The underground explorer

I think of the nineteenth century in Europe as the age of the Industrial Revolution. It was much more than that, though. It was an age of exploration and of a massive increase in knowledge of the physical world. It was an age of colonialism, when the needs of the industrial north European powers for raw materials conflicted with native cultures all over the world, and, sadly, destroyed them. And it was an age of emigration, as people from Europe sought new opportunities in new worlds discovered. It also saw the birth of the age of tourism, when ‘foreign’ became an inducement to travel. These facts have become real to me because my ancestors took part in some of these developments.

This is the story of Thomas Vellenoweth, a Cornish farmer who became a miner and a manager of mines, and who travelled 22,000 kilometres in pursuit of his profession.

Thomas is my great great grandfather by marriage. He was born 06 Mar 1842 in Gwinear in Cornwall, England. The name Vellenoweth means ‘new mill’. The family can be traced back in neighbouring parishes as far as the 14th century and before. There is even a hamlet called Vellenoweth, in nearby Ludgvan.

The parish of Gwinear (Cornish: Sen Gwynnyer) in the 1860s comprised less than 2,000 people. It is situated in the Deanery and Hundred of Penwith. To the north is the parish of Gwithian with Camborne also in the north, going around to the east. The parish lies on high ground south-west of Camborne and is composed of scattered farms and houses. Silver and copper mines and related industries were important in the 18th and 19th centuries, Rosewarne and Herland mines produced silver, whilst Wheal Alfred and Wheal Relistian produced copper. In those days, the parish was a thriving mining community and one of the first steam engines ever to be built was installed at the Herland mine in 1758.
Copper and tin have been mined for centuries in the area, and the Cornish people are famous miners, but Thomas’ father, Samuel, was not a miner but a farmer, and Thomas is mentioned in the 1851 and 1861 censuses as a farmer’s son, he and his two brothers and two sisters being expected to work on the farm, especially after Thomas’ mother, Mary Anne Symons, died in 1861.

But developments on the other side of the world were to draw Thomas away from the farm. Copper smelting began at the town of Kadina, near the port of Wallaroo in the Yorke Peninsula of South Australia in 1861. The town was originally laid out to serve a great copper mine that would bring thousands of miners and their families all the way from Cornwall; the mining companies sent recruiting agents through Cornwall advertising opportunities. Mechanisation saw one of the shafts at Wallaroo reach 3,000 ft (914m), and the mine employed as many as 2,000 men and pickey boys, who hand sorted the ore on the surface (by 1865 the population of the entire town was only 3,000). The first load of refined copper was shipped in 1862, and by 1868 over 100 tons were produced each week. Before they closed in 1923, the amalgamated Moonta and Wallaroo mines had produced £20,000,000 worth of copper.
By 1864 Thomas was at the copper mines at Wallaroo. I don’t know precisely why he travelled to Australia, or when or how, but sometime in 1862 or 1863 he made his way to the other side of the world.

In Australia Thomas married Mary Hoon Symons on 19 October 1867, at the residence of Rev. J Standrin at Wallaroo. She was born in St Austell Cornwall in 1849. The Vellenoweth and Symons families had intermarried for centuries in Cornwall, and it is likely the couple were betrothed, and that Thomas sent for Mary when he became established in Wallaroo. The couple were to have nine children, though I have only found trace of five. Lillias Blanche was born 30 April 1869 at Wallaroo. She was to marry an ancestor of mine, Celestin Douzans, whose father Alexandre was also involved in the mining industry. Thomas’ son John Ernest was born 21 June 1875, also at Wallaroo. But the third surviving child, Eva Annie, was born 31 July 1878 at La Balade mine, New Caledonia. Another daughter, Ida Beatrix, was born 1882, probably at La Balade, and yet another girl, Vera Ismay, in 1888, when Thomas had returned to Australia and was living at Sunny Corner NSW.

In 1872 copper deposits were discovered at Balade, in the far north of New Caledonia. New Caledonia had had a sad story of confrontation between Europeans and native peoples since the 1840s, when first whalers out of Sydney, then sandalwood harvesters, fought with hostile native people on the island concerned that their way of life was being destroyed by disease and foreign imports such as alcohol, against which they had no defense. In 1849 the crew of the American vessel Cutter were massacred and eaten by the Futuna clan, which lived between Balade and Pouebo. Annexed by France in 1853 and used firstly as a penal colony, New Caledonia developed rapidly in the 1860s and 1870s, when after the discovery of nickel in 1864, a program was set up to bring settlers from France. Colonisation became more systemised, with labour provided by natives and convicts.

Concepts such as land ownership, which was unknown to the native peoples, practices such as conversion to Christianity by missionary French Catholics and English Protestants, which challenged most of their traditional values, slavery, or blackbirding, which removed many of the young men from the island villages to work for foreign masters, and most of all the presence of the French military forces, slowly but surely eroded the ways and the livelihood of the natives. Resentment was deeply felt, and rebellions and isolated acts of violent retaliation were frequent. On the part of the settlers, on the other hand, many of them poor men who would have starved in their native countries, the colonial experience was an exciting, if risky, chance to go up in the world.
Mining operations at Balade were influenced by those carried out at Burra and Kadina in South Australia, two of the largest copper mining operations in the world at that time. Those with expertise were welcomed in the colony. One of these was a promoter from France resident at Noumea since the mid 60s, my great great grandfather Alexandre Alphonse Douzans. In 1873 Alexandre wrote to the Commissioner of Mines in France regarding La Balade, a copper mine at Diahot River, Northern Province, New Caledonia. Another man with expertise was Thomas Vellenoweth, who arrived some time in 1876 or 1877, a veteran of almost 15 years experience at Kadina mine. The two men became friends, as Thomas’ daughter Lillias eventually married Alexandre’s son Celestin. Thomas must have been fluent in French to work for a French company. Later, while living in Australia, Alexandre admitted he spoke no English at all: French was the common tongue between the two families. Thomas must have been prominent in the copper mining community in La Balade, for on 26 April 1879 it was he who made a presentation to the retiring mine manager, Captain Warren.

Copper mining at that time, like all mining, was destructive of the landscape, and the damage done to the environment was permanent. Native resentment was strong, and there was constant harassment from native warriors. In June 1878 a major rebellion occurred that resulted in the massacre of 200 French settlers in a week. In 1881 a settler, M Zoepfel, was murdered by natives, just one of a series of such acts of violence that continued over the decade. The Melanesian peoples are much more warlike than the northern Polynesian groups (as settlers in New Zealand were finding out at the same time). Though no match for the French resident army, they fought back as well as they could.

In the early 1880s both Alexandre and Thomas must have felt the situation in New Caledonia was too dangerous in which to raise a family. Surprisingly, Alexandre took his family to nearby Australia rather than back to France, perhaps influenced by Thomas’ advice. Both men and their families arrived back in Australia by 1884, Alexandre settling in Sydney where he and his wife opened a retail business and his sons formed a building company, while Thomas took his family to a place called Sunny Corner, near Bathurst NSW. Although there was lead mining at Sunny Corner I am unable to find a trace of Thomas’ activities during this period of his life.

Copper mining began in 1878 at Nymagee in the Cobar region of NSW, and the region soon became the largest copper producer in the state. As elsewhere, mining operations were accompanied by environmental degradation, and violence to native peoples.
Thomas was appointed Manager of the North Nymagee copper mine on 18 September 1897. He was still in that position in 1901, for on 30 September of that year there exists a license granted him for the keeping and sale of explosives.

Thomas seems to have retired about 1909. There is an entry for an E Vellenoweth at “Watersleigh” 265 Ben Boyd Road Neutral Bay NSW in the Sands Directories for the years 1909 to 1930, which might refer to Thomas. He died 21 March 1928 in that house. Thomas’ wife Mary had died 10 June 1922 there. His unmarried children, John, Ida and Vera, lived there for a while. John died in 1946, and the two remaining sisters moved to Umina NSW. Thomas’ eldest child, Lillias, died in 1906. She had a child, Celestin, who became a well known architect in Sydney. His daughter Eva married Alec Doyle in 1897 in Glen Innes NSW, and died at Gosford in 1943. On Celestin junior’s death in 1975 this branch of the Vellenoweths became extinct.

Although there is much I don’t know about Thomas’ life, when and how he travelled to Australia, the births and deaths of four of his children, when and how he travelled to New Caledonia, the position he held in the mine there, how he was affected by native unrest on the island, how and when he travelled back to Australia, what he did at Sunny Corner, and the details of the last 20 years of his life, I have been able to trace the main outlines. I found it interesting to see him undeterred by extreme distances in searching out opportunities, accepting of foreign cultures, becoming part of an industry which has transformed the way we live, giving rise to the mixed bag of dealing with mechanised lifestyles, environmental problems and finding accord with threatened cultures. The man’s life seems to encompass many of the issues my generation has to deal with. Applied electronics are basic to many of our activities now, and many of these applications would not be possible without the copper that Thomas and his fellow miners have made available.

©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


One thought on “The underground explorer

  1. Thomas Vellenoweth and his wife Mary Hoon nee Symons were the witnesses at the marraige of my husband’s great grandfather at Wallaroo in 1870. I believe I may know when they both arrived in South Australia. If this is of interest, please reply to my email address.

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