Out There in the Field: A Look into the Life of an Early 1900s Opal Miner
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- Category : McKenna Mulvany
- Date Posted : Jan 14, 2022
Considering that opal mining is still one of the most arduous professions, you can certainly imagine how perilous it was before the development of modern technology and safety regulations. The early days of opal mining were lawless and dangerous, and the lifestyle was only suitable for the most hardened of people. Crime, extreme heat, famine, and poverty were just some of the challenges that miners and their families faced - all in the pursuit of a dream that had no guarantee of coming to fruition. But for them, it was nothing more than a day in the life.
Opal mining in Australia began to boom in the 1890s, with the first recorded discoveries of the gemstone being made in central Queensland. When further deposits were found across New South Wales and South Australia, the industry rapidly popularised, attracting everyone from miners who had previously prospected for gold, sapphires, and other minerals to down-on-their-luck dreamers who saw mining as a means to achieving thus far elusive success and fortune. No matter their background, however, their moral convictions were the same. These men had to be hard working, not easily daunted, and have a huge sense of perseverance, otherwise they would never survive in their newly chosen profession.
This ‘survival’ was by no means a reward unto itself. The first step in becoming an opal miner was uprooting yourself and your family to move to the harshest, most remote corners of the outback, where the opal fields are located. With wild animals, little food and water, and unrelenting heat, this was not a place designed for people to attempt to make a living. Most of the opal fields were also located several hundreds of kilometres from the nearest town, making it impossible to make frequent trips for tools and supplies. If they were lucky, miners may have had a horse or a mule to carry the necessities for their long journey by foot to the opal fields. Otherwise, they were restricted to what they could fit in their rucksacks, faced with the task of having to make do for themselves once they arrived at the camp.
The camps near the opal fields were usually home to 30-40 people at a time, a mixture of men, women, and children. Out here, there was no infrastructure; families either lived in tents or in tin shacks that were hastily hand made from surplus materials left behind by previous inhabitants. Like the shacks, most of the miners' possessions had to be handmade from whatever supplies they could scavenge, including clothes and prospecting or lapidary tools. Many items had to serve multiple uses. For example, it was not uncommon for miners to repurpose their wife or mother’s sewing machine into an opal cutting station. Anything that did not help to serve the cause of basic survival or finding a jackpot of opal was disregarded. Often, a miner’s only possessions were a water jug, tucker bag, mining pick, and weapon for protection or hunting food.
One of the most prevalent issues in the camps was devastating famine. Food was limited to wild game, such as bush turkeys, rabbits, and the occasional kangaroo. But the lack of water and flora in these regions of the Outback meant there was not a high concentration of animal life. The only two options were to walk for kilometres in search of food or go several days without eating. The same went for the pursuit of water. It was typically a four hour walk both ways to retrieve water from the well, a trip that had to be made at least once a day. But even if you had the energy to make the journey, there was still a chance that the well would be dried up, or that you would have to fight someone else for the small amount that was left. As a result, most miners drank beer to keep hydrated, as it could be stored for weeks on end without spoiling.
The only thing worse than no water at all was far too much of it. During the Outback’s wet season, which began early in the year, there would be terrible floods that would make travel of any kind impossible. For weeks on end, the miners and their family would be trapped at the camp with whatever provisions they had stockpiled before the floods, which was usually not much. When it came to water, it seems, there was not much of a middle ground: either there was none at all, or a surplus. Either way, it made survival an incredible challenge.
It seems impossible that the miners could work under these conditions, but their determination (and a touch of opal fever) had them waking up before dawn, while it was still a touch cooler, to make their way to the claims for a day of toil. The miners would work in duos or small groups of three or four, using their picks to sink shafts down to the opal level (the layer of earth underneath the surface where a seam of precious opal could be found). Using a handmade pulley system, the miners in the shaft would hoist buckets of boulders up to their colleague at the top of the hole, who would break the rocks open and rinse them off to check for precious opal.The opal would then be separated into two piles: potch (common opal with no colour) and precious opal suitable for cutting and polishing. The miners would either undertake the lapidary work themselves or employ one of the master stone cutters stationed near the opal fields. They would then start the process of transporting the precious opal to the nearest town, where they could trade or sell to opal dealers who would take the stones all around the world, from London to New York City, to be made into fine jewellery.
With all the hard work that went into obtaining the opal, the miners had to think of creative ways to protect it from being stolen. One of the biggest threats was that of ‘ratters’, or opal thieves. The ratters were notorious for sneaking into worked shafts on claimed mines and stealing opal out of them during the night. They would also ‘noodle’, or fossick through the leftover piles of potch, and take any precious opal that may have originally been looked over. In order for the miners to protect their claim, it was necessary to have someone stationed in front of the hole during the night to ward off intruders, a job many miners had to perform themselves after an already long day of work. But it wasn’t just ratters that miners didn’t trust - they also didn’t fully trust one another. If a miner hit a jackpot of opal that they didn’t have the opportunity to sell straight away, they would sometimes bury it underground in a tin can so that nobody else could find it. The problem with this was that it was easy to forget where one had buried the opal, meaning that some of the miners could never remember how to dig it up again!
Although it may seem so, living out in the fields wasn’t always just about work. The miners found many small ways to entertain themselves as well as establish friendships and connections with one another. One popular hobby, relating back to how adept the miners were with making things with their hands, was arts and crafts, especially pottery. Using the outback’s unique red dirt, the miners made items such as vases, pots, cups, and bowls, which they would sell or trade as a supplementary income. This was particularly popular in Lightning Ridge, NSW. Another favourite activity, of course, was drinking alcohol. With beer being the only available beverage of choice, the miners would often spend their evenings imbibing and relaxing together after a long day of work. This could quickly turn sour, however. Miners often drank so much that they would lose the opal they had found, either by misplacing it or being too forthcoming and having it stolen. This led to many fights, but also many laughs and a healthy dose of camaraderie.
Despite all these challenges, the opal miners dedicated their lives to the task. They were also quick to protect their own kind, and had a strong sense of community that is still observed in the industry. It was a tough life, but one that was well worth it to those who lived it. Next time you wear your opal jewellery, take a second to think of the person who mined it, and the special connection you have to such an integral group in Australia’s cultural history.
Andre, J. et al. “Drought-striken outback Queensland celebrates after downpour brings hope for ‘strong wet season’”. ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-11-12/drought-stricken-queensland-comes-alive-after-drenching/100612352
CFV Jackson and Queensland Department of Mines. (1902). The opal-mining industry: and the distribution of opal deposits in Queensland. https://espace.library.uq.edu.au/data/UQ_686615/ID_2397134330003131_Opal_mining.pdf?dsi_version=8554131036e565e0745c13f32532c05d&Expires=1641529721&Key-Pair-Id=APKAJKNBJ4MJBJNC6NLQ&Signature=CXWTr7K4M7ChytuohD9Afn885qnJ-CwfDu1Oe9kSvRUTLXFhh03mlLFwdpw1WOjjb6egCq39KR26ez19g2qiEAXvOrh66hzBeCrWANHDF6U4CpAxKpMTswMKdY74z4fQwR80EIq9v-dDkUKq-SYRULTU0BatbedE5~OY5T45rj8jK4~VfL0O2qQepYs4IfRYzpY-GFZt4088LeXVbLtpGnAeZTBlN~oF9NEXQ1JYH6efnY1b8sJ0Vdwps3AhWfviInC4fPGYtg7n7Kc4ED-ACNS17AtOdvcd0jMFP5VoVHQDgfzECCzvhiq3njeg-eq3ohW29rRzBN5prSrGXlkZaQ__
Senior, Dr. B. “Opal”. Australian Government - Geoscience Australia. https://www.ga.gov.au/education/classroom-resources/minerals-energy/australian-mineral-facts/opal