Our house: histories of Australian homes

Iris Iwanicki
Australian Heritage Commission, 2001

18 - The mine doctor's cottage

33 Commercial Street, Burra, South Australia

The cottage at Burra in 1997.

The cottage at Burra in 1997.

Burra is a small, sleepy town in the mid north of South Australia 160 kilometres north of Adelaide. Early paintings, maps and sketches illustrate the sprawling growth of Burra, one of Australia's earliest mining towns. A favourite scene depicted was the main road approach to Burra, around the edge of the 'Monster Mine'. Several illustrations show a cluster of three attached, single storey cottages built soon after 1847 on Allotment 112, Section 1, Burra. This is the story of one of those old, attached cottages.

The land on which the cottage is built was originally granted in 1845 to William Allen and Samuel Stocks as part of the Burra Creek Special Survey. Discovery of copper in 1844 sparked interest in the land and Allen and Stocks represented the South Australian Mining Association in the purchase. The company went on to profit immensely from a great 'bubble' of copper ore from within the hills that frame the cottage group. By mid-1851, the Burra was the biggest inland centre of settlement in Australia. The Burra Burra mines in 1859 employed 1,170 men. On a capital of £12,320 the mine returned £800,000 worth of dividends to the company's shareholders.

The present township of Burra is a conglomerate of historical settlements around the mine site. Housing for miners was provided by the company, but it was not until after the mine closed in 1877 that the company resolved to sell its real estate. The early miners lived in dugouts along the banks of the Burra Creek, until flood and illness affected the mine's workforce and the company decided to build cottages for its workers.

WA Cawthorne's view (detail) of Kooringa (Burra) in 1850

WA Cawthorne's view (detail) of Kooringa (Burra) in 1850, showing the road from Adelaide and the three attached cottages on the far left, behind the miners on Miner's Walk.

The township of Kooringa (now Burra) was laid out by the South Australian Mining Association in 1846. Allotments were leased to occupants as the Association was loath to alienate land from its control. Paternalistic and all-powerful, the company provided medical services, including hospital and doctor, slaughterhouse and town cemetery as well as housing.

Lot 112 was leased to R Henderson, as indicated on a plan of Kooringa drawn in 1849, with a Miner's Walk shown at the rear of the allotment where the mostly-Cornish miners walked up and down the hill to and from the mine. Commercial Street was the main thoroughfare for travellers and for the many bullock teams hauling mining equipment, timber and other supplies. Company records list all unpaid rents in 1851 and Henderson is listed as owing £6 in rent since 24 June 1849. This price would suggest some form of building on the land.

The cottage, on company land, was used by medical practitioners. It was close to the miners and handy for urgent consultations and to the hospital. In 1873 the trustees of the company leased the land to William Hewish Dashwood, medical practitioner, for 21 years. This lease was taken over by another doctor, John Ikin Sangster, in 1882. The doctors used the cottages as consulting room and dwellings. A well-padded door separated the surgery from the waiting room, to maintain privacy.

This attached cottage is built with thick stone walls on no foundations, with lath and plaster ceilings and a corrugated iron roof replacing the original timber shingles. The front row of rooms of the attached cottages were originally linked by doors, rendering them adaptable to expanded families and were blocked when separate tenancies occurred. The rear rooms are at a lower level, and step down to a slate, and in some cases, earthen floor. Similar examples can be found elsewhere in the town. They represent a later version of housing from the earliest miners' cottages built by the company, that were usually semi-detached buildings of four rooms. Later additions included a skillion roofed narrow rear addition for washing up, bathroom and laundry work, and a front verandah.

From 1919 onwards the property changed hands several times, with labourer Edward Sydney Williams becoming the owner in 1949. During this period little alteration was made, except for the addition of two rooms at the end of the building. When the present owners, Colin and Shirley Broad, bought the end cottage a year before they married in 1957, they paid £620 to Ed Williams. He did not charge interest on the weekly repayments of £3 because he reckoned that Colin looked like 'an honest sort of bloke'.

The owners, Colin and Shirley Broad in 1997.

The owners, Colin and Shirley Broad in 1997.

As Colin's income was £5 they had to manage on £2 each week for other necessities. Colin, who worked in the slaughterhouse as a butcher, looked at his fellow arthritic workers and decided to leave the job before the cold got to him too. He became an apprentice linesman for the Electricity Trust of South Australia, and was eventually transferred to Burra. In the meantime, the cottage had been rented and was in need of repairs.

The six roomed cottage (including two rooms added after 1945) has been gradually altered over the years the Broads have lived there and raised two children. Shirley demolished the stone walling that separated the small back yard from the Miner's Walk because of the cockroaches that lived in the stones. A dilapidated picket fence at the front was replaced by a low besser block fence. An Alutile roof has been installed, and every square centimetre of space within the cottage utilised. The slate floor has been replaced by tiles.

The rear skillion addition, measuring about a metre wide, provides a bathroom, laundry, rear entrance and kitchen sink. A linen press was relocated from here to a front bedroom to provide an indoor lavatory which until then had been located in a minuscule back yard amongst pigeon sheds, clothesline and pockets of garden.

Shirley has converted the surrounding areas for gardening and is proud of the well-cultivated shrubs and flowers. The padded door has been paneled in, and there is no longer a link to the consulting room in the adjoining cottage. The front lounge room leads to the lower level kitchen and small dining area created by a divider panel which replaced an original internal wall. The two additional rooms at the end of the building provide bedrooms. Colin has enclosed the verandah for a sleepout where he can listen to the football and grandchildren can sleep over. In retirement, the Broads are happy in the confined cottage, tending to the garden and racing pigeons.

Acknowledgements and Bibliography

With thanks to the owners, Colin and Shirley Broad. The original of the Cawthorne view is in the Mitchell Library, NSW. Photographs are by Iris Iwanicki.

Auhl, Ian, The story of the Monster Mine - The Burra Burra mine and its townships 1845-1877, Investigator Press, Adelaide 1986.

Auhl, I & S Gilbert, Burra conservation study- historic buildings and areas survey, Adelaide 1978.

LTO and GRO Searches.

List of rents due, attached to letter from Henry Ayers to William Challenor, 15/11/1851 BRG 22/4 Mortlock Library (State Library of SA).

South Australian Government Gazette 6 February 1851.

Register 13 January 1851 (Journal of a tour of the North) and 23 April 1858.

South Australian 17 December 1847.

The Author

Iris Iwanicki is a fifth generation South Australian living in a 1960s house perched on the edge of the hills overlooking the city of Adelaide. She has lived and worked in South Australia all her life, variously as a housewife, student, historian, local government planner, teacher and consultant. She has always been intrigued by the rich, hidden vein of Australian history sourced from ordinary people's lives.