The following is a summary of an article in the the newspaper “The Worker”of 1901 relating to the state of the opal industry in that year.
The Opal Industry
In 1901,an employee of “The Worker” newspaper carried out an interview with a Mr K L Lindsay of Windorah regarding the opal industry at that time in Western Queensland.
The opal belt starts around White Cliffs and extends westerly through Duck Creek, Toompine, Eromanga, Kyabra, Jundah, Opalton, and Fermoy over an area of about 200 miles.
It was estimated that in 1901 there were about 1,000 men employed in the opal industry. There are fewer men working the mines in good times , but in drier times, when station work is hard to get, men return to opal mining. In these times they have to work under extreme conditions with little water and food.
“A man starts out with say 6 months tucker, among the hills , looking for opal. He has to combat not only with hostile nature, but also with hostile squatters. A squatter would just as soon see a bank inspector on his run as an opal miner.”
Quite often the miner will set up camp at a likely spot and commence looking for opal only to find, in a couple of days, that his horses have disappeared. He will then have to trek about 60 miles or so to the Council Pound as the squatter has run them in.. The Squatters have also fenced off water holes, refusing to let the miners have access to water and have even refused to sell them meat . Such is the hatred of the squatters to the miners. This is apparently exactly what happened at Duck Creek in 1901.
In the area the opal is found, around the water-less hills, the miners have to dig to about 50 foot depth.
A peculiar geological formation called “band-stone” denotes when the bottom is struck. The dip is oblique and undulatory. In the hollows the best opal is found. The prospector may be finds a bit of opal on the ground and sets off to look for the band. The indicators are surface opal which is weather-worn opal that has broken away at the surface and been weathered by the sun and wind. The miner then digs his shaft until he strikes the sandstone band which can contain opal.
Pure opal can be found encased in sandstone and this is the best. This is often found in “pipes”. A matrix opal is also found where the opal is interspersed with the sandstone or other stone.
Boulder Opal is also found here. It is found as thin layers of varying width in boulders of a form of ironstone. It is often only a thin band but can be very firey and of great value if the ironstone backing is hard but is less valuable if the backing is soft.
” The bushmen often jokingly refer to the origin of opal as ” a lump of lava chucked out in a thunderstorm and struck by lightning”.
The opal prospectors are a special breed of men. They get no support from the Government but have to strive in all sorts of extreme conditions, yet they do this willingly rather than work for a boss.”
The newspaper “The Worker”, obviously run by the unions, and was, in 1901 calling on the Government to introduce the same conditions for opal miners as was given to the gold miners, evidently with little success. The gold industry was worked by bigger companies whereas opal mining was mainly an individual based industry with little relevance to the Government.
Another problem facing the opal miner is getting a true valuation on his opal.
If gold or silver is found there is a reliable value put on it. With opal it is very hard to value it as there are so many variables. Only an expert buyer can do this and often the miner is exploited by the buyers who notoriously undervalue the gem and then make a killing later. These buyers know the miner is desperate to sell as he needs the money to stake his stay out in the bush. That is he has to buy stores etc for another 3 months or so to continue prospecting.
The buyers use all sorts of tricks to ensure low estimates of value. For example if a miner trims the opal pipes to show they are not sand ridden, the buyer offers a lower value. If the miner shows the pipes encased in sand the buyer argues they may be sand infected and offers a lower price. As there are only a relatively few buyers there is little that the miner can do and if one buyer offers a price there is no way any other buyer will offer a better one.
The Worker newspaper suggests the Government should assist the miners by establishing pricing controls for opals in the same manner as they have for other products such as butter fruit and wool.
End of article.
It is interesting to note some of the difficulties faced by these early miners. As if mining in a hostile environment with no water and little food was not enough they had to face harassment by the squatters and being cheated by the buyers. Setting of reliable prices for opal was never going to be achieved because of the variability of the product and the risk the buyers had to take as they on-sold the product in a fluctuating market place. They also had to take risks as they traveled into the field with loads of cash as most opal transactions were carried out for cash as they still are today.