The following is a story I wrote for my grandsons.
I could hear voices on the other side of my tunnel. I reached through to widen the hole that I’d made in the soft clay, and suddenly a hand gripped mine.
“Oh, hello,” I said, the quaver in my voice revealing my fear, “who are you?”
“Richard,” the voice said, “Richard Grenfell. And what are you doing, tunnelling into my home?”
A wave of relief came over me. Richard Grenfell was my 3x great grandfather. It was 1849. After some hurried digging to enable me to crawl through, and brief introductions, Richard showed me around and told me the story of why he and the family had made their home there.
It was indeed a home, a dugout in the steep banks of the Burra Creek. Richard had excavated the clay to make two rooms where the family lived. A fireplace for cooking was hollowed out of one wall. A vertical shaft to the creek bank above, forming a chimney, and a doorway leading out to the dry creek bed were the only openings in the dwelling.
“This is very impressive,” I said.
“Well I am a miner, and these two helped me,” he said with a wink, indicating his sons Richard and Nicholas, as he tousled the younger one’s hair.
“I’m nearly five, and he’s nine,” volunteered Nicholas, pointing to his older brother.”
Richard began his story. “We had to leave our home in Cornwall. The mines were closing down and the future looked grim.”
He told me that he and his family, which also included his wife Ann, their daughter Mary Ann and two year old Cyprian, had recently arrived in South Australia so Richard could work in the copper mine.
“He works at the mine, too.” Again, Nicholas pointed to his older brother Richard.
“You’re very young to be working,” I said to Richard, the nine year-old
“I only work above ground,” he said, “looking after the horses that drive the whims.”
Once young Richard had finished telling me about the whims, his father continued with his story.
“When we arrived in Port Adelaide, we had to find a way to get to the Burra Burra mine. Most of the others on the ship walked the 100 miles.”
He explained that the ship was full of miners recruited by the South Australian Mining Association. With their families, the total number of immigrants was 387.
Port Adelaide from the opposite side of the stream 1847 – William Anderson Cawthorne – Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
“We couldn’t walk to Burra, not with Ann in her condition,” Richard said.
I looked over at Ann and smiled. She put Cyprian down from her lap onto the floor. It was then I saw that she was noticeably pregnant.
“We managed to get a lift with a bullock dray after they’d offloaded their copper ore at the port,” Richard continued. “They send the ore back to Wales to be smelted.
“On the way here, the dray picked up a load of hay to bring to the mine for the work horses. There was still room for Ann and the younger ones to stay on the dray while Mary Ann, Richard and I walked beside it.”
This was the cue for talkative Nicholas to interject.
“You should have seen us going down the hills. The man put some of the bullocks behind so we didn’t go too fast. I thought I was going to fall off.”
His father filled in the details.
“Downhill with a bullock dray can be very dangerous. The driver put six bullocks behind, and the leaders’ yolk was chained to the back of the dray. The driver was skilful with his whip to keep those bullock’s heads up so they pulled back on the chain. We were very relieved when we finally arrived here.”
“And then we found that there was nowhere to live,” a voice from the other side of the room said.
Apart from a brief ‘hello,’ this was the first time Ann had spoken. She continued, “all the houses were occupied. They say that the mine has developed at such a rate that they can’t build houses fast enough. Anyway, we don’t have enough money to pay the 3 shillings a week rent for a company house, even if one was available.”
“We have everything we need here,” Richard said, as he began to give me a tour. We walked towards the door.
“I still have windows to cut out here.” He indicated the blank wall beside the doorway.
As soon as we walked through the door, I was astonished at the blast of heat that greeted me. What I saw astounded me even more. All up and down the creek on both sides were holes in the bank indicating the residences of other miners and their families.
“Welcome to Creek Street,” Richard said. “Come on. It’s Sunday, but most folk are back from church now, so we should be able to show you inside some of the homes.” Nicholas followed.
Looking across, I could see the chimneys of the opposite habitations protruding out of the ground. Richard explained that they were constructed of stones, bricks or even flour barrels with their bases cut out.
Burra Creek 1851 – William Anderson Cawthorne – Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
“But mostly, the chimneys are level with the ground. The path to town goes along the top,” Richard said, pointing to the opposite creek bank. “You have to be careful walking there at night.”
This comment prompted a memory for Nicholas. “A man fell into Mrs Nankervis’s chimney. Thomas had to go up and help him out,” he said, giggling. A stern look from his father stopped the boy from continuing. I surmised that the unfortunate man may have been on his way home from the Burra Hotel, and that he wasn’t necessarily sober.
We walked along the creek bed, a small stream at its centre. The excavated dwellings seemed to go on and on. There were about three miles of them, Richard said. Some looked just as cottages would if they were on the surface, with their fronts faced with stones or weather boards or whitewashed. Children ran about playing, and women in their Sunday best gathered in small groups to discuss the latest news. The men also convened, or tended to their fences or animals. Horses were stabled in the creek bed, and pigs had their pens there as well.
“There are over a thousand people living here,” Richard said.
I realised suddenly that the scene was typical of any small town.
Nicholas ran off to join his friends, while Richard and I were shown inside some dwellings. I was introduced as a visitor from afar, and no one seemed to mind my 21st century clothes.
Some of the abodes had three or four rooms and occasionally had papered or whitewashed walls. They were fitted out with all sorts of furniture, some made from local timber. There was even carpet on the floor of one place we entered. Ingenuity was certainly a characteristic of these miners.
It was time for me to go. We returned to Richard’s house, collecting Nicholas on the way. I said my goodbyes to the family I had learned so much about. Circumstances had determined their life, but, using their initiative, they had overcome obstacles to make a new home for themselves – a subterranean one. I left with a new respect for their lifestyle and resourcefulness.
THE BURRA BURRA MINES. (1848, January 3). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 2. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article28649482