Royal Reels: Gambling


This 1d pink Victoria postcard has a roller postmark MELBOURNE/ OC 29–2-30P/ VICT/ 1908 and it was sent to Dr. Benham, Camden House, Exeter, S.A. (Figure 1).

The reverse shows that it is from The Mount Lyell Mining & Railway Co. Ltd, 30 Queen Street, Melbourne, 29th Octr 1908.  The printed message has been altered by writing and it reads:
Dear Sir, I beg to acknowledge receipt of your P/C of yesterday.  Fresh scrip was forwarded to you by yesterday’s mail.  Yours truly, Alfred Mellor, Secretary To Dr. F.L. Benham, Camden House, Exeter, S.A. (Figure 2).

It is obvious that this is from the administrative office of the mine, which is in the western region of Tasmania, and it is in relation to shares in the mine owned by Dr. Benham.  Information about  Dr. F.L. Benham M.D. (1853-1938) is scanty, but he joined the University of Adelaide in 1901.  He was a keen mountaineer and his magnificent library of travel books, together with his book shelves was bequeathed to the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia, as well three paintings.  The Benham Bookcase is shown in the Library of the Society (Figure 3).

The history of the Mt Lyell Mining & Railway Company spans over one hundred  years, with the company being regarded as an icon in Australian mining.  In 1883 three gold diggers pegged out 50 acres of land in the valley, later to become known as “Linda Valley”. The area that they had pegged included the large Ironstone outcrop which became known as “The Iron Blow”.  And so with the first pegging of the Lyell fields, began one of Australia’s great mines.

In the early years, all supplies were brought in to the area from Strahan, to Teepookana and then through some 26 rapids to Sailor Jack’s Creek.  From here the supplies were lugged by professional packers, over 4 miles up the King River Gorge.  In 1888 the Mt Lyell Gold Mining Company was formed by a syndicate of six men.  The mine made little profit, and in 1892, two Adelaide financiers, Kelly and Orr, who realised that a fortune in copper was being washed down the sluice boxes, brought the mine and formed the Mt Lyell Mining Company.  By now 28 companies where working the field.  The Mount Lyell’s haulage line is seen in Figure 4.

Following internal feuding between the new Directors and James Crotty, the latter left the Company with 3000 Mt Lyell Shares and the small lease of North Mt Lyell.  This Company he built into a Company to rival for a short time, the might of Mt Lyell.  In 1893 with a view to building a railway to Strahan the Mt Lyell Company was liquidated, and a new company, The Mt Lyell Mining & Railway Company was formed and incorporated on 29th March 1893.  By 1896 the ABT Railway was built between Teepookana on the King River, to Penghana, (later to become Queenstown).

By 1901 the railway had been extended to Regatta Point in Strahan, and the new township of Queenstown was flourishing.. On the other side of the mountain range, the North Lyell Copper Company and Crotty had established the township of Gormanston adjacent to the workings of the Iron Blow.  The ore of the North Mt Lyell Copper Company was much richer than that of the great Mt Lyell Company, and English investors were pouring thousands of pounds into the company not knowing that by the end of the decade, it was to die, along with the dreams and the man who discovered it.

In 1903 the North Mt Lyell Copper Company decided to amalgamate with the Mt Lyell Mining & Railway Company, ending one of the most bitter and costly corporate feud’s in Australia.  On the 12th of December 1912, underground in the North Lyell mine a fire broke out causing dense smoke and mayhem for the workers caught in the maze of tunnels below the surface.  Despite frantic efforts above surface, forty two men lost their lives in a disaster that shocked the mining world.

In 1922 the “Iron Blow”, now a vast open cut, was phased out leaving the underground workings to supply the ore which after crushing and flotation, was fed into furnaces to emerge as copper matte.  This matte was then fed into converters which turned it into blistered copper. Unfortunately this copper contained many impurities, so in 1928 a refinery was to further refine the copper by means of electrolysis, which produced copper 99.8% pure.  A view of the Mount Lyle mine is seen in Figure 5

In 1934 the West Lyell came into operation, using huge mechanical shovels to load Euclid trucks. In it’s 38 year history, the West Lyell open cut produced 47 million tons of copper ore and 57 million tons of overburden had been removed.  In 1972 the open cut closed..  In1963 the ABT railway closed after 67 years of operation.  The closure was brought on by the need to replace many of the bridges along the line, and the replacement of much of the rolling stock.  In 1964 economics saw the closure of the refinery, and in 1969 came the shutdown of the smelters.  In 1976 depressed copper prices and changing economics forced the retrenchments of almost half of the workforce.

In 1994 the mine closed for twelve months, until taken over by West Australian Mining Company, Gold Mines of Australia, and the mine was renamed Copper Mines of Tasmania.  After several years of low copper prices making the operation no longer viable, the mine was sold to an Indian Company, Twin Star Holdings.

Mount Lyell is to the north of Queenstown (arrow) named after a British geologist, Sir Charles Lyell in 1862.  At first it was mined for gold, as well as iron and silver, but copper has been mined in immense quantities since 1893.  The copper was refined at the mine, and over the years the acid fumes from the refinery have entirely removed the rain forest vegetation which originally covered the mountain.  The mountain now has been likened to a moonscape (Figure 6).

Addendum: Frederick Lucas Benham M.D. (1855-1938) graduated M.D. from the University of London and he left for Adelaide in 1899 where he joined up with University of Adelaide in 1901.  He became the medical officer for two institutions.  During his lifetime he wrote 22 articles for medical journals and outside medicine he was interested in stamps, coins, yachting, heraldry and natural history as well as he was a member of the Philatelic Society of South Australia.  Few people knew him very well and he was considered a recluse and eccentric.  His name lives on for he bequeathed £50,000 to the University of Adelaide.  This amount was used to construct the Benham Building for the support of study of natural history.  In addition he donated his library to the University and the Royal Geographic Society of South Australia of which he had been a member since 1915.  A photo of Dr. Benham is shown in Figure 7.

I wish to thank Kevin Griffin of the Royal Geographic Society of South Australia for the information on Dr. Benham.