Copper, Grain and Wool

Three primary products - copper grain and wool - were the foundation of the South Australian economy until after the First World War. Copper was the most geographically concentrated in production, and gave rise to a unique subculture of transplanted Cornish folk. Grain was the basis of close settlement and usually led the export lists. Wool was the most widely dispersed in its production.

Grain growing spread modest wealth among thousands of families on farms and in country towns. By contrast, some investors in copper mines and pastoral properties, notably from among the small Scottish community, made very large personal fortunes. These were the bases of a number of substantial benefactions to public institutions, especially the infant University of Adelaide which was established in 1874.


In no other Australian colony did copper so dominate the mineral scene as in South Australia. Copper has been recorded at more than 800 places, mainly in the sedimentary rocks of the Adelaide Geosyncline and the adjacent Stuart Shelf, and in the crystalline basement rocks at Moonta-Wallaroo. Production has been recorded at about 300 localities, mostly in quite trifling amounts, from small ore bodies near the surface. Two-thirds of all metal in the ores mined in the State up to 1983 came from the Moonta-Wallaroo area between 1860 and 1923.

Close proximity to the sea was an important factor in the early discovery and successful mining of South Australian copper. Ore was initially brought by bullock wagon to the coast for shipment to the smelters of South Wales. Later, coal was shipped from Newcastle in New South Wales to South Australian smelters, and some lower grade ore was back-loaded from Wallaroo for smelting at the Hunter River Copper Works near Newcastle.

In the Flinders Ranges, where miners had to contend with high transport costs, a shortage of water and fuel made copper mining a fickle and marginal enterprise compared with successful ventures further south.

There were two phases of substantial copper production in South Australia. The first, from the opening of the Kapunda mine in 1844 until the closure of Moonta-Wallaroo in 1923, was primarily for metallic copper for the industrial markets of the North Hemisphere. Ore deposits in the enriched oxidised lodes above the water-table sometimes contained as much as 30% copper. In the sulphide ores below the water-table, values were much lower, as little as 3 or 4% copper, when mining ceased at Moonta-Wallaroo.

The second surge of production came in the 1970s. It followed a sharp rise in copper prices in the 1960s which made it feasible to work by large open-cuts, the primary ores containing as little as 1 or 2% copper.

Most of the output in this period came from deposits adjacent to the old workings at Kanmantoo, Burra and Mount Gunson. The map symbols distinguish the relative proportions mined for each major locality before and after 1923.

By the 1870s South Australia had replaced Cornwall as the largest copper-producing region in the British Empire. Burra and Kapunda exhausted their richer ores in the early 1860s but became Australia's first large open-cut mines before closing as significant mines in 1877 and 1879 respectively. The mines at Moonta and Kadina, and the Wallaroo smelters which handled the ores from both, were large establishments by world standards in the nineteenth century.

The roasting furnaces of the smelters along the Wallaroo seafront were consuming about one-tenth of all the coal exported from Newcastle in New South Wales by 1870. On the limestone plains near Kadina and Moonta the mallee and Callitris pine gave way to complex industrial landscapes of engine-houses, shafts, tramways, crushing mills and slime heaps. For twenty-five years the mines and smelters were superintended by one of Australia's legendary mine mangers, Henry Hancock, whose towing physique matched his organisational and technical skills.

The three towns of Moonta, Wallaroo and Kadina, with some 12 000 people between them in 1891, formed Australia's 'Little Cornwall'. They brought from Cornwall their Methodism and their Cornish mining and labour practices. These included the tribute system where by sections of ground were auctioned to groups of miners who were paid a share of the value of the ore they mined rather than daily wages.

South Australia's Little Cornwall was a nursery for skilled underground miners who later moved on to develop new mines throughout Australia, notably at Cobar and Broken Hill in New South Wales, at Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, and in Queensland.

The copper fields were almost devoid of surface water-supplies, and underground tanks built to hold rainwater were easily polluted. For several decades the Moonta-Wallaroo area was notorious for its high infant and child mortality from epidemic disease.


In 1865 South Australia had one-half of the land under wheat in Australia, a position it still maintained in 1890. Although yields were generally lower in South Australia than in other colonies, in good seasons the colony harvested 50% of the Australian crop. Not until the season of 1897-98 did Victoria sow a greater area of wheat than South Australia. New South Wales took the lead first in 1911-12.

Throughout the nineteenth century, wheat growing on family farms was seen by politicians and public alike as the firm and certain basis for future prosperity. However, by 1865 it was becoming hard to make a living by growing wheat on a 32 hectare farm, the standard size of a Section.

When the newly surveyed Hundreds along the northern fringe of the settled districts north of Clare, and in the South-East along the Victorian border, were put up for sale, the established pastoralists were outbidding small landholders. The concern that large freehold estates were limiting settlement by small farmers generated much debate on deciding the best means of encouraging family farming.

From the debates emerged the Waste Lands Amendment Act of 1869 popularly known as the Strangways Act. It provided the sale of Crown Land within designated districts in blocks of up to 260 hectares per purchaser on credit terms. Payment was 20% initially with the balance payable over four years. In 1872 the deposit was reduced to 10% and credit extended to six years. This was a significant change from the long-held policy of requiring cash to be paid in full at time of purchase.

In the 1870s a wave of pioneer wheat farmers moved into the northern areas, leap-frogging beyond the zone locked up by pastoral estates. Initially, selection of land on credit terms was limited to those Hundreds south of, or adjacent to, Goyder's Line of rainfall. A run of good seasons fed the popular clamour for land on the scrub and saltbush plains beyond the Line. Parliament cast caution to the winds when, in 1874, the principle of land selection on time payment was extended to all the public lands south of the 26th parallel of latitude; that is, the Northern Territory border. Hundreds of farmers and farm-hands left their exhausted 32 hectare farms in the older districts to join the northern land rush.

The northward tide of wheat farming was arrested on the Willochra Plain and Flinders Ranges by droughts in the early 1880s, but a slower and environmentally more secure advance continued during that decade in the mallee scrublands of Yorke Peninsula.

The average South Australian grain harvest in the years 1875-79 was about two and one-half times larger than it had been a decade earlier. To service these vast new grain regions, a sprinkle of towns, many with flourmills, quickly emerged. Most were linked by lightly-built narrow-gauge railways to the gulf ports or by dray roads to the numerous coastal jetties.

By the late 1880s South Australia had a fairly well integrated rail system, despite three break-of-gauge stations at Terowie, Hamley Bridge and Wolseley. The annual railway statistics for outward bound goods provide a valuable indication of the sources of primary produce, although the wool and grain dispatched from many minor ports and jetties went unrecorded and are therefore not shown on the maps above.

The season of 1887-88 produced the largest grain harvest of any in the nineteenth century and was not to be bettered until 1905-6. The compact area of the 'wheat and flour belt', seldom more than 100 kilometres from the seaboard, forms a contrast to the more dispersed pattern of wool growing. The symbols on the maps for grain and wool loadings at railway stations have been drawn so that circles of the same size for each commodity represent approximately equal market values.


Wool growing made a few South Australians rich in status and assets, while many others made a living tending their flocks, and shearing, transporting, insuring and shipping their wool. Although South Australia's sheep flock nearly doubled from 1865 to 1890, its share of Australia's flock fell from 13% to 7% during that time. Some pastoralists in the 1860s secured large freehold estates on choice grazing lands in the Mid North and the South-East, but generally grazing was relegated to the poorer soils and rougher terrains. Parliament could always terminate Pastoral Leases if the land occupied was required for closer settlement.

South Australian sheep numbers grew very slowly from 6 million in 1874 to 7 million in 1890. The highest sheep densities were in the hilly Mid North and the drier areas of the South-East. After 1892, savage inland droughts reduced the flocks, and numbers did not reach 7 million again until 1926. Sheep had little place on nineteenth century wheat farms. The integration of livestock with grain farming, although advocated by those with British farming experience, developed only slowly in the twentieth century.

By 1890, 20% of South Australian Sheep were in the South-East, 45% in the central agricultural zone, and only 9% on remote Eyre Peninsula. Another 25% of the flock was outside the declared Counties, the highest proportion ever to be recorded in the arid pastoral zone.

South Australian breeders early recognised that the merino sheep bred on the tablelands of New South Wales, where the winters were more severe, were not well adapted to semi-arid conditions. From the 1840s onward flock-owners in the hills of the Mid North developed the characteristically South Australia merino of robust constitution and dense, long staple wool.

South Australia was well placed to tap the wool trade from the neighbouring colonies by way of the River Murray and, after 1887, by the Broken Hill to Port Pirie railway. In the five years 1887-91, one-quarter of all the wool exported from South Australia was grown across the eastern border.

The wool trade on the River Murray had been pioneered from Goolwa in the 1850s, and South Australia virtually controlled the traffic. When the Victorian railway reached Echuca in 1864, Victorian steamers monopolised the Murrumbidgee and upper Murray and even penetrated South Australia's 'nature' preserve of the Darling.

In 1878 the railway was extended from Kapunda to Northwest Bend at Morgan, and the Darling wool trade was thereby largely restored to South Australia. The period from 1878 to 1897 was the high point of activity in the South Australian river trade when at least 100 vessels passed each way each year. However, railway construction in New South Wales eventually gave graziers there a cheaper and more reliable method of dispatching wool.