of the journey that constituted the adventure. Once again in Gregory's unemotional style we follow the record:

"Then the 50 natives changed their friendly manner and began to bring up their spears until they completely surrounded the party. They commenced first to threaten to throw their spears, then to throw stones, and finally one man caught hold of Mr. Bland by the arm. The Governor, perceiving that unless some severe example was made the whole party would be cut off, fired at one of the most forward of our assailants and


killed him. A shower of spears, stones, kylies, and dowaks followed. A spear struck the Governor in the leg just above the knee with such force as to cause it to protrude two feet on the other side, which was so far fortunate as it enabled me to break off the barb and withdraw the shaft. The Governor, notwithstanding his wound, continued to direct the party."

No further blows from either side are recorded. The week-long journey ended where it had begun, at the bay that was to be named Champion Bay.

Having seen for himself, Fitzgerald became an oral supporter of the mining idea. With this encouragement a number of prominent Swan River settlers, including A. Lefroy, R. M. Habgood. and G. Shenton, floated a small company to exploit the ore discovery; mine and company were given the same name. “Geraldine”, after the Governor. What transpired between the beginning of field operations in November, 1849, and the almost immediate collapse of the company, between fresh promotion by local and English capital, renewed disappointment and eventual, long-delayed success are further chapters in the Geraldine story. Now we simply note that the colourful Geraldine became the first producing mine on the Northampton Mineral Field which was. in turn, the first mineral field to be both recognised and exploited in the colony.

Northampton Mineral District actually stretches for about 110 miles—from Geraldine on the Murchison to the river Irwin; however, the area proclaimed as a mining field is only 67 miles long and 24 miles wide at its greatest extent and is the area referred to below as “the Field.” Thus delimited it consists of an irregularly eroded tableland of sandstone and conglomerate, drained by the small rivers Bowes and Hutt and their tributaries, and overlying crystalline rocks containing numerous ore-bodies with lead and copper as principal metallic content. During the nineteenth century history of the district, the southern and eastern parts of the Field were held under pastoral licences and most of the northern and central parts under mineral licences or freehold ownership. It was to be recognised long before the end of the century that much of the Field was arable country, yet while lead and copper were forthcoming from the many mines on it, its exclusive mining use was rarely questioned.

Up to 1855 only lead came from the Field and that from only one (mismanaged) mine. But in that year copper mining was started and since the copper deposits were located much closer to Geraldton than the Geraldine, a new orientation of district mining came into being. In the new centre of operations, about 30 miles north-east of Geraldton. not one but a series of mines was opened up in 1855-1856. Thereafter, a mining field was being worked and its point of shipment was the Port of Geraldton.

Characteristics of the young industry in the busy years that stretched from 1855 to 1882 were certain fluctuations in production,


the controls responsible for these, and the growth and character of Northampton—the mining "capital” and the second largest township In the Geraldton district.


The main reasons for fluctuations In the output of base metals can be traced to causes both external and internal to the industry; a glance at the leading mines of the period will serve to illustrate this. Some of the mines to be noticed were producers of copper only, some of lead only, while a few produced both metals. Since the impetus given to the industry in the mid-1850’s came from copper discovery, the copper mines will be the first group treated.

The first true copper mine in the district was the White Peak, which stood on a pastoral lease of policeman-pastorallst, John Drummond. A company called "The White Peak Copper Mining Company" was floated by Drummond and George Shenton in 1855. (One of its share certificates is in the Perth Museum). After turning out only a little of the metal then worth £126 a ton, this concern went out of operation in 1858.

In the meantime the first of th» great copper mines, the “Wanerenooka,” was opened up by the W.A. Mining Association early in 1856. This Association had, as Chairman of Directors. Fremantle merchant, Lionel Samson, with (Sir) Luke Leake and Thomas Burges as other Directors. During the ten years of its operations, it produced ore to the value of £40,000. From the mine, the part of the mining field in question was known as "Wanerenooka."

About two miles to the south-east there came into operation in 1859 one of the best-known of all the copper mines—the "Gwalla.” This was the property of one William Horrocks who built the first store in the settlement and was probably the most progressive and philanthropic of the early settlers on the mining field. He was the first mine owner to import skilled Cornish miners into the colony (convict labour was not made available at Wanerenooka), was responsible for erecting in stone cottages for his miners and an interdenominational church for the community. Shortly after his death in 1865 this mine passed into the hands of George Shenton after whose untimely death in 1867 it was closed down, having in a period of little more than eight years produced nearly £20,000 worth of copper.

In the same year as the Gwalla, another equally redoubtable property began operations. This was the "Wheal Fortune,” worked for copper, 1859-1862, and for lead, 1862-1868. This mine was located about three miles west of Wanerenooka. With its naming began the custom of using the word "wheal" (Cornish, good) to prefix mine titles in the area, a circumstance that gives a Cornish


flavour to the local nomenclature. In practice, "wheal" was popularly transposed, and this mine known as “The Wheel of Fortune.” In its three years as a copper mine the Wheal Fortune produced £15,000 worth of that metal.

With the opening in 1863 of the "Narra Tarra”, mining was taken into the fertile Chapman Valley. Named from the fact that it stood on a pastoral lease of the Morrisseys’ Narra Tarra station, this mine produced copper for only a few years; no details of its output are available. But it stood on the same leases as a lead mine of the same name which was destined to become the greatest producer of all the mines on the Field.

Other copper mines to earn notice in the period under review were the Yanganooka and the Qellrah. Like the richer mines these also were freehold concerns, which implied that when they ceased production the ground in question would be legally tied up.

An abrupt decline in copper output from the Field took place in 1869. This was almost immediately followed by a marked increase in the output of lead which metal was easily dominant for the rest of the years up to 1882. Why was copper production so abruptly curtailed?

For the main reason we cannot go beyond an external factor—the London market price. For copper's good production years this averaged £100 per ton. In 1867 it dropped below £90 for the first time in the history of the Field, and when in 1869 it had sunk to £75, the local producers called enough. For the remainder of the period to 1882 they produced a total amount of copper less than in any single one of the Field’s good years for that metal. London was clearly the major reason for the 1869 stoppage. Once stopped, however, the group of important copper mines stayed that way even though the metal price appreciated again for some years after 1871. Therefore London was not the only control at work. Just what the internal influences were will be taken up presently in the discussion on Imperial Grants.

Foremost among the lead mines that produced rather irregularly up to 1870 but then began to dominate base metal output from the Field were the Geraldine. Wheal Ellen, Baddera, Narra Tarra and Wheal Fortune. Of these the last two produced only copper in the first three years of their respective histories.

In 1859 an English capital concern became the third company of the same name to work the Field’s senior mine, the Geraldine. Like its predecessors, it laboured under the disadvantage of having to work a mine sunk in a river-bed; in the dry season work could progress freely, but occasional river flooding following cyclonic rains inland more than once caused abrupt and expensive lay-offs. This particular company made a novel attempt to solve the problem


of hauling the ore through the sandhills to the “boat harbour” at Port Gregory. We read in the “Inquirer":

"The English shareholders had invested capital in purchase of machinery to be sent direct to Port Gregory. The directors must have thought the roads would be adequate as the machinery included a traction engine which, if successful, would have reduced greatly the cost of cartage. It could not be moved on the roads existing and was left lying on the beach.” The remains of this steam engine still lie among the sandhills close to the anchorage. Its mining fortunes no more successful than its transport arrangements, the English Geraldine company went out of production within the year. Then, after a decade of mis-management the Geraldine finally found the right master in the person of experienced Cornish mining manager, Samuel Mitchell, brought from Redruth to the colony in 1866 by Perth businessman and new owner, Robert Habgood. Mitchell immediately diagnosed the case, abandoned the river-bed workings, sank a shaft on the north bank and set the mine to rights. In two three-year terms in charge of the Geraldine, 1867-1874, he did work it to such good effect that it fulfilled the original hopes held of it; as the producer of lead worth more than £70,000, it earns the ranking of the field's richest lead mine for the period. On Habgood’s death in 1878, the Geraldine, being part of a trust estate, went out of production for some time.

A mine, which was operated for only the last 10 years of the period under review, and which in that time produced lead to the value of £60,000-£70,000, was the “Wheal Ellen.” This mine, at the southern or Gwalla end of the mining township, was managed for a time after 1876 by Sam Mitchell and was reputedly named by him after his first wife.

Third richest lead mine of the period was the “Narra Tarra” opened in 1870 and worked until 1884. Adjoining the copper mine of the same name in the Chapman Valley, the Narra Tarra was a company property, more soundly capitalised than most mines of the day and—apart from the Geraldine—the only mine to have its own smelter. Up to 1882 it had produced more than £60,000 worth of lead. It is interesting to notice that although the Chapman River cuts through the field, the Narra Tarra area is the only mining section of any consequence in that valley.

Two other “great” lead mines were the “Baddera” and the “Wheal Fortune.” The first, about six miles north of Wanere-nooka, like the Wheal Ellen, produced only during the last 10 of the years up to 1882. but in that time lead to the value of £34,000 was taken from it. The second, only three miles west of Wanerenooka, has already been introduced as a copper mine (1859-1862), It was worked for lead, 1862-1868. It was the first important lead producer on the southern part of the field, and, during its brief history typified the mining spirit of the day and place. When all others were temporarily out of action late in 1860, the "Wheel


of Fortune” remained In business. When Governor Hampton visited the mining field In 1862, it was the Wheal Fortune which celebrated by “a 21-gun salute” of explosive charges fired against a rock face by the “Cousin Jack” mining crew. The Wheal Fortune's lively career was abruptly ended by an enforced and permanent closure in 1868. But although it produced nearly £30,000 worth of lead, it ranked only fifth among the early lead mines.

Other southern lead mines of note in these years were the freehold Oakajee and Wheal West Virgin and the leasehold Kirtons and Uga. On the northern part of the field the North Geraldine, the South Geraldine and the Lady Florence were freehold properties not extensively worked.

While, as observed earlier, much more lead than copper was sent away from the Field, 1855-1882, the free occurrence and easier development of galena ore-bodies did not produce this over-all gain until after 1869. In the 1870’s mining output stood at a much greater figure than in the previous decade.

During the active phase, 1855-1882, copper worth £123,000 and lead worth £337,000 were produced by the mines of the Geraldton district. If the total value of production seems small by comparison with later gold mining figures, it should be remembered that this mining phase was coinciding with a period in which the colony’s economic status was lowly and her export industries, except for wool, insignificant. It should also be observed that Geraldton was the only part of the colony then making any mineral contribution to exports.

A contemporary expert described the Northampton Mineral Field as "a valuable one and would if properly worked support a large mining population.” While Its record of production was fair, it was certainly not worked to the best advantage during the early period. Individual mines—rich and poor alike—were scarcely ever in full production for more than a year at a time, while the shortterm aspect of mining was one of constant and sometimes bewildering variations; e.g. in 1860, at a time when the lead price was £24 a ton—the highest for the period under notice—and copper was fetching £105 a ton, we read in the Perth Gazette:—

“The Wheal Fortune is the only mine in full work at present.”

Again in 1865 though there had been practically no recession in the price of either metal, and production figures for the industry were better than for most of the early years, we find that only two mines—the Wheal Fortune and the Gwalla—were producing early in the year; and only these two and the Yanganooka late in the year. In overall production lead fluctuated more than copper, often varying by 200-300% from one year to the next. What was causing these fluctuations?



Three factors are essential to an understanding of the fluctuations in operation and output of individual mines: one, the tendency of the characteristic ore-bodies of the Field to contract or "pinch out" abruptly after being followed for a certain distance; two, the nature of the capital control of nearly all the mines; three, the form of freehold tenure of the mines opened before 1894:—

(1) That it is in the nature of lodes sometimes to expand to a considerable width and at others to contract and perhaps cease altogether at one level but to resume lower down, is understood by all mine-operators. When the lode contracts it is, of course, necessary to a properly organised concern that a certain amount of “dead work” be entered upon; for example, that a shaft be sunk in search of the lode. But, contrary to such sound mining practice, the managers who worked the Northampton Field consistently refused to "sink on” a lode after it had contracted, and also, with rare exceptions, failed to provide proper pumping machinery to drain the mines. From these two fallings it resulted that the average Northampton mine of the period did not exceed 100 ft. in depth—the deepest was 320 ft.—while the ground-water, which was "not so abundant as to be any serious detriment to well-equipped concerns,” proved exceedingly troublesome to most of the Northampton ones. Some of the hold-ups and most of the mine closures were due to management refusal to face the natural facts.

(2) With few exceptions the individuals who managed the mines on the Field had sufficient knowledge to operate them in a sound manner. They failed to do so because hardly one of them was autonomous; most of them were operating mines they neither owned nor shared. In closing down mines temporarily or permanently they acted according to written Instructions from the owners.

TTie southern part of the Field was made to order for speculative small capitalists In that “the many outcrops of ore at the surface” and the availability of the land in question at £1 per acre before 1865 and thereafter at £3 an acre gave virtual assurance of a reward to anyone having £500 or more with which to speculate. In an Investment-poor colony, there were a number of such men, coming at first mainly from the Swan River, then later from the mining district Itself; they were men willing to accept a quick and moderate gain but unwilling to spend money on unremunerative mine-development work. The small capitalist mine control plan was, despite many a newspaper plea for "foreign capital," rarely departed from; two of the exceptions to it were the (English) Geraldine Mining Company and the (Victorian) Melbourne and Champion Bay Mining and Smelting Company. In this pattern, then, the efficient and obedient mine manager played an important part in assuring small profits.

For the period, 1855-1882, the Field was worked in the most parsimonious manner possible, which meant that the richest lode offering would be followed down until it contracted or until it reached ground-water level (whichever


happened first) the process repeated with other promising outcrops, and the mine then closed down, recapitalised—if considered worthwhile—so that pumping machinery could be installed, reworked until further lode-contractions occurred, then closed down indefinitely. A mine misused in this way became an unattractive proposition to any other capitalist because of the amount of “dead work” involved in putting it back into commission. As time went on it became an increatingly expensive proposition to reopen these abandoned mines because of the caving-in of existing workings. Thus the Field was riddled with shallow holes and became an accumulated mass of damaged prospects. The course of capital control had operated to make it, even during the "good’’ years of 1855-1882, a spasmodic producer of lead and copper, a short-term speculation for both local and Swan River capitalists, a depreciated asset for both Geraldton district and Western Australia.

(3) closely associated with the second control was the matter of land tenure. As several of the richest mines were closed down for reasons other than those noted above, these exceptions must be considered, the more so since they throw light on a particularly important feature of mining in the Geraldton district—the form of freehold tenure of the pre-1894 mines. Nearly all the mines stood upon private property, the titles to which were acquired along with all mining rights during the period now under review. These estates, described locally as "Imperial Grants,” included the most valuable of the 45 principal mines on the Field, and were alienated under the provisions of either the Land Act of 1842, which fixed a minimum price of £1 per acre "on waste lands of the Crown," or of the Land Regulations of 1865 and 1872 which raised that upset price to £3. When the W.A. Department of Mines was set up in 1894, the Imperial Grants remained outside of its Jurisdiction for record purposes, and when the first mining warden was appointed to the Northampton district about the same time, the Grants did not come under the surveillance of his Court for exemption purposes. Prior to the appointment of a District Mining Registrar in 1896, no public mine records of the Field had been kept. It had been opened and shut down again within the lifetime of man with no official notation of essential information beyond titles. In the event of Imperial Grants going into trust or falling into the hands of absentee creditors, all work on them would normally have ceased, the properties would have deteriorated and might still remain closed down to this day. This has been the fate of the Wanerenooka and Gwalla, two rich copper mines which went out of production for untoward reasons, 1867-1868, and have never been properly recommissioned.

Apart from the immediate effects on copper production, the ownership and disposition of Imperial Grants played an important part in the late 19th century history of the Field.



It happened that two of the first and richest mines to be opened in the southern part of the mining field—the Wanerenooka and the Gwalla—lay within a mile-and-a-half of one another, on the watershed between the Bowes river and several of its northern tributaries, and that other mines, such as the Wheal Fortune, Yangnnooka, and Wheal Alpha—also opened in the late 1850's—were grouped at intervals around the first two. Traders and others supplying the wants of the group of mines established themselves between the Wanerenooka and the Gwalla, nearer to the first late in the 1850's but favouring the Gwalla end during the 1860’s. Thus in place of the various big mines becoming and remaining social as well as economic units, we find that a central mining township grew up in a straggling line, uniting the hamlets of Wanerenooka and Gwalla and attracting settlers from adjacent mines. The terminus of the "road to the Mines'* (built by convict labour from Geraldton to the southern end of the Field) was Wanerenooka and this was the name commonly applied to the young settlement area when in 1862 Governor Hampton visited the mines and was feted by the Management of the Wheal Fortune. The gazettal of “Northampton” in 1864 commemorated Hampton's visit by providing a name for both the town and the mining field on which it stood.

By the time the Gwalla and Wanerenooka mines closed down in 1867 and 1868 respectively. Northampton had grown to a town of 500 permanent residents, many of them Cornish. It had two churches, Horrocks' Gwalla and a Catholic one (built in 1867 by Father Lecaille), two schools, a "Miners’ Arms”, a number of boarding houses, shops, and other businesses. Flanked by hills and with a stream, the Nokenena, passing through it, Northampton was a pleasant town of stone cottages surrounded by gardens, small orchards and paddocks often bounded by low stone walls. The colony's only mining town was a picturesque place. In the 1870’s it acquired its own Brass Band, a half-company of Volunteers and a Mechanics’ Institute, all indicators of township status, and held regular race-meetings. “Northampton was a pretty lively place at the time so that it fell to my lot to do more honorary labour than many a stipendiary magistrate,” reminisced its then Justice of the Peace. As with many another mining town, the liveliness was about to depart; in the case of Northampton "the Charm was to remain and the good times to recur at intervals.” From 1859 onwards Northampton’s mining products had been vying with sandalwood as the colony’s second export item and the mining industry had consequently gained some stature. This the colony’s leaders recognised in their decision in 1872 to build a railroad—W A.'s first—between Geraldton and Northampton.


Most references to early mineral development on the Field stress the difficulty and expense incidental to shifting the heavy lead ore the 30-70 mile journey from mine to sea. In 1856, when the metal was bringing £24 per ton in London, it was costing up to £4 10s. per ton to freight the ore to the Port of Geraldton. In all estimates of marketing costs the overland transport item was one-third to one-half of the total; while lead prices were over £20 per ton this could be borne, when they fell below that figure lead mining became uneconomic. The corollary, that if the overseas price fell much below £20 per ton, lead mining would remain uneconomic in spite of the proposed 50 per cent reduction in freight costs, was disregarded by the Committee which recommended the railway. Its aim was: "to create a new mining world, in which the sight of strings of lead and copper-laden carts wending their weary way along the sand-plains would disappear and numberless new mines would open."

Work on the line—known then as "the Northern Railway”—was begun in 1874 by the successful contractor. Edward Keane. The actual construction was virtually complete by 1876 but then a series of disputes between the contractor and the Colonial Engineer held up nominal completion until 1879 by which time the original estimated cost of £50,000 had grown to nearly three times that figure. It is ironical to reflect that, bad the line been opened in 1876 as planned, the mining industry’s two years of record production, 1877-1878, during which lead and copper worth £92,000 were sent away, would have been credited to the benefits of reduced freight charges. In actual fact in the year after the line did open there began a mining slump which reduced freight charges could do nothing to halt.

But Northampton had acquired a railway and though this had been built for economic reasons of doubtful merit there was real social comfort in the possession of such a link with the Port of Geraldton.

Between 1878-1883 the last of the great lead mines went out of production. The closing down of the Geraldine in 1878, the Wheal Ellen in 1882 and the Baddera in 1883 made inactive three of the richest and most reliable mines and shrunk the Field's annual value of production from £43,000 in 1878 to £7,000 in 1883. Prime cause of the slump was the fall in the overseas lead price from £16 per ton in the former year to £12 in the latter.

QUIET TIMES (1883-1909)

After 1883 production on the Field was practically confined to the intermittent operation of leasehold mines, such as Kirton's and the Uga and to the activities of tributers and prospectors. The [ ] principal outward characteristic was an impression of disuse.


Derelict mines with flooded workings stood on unfenced arable sections, often several hundred acres in size, which were denied to agriculturalists and other potential land users.

Between 1883-1909 copper worth £24,000 and lead worth £37,000 were produced by what remained of the district’s mining industry. Pleas for foreign capital “to stabilize the industry” were no longer heard, the expectation of Government assistance had ended with the provision of the Northern Railway, and the mining people, who, for various reasons, had remained faithful to the languishing industry, realised its only chance of restoration lay in the firming of the London price. Now one of the industry’s earlier strengths had been its importance to the Colony’s export trade. It had also benefited from the frequent attention given to its interests by Geraldton businessmen. Though colonial investors had for a decade before 1883 been tapering off their involvement, Northampton in ihe 1880’s as W.A.’s only mining district had still some economic significance until the Kimberley gold discoveries of 1886 reduced it to comparative obscurity. To the people of Geraldton district it retained its economic significance a little longer, not because it was nearer to them, but because the first gold discoveries did not immediately affect their district. But when the Murchison goldfield was opened up in 1891, they, too, came to disregard the base metal industry.

Practically all the copper and lead produced on the Field, 1883-1909, was won before 1890. Ever-increasing Eastern Australian and world production of the base metals had caused the prices of both to reach in the 1890’s their lowest average for any decade, 1850-1900; the £50 per ton for copper and the £11 for lead were only about half of the respective prices for the earlier decades up to 1880. No output of lead was reported at all, 1893-1897 and 1901-1906 while copper returns were negligible. Compared to the dullness of 1883-1890, this was complete stagnation.

The fall-away in mining activity in the early 1880’s did not produce the tapering-off in Northampton’s population that might have been expected. True, the township did become, on week-days anyhow, “a miserable one-horse town,” but it did not become a ghost-town. Some of the younger miners did leave in the years after 1885 to try their fortunes on the goldfields, but most of the established families stayed on—the men working for Mitchell, Crowther, or Rosser, prospecting on their own account, gathering sandalwood, or doing a little mixed farming on what land was available for that purpose. As late as 1881 Cornish miners and the families were being brought in by Mitchell, and, if anything, the Cornish atmosphere of the town must have increased rather than decreased during the long depression period. In addition, the presence of the railway to Geraldton was an jnducement to people to remain because it had removed much of the former element


of separation between the mineral Field and the southern parts of the Geraldton district. Trainloads of excursionists visiting Northampton race-meetings; shearing matches, band contests, and the like provided the town with a small tourist industry. Thus still dependent in many cases on the straitened mining industry, but in a measure managing to balance its area economy, Northampton and its people stagnated but did not go—and never ceased to hope for a revival of mining.

In the period, 1883-1909, two attempts to end the mining industry’s doldrums were made—one by private enterprise and one by Government. In the first instance, a producer-smelter organisation was set up. In the second instance, the only occasion to then when direct assistance was offered the industry by Act of Parliament, proved by its total failure how subject that industry was to external economic forces. The capacity of the WA. market to absorb the output of its own base metal mining was so slight as to leave it, almost throughout its history, quite dependent on the export market.

(1) The Smelters

Despite earlier failures in smelting ventures, a fresh attempt in this direction was made in 1897 when a Fremantle group, the W.A. Smelting Company, began to purchase its own lead mines from which to extract and process galena. Its immediate object in seeking lead was the need to use this metal in the smelting of the telluride ore from Kalgoorlie. To this end it purchased several old proved concerns in the Narra Tarra, Baddera and Wheal Ellen, re-opened and re-explored these, and moved some ore to its Fremantle smelter. As the telluride treatment in question soon proved to be unprofitable, this particular company went into liquidation about 1902. Its assets were taken over a few years later by a concern called the Fremantle Trading Company whose activities were to revitalise the Northampton industry a little later on.

(2) The Acts of Parliament

Two Acts, passed in 1902 and 1904 respectively, represented an attempt to cut through the legal trammels which were tying up some of the old mines, and with them some thousands of acres of first-class agricultural land then being eyed by agricultural selectors. When, during the industry’s early active period, the mineral-bearing land had been acquired as Imperial Grants the grantees secured all mining rights and the option as to whether or not they worked the land; nor was this state of affairs altered by the creation in 1894 of the W.A. Department of Mines—since the old grants remained outside of its jurisdiction. The 1902 Mining Development Act offered the existing owners of the old grants financial


assistance to re-open their properties. It failed of its purpose. Then the Mining Act of 1904 tried an approach to the miners themselves by offering them legal access to properties alienated before 1899 with the right to work them as ordinary leases. However, in practice this Act was as unsuccessful as its companion because it could not guarantee clear working title. The mining deadlock remained unbroken while much first-class leasehold land was being quietly resumed for agricultural disposal and several of the old Imperial Grants repurchased for the same reason.

Mining Revival (1919-1927)

Between the years after 1909 and almost up to the depression of 1929 there was taking place a busy and successful period in the history of our mining field. It should be noted: that a rise in the price of lead to an economic level immediately preceded the outbreak of war; that World War I had certain effects on the price and production situations; that the value of production of lead then became much higher than in the earlier active period; and that company control would prove to be the effective means of tapping the full potential of a handful of the old mines. It need hardly be added that the European Arms Race had been responsible for the price movement that set off the train of events described below.

(1) The Price and Production Situation

The Field’s productive period, 1910-1927, was so far ahead of its previous best that in each of the peak years, 1918-1920, the lead ore output exceeded that for the total period, 1850-1900. During these three years the average lead price of £32 per ton was the best experienced to that time in the history of the Field, but, when in the mid-1920's the price reverted to the pre-war level, production was to drop off dramatically. Nearly 350,000 tons of lead ore, valued at more than £1,000,000 were produced by the Northampton Mineral Field for the period, 1910-1927.

During World War I, for the first time in its history, the W.A. base metal mining industry faced governmental restriction on the export of its products; from 1914-1919 there was a Federal embargo on the export of base metal concentrates. The pattern, which the major part of the industry had adopted, of production by an organisation which owned its own smelter, was adapted to this situation. Small producers were obliged to have their ores treated at Fremantle and the concentrates marketed locally—along with those of the Trading Company—to be channelled to the war effort. The national emergency was the greatest stimulus to production the Field had enjoyed.


(2) Old Mines Re-activated

That the earlier methods of working the Field had been unsound was proved by the modem history of three old mines. These, the Narra Tarra, Wheal Ellen, and Baddera, had each been opened up and closed down several times previously; now they not only produced anew but were to exceed all earlier productive efforts. Their owner, the Fremantle Trading Company, began its producer-smelter operation at a time when upward price movements were to make it the most lucrative ownership concern in the Field’s history. From its three mines the new company produced on a scale which enabled it to smelt economically its own concentrates to the tune of at least £750,000.

In 1900 it put the first of its mines into production. This, the Baddera, had been worked, 1873-1883, again, briefly, by Mitchell and Crowther in the early 1890’s. By 1909 it had in all had over £40,000 worth of lead ore extracted from it. From 1910-1921 it turned out lead ore worth £300,000. Up to 1927 it held second place among the Field's great lead mines.

The No. 1 mine for the 1850-1927 period resumed production with a staff of 90 men in 1914. This was the Narra Tarra—after 1914 called the "Protheroe”—which by its output between 1914-1925 of lead and copper worth £460,000 made its all-time total exceed £500.000, or more than the rest of the Field had produced in the 65 years up to 1910. In working this mine the Trading Company carried out proper development, worked lower-grade ore than had previously been touched by small-scale operators, and where, at certain levels, it found that the metal values in the ore changed from lead to copper, it raised the copper. Its success with the Narra Tarra showed to what an extent earlier mine-controllers had wasted their opportunities by arbitarily closing down great mines when rich values cut out or ground-water appeared.

In 1918 the Wheal Ellen resumed production for the third or fourth time, mainly because the output from the Baddera was slowing down. To 1882 its lead output had been worth £65.000; between 1918-1925 a further £52,000 was added to make the Wheal Ellen third among the Field’s great freehold producers to 1927.

So far considered in this period have been a trio of great mines at the Northampton end of the Field. But & third of production for the years 1910-1927 came from the Geraldine end of the Field, not from the old Geraldine mine which was never put back Into full-scale use after 1878, but from the tributers and leaseholders encouraged by the 1912 rise in lead prices and the opening in the same year of the rail extension to Ajana (less than 10 miles from the Murchison River).

Easily the largest leasehold concern was the Surprise lead mine which in 1920 employed 150-160 men and intensified its activities


after the (1923) lifting of the embargo on base metal exports. Near the Surprise sprang up the little township of Galena within a quarter-mile of the Murchison. This mine followed the Trading Company's trio into retirement after having produced lead ore worth nearly £320.000. The other northern leasehold mines were of small account, best known of them being the Two Boys and the Three Sisters.

(3) Northampton Revisited

The revival of mining activity Involving hundreds of men had been to the benefit of Northampton—population In 1910 nearly 1,500—then beginning to benefit from agricultural development In the area. Few of the pioneers of the mining industry were left to appreciate the Field’s return to real production after nearly 30 years of idleness. Not many of the missing ones would have approved the re-orientation of Northampton due to the building of a new rail depot at the Wanerenooka end of the straggling old town. But this had been done when the line was extended north of Northampton to AJana in 1912—an extension which assisted mining as well as agriculture. AJana's neighbour settlement, the new little river-crossing township of Galena, was making some progress in this period, while Northampton itself had grown to nearly 1,700 by 1927. Despite these indications of growth in the settlements. and the Field's much greater output in this. Its second major productive period, the comparative effects of the Industry on the economic life and atmosphere of the district were much less than In the earlier active phase.

Neither the figures for lead production nor the overseas price for the commodity, 1923-1925, suggested that the end of the Mineral Field's second boom period was then fast approaching. While price and production still stood at near-record levels both of the Trading Company’s operative mines—the Wheal Ellen and the


Protheroe—went out of production to be followed almost at once by the Surprise mine. What had brought about this sudden turn of events?

As early as 1921 there had been indications that all was not well with the affairs of the Trading Company when it closed down its Baddera mine and was failing to do proper development work on its Wheal Ellen. Then, at the end of 1922 it ceased to use its smelter, claiming that It would not be able to compete with the tariffs of the Antwerp smelters. In 1923-1924 when lead prices were at near-record levels, the Company was tapering off production from its two mines. The story of its decline ended In April, 1925, when its banker—the Commonwealth Bank—foreclosed on its Company assets held as security against considerable advances made to the directors. It would be unrealistic not to suppose that mismanagement had played a part in the Company's downfall, but unfair not to appreciate the possibility of a postwar Australian and world market becoming glutted affecting policy. In actual fact lead prices fell off sharply In the late 1920's.

It may be wondered why apart from one mine, the Protheroe, the Northampton Mineral Field had shown no response to the wartime return of copper prices to their 1853-1864 level of over £100 per ton. The reason for this was twofold: first, unlike the mining of lead, that of copper had not remained confined to the Northampton Field, and richer and more easily worked deposits, such as Mt. Malcolm, Whim Creek, Phillips River, Ashburton River, and West Pilbara, had from the early years of the present century supplied all of W.A.'s needs and the owners had profitably exported this metal; second, unlike the top lead mines, the richest copper mines—the Wanerenooka, Wheal Fortune and Gwalla—had by 1910


all been out of production for over half-a-century, and, bearing In mind this factor of disuse and the failure of the copper price to appreciate before 1016, we can realise that even these renowned old properties would be leas attractive as working propositions than the group of lead mines which the Company did buy and operate.

After 1027 the Field returned to its 1009 condition of virtual stagnation.

MODERN HISTORY (1928-1056)

From 1928-1947 there was little mining on the Field; as before the principal direct control on production was the overseas price. Since this period takes in the years of World War II, the apparent failure of the War to stimulate local lead production needs some explanation. We must also note that when mining was stepped up in 1948 it took a different general form to that prevailing in either of the two previous periods. As in the preceding periods, the Northampton Field still remains the major W.A. producer of lead.

Between 1928-1947 only 10,000 tons of lead ore were produced for a return of about £16,000, or slightly less than for the single year, 1927. During these two decades of inaction, all mine-improvement work such as dewatering, shaft-sinking and timbering was lost or severely impaired. The recommissioning of old mines would present a big preliminary expense to any individual or group prepared to act should a price rise warrant a renewal of large-scale extraction.

In 1938 the price for lead stood at only £15 6s. 6d. but after the outbreak of war it was fixed at £25 (British)—a price which in earlier times would have stimulated considerable lead mining activity on the Field but which brought no response from Northampton producers during the war. It can only be assumed that the prospect of a controlled price was the main deterring factor responsible on this occasion for the failure of the Field to respond in production as it had done in World War I. Relating the Northampton (or Western Australian) lead production situation to the wider sphere, one might add that there were no alterations in the British or Australian lead prices during 1939-1945, that there was no wartime embargo on the export of lead from Australia and no War year in which the Australian demand for lead exceeded the supply; most surprising of all, Australian lead production actually declined 1942-1945.

At the end of the War, the attachment between the Australian controlled price and the British Ministry of Supply’s maximum price ended as far as lead was concerned. The sterling price increased slightly late in 1945, then began to soar—to over £48 per ton in 1946, £85 in 1947, £95 in 1948—offering Australian producers


the highest prices ever for their lead and W.A. producers the substantial incentive needed to attempt fresh production on their century-old field. In 1948 a new period of productive importance began for W.A. lead mining.

The difference between the new and the old operation of the Mineral Field was, first, that only one of the old freehold mines was actively recommissioned for deep-working purposes and the bulk of the operators merely re-treated old mining dumps; second, that the State Department of Mines intervened in order to give direct specialised assistance to the industry.

At the end of the War the Protheroe, out of action since 1928, was the property of the Heinsen brothers and L. W. Shepheard who brought it back into production in 1946; for several years it was the only producer at the southern end of the Field. In 1950 a mining company, which had to that time taken an active interest only in gold mining on the Murchison Field, bought the Protheroe for a reported £150,000. This was the Anglo-Westralian Mining Company, under United States capital control, and a rather surprising addition to the ranks of base metal producers—surprising unless one reflects that it was already in the area, that the Protheroe had produced over £500,000 worth of lead and copper, that the price of lead was buoyant, and that the price of gold was not. In 1951-1952 the mine was a contributor to very large shipments of lead leaving the Port of Geraldton. With one break in 1953, this Company remained in operation to the time of writing (in 1957) and brought the old mine’s all-time output close to £1,000,000. The Protheroe has been proved easily the richest mine on the Northampton Mineral Field.

Although the Anglo-Westralian Company has been the only large capital concern to figure prominently in postwar lead mining, one other has entered into mine ownership and small-scale production. This is the Paringa Mining and Exploration Company, of English capital and Kalgoorlie gold mining interests; in 1952 it bought into Wheal Fortune Extended, called it the “Paringa Wheal Fortune," and began to extract lead ore. Why this Company has not more fully exploited the valuable mine it controls is not quite clear.

Much of the mining practised since 1947 has been the cheap-cost treatment of the dumps of "tailings” from previously dressed ore; old mines, such the Wheal Fortune, Wheal Ellen, Ghurka, May Bell and Saxon, were being operated in this way in 1954 when I visited the Field. They are staffed by 1-4 men who merely clean up and transport discarded matrix to the nearby State Battery where it is processed by modern concentration methods. Often these men are not the owners of mines they are working but are tributers. Despite the apparent cheapness of operation, it would not pay to process most of the mine dumps in this way just for


their low-grade lead content. The principal objective of the crushing, milling, wasting and concentrating processes carried on by the Battery is to extract lead-zinc concentrates either from the dross left behind after dressing the ore or from copper tailings. It is noteworthy that of the five mines being cleaned up in 1954, three—the Wheal Fortune, Ohurka, and Saxon—were old copper mines whose ores had been previously treated only for copper content. Exceptions to this common form of modern mine-treatment exist at the Murchison end of the Field where some mining leases near Qalena are still worked in the old fashion, mainly by one company, Qalena Lead Mines N.L. In this area the problematic immediate future of the lead mining industry may lie.

Between 1946-1957, the Mineral Field produced to the value of £2.300,000, whereas, 1855-1882, and 1910-1927, respectively, metal worth £400,000 and £1,256,000 had been extracted from it. Thus the present period of activity is the most lucrative in terms of currency. However, when one recalls that the average prices of lead were approximately £20 in the first and £25 in the second of the previous phases, the ruling average of £100 enables us to see the present achievements of the Field in a better perspective. In terms of real as distinct from money value it is probable that the present period of production has barely exceeded the financial result of 1855-1882 and is less than one-half of that of 1910-1927.

Mining on the Northampton Field has been in progress for a clear century during which three distinct periods of intensive activity have occurred at widely separated intervals. The first active period, 1855-1882, was one in which the "cream" was skimmed off the Field; the second, 1910-1927, one in which proper development of three or four mines was well rewarded and established the true potentional of the Field; the third, 1948-1956, is a period in which the pattern of operations is a blend of true mining and retreatment. Employing only a 100 or so men, sending away only one or two shipments of ore a year, the Northampton mining industry is outranked in importance by a half-dozen other Geraldton district industries and it is a negligible item in the overall economy of the State. However, with resources of lead, zinc and copper still hardly touched after a century of largely inefficient exploitation, it enters a time in which the likelihood of world shortages of the base metals assures further periods of activity for the Field.

Garry Gillard | New: 20 April, 2021 | Now: 21 April, 2021