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Moonta, SA

Important historic copper town at the heart of Australia's Little Cornwall.

Moonta likes to promote itself as 'Australia’s Little Cornwall' which is why it claims that its Cornish pasties are the best; its museum is a celebration of Cornish culture in Australia; it is the largest centre for the famous biennial Kernewek Lowender Cornish Festival; and its remarkable Wesleyan Church can hold a congregation of 1,250. It is a quiet and peaceful town located close to the coast. In fact the short drive to Port Hughes is mostly through a suburbia which sprawls from the town to the coast. And Port Hughes is now an idyllic holiday destination for those who just want to relax, fish and swim.

Moonta is the largest town in a region known as the 'Copper Triangle' which includes the mining town of Kadina and the port at Wallaroo. The appeal of Moonta is not in its extensive collection of mining memorabilia but in the insight it offers into the daily lives of the Cornish miners. In that sense it is a fascinating part of South Australia's rich history.

Location

Moonta, which is 20 metres above sea level, is located 161 km northwest of Adelaide at the bottom corner of the "Copper Triangle".

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Origin of Name

It is claimed that Moonta is taken from a Narangga Aboriginal word, either 'moontera' or 'moonta moontera' which probably meant "the place of impenetrable scrub".

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Things to See and Do

Moonta Railway Station
The Moonta Railway Station, located off the Spencer Highway at the eastern end of town, now serves as the Moonta Tourist Office. The town's first railway station was built in 1878. It was replaced in 1909 by the present building which was constructed by Gambling & Son of Adelaide. It is the sensible starting point for any exploration of Moonta as it has a wide range of brochures and books on the area. Check out the ceiling at the Moonta Railway Station . It is an interesting example of an early twentieth century pressed metal ceiling.

Moonta Mines Museum
Perhaps it has something to do with the size of the building. Perhaps it is more to do with the commitment of the volunteers. But certainly Moonta Mines Museum, located in the old school building (the Moonta Mines Model School) dating from 1878, is a genuinely impressive and richly rewarding rural museum. It has 14 rooms which contain such gems as a list of 19th century home remedies ("Hiccups: Fill a glass with water and stand it on the table. Bend over the glass and drink the water from the side facing away from you, without picking it up; or put a few drops of peppermint oil on the top of your tongue.") There is a 19th century chemist shop, a list of all the doctors who have worked in Moonta (most were employed by the mining companies), excellent photographic exhibits of the mining equipment (there are photos dating from the 1860s), a detailed history of the complexity of copper mining, interesting displays relating to the lodges and friendly societies which operated in the town, and an entire classroom which has been left intact as though the teacher only departed a few minutes ago. It dates from 1900.

One of the walls in the museum offers a clear explanation of the complex social hierarchy the Cornish miners brought to the Moonta mines. There were positions in a mine which had been developed in Cornwall over several centuries. A miner began his working life as a 'pickey boy'. "These were boys as young as 10 years of age who were expected to sort a ton of ore each shift. For this they received just one shilling (ten cents) per day, with deductions. They worked under the stern eye of a Captain who would 'spale' (fine) them for wasting time."

The boys would then move on to become "Tutworkers and Tributers" - "the tutworker 'played it safe'. Being assured of a steady wage, he had little chance of a big return. The tributer had a greater opportunity to make use of his skill and enterprise. Only he could hope to make enough money to leave the mines forever."

Tributers tendered for an area underground and could make a very good living in rich ore zones. The tribute system was supervised by mine 'captains' appointed by the company. While the lodes were rich the tribute system worked well. Tribute mining was abolished at Moonta in 1910 due to falling ore grades.

The Moonta Mines Museum is located on on Verran Terrace which lies south of the Spencer Highway. It  is open daily from 1.00pm - 4.00 pm and on public and school holidays from 11.00 am - 4.00pm, tel: (08) 8825 1891.

Moonta Mines Tourist Railway
Across the car park from the Museum is the Tourist Railway which departs on Wednesday at 2.00 pm, and on Saturday and Sunday at 1.00 pm, 2.00 pm and 3.00 pm. The National Trust website (http://www.moontatourism.org.au/attractions/tourist-railway) points out that "the Moonta Mines Tourist Railway is a guided tour of the historic Moonta Mines State Heritage Area. Featuring extensive commentary from local drivers, passengers are taken past many historic landmarks of the former mining operations, including the reservoir, ore sorting floors, and through a tunnel in Ryans Tailings Heap. It visits the former Precipitation Works, which was set up in 1900 to recover additional copper from the tailings heaps, a process which continued until 1943." The journey on a narrow gauge rail line takes about 50 minutes. The railway is maintained and operated by volunteers from the Moonta branch of National Trust SA. For more information tel: (08) 8825 1891.

The Old Sweet Shop
A true novelty in the extended complex that comprises the museum, the railway and the various mine remnants, is the Moonta Mines Sweet Shop. It started life as the Moonta Mines Post Office which lasted from the 1940s to the 1970s. It then changed hands numerous times and is now operated by volunteers as the Old Sweet Shop. It sells old fashioned sweets and drinks and the walls are lined with large jars and packets of sweets.

Richmans Concentrating Plant and Enginehouse
A few hundred metres further along Verran Terrace is Richman's Concentrating Plant and Enginehouse. All that is left now are the remnants (a particularly impressive Enginehouse, some of the bases for the crushers, jiggers, buddles, elevators, air compressors and boilerhouses) of the Richmans operation and a huge skimpings (tailings) heap (known locally as 'The Himalayas") which can be climbed. The view from the top, and the accompanying placards which show the scale of the copper deposits int the area, provide an excellent overview of the entire operation.

Hughes Engine Pumping House (1865)
Further along Verran Terrace, and clearly signposted, are the remains of the Hughes Enginehouse. A placard at the site explains that "This classic Cornish enginehouse was constructed alongside Hughes Shaft by John Beaglehole between late 1863 and early 1865. It was named after Walter Watson Hughes, the founder of the Moonta Mining Co. The building housed a 60-inch Cornish beam pumping engine installed under the direction of engineer Frederick May, and officially started by Captain Hancock on 2 September 1865. The engine and its installation cost £7,000 ($1-2 million in today's currency). The engine operated pumps in Hughes and Taylors Shafts which allowed mining of the main orebody below natural water level. It worked continuously, except for maintenance, for more than 58 years until closure of the mine in 1923 ... In 1973 the National Trust carried out conservation work on the enginehouse and chimney." With the help of photographs and illustrations, it is easy to see how the giant pump worked when it is was in operation.

When I first visited the Enginehouse and Chimney in 1988 there was an interesting sign outside which explained: "This Pumping House contained a Cornish pumping engine built by Harveys of Cornwall. The Engine House and its associated chimney were built in 1865. This pump was essential for the operation of the Moonta mines, removing the water which constantly seeped into the deep shafts and drives. The brackish water extracted from the mine was used in the ore crushing process and for firefighting. Excess water was run out to sea near Moonta Bay. This same engine operated a pump at Taylors Shaft 300 metres to the north. Taylor's Shaft was 768 m deep compared with the 366 m deep Hughes shaft. Flat rods from the Hughes engine ran in a shallow channel along the ground to Taylor's shaft. Parts of this channel are still visible on the direct line to the Taylor’s Shaft to the north of this sign. The pumps in the lower level of Taylor's Shaft raised the water to the 366 metre level from where it flowed across to the pump at the base of the Hughes shaft."

Moonta Mines Wesley Methodist Church (1865)
In the 1870s Moonta had a population of 12,000 and 16 churches and chapels. By far the most impressive was Moonta Mines Wesley Methodist Church which had been completed in 1865. It is a reminder of the deep Methodism which characterised a mining community made up predominantly of the Cornish and the Welsh. Although Methodist churches are usually free from ornamentation or iconography the Moonta Mines Wesley Methodist Church is a grand and impressive structure with a huge wooden gallery which stretches around three sides of the church. At the front, behind the pulpit, is a beautiful pipe organ. It has a capacity of 1,250 people and during the 1870s the church was full most Sundays. This was in part because the Mine Captains sat up the back and took note of any miner or worker who was not present. Today the church is a reminder of the importance of religion to both Moonta and the South Australian copper industry.

Miner's Cottage and Garden
If you are interested in how the miners lived this small cottage is an excellent example of their domestic situation. Built in 1870 and opened to the public by the National Trust in 1967, it is a typical miner's cottage. It was built by John Wood, a brickmaker, with a combination of sun dried mud and grass bricks for the kitchen; rammed clay, mud and lime stones for the parlour and main bedroom; and wattle and daub for another two rooms. The outer walls were covered with lime and sand plaster and weatherproofed with lime wash. The rooms have been thoughtfully furnished to reflect the utensils and furniture of the era.There is a very detailed description of the building at http://www.moontatourism.org.au/attractions/miners-cottage-garden. It is open Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday 1:30 pm to 4:00 pm, tel: (08) 8825 1891.

Historic Buildings in the Town Centre:
There is a useful booklet titled Discovering Historic Moonta Town Walk (available at the Tourist Office) which looks at 35 of the town's most interesting buildings - those built between 1863 and 1875 when the mines were at their peak. There is also a detailed website which lists 23 buildings in town. Check out https://www.coppercoast.sa.gov.au/page.aspx?u=914. Some of the highlights include:

Freemasons Hall - Masonic Lodge (1875)
The Masonic Lodge, located in Blanche Terrace and built in 1875, is the oldest hall built by the Freemasons in Australia. It is now possible to inspect this unique piece of Australian history with its ornate and beautiful chairs and symbols and materials for the ancient rituals. Ask at the Tourist Office for information and access.

Moonta Uniting Church (1873)
The Moonta Uniting Church, located in Robert Street, was formerly a Wesleyan Methodist church and one of 16 churches in Moonta. It is distinguished by its Gothic-style turrets, shallow flying buttresses and coursed limestone walling.

National Bank
The National Bank, which was built in George Street in 1867, stands as a monument to the prosperity which arrived in the town with the discovery and mining of copper. The bank established a branch in Moonta in 1866 and built the bank the following year. The drinking fountain outside celebrates the fact that the town got a reticulated water supply in 1890. It is no longer connected.

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Other Attractions in the Area

Moonta Cemetery
For those who want to recall a time when diseases could decimate a community, the Moonta Cemetery is a sad and salutory reminder of the powerful impact of epidemics of typhoid, cholera and diphtheria which raced through the town in 1873. They were the result of unsanitary conditions in and around the mines. As a result there were 327 burials in 1873. Equally sad are the large number of unmarked children's graves which lie just beyond the cemetery's main gates. There is a plaque which provides information about the deaths.

Moonta Bay and Port Hughes
No visit to Moonta is complete without a short trip to Port Hughes to see the sun set over Spencer Gulf. Both Moonta Bay and Port Hughes are only ten minutes drive from Moonta. There is an excellent cafe (the Port Hughes General Store) on the waterfront near the jetty which serves a truly amazing and unforgettable "big breakfast" and Moonta Bay is known for its fishing (good from the jetties), sailing, sailboarding and diving.

Kernewek Lowender
Kernewek Lowender means 'Cornish Happiness' in the original language of Cornwall. The first festival was held in 1973 and since then it has been held every odd numbered year, has grown so it is now celebrated in the three Copper Triangle towns (Kadina, Wallaroo and Moonta) and attracts more than 30,000 people to the region. It is promoted by Yorke Peninsula Tourism as "the world's largest Cornish Festival" and held in May. The program includes dances (the Furry Dance is a particular highlight - it is a pre-Christian Cornish dance), craft displays, Cornish folk singers, a Cornish feast, religious celebrations, Cornish language lessons, pasty making competitions and a myriad of other activities. As it is a biennial event it is necessary to check when the next festival is on. Check out http://www.kernewek.org/

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History

* Prior to European settlement the area around Moonta was inhabited by the Narangga Aborigines whose lands spread across the entire Yorke Peninsula.

* Matthew Flinders sailed along the coast past Moonta Bay in March, 1802.  Shortly afterwards the French explorer, Nicholas Baudin, sailed past where Wallaroo stands today.

*The first European settlers arrived in the district in the 1830s. They took up land which they used mainly for grazing and the growing of wheat.

* Copper was discovered at Moonta in 1861 by a shepherd named Patrick ('Paddy') Ryan who was working for the grazier, Walter Watson Hughes. Local folklore claims that Ryan found the copper in a wombat hole. He was paid £6 a week for the discovery but died from alcoholic poisoning nine months later.

* Hughes became fabulously wealthy as a result of his copper mine. A history of the mine written in 1914 records that "The Moonta Company during its existence produced £5,396,146 worth of copper, and distributed £1,168,000 among shareholders."  Moonta concentrates averaged 20% copper.

* Moonta was laid out in 1863 and formally opened by the Governor Sir Dominick Daly that same year.

* In 1866 a horse-drawn traction tramway was completed to take the copper from Moonta to the port at  Wallaroo. The tramway coaches were nicknamed  'Prince Albert' and 'Garibaldi'.

* The need for qualified miners led to advertisements being placed in newspapers in Cornwall in the 1860s. Typical of the ads was one reading: "Free. Emigration to Port Adelaide, South Australia. Married agricultural labourers, shepherds, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, employers, tailors, shoe-makers, brick-makers, builders and all persons engaged in useful occupations may obtain a free passage to South Australia where they are within the regulations of the Colonial Commissioners. Meeting to be held at Bodmin at 10 o'clock on October 15."

* In 1873 the town was beset with with epidemics of typhoid, cholera and diphtheria. As a result there were 327 burials that year in the Moonta Cemetery.

* By 1875 Moonta was the second-largest town in South Australia with a population of over 12,000. Only Adelaide was larger.

* In 1876 Hughes' Moonta Mining Company became the first mining company in Australia to pay over £1,000,000 in dividends.

* By 1908 the average grade of copper had dropped to 4%. This was far below the 30% copper which had been mined in the 1860s.

* By 1917 Moonta and Kadina had produced so much copper that they had generated more wealth than all the other mining in the state combined.

* The decline in the price of copper resulted in all the main mines in Moonta closing down in 1923. Mining continued in the area whenever the price of copper made it viable. This occurred during the 1930s and World War II.

* In the 1980s the Wheal Hughes Mine operated although it only employed 13 miners.

* Today Moonta is a historically significant South Australia town with well preserved reminders of a time when it was a hugely successful copper mining town.

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Visitor Information

Moonta Tourist Office, Blanche Terrace, Moonta, tel: (08) 8825 1891.

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Useful Websites

The National Trust website - http://www.moontatourism.org.au/attractions - is remarkably comprehensive as far as the history of the town is concerned.

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Got something to add?

Have we missed something or got a top tip for this town? Have your say below.

5 suggestions
  • Music. John Henry Thomas of Moonta, born in Truro Cornwall,was the leading figure in the musical entertainment and composer and conductor of Cornish Carols in this town. He was also a Military Band Leader and Choirmaster. He spent almost his entire life living there and his Carols are still performed every year around Christmas time in the town square.

    Noel .
  • Hi there,
    could you please tell me where this statistic originated from, and if possible break down the numbers of deaths from each disease for that year? Also, did Moonta have a hospital and morgue to cope with this amount of deaths?
    thanks 🙂

    Allen
  • Are there any descendants off Mathew J Clarke in the area of Moonta, Wallaroo or Kadina. I would be interested in finding them as he is my great-great-grandfather. My great grandmother was Kate Clarke Mathews daughter. She was married to John Morton.

    Greg morton
  • Is there any information on the Wickham family in Moonta?
    My great grandfather William Wickham was born in Moonta in 1864.
    His parents Annie and Hercules Wickham.

    Helen Shields