About Moonta Heritage

Moonta National Trust & National Heritage

The name Moonta is derived from the aboriginal word Moonta- Monterra meaning impenetrable scrub. Walter Watson Hughes occupied the area as part of his Wallaroo sheep run. It was one of his shepherds, Paddy Ryan, who discovered copper in the mouth of  wombat burrow in 1861. Paddy was paid a reward of £6 ($560) per week for discovering the copper, but was dead within 9 months from alcoholic poisoning. This signaled the start of a mining boom in the area which attracted skilled workers from many parts of Britain. Many came from Cornwall bringing with them all their customs and traditions which eventually lead to the place often being referred to as ‘Australia’s Little Cornwall’.  The area today provides a fascinating insight into the region’s mining heritage.

The Moonta fields consisted of several sites including Moonta, Yelta, Paramatta, Hamley and Mid- Moonta.

Tthe Tiparra Mining Company, later to be known as The Moonta Mining Company was formed to work the mines. It was financed with a loan of £80,000 (approx $12 000 000) from Elder Smith & Co Ltd, which is now Elders. This loan was paid back in the first year of operation, and from then on the mine was self financing. The Moonta Mining Co was the first in Australia to pay one million pounds in dividends to shareholders.

In 1890 the Wallaroo and Moonta Mining and Smelting Company was formed which included the Moonta Mines, Wallaroo Mines and the Wallaroo smelter. The whole of the workings came under the control of Henry Richard Hancock.

Captain Hancock was born in Devon in January 1836 and emigrated to South Australia in 1858. He was appointed Chief Captain and Superintendent of the Moonta Mine in 1864 a position he held until 1898. Upon his retirement his son Lipson took over that role which he held until just before the mines closed.


Until the 1890’s all work underground was done by manual labour. No machines were used. The shafts were dug by hand using basic tools and blasting powder. To get from one level to another, miners climbed up or down step ladders. Some shafts went as deep as 2,500 feet (nearly 800 meters). The ore was hauled to the surface by horse whims, similar to a windlass. Ropes or cables were attached to a rotating drum powered by horses. As one bucket was lowered underground, so a full bucket was raised to the surface.

Engine houses were built to pump the brackish mineralized water from the mines. Hughes Pump House was constructed in 1865 and worked continuously until the mines closed in 1923. In all there was about 80 miles (nearly 130 kms) of shaft and drives in the area.

Cornish miners were recruited from Burra Burra, Kapunda, the Victorian Goldfields and from Cornwall to work in the mines. At its peak in the 1870’s, around 2000 men and boys were employed by the Company. Pickey boys were paid 11 pence (approx. $5) per day for a 6 day week. 16 — 21 year olds averaged 3/- to 5/- (approx. $15)  per day and men over 21 averaged 5/- to 8/-  approx. $35) per day. The miners were paid on a percentage of the value of the copper they dug out.

The Moonta mines, which produced about 170 000 tonnes of copper metal, along with the Wallaroo Mine, were the longest worked in South Australia’s Mining history. The mechanical workshops were the largest in the southern hemisphere. The Moonta mines was the first site in Australia to have a Cementation Works (a process of further copper extraction from previously treated ore). The first Gas Works and School of Mines outside the metropolitan area were established in Moonta in 1872 and 1890 respectively.

The closure of the mines in 1923 lead to a rapid decline in population, particularly in the mine area. Moonta  has survived as an agricultural and service centre. Since the 1970s this has been supported by a growing tourism industry. Today this area is maintained as an example of our history, managed by the National Trust developed and funded by us and by the Government.

Cornish mining technology spread through out the world
This national heritage precinct aims to preserve the example of this technology
The area is maintained largely by volunteers