History of West Australia/Captain Oates

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CARLYLE states that it is perhaps questionable whether, from a psychological standpoint, much prescient insight is to be gained of character from the chronicle of genealogy and birth. Though in some phenomena the beginning is the most notable moment, yet with man no social science may asseverate a special eventuation of character and power. Notwithstanding this, however, the great mass of people exhibit an eager, and perhaps not altogether idle, curiosity in the birth, ancestry, and especially the early peculiarities of a public man.

Captain Oates HOFWA.jpg
Photo by
Greenham & Evans.

Nor is the mining magnate exempt from such curiosity. The success that has attended Captain Oates on Western Australian goldfields should stimulate a wholesome interest in his career. In all mining communities there are men who by a lucky turn of the pick unearth a fortune, but their numbers are small, and the majority who rise to positions of affluence do so by their own inflexibility. To the latter class the subject of our sketch belongs. Like innumerable mining captains, Captain Oates hails from Cornwall, his birthplace being the little town of St. Just, Land's End. His father (Mr. Richard Oates), a mathematician, known throughout the West of England, died when William was only a few years old, and left a wife and family in such poor circumstances that William was unable to attend school. He made his first entry into the serious affairs of life in 1853; when eleven years of age he began to work in Cornish mines. After years of toil he graduated from boys' work to the position of a working manager—a sweet reward for laborious striving. The Hull Owles Mine (tin and copper) where he was engaged, lay among the sombre cliffs, and its operations were conducted on the most extensive scale, necessitating the employment of sometimes 300 and sometimes 500 men. The varying price of tin was in a great measure responsible for the different number of miners employed, a fall in price of 50 per cent. being frequent. For instance, on one occasion tin fell within three months from £100 to £30 per ton. Captain Oates remained with this company for over thirty years, for fifteen of which he was the working manager. Prior to obtaining that position he had studied in spare moments chemistry and different branches of mining engineering at the School of Mines, and, although he never submitted himself for examination in the theory, he was acknowledged to be the equal, if not the superior, of many who had passed through the curriculum of the school.

His attention was at last directed towards Australia by Mr. George Lansell, the Bendigo quartz king. During a visit to Cornwall, Mr. Lansell met the Captain, and conversation naturally turned on the mines of the great Southern Hemisphere. Captain Oates determined to try his fortune in the south land. To an enterprising Cornishman, a change to the other side of the world is nothing, and, resigning his position in Cornwall, Captain Oates sailed for Australia in 1884. He proceeded to Bendigo to examine the gold mines and their different methods of working. Only familiar with tin and copper mines, he wisely decided to obtain a practical experience before attempting the management of a gold mine. Curious to say, on arriving in Bendigo, he found in the Inspector of Mines (Mr.Nicholas) a distant relative, and from that gentleman he obtained much assistance in his investigations. For over twelve months he travelled through the principal mining centres of Victoria, and spared neither time nor trouble to master the details of quartz mining. He had much to learn, and much to unlearn.

Eventually he took control of a tin mine at Euriowie, on the Barrier (N.S.W.), where he remained from 1885 until 1888. Then he removed to Adelaide, and a few months later migrated to Western Australia. This step was taken at the instance of the directors of the Fraser's South Mine, Southern Cross, the management of which Captain Oates accepted. The difficulties of a mining manager in those days were innumerable. Captain Oates, knowing that there was a dearth of skilled labour on the fields, brought five Victorian miners with him, and got his first lesson of the cost of living on a dry field in an account for £65 for 100 gallons of water for the men to drink. There were no railways, and all the goods had to be conveyed by road, 210 miles from York. The affairs at the mines were very unsatisfactory, the weather trying, and the water salt and scarce.

An opportunity soon came for proving the value of his early studies. On the Fraser Mine, adjoining, there were some 100 tons of stuff to be crushed, and the whole field was on the tiptoe of expectation to hear the result. Nothing was heard of the crushing for a few days, and then one of the directors, Mr. G. T..Simpson, showed Captain Oates a piece of black stuff—the result of the crushing. Whether the stuff contained gold or not the manager could not say, and, in fact, everyone on the field seemed to be at a loss to know how to treat it. Captain Oates' knowledge of chemistry was put to a test, and, to the surprise of every one present, he treated the stuff, and from a small piece obtained a nice button of pure gold. Although he did not know what the stuff consisted of when he undertook to treat it, he soon ascertained that its peculiar appearance was caused by the extraordinary amalgamating power of the water, which amalgamated all refuse from the machinery with the gold. This was the first gold smelted on the fields, and Captain Oates can claim to be the pioneer in this important branch of the mining industry.

As time went on, difficulties seemed to increase. The Fraser Company, encouraged by the result obtained by Captain Oates, made preparations for continuing the crushing of the remainder of their ore at grass, but after the machinery had run for about sixty hours the boiler collapsed. Captain Oates was sent for, and examining the broken plates, found that they had really succumbed to the action of the salt in the water. Some idea may be obtained of the saline quality of the water used, when it is stated that after the accident four large dray loads of salt were obtained from the plates. The difficulty of transit prevented new plates being obtained, and work at the mine was at a stand-still. This stoppage had the effect of bringing the shares down from 20s. to 9d. and 1s. each, and the prospects were very dreary. At about this time Captain Oates was compelled to visit Perth in the interest of the Fraser South Mine, and whilst in the metropolis was pressed to accept the management of the Fraser Mine. He consented to do so, and returning to Southern Cross got things into working order again. He assumed control on the 1st June, 1890, and on the 24th had the battery going. Work progressed satisfactorily, and in November the first dividend paid by any gold mine in Western Australia was declared. The dividend of sixpence on 50,000 shares amounted to £1,250, and simply set the field in a state of sensation. Shares in all properties went up, and an impetus was give to the whole district. Captain Oates, with the foresight of an experienced miner, realised that if the prosperity of the mine were to be permanent, a lot of developing work must be done. He accordingly devoted his energies to opening up the mine, only abstracting sufficient stone to pay working expenses. The directors were anxious for dividends, which Captain Oates would not give them, and after wordy warfare he resigned. During the fifteen months that he was connected with the mine he did valuable work, and spent some £5,000 in improvements. All of this money was obtained from the property.

After severing his connection with the Fraser Mine, Captain Oates turned his attention solely to the Fraser South Mine, of which he had all along remained in charge. Originally he had £2,750 to spend, and out of the gold obtained he not only paid this back, but also earned some £15,000, with which the mine has been thoroughly opened up and equipped. Captain Oates remained in charge of the mine for some five years, during which he was also associated with others of less importance. During that period he had won a ton of gold out of quartz in Southern Cross, very little of which ran to more than half an ounce to the ton. He was one of the first to report favourably on the now famous Boulder property, and so glowing was his report that Mr. W. R. Wilson laughingly accused him of writing a fairy story. This was soon after the lease was pegged out, and the results obtained from the mines in that district have fully borne out the Captain's first impressions of the value of the quartz.

Captain Oates' Western Australian success is due to the systematic manner in which he has fought to overcome local difficulties. He had only been on the fields a very short time when he realised that the conditions which govern mining in the other colonies are altogether different from what they can possibly be here. His first duty, therefore, was to study those conditions, and the success that has attended him is sufficient proof that he mastered the subject. Few "experts" realise this, and condemn a property as valueless because the appearances are so much at variance with those they have been used to.

Captain Oates tells a rather amusing little anecdote of a practical joke that was played on one of these wiseacres on the fields a short time ago. The "expert" referred to was going round condemning all properties as valueless when a miner handed him a a piece of brown stuff, and asked the "expert" what it was. "Sandstone," promptly replied the man of knowledge, and on being asked to examine the stuff again got quite angry, and asked indignantly if they thought he did not know what he was talking about. "If you say that is sandstone, you don't," replied one the miners; "taste it." The expert did so, and ejaculated, "Why, it is sugar." And it was; one of the miners had put a quantity of brown sugar, which had got wet, to dry in the sun, and it had amalgamated and turned to the solidity of stone. The moral Captain Oates draws from this story is, that it is necessary to thoroughly examine a mine before condemning it, and not to trust to appearances.

He has had municipal experience on the fields, and was the first mayor of Southern Cross, occupying that position for two years. Captain Oates has five children, his eldest daughter being married to Warden Finnerty. A short time ago Captain Oates built a beautiful villa on the Mounts Bay Road, facing the Perth Water, where he takes his ease when in Perth. He is still a busy man however and is ever travelling from one portion of the field to the other in connection with different interests. At the general elections of 1897 for the House of Assembly, Captain Oates was returned for Southern Cross.