GOLD MINING AT LEFROY
In the 1850s gold discoveries in New South Wales and Victoria brought hundreds of thousands of immigrants and great wealth to these colonies. Tasmania missed out on this, and so throughout the 1850s, 60s and 70s the Tasmanian Government encouraged exploration for gold, offering rewards to the first person to discover a payable field.
In the hills around Lefroy gold was known to exist in the 1840s, but exploration was discouraged, through fear that the convicts would find out and rebel. The area was then known as Nine Mile Springs.
The first person known to discover gold at Nine Mile Springs was Edward Dalley in 1857. In 1858 Constable William Jones and the Rev John Fereday, from George Town, found gold there. In 1863 gold was discovered at the Devilâ€™s Den, north east of Mount Direction. A small rush occurred there but little gold was found. In January 1869 Hannibal Fencker found more gold there and soon some ten parties were prospecting at the Den.
Samuel Richards was the first to discover payable gold. His party had come to prospect at the Den but soon moved to Nine Mile Springs, where he found alluvial gold on Specimen Hill in November 1869. Also exploring at Nine Mile Springs was a party from George Town. They found out about the discovery and the news soon spread. In January 1870 a group of Irish miners from Lyndhurst, near Waterhouse, led by Martin Cummerford, arrived to jump Richardsâ€™s claim. The Gold Commissioner allotted them part of the land claimed by Richards and in April 1870 they discovered a gold reef in the quartz rock about 200 metres north east of the Richards claim. This became the Shamrock mine. In April 1870 another reef, the Excelsior, was found in Sludge Creek valley, near where Lefroy is today. These discoveries began the first gold rush to Lefroy. Gold discoveries also occurred at Back Creek, north east of Lefroy, and at the Industry mine south east of Lefroy, but despite much activity, none of these mines produced a dividend.
The history of mining at Lefroy is one of a series of booms and busts. The alluvial gold lay in the creek gullies and under the basalt rock on the eastern side of the field. But most of the gold lay in scattered reefs in the quartz rock which formed the base of the area. Most reefs lay in parallel lines, about 200 metres apart, from south of the present Flinders Highway to about a kilometre north of Lefroy township. In the upper levels the gold was quite rich, but it was quickly exhausted. As shafts were dug deeper, the amount of gold diminished. Extraction was expensive because of water seepage, which required pumps, and the quartz rock had to be crushed in batteries of stamping machines, and then washed in sluices to extract the gold from the crushed rock.
All this required capital, and this was provided mainly by Launceston businessmen, who floated companies to develop the mines found by the prospectors. They also employed prospectors to explore for new discoveries. Usually, the early rich discoveries encouraged people to invest in the mines, but after expending capital in developing the mine and constructing a crushing battery, the mine would run out of payable gold and the company would be liquidated, usually without paying a dividend.
There were four periods of development in mining at Lefroy:
a) 1870-71. This was the period of the original mines, the Specimen Hill, Shamrock and Excelsior.
b) 1873-7. Development here centred around the Native Youth line of reefs located at present day Lefroy. The main mines were the Native Youth and the City of Launceston, both of which paid dividends. This boom was interrupted in 1874-5 by a commercial crisis which followed the bankruptcy of mining developer William White. The Native Youth mine was one of the richest and the New Native Youth Company was able to survive until 1883, helped by its purchase of other claims and its profitable battery of stampers, which crushed rocks for the smaller mines unable to afford their own crushing equipment.
c) 1880-83. This boom was based on the Chum line of reefs to the north of Lefroy, together with renewed activity on the Native Youth reef.
d) 1890-95. The two main reefs developed were the Pinafore reef north of the New Chum and the Volunteer reef south of the present Flinders Highway. The two main mining companies were the New Pinafore and the Volunteer, both of which paid dividends.
After 1895 the gold declined again, but the larger mines survived, buoyed up by government subsidies to sink deeper shafts in a futile search for richer veins. While the New Pinafore shafts were sunk to the 1200 foot level, no payable gold was ever found at Lefroy at a deeper level than 400 feet. The New Pinafore, the last of the larger mines, closed in 1908, and commercial exploration of the field ceased in 1914.
In all the Lefroy mines yielded ÂŁ750,000 in gold, making the gold field the second richest in Tasmania, after Beaconsfield.
Chinese miners first arrived at Lefroy in 1870. They were originally brought in to work the mines at Back Creek. At Lefroy they panned for alluvial gold, and later picked over the tailings from the crushing batteries. They also made money from the other diggers through their market gardens and gambling dens, where fan tan was the main game. They were slower but steadier workers and were tolerated by the other diggers. In 1877 they opened a Joss House in Little China Town, which was in Powell Street. It remained there until 1904, when it was dismantled and removed to an unknown location.
The township of Nine Mile Springs was originally located on Specimen Hill. The settlement moved to its present site in the mid 1870s following the development of the Native Youth reef. Known by the locals as Excelsior, after the original mine on the site, it was named Lefroy in 1881 after the visit by the Acting Governor, Sir Henry Lefroy. It was a bustling town which is said to have contained 5,000 people in its peak boom period of 1890-95. It was the fourth largest town in Tasmania,. It had a race track, rifle club, cricket club and brass band. There were six hotels, three churches, a state and private grammar school, a masonic lodge and mechanics institute. The town had several shops, two butchers and a cordial factory. In 1907 the headquarters of the George Town Municipality was located there, remaining there until the 1930s.
Once commercial mining ceased Lefroy slowly declined, its school and last church closing in 1954. Many of the houses were removed to George Town and Beaconsfield. Even so, prospectors continue to mine for gold in the old mine shafts, often finding enough to make it a profitable hobby.
This booklet was published by the George Town and District Historical Society in 2001.
Revised 2011: Edited by Peter Cox