Burra, South Australia
Self-proclaimed as ‘An Historic Copper Town and Merino Capital of the World’, the town of Burra in South Australia might be the best-preserved 19th century streetscape in Australia, offering a fascinating wealth of historical sites for those interested in colonial Australia.
The town is located 156 kilometres north of Adelaide, to the east of the wine-growing Clare Valley, on the edge of the outback. Before European colonisation, the area was inhabited by the Ngadjuri Aboriginal people.
Burra grew rapidly as a centre of copper mining, following the discovery of copper by two local shepherds William Streair and Thomas Pickett in the 1840s. Streair brought samples into the office of Henry Ayers, the secretary of the South Australian Mining Association. News of the find was soon printed in the Adelaide newspapers, with the site referred to as ‘The Monster Mine’.
The copper mine soon attracted residents, with the town having a population of 5,000 by 1851. The term ‘the Burra’ was used to refer collectively to a number of villages around the mine – Redruth, Aberdeen, Llychwr, and Hampton – which were amalgamated in 1940. The origins of the name ‘Burra’ are unknown, though a number of suggestions have been made. Some claim that it comes from the Hindi/Urdu phase ‘Burra Burra’ (meaning ‘great great’), used by early shepherds from India, while others maintain that -burra is a common suffix in Aboriginal languages, appearing in words such as kookaburra. Others claim that the phrase was used by miners from Devon.
Until 1860, the mine was one of the largest metal mines in Australia. It produced approximately 50,000 tonnes of copper a year – 89% of South Australia’s copper, and 5% of the world total. Due to the lack of smelting technology in South Australia, the copper was sent to Cornwall to be smelted, before being sold and traded on the world market. Some historians claim that the success of the Burra mine was the thing that saved the struggling colony of South Australia during financial decline in the 1850s.
The town and the mine declined as quickly as it grew, one of the quintessential ‘boom towns’ of the 19th century. As early as 1852, the population declined, as miners left to strike it rich on the Victorian gold fields around Ballarat, Bendigo, and Castlemaine. By the late 1860s, production was falling. The mine closed in 1877, though briefly re-opened in the early 20th century and for a period in the 1970s.
Burra township was preserved as a service centre for the surrounding pastoralist districts, and became a centre of tourism thanks to its preserved 19th century streetscape and historic mine workings. The town was preserved as a State Heritage Area, constituting over 70 individual sites, in 1994.
People who have not visited Burra may find several of the towns buildings familiar, thanks to its use as a filming location for the 1980 film Breaker Morant. An abandoned house several miles south of town, located on ‘Cobb and Co corner’ was immortalised as the cover art for Midnight Oil’s 1987 album, Diesel and Dust and is now a popular location for photoshoots.
Things to see:
The majority of Burra’s sights are concentrated around the old mine and mining villages. The Historic Passport is a local tour program which includes access to 43 heritage sites. Some of the highlights include:
- The Burra Mine Site, located to the north of town. The site includes information about the history of mining in town. The nearby Powder Magazine, used to store explosives for use in mining, is the oldest building in Burra, and reportedly the oldest mining building in Australia.
- Miner’s Dugouts, primitive houses built in the 1840s for the first miners. It is still possible to walk inside these tiny dwellings, many of which were cramped and unsanitary, causing outbreaks of typhus, smallpox, and typhoid fever. In 1851, 1,800 out of a total population of 4,400 lived in these basic structures.
- The Police Lock-up and Stables, built 1847, brought law and order to the frontier town. Nearby Redruth Gaol was built in 1856. The gaol is now home to an interesting exhibition, exploring prison conditions in the 19th century. It was featured extensively in Breaker Morant, and has a room devoted to memorabilia from the film.
- Bon Accord Mine Complex is now an interactive museum, exploring what Burra would have been like when it had population of over 5, 000 in the 1850s. The complex has a blacksmith’s shop and a pump shed and shaft, used to pump water for the town.
- Burra Market Square Museum, built 1880, was converted into a museum in 1966. It features a heritage reconstruction of an old general store, post office, and a family home, all with authentic furniture from the period.
- Malowen Lowarth, meaning ‘hollyhock garden’ in Cornish is a charming row of houses, built from 1849-52. One of the cottages, the Mine Captain’s Residence, is open for inspection, and is furnished with authentic artefacts from the 1860s.
- Hampton Township, on the edge of town, was home to the English miners who came to Barra. It was once the town’s premier neighbourhood, with sweeping views of the surrounding settlement, but because of its high location was the last part of town to receive electricity. Today, the township is in ruins with no complete buildings, thanks to locals who used the bricks as a cheap source of material for their own houses.