Kapunda, Australia's oldest mining town


Australia's First Mining Town.

Kapunda was a keystone in the early development of South Australia. It has the distinction of being the oldest copper mining town in Australia, but not the oldest copper mine. The honour of this goes to Noarlunga, where a copper deposit was discovered and worked on the banks of the Onkaparinga River in May 1841. Discovered in 1842 Kapunda can be considered the birthplace of Australia's commercial mining history. Mining dominated the town for more than thirty years. When the mine closed in 1877, the town became the centre for a thriving pastoral industry and later the home of the world's largest private landowner, Cattle King Sir Sidney Kidman. He made the name Kapunda once again famous throughout Australia and the world for thirty years with his yearly horse sales.

During its mining days it produced equipment such as cornish boilers and other machinery for mines all over Australia. Not only that, it also supplied the northern mines with transport facilities and miners, including August Helling. By the time the mines closed the town had a population of well over 2,000 people with a similar number of people living around the town.

Map of Kapunda

Before the discovery of copper, land in the area was occupied by a number of pastoralists and some Aboriginal people who occasionally annoyed them by killing their sheep. Francis Dutton and Charles Bagot almost simultaneously discovered the copper in 1842 but as their families only had the land on leasehold, it was kept a secret until they had bought the land at the going rate of that time of $2. an acre.

A few Cornish miners, who were already in South Australia, were hired and mining was started in January 1843 with an official opening by Johann Menge. Soon more Cornish miners from Cornwall were engaged and before long the town had a truly multicultural society. The largest group in the early days was the Cornish, most of them miners, followed by the Welsh who were mainly concerned with the smelting and engineering aspects of the mine. Another group was the Irish who assumed the labouring duties and some farming. Many of the Catholic Irish settled at St John's or Johnstown, about 5 kilometres to the southeast of the mine. The Germans were often involved with the smelting and farming whereas the English controlled the mine and town.

John Hart 1865 (SLSA)

Each of these ethnic groups had different reasons for migrating to South Australia. The English sought wealth, the Irish escape of famine and the Germans religious freedom. They all contributed to the development of the mine and town, although there were the occasional disagreements, feights and even riots between the different groups.

Dutton sold his 25% share of the mine for more than $30,000 in 1846, entered politics and eventually became Premier of South Australia before returning to England. There were several pastoralist/mine-owners who would enter politics and become Premier. John Baker part-owner of the South Kapunda mine, John Hart, William Morgan, Sliding Rock and Sir Henry Ayers of the Burra are just a few to mention.

Kapunda Mine 1875. (SLSA)

Irishman Patrick McMahon Glynn, solicitor, became involved with the local newspaper and later became the first South Australian to be appointed Attorney-General for the Commonwealth of Australia. Kapunda itself has produced more than thirty members of parliament including six Premiers. One Kapunda descendant even became Prime Minister of Australia. Kapunda marble was used extensively for South Australia's Parliament House.

On 7 March 1868 The Advertiser reported that after the excitement caused by the races, our town appears almost deserted. Still, however, things on the whole are pretty good but we are anxiously waiting for rain up here. The Corporation dam (which was such a great boon to the town) has been dry for sometime, which prevents many travellers and teamsters stopping in Kapunda. The reserve tanks now are all more or less being resorted to, as water is beginning to be scarce with some of our inhabitants, although there are fortunately plenty of reserves for those who run short.

Signer Abeceo, assisted by Mr Hedges, gave two of his concerts here on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings to, I am very sorry to say, very small audiences, owing in a great measure no doubt to the short time since the races. Those, however, who were present were all highly delighted both with the Signer's talent as a harpist and his vocal powers also. His singing is very powerful, and would be a wonderful acquisition to an opera company, but by itself there is too much sameness in the performance, though had he visited us in more favourable times his talent, I have no doubt, would have drawn him a full house.

Mr Anderson, our old schoolmaster, has returned to take charge of his school again, and, as a matter of course, being an old favourite with most of his scholars, he is more than welcome amongst them. The weather is and has been very hot this last week or more, and after the cool weather previously, makes one feel it more than usually oppressive-particularly to unfortunate gentlemen of about 15 or 16 stone.

It appears our town is not yet sufficiently supplied with hotels and beershops, as a requisition was being carded round yesterday to get signatures for re-licensing the Clare Castle. It is to be hoped the Magistrates will be fully satisfied that such a place is wanted before granting a licence.

Kapunda can claim a few "firsts" as well. Among them having the first horse whim, first Cornish beam engine and the first open cut mine in Australia. It had the first mining company houses built for its workforce and now has the oldest surviving mining building. In 1866 the town's District Council was formed and in that same year one of Australia's first Australian rules football clubs started playing in Kapunda.

In November 1870 Miss Thorne lectured at Kapunda on 'Young Womanhood'. The attendance was very large and the lecture was delivered 'really well' according to the local newspaper reporter. Miss Thorne had also been lecturing at other towns in the north and on Sundays preached in the Baptist Chapel at Kapunda when seats, aisles and platform of this large building were crowded, and many people had to be turned away.

Kapunda also seemed to have been a rather wet town. By 1878 there were at least ten hotels. P Tyrrell had the Morning Star Inn, H Watson the Miner's Arm, J Crase the North Kapunda Hotel, J Fitzgerald the Railway Hotel, L Johnston the Victoria Hotel, JR Logan the Prince Albert Hotel, HV Moyle the Sir John Franklin Hotel, W Slattery the Clare Castle Hotel and Ellen Fry the Commercial Hotel. However during the renewals in March she was denied a renewal of her licence.

Long after the closure of its copper mine Kapunda had its own gold rush at the Moppa field. Within a few days claims were pegged out, tents went up and a blacksmith opened up for business. While nothing startling had been discovered like in Bendigo or Coolgardie, the field provided employment for a large number of men, during the 1890s depression, who otherwise might have walked the streets in search for jobs.


Kapunda Photographs

Kapunda Cemeteries


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