Minnie Berrington, first woman opal miner at Andamooka, wrote a book about her adventures in Coober Pedy and Andamooka. This book is called "Stones of Fire" A Woman's Experience in Search of Opal.
This book was published in 1958 and is well worth reading to gain an idea of the hardships faced by the early miners in Coober Pedy and especially Andamooka. Written by a woman who first hand experienced life in these primitive places, this book details the experiences faced by women in what was principally a man's domain and shows how she coped and enjoyed her time opal mining.
I will attempt to sumarise her book for those who cannot obtain a copy and hope I don't lose some of the great feelings she expresses in her story. Here we go.
Minnie Berrington arrived in Australia with her brother Victor in 1926. Soon after arriving, Victor obtained a job with some bush traders. This involved travelling throughout Australia with a great variety of goods to sell to anyone who would buy them. This was fairly common in those days as most station workers did not have the opportunity to travel to towns to buy their essentials.
About 3 months after arriving, Minnie received a letter from Victor asking her to travel on the Afghan Express into the outback to meet him at William Creek. Feeling lonely in Adelaide and after reading Victor's letters from exotic sounding places like Hesso, Bookaloo and Kingoonyah, she quit her job and set off on the Afghan Express with a great feeling of apprehension. Not having booked a sleeper on the train she had to bed down on the long flat carriage seats with a rug and a cushion and felt very afraid when traveling shearers entered her carriage during one of the night stopovers. But all turned out well and they were no trouble. At dawn she got her first real glimpse of the outback with a group of men and camels gathered around a large campfire. To a typist just out from London this was an amazing sight and she clearly relished it. Just before the sun rose the land looked quite desolate but as the sun came up it was transformed with colour and she knew she would never live in the city again.
The train travelled through Quorn and Marree and then turned west toward William Creek where Minnie was to meet up with Victor. The train traveled slowly and made many stops at isolated locations where people suddenly appeared to collect parcels. At William Creek she met up with Victor who was eagerly awaiting her arrival. She was introduced to Victor's companion , Mr Royal, who had prepared a camp oven meal of roast beef, potatoes and onions and served them up at a folding table at the side of the van. What a wonderful start to her journey.
They then set off in the van which had a built in bed with spring mattress and this was to be her seat for the journey. Remember this was 1926 and there were no real roads in those days, just sandy wheel ruts across the desert. But this did not deter them. They had to negotiate large sand dunes, creek crossings and many patches of loose drift sand; all this in a rather primitive van built prior to 1926.
The 1st night they camped at Sandy Creek Station in an open air shed and soon had a large campfire burning. At this point Mr Royal and Victor started talking about an opal field they had visited which was about 100 miles west of Sandy Creek. Her ears pricked up and she listened to every word because opal was the one gem she loved. They said that there were about 80 miners working there at that time all working for themselves and any opal they found they could keep. She could hardly believe what she was hearing. At this stage she said "I wish I were a man - I'd love to dig for opals". They all then decided they would next head to the opal field called Coober Pedy.
The next morning they rose early and after Mr Royal had finished selling to the locals at the Station, they set off. The road was a nightmare of clay-pans, sand dunes and deep sand drifts but Mr Royal was prepared and they ploughed on. For much of the time there was no indication at all that a road existed but Mr Royal had a good sense of direction. They camped overnight about 30 miles from Coober Pedy and arrived without incident about lunchtime the next day. Their first sight was the large underground water tank the Government had built and extensive mine workings, but no sign of any people. The area was deserted, or so it seemed. They continued on to a series of caves where Victor explained that most of the miners lived in because it was too hot out in the open. Minnie was amazed.
On arriving at the caves or dugouts she was surprised to see a board over one entrance saying "Post Office" and another board over another entrance saying "Savings Bank' She had never seen anything like it. The Assistant Postmaster came out and introduced himself and then showed them a lovely collection of opals. When he pored them out Minnie said ' she was goaded into a near frenzy to dig for opal". But business had to come first and so Mr Royal set up his van to trade with the miners. That night around a big campfire they talked about how and where they would dig. They decided to dig in shallow ground to a depth of about 4 feet where other miners had dug previously. This was because they had limited time and no real equipment.
The next morning they were shown some shallow ground where some opal traces had been found and as this was as good a place as any to start, as opal can be found anywhere in the opal level. Mr Royal had obtained a miners right for them the day before so they could start digging legally. Before they started, Jock, the miner who had shown them where to dig, invited them to see his mine where he was finding some opal. Minnie was lowered about 12 feet down the shaft on a sling and after a rather undignified landing at the bottom of the shaft, was issued with a candle and stooping over, followed Jock along the drive. The drive was narrow and low and in the candle light there were glints of colour in the walls indicating small pieces of opal. Minnie sat back "dazed and fascinated". Jock explained that opal looked at its best in the candlelight and seemed to lose some of its gleam in sunlight. Minnie was invited to dig a piece of opal out and, terrified she would break it , she never the less did and out popped a lovely small piece. Jock said she could keep it and hoped it would bring her luck.
They then set off to try their luck in patch they had selected. Working in turns at digging, hauling the opal dirt to the surface and sorting carefully to check for any opal they were soon sore and tired as they had no experience with this sort of work. They found some small pieces of potch but this soon petered out and at the end of the day they had nothing to show for all their hard work except tired bodies and a lot of blisters on their hands. After two days with no result they decided to each select an old shaft and work individually. They would locate the opal level and gouge in as far as they could reach looking for opal. This would save a lot of digging. This they did for the next fortnight but still had not found even one stone to sell. At this time Mr Royal had to give up and return to Adelaide to re-stock his van. Both Victor and Minnie were still keen to stay on and so Mr Royal departed after helping them set up a more permanent camp.
They found a small cutting about 10 feet by 8 feet with walls varying from 2 feet at the front to 5 feet at the back.They put a post in at the front and put a ridge pole from the back to this post and threw a piece of canvas over the top for a roof. With a bit of hessian at the front they now had a shelter. As Minnie put it ""it looked cheerful and quite attractive". They named it "Bush House" and quickly settled in. After Mr Royal left they felt all alone as they were now 400 miles from the nearest city and were "new chums", knowing nothing about opal mining or survival in the desert.
Luckily Mr Royal had also left them cooking utensils and a big carton of food to get them going. They were also fortunate as some of the diggers lent them a spare windlass and some tools so they could now dig in deeper ground where they thought they would have more success. The windlass was old and made completely of native wood with a natural double elbow and the winding barrel ran in green-hide bearings. This allowed them to wind up buckets of opal dirt from depths up to 25 feet. Other diggers showed them some old shafts where opal had been found and so they set to work tunneling from them to save them having to sink new shafts. But still to no avail. They found no opal.
The weather changed one night and the rain poured into their humpy collapsing the walls and thoroughly drenching them. The next day, Mac, one of the miners they had got to know well, came by and told them about a dugout that was available as the owner had gone away for a while.and so they moved in. It was dug into the sandstone to a reasonable depth but was dark and gloomy as very little light could enter. It was part of an old opal workings but it was at least waterproof. They now felt they were real field residents and started to meet more of the miners now that they were living in the town.
They were invited to a dance being held in town. One of the miners had a wife and three daughters and together with Minnie that made five women for the dance. Clearly she would not be sitting out any of the dances . But being invited to the dance raised a problem for her. Her few dresses were crumpled from being squashed into her bag and how was a woman to go to a dance with a crumpled dress. One of the miners heard of her distress and came up with an old rusty iron that had been lying around for a long time.I quote from Minnie when she saw it:"He said it was an iron, and I could see the base of it was iron shaped. There , as far as I was concerned, the likeness ended. The upper part was about 5 inches high, and had a scalloped edge. On top of this was a hinged lid, carrying a handle for the operator's use. The body was hollow" The miner explained that you fill it with embers like you use in a camp oven and open the small vent to control the temperature. A bit of ash may drift out but that's no real problem. Minnie accepted this and as it would be dark no-one would really notice if any creases remained.
The dance floor was made from the ends of old packing cases joined closely together and soap flakes were spread over the surface to make a good polished finish. The area was decorated and the dance was to prove a great success. The band was a fiddle and a mouth organ and they produced good rollicking music and everyone had a great time. Victor didn't attend the dance and went out rabbiting instead as he was not keen on dancing. When Minnie arrived home he had not returned and so she went out looking for him and found him about 5 miles away with some miners. She had walked for miles on her own in the dark and was quite exhausted but still had to walk back. Mac, in the meantime, had called by and seen they were both missing and arranged with other miners to be ready to look for them. Everyone was worried because it was easy to get lost here and when the sun came up it was very hot and you could easily perish. The next morning when they arrived home they were admonished by many of the miners because of their stupidity, but the miners were all very glad they were ok. They had obviously now been well accepted into the community.
After the dance they continued digging in an unending number of shafts with no success. One day, Minnie, while waiting on the surface for Victor to fill the bucket below, wandered off to check a nearby 6 foot deep shaft. The shaft had a small drive but no sign of potch or opal but then she caught a small glint in the wall. She dug it out with her penknife and had found, at last, a small blood red opal. She kept digging and soon had 3 more pieces. Having advised Victor she kept on digging and found more and at last they had a saleable amount of about 2 ounces. Mac agreed to class it for them. This meant sorting it out into the various grades based on colour, brilliance and size. After having it classed and valued they made off to one of the buyers in the town. They made enough from the sale to stay on for another 3 months. They now saw themselves as fully fledged miners.
Life in the dugout was quite rough. Minnie slept on a ledge carved out of the sandstone. She had a ridge pole and a curtain for privacy and felt quite at home. Victor had a bed on the other side but had no mattress as he had given his to Minnie when they first moved in. They also had attracted mice and centipedes so life was lively at times to say the least. Weeks later, having sunk many shafts with no success, Minnie again went down an abandoned shaft and started digging randomly in the side wall. Almost immediately a reasonable sized opal fell out. She kept digging and soon had a neat pile of opal, about the size of a dinner plate when spread out. It was of better quality than the first find so she was very excited.Roger was away at the 5 mile field at the time but returned soon after with even more opal he found at a depth of 18 inches. They now felt more secure and were even enjoying the dugout which had become home. They acquired a nondescript dog and a half wild cat and so were now quite a family.
It was now approaching summer and the days were getting hotter and hotter. Many of the diggers were now leaving Coober Pedy for cooler climes and hence the population began shrinking. This happened every summer as it became almost intolerable to live and work there. Every week the store owner traveled to Sandy Creek Station to get meat supplies. This year his assistant had left the field and Victor and Minnie agreed to drive the old truck for him. They had been on the track on the way to Coober Pedy before so felt quite confident they could find the way. They set off, stopping frequently to fill the beast with water and oil which it used copiously. They arrived ok at Sandy Creek and picked up the meat and a supply of sandwiches for the trip back. Unfortunately for them there had been a strong northerly wind blowing and this had caused deep drifts at the top of the many sand-hills. About 15 miles into the return trip Roger had great difficulty getting to the top of one of the sand-hills. After a number of unsuccessful attempts he heard a great bang and knew they were in trouble. Sure enough the pinion gear in the differential gear had broken and they were stranded. They had no alternative so Victor headed back to Sandy Creek on foot. It was dark by now and Minnie had to wait in the truck for his return. She was very much afraid as it was a dark night and she had no idea how long Victor would be away. After a fretful time she was glad to see another truck coming from the Sandy Creek direction and sure enough it was Victor with one of the station hands. They unloaded the meat from their truck and soon were on their way back to Coober Pedy. As soon as they returned the diggers rushed to the truck to get the best cuts of meat oblivious to what Minnie and Victor had been through.
Now it was back to the digging for opal and they didn't even mind the intense heat. They were not all that happy about the flies and ants that persisted everywhere but were fortunate that the flies never entered their dugout, so they at least had respite whenever they entered their home. They worked from early morning to lunchtime and then rested in the heat of the day in the dugout which was relatively cool. Unfortunately they were not finding opal. The prospect of leaving the field was looming again as they were running short of funds. Minnie loved the life here and was very sad at the prospect of having to leave. Victor was not so unhappy at the prospect. He had other interests and looked on his stay at Coober Pedy as an interlude in life. Fortunately for Minnie, Joseph Holland, the storekeeper asked her to manage the store and she accepted even though she had no such experience. Joseph was often away from the store purchasing meat and supplies so Minnie would be on her own. The store only opened for two hours in the afternoon and at night so she would have time in the mornings to dig for opal. She was very pleased with this arrangement as she could now afford to stay at Coober Pedy.
After about a month, Victor had been offered a job maintaining the engines and pumps at Sandy Creek Station and decided to accept it. They would be able to see each other every two weeks so this was an acceptable arrangement. Minnie then moved into another dugout nearer the store and set to work to make it more of a home. She altered a table made from gelignite cases and firmly fixed it into the sandstone floor. She even made a fly-wire safe after much trouble but was very happy with the results. Working in the store she now began to meet many more of the inhabitants of Coober Pedy as they came in for food and other supplies. The store sold a great many items including explosives. After a nervous start she was soon in control. One incident she describes is quite humorous. One day, Jan Foyle, a miner came in and asked for a dozen googies. Being of English origin she had no idea what he was asking for and stammered" I don't know if we have any. What do they look like? Jan said " You really don't know what googies are. I see your education has been neglected. I shall have to teach you Australian or you'll be caught out on mail day when the store is full of people. Googies are eggs... Lollies are what you call sweets and what we call sweets is what you call pudding. Someone will ask for snaggers, give them sausages. That is the end of the lesson for today."
Next to the store was the blacksmith forge where the miners used to congregate in the evening to sharpen their picks and relax after a hard days work. It was here that Minnie began to amuse herself identifying the various types of men who were mining here. She soon came to know the quiet ones, the talkers, the arguers and the tellers of tales.
Sunday was the busiest day at the store. It was when most of the miners came in for vegetables and meat and Minnie rarely finished at the store by 11 pm. This didn't worry her and she continued to enjoy her time in Coober Pedy. By now Minnie was spending more time in the store and was only digging for opal on two mornings per week. Life was settling into an ordered but sort of humdrum existence. It needed a bit of excitement. She decided to learn to drive.
She had noticed a number of old cars in the town and then mustered enough courage to ask one of the miners to teach her to drive. Her aim was to eventually buy a car and so make life a bit more exciting.Mr Beech was the miner who agreed to teach Minnie. Always they took the same route and Minnie did not seem to notice, nor to care, as she picked up the fundamentals of driving. One day she set off in the opposite direction and Mr Beech was terrified.He pleaded with her that this way was a twisty road and that she drove too fast. She took stock of this and concentrated more on the skills of driving and not in getting somewhere as quickly as possible. He no longer had to keep his foot on the running board and the door open ready to jump if she got into trouble.
Minnie had achieved many things since coming to Coober Pedy. She had mastered opal mining, learnt to drive a car, made her own bread and baked it in a camp oven and even made her own yeast, and of course she had learned how to manage the store.
One day, just as she was arriving at the store, she heard the unmistakable clanging of someone "ringing the tin". This rarely occurred but it was now. It was a call for the miners to gather to pass judgement on someone who committed a crime. There were no police here at the time. A police station had been built but crime was so rare that there was little for the police to do so they were removed. The miners would take punishment into their own hands. Minnie moved closer to the ringer who was using a crowbar to belt a motor rim suspended on a rope from a tree. The open space was filled with miners who had heard the ringing. Someone had stolen a windlass from a claim. The men wouldn't stand for anything like this Everyone had to respect their neighbour's rights or life would not be tolerable. A Mr Muskett spoke to the crowd. Mr Muskett was minding the claim for an absent miner and now the windlass was gone. He asked if anyone knew anything about it. A young man spoke up that he had seen it there not being used and had borrowed it. He was admonished by the men but as he was a newcomer no further action was taken. If he wanted to borrow it he should have asked. Everyone was relieved and the case was solved. Minnie asked what would have happened if there had been a real crime. She was told that on the goldfields the offender would have been given a bag of food and a water bag of water and told to leave the field immediately. Here they would be told to take the next transport out. They would certainly not be tolerated.
Minnie had now bought her first car. It was a two seater with half a dicky seat in the back and no rear mudguards. She called it "the Red Terror". Initially she didn't venture more than six miles from the dugout because the engine was not all that reliable and she knew she could at least walk back the six miles if it broke down. She could now visit the outer workings and go to the waterholes and the Five Mile field in relative comfort rather than having to walk. She also used her car to make deliveries.
Her life at Coober Pedy continued and her book details many small incidents with the locals. She mentions Jan Foyle who continued her lessons on the Australian language, the visit of the Governor of South Australia and his wife, the company on car trips with Daphne Pendennis, a bright eyed vivacious girl who seemed a magnet to unusual happenings and Muldooney. Muldooney often looked a bit odd and Minnie could not work out why. Glen Durante, another resident explained that Muldooney often wore his trousers backwards. This was because he was not good at sewing. When a hole appeared in the backside he merely reversed the trousers. When asked what he did when he wore a hole in old front of the trousers, Glen explained that he then wore two pairs. Minnie watched carefully when he next came in and sure enough it was true. There was also "Shy Larry", who loved cats and wore clothing made from old sugar bags sewn together and "David and Johnathon", two middle aged gentlemen who were mates of long standing and liked by all the miners.
Around January, Minnie took a trip to Adelaide to meet up with Victor and to buy some new clothes as hers were becoming quite threadbare. It was a rough ride in the old truck to Kingoonyah and then by train to Adelaide. She stayed for four days and then returned to Coober Pedy.
The aborigines working on bush stations or just living in the area found it very hard to give up their tradition of "going walkabout". Without hesitation they would give up everything and head off into the desert. They lived off the land eating any animals they found and also edible roots and other vegetation. At night they lit small fires and camped out wherever they were. One day a group of them walked into Coober Pedy. For many years Coober Pedy was "kurdaitcha" (black magic) to them and they would not come near the place. Now, however, with the country in drought, their walkabout was bringing them close to disaster and they braved kurdaitcha in search of food. They were thin and only a handful had any clothing and even that was threadbare. They made their camp down a seldom frequented creek near town. This camp was nothing but a few tree branches arranged in a sort of windbreak. They made their rounds of the dugouts and most of the miners gave them some food. There were three other woman besides Minnie in the town including Mrs Raymond and Mrs Maxham. They met together to find some clothing for the lubras, (women of the aboriginal group). As Minnie puts it, we came up with "some breathtaking fashions".'One stern visaged lady queened it proudly in a purple velvet dressing gown trimmed with silver lace."
The aboriginals settled down for a while to regain their strength and Minnie had a few interesting stories about them. They practiced communism in a very practical way and the women saw each of the outfits they had given them worn by every lubra in the group. The food was also shared but the men did get the largest proportions. None of them troubled the miners in the field.
As the weather got hotter Minnie kept thinking of the cooler climate near the ocean and decided to head south with Jan Foyle when he next left for Adelaide. Mac was also going with Jan so the three of them headed off in Jan's car. They arrived at Kingoonyah and spent some time at Mr Josephs garden on a small block of land about a mile out from town. They camped overnight a bit further on and then continued their journey to Adelaide without incident.
Refreshed from her holiday she returned to Coober Pedy by train and mail truck. She settled back into her routine at the store and her mining and she continued to make small finds but nothing substantial and she often looked back wistfully to the days when she was mining full time. One day a miner came in with a beautiful parcel of opal he had found at the Five Mile field. Minnie wrote to Roger and asked if he would like to join her again to mine. He was dissatisfied with his work back in Adelaide and readily agreed. She told Mr Joseph, the Store Manager and he agreed to find someone else for the store.
When Victor arrived they moved to the Five Mile field and set up a new camp. They built a bough shed with three sides covered with interwoven boughs and the fourth open to the elements.They made a bench table and decorated it with a couple of kerosine tins for chairs. They were back into mining again and Minnie was very happy. They were the only ones at the Five Mile at that time as the miners who had made the big find had left after cleaning out all the opal in that patch. They were than attacked by an explosion in the number of blowflies. They made life unbearable but luckily only for a few weeks.
After mining all day, the evenings were spent reading and lolling about and on weekends they went into town, did the washing, baked, visited people or had callers.
For six weeks they mined as hard as they could but only found a few small pieces.
It was now approaching Christmas again and things were not looking too good. and many miners were leaving for a Christmas break. For some time now there had been rumours of a mysterious new opal field in South Australia. This rumour was often heard and a few miners from Coober Pedy headed off to see if it was true. The miners did not know exactly where this new field was but had narrowed it down to an area on a station at Andamooka near Pimba in South Australia.
Minnie's interest was aroused and when a miner, who could not leave Coober Pedy, told Mac and Minnie where the find was made, she was keen to go.
We will leave the story her as this post is getting too long. I will endeavour to continue the summary of Minnie's book in another post .
I have received information from Stuart and Terry Wattison, who have been researching quite painstakingly, Government records, that Minnie left Coober Pedy at Christmas in 1933. The South Australian Electoral Roll which closed in July 1934 , shows her address as Andamooka via Pimba. Miners Right No 5845 issued to Minnie in April 1933 came from a book used in Coober Pedy and hence theassumption that it was Christmas 1933 that Minnie left Coober pedy for Andamooka.
Thank you Stuart and Terry for the information.