Tullie Wollaston - One of the first Opal Dealers

22 October 2015 by Johno

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

Tullie Wollaston was one of the first opal dealers in Australia. He recognized the value of Australian opal and went to great lengths to travel all over Australia to buy opal directly from the miners and then traveled around the world to establish a market for this gemstone. He describes his trips in his book titled "Opal - The Gem of the Never Never". In this post, I use excerpts from his book to paint a picture of how the market for Australian opal was developed.

In an earlier post entitled " Tullie Wollaston - Epic journey to seek opal" I told the story of how Tullie Wollaston, together with two friends, set off from Adelaide by camel, in one of the hottest summers in Australia's history, and traveled over 1200 km to central Queensland because he had heard that a miner called Joe Bridle had found opal.

This may not sound all that remarkable but for the fact that there were no opal fields in Australia at that time, and only a few rumours that some miners in Queensland had found a form of opal not seen anywhere in the world. These miners were mining for the gemstone in some of Australia's harshest country, and were just stockpiling it hoping there would be a market for it some time in the future. The miners were taking a huge gamble as they had no idea whether the opal they were finding had any value at all. They were also living and mining in very uninhabitable country, famous for its lack of water and temperatures in excess of 100 degrees in the summer. Tullie Wollaston called this land where opal was being found, "The Never Never". The name says it all.

Tullie Wollaston's first trip to London

Eight days after Tullie Wollaston had returned to Adelaide, following the death of his companion Buttfield, he set off for London with his wife and new baby on the boat SS Sydney. He arrived in London in July with the aim of establishing a market for the opal he had bought on behalf of the syndicate he was working for.

When he arrived in London he found there was no market for this opal simply because there was no supply. He does say that there was a small amount of Boulder Opal owned by a Mr Bond, "lying on approval at Edwards shop in the Poultry", but this would not be enough to set up a market for, what was, a new form of opal not seen before.

The opal the public was used to seeing was the pale Hungarian opal, whereas this new Australian opal was bright and vivid in colour. The only way to convince the public they should purchase it was to get the backing of leading opal dealers. But first of all these dealers had to be convinced. This did not happen easily.

Tullie Wollaston described it this way. "It takes time and persistence to find this out, and to do it - for one naturally goes to jewellers, and they - save the bright exception here and there - look at you reproachfully, more in sorrow than in anger, but sometimes with suspicion, and nearly always with that kind of ineffective pity which seems to bid you be enlightened, but does not lend a hand to ensure it."

He expresses in very quaint language which leaves you in no doubt as to how he felt after many knock-backs. Forlorn.

However , after much perseverance, he found someone willing to take a chance on this new opal. Hasluck Brothers, of 104 Hatton Garden "were ready and even eager to to give this new sandstone opal a chance."

After much discussion they set up an opal cutter on the premises and cut the first parcel of opals supplied by Tullie Wollaston. This parcel was sold through the late Mr Louis Tannenbaum, of Hatton Garden for the American market. The parcel of opal was the Breakfast Creek opal that Tullie Wollaston had purchased on behalf of the syndicate on his first trip to Queensland and he states that he had made a remarkable profit for the syndicate. Taking into account his considerable expenses in purchasing the opal in the rough and then traveling to London in order to sell it, he must have received a good price for it.

Now that his first parcel of opal was sold he now needed to return to Australia in order to get more rough opal in order to further establish this market. Don't forget, this was in the 1890's and opal had not been found yet at any of the main opal fields in Australia. He was dealing solely with Queensland opal which had only been found in small quantities in central Queensland.

Within three months of his arrival in London, he received a notice from the syndicate to return home. The syndicate was in trouble due to its finances not being managed properly.

Tullie Wollaston goes back to Queensland to search for opal

When he arrived home, he found the syndicate cold on his intentions to go back to Queensland and open up the leases he had obtained on his last visit. So Tullie, without the backing of the syndicate, "put the corks on his cabbage tree again and ... and loped off to the Never Never on his own". ( In colloquial Australian this meant to attach small pieces of cork to his hat to ward off the ever present bush-flies as was the custom in those times).

Tullie Wollastonwas by far the largest shareholder of the syndicate, and had borne the hardships of his travels with little pay, but was now setting of on his own, not really knowing what he would do when he got back to Queensland, as he had no authority from the syndicate to deal with any of the leases he had previously set up under the syndicates name.

He arrived back at Joe Bridle's camp in a very dejected mood. Joe was not there so Tullie spent the night building up his frustration. But next morning Joe bounced into camp with news that there was rumour of a new big find just twenty miles away back from Euronghella. This find was apparently made by old Bill Johnson. This certainly cheered Tullie up and the two of them set off on horseback. It was a hard twenty miles in very rough country and to make matters worse there was a beetle plague that day. It was virtually raining beetles and they had to shelter in an old hut to avoid them as it was quite painful when they hit you on the face and arms. They also crept into ''Every hole, crack or crevice - down one;s neck - up one's nose, but preferably into one's ears where they quickly burrow and penetrate, scraping on the eardrums in a terrifying way"

The next day, after wandering around in large circles, which apparently it is easy to do in this country, they eventually found Bill's camp by following horse tracks. They talked with old Bill for a while and finally they convinced him to show them what he had found. Old Bill got up slowly and went to "spring his plant". This meant he was going to go to where had hidden his opals. It was common practice for these early miners to hide there finds well away from their camps in case they were robbed while working their claim. Who knows how many "plants" are still out there because some old miners had died without revealing where their opal was hidden. There are many stories of these "plants" and the great efforts people have gone to in trying to find them.

Bill arrived back at his camp with his "firsts' (best quality) rolled up in an ancient nut-brown singlet, stuffed inside a blue dungaree trousers leg, which was tied at each end with wallaby sinew. This was probably a very common way of keeping your valuables in these days as the miners lived very simply. I have met miners who have shown me their best opal wrapped in tissue paper and stuffed into an old tobacco tin which they carried around in their pocket.

Old Bill's seconds and thirds were just thrown into an old sugar-bag.

Tullie describes this meeting as follows in his quaint form of writing: "We squatted on our haunches like three bilbies (small rodents) at a prayer meeting. My heart was knocking chips off my ribs, and I wondered if the other two could hear it. But while Joe was curious and pleasantly expectant, Bill was as unperturbed as a gibber. (brown desert stone) His stubby fingers didn't tremble in the least as he fumbled with the sinew, nor as he extracted the nut brown garment from its blue pupa case and tumbled the sacred balls of fire into a glowing pool. I felt a queer stiffness - I could not reach out touch one of them. My lips were dry and dumb."

It is hard to imagine just what these opals were like. I am sure they were more beautiful than any opal that you and I have ever seen. These would have to have been the highest quality gems imaginable to have had such an effect on Tullie.

According to Tullie these firsts were sixty pieces of of pure red grained opal as huge as walnuts and his seconds and thirds were, by no means, poor relations. Tullie also said that all the opal he had ever seen paled into insignificance beside this " Little Wonder" stone. (This was the name given to the mine from which they came)

I will again use Tullie's words as he clinched the deal to buy these stones as it most clearly shows how beautiful they were: "If old Bill had demanded a life pension, a villa on Lake Como, or the Elgin Marbles, or any trifles like these as a condition of sale, I should have closed with him instantly, and when he said: one thousand quid in a nervous but half defiant tone, I couldn't for the life of me suggest breaking that deliciously "cool" figure. Metaphorically , I leaned my forehead up against its coolness, and steadied up sufficiently to write out a legible cheque."

Tullie couldn't believe his luck at being able to buy such beautiful opal. He couldn't sleep that night and early the next morning he and Joe set off from Bill's camp. He was tremendously eager to get these opals into a good solid strong room. He continuously traveled by horse, coach and train back to Adelaide carrying with him this valuable "booty" as he called it.

I will leave this story for now and continue Tullie's exploits as he continues to buy, market and sell Australia's most famous gemstone overseas and help establish a world wide market which enabled opal miners to sell the opal they mined. Without people like Tullie, there would have been no market for opal and maybe the fields at White Cliffs, Lightning Ridge, Coober Pedy etc would never have been developed.

You can read more about Tullie Wollaston on Tullie Wollaston's biography.

To be continued.


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