Good Country: Moonta’s copper-coated Cornish past

Moonta’s mines sent copper all over the world but its colourful history of Cornish immigration, art and thriving heritage are what makes this South Australian town an absolute treasure to visit.

An old Australian saying was that if you haven’t been to Moonta, you haven’t travelled. And the Cornish miners, engineers and managers (known as ‘captains’) did travel: from the Victorian goldfields and directly from Cornwall to work the copper mines responsible for Moonta materialising in 1863.

So dominant was Cornish culture in Moonta that it became known as Australia’s Little Cornwall. A caption in the Moonta Mines Museum even states that the “Cornish dialect is still used in current speech in Northern Yorke Peninsula”.

Moonta is a wonderful place, where you can feel immersed in history and easily imagine what Moonta was like. This is because central Moonta has a higher than usual number of original buildings, such as miners’ cottages, churches and enginehouses, with plenty of knowledgeable tour guides to set the scenes.

Another reason why we can be transported to Moonta’s Cornish mining era is that it was so well documented by an intriguing chap called Oswald Pryor. Pryor, born at Moonta Mines in 1881, began working at the mines at 13, eventually rising to surface manager. He was also an astute observer of Cornish mining customs and quirks in Moonta and Wallaroo, which he expressed in satirical but warm cartoons. Poet CJ Dennis encouraged Pryor to publish his cartoons in The Bulletin, and Pryor was The News’s staff cartoonist from 1928 to 1935.

Remarkably, although there have been comic strips and panels about mining, Oswald appears unique in that he published books consisting almost exclusively of mining-and miner-related scenarios. Pryor was possibly the main creator of a mining genre in comics; he was certainly the creator of a Copper Coast mining genre and thus deserves his place in pop culture history.

Adelaide-based Michal Dutkíewícz, a world-class illustrator (who illustrated Batman Forever for DC Comics), says that “Pryor’s cartoons compare very favourably to the beautifully illustrated penwork of the likes of Norman Lindsay. Pryor’s work, however, is subtler and less broadly-stroked. It shows great insight, bringing alive some of the tradition and culture that seem so strange”.

One detail that Pryor had fun with in his cartoons was that the Copper Coast Cornish mine workers and the Moonta goats sported remarkably similar beards. Goats were once everywhere in Moonta, as they were excellent scavengers who could survive where cattle and sheep couldn’t and provided miners with a cheap source of milk and meat. Today, the goats are long gone, but beards can still be seen.

One bearded Moonta man is Allan Clifford, a highly likeable Moonta Mines railway tour guide and track worker. Clifford, a former audio engineer and electronics technician for many bands (including The Masters Apprentices), now drives the Ryan’s Express tourist train past green-tinged rocks, remains of mining buildings, and a semi-friendly Ned Kelly. Along the way, Clifford shares fascinating facts. For example, “The Moonta copper went to India, where they made the pennies, ha’pennies and farthings for Australia, New Zealand and Britain until the late 1920s.”

After passing through a tunnel in Ryan’s Tailings Heap, Ryan’s Express stops at a ‘wash and dry’, where the impurities were removed from copper. A grey Schnauzer, with an impressive beard of his own, approaches Clifford and takes a shine to him. Clifford is pleasantly surprised, for “there are some dogs that just don’t like fellas with beards”.

At the wash and dry, Clifford points out a cement ‘bath’: “If anyone fell over in the sorting floor acid, they had to throw themselves in that water-filled bath before the skin and clothes burnt off their backs.” Still on bathroom matters, Clifford recounts that “legendary mine manager Captain Hancock used to sharpen rivets and keep them on the toilet seats so that the pickey boys (young lads who sorted ore) wouldn’t linger on them too long”.

Fortunately, modern Moonta toilets are much more welcoming, as I discovered when photographing paintings of Cousin Jack and Cousin Jenny (nicknames for a Cornish man and woman) that adorn the Queen’s Square public toilets. Soon after I photographed the entrance to said toilets, a police car slowly drove past — or should I say, a Copper Coasted past?

In conclusion, visit Moonta. It’s damn good country.

Adelaide In-depth

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