National Heritage List inscription date 9 May 2017
Australian Cornish Mining Sites: Burra and Moonta
While tens of thousands of hopefuls dreamed of striking it rich in the Australian gold rushes of the 1850s, copper mining in South Australia was creating a small slice of Cornwall, England on the far side of the world.
A generation of Cornish miners, engineers and tradespeople worked in the copper mines of South Australia, including Burra and Moonta. The new colony of South Australia soon became known as the Copper Kingdom because of the importance of copper mining and its overseas export.
Today Burra and Moonta are of outstanding national heritage significance as two places in Australia where Cornish mining technology, skills and culture is demonstrated to a high degree.
Click an image for a larger view
- More images from the Australian Heritage Photographic Library: Burra Cornish Mining Site, Moonta Cornish Mining Site
Cornish Mining System
The Cornish steam engine was revolutionary when it was introduced into Australia in the mid-19th century, enabling mining of metals at depths not previously possible. This new form of deep, hard rock mining required new skills and technology not then present in Australia. Mining for copper required the skills of miners who knew how to establish mines and systematically work them in a way that gave the best return for the effort and cost required to access the ore body.
The Cornish mining system had developed over generations and was ideally suited to these conditions. Cornish miners were adept at identifying the ore body and develop vertical shafts and horizontal levels where miners operated under the ground in tut and tribute teams. Young boys were also employed on the surface to sort the ore prior to further processing. Miners brought this labour system with them to South Australia. Later at Moonta, miners advocated for improvements in mining conditions like a minimum wage applied in production ‘down times’.
The influence and experience of Cornish miners continued to impact on other mining regions like Broken Hill, Bendigo, Kalgoorlie and Charters Towers.
Located 160 kilometres north of Adelaide the former copper mine at Burra represents a milestone in Australia’s history of mining, as its scale and richness marked the beginning of Australia’s metal mining industry.
Operating from 1845 to 1877 Burra’s ‘monster mine’ was the largest mine in Australia for the first 10 years of its life. From 1850 to 1860 it produced five per cent of the world’s copper, and at its peak of production in 1895 employed more than 1200 workers.
Burra’s features from its prosperous mining days include an outstanding collection of 19th century civic, residential, church and Cornish mining structures, all located around the mine in the former village areas of Kooringa, New Aberdeen, Aberdeen, Llwchwr and Hampton.
The Burra Cemetery in Spring Street is also significant as its headstones chronicle the lives and misfortunes of the mining community up to 1877 when mining operations ceased and the township declined in numbers.
Located on the Yorke Peninsula, 165 kilometres north-west of Adelaide, Moonta is still known today as one of the towns making up Little Cornwall.
Copper was discovered in the area in 1861. The mine was rich from the outset and is famous for being the first mining company in Australia to pay one million pounds in dividends. At its peak the mine employed nearly 1700 men and boys.
The town of Moonta was established to service the mine and by 1875 the district had a population of about 12,000 people making it the largest centre outside Adelaide. Moonta’s copper production established Australia internationally as one of the world’s major sources and exporters of copper.
Until the 1890s all work underground at the Moonta mine was done by manual labour, and an estimated 80 miles of shaft and levels were constructed in the mining area. Getting from one level to another meant climbing up and down step ladders in shafts that went as deep as 750 metres. Ore was hauled to the surface by horse whims and the engine houses were built to pump water from the mine. Horse whims were machines powered by a horse using a system of pulleys and cables wound around a wide drum for the purposes of hauling materials to the surface.
Mine captain Henry Richard Hancock was famous as the Manager of the Moonta Mine, a position he held for thirty four years. Also known for his ‘tinkering’ with machines he made many practical improvements in mine operations. He introduced a steam-engine to replace hand worked pumps, winches and ore crushers. By 1865 tramways had reduced barrow work and by 1866 a railway replaced wagon teams for carrying ore to nearby smelters. His main invention was the Hancock jig which improved ore processing.
Religion played a strong part in holding the mining community together through the hardships of work, illness and difficult living conditions. Hancock, a devout Wesleyan, worked to establish minimum wages for miners, as well as a brass band, library and reading room and compulsory night school for boys from the mine’s sorting tables. He also encouraged cricket, football, chess and glee clubs and mutual improvement societies.
A little bit of Cornwall
Cornwall in the 1840s experienced a depression in many of their industries, including mining. The discovery of copper in South Australia opened up opportunities and the promise of a better life on the other side of the world.
The miners transported their skills and way of life to an environment completely different to the one they left behind, creating a new community in South Australia. One of the traditions they brought with them was the Cornish pasty, a hearty and nourishing meal of meat, potatoes and onions wrapped in a thick pastry. A good pasty could survive being dropped down a mine and holding it by the crust stopped it being contaminated by dirty hands. Popular legend has it that the women workers or wives would call out “Oggie, Oggie, Oggie” and wait for the reply “Oi, Oi, Oi!” before dropping the pasties down. Oggie is short for hoggan, the Cornish word for pastry.
Residents continue to take great pride in their Cornish traditions and heritage, celebrated through festivals along the Copper Coast.
- Location and Boundary map - Burra (PDF - 3.17 MB)
- Location and Boundary map - Moonta (PDF - 2.4 MB)
- Gazette notice
- Australian Heritage Database record - Burra
- Australian Heritage Database record - Moonta
- Burra State Heritage Area
- Moonta Mines State Heritage Area