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Death at the Iris tin mine

Stanniferous drift is a term once used to describe tin-bearing ground, but it could just as easily describe the movement of tin mining families—or mining families of any other stripe—from one field to the next in search of better opportunities. Both economics and personal tragedy prompted depopulation of the small Middlesex mining field in north-western Tasmania around the time of World War I (1914–18). The contemporary photographs of bushwalker and national park promoter Ron Smith help tell the tale.

Hut at the Iris tin mine, April 1905. (Left to right) Les Smith, Tom Murphy and Richard Kirkham. Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.
Hut at the Iris tin mine, April 1905. (Left to right) Les Smith, Tom Murphy and Richard Kirkham. Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.
Wooden sluicing pipes, Iris tin mine, 1990s.
Wooden sluicing pipes, Iris tin mine, 1990s.
Hut at the Iris tin mine, 1990s.
Hut at the Iris tin mine, 1990s.

In Historic Tasmanian mountain huts, Simon Cubit and I told the story of the three Davis brothers, Clarence, Sidney (Sid) and Edmund (Eddie), who came to Tasmania from Victoria and tried to farm the Vale of Belvoir near Cradle Mountain in 1903.[1] When the farming venture failed, Clarence Davis returned home, but Boer War veteran Sid Davis (1879–1913) and Eddie Davis (1888–1944) stayed on in the Tasmanian highlands, taking up the lease of the Iris tin mine near Moina.

Charlie and Charlotte Adam with their three eldest children, Bell goldfield, 1905. Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.
Charlie and Charlotte Adam with their three eldest children, Bell goldfield, 1905. Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.

The Davis brothers’ partner in the mine was Charles Frederick Douglas Adam (c1864–1932).[2] Born in India as the son of an Anglo-Indian lieutenant, Adam had been sent home first to his parents’ house at Dover, England, to an aunt in France and to a Middlesex boarding school.[3] He is also said to have attended Eton, London and Cambridge Universities and the Sandhurst Academy—a busy schedule indeed, if it can be believed—before serving in the 81st Foot Regiment, with which he returned to India. Defective hearing prompted his retirement from the military, and he obeyed medical advice by settling in Australia. After a few years in Tasmania he arrived on the Bell Mount goldfield during the small rush there in 1892.[4] He made minor gold discoveries around the area at Golden Cliff and Stormont, and reworked the Bell goldfield when the hydraulic gold craze hit Tasmania. Charlie Adam married Charlotte Saltmarsh (1873–1946) in the nearby town of Sheffield in 1899.[5] They had children Charles William Guy Adam (1900), Mary Charlotte Adam (1902), Freda Kate Adam (1904), Frederick John Adam (1907), Robert Douglas Adam (1909) and Eileen.[6] There was also Charlotte’s daughter, Elsie (Elizabeth Mary Saltmarsh, born 1896), from a previous relationship.[7] Like many bush people, Charlie Adam used press subscriptions to keep up with the outside world, and his favourite was the weekly English illustrated newspaper The Graphic.[8]

Elsie Adam, Bell goldfield, February 1905. Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.
Elsie Adam, Bell goldfield, February 1905. Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.
Guy and Mary Adam, Bell goldfield, February 1905. Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.
Guy and Mary Adam, Bell goldfield, February 1905. Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.

However, at a time when there was no school at nearby Moina, the Adams’ most important education supplement was the tutor they employed, Mary Smith, to teach their three eldest children.[9] One of the things Mary taught was propriety. The manager of the biggest mine in the district was William Hitchcock but, offended by his surname, Mary pronounced it ‘Hitchco’. Did her silent ‘ck’ remove the problem or draw attention to it?[10]

 

Sid Davis came to dinner at the Adam house at the Bell goldfield, met Mary the tutor and began to court her. They married and established a farm at Black Jack, the long straight on what is now the Cradle Mountain Road south of Moina. From here Sid had a short walk to his other work at the Iris tin mine. The couple’s first child, Gladys, did not survive, but they had a second daughter, Hilda, in 1911, and another, Molly, two years later.[11]

Believed to be Sid and Mary Davis on their wedding day, 1909. Courtesy of Maree Davis.
Believed to be Sid and Mary Davis on their wedding day, 1909. Courtesy of Maree Davis.

Mary found the isolation difficult. Young Harold Tuson of Lorinna, on the eastern side of the Forth River, found out how lonely she was. In contrast to Charlie Adam’s highly regimented upbringing, this thirteen-year-old had just entered the workforce on a road gang, building the Cradle Mountain Road, and was camped near the Davis house. While returning home for the weekend he ran into Sid Davis on the road:

 

I suppose he wanted someone to talk to … ‘Where did you come from? And what do you do?’, and … he said, ‘Call in’. Little two-room place on the left … ‘Call in and have a talk to the wife. She’s very, very lonely’. And so on the Monday I did [call in]. And I’m carrying a songbook and she and I got to work and were singing … and I decided I’d better go and she wouldn’t allow me, she didn’t want me to go. ‘Sing another song …’[12]

 

In 1912 Gustav and Kate Weindorfer established Waldheim Chalet, their tourist resort at Cradle Valley. Charlie Adam was one of their first guests, but Weindorfer also availed himself of the Davises’ hospitality when caught on the road in bad weather. On more than one occasion he rocked young Hilda Davis to sleep in her cradle.[13]

 

On 14 May 1913 Sid went to work as usual at 7 am. Two-year-old Hilda accompanied her father to the gate. The family’s dog, Bob, followed at Sid’s heels until Mary called him home. She was busy in the kitchen four hours later when she heard a horse galloping up to the house, followed by a knock at the door. It was her friend, a lady named Ward, a frequent visitor. Imagining that she had bad news to impart, Mary immediately thought of her mother. ‘Don’t tell me’, she cried, ‘go and tell Sid!’ ‘I can’t’, her visitor replied, ‘he’s dead’.[14]

 

Sid Davis had been working in the open cut when a tree stump fell on top of him, striking him fatally on the back of the head. He had survived guerrilla warfare in South Africa only to succumb in a mining trench in peacetime. ‘It was such a blow to Mum, really and truly’, Hilda Davis recalled,

 

She never got over it … She was always thinking of her days at the mine and of Dad. She never got it out of her system. She loved those days up there …[15]

The abandoned Adam house at the Bell goldfield, February 1926. Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.
The abandoned Adam house at the Bell goldfield, February 1926. Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.
The deserted Davis house at Black Jack, Cradle Mountain road, August 1925. Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.
The deserted Davis house at Black Jack, Cradle Mountain road, August 1925. Ron Smith photo courtesy of the late Charles Smith.

Mary Davis tried to keep the Iris mine going, but having a four-month-old child at her breast made it impossible. Tin mining was scuppered by World War I soon after. There was an exodus from the small mining field. Mary Davis tutored children in Sheffield, but eventually returned home to her parents. Eddie Davis married Moina postmistress Lil Gurr, with whom he adjourned to Melbourne.[16] Elsie Adam married miner Watty Davis at her parents’ house but set up home at the tungsten and tin village of Storeys Creek.[17] Charlie and Charlotte Adam moved to Waratah, but eventually resettled in another mining region, the Latrobe Valley, Victoria. Three other Adam children settled in mining towns.[18] By the mid-1920s both the Adam and Davis houses, where so many children had grown and so many lives had intersected, were ruins. Of the characters of this story, only Gustav Weindorfer, the widowed proprietor of Waldheim Chalet, remained trying to eke a living from the mountains.

[1] Simon Cubit and Nic Haygarth, Historic Tasmanian mountain huts, Forty South Publishing, Hobart, 2014, pp.18–23.

[2] Australian Death Index, registration 13455/1932.

[3] British Census, 1881, Middlesex, Finchley, District 1, p.54. His birthplace was given as India; ‘Mr Chas FD Adam, Yallourn, Vic’, Advocate, 8 February 1933, p.2.

[4] ‘Mr Chas FD Adam, Yallourn, Vic’, Advocate, 8 February 1933, p.2.

[5] Married 10 May 1899, marriage registration 962/1899, Sheffield.

[6] Birth registrations 2326/1900, 2391/1902, 2518/1904 respectively. Frederick John Adam’s death certificate (7866/1972, Victoria) give his year of birth as 1907. Robert Douglas Adam’s World War II military record gives his date of birth as 29 January 1909, place of birth Moina. Eileen Adam is mentioned as a surviving child in Charlie Adam’s obituary, Mr Chas FD Adam, Yallourn, Vic’, Advocate, 8 February 1933, p.2.

[7] Born 27 August 1896, birth registration 2328/1896, Sheffield.

[8] Interview with Harold Tuson, Canberra, 11 May 1995.

[9] Interview with Hilda Amos, née Davis, daughter of Sidney and Mary Davis, by Len Fisher, 21 September 1991. Harold Tuson, interviewed in Canberra, 11 May 1995, remembered Mary Smith as being the tutor for William and Kate Hitchcock at Moina.

[10] Interview with Harold Tuson, Canberra, 11 May 1995.

[11] Rose Ellen Gladys Davis was born 8 January 1910 and died 8 April 1910, birth registration 5417/1910, death registration 928/1910. Hilda May Davis was born 2 March 1911: Molly Davis was four months old at her father’s death: both facts from interview with Hilda Amos, née Davis, daughter of Sidney and Mary Davis, by Len Fisher, 21 September 1991.

[12] Interview with Harold Tuson, Canberra, 11 May 1995.

[13] Interview with Hilda Amos, née Davis, daughter of Sidney and Mary Davis, by Len Fisher, 21 September 1991.

[14] Interview with Hilda Amos, née Davis, daughter of Sidney and Mary Davis, by Len Fisher, 21 September 1991.

[15] Interview with Hilda Amos, née Davis, daughter of Sidney and Mary Davis, by Len Fisher, 21 September 1991.

[16] Interview with Hilda Amos, née Davis, daughter of Sidney and Mary Davis, by Len Fisher, 21 September 1991.

[17] See ‘Wedding bells’, Examiner, 12 April 1920, p.6.

[18] ‘Mr Chas FD Adam, Yallourn, Vic’, Advocate, 8 February 1933, p.2.

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Hedley Higgs’ home-made gold mine

Hedley Higgs at his Narrawa Creek gold mine. No, he's not cross dressing ... that's a metalworking apron. Photo courtesy of Sheila Slowan.
Hedley Higgs at his Narrawa Creek gold mine. No, he’s not cross dressing … that’s a metalworking apron. Photo courtesy of Sheila Slowan.

For many people the Wall Street crash of 1929 heralded an era of making do with very little. Some families still earned a crust on the mining fields. In 1931 the pound was devalued, causing a spike in the fixed price of gold.[1] Wallets sprang open like blooms in a drought-breaking downpour. On the small Middlesex mining field in north-western Tasmania new money was pumped into the old Great Caledonian gold mine. William Aylett made grand claims for the old Lea River gold mine.[2] Two-hundred-and-twenty acres were taken up on Black Bluff to work the old Devonport Prospecting Association gold mine.[3] Fossicking near the old Narrawa Creek gold mine in August 1934, Devonport mechanic Hedley Higgs (1885–1980) found extremely find gold in the roots of an upturned tree.[4]

 

Higgs was an engineering prodigy. He had the same love of gadgets, bikes and engines that characterised his Launceston contemporaries such as Stephen Spurling III, HJ King and Fred Smithies. However, unlike them, he did not take up photography. The Higgs family were well-known shipbuilders at the Mersey River, and Hedley was a skilled yacht builder and yachtsman. He was also an expert marksman. As a young man he zipped about on a Harley Davidson, managed his own motor garage and fixed motorbikes for the self-proclaimed Launceston ‘bike king’ Sim King.[5] The grandson of the Tasmanian amateur scientist AB Biggs, Higgs had repaired radios, tried to patent an explosive and blown himself up with acetylene gas by the time he got to the mining game.[6] He knew nothing about mineral processing until he was asked to build a plant for the Stormont bismuth mine in the early 1930s. Of course his plant was a success, but the mine was forced to close when the Iris River bridge was burnt out.[7]

 

Now Higgs started forking the Narrawa Creek gravel through sluice boxes. His journal entries demonstrate that mining was sometimes hazardous: ‘Lost ½ plug of gelignite warned men’.[8] Gold recovery was testing: ‘Finished cleaning up for a little under 4 oz. Gold looks clean and has a lot of larger pieces in it. Paddock worked in hollow below pines on race, amount sluiced about 110 yards but a lot of gold left on the bottom!’[9] Ingenuity was always required: ‘brought back old sterilizer from Devon Hospital …’[10]

Higgs with his home-made gold battery. Photo courtesy of Sheila Slowan.
Higgs with his home-made gold battery. Photo courtesy of Sheila Slowan.
The experimental plant at Narrawa Creek. Photo courtesy of Sheila Slowan.
The experimental plant at Narrawa Creek. Photo courtesy of Sheila Slowan.

Then in 1935 Higgs rigged up a battery to crush the ore. Old Ford car axles became rods for the stamper battery. Even a bicycle was introduced to the works.[11] The machinery was driven by a seven-horsepower oil engine.[12] However, he still needed water for sluicing, and the weather did him few favours. Summer offered little rain, in winter it snowed.[13] Nor were the natives necessarily helpful or friendly. In March 1936 Higgs collided with two men riding a motorbike, damaging his car. ‘Reported accident to police’, he noted, ‘renewed permit to carry pistol …’[14] In the following year, one of his employees at the mine, Harry Lawson, was shot dead in a dispute over hunting territory.[15] Another, Dick Nichols, had a shot fired into his house after taking up with another man’s wife.[16]

Early sluice box and battery clean-ups were promising. By 1937 the mine had produced 188.5 oz of gold from the treatment of 1118 tons of ore.[17] Higgs drove an adit to cut the lode at greater depth, but when the oxidised zone gave way to sulphide ores, he was left with hard galena and pyrite.[18]

In the late 1930s the Public Works Department built a road down to the mine. Photo courtesy of Sheila Slowan.
In the late 1930s the Public Works Department built a road down to the mine. Photo courtesy of Sheila Slowan.

When World War II started, the price of tungsten, used for hardening steel in munitions, soared, and Higgs turned his attention to the adjacent Squib tungsten and molybdenum mine, last worked when prices were high at the end of World War I. Everything went well until payday came at Christmas—and the mainland company had only £20 in the kitty.[19] Hedley Higgs’ brief flirtation with mining was over.

Keith Harvey and Arthur Goldsworthy at the Sunrise mine in the early 1960s. Roxley Day photo.
Keith Harvey and Arthur Goldsworthy at the Sunrise mine in the early 1960s. Roxley Day photo.
Another shot of the Sunrise operation from the same period. Roxley Day photo.
Another shot of the Sunrise operation from the same period. Roxley Day photo.
The somewhat battered Sunrise hut still standing in 1993.
The somewhat battered Sunrise hut still standing in 1993.
Metal wheel at the Higgs/Sunrise mine site in 1993. In his archaeological report, Parry Kostoglou suggests this could be part of an ore disintegrator.
Metal wheel at the Higgs/Sunrise mine site in 1993. In his archaeological report, Parry Kostoglou suggests this could be part of an ore disintegrator.

But the Higgs gold mine was not dead. It was worked as the Sunrise mine in the 1960s by Keith Harvey and Arthur Goldworthy, the latter being a member of an old Cornish family who had come to Moina via the Moonta copper mine in South Australia’s ‘Little Cornwall’ and the Beaconsfield gold mine. Inevitably, it was reworked yet again during gold’s upward parabola after the US government placed the precious metal on the open market, churning up any evidence of Hedley Higgs’ home-grown gold plant.

[1] Geoffrey Blainey, The rush that never ended: a history of Australian mining, 5th edn, Melbourne University Press, 2003, p.307.

[2] See Simon Cubit and Nic Haygarth, Mountain men: stories from the Tasmanian high country, Forty South Publishing, Hobart, 2015, pp.52–53.

[3] ‘Middlesex gold: mainland company interested’, Advocate, 7 November 1936, p.10.

[4] Interview with Sheila Slowan, daughter of Hedley Higgs, East Devonport, c1993.

[5] Motor vehicle registrations, Police Gazette, 10 December 1920, p.237.

[6] Devon News, 20 August 1964 (newspaper clipping obtained from Sheila Slowan).

[7] Devon News, 20 August 1964 (newspaper clipping obtained from Sheila Slowan).

[8] Hedley Higgs journal entry, 9 February 1935, courtesy of Sheila Slowan.

[9] Hedley Higgs journal entries, 23 and 23 May 1935, courtesy of Sheila Slowan.

[10] Hedley Higgs journal entry, 9 March 1936, courtesy of Sheila Slowan.

[11] Interview with Sheila Slowan, daughter of Hedley Higgs, East Devonport, c1993.

[12] ‘Unique battery at Middlesex’, Examiner, 16 January 1936, p.8.

[13] Hedley Higgs journal entries, 27 January 1935 and 13 June 1936, courtesy of Sheila Slowan.

[14] Hedley Higgs journal entries, 8 and 9 March 1936, courtesy of Sheila Slowan.

[15] See ‘Twelve witnesses examined …’, Advocate, 11 May 1937

[16] Higgs alluded to this well-known incident in an interview with Kerry Pink, ‘A couple of “old timers” with no time for idleness’, Advocate story, details unknown. Nichols was listed as employee in Higgs’ journal, held by Sheila Slowan.

[17] F Blake, ‘Higgs’ gold mine—Narrawa Creek’, Unpublished Department of Mines report, 1937; cited by AE (Tony) Webster, An archaeological survey of the Higgs gold mine, near Moina, north-western Tasmania, Mining Geoscience, 1998, p.5.

[18] ‘Middlesex fields’, Mercury, 8 July 1936, p.4.

[19] Kerry Pink, ‘A couple of “old timers” with no time for idleness’, Advocate story, details unknown.