The legendary Tasmanian prospector and discoverer of tin at Mt Bischoff in 1871
James Smith was born in 1827, the second of three children to John Smith and Ann Grant, who married after coming to Tasmania as convicts. James had an unsettled family life and in 1836, at the age of 9, he became the ward of John Guillan, a Launceston miller and merchant.
Smith wrote little about his early life, though it appears he had a rudimentary education in Launceston. At an early age he started working at Guillan’s flourmill at the Supply River, where he also began to take an interest in exploration and minerals. Smith’s fellow apprentice Charles Monds probably introduced him to Congregationalism (also known as Independent), which would provide much of his moral framework.
Smith’s zest for self-education was already evident in his adolescence. He bought books on many topics, possibly doing so as a result of the influence of the popular Scottish geologist Hugh Miller, who encouraged ‘self-culture’ – the idea that workingmen could improve themselves by achievement and study, particularly of the Bible. Smith and the journeymen he lived with attended the Independent Church where, according to Monds, Smith’s developing faith set him on his successful life’s course. It is also likely that membership of the church community shaped Smith’s lifelong friendships and business associations, perhaps even where he subsequently lived, for James Fenton, the pioneer Forth settler and Smith’s neighbour, was a Congregationalist and Charles Monds’s brother-in-law.
In 1852, along with other Tasmanians, Smith left the colony for the Victorian gold rushes. Between periods in several fields, he returned to Tasmania where he prospected in the Great Western Tiers and Mersey River regions in 1852. In 1853 he went to Bendigo where he was active in movements for reform, occupying two positions in the Anti-Gold Licence Society and taking part in the August 1853 anti-gold-licence march.
Like many Tasmanians returning from the Victorian diggings, Smith secured property, settling at the still isolated Forth River in 1853. He planned to set up a farm and, if successful, to embark upon a system of mineral prospecting. It was to be six years before he was in a position to prospect, but already, by 1859, his studies and wisdom had earned him the nickname ‘Philosopher’. His poetry, published regularly in the Examiner newspaper, showed his commitment to following a moral course according to God’s design and his belief in the heroic achiever.
In the years that followed Smith earned fame for his singlemindeness, his pioneering work, endurance and perseverance. Owning property when he began prospecting made him relatively secure financially (if still poor), and on several occasions he sold land to finance his exploration.
Beginning with an expedition up the Forth River system during the autumn of 1859, much of Smith’s early work until 1871 was educational rather than successful, though time would reveal a small goldfield at Middlesex and significant mines at Moina and Round Hill. In 1860 Smith focused on a more general search for minerals in the north-west hinterland.
This was pioneering work since in Tasmania there was virtually no knowledge of mining anything but coal and gold. Prospecting alone, often for weeks at a time, was very dangerous, and internal injuries suffered in a fall during these years troubled Smith for the rest of his life. On occasions Smith was grubstaked by friends, otherwise he survived financially by turning his hand to many labours, including harvesting pine and cutting tracks. In 1861 and 1862 Smith found minerals in the Dial Range area, including copper and silver on the beach near Penguin Creek and galena further east. His samples helped convince the government geologist Charles Gould of the rich potential of Tasmania’s north-west.
By 1871 all Smith had to show for his toil was a sound knowledge of geology, a half-developed farm and failing health. Further, the Penguin Silver Mines Company, founded on his earlier find, had collapsed. A remarkable reversal came late in the year when he set out to examine the Mount Bischoff area. On December 4, in a tributary of the Arthur River on the western slope of Mt Bischoff, he washed a sample of what he recognised as tin ore. Retracing his steps and working upstream, he found the motherlode and with it the first payable tin in Tasmania. Smith applied for four sections at Mt Bischoff and opened a track to them by selling property and taking an overdraft. He said little about the property, placed a trusted friend, William Morgan Crosby, as manager, and concentrated on proving the mine’s worth.
In April 1873, Smith tried unsuccessfully to negotiate the formation of a company in Melbourne. Subsequently, he was able to interest Launceston solicitor William Ritchie, and the Mount Bischoff Tin Mining Company was formed on 1 August 1873. For his part, Smith received 1,500 pounds in cash, 4,400 paid-up shares, a place as a permanent director and the power to elect another director.
Crosby’s resignation as mine manager because of ill-health in 1875 began a period in which Smith effectively severed connections with the company directorate. Although Smith recommended Ferd Kayser as Crosby’s replacement, he and others soon criticised Kayser’s methods, plans and expenditure. The other directors supported Kayser’s plan to install expensive machinery at Mount Bischoff to clear the company’s debt quickly, whereas Smith favoured a cheaper, more gradual approach. Smith prevented Kayser installing a steam-powered plant at the Mount, but was outvoted when he moved to dismiss the mine manager. Feeling betrayed by his fellow directors, Smith resigned his permanent directorship in May 1876. He had already sold about three-quarters of his Mt Bischoff Co shares when they were worth very little, yet under Kayser the shares quickly increased in value, and the delighted directors and most of the shareholders dismissed continuing criticisms of Kayser’s methods.
By the 1880s Tasmania was clearly benefiting from Smith’s discovery and others made in its wake. At the peak of Mt Bischoff production in 1881, tin represented one-quarter of the colony’s export value; together tin and gold constituted more than one-third. Mineral development contributed enormously to Tasmania’s boom. Population, exports, wages and property values increased, and there was much growth in the north and north-west.
In 1874 Smith had married Mary Jane Love, a 33-year-old widow and, abandoning his two-roomed hut, the couple settled near the Forth bridge. The days of long prospecting tours were over, and he spent much time on the property, with his family, in his laboratory, examining geological samples, and surrounded by books in his study. Smith remained an avid reader versed in many topics, and he wrote many letters to newspaper editors. He also took on a prominent role in the Forth community, encouraging the education of children and workingmen and presiding over fund-raising activities and religious functions.
In 1877 a movement began to reward Smith for his pivotal Mt Bischoff discovery. In February 1878 Governor Weld expressed the gratitude of the colony by presenting him with 250 sovereigns. Later that year parliament grudgingly granted him a £a3200 annuity.
In 1879 he became involved in politics by working to elect Sir Edward Braddon as the member for West Devon. Anxious that the north-west no longer be neglected in the way of infrastructure, Smith chaired the North-West Coast Railway and Public Works League which campaigned for a railway along the north-west coast. The League became his stepping-stone into parliament, and Smith served one term as Legislative Councillor for the seat of Mersey in 1886-87. He pressed for expenditure on infrastructure and the needs of a mining industry emerging in the light of important finds at Zeehan (1882) and Mt Lyell (1883). Although highly regarded in the House, Smith did not enjoy parliamentary life and could not be persuaded to stand again.
Smith had become a popular hero, sometimes being compared to the heroic achievers who were subjects of his own poetry. He invested in several mines on or near Mt Bischoff, pioneering the development of silver and lead mines in Tasmania. Coming years after the Penguin debacle, the Mt Bischoff silver-lead mine, the Mount Zeehan Silver Lead Mining Co operation and the Heazlewood silver mines were largely failures, but they pointed to more valuable finds. Magnet (silver-lead) and Mt Cleveland (tin) were eventually opened up not far from Heazlewood and Mount Bischoff, and Zeehan, as well as being a highly successful field, attracted the investors who later developed Mount Lyell.
In 1894 Smith’s prospecting career came full circle when, aged 67, he had his ‘second wind’ as a prospector. He determined to beat hard economic times by establishing the elusive Forth River goldfield. In the summer of 1894-95 he spent four months in the bush, including a 34-day trip to Mt Bischoff. In April 1897, after consulting with William Gibson about a mining venture, Smith collapsed at the Perth railway station. He continued on the train to Launceston, where he died two months later at the age of 69.
Smith stands high in Tasmanian history. By sparking the mining industry, he precipitated profound economic and social change. His discovery at Mt Bischoff rejuvenated the Tasmanian economy. The discoveries of others following his example led to a mining boom and the establishment of towns in the north-west and on the west coast, changing the balance of power in Tasmania by creating a constituency for the Labor Party in the west and loosening the southern stranglehold on parliament. While mining is no longer the pre-eminent Tasmanian industry, Smith must be given credit for shifting the island away from its agrarian base – metal product manufacturing is now easily Tasmania’s biggest export industry.
Nic Haygarth, research in progress for Ph.D., University of Tasmania
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