Tullie Wollaston - Birth of the Opal Fields

30 October 2015 by Johno

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

Tullie Wollaston, Opal Buyer and Seller, was present at the birth of Austalia's opal fields. In an earlier post I told of his exploits in tracking down Joe Bridle in Queensland with the end result that Tullie Wollaston managed to purchase some Queensland opal and then set up a market for the opal in England and the USA. You can read about this in the post Tullie Wollaston -One of the first opal dealers.

This post continues the story as found in Tullie Wollaston's book "Opal The Gem Of The Never Never".

Birth of the White Cliffs Opal Field

We left Tullie's story after he had just purchased a parcel of the highest quality opal from Bill Johnson at the Little Wonder Opal Mine in Queensland. He high tailed it back to Adelaide as quickly as possible, which meant a long trip on horse, carriage and train lasting several days. He would have been on edge the whole way knowing he was carrying such a valuable cargo.

When he arrived back in Adelaide he had a pleasant surprise. A friend of his, Charlie Turner, had sent some opal specimens from a site about 60 miles from Wilcannia in New South Wales. The specimens were quite new and very interesting to Tullie. The specimens included gem opal in flat cakes, opalised fossil shells, opalised bones and so called pineapples. These specimens had been found on the hillside and had obviously weathered out of the hill side. They were all sun bleached but would have some value for collectors.

It was not that fact that inspired Tullie Wollaston. He figured that these specimens were obviously part of a new opal field and he was determined he was going to be a part of its discovery. Consequently, after a few days rest following his arduous trip from Queensland he then set out again. He caught the train to Broken Hill and then horse and carriage via Yancanya, Bourke's Cave and Corker's Well to Wilcannia and then another 60 miles north on horseback to what was to be known as the White Cliffs Opal Field. While this sounds like a simple jaunt, it would not have been. It would have taken several days and the tracks would have been dusty and bumpy but somehow Tullie seemed to thrive in this environment.

Geoge Hooley, one of a party of kangaroo shooters who had found opal at this location, accompanied Tullie to the camp. George and his partners had done some shallow working and had hit a seam, finding some nice opal. As this was new opal no one had any idea of its value. The miners asked him to make an offer for their find and he felt he could have got the lot for 10 pounds, but did not want to cheat the miners.

Tullie was new at the game of opal buying and this new opal was very different to the Queensland opal he had purchased, but he felt he could spare 140 pounds for the parcel and knowing he could go to 150 pounds if pressed. As soon as he offered the 140 pounds the miners eagerly accepted and he was the proud owner of the first parcel of opal sold from the new White Cliffs opal field.

Tullie Wollaston was now really excited. Working on his own, with no syndicate directors dictating his moves, and with two parcels of Australian opal from different regions, he knew he had to move swiftly to stimulate the overseas markets. He quickly headed back to Adelaide and soon he and his wife were on the way to London again.

He again contacted the Hasluck Brothers and they engaged more opal cutters until they had six cutters working wholly on Australian opal with the gems being sold as quickly as they were cut.

Tullie Wollaston does not provide a lot of detail in his book about the quantities of opal he was purchasing but he does say, that while he was away he had a partner called D Morton Tweedie who was obviously visiting the mine sites , purchasing opal rough and forwarding it to Tullie in London.

Photos of the camps in these early times show very primitive conditions. Tents and ramshackle structures spread over a large area of the flats and mounds of opal dirt everywhere. There was very little water and no food. How the early miners survived no-one knows, but survive they did . And they found opal. Word quickly got out and more and more miners arrived. How they knew is anybody's guess. There was no television in those days and newspapers were quite scarce. Opal speculators also heard of the strike and and set off for White Cliffs to take advantage.

S Hoffnung and Company, H Newman and Sons, McBean, Benjamin and Sons, Grove Brothers, Samuals and WG Jira are all named by Tullie Wollaston in his book as becoming established at the mine camps. As a result prices started to soar and this, of course attracted more miners and the fields started to really take off.

When Tullie arrived back in Australia there were large parcels of opal waiting for him in Queensland and White Cliffs. He "dashed off and cleared both fields" as he so eloquently puts it in his book. This meant , of course, weeks of travel by horse, train, and carriage but it did not faze him.

It was lucky for Tullie, and probably the miners, that he did not waste any time. When he arrived at White Cliffs the miners "were assembled to hear the proposition of a Melbourne man of Hebraic faith, who sought to tie them to sell alone to him. He would guarantee to buy 300 pounds worth of opal a month and might take more, but they were to ballot among themselves whose stuff would go first and hold the rest, and gradually he would buy more".

The miners were inclined to accept as there were not many buyers and they did not have any real belief in the value of the opal they were finding at that time.

Tullie mounted the table and said" Lads, if you've got opal, I'm a buyer -I make no restrictions - sell where you like, let the best man win."

That was enough for the miners and Tullie was in. He paid out 3,000 pounds buying up all the opal on the field. Remember this was in the 1890's and 3,000 pounds was a lot of money. It would be roughly equivalent to 300,000 pounds, or $600,000 dollars in today's money. How he financed it he does not say. He most certainly did not pay cash and he would have had to rely on his bank to loan him the money until the opal was resold overseas. It shows what a price he must be getting from his agents in London as he had no hesitation in outlaying such a sum. It also says something of the quality of the opal he was buying. Other sources advise that the miners were only keeping the top quality opal for on selling and were throwing away the lesser quality of stones. The ones they threw away we would die or today.

Tullie meets E F Murphy

At this time Tullie met up with E F Murphy who was an opal gouger at the time. I have written a post about E F Murphy entitled White Cliffs Opal Field -Early days and you can visit this by clicking on the link.

Tullie purchased some opal from Murphy and also got to know him. There was a rapport between them and Tullie decided he could trust him and set him up as his agent on the White Cliffs opal field.This involved buying opal for Tullie and acting for him when he was away from the field. Tullie also recommended him for the position of manager of The White Cliffs Opal Mines, Limited. This company bought some of the best leases at White Cliffs and employed many miners on a 50: 50 basis which was quite unusual on the opal fields.

And so Tullie was now getting established as one of the leading buyers and marketers of Australian opal and for the next ten years he was always on the road or heading overseas. He led a very hectic life and who knows what value of opal passed through his hands.

Lightning Ridge Opal Field

In 1903, when the White Cliffs opal field was starting to decline, a different sort of opal was discovered at what was to be called " Lightning Ridge". You can read about the discovery in my post "Lightning Ridge - Discovery of opal".

For the first three years it was very difficult to sell black opal. According to Tullie Wollaston "it was sold in the rough, mostly un-faced, at a pound or two per ounce, and there was only one dealer whom my agents in London could discover who would handle them and then only in lots of 100 pounds or so."

Today, the finest pieces would be classed as one of the costliest gems on earth.

During the early stages of development at Lightning Ridge, Tullie Wollaston was often in London doing what he could to establish this gem. He also travelled to the USA to make sure the market was being established there. E F Murphy transferred from White Cliffs to Lightning Ridge to control the purchasing of opal for Tullie and continued to buy as much of this new gemstone as he could. It took many years for the public to accept this different opal. It is hard for us to imagine as black opal today is the the most admired and expensive of all opal.

Tullie Wollaston was probably the most important person involved in establishing markets overseas for Australian opal. Without him the miners would have received very little reward for their work and the opal industry could easily have collapsed.

Perhaps the only sad thing is that so much of the best opal was sold overseas. The opal we see today is far inferior to what was found and sold in the early days. Even today the best opal is bought by overseas buyers and leaves the country before we get a chance to see it.


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