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Luke Williams and the first church on the west coast mining fields

The diversion tunnel at Mayne's tin mine, a later development near the Orient Tin Mine.
The diversion tunnel at Mayne’s tin mine, a later development near the Orient Tin Mine.
The view of Mount Agnew from the Orient Tin Mine site, where the first west coast church stood in 1883.
The view of Mount Agnew from the Orient Tin Mine site, where the first west coast church and reading room stood in 1883.

In 1902 you could get a tertiary education at Zeehan, a place dominated by frogs, snakes and marsupials a dozen years earlier. The Zeehan School of Mines was affiliated with the University of Tasmania, putting it on equal academic footing. The university issued the school’s diplomas and certificates, and appointed its examiners. Subjects studied at Zeehan could be counted towards a degree from the University of Tasmania.[1]


Yet the first educational institute on the west coast was established nearly two decades earlier. It stood on the claim of the Orient Tin Mine at Cumberland Creek, near Trial Harbour. Strictly speaking, it was a Methodist church—the first church on the mining fields south of Waratah.


Travelling journalist Theophilus Jones described the site when he accompanied the Minister for Lands, Nicholas Brown, on a visit to the Heemskirk tin field in May 1883. The Orient Tin Mine was then considered the premier mine in the district. Such impressive assay values had been obtained here that the future of the Heemskirk tin field seemed assured. Anticipation was then building about the first crushing at the Orient, which would follow soon after.

Thomas Stephens Williams, manager of the Orient Tin Mine, photo courtesy of Mr Barnard.
Thomas Stephens Williams, manager of the Orient Tin Mine, photo courtesy of Mr Barnard.

On arrival at the mine, Minister Brown, who happened to be the chairman of directors of the Orient Tin Mining Company, was ushered into Cornish mine manager Thomas Williams’ (c1826‒1901) ‘snug little’ cottage. Here the Devon-born Fanny Williams served home-made cake and tea. The new church, built by Williams and his sons Luke and Tom from sawn timber, with a split shingle roof, and a blackwood interior adorned with chandeliers, had recently been opened with a traditional Wesleyan Methodist tea meeting. Fanny Williams and other mining folk had provided sandwiches, sponge cakes and blanc manges for the occasion.[2] (Later, a collection of books would be obtained and, with Luke Williams acting as the librarian, during week days the church would act as a reading room, like a tiny mechanics’ institute.[3]) The machinery was also impressive. A Robey And Co steam engine imported from England had been installed as an auxiliary to the waterwheel which would drive the 10-head stamper battery. Five Munday’s self-emptying concave buddles were ready for tin separation.[4] Nearby was another Cornish legacy, a grave with a picket fence which represented the final resting place of the wife of the original Orient mining manager, John Williams.[5]


The surprise failure of the Orient crushing in October 1883 threw ‘a great damper … on lode tin mining at Mount Heemskirk …’[6] Confidence in the field evaporated. Thomas Williams resigned his post, and the little church and reading room was removed. Mayne’s Tin Mine later produced 140 tons of metallic tin near the site of the Orient, showing that the area had at least limited potential.[7]


Two of Williams’ sons later followed in his footsteps. Richard Williams (c1866–1919) managed the Colebrook Mine on the west coast of Tasmania, then copper mines at Chillagoe and Cloncurry in Queensland, the Byron Reef Gold Mine in Victoria before dying at Southern Cross, Western Australia.[8] Former Orient librarian Luke Williams (c1859‒1931) became a well-known Tasmanian mine manager, operating, among others, the Mount Read Mine and the Chester Mine. The village of Williamsford was named in his honour.[9] He had a long association with Robert Sticht, general manager for the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company.


Luke Williams was innovative. Under his management, in the winter of 1917, the Copper Reward Mine at Balfour switched from raising copper underground to raising tin from the button-grassed surface. The button-grass was burnt and the land ploughed by horse-team. The loose earth was then scooped into a sluicing race, down which a horse drew a ‘puddling harrow’ (sluicing fork) to break down lumps and reduce the material to a pulp. Two dams built from button-grass sods cemented together by clay supplied a hydraulic sluicing operation which worked the lower face of the tin-bearing ground. Operations ceased when the price of tin dropped in 1921.[10] Williams died in comfortable retirement in Hobart a decade later as a well-known pig breeder and orchardist, his early efforts to enlighten the west coast having been long forgotten.[11]

[1] Patrick Howard, The Zeehan El Dorado, Mount Heemskirk Books, Blackmans Bay, 2006, pp.186‒87.

[2] ‘Our Special Reporter’ (Theophilus Jones), ‘The west coast tin mines’, Mercury, 28 May 1883, p.3;

[3] (Theophilus Jones), ‘West coast history’, Zeehan and Dundas Herald, 25 December 1896, p.1; Luke Williams, ‘The Orient Library, Heemskirk’, Mercury, 27 September 1883, p.3.

[4] Gustav Thureau, Report on the present condition of the western mining districts, Parliamentary Paper 89/1884, p.1.

[5] (Theophilus Jones), ‘West coast history’, Zeehan and Dundas Herald, 25 December 1896, p.1. She died in June 1882 (‘Mount Heemskirk’, Mercury, 14 June 1882, p.3).

[6] Editorial review of 1883, Launceston Examiner, 1 January 1884, p.2.

[7] AH Blissett, Geological Survey explanatory report, One Mile Geological Map Series, Zeehan, Department of Mines, Hobart, 1962, p.106.

[8] ‘About people’, Examiner, 1 October 1919, p.6.

[9] Con Henry Curtain, ‘Old times: Heemskirk mines and mining’, Examiner, 27 February 1928, p.5.

[10] ‘Balfour notes’, Circular Head Chronicle, 16 February 1921, p.3.

[11] ‘Mr Luke Williams’, Advocate, 29 July 1931, p.2.

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Henry Thom Sing, Chinese entrepreneur, and the Arthur River gold rush 1872

Henry Thom Sing, from the Weekly Courier, 30 May 1912, p.22.
Henry Thom Sing, from the Weekly Courier, 30 May 1912, p.22.

A downtown Launceston store is the face of a forgotten immigrant success story. The building at 127 St John Street was commissioned by Ah Sin, aka Henry Thom Sing or Tom Ah Sing, Chinese gold digger, shopkeeper, interpreter and entrepreneur. He was born at Canton, China on 14 March 1844, arriving in Tasmania on the ship Tamar in 1868.[1] Sing appears to have come from to Tasmania from the Victorian goldfields, and he was quick to seize on this experience when the northern Tasmanian alluvial goldfields of Nine Mile Springs (Lefroy), Back Creek and Brandy Creek (Beaconsfield) opened up. Like Launceston’s Peters, Barnard & Co, who hired Chinese miners through Kong Meng & Co in Melbourne, Sing began to recruit Chinese diggers on the Victorian goldfields.[2] His good English skills were an asset in trade and communication, and throughout his time in Launceston his services were drawn upon regularly as an interpreter in court cases involving Chinese speakers as far afield as Wynyard and Beaconsfield.

Circular Head farmer Skelton Emmett had been washing specks of gold in the Arthur River for years before a minor rush was sparked by two sets of brothers, Robert and David Cooper Kay, and Michael and Patrick Harvey, in April 1872.[3] Within three months, 160 miner’s rights had been issued and 70 claims registered.[4]

Claims were spread over about 2 km around the confluence of the Arthur and Hellyer Rivers. The European diggers generally preferred to work ‘beaches’ in the river.[5] Two European claims, the Golden Crown and the Golden Eagle, were on the Arthur downstream of the junction. The Golden Eagle party, who included William Jones and John Durant, strung a suspension bridge consisting of a single two-inch rope across the river in order to work both banks and for easy access: effectively it was a ‘bosun’s chair’ or flying fox. They worked their claim with a sluice box and Californian pump.[6] James West and party’s claim known as the Southern Cross was in a small gully on the southern side of the Arthur. The Kays’ claim was ‘in the gulch of a ravine’ a little further inland from the river. The claim of Frank Long, who later found fame on the Zeehan–Dundas silver field, was further down the same gulch.[7] The British Lion claim of W King was at the junction of the Arthur and the Hellyer, the Harvey brothers’ claim on the Arthur above it.[8] Waters from Circular Head and a man named House also held claims.[9]

Most of the gold obtained in the area by Chinese came from working the sand bars and shallows of the Arthur River. Sing had several roles on the field. Although Seberberg & Co had also engaged Chinese diggers for Tasmania, the 50 or so Chinese at the Arthur appear to have represented only two agents, Sing and Peters, Barnard & Co, both Launceston based.[10] Because he had a Launceston business to maintain, Sing’s time at the diggings would have been limited. He appears to have had two claims which were worked by Chinese parties, and he acted as an interpreter for other parties.[11] He also bought gold from diggers.[12] In November 1872, with the river low enough to permit an attack on its dry bed, both Sing parties engaged in ‘paddocking’, that is, diverting part of or the entire stream by damming it on their claim. On the upper claim the resulting wash dirt was put through a cradle, but the eight men expected to achieve better results when their sluice boxes were complete. Likewise, Lee Hung was building a sluice box.[13] The upper party once took 10 oz of gold in a day.[14] Wha Sing’s claim on the Arthur above the confluence included a vegetable garden, which would have provided his party with both food and cash, since stores would have been at a premium on the isolated field.[15]

One of the Chinese parties was said to have ‘turned’ the Arthur River in order to work its bed. While the Arthur is a large river, this is not as difficult an undertaking as it sounds. The idea is to drive a short tunnel or channel through a hairpin bend in the river, diverting its flow. A quick scan of the map makes it obvious where this could have been done. In fact the diversion channel would not have been on the Arthur River, but on the Hellyer, just above its junction with the parent river. This ingenious method of exposing a stream bed was employed on many gold fields and in Tasmania by osmiridium miners on Nineteen Mile Creek and other places.

The largest nugget obtained by February 1873―1 oz 3½ dwts―was found by a Chinese party in the river, but, generally, bigger nuggets were taken in the creeks.[16] Frank Long claimed to have got his best gold about 10 km from the Arthur River, and his was ‘much more nuggety’ than that of James West, who worked closer to the river. The gold appears to have been patchy. All the productive claims were above that of the Kays.[17] Working the creeks was harder in summer, but diggers made up for the lack of sluicing water by using chutes to bring the washdirt to the river.[18]

The Arthur River gold field was deserted by the end of 1873, and the Chinese soon switched to alluvial tin mining in the north-east. Sing built up his Launceston business. By the time he was naturalised as a British subject in 1882, he was renting a shop and residence at 127 St John Street, Launceston.[19] In 1883 he bought the site and erected a new premises designed by Leslie Corrie.[20] Here he sold imported Chinese groceries, ‘fancy goods’, preserved fruits, silk, tobacco, fireworks and the Chinese drinks and remedies Engape, Noo Too and Back Too.[21] Sing’s residence also served as a staging-post of Chinese tin miners arriving in Launceston. In 1885 he cemented his position in the north-east by buying out the store of Ma Mon Chin & Co at Weldborough, which afterwards operated as Tom Sing & Co.[22]

While a £10 poll tax was levied on Chinese entering the colony in 1887, Launceston’s established Chinese population became part of the community, with local businessmen Chin Kit, James Ah Catt and Henry Thom Sing supporting the work of the Launceston City and Suburbs Improvement Association by staging spectacular Chinese carnivals at City Park in 1890 and the Cataract Gorge in 1891. Fire gutted the Sing premises in 1895, and as a result it was either altered or rebuilt to the design of Launceston architect Alfred Luttrell.[23] This building remains today.

Sing married twice, and fathered at least seven children.[24] Both his brides appear to have been European. His death, in May 1912, aged 68, after 44 years in the Launceston business community, passed almost without comment in the Tasmanian press, perhaps indicating that, despite his naturalisation, a racial barrier between Chinese and Europeans remained.[25] Probate valued at £1738 suggested modest success.[26] Like the former Chung Gon store in Brisbane Street, today Henry Thom Sing’s St John Street store remains part of Launceston’s commercial sector.

[1] Naturalisation application, 22 July 1882, CSD13/1/53/850 (TAHO),, accessed 10 December 2016.

[2] ‘New Chinese diggers’, Tasmanian, 11 February 1871, p.11.

[3] ‘Gold discoveries at King’s Island and Rocky Cape’, Cornwall Chronicle, 29 April 1872, p.3.

[4] Charles Sprent to James Smith from Table Cape, 21 July 1872, NS234/3/1/25 (Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office).

[5] ‘The Hellyer goldfield’, Cornwall Chronicle, 22 November 1872, p.2.

[6] ‘Notes on the Hellyer’, Cornwall Chronicle, 20 December 1872, p.2.

[7] ‘A look round the Hellyer’, Cornwall Chronicle, 3 February 1873, p.2.

[8] ‘Notes on the Hellyer’, Cornwall Chronicle, 20 December 1872, p.2.

[9] ‘The Hellyer gold-field’, Cornwall Chronicle, 16 December 1872, supplement, p.1.

[10] ‘The Nine Mile Springs goldfield’, Cornwall Chronicle, 13 May 1872, p.2; ‘Chinese immigration’, Tasmanian, 18 May 1872, p.8.

[11] See, for example, ‘More gold from the Hellyer diggings’, Tasmanian, 25 January 1873, p.12.

[12] ‘Table Cape’, Tasmanian, 25 January 1873, p.5.

[13] ‘The Chinese diggers at the Hellyer’, Cornwall Chronicle, 6 November 1872, p.3.

[14] ‘The Hellyer goldfield’, Cornwall Chronicl,e 22 November 1872, p.2.

[15] ‘The Chinese diggers at the Hellyer’, Cornwall Chronicle, 6 November 1872, p.3.

[16] ‘The Hellyer diggings’, Mercury, 13 February 1873, p.3.

[17] ‘Table Cape’, Cornwall Chronicle, 17 January 1873, p.3.

[18] SB Emmett, ‘The western gold field’, Launceston Examiner, 1 February 1873, p.3.

[19] Naturalisation application, 22 July 1882, CSD13/1/53/850 (TAHO),, accessed 10 December 2016.

[20] ‘Tenders’, Launceston Examiner, 26 July 1884, p.1..

[21] ‘Law Courts’, Tasmanian, 26 May 1883, p.563.

[22] Advert, Launceston Examiner, 19 September 1885, p.1.

[23] ‘Tenders’, Launceston Examiner, 7 March 1895, p.1.

[24] ‘Deaths’, Launceston Examiner, 29 March 1882, p.2; marriage registration no.966/1884,; accessed 10 December 2016.

[25] ‘Deaths’, Weekly Courier, 30 May 1912, p.25.

[26] Will AD96/1/11, LINC Tasmania website, accessed 10 December 2016.

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The Mount Bischoff tin heist, 1903



In 1903 three Waratah men—Walter Penney, James Cobbing and Albert Tippett—were gaoled for five years for receiving tin stolen from the Mount Bischoff Company. Yet the court case looked more like a showdown than a trial—the culmination of a 25-year feud between Ferd Kayser and his Cornish detractors. The three accused men worked the Waratah Alluvial plant on the Waratah River, which recovered tin lost into the water by the Mount Bischoff Co dressing sheds. They claimed that the tin they were accused of stealing had simply been retrieved from the bottom of the Waratah Alluvial dam on the river. The prosecution case was that the tin had been stolen directly from the Mount Bischoff Co dressing sheds earlier when Penney, Cobbing and Tippett worked there. At the dock, Kayser, the Mount Bischoff Co’s high profile general manager slugged it out with the canny Cornish tin dresser Richard Mitchell. Their on-going argument was ostensibly about the better ore processing method—German or Cornish. Yet in truth it was more about ego, reputation and the struggle to make a living.

Mount Bischoff mine manager Ferd Kayser. Photo from the Australian Mining Standard, 1898.
Mount Bischoff mine manager Ferd Kayser. Photo from the Australian Mining Standard, 1898.

The defence case rested on being able to show that the Mount Bischoff Co dressing sheds and its own tin recovery plants on the Waratah River were ineffectual, and that Mount Bischoff Co staff who had identified the stolen tin as being theirs were incapable of doing so. In speaking for the defence, Mitchell attacked Kayser’s ‘antiquated’ dressing machinery, claiming that his own plant (he was manager of the Anchor tin mine in the north-east) was ’50 years ahead of it’.[1] Laughably, Kayser failed to even identify Mount Bischoff Co dressed tin when it was placed in his hand at the dock. For five years he had been living away from the mine in Launceston as general manager, allowing John Millen to run the mine. Perhaps he was so out of touch that he had forgotten the appearance of the dressed tin he had produced for 23 years.


A succession of Cornish miners had been nipping at his heels throughout that time. Cornish miners asserted their superiority as hard-rock miners, exploiting their Cornish ethnicity as an economic strategy.[2] Being Cornish was their ‘brand’. Cornish miners were famous for their instinctive, canny style of management. They grew up mining from childhood, learning their craft on the job, without a formal mining education.[3] At Mount Bischoff Cornishmen they had tried to enhance this reputation by operating small retrieval plants, ‘lifting the crumbs from the rich man’s table’, that is, they had realised that the richest material on their leases was not lode tin or alluvial tin but escaped Mount Bischoff Co ore. The first to recognise this was the Waratah Tin Mining Company (Waratah Tin Co). Tailings from the Mount Bischoff Co sluice boxes emptied into a creek which ran through the Waratah Tin Co property into the Waratah River. In about 1878 that company’s Cornish tin dresser, Richard Mitchell, switched from working its tin lode to extracting ore from the creek.[4] Other Cornish tin dressers—ASR Osborne, William White and Anthony Roberts—followed suit. Their plants, the East Bischoff Company, Bischoff Tin Streaming Company, Bischoff Alluvial Tin Mining Company/Phoenix Alluvial Company and Waratah Alluvial Company, bore nicknames that suggested they were ‘shearing’ the Waratah River—the ‘Catch ‘em by the Wool’, ‘Shear ‘em’, ‘Shave ‘em’, ‘Hold ‘em’ and the ‘Catch ‘em by the Wool no. 2’ respectively.

Cornish tin miner Anthony Roberts (right) operating a later tin mine, Weir's Bischoff Surprise, in the North Bischoff Valley. Photo courtesy of Colin Roberts.
Cornish tin miner Anthony Roberts (right) operating a later tin mine, Weir’s Bischoff Surprise, in the North Bischoff Valley. Photo courtesy of Colin Roberts.

To many, Cornwall was a byword for simplicity, economy and improvisation. However, to Kayser, a champion of technology, Cornwall, the so-called ‘cradle of the Industrial Revolution’, was a ‘Luddite’. Antiquated Cornish mining methods were his favourite hobbyhorse. One of his first actions on taking over the management in 1875 was to sack the Mount Bischoff Co’s Cornish ore dresser Stephen Eddy, whose improvised appliances, he said, included ‘the hand-jigger and all the old primitive appliances his great grandfather used’.[5]

The Ringtail Sheds, in the period 1907-09, with the new power station below them at left. Stephen Hooker photo courtesy of the Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office.
The Ringtail Sheds, in the period 1907-09, with the new power station below them at left. Stephen Hooker photo courtesy of the Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office.

However, Kayser could not deny that there was plenty of ore for the Cornish tin dressers to retrieve. It has been estimated that the Mount Bischoff Co dressing sheds alone lost 22,000 tons of metallic tin into the Arthur River system up to 1907—30,000 tons by 1928. To put that in perspective, the Mount Bischoff Co produced about 56,000 tons of metallic tin, meaning that about one-third of the tin ore mined at Mount Bischoff ended up not in smelted bars for shipment to London, but in the Arthur River system. After deriding his Cornish rivals for years, in 1883 Kayser established the first of two tin recovery plants of his own on the Waratah River. The Ringtail Sheds at the base of the Ringtail Falls on the Waratah River stood on the old Waratah Tin Co block, where Richard Mitchell had set up the very first tin recovery operation five years earlier. Well-graded access tracks to the Ringtail Sheds were constructed from both sides of the Waratah River, the track on the western side being used to pack the ore out from the sheds.[6] These formed a loop by meeting at a foot bridge across the river just above Ringtail Falls, the site of the sheds. They are still used today to visit the Mount Bischoff Co Power Station which was afterwards built below the sheds. However, so much tin remained in the Arthur River system that in the 1970s the idea was entertained of dredging not just the river but coastal deposits outside the river mouth.[7]

(The mugshots above are from GD63-1-3, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office.)

[1] ‘Alleged theft of tin ore’, Daily Telegraph, 22 April 1903, p.8.

[2] Philip Payton, Cornwall: a history, Cornwall Limited Editions, Fowey, Cornwall, 2004 (originally published 1996), p. 234; Ronald M James, ‘Defining the group: nineteenth-century Cornish on the North American mining frontier’, in Cornish studies: Two (ed. Philip Payton), University of Exeter Press, Exeter, 1994, cited by Philip Payton, Cornwall: a history, p.234.

[3] Geoffrey Blainey, The rush that never ended: a history of Australian mining, Melbourne University Press, 1978 (first published 1963), p.244.

[4] HW Ferd Kayser, ‘Mount Bischoff’, Proceedings of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, no. IV, 1892, pp.350–51.

[5] HW Ferd Kayser, ‘Mount Bischoff’, p.346.

[6] ‘Alleged theft of tin ore’, Daily Telegraph, 21 April 1903, p .4.

[7] ‘Tin worth $45 million in Arthur River’, Advocate, 10 May 1973, p. 1.