Mining Towns: Making a Living, Making a Life

Mining Towns: Making a Living, Making a Life

by Erik Eklund


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A history of iconic Australian towns that have emerged as a result of mining booms—including Broken Hill, Mount Isa, Queenstown, Mount Morgan, Port Pirie, and Kambalda—this book is a unique attempt to introduce urban readers to those communities, past and present. Unlike many mining books, this is not limited to a single material such as coal or gold, but traces the fortunes of a range of towns. With explanations on how these towns were formed and how well they have fared, it will interest academics and history buffs alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781742233529
Publisher: UNSW Press
Publication date: 10/01/2012
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Erik Eklund is a professor of history at the Gippsland Campus of Monash University and the author of Steel Town: The Making and Breaking of Port Kembla. He is also the recipient of the New South Wales Premier’s History Prize.

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Mining Towns

Making a Living, Making a Life

By Erik Eklund

University of New South Wales Press Ltd

Copyright © 2012 Erik Eklund
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74224-598-0


The global and national context

This chapter considers the political economy underpinning the development of the six towns the book examines. It reveals the connections that flow through these localities to regional centres, to state capitals and beyond: financial and investment connections, flows of union and community organisation and of people. Across the continent, mining towns have become nodes for capital, labour and culture. In turn, the towns and their dominant companies have influenced other places, such as port communities and nearby regional centres. The picture is of an interlacing of geography, finance and history.

Mining and industrialisation

Colonial economies developed as almost separate hubs around foundational towns. From Sydney the pastoral economy moved west of the Blue Mountains, branching out inland, north and south, in the 1820s. The coastal areas were another area of growth, with towns such as Newcastle and Wollongong growing from the 1820s and 1830s. The scenario was similar in Van Diemen's Land, where the sites of first settlement – Hobart and Launceston – became economic hubs which captured and controlled inland development. Growth was predicated on the dual expectations of a convict or ex-convict workforce and the expropriation of the resources of the land and sea from Indigenous peoples.

There were patches of mining development that had particular effects in regional Australia. From 1803, Newcastle, in New South Wales, developed as a scattered collection of pit-top coalmining villages around the transport hub of the harbour. Copper mines in South Australia first developed in the 1840s at Burra and Kapunda, north of Adelaide; the Glen Osmond silver-lead mines, closer to Adelaide, developed in the same decade.

Gold changed everything. Images of these years, in the second half of the 19th century, evoke a frontier-like, anarchic period of development. Flows of free migrants meant a significant increase in the size of the domestic market – the Victorian population grew from 97,489 in 1851 to 538,628 in 1861, for instance – as well as changes to the labour market, society generally, and politics. By 1860 convict Australia was a receding memory in most eastern colonies. Gold mining and urban manufacturing (mostly in the colonial capitals) marked the start of the move of Australia's economy towards more technologically adept and capital-intensive industries.

Many mine sites developed on-site processing, and all required harbour or rail infrastructure as well as people with engineering skills to make these complex mechanical systems (which increasingly replaced manual labour) function effectively. The final major expression of gold fever occurred in Western Australia – a colony that had struggled since its establishment in 1829 – from the late 1880s. It was the last gasp of the lone digger, and after the initial rushes, larger companies, with their more technically sophisticated operations, began to dominate in Western Australia much as they had done in the east.

As well as gold, there were other mineral discoveries across the continent. In the 1860s, major finds occurred in the 'copper triangle' on South Australia's Yorke Peninsula: Wallaroo, Moonta and Kadina. Tin mining developed rapidly in the 1870s in the New England region of New South Wales, in northern Queensland and the Darling Downs, and in the northwest of Tasmania. Australia was the world's largest tin producer in that decade.

By the 1870s, clearer patterns of mining development had emerged, and it was clear that Australia was rich in mineral resources. There was gold, but there were also coal, tin, silver and copper. Geology was shaping the continent's patterns of urban settlement. Geology also helped create distinct regions. It was rare for an ore body not to have payable lode right across a geological 'province'. The Mount Isa ore body, for example, is estimated to cover 50,000 square kilometres. This accounts for the number and diversity of mines in the region, and influenced regional and town development from the earliest copper mines in the 1860s through to more recent development at the Cannington and Century mines.

It was also apparent by the 1870s that larger companies, with their more sophisticated mining methods, were taking over. They attracted significant investment from Britain. After 1872, the newly operational telegraph made regular communication with British-based boards and investors more feasible. These international links also flowed through the colonial capitals, which controlled the mining economy both financially and politically. Thus the scene was set for major expansion of the mining industry in the 1880s, almost invariably in isolated areas of regional Australia, but still bound to the city.

Such rapid and large economic expansion needed a labour force. The 'long boom' between 1860 and the late 1880s, with its steady annual economic growth and active colonial governments, created a new image of the Australian colonies – as places of opportunity, rather than open prisons. After 1851 the widespread clamour for gold, and its promise of a new life and new opportunities, led to increased migrant flows to the colonies. Waves of arrivals, some with mining backgrounds, were coming, forming the core of a mining workforce that would travel from field to field in search of employment.

There were two countervailing forces operating on mining labour markets. New labour-saving technology reduced labour demand at mining sites and smelting operations. At the same time, however, major expansion and new projects, along with employment in related industries, generated new demands for labour, especially in the latter half of the 19th century.

The industry was, however, highly erratic and unpredictable. The excitement engendered by opening a new mine, which would provide employment for hundreds of men, was tempered by the real possibility that operations could close at any time. Any one of a number of problems could hamper or halt production: technical problems, a shortage of capital or equipment, accidents, bad weather, or a drop in metal prices. So while labour demand for new projects was steadily growing, the location of the demand tended to be ever-changing. This created a group of itinerant workers who moved from field to field, mirroring the itinerant workers of the pastoral industry. The few major mining fields with greater longevity, such as Broken Hill and Mount Lyell, were the exceptions. Yet even here, downturns could send workers to other mining centres or city labour markets for extended periods.

By 1900, mining contributed 20.1 per cent of Australian Gross Domestic Product, and was almost as valuable (at £23.8 million) as the rapidly growing Australian manufacturing sector. It had contributed a mere 6.8 per cent in 1880. Three of the towns under focus here – Broken Hill, Queenstown and Mount Morgan – had their genesis in the 1880s.

There were two factors that facilitated this late 19th century Australian mining boom. First, the lessons learned on the goldfields were often a basis for later mining developments. The School of Mines at Ballarat and Bendigo, and later Kalgoorlie, trained highly effective mining engineers. Locally trained men were supplemented by a steady stream of British and German specialists. From the 1890s, US experts were also common, as Australian managers began to recognise the skills and experience available from the large and advanced North American mining sector. Federation, too, was a stimulus to industrial development, as it created one common market across the Australian colonies; this helped recovery from the depression which had begun a decade earlier.

Second, colonial governments were strong supporters of mining development: the sector was lightly regulated but greatly helped by government investment in transport infrastructure. Reform in company legislation, pioneered in Victoria from the 1850s, also helped, as it gave potential investors some protection. The 1890s depression, and the consequent widespread loss of investor confidence, led to another round of legislative innovation. Many colonial politicians doubled as investors and were not averse to serving on the boards of companies that received government assistance or support.

However, inconsistency in both policy and delivery meant differential access to infrastructure and state support. Many regional towns struggled against the strong centralising force of state governments. In New South Wales, differential rail freight rates favoured the port of Sydney over Newcastle and other regional ports. In Western Australia, the state government quickly built rail lines from Perth or Fremantle to the goldfields, but it was slow to build lines that linked the goldfields to closer ports. Despite many years of lobbying by port town Esperance and goldfields representatives, the line from the gold town of Norseman to Esperance was only completed in 1927, and a new standard gauge freight line to Kambalda was completed in 1974. At the same time significant amounts of public money poured into capital city infrastructure, with roads, bridges and railway lines connecting the city with its hinterland and beyond. This made it very difficult for regional towns, especially ports, to compete as transport hubs with capital city locations. In Queensland, though a more decentralised political economy modified this picture, city-focused development persisted well into the 20th century. These frustrations drove the formation of a 'country party' in all states.

Economic historians Barrie Dyster and David Meredith posit two distinct economies in Australia – rural and urban – with few links between them. Yet these towns had strong region-to-city connections. For a start, city-based investors were the dominant group of shareholders in mining companies, and city-based directors and financiers in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and London controlled them. Those shareholders and directors were supported by city firms of solicitors, secretarial services, insurance agents, shipping companies, trading houses, accountants and mining consultants.

Moreover, these connections were not merely between the city and the bush. The development of Port Pirie and Queenstown reveal connections across the regions, as mining capital and technology flowed from one place to another. As the most convenient seaport, Port Pirie, like many other ports, benefited substantially as goods travelled along the trade route following the rail line into far western New South Wales. Queenstown was an offshoot of BHP's success at Broken Hill, and it, like Broken Hill, was controlled from Melbourne. The development of Queenstown assisted Strahan, which was the closest port for both Queenstown and the mining town of Zeehan.

For Mount Morgan the relationship to nearby Rockhampton was crucial. Kambalda and Kalgoorlie were similarly mutually dependent, and both had financial and management links to Melbourne and Perth. Thus it can be argued that the economic and financial geography of the economy is more closely aligned with Frost's model of corridors linked by trade and transport, than with Dyster and Meredith's model. In the 1890s, if the colonial capitals were the economic hubs, the mining towns were important spokes. They were a focus of considerable economic activity in an otherwise depressed financial environment.

By the 20th century, the nature of mining industry growth changed. New projects were less transitory; they were more carefully crafted and planned by what were by now larger companies. The inexorable reduction in labour demand began to have an effect. The high- water mark for mining employment was 1911, with 87,000 employed. The Great War gave a further stimulus to Anglo-Australian capital as German financiers such as Aaron Hirsch und Sohn, who had been heavily involved at Mount Morgan and with the Port Kembla copper refinery, were ousted from the Australian base metals industry once war began. This was the work of Collins House financier W.S. Robinson, in concert with the then Federal Attorney-General, William Hughes. Protected by imperial preference, Australia found a ready market in Britain for not only wool and wheat, but also base metals such as lead, copper and zinc. The turning point was 1915. That year Broken Hill Associated Smelters was formed as a major component of the Collins House group, and Australian steel making began on a large scale in Newcastle. Like the mining operations at Queenstown, the Newcastle works was built on Broken Hill profits.

After the Great War, British companies and investors increasingly retreated behind the walls of the Empire. As historian Peter Cochrane notes, '[t]he Empire became a haven for a battered old power'. A consequence of this was the relocation of entire sections of industry to Australian bases. John Lysaght's, the Bristol-based English firm, moved to Newcastle in 1921. In the 1880s state governments had built rail-ways; in the 1920s, they built infrastructure for electrification. During that decade, new generating facilities, electricity supply, tram and inner-city train systems were constructed. This was a great boon not only for mining, but also for local copper and steel manufacturers, and for workers in metal fabrication plants, and builders of electrical generators. Many materials were sourced locally, and in some cases, state government contracts actually stipulated the use of Australian-made materials.

From 87,000 in 1911, the Australia-wide mining workforce declined to 59,000 by 1933, and to 37,000 by 1981. At large operations such as Broken Hill, there were 4452 miners by 1933, compared with 11,000 in 1892. Often these reductions were achieved with a concurrent increase in production figures – the dream of every capitalist manager and shareholder. Mechanisation, open cut mining methods, and new machinery – aerial ropeways, conveyor belts, diesel trucks, mechanical diggers and the like – all contributed to the labour reduction. Efficiencies also extended to innovation in treatment methods, which was particularly crucial in the smelting industry. From 1890 to 1915, a host of new metallurgical processes were trialled. Some succeeded spectacularly; others failed. Metallurgy was an inexact science and new ore types all behaved differently in the smelting and refining process. Complex ores could contain commercial quantities of lead, zinc, gold and silver, as well as traces of other useful metals. The most famous metallurgical challenge was solved by the Zinc Corporation, through the invention, and commercial proving, of the flotation process. From 1905, this allowed the large-scale reprocessing of otherwise wasted Broken Hill tailings that were rich in zinc, and so spawned another major player along the line of lode.

It might be reasonable to expect that colonial economies of the hub and spoke model were significantly altered by these wide-ranging 20th century developments. But high transport costs, generally inadequate rail infrastructure (including change of gauge problems), and a small road transport industry meant that the capital city/regional hinterland relationships of the 19th century were not significantly changed until the 1960s. Established patterns, with existing trade routes and transport corridors, were remarkably durable.

What did change post-1945 was geological surveying and drilling. Much of the progress in these areas had been pioneered by Collins House and BHP. But after 1945 BHP was no longer a player at Broken Hill or at Port Pirie, and the Collins House empire began to re-form as some of the dominant players retired or died. W.L. Baillieu had died in 1936 and Colin Fraser in 1944. In addition, key Collins House companies merged with British companies, and through various changes in name and ownership became the Conzinc Rio Tinto Group, later CRA and then Rio Tinto. US money also slowly replaced British capital. The Empire became the Commonwealth and lost much of its trading and financial coherence as Australia's major trading partners changed, first to include the US, then Japan, and more recently China and India.

Geography and the economy

The picture of the changing economy sketched above reveals crucial connections to the six towns examined in this book. All too often we are encouraged to think of the economy as an abstract structuring factor in our lives. What is clear, however, from an account of mining and industrialisation in Australia is the geographical basis of the economy: it is made up of real places and relationships between them. From the 1880s, when the first towns considered here developed, large-scale financial investment in Australian mines was common, and mining was increasingly capital intensive. Whereas a few diggers could work an alluvial claim with little or no start-up capital in the 1850s, by the 1880s raising money through share issues was typical. In the 1870s and 1880s, regional capital played an important role, particularly in the start-up phase, but by the late 1880s, the independent digger who worked a claim on his own was the subject of nostalgic reminiscence by many in the labour movement. Wage labour had become the norm. The last gasp of this popular dream of individual independence was the West Australian goldrushes, especially at small finds such as Kambalda, where lone prospectors once again led the way. However, there they were replaced by a large company within a year. The still commonly expressed preference of 'working for myself' is a modern-day echo of this desire for liberation from wage labour. The emotional and political burden of adjustment to a life of wage labour lies at the heart of 20thcentury experience for workers in these towns, and perhaps in all others too.


Excerpted from Mining Towns by Erik Eklund. Copyright © 2012 Erik Eklund. Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 The global and national context 9

2 Broken Hill: Icon of working-class culture 35

3 Mount Morgan: In the thrall of modernity 69

4 Queenstown: ?They've got to come here and they've got to learn about it' 105

5 Port Pirie: 'Essentially hard and practical' 135

6 Mount Isa: Normalising outback suburbia 173

7 Kambalda: Modernity, environment and experience 205

Postscript 233

Appendix: The oral history component 240

Notes 243

Bibliography 273

Acknowledgments 289

Index 291

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