Spirited Sir Walter Hughes

Updated: Jun 16, 2020

Early life - On the Ocean Wave - Copper Calls - Discovery Disputed - Moonta Mine + Milestones - Fortunes Made - Goes Roving - Benefits - Later Life - References


Sir Walter Hughes' life was both roving and yet sly


"Captain Hughes", was a pastoralist, a copper miner, public benefactor and a founder of the University of Adelaide, South Australia. Hughes was referred to in tantalising ways, such as ‘a sly old fox' by Thomas Elder, 'opium smuggler', [he] 'should have been hanged by the neck', and 'a crook'. - Patricia Sumerling


Early Life

Sir Walter Watson Hughes was one of those strong-spirited, clear-headed men who carve out their own fortunes by dint of untiring energy and self-reliance.

He was the son of the late Thomas Hughes; was born in the town of Pittenween, in Fifeshire, Scotland, in August, 1803, and was educated in the small town of Crail, where he was apprenticed to the trade of a cooper.


On the Ocean Wave

Being of a rather restless, roving disposition, however, he took to the sea, and rose to be chief officer of a vessel at the age of 26, when he made a voyage to India. Before this he had a rough time of it on board a whaler, and in those days whaling was rough indeed — it is bad enough now, with all the modern appliances. His first seafaring essay was in a whaling expedition to the Arctic regions.


Tiring of this, however, and seeing a field open for him in Calcutta, he made a voyage there as chief mate of a ship in 1829. Succeeding in his venture he bought the brig Hero, and traded between Calcutta and China, mainly in opium. For nearly twenty years he lived in the East; but the climate telling upon his constitution, and South Australia offering a fresh field for enterprise, he came to this colony in 1840, and engaged in mercantile pursuits in conjunction with the firm of Messrs, Bunce & Thomson.


He resided in Adelaide till shortly after the SA crisis of 1842 paralyzed business, when he started sheep-farming on the Yorke Peninsula on Lease 147. He lived in the neighbourhood of Macclesfield for a number of years, and had stations near Watervale and Wallaroo. (Notice there are four coastal freshwater springs needed to water the sheep)

Copper Calls!

For some years Captain Hughes prosecuted a search for copper in the Watervale district, and when he obtained his Wallaroo property the search was continued in that locality. On the Wallaroo beach he discovered specimens, and was so confident of the result that he communicated the discovery to his employees, (his shepherds) who were instructed to gather and bring to him anything they came across which had the appearance of the mineral. Captain Hughes evidently had most implicit reliance in the future mineral wealth of the district, and in the course of time his expectations were fully realized.

By his personal observation in the northern part of Yorke's Peninsula, where he had an outlying run, he was convinced that mineral deposits existed, and he instructed his shepherds to keep a vigilant look-out for minerals. Two shepherds in his employ succeeded in finding specimens near where the Wallaroo Mines are situated, and some months subsequently the celebrated Moonta Mines in 1859, and 1861— the greatest mineral discovery ever made in

South Australia in previous periods.

Two Wombats, Australia's burrowing marsupial
Wombats, Australia's burrowing marsupial

The discovery of this, the great pioneer copper mine of the Peninsula, is attributed to a wombat—one of the burrowing breed. In 1860 a shepherd named Boor, in the employ of Captain (afterwards Sir) W. W. Hughes, was attracted by the green contour of the mound at the entrance of the wombat's underground home. This green stuff, on assay, proved to be carbonate of copper. The small excavation made by this little furry four-footed miner, was destined to influence the fortunes of South Australia to a most remarkable extent.

When Captain Hughes first found traces of copper on his pastoral run in the early 1850s, he was short of funds and simply sat on his find while nurturing a valuable relationship with Edward Stirling, one of four directors in Elder, Stirling & Co. Edward came to South Australia after receiving £1000 from his father, Archibald, who had been a slaveholder on four estates in Jamaica. (Edward Stirling was the illegitimate son of Archibald and a Creole woman) - Wikipedia


When his shepherd, James Boor, found copper on Hughes’ Wallaroo property in December 1859, Stirling and his brother-in-law, John Taylor, invested in the venture. Six months later, when all three faced insolvency, Stirling and Taylor tried to resign from the company and take half the company assets with them. Robert Barr Smith got wind of their plans and called their bluff. In a smart move, he and Thomas Elder also became partners in the mines. (All of the investors were Scottish - 'The four Scots')


The first four miners to work the Moonta deposit came from nearby Wallaroo Mines which had opened the previous year. Their first job was to sink trial pits. The ore from these shallow shafts was hauled to the surface in a bucket by means of a horse whim. At the surface it was the job of the pickey boys to dress the ore. The rich ore known as prill was bagged and transported to the smelters.

Copper Smelters at Wallaroo viewed from the Gulf
Copper Smelters at Wallaroo

Smelting operations to treat the copper ores were consequently established 5 miles away on the coast at Port Wallaroo in 1861.


Moonta Discovery Disputed

George Boothby, a clerk in Thomas Elder’s counting-house in 1860 tipped off Walter Hughes, the owner of the Moonta mineral lands, that the actual discoverer, a shepherd employed by Hughes, Patrick Ryan, who had found copper at Tiparra Springs in May 1861, was (drunkenly) blabbing about his discovery of copper ore. Hughes used the tip to ensure he won the mining claim. Supplying Ryan with drink, he found out the exact location of the discovery, then rushed to stake his claim.


Ryan tried to take out the claim with other friends, who became known as the Mills Syndicate. When their application was botched by Ryan and rejected by the Land Office, Hughes made the claim on behalf of Ryan and for the four (Scots) partners of Elder, Stirling & Co. So Walter Watson Hughes became involved in the saga that surrounded the legal ownership of the Moonta Mine. Ryan earned a payment of £6 per week from Hughes, which he drank, and soon died. His widow was then paid instead.


In a dispute that raged between 1861 and 1870, Captain Hughes and the four co-owners were accused of fraud, causing a select inquiry, a Supreme Court case, an equity case in the Supreme Court and the first Privy Council judgement for South Australia. But when the accusers' funds ran out in 1868, the Mills syndicate settled out of court for £8,000, leaving Captain Hughes and his partners as the owners of the Moonta Mine. The Moonta Mine was worth fighting for, as it proved to be the first South Australian company to generate a million pounds in dividends. - Read More

(A fascinating side issue is the removal of SA High Court Judge Benjamin Boothby, who was widely believed to be insolvent, and

  • whose judgements benefited the Five Scots

  • and whose son George was employed by Walter Hughes

  • and George Boothby gained forty Moonta shares worth £40,000 for his initial help with registration of the mining claim.

  • and who later sold off shares to the benefit of his insolvent father) - Read More


Moonta Milestones

  • By 1875 Moonta had a population of twelve thousand and

  • was the second largest town in South Australia,

  • surpassing Cornwall as the largest copper region in the British Empire.

  • in the 'Copper Triangle' of Moonta, Kadina and Wallaroo was home to the largest copper mining operations in the Southern Hemisphere.

  • Over 2% of the Australian population lived in the district at that time

  • and the Moonta Mining Co. was the first mine in Australia to pay a million pounds in dividends

Moonta Mine

Portrait of Sir Thomas Elder
(SIr) Thomas Elder

The Honourable Thomas Elder was one of the colony’s most influential men and a key player in the Moonta Mines from the start. His mercantile firm of Elder, Stirling & Co. were the lead financiers of the Moonta Mines, investing £80,000 until the mines paid off. Elder himself was chairman of directors and co-equal largest shareholder, and the driving force behind the Mines’ funding and development for thirty years.


Hughes and Elder then led the formation of the Moonta Mines Proprietary in 1861. Sir Walter was also a large shareholder in the Wallaroo and the Moonta Mines Companies, and his property in the district was nearly all mineral country. Hughes couldn’t have planned it better in the way things worked out, as he stepped onto the back of the ‘good’ business name of Elder, Stirling & Co. They organised the financial side of mining operations. This also assured Hughes a ‘degree’ of financial respectability that came with being associated with them in business.


The copper discovery at Wallaroo came in the very nick of time, as the Burra Mine suddenly failed shortly after. This failure would have meant the exodus to other parts of the world of thousands who were dependent on the Burra for a livelihood. The late Captain Roach, at that time Manager of the Burra, was asked to recommend a practical miner to open up the Wallaroo discovery. The late Captain Eneder Warmington was selected for the position, and that gentleman, taking with him a party of Burra miners, proceeded to the site of the new discovery—a discovery that transformed a third-class waterless sheep run into a busy hive of

industry. The mines proved a source of extraordinary benefit to this colony, and for years the revenues were enormous.

By 1866 Wallaroo had 36 smelters and burned approximately one-tenth of all the coal shipped from Newcastle in NSW. The two mining towns of Moonta and Kadina  and the port of Wallaroo, all connected by railways, became known as the Copper Triangle and grew to make South Australia an economic powerhouse for nearly 60 years.

Sketch map of the copper mines around Wallaroo SA
Sketch map of the copper mines around Wallaroo

Captain Henry Richard Hancock became Chief Captain and Superintendent of the mines in 1864 at the age of twenty-eight. His appointment followed the ten week strike by the miners who had complained about continuous poor management which threatened their income and employment prospects. In typical Cornish solidarity they formed a union which was promptly disbanded after achieving their aims.

Captain Henry Richard Hancock of Wallaroo mine SA.
Captain Henry Richard Hancock

Their main grievance had been the Warmington's mining methods which, they said, were twenty years behind the time. Hancock put Moonta on the map and ruled the mines for thirty-four years. Dressed in his long coat and wearing a belltopper this benevolent dictator maintained strict discipline as he organised and controlled the mines.


He was responsible for numerous improvements at Moonta such as the introduction of skips, the invention of the Hancock Jig and the use of kibbles. Hancock was also responsible for the employment of local Aborigines on the mine. An Adelaide paper reported in 1869 that on 18 May at the Moonta Institute, a tea meeting was held for the benefit of the Aborigines working at the mine, with their lubras and piccaninnies. A goodly number of them are in constant employment and earning between three and four shillings a day.


Moonta Mines contains a number of individually heritage-listed sites, including:

The mining area of Moonta (1870) Sosuth Australia
The mining area of Moonta (1870)

Fortunes Made

The four directors of the Elders, Stirling Company were Robert Barr Smith, Thomas Elder, John Taylor and Edward Stirling, and they with William Hughes were the major shareholders. During 45 years of mining these fortunate five shareholders have

  • divided £2,000,000 of money between them;

  • produced £13,000.000 worth of ore

  • at a cost of £11,000,000,

  • the greater part of which—two thirds at least—has been spent on labor in South Australia (and legal fees).

These few figures are sufficient to indicate

The Wallaroo Mine