KAWAU COPPER MINE
THE KAWAU COPPERMINE AND ITS PUMPING ENGINE – Russell Ward
I first saw the Kawau copper mine in the late 50’s and have nursed a fascination for its history ever since. My primary interests are mechanical and I often wondered what sort of engine had been installed and the nature of its fate. There was an old boiler lying alongside, but it appeared to be much more modern than the engine house. It was evident that the engine house was of a type found in Cornwall and that a beam engine typical of Cornish mines was likely to have been installed. I researched the nature of the workings in the early 1990s and reported on my findings in “Breeze” at the time.
My interest in the old engine was revived in Finland, of all places, where I was attending an EU classic steamships meeting. A chance mention of the Kawau engine to Brian Hillsdon archivist for the Steamboat Association of Great Britain led me to an exchange of correspondence with Kenneth Brown, a member of the Trevithick Society for the Study of Industrial Archaeology in Cornwall. Kenneth kindly sent me a copy of the Society’s journal, which reported on the various attempts to mine copper at Kawau and the possible fate of the pumping engine. I am indebted to the Society for allowing me to draw heavily on this document.
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE MINE
In the 1840s Kawau was bought and settled by the Bon Accord Mining Company of Aberdeen on the strength of its copper deposits, which had been discovered in 1844. Mining started using local labour but, in January 1846, a party of miners arrived from Cornwall with Capt James Ninnis head operations. Ninnis, an able manager, was from a well-known mining family and a strict teetotaller. He founded a flourishing Kawau Total Abstinence Society.
For a time, 200-300 people, miners, surface workers and their families, were living on the island in timber dwellings. At first ore was shipped to Sydney with the intention of sending it to Wales for smelting. However the ore displayed an alarming tendency to spontaneous combustion, not healthy in a wooden ship, which led to the decision to build a smelter on Kawau itself. The copper content could then be raised from 6 to 30 percent making the ore safe to ship to Swansea for final refining.
The copper lode itself lay in the small (though originally much larger) headland we all know, just 18 ft below the surface. As the miners sank shafts the workings inevitably went below sea level. A 12 hp steam engine was bought in NZ and installed to work pumps in one of the shafts and possibly a crusher as well. A horizontal level, or adit, ran into the mine from an opening in the headland above sea level. To provide a greater working area, the miners blasted the cliffs and used the rubble to form a narrow strip retained by wooden piles, which incorporated a wharf to load ships. A longitudinal section of the mine, on a plan drawn by Captain Ninnis in 1848, shows four shafts. Three were inland, each equipped with a horse whim (or gin) for hoisting. Lawyer Frederick Whitaker owned the fourth shaft.
Whitaker seems to have had his share of skulduggery in the young colony. In this instance he managed to obtain from the government the right to mine beyond the high water mark. His workmen, however, were caught red handed mining inland on the other claim. Protracted legal battles ensued, resulting in the company having to buy Whitaker out for £5000. While there was an expectation that the copper deposits extended out under the sea as often happened in Cornwall, the unfortunate consequence of the physical integration of the inland workings with Whitaker’s undersea workings probably hastened the later flooding of the mine.
Ninnis left when his contract expired and his place was taken by Begher a German metallurgist with experience of smelting but not mining. As the mine went deeper, the amounts of water seeping in became ominous. In 1852, with the work at 24 fathoms down, the ingress of seawater overcame the pumps, flooding the mine. Begher set sail for England to persuade the company to put up the cash for increased pumping capacity. At this time, the company was reformed as the North British Australasian Company and management was from London.
A report by mining engineers John Taylor & Sons was optimistic on the prospects for the mine and proposed
“… To send out immediately a Cornish steam engine of sufficient power to drain the mine with facility to a depth of 60 fathoms at least and keep it clear of water even if the present quantity should be doubled.”
It is on record that the 330 ton barque Baltasara was purchased by the North British Australasian Company and despatched from Falmouth in late 1853 or early 1854 with the engine, engineering and mining personnel on board. The Perran Foundry was one of the three major builders of Cornish beam engines and is the only one likely to have shipped an engine from Falmouth. The engine was erected in the engine house and ready for work by 15 July 1854. In 1995 it was deduced from on site measurements that the engine was probably about 36” bore and had a stroke of between 8’ and 8’6”. More of this later.
By August 1854, the new engine had dewatered the mine to the 24-fathom level where the work had ceased three years earlier. Begher was back in charge but a Cornishman Capt Anthony Bray was appointed to oversee the actual mining. The difficulty was that the deeper the mine went, the harder the rock became and the costs escalated. The 34-fathom level was finally reached in September 1855 to find that no payable ore was available. Begher had, moreover, grossly overestimated the quantity of easily workable ore left at the 24-fathom level.
Shortly after, the Sydney agent began refusing to honour Begher’s heavy drafts on the company. The decision to recoup company losses by stripping the assets seems to have taken the English shareholders by surprise. By December 1855, all mining had ceased and the engine had been or was about to be dismantled after little more than a year’s work. The only result was 32 tons of copper ore shipped back to England and a further 50 tons said to be ready for shipment from the smelter.
After this setback, the company sold its mining interests in Australia and concentrated on sheep farming.
The Mining Journal, a weekly newspaper of the period reported quite fulsomely on the recriminations at the shareholders’ meetings that ensued. They reveal a sorry tale of failure of the mine after little more than a year’s activities. As a result Taylor resigned but the directors and Begher seemed to have been primarily responsible for the company losing £30,000 on the venture. The previous company apparently lost £45,000; these were quite substantial sums for the day.
WHAT BECAME OF THE ENGINE?
Following the abandonment of the mine, it seems that the engine was returned to England for sale. The suggestion is that the company hoped to return it to the Perran Foundry for resale. There is no record of it making it back to Perran’s works. The plot thickens a little and the following advertisement, which appeared in the Mining Journal 4 October 1856, is interesting.
Mr Little will sell by auction at Devoran in the port of Truro on Monday 13 October next at Twelve o’clock the undermentioned materials all of which will be found in excellent condition (some of the pitwork quite new) and lying on the wharf convenient for shipment:
A steam engine 36″ cylinder, 8½ ft stroke equal beam. Large iron angle bob, with plummer blocks and brasses about 3 tons 31 9ft 3in pumps (ie sections of the rising main)
Then all the pitwork in detail including 12 and 14 in brass plunger poles, 10 and 12in iron buckets 6 and 7in brass buckets and clacks.
May be viewed on application to the Redruth and Chacewater Railway Company’s offices at Devoran
From Kenneth Brown’s measurements, it would appear that this might be the same engine. Certainly the ancillary equipment offered suggests that it was recently removed from a mine. Moreover, it appears that some of this equipment was not associated with the new engine but was from older pumping activities.
The more modern rusty boiler on site dates from a short-lived attempt to rework the mine in 1898-1900 by a Capt Holgate. It features in a picture in the Auckland Museum showing its installation in a lean-to alongside the old engine house. Jet machinery was installed in the shafts for pumping.
I have included a picture scanned from the latest copy to hand of the British journal Old Glory. It is part of an article about a preserved Cornish tin mine. The Levant mine ceased work in 1939, but was reopened and worked again in 1960. Its venerable pumping machinery was taken in hand in 1935 by a group of local enthusiasts and conserved. The National Trust now preserves the mine. Would that we had had some preservation enthusiasts in 1935 over here! Our only enthusiasts were wielding gas axes and chopping our heritage up for the melting pot.
The Kawau copper mine pump house is worthy of rebuilding to its original configuration. It stands as the first major site of very early colonial industrial activity and should be reinstated. Any lobbyists keen to take up the cudgels?
Harold Kidd Update
I had a lot to do with the mine in the 1960s when I acted for a couple of eager fellows who were sold on the idea of recovering the rails in the mine. The mine had run well out under the sea and flooded as soon as the workings ceased. The seawater acted as an electrolyte, depositing the copper from the exposed workings on to the iron trolley rails in a fairly pure form. Despite valiant attempts, the two guys just could not dewater the mine to make it safe enough to get at the rails.
I took a party of Japanese mining engineers to the mine to show them around with a view to raising capital to get the appropriate gear. To impress them (I thought) I turned up in my father’s brand new Datsun Bluebird, one of the first Jap cars sold here. But nothing impressed them, especially not the rough trip to the pumphouse on the tray of a beat-up WW2 GMC truck. Guadalcanal all over again perhaps?
So the copper is still there for the taking…if you’re brave enough!