The early days at White Cliffs were quite interesting and somewhat different to most other opal fields. The information in this post comes mainly from the book "They struck opal" written by E F Murphy, "The Opal Book" by Frank Leechman and "The Lightning Ridge Book" by Stuart Lloyd.
E F Murphy was born at Mt Edgerton in Victoria in 1862. He went to school at St Patricks College in Melbourne and was well educated. He was a young man of twenty when he came to White Cliffs and was the fifth miner to take out a lease at White Cliffs. This occurred soon after the first finds of opal were made at this location and so had first hand experience of what conditions were like at the field.
The story of the discovery of opal at White Cliffs is as follows:
In 1889, George Hooley and Alf Richardson were out hunting kangaroos on the Moomba Station about one hundred kilometres from Wilcannia. While hunting, one of their horses kicked up a bright stone which flashed in the sun. They searched around and found many others. They didn't really know what they were and whether they had any value but collected them all the same. They showed them to a surveyor, Charlie Turner who in turn sent them to Tullie Wolloston, the main buyer of opal in Australia at that time. This opal was not as bright as the boulder opal found in Queensland but was a lot easier to obtain and clean up and obviously had some value.
As opal had not been found in New South Wales before there was nothing in the Mining Act or Regulations about it. It was therefore classed as a mineral and it was therefore necessary for any miners to take up a mineral lease in order to mine it. George Hooley, Alf Richardson, Charlie Turner and a W H Clouston made their way to Wilcannia to take out a lease. They hoped to keep their find a secret for a while to ensure they could peg the best areas.
By now Tullie Wollaston, Having received the parcel of stones was on his way to White Cliffs. This was no easy matter in those days and involved travel by train, mail coach and buckboard to the field on the Moomba Station. When he arrived they had carried out some shallow excavation at the opal level and found a nice parcel of stone. This opal was far different from anything found to date in Australia and so Tullie Wolloston had no way of knowing its value. He offered them 150 pounds thinking they might argue but they were very happy as this was a lot of money in those days. Tullie was taking a risk as there was no market that time for this opal but he was also a fair man realising the effort that was needed to extract the opal and the privations the miners had undergone to mine in such an isolated area.
There was a severe drought in 1890 while George and Alf continued to mine. It wasn't until 1892 that the number of men on the field reached eighteen. Word had obviously started to get around and in the next year the numbers had reached eight hundred with six hundred acres being pegged out as mineral leases. These men, some with families and children lived in tents or constructed rough shelters of timber and canvas. Some simply slept out in their swags under the stars. Initially they lived on kangaroos which they shot and used up the limited supplies of water.
By 1897, the population had increased to 3,500 and there were now pubs and stores established to feed the miners but things were still very difficult for most of them. Food was always short and very costly and many of the miners had no money. Water was very scarce and sold four shillings for a hundred gallons. Needless to say there would be very little washing as the water was need for drinking. The town would also have been quite lawless.
By 1893 there were over 1,000 miners working in the extended White Cliffs area and many were finding and selling opal. Good quality opal was easy to sell but the buyers were not interested in the more inferior opal which was the most commonly found.
E F (Ted) Murphy arrived on the field early in its development. He had been acting as a foreman on the Darling River boats and had acquired good management and accounting skills. Tullie Wolloston and David Tweedie setup the White Cliffs Opal Company and employed Ted Murphy to manage the company's interests. The larger companies hadtaken outleases on large areas of land and were allowing miners to work smaller claims of 100 feet square within their leases on afifty fifty basis. That is, the miners were to hand in any opal they found and the manager would value it, sell it on and then reimburse the miners who found it, 50 % of the value of the opal found. The advantage to the miners was that they could work the more profitable areas whichhad been leased out by the larger syndicates rather than having to take out claims onnew unproved areas.
This worked reasonably well for a while but relied on the miners honesty in declaring all opal that they found. As there were other buyers on the field many were tempted to hold some of their finds back and on sell them to another buyer thus getting 100% of the value of the opal they found rather than the 50%. The syndicate owners realised this was happening and increased the percentage to the miner to 75% and amazingly production suddenly increased.
This system continued until 1901 when there was a Royal Commission into opal mining at White Cliffs. This Commission decided that the sub letting of claims, now down to 45 feet square, should cease. The White Cliffs Opal Company then closed their leases to the minimum number of miners that would prevent the lease from lapsing and many miners started to leave the field because they could no longer work in the proven opal areas. Numbers began to decline and by 1904 numbers had dropped significantly although there were a reasonable number of miners working in the area for a further 10 years.
E F Murphy had been employed as a manager for the syndicate for 15 years until he left I 1905. He built aslab hut with a bark root called Porcupine Villa. This became his headquarters with his money and opals stored in a tin trunk. His jobwas to engage the miners, mark out for them where to dig on the large leased area, and tell them what to do. They then brought him any opal they found and he would class it and sell it on to buyers. He would then pay the tributerstheir percentageof the sale price with the remainder going to the syndicate. The miners had to trust him and he them as he often held large amounts of money and opal in not very secure conditions. He did not record any losses even though there was a lot of crime in the area due to the extreme poverty.
The tribute system came about primarily because large companies or syndicates were able to obtain large mineral leases over the most favourable ground thus restricting the small individual miners to outer areas with little prospects. This is similar to today where most of Australia is leased to companies where the small fossicker is refused entry unless he can come to some agreement with the lessee.
After he retired from buying, he set up the "Black Opal Shop" in Market Street in Sydney. He wrote the book" They Struck Opal" in 1948 when he was 85 years old. and died just before he would have turned 86.
I also came across an interesting article from Rusheen Craig relating to the early days at White Cliffs and pass on the link as it is very interesting. White Cliffs.