Advance Australia! Chapter 16


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Once the crushing mill was completed, the reefs finally started to yield gold, and the Finch-Hattons delivered their first shipment to Mackay. First crushing, gold escort, float, Sunday, profits and losses, Gympie.

There was much anticipation about the results of the first crushing on the field:

We had 98 tons of quartz to go through from the "Erratic Star," and 185 tons from the "Wanderer"; and there was great excitement all over the field to know the result of the first crushing; for upon the success of a first crushing depends, in a great measure, the fate of a gold field.

Until you get used to the appearance of the stone you are working, it is very difficult to form an estimate beforehand of the yield. There was the greatest divergence of opinion as to the "Wanderer" stone, in which coarse gold showed freely, and wagers were laid that it would go anywhere up to twenty ounces to the ton.

Gibbard and I knew better, and we decided that we should be very much pleased if it went four ounces. After the stampers had been at work a few hours the amalgam began to show on the distributing plate, as the table next below the boxes is called. This was a good sign, as we had not expected to find very much fine gold in the stone.

We went on crushing for eighteen days and nights, with Sundays interval, and at the end of that time the whole of the stone was through. We had collected about 100 ounces of amalgam off the plates, which would yield about thirty-five ounces of gold; but the important part of the plunder was, of course, inside the boxes.

When we opened them a very healthy sight was there. In the corners of the boxes the amalgam was piled like snow collected in the corners of a window-pane, and we saw at once that the crushing was fully as good as we had expected. The whole contents of the boxes were raked carefully out, and run through a sluice-box, to separate the amalgam from the quartz.

The amalgam thus collected was mixed with that already taken from the tables, and with the quicksilver from the ripples, and the whole of it strained through a piece of strong brown holland. The free quicksilver passes through this, leaving the amalgam behind, which is then retorted. The process of retorting is very simple. The amalgam is placed in an iron pot, fitted with a lid which is wedged on very tight, the joint being made up with a compound of ashes and clay. On the top of the lid is a long curved iron pipe. The retort is placed over a fire, and as it gets hot the quicksilver ascends in fumes into the iron pipe, over the lower portion of which a stream of cold water is kept constantly flowing. The quicksilver is condensed again, and flows down the pipe into a bucket placed at the end to receive it.

Quicksilver can be used over and over again in this way, and not above seven or eight per cent is lost in the retorting. Just after it has been retorted it is in the best possible order for amalgamating purposes. We got 1650 ounces of amalgam from the 185 tons of stone.

As a rule, amalgam does not retort more than a third of its own weight in gold, but the "Wanderer" gold was so coarse that we hoped for a much higher percentage. The event proved we were right, for the amalgam gave us 870 ounces of retorted gold. We had used two retorts, in order that the gold might be more conveniently packed for travelling, and it was turned out in two cakes about the size and shape of a beefsteak pudding. Retorted gold is curious-looking stuff, all porous and honeycombed where the quicksilver has left it.

This gave an average yield of 4 oz. 14 dwt. to the ton, which was very satisfactory, as it paid all the back expenses of the reef, and, after paying the mill 30s. a ton for crushing, left a very good dividend.

My brother, who was half shares with me in the mill and the reef too, came up just before the end of the crushing to help me bring the gold down to the bank in Mackay. Towards the last we had been running the stone from the "Erratic Star" through one of the batteries, and we cleaned up shortly after the "Wanderer." The "Erratic Star" turned out a fraud. We had only run the pick of the stone through, and 98 tons only gave us 102 ounces of gold.

The Finch-Hattons delivered their first gold shipment to Mackay:

It was midday when we finished retorting, and my brother and I lost no time in getting ready for a start. We wrapped the gold up carefully in canvas, and then put it into two boxes, one of which we stowed away on each side of a packhorse in leather packbags.

Gibbard came with us, and the three of us formed the first gold escort that ever left Mount Britten. We had a revolver apiece, in case of being stuck up on the road. Our own horses were good enough, but we had rather misgivings about the packhorse, which was an old crowbait my brother had chartered from the station for the purpose of bringing down the gold.

Having had a feed and a smoke, we lay down and had a sleep, and about one o'clock in the morning started again on our journey down to Mackay, forty-five miles away. This time we took care to select a reliable packhorse, and we got safely to Mackay about eight in the morning. As soon as the bank opened, we took the gold round there. Great was the astonishment of everyone in Mackay when they saw the quantity of gold that we had brought down. The townspeople had never taken any interest in Mount Britten beyond trying to put me to all the inconvenience that they could in connection with my work there, and the first crushing had been such a long while coming they had all come to the conclusion that Mount Britten was a "duffer," and that there was no gold there at all.

The manager of the bank especially had always had a great edge on the diggings, and been very active in circulating reports that it was a failure. His jaw dropped like a motherless calf's when he saw nearly 1000 ounces of gold produced at the first start, and he barely retained sufficient presence of mind to offer me his congratulations, which I accepted for what they were worth, as I had not forgotten his flying visit to Mount Britten, and his subsequent report of the field. My brother and I finished what we had to do as quickly as possible, and got back to the station the same night.

I was back again at Mount Britten the next day at midday, and started to get down another crushing from the reefs as quickly as possible.

Because of the amount of work involved in running the mines, the Finch-Hattons decided to float a company:

From the "Wanderer" the next crushing turned out over six ounces to the ton, and the one after that between seven and eight ounces; and still the reef looked splendid. But another hundred tons from the "Star" only gave a hundred ounces, and the reef got so poor after that, that it was no longer payable.

As a speculation the mill itself did not pay, as there was not nearly enough stone to keep it going.

There were some other very nice reefs opened up, but there was no capital available to work them, and they remained idle. I soon saw that to look after the mines properly I should have to give up my whole time to it, and make a profession of mining. This I was unwilling to do, so my brother and I agreed to try and float the whole property, comprising the Wanderer and Star Reefs and Sabbath Calm Mill, into a company down in Melbourne.

Having obtained offers of the other shareholders' shares for a certain time, I left Holliman in charge of the whole swim, and, armed with specimens from the different reefs, and authentic reports of the crushings, I set off down to Melbourne.

Sunday was a day for catching up with chores, including the cooking:

On Sundays I used generally to have a good many visitors after my hut was finished. It is said that there is no Sunday in the Bush, and certainly it does not mean much of a day of rest to a man who lives quite by himself, and works hard all the week. Sunday is always the day for a general overhaul and repairs. Clothes are washed and mended, the hut cleared and swept out, and a supply of firewood laid in for the coming week; and a man who is away at work every day of the week, from sunrise to sundown, will always find that a dozen little jobs will accumulate in the week, which can only be done on Sunday. I had very little time for cooking in the week, and it was always an occupation I disliked, so I used to most of the week's cooking on Sunday.

After the diggings had been open some time, the butcher used to kill a bullock nearly every day, and there was always fresh meat to be had. But the butcher's shop was nearly a mile away from my house, and, besides, I never would touch fresh meat as long as I could get salt. So on Sunday I used to boil twelve or fourteen pounds of salt beef, and bake a damper about the size of a small cartwheel; and this used to last me, unless the beef went bad, until about Thursday. After which I used to get some fresh meat, or boil some more salt if I had time, until the next Sunday. Salt beef wants a lot of attention when it is boiling, for if the water boils too fast it turns as hard as a stone, and if it stops boiling it gets sodden.

Despite their initial promise, the reefs in the end were not profitable:

As a speculation my mining had not been a success.

During the time that I was working the Mount Britten reefs, the receipts and expenditure were as follows:--

"Little Wanderer."
Gross expenses £4967 18 5
Gold sold 8689 1 2

This left a balance of £3721:2:9 in favour of the claim.

"Erratic Star."
Gross expenses £2275 5 10
Gold sold 688 19 1

Leaving a deficit of £1586 6 9

The "Sabbath Calm" machine cost about £9000, against which it received £1050 from the reefs for crushing stone.

The first cost of opening up a reef is always very great, and it is doubly so, of course, upon a new field.

Wages at Mount Britten were very high, ordinary miners getting £3 a week; carpenters, sawyers, and bricklayers from £4:10s. to £6.

The cost of carriage to Mackay was £15 per ton at first, but it afterwards fell to £8, at which figure it remained. My bill for carriage alone was over £600.

Had either the "Star" or the "Wanderer" continued for a year longer as good as they proved at first, we should have made a small fortune out of either of them, and the mill would have paid well as a separate speculation. On a new field where crushing is charged for at the rate of 30s or £2 a ton, the profits from a mill that can get sufficient stone to keep it constantly going are enormous.

Ten head of stampers will put through 120 tons a week with ease. At 30s. per ton this gives a return of £180 a week. The whole cost of driving a mill, including wages, firewood, quicksilver, and repairs, and allowing 7 per cent per annum for depreciation in value of the plant, should not exceed £55 a week, even on a new field where wages and carriage are high. This leaves a clear profit of £125 a week, or £6500 a year.

When we decided to try and float a company to work the reef the "Wanderer" was in full swing, and turning out seven ounces to the ton. But I know very well that all Queensland reefs are what is called "patchy." The gold runs in "levels" and "shoots," and is seldom evenly distributed throughout the whole line of reef, as is the case in Victoria. Consequently, anyone working a Queensland reef is liable at any moment to come upon a perfectly blank patch of stone; and the expenses of working through this, and looking for another level of gold, are far too heavy to be borne by a single individual.

The town of Gympie to the north of Brisbane had very rich reefs of gold:

The Gympie reefs are very patchy, and some of them are marvellously rich. I never saw a more wonderful sight than a "patch" in No. 2 North Lady Mary claim. The reef, which was about eight inches thick, was of milk-white quartz, in slate country as black as coal; and as I stood back and held a candle over my head, the whole face of the reef, eight feet high, was literally blazing with gold. It was sticking out in bright, glittering masses, and even the slate walls of the reef were thickly spotted over with the precious metal.

Gold, when it is first broken down in a reef, bears no sort of resemblance to the dull-coloured compound that is worked up into jewellery and the coin of the realm. It is about the colour of brass, or rock sulphur, and breaks into crystal cubes which glitter and shine with dazzling brilliancy.

This patch in the Lady Mary yielded 1470 ounces from twenty tons of quartz. About the best paying claim on Gympie, when I was there, was the No. 1 North Phoenix. A party of men had bought it about ten months before for £100, and were considered to be perfect fools for their pains. However, they set to work and sunk a shaft 320 feet, and struck the reef carrying heavy gold.

While I was there they crushed 700 tons for an average yield of over eleven ounces to the ton. In eighteen months the claim had paid over £100,000 in dividends, and the shareholders refused an offer of £150,000 for the claim from a Sydney syndicate. The shares, of which there were 24,000 in the original company, were selling at £7:10s. and £8.

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