Minnie Berrington - First woman opal miner at Andamooka

13 January 2012 by Johno

Categories: Opal Fields Characters | Opal Fields History | Australian Opal

In 1926, Minnie Berrington, a young typist from London arrived at Coober Pedy becoming one of only 3 women on that opal field at that time. Conditions may not look all that good at Coober Pedy today but at that time they would have been much worse.

Access to the town, if you could call it a town then, was appalling. The road from Port Augusta was unmade and was really just a dirt track. Supplies were difficult to obtain and the weather was extremely hot in summer with little shelter and certainly none of the "mod cons" we have today such as airconditioning and refrigeration. Food and water was even difficult to come by. This did not deter her and for a while she was employed to look after Jacob Santings store at Coober pedy.

Around 1931 headed off to Andamooka which had just recently been discovered up as an opal mining location. Minnie accompanied Bill Hallion and George Malycha to Andamooka. This in itself was quite a feat as travel conditions at the time were attrocious. Minnie was not the 1st woman in Andamooka. That honour goes to Jean Nugent, wife of "Oxy Nugent', a well borer working on Andamooka Station at the time opal was discovered. I believe he was called "Oxy" because he was also awelder by trade.Oxy was the 1st person to identify the opal found at Andamooka but was not interested in mining because he could earn more by drilling for water.

Although very slight Minnie was not afraid of hard work and hard work it would have been sinking holes in the extremely hard ground with a pick and shovel. The temperatures in summer would have been well in excess of 40 degrees and Andamooka is well known for its great abundance of flies in the warmer months. There was also a lack of water, shelter and food. Not the greatest place to live and work manually but this Minnie did as the 1st woman to mine opal at Andamooka.

Minnie has written a book called "Stones of Fire" which gives an accurate account of early life on the opal fields. I have been able to obtain a copy and will provide a short summary of it in the near future. I am actually writing it because Brian Tansell told me some interesting facts about her in 2011 and these are set out below.

Minnie later on became the 1st postmistress at Andamooka as well as being the 1st woman opal miner there.She was also a representative of the Police Department and a census taker. She was well respected by everyone.

Minnie never married and in 1960 left Andamooka.

Brian Tansell tried to track Minnie down to find out what happened to her after she left Andamooka.

In the 1990's a group of residents at Andamooka produced a local regular newsletter. Brian wrote an article in the late 1990's about the sinking of wells in the main street of Andamooka by the miners in an attempt to get a reliable source of water.Other people started putting forward Minnie's story as told in her book "Stones of Fire".This was serialised over a period of time.At this time the sister of one of the locals visited Andamooka and told Brian that that she knew of a lady in Adelaide who was caring for an old lady whose name was Binnington and that she would talk to the carer to see if it was one and the same person.

Some time later Brian received a note to call a Mary Wiley in Adelaide. Brian rang and she confirmed that Minnie was in fact still alive and was 103 years old. She was not sick but was completely worn out and slept most of the time. It did not seem that she would live for that much longer. Brian asked if she would send any photos or newspaper clippings to him when she passed away.

Later that year Brian received notification of her death and a parcel of personal effects with a note saying she had died at the ripe old age of 103.These effects are now in Andamooka Post Office together with Minnies original table made of a packing case top on myall tree legs. If anyone has any other information about Minnie I would really appreciate it.

I have now been advised that MInnie was in Streaky Bay in 2000 but it was not known when she went to Adelaide.

Men certainly did it hard in the early opal mining days. We can not even begin to understand how hard it must have been but they were mostly strong and hardy men brought up facing physical hardship and well used working on the land. How a slight, young typist from London could survive a life under theese conditions amazes me.

To Top