Burra Fifty Years Ago

By an Old Man.
A few weeks ago when I noticed in the “Herald” the article on the old Burra mining days, I thought that a few lines regarding the old smelting days would be of interest to your readers, as there are, no doubt, some who know but little of the history of the old smelting works, although born, as it were, in sight of the isolated old smoke stack at present standing erect as a pleasant land mark and a reminder that Burra has seen better days. I would ask that we for a short time consider ourselves about 45 or 50, years younger, or imagine ourselves living in Burra in the year 1855. At that time things in the town were much different to what they are at present. Now we can see the ruins of what used to be a very busy place. There is nothing now but old tumble down buildings—truly a scene of desolation. But about 45 years ago, to take a walk round the old smelting works was an interesting event; still, even at the time I am writing, the first thing to strike the mind of anyone who had resided in Burra some years previously was the state of inactivity. This was brought about through the want of labor. On visiting the works at this time it was noticeable that out of nineteen furnaces capable of smelting from 80 to 90 tons of rough copper a week, and which had been known to turn out 95 tons, only five were working, the rest not having men to carry on the necessary work, besides the carting of fuel was much too slow. To show how the Victorian gold rush had affected Burra, I might say at this time the want of laborers was rather surprising, although steady men were offered splendid wages.
At the time of my references, there were about 6,000 tons of ore waiting to be treated, and although the price of copper was good, the company could not get the stuff treated. As I said before, the state of affairs was surprising, and no wonder, when it was found that instead of the 1,000 men the company wanted to man the works, there were only about 200 available. I heard that at one time 400 teams could be counted yolked up consisting of about 3,500 bullocks. The establishment at the time mentioned, was in every way complete, comprising all within itself. There was a 35-stall stable, but the animals principally in use were mules, the smelting company alone owning about 450. They were chiefly worked in shafts, and 10 of them were able, in about eight days, to take three tons of ore or copper to Port Wakefield and return with a like weight of coal. This allowing them time for unavoidable delays, enabled them to average three trips a month. Two hundred of the mules were brought from South America. The company had 12 waggons weighing 18 cwt each, being all built on the ground and there were about fifty more which had been imported from England.
As regards the furnaces, each one consumed from £120 to £130 worth of coal per week, a very large stock necessarilly (sic) having to be kept on band. The only skilled labor required on the smelting was the management of the fires and the drawing of slag without wasting the copper; for the rest ordinary unskilled labor sufficed. As regards men from different countries, there were all sorts. There were a lot of Chilian laborers, with their wives and families, besides English, Irish, and Welsh. At the time to which I refer from 120 to 130 tons of ore was smelted per week, yielding an average of 23 per cent of copper. Iron from manganese was greatly used for fluxing purposes, which was got at the place now called Ironmine, near Leighton, about 10 miles west of Burra. Another feature worthy of mention was the immense consumption of fire bricks. The company made these on the premises, getting the fire clay from the chalk cliffs, where it is at present possible to get fire clay second to none in Australia, thus leaving a profitable industry open for development. To manufacture these bricks a 40-horse power condensing engine had been erected, and with two pairs of rollers for the purpose of crushing the clay, was to be seen busy working, with the crushers for the fluxes. Everything worked well together, and as far as the quality of the fire bricks was concerned, they could not be beaten in South Australia at any rate. At this time the smelting establishment included a general store, a weighbridge, black smith’s, wheel-wright’s, and saddler’s shops, &c. On account of the scarcity of tradesmen the wheelwrights were for some time being paid 20s. per day. The general manager of this time (Mr. Williams) had a large residence, now partially occupied by Mr. F. Treloar. The company se well known as the English and Australian Chartered Company, I gather, commenced operations in South Australia in 1849, and up to the end of 1854 had smelted no less than 7,590 tons of fine copper, the average value of which may be set down at about £95 per ton. The price, at the time of which I am referring, being £120. During the same period the company had shipped 21,000 tons of ore, and had consumed about 27,000 tons of coal. According, to old reports, in six months, October 1850 to March 1851, the amount of carriage between Burra and Port Wakefield alone was about 10,000 tons each way, viz., 10,300 tons of coal up and 9,600 tons of ore down. During the season, which at the time of my reference was about at an end, the quantity had been about 3,000 each way. The Port Wakefield road (about 70 miles in length) had for a long time been kept in repair at the company’s expense, having had but a solitary £500 from the Government. The total traffic had up to this time for the previous five years, been 48,730 tons—a little over 9,700 tons a year. After all this there are some people who think that Burra is dead—not it.