Sir Henry Ayers


In 1868 Australia’s largest mine, known as the ‘Monster Mine’, was in trouble. After 25 years, the Burra Burra underground copper mine in South Australia had been shut down due to declining ore grade and the town serving it was partly deserted. But behind the scenes Henry Ayers, Secretary of the South Australian Mining Association that owned the mine, was organising its salvation. He had sent for John Darlington, a mining engineer with experience of the new open cut method of mining developed in Germany, to prepare a plan for the Burra Burra mine.

Henry Ayers was far more than a secretary, he was also managing director of the operation. Ayers had emigrated to South Australia from Hampshire in England in 1840, at the age of nineteen, with his wife Anne. He had worked as a solicitor’s clerk in England from the age of eleven, and became a clerk in a solicitor’s office in Adelaide. When the Mining Association was formed in 1845, his employers asked him to act as provisional secretary for their client. He remained secretary until his death in 1897 at the age of 76. It was later said that the Burra Burra mine had secured the wealth of the colony of South Australia.

The copper mines at Burra Burra yielded fifteen dividends of 200 per cent each in the next five years. Ayers had bought forty-five of the original £5 shares, and by 1850 controlled sufficient votes of absentee shareholders to be elected managing director of the Association. The ore was very rich, but two men were credited with the long-term success of the mine – Henry Ayers in Adelaide and Henry Roach, the Cornish ‘Captain’ at the mine. In later life Ayers stated, ‘I gratefully acknowledge that whatever administrative or other qualities I may have been shown to possess were largely acquired while participating in the management of the Burra Burra mine.’

In 1857, Ayers was elected to the first South Australian Legislative Council, the youngest member elected. He became the eighth Premier of South Australia, serving a record five times between 1863 and 1873. Ayers was a trustee of the Savings Bank of South Australia for twenty-five years, a director of the Bank of Australasia, and a founder of the Bank of Adelaide. From 1862 until his death he was chairman of directors of the South Australian Gas Co. In 1873 he joined the South Australian board of the Australian Mutual Provident Society, later becoming chairman. He was governor of the Botanic Gardens Board for 35 years and treasurer of the University of Adelaide in 1874-86. He gave generously to local charities and for some years was chairman of the Wyatt Benevolent Fund.

Back to 1868, with John Darlington presenting a plan for open cut mining. Ayers encouraged the directors to attend a site meeting, where they authorised him to proceed with the plan. Open cut mining was new even in Europe. It involved haulage by steam-powered inclined tramways in the walls of the pit, and new technologies to crush and process the hard, lower-grade ore. Ayers attended to every detail, even using the old mine timbers recovered from the pit as boiler fuel.

Production began in 1870 but lasted only seven years, with the mine closing in 1877 at a time of low copper prices. The ore was metallurgically difficult, as several subsequent investigations discovered, and the plant could not achieve the required recovery of copper. The assets were kept on care and maintenance until 1913 when they were sold at auction, and the company was wound up in 1916.

Ayers was appointed a Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in 1870, a Knight Commander (KCMG) in 1872 after completion of the transcontinental telegraph line, and a Knight Grand Cross (GCMG) in 1894. In 1873 the explorer William Christie named Ayers Rock (now known as Uluru) in Central Australia after Sir Henry Ayers.

Formation of the Australian Institute of Mining Engineers was proposed in late 1892 with Sir Henry Ayers elected President in 1893. The inaugural technical meeting was held on 7 April 1893 and Ayers remained President of what was to become the AusIMM until the election of James Stirling in March 1894.


The Story of the Monster Mine. Ian Auhl. Investigation Press 1986 ISBN 0 85864 093 7

Ayers, Sir Henry (1821–1897) by S. R. Parr. Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Transactions of the Australian Institute of Mining Engineers Volume 2 March 1894.

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