Video about the history of Wheal Watkins Heritage Mine

Wheal Watkins was part of Australia’s first metalliferous mining area. The area was worked in the 1840s and was the forerunner to the mining industry based on copper in SA. It transformed the economy of South Australia from depression to rapid growth and prosperity.

The recently produced video of the Wheal Watkins Mine has been produced by the Burnside Historical Society (BHS) with the support of the City of Burnside, and is part of our current Mines Project.

The text of the video transcript follows:

The Wheal Watkins mine at Glen Osmond is a historic Cornish underground silver-lead mine that opened in 1843 and closed in 1850.

There are two adits, tunnels, into the side of the hill that visitors can look into. The mine is reasonably sound, but there are some areas that are structurally poor and some timbers have been installed to support the roof and conserve Wheal Watkins. Entry is not permitted.

There are useful information signs at the site. Wheal Watkins is interesting and easy to visit from Allandale Avenue, Glen Osmond.

In 1838, just 2 years after the first settlers arrived at Glenelg, silver-lead ore was discovered in the foothills of the Mount Lofty Ranges on land belonging to Osmond Gilles, the colonial treasurer. Gilles made no attempt to develop a mine at that stage.

In December 1840, a discovery by two Cornishmen on a property to the north of Gilles’ land led to the development of Wheal Gawler, Australia’s first metalliferous mine. This started a small boom in silver-lead mining in that area that is now called Glen Osmond.

Lead was an important metal for the British Empire. The colony of South Australia was in financial trouble and it was hoped that a mining boom exporting lead ore would get it out of trouble. Within a few years there were three main mines at Glen Osmond and a lead smelter with a chimney.

We are fortunate that three important mining sites have survived: Wheal Watkins mine, Wheal Augusta exploration adit at Gill Terrace and the smelter chimney uphill of the carpark at Gill Terrace near the Tollgate. These sites have survived because they are in Burnside Council reserves. Many others on private land have been built over and lost. The Glen Osmond mines are only six kilometres from the city centre of Adelaide and are easily accessible.

The Glen Osmond mines are the first metalliferous mines in Australia. They were the start of the major mining industry that supports the Australian economy today. These mines remind us of the hard work that was done to introduce metalliferous mining into the young colony. Shortly after this, the copper mines at Kapunda and Burra started and later Moonta that brought enormous financial successes to the colony.

The first Glen Osmond mine was opened in 1841 and was named Wheal Gawler after the governor. Then in 1842, Glen Osmond mine was opened and in 1843 Wheal Watkins.

The first miners were Cornishmen, so the mines were developed using the Cornish underground mining method that had been developed over hundreds of years. They had a system of levels, shafts and winzers that allowed them to naturally ventilate the mine, mine the lodes and explore where they would find more ore bodies. More skilled workers were recruited from Cornwall.

First the surface ore was excavated then an adit, or a tunnel, was driven horizontally from the side of the hill through the barren rock to underneath the ore body. A miner picked upwards at the bottom of the load and the ore fell to the floor where another miner wheelbarrowed it out of the adit, where it was sorted, cleaned and bagged, often by children. Then they did the same again, deeper where it was needed. They sank a shaft from the surface. It had a horse drawn winch above it to lift out the material. The work teams were small because there was not much room to move. There were likely up to ten men at the mine at a time. It was hard physical labour. All the work was done by hand tools: pickaxe, shovel and wheelbarrow and by dim candlelight. Hand drill and hammers for blasting holes, black powder for blasting. The men even supplied their own candles and black powder. A blacksmith sharpened the tools. It was paid as piecework to drive the access tunnels in barren rock and another piecework rate per tonne for mining the lead ore.

At Wheal Watkins, Mr Peachey was the proprietor until he died in 1849. The main lode was named Peachy Lode. The main shaft was 91 metres deep, with five levels driven out from it. There were two adits from the hill face and the lode was stoped upwards from the 73 metre level. The ore was found in veins that widened to 1.2 metres in places and into lodes. At Wheal Watkins about 1,000 tonnes of hand-picked ore averaging 73% lead and 18 ounces of silver per tonne was produced.

The ore was taken by horse drawn dray to Port Adelaide and then by sailing ship to Swansea in Wales. Shipping was expensive. To eliminate the cost of shipping, the Glen Osmond smelter was built in 1849, but this was too late because all mining stopped in 1850. The smelter was demolished in 1960, but the chimney is still a landmark on the hill north of the Tollgate on the freeway. The chimney is in good condition and is National Trust listed.

The abandoned mine was reopened in 1888, the old workings cleaned out and the main shaft deepened to 128 metres. But there was a slump in mineral prices and the lode was not payable at that depth. The mine closed in 1889.

More information is available at the Burnside Historical Society website and at the History Room at the Burnside Council library. There are also videos on YouTube and available at the Burnside Council website.