History of Lightning Ridge

by Len Cram (About the author)


Robert Moore, the manager of Muggarie Station, known now as Angledool, made the first record of, pretty coloured stones' from Lightning Ridge in 1873. A former Ravenswood gold miner, he had picked up the stones on the Nebea Ridges and sent them to Sydney for evaluation, only to be informed they were of no commercial value.

The next reported find was in 1880 when Aboriginals brought topaz to the Parkers, the owners of Bangate Station. Mrs Parker, thinking they were diamonds, sent her brother, Ted Field, and a station hand named Hudson, to investigate the area around Lightning Ridge where she suspected the Aboriginals had found them. They discovered nothing as clear as the Aboriginals' stones, but found a number of other attractive stones - however, the variety of the stone and its value were not followed up.

It wasn't until 1887, when a piece of opal was discovered in a gravel pit which is now part of the famous Nine Mile field, that it came to the notice of the Mines Department.

However, the first interest shown in this opal was when Jack Murray, a boundary rider on Dunumbral Station, found a floater late in 1900 on the eastern side of the ridges while setting a rabbit trap for dog food. It wasn't until 1901 that he sank the first shaft on Lightning Ridge.

Lightning Ridge - to find a more appropriate name for the home of such a beautiful gem would be quite difficult, as the fields have no equal in the world.

Lightning Ridge in 1963. I think this is Morilla Street
(Photo Courtesy Len Cram)

The name, though unofficial, became well entrenched during the latter part of the 19th century, long before the discovery of opal.

It's not known who originally called it Lightning Ridge, probably boundary riders from surrounding stations. It possibly came about after a terrifying electrical storm one night, when a shepherd, his dog and 600 sheep were killed by lightning whilst sheltering on one of the ridges. Since then the name of Lightning Ridge has flourished. Government departments used it for nearly 100 years before it was officially gazetted on 5 September 1963.

The main street of the present town is named after the now famous opal ridges. The name was taken from the local Aboriginal folklore, which called them Moorillas, hence, Morilla Street. Aboriginals explain the ridges supernaturally, saying that Byamee, their God and culture hero created them as a highway for his convenience during flood time.

The first building to use the name Lightning Ridge was a small inn, built in 1884 by T. J. Merry, on the Walgett? Angledool road a few kilometres to the west of the present town. After changing hands a number of times, it lasted only six years before being pulled down in 1890 by George Kirkpatrick and incorporated into his Exchange Hotel at Angledool.

Today, after 100 years of mining, Lightning Ridge is a fast growing town with a great future, producing large amounts of fine quality black opals. It is the only known place on earth where this world?famous type of black opal is found. Yet, in 1903 when Sydney's' gem merchants, shrewd as they were, saw the first black opals, they rejected them outright as a worthless form of matrix, thereby losing a fortune for themselves.

Lightning Ridge now, looking back the other way
Courtesy Len Cram

The true story of Lightning Ridge is one of faith, courage, struggle and luck, and of almost contemptuous disbelief and bitter feuds with the graziers of the day, who, in their own hypocritical way, formed the first mining syndicate. After its failure they did all they could to drive the miners off the field by impounding their horses and poisoning their water. Only intervention by the Government brought about peace during those troublesome times.

Miners from White Cliffs played a major roll in the opening up of Lightning Ridge. One such person was Charlie Nettleton, who was destined to stamp his name upon the annals of Australian opal history a former gold miner from Mount Brown, Nettleton had been trying his luck at White Cliffs when he heard of gold on the Queensland border north of Walgett. Following the Darling River, he walked to Walgett during the height of the great 1902 drought before heading north to investigate the gold. On his way through he camped with the Ryan family, boundary riders at Lightning Ridge for Angledool Station, whose hut was two kilometres west of the present town. It was here that Nettleton saw his first black opal.

In a real sense, the history of Lightning Ridge begins with the Ryan and Murray families, who in their spare time had been mining. Some of the stones which Ryan showed Nettleton had been cut and polished. It is well known that Mrs Murray cut their opal on a large grindstone, then smoothed them down with sandpaper and finished them off with knife polish. These two families were the first miners at Lightning Ridge and the women were the first to cut our famous black opal.

Murray's interest in the gem ultimately cost him his job. The station manager believed he could use his spare time better than digging up the property. It was then that Murray took a deeper interest in mining and was first mentioned in the Mines Department's annual report of 1902.

Courtesy Len Cram


It was during this period that the Cantfell brothers, Mick, Tom and Jim, after finishing shearing in the district, joined Murray, who now had Natty Hennessy, Peter Ferguson and Bob Buckley working beside him.

It was in September 1902 when Nettleton camped with the Ryans and was shown the strange, but beautiful black opal. It is not known if he met Murray on this occasion, or changed his plans regarding the gold after reaching Joe Beckett's Weetalibah Inn 30 kilometres north of Lightning Ridge. Beckett was the first to buy Lighting Ridge opal from the Murrays and recognize the possibilities of a new field. It wasn't until his meeting with Nettleton, an experienced opal miner, that he organised a syndicate to test his theory.

The syndicate consisted of seven local graziers and business people and included Nettleton and Beckett. The Manager was Ferris, of Gerongern Station, now Bairnkine, Armitage, manager of Dunumbral, Mr Langloh Parker, owner of Bangate Station, and his book keeper, Frank Doucutt, and an unknown storekeeper from Collarenebri. With the exception of Nettleton, all contributed £25 to the working capital of the syndicate, from which Nettleton was paid £1 5s per week. Up until this point the small number of miners, though not encouraged, were tolerated.

Nettleton started his first shaft for the syndicate on the high country now known as McDonald's Six Mile, on 15 October 1902. It was a duffer, and early in 1903 he moved across to the shallow Nobby, where Murray and the others were getting good stones.

Here, he produced a fine parcel of opal, which was sent by the syndicate to a well?known Sydney dealer, who was anything but impressed. In the words of Bob Bishop, "he said it was far too young, a worthless form of matrix, and offered them 10/- for the lot."
The syndicate, expecting a large cheque, was devastated and as a result dissolved, leaving Nettleton without an income, just his share of the opal.

Although dejected, Nettleton refused to accept the Sydney buyer's opinion and continued mining until he had enough opal which he could take to White Cliffs, where he knew the buyers. It was his determination to develop a market for the gem that has left his name so deeply engraved upon the annals of Lightning Ridge opal history.

In 1903, at the age of 4 1, Nettleton set out for White Cliffs with Jack Murray. Taking odd jobs along the way, they walked to Bourke where they caught the paddle steamer to Wilcannia, arriving there early in November. In White Cliffs, he enjoyed the company of old friends, and judging from the number who followed him back to Lightning Ridge, he must have told some interesting stories.

They do it easier now. If you have the money
CourtesyTerry Vanhoff

Only one of the fourteen buyers showed any interest in his opal? He was E. E Murphy, who on 11 November bought the parcel on spec for £15. It was only a down payment, as he had his doubts, but promised a further payment should the opal be accepted in Adelaide by his principal, Tullie Wollaston. As poor as the offer was, Nettleton had little choice but to accept it. At least it was better than the paltry 10/- offered by the Sydney dealer. Although deeply disappointed, his decision to accept Murphy's offer is one of the most important in the history of Lightning Ridge. Had he refused, it may have been decades before the field opened up.

Murphy later said he was quite uncertain when he saw the black stones, having no idea of their value, if any. At least he was prepared to punt a few pounds, which is more than can be said for the other buyers. In so doing, he gave the new field some hope.

Unlike the Sydney dealer, Wollaston liked the opal and instructed Murphy to buy it, but little did he realise it would take three years of hard work to market, and then only in small amounts. True to his word, Murphy forwarded Nettleton a final payment, but how much is not known.

After the collapse of the syndicate, Armitage, the manager of Dunumbral, wanted to close the field down. Due to his attitude, no opal field in the history of Australia ever endured such an agonising development.

It was a long and bitter battle for survival against two powerful politically? oriented Sydney?based grazing companies, Dunumbral and Dungalear. Had it not been for the generosity of Moore in November 1907, the manager of Angledool, [the third station involved in the development of the field,] in allowing the miners to draw water from Nebea tank, the field would have been in deep crisis. Dungalear had turned 20,000 sheep onto the tank from where the miners were drawing their water in defiance of a request from the Minister for Mines that the water be reserved for the community.

Trouble first arose when the miners refused to pack up and leave. At first, their horses were impounded and they were charged half a crown for their release an amount, which soon added up if a horse happened to be incarcerated too frequently. Only gold miners could run their horses with impunity as such protection had not yet been extended to cover opal.

When they saw impounding wasn't working they decided to dry them out by constructing a rabbit?proof fence around the only available water. Undeterred, the men bucketed water over the fence for themselves and their horses, infuriating the manager of Dungalear, on whose property the tank was. In a desperate attempt to stop them, he had trenches dug around the tank, filling them with water and putting up warning notices that they had been poisoned to control the rabbits.

Courtesy Len Cram

It partly achieved its objective when a small number of miners packed up and left. No ? one ever did find out if Dungalear was bluffing, but, on 24 December 1904, the following notice appeared in the Walgett Spectator':

"Notice." Persons are requested to beware of water poisoned for rabbits on Dungalear Station ? John McKeachine.

Things were little better on Dunumbral, where Armitage was also applying pressure with the following notice in the 'Spectator':

'Any person or persons found trespassing in Dunumbral Wallangilla Paddock without the usual legal right will be prosecuted and all stock found trespassing will be impounded."

During those trying times it was much easier to find opal than to sell it. TheWalgett Spectator', 7 May 1904:

"Last week a buyer from Angledool visited the field purchasing £35 worth of opal."

Since his trip to White Cliffs, Nettleton and others had been forwarding their opal to Murphy by post. It was anything but satisfactory, as they had to accept whatever price was offered. Keen for him to visit the field, he promised to do so if they could guarantee him £1,000 worth of opal. Believing the opal was on hand, he arrived on 8 May 1905, the first official buyer to visit Lightning Ridge.

He didn't get his £1,000 worth of opal, but cleared the field for half that amount, which wasn't too bad for less than 30 miners. It proved the turning point in the history of the field ?something the graziers no doubt dreaded. It was 14 months before he visited the field again in 1906 when he made a number of trips before moving to Lightning Ridge in 1907 on a permanent basis

Miner's hut circa 1912. I think this was one of the mansions from
what I have seen/heard. (Photo Courtesy Len Cram)

Lightning Ridge continued to attract miners. New areas were opening up. The rush at Sim's Hill had been on the go since 1905 and what was to become known as Old Town had sprung up around the bottom of the hill. The proliferation of a shantytown proved too much for Armitage, who, in July 1905, ordered the removal of all camps from his Wallangilla Paddock. It was his action which forced the Government in 1906 to survey the present town site.

The'Walgett Spectator', a strong advocate for the development of the field, on 29 July 1905 printed an extensive letter on behalf of the miners:

"Despite our endeavour to open up this field and make it payable, the land owner is everlastingly down on us. Ever since opal was first discovered here, there has been trouble with the graziers. Either with the miners horses or something else ... One day last week the men camped on Wallangilla, "better known as Sim's received notice to shift their camps, and, further that the gate leading into the paddock would be closed against them. Trouble will not cease until this country is thrown open to the people and for the people's good."

Modern open cut mine You can see the old mines at the back wall
Courtesy Len Cram

Since the collapse of the syndicate the miners had been petitioning the Government to proclaim the area a mining field, but to no avail. During those turbulent times a Miner's Right only conferred the right to enter and mine for opal on Crown Lands, not to construct dwellings. It wasn't until the amendment of the Act in 1906 that the miners could erect dwellings, build roads, take gravel for personal use, and run for subsistence, two horses and two cows.

It was through the untiring effort of the Walgett Magistrate, Ridley, that the Chief Inspector for Mines, visited the field in March 1905, a few months before Armitage served his eviction notices. His report to the Under Secretary made it quite clear there was an opal field at Lightning Ridge which, in his opinion, was viable. Unfortunately, for Lightning Ridge his report was pigeonholed and it wasn't until the following year that the impass with the pastoralists was broken.

It came about after Edward Bishop found a patch of seam opal at Sim's Hill, two pieces of which weighed 19 ounces each. Needing money, he had a friend sell the better piece for him in Angledool. He returned with £20, and later offered to buy the other piece for £30.

Disgusted with his friend's attitude, Bishop took the balance of his parcel to Sydney. Whilst there he was able to visit the Minister for Mines and show him what really was being produced at Lightning Ridge. The Minister, expressing surprise at what he saw, commented: "I had no idea that such opal was at Lightning Ridge."

In all probability he was telling the truth. Undoubtedly, Bishop was the first miner to approach the Minister and put forward the miners' side of the controversy. Up to this point he had been strongly lobbied by the pastoral companies. He promised Bishop he would rectify the matter, and to his credit, he did, amending the Mining Act as soon as possible. In the meantime he ordered the pastoralists to open all gates, stop impounding the miner's horses and give them water until the Government could construct a dam.

Again the Sydney dealers turned their back on Lightning Ridge opal. Bishop travelled to Adelaide, where he sold his parcel to Henry Abotomey for £75, a good year's wages for a working man.

This is the modern bore baths. The artesian water is what makes the town possible.
(Courtesy Len Cram

Prior to the amendment of the Act and resumption their land, the Government carried out negotiations with the pastoral companies, paying them compensation for the area being proclaimed a mining field. They bitterly opposed the construction of roads through their properties, unless, of course, they had control over them. Their intentions were to make money from tollgates, something Dunumbral did to all traffic coming through from Collarenabri in 1907. Prior to this they had closed the road to all teamsters, forcing them to travel an extra 80 kilometers via Walgett or Angledool.

The field still had one major problem to overcome before it could develop into a viable community - a positive market for a steady supply of opal.

Wollaston, through Murphy, had been the principal buyer for the first three years after Nettleton's trip to White Cliffs. It proved a trying time for him, as his London agent could find only one dealer who would handle this new kind of opal, then only in small parcels of £100 or so. It possibly explains the reason why the average field price during that period was only £2 per ounce. It was the Americans in 1907 who finally appreciated the gem and allowed the field to develop.

During his lifetime, Wollaston cultivated a great love for this magnificent black opal, always believing it would one day be the most valuable gem on earth. I well remember late in 1963 ?when £100 per carat field price was still a figure of the imagination ? an old miner pointing his finger at me and saying: "Mark my words! The day will come when you won't only get £100 per carat, but £200."

In all fairness to him it may be better if I don't mention what I thought of his statement, but suffice to say he lived to see his predictions not only fulfilled, but escalate to prices beyond his wildest dreams.

The turning point in the progress of Lightning Ridge came in 1907 with the discovery of the Three Mile Flat by Archie Gillespie and the opening up of the deep country on the Eastern Fall of the Three Mile early the following year by Ion Idriess and his mates. Until then, opal was only faced or sold in the rough. It was here that the miners began what was later to become the standard practice of shaping a stone before selling it by the carat.

The Flat developed quickly as miners and their families poured in from all around the country after reading of the rich strikes being made and the price opal was now bringing.

Murphy, now a resident buyer, moved from Old Town to the Flat, as did many others. Within a year more than two thirds of the old town had shifted, including Dr Kenrick, an interesting character who had been at Lightning Ridge for some time. Although he didn't invent Medicare, he had a system whereby he levied the miners, and on a number of occasions, threatened to leave if their subscriptions were not kept current.

A thriving township quickly developed, with shops, a school, a boarding house, sporting ovals and a post office. At its height, it boasted 1200 residents, and was aptly named Nettleton Flat, even the post?mark carried his name.

No it is a dummy
Courtesy Len Cram

With speedy growth came undesirables, petty thieves, ratters and claim jumpers. The miners moved quickly to extend the powers of a special committee already in place enforcing prohibition on the field. When a dispute arose, a large ship's bell was rung and the miners assembled at the place of trouble. A chairman was selected who conducted a miners' court with the miners the jury.

All parties involved in the dispute could give evidence. There was no time limit or legal help. One put forward his own case in the best possible manner. Taken on a majority count of hands, the jury's verdict was final. Although the verdict had no legal basis, not one case was ever disputed in the warden's court.

Ratters were not tolerated. If found guilty, they were severely dealt with and expelled from the field. There were extreme cases when they refused to leave where they were tarred and feathered before being sent on their way , a system, which would be far more effective today than some of our present?day court decisions. Rob a bank and take as little as $ 100 and you will receive at least 10 years jail, and rightly so. But, go down a mine and rob a miner who, for months, could hardly feed himself and his family of his newly found wealth?which could be as much as $50,000 or more and you're just a naughty boy and, if unlucky, get a minimal fine. Rarely is a solid gaol sentence ever handed down. At the time of writing I know of only one which brought 16 months with a non?parole period of 12 months. To the battler, there has always appeared to be two laws, one for the rich and one for the poor. Ratting is one crime the miners should be allowed to adjudicate for themselves, or moved to a higher court with a jury with a little backbone in the verdict when convicted.

Possibly the most noted case in the history of Lightning Ridge was in 1928, when the Souter brothers caught a ratter in their mine at Lunatic Hill, on top of the Three Mile. Their claim had a large, leaning box tree on it, to which Jack Souter tied one end of a rope and the other end around the ratter's neck. It's not known how far they dangled him off the ground, but he got the message and left town. From then on it became known as The Leaning Tree claim.