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New South Wales Opal Fields
Lightning Ridge - to find a more appropriate name for the home of such beautiful gem would be quite difficult, as the fields have no equal in the world. The name, though unofficial, became well entrenched during the latter part of last century, long before the discovery in the district.
It's not known who originally called it Lightning Ridge, possibly boundary riders from surrounding stations. It came about one night during an horrendous electrical storm, when a shepherd, his dog and 600 sheep were killed by lightning whilst sheltering on one of the low ridges.
Since then the name of Lightning Ridge has flourished. Government departments used it for nearly 100 years before it was officially gazetted on 5 September 1963.
The main street of the present town is named after the now famous opal ridges. The name was taken from the local Aboriginal folklore which called them Morillas, hence the street's name, "Morilla".
Aborigines explain the ridges supernaturally, saying they were created by their God and culture hero, Byamee as a highway for his convenience during flood time.
Today Lightning Ridge after mining since 1900, is the fastest growing town in north-west New South Wales, with a great future producing large quantities of fine black opal.
It is the only known place on earth where the breathtaking world-famous black opal is found. Yet when Sydney's gem merchants, shrewd as they were, saw the first black opals in 1903, they rejected them outright as a worthless form of matrix, thereby losing themselves a fortune for themselves.
The true story of Lightning Ridge is one of faith, courage, struggle and luck in the face of almost contemptuous disbelief and bittern feuds with the graziers of the day. They, in their own hypocritical way, formed the first mining syndicate, and after abandoning it, tried to force the miners from the field by impounding their horses and poisoning their water. Finally, only intervention by the Government brought about peace in those troublesome times.
Lightning Ridge now has over 70 fields and more being found every year.
The Discovery of Lightning Ridge
The first record of pretty stones being discovered at Lightning Ridge was in 1873 by Robert Moore, the manager of Muggarie Station, latter changed to Angledool Station. A former Ravenswood gold miner, he picked up the stones while prospecting the Nebea Ridges to the northwest of the present town. Believing them to be of some worth, he forwarded them to Sydney for an evaluation. They were returned as having no commercial value.
In 1880, Aboriginals wandering the Nebea Ridges brought in topaz to Bangate Station. Mrs Katie Parker, the owner’s wife, believing them to be diamonds, sent her brother, Ted Field, and Bob Hudson, a station hand, to investigate. They searched the area north of the present town, but found nothing that resembled the Aboriginals’ stones. However, they did return with other attractive stones, but their variety and value were never ascertained.
It wasn’t until 1887, when a piece of opal was found in a gravel pit, now part of the famous Nine-Mile field, that it came to the notice of the Mines Department, who did little more than record the event.
It wasn’t until after the discovery of White Cliffs, and the publicity it generated, that an interest was shown in Lightning Ridge. Coach drivers spread interesting news like the proverbial bushfire and in 1893, Joe Beckett, the Weetalibah Innkeeper, discussed the possibility of there being opal in the area with Frank Doucutt, the Bangate Station bookkeeper, after the discovery of colour on the flat at Potch Point.
They engaged a Sydney geologist to investigate the possibilities of opal being found in the Lightning Ridge formations. In his report he stated, that in his opinion there was opal in the ridges, but very deep, and suggested some trial shafts. The depth of the shafts discouraged Beckett and the idea lay dormant until 1890, when Jack Murray found opal while setting a rabbit trap in the Nobby region.
Opal had been in the news since the big rush at White Cliffs in July 1894, so when Murray made his find he realised what he had discovered, but was in no position to do anything about it. Other than some exploratory work of a Sunday, he did little, which eventually cost him his job. He is then credited with taking up mining and produced the first opals at Lightning Ridge in 1901, a fact reported in the Mines department’s 1903 annual report.
Fred Reece, who was born at Bangate Station in 1889, told me they sold the first opal from Lightning Ridge to Joe Beckett, the innkeeper at Weetalibah, on the Lightning Ridge-Angledool road. They also sold opal to Mr Patterson, the Angledool schoolteacher, who later developed his own market and continued to buy for many years.
Although a more appropriate name for the home of such a magnificent gem would be hard to find, it did not originate with the discovery of opal. The name of Lightning Ridge, although unofficial, became well entrenched during the latter part of the 19 th century, long before the discovery of opal.
It is not known who originally called it Lightning Ridge, but Katie Parker recorded how the name became folklore in her 1879, My Bush Book:
Lightning Ridge was so called because in of those terrible inland storms, lightning killed six hundred sheep, the shepherd and his dog.
Lightning Ridge from the air, '96
Lunatic Hill, mining commenced 1908
Australia’s First Opal Mining Town
White Cliffs was Australia ’s first opal mining town. There are legends but no records of who first discovered opal there in 1884, or who those early mysterious miners were, but a monument stands to their presence at White Cliffs.
For some unknown reason the field didn’t eventuate, and no more was heard of White Cliffs until 1889 when George Hooley and Alf Richardson discovered opal while kangaroo shooting.
Charlie Turner, one of two friends whom they later took into partnership, sent the opal to Tullie Wollaston, an opal merchant he knew in Adelaide. Wollaston relates the story in his book, The Gem of the Never Never. Wollaston had just returned from a long trip to the Queensland fields in December 1889, and was surprised to find a parcel of opal waiting him from some kangaroo shooters north of Wilcannia. He was so impressed with the opal that after only two days at home with his young family he was once again on the road for the ne w f ield.
At the site he found the men already had some fine opal and, like its sandstone cousin from Queensland , it was free of adhering matrix and came away freely from its bedding in natural jointed seams which fitted together like small pancakes. The men had no idea of its value and were at a loss to ask a price. Wollaston said, ‘They knew nothing and I knew a little more. It was a new type of opal. I could have got the lot, including the specimens, for â‚¤10, I later discovered. In fact, they told me afterwards, if I had turned it down, they had decided to throw the stuff among the gibbers and continue their shooting, at which they were making good money. I had to stumble at it the best I could – it was a new type and I was knew at the game. I thought I could risk â‚¤150 and give myself room to spring â‚¤10 – go no chance! On my naming the figure there was great calm. They were simply paralysed, but only for a moment, then eight eager hands shot out! But I do not regret making a fair offer and saved my tenner anyway.
E. F. Murphy, a former gold miner from Mt Brown, was the first to take out leases in association with a Wilcannia-based syndicate after George Hooley and Company. Murphy was a man of destiny and compassion. He was not only a pioneer opal miner, but White Cliff’s first magistrate and coroner. He was also a trusted opal classer, buyer and company manager. He was later appointed Guardian of Abandoned Children by the Supreme Court of New South Wales.
A severe drought throughout 1890 made conditions very uninviting for newcomers. Food was scarce and expensive and water shortages were common. Living there was so bad for the first three years that an average of only 18 miners ventured onto the field.
When the drought finally broke in 1893, the population quickly increased to 800 and White Cliffs was reborn.
For more than 20 years White Cliffs had been a star in the crown of the colony, producing over â‚¤1,500,000 for its economy. Much of the opal came from opalised wood, shells, plants and animals, including the famous pseudomorphs known as pineapples.
White Cliffs still produces beautiful opal. There is still plenty of untried grounds for those who would like to try their. For the visitor, ample accommodation and amenities is available to enjoy themselves on this unique field.
The above information and images are an excerpt from "Beautiful Opals - Australia's National Gem" by Len Cram. For sale in our opal books category.
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