The Original Opal Hunters

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  • Category :  McKenna Mulvany
  • Date Posted :  Sep 27, 2021
Cinque Terre

* Surviving photograph of HW Bond could not be sourced.


If you are a fan of opal, chances are that you've seen an episode or two of Outback Opal Hunters on the Discovery Channel. Opal mining in the 21st century is an exhausting, expensive, and competitive endeavour, even with all the advantages of modern technology. From this perspective, it could be said that the industry has remained relatively unchanged since its origins during the Victorian era. The original "Opal Hunters", HW Bond and TC Wollaston, encountered the same soaring highs and devastating lows that miners face today... all with the added stress of marketing Australian opal internationally for the very first time.


At the dawn of the Victorian era, Australia was a remote British colony best known for its agriculture. All three of the pioneers of opal mining were involved in cattle farming and driving. In fact, the first monetised opal field in Queensland was located on the cattle station of business partners Berkelman and Lambert, on the Barcoo River near Blackall. Berkelman and Lambert began opal mining on their station in 1870. By 1873, famed geologist and surveyor Richard Daintree (whom the Daintree Rainforest is named for), was tasked by the Queensland government with organising a display of "colonial stones" (opals) for the Queensland annex at the third London International Exhibition. The display, which ran from 14 April to 31 October 1873, was a hit, and successfully brought Australian opal to the attention of the Victorians.


Two years later, in 1875, Herbert William Bond would take the international marketing of Australian opal to unforeseen heights. Bond, a drover from Toowoomba, QLD, was introduced into opal mining purely by chance. He claims that, one day, while he was driving cattle by Cooper's Creek, he happened upon another man tending to cattle. The two struck up a conversation, and the man invited Bond to his home to show him a peculiar find that he had stumbled upon in the days previously. In a rubbish bag, the man had collected thirty pounds of matrix opal, which he had discovered weathered and broken apart in some tall grass. Being aware of Berkalman and Lambert's mine in nearby Blackall, Bond purchased the parcel of opal for £300 and asked the man to give him directions to the exact place where he had discovered the stones. Almost immediately, he leased the land at Cooper's Creek and opened the first of his three opal mines. 

Tonnes of opals were mined by Bond's men at Cooper's Creek. Armed with a variety of his finest specimens, Bond set out to find an investor. Through his network of contacts in the Methodist church, Bond met Sydney mining and manufacturing magnate Ebenezer Vickery. Impressed by both Bond and his opals, Vickery agreed to become co-owner of Bond's leases. However, he requested that the opal mined at the leases be taken to London for professional cutting and polishing. Thus, in 1883, Bond left for England to hand deliver the raw opal specimens.

Bond did not originally stay in England for very long. He returned to Toowoomba after the birth of his son, but continued to send parcels of opal to London. In December 1885, Bond submitted 4,000 carats of opal for display at the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition. Once it was selected for showing, Bond packed up his young familly and made the move to London, arriving just before the exhibition began.

Bond’s opal, with its magnificent flashes of blue, green, and red, were extremely successful and drew in crowds of hundreds. It was lauded by British mineralogists as being far finer than the more commonly known Slovakian white opal and Mexican fire opal, particularly in terms of brightness and play-of-colour. The now London-based Bond seized on the opportunity to leverage his newfound fame as quickly as possible. The finest of his opal specimens, set in a gold necklace and rimmed with diamonds, was gifted to Alexandra, Princess of Wales. The necklace was said to be worth £6000 (nearly $1,500,000 AUD in today’s money). The princess was so taken with her new jewellery that she debuted it at a party soon after. Her mother-in-law, Queen Victoria, upon witnessing the incredible necklace, had her interest piqued. On December 1st, 1887, the Queen invited Bond to Windsor for a private meeting, where she selected a variety of his opals to be made into jewellery. When word spread of Bond’s professional relationship with the royal family, both British and Australian press dubbed him the “King of Opal”. Soon after, Australian opal became the most popular accessory in the British empire. 

Bond invested £100,000 into a new company, “Opal Mines of Queensland”, and opened up offices on Waterloo Road. His success, however, was to be short-lived. At the beginning of the 1890s, Bond ran into various hardships, including a financial scandal involving one of his businesses, as well as an Australian banking crisis. By 1892, Opal Mines of Queensland had gone bankrupt, and Bond, now ruined, returned to Toowoomba. This left the market wide open for a new opal king - a mantle which would be taken up by Tullie “TC” Wollaston. 


Wollaston, from Port Lincoln, SA, was working in sapphire mining when he caught wind of the opal deposits that were being discovered in Queensland. After securing investors in the nearby city of Adelaide, Wollaston departed Port Lincoln on 21 November, 1888 to travel to Queensland, via camel. When he arrived at a new mine by Kyabra Hills, he made the immediate decision to take on the lease and procure as many specimens as possible.  Like Bond, Wollaston travelled to London, however, unlike Bond, Wollaston lacked showmanship and found it difficult to drum up interest in his opals. Wollaston decided to shift his focus to the jewellery market in the United States, and worked with wholesalers to have opals shipped to New York City, where they were well received.

In 1889, Wollaston’s luck changed when he became one of the first dealers to receive specimens from the newly minted mine at White Cliffs, NSW. He set out for White Cliffs soon after, staking claim. There, he met an agent, Edmund Francis Murphy, who would become the key to his success. Through Murphy’s connections, Wollaston formed a partnership with London wholesalers Hasluck Bros, who sold the White Cliff opals to New York and European jewellers, giving Wollaston the monopoly on Australian opals in the international market. At the turn of the century, Wollaston and Murphy would go on to be the first to introduce opals from the newest fields of Lightning Ridge and Coober Pedy into the industry, solidifying Australia as the opal capital of the world. 


These original opal hunters, though not necessarily well known, set the standard for the hard work, self determination, and perseverance that is necessary to make it in this industry. From Queensland to the Queen’s palace, Bond and Wollaston created opportunities for thousands of Australians and immigrants to forge their own path to success. While we may not have to ride to the opal fields via camel any longer, the spirit of these Victorian opal enthusiasts is still very much alive to this day.

References:

(2018). Of Frogs, Gold Bracelets, Opals, Ladies, and Queens. Australiana (4)2, 1-14.

Parliament of New South Wales. Mr Ebenezer Vickery (1827-1906). [online] Available at: parliament.nsw.gov.au/members/Pages/member-details.aspx?pk=575. [Accessed 27 Sept. 2021].

State Library of South Australia. Tullie Cornthwaite Wollaston (1863-1931). [online] Available at: adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wollaston-tullie-cornthwaite-9169. [Accessed 27 Sept. 2021].

State Library of Victoria. Richard Daintree (1832-1878). [online] Available at: adb.anu.edu.au/biography/daintree-richard-3350. [Accessed 27 Sept. 2021].