Life and Death in The Hillgrove Gold Mines
By John ‘Nugget’ Campbell
In the 1970s I was fortunate to work as a mine surveyor at the Hillgrove mines near Armidale, NSW, and part of my job was to survey the old mine sites after they had been pumped free of water. Our team were sometimes the first to set foot in these mines for 70 or more years and we often found old tools and equipment. The timbers that had been under water for all that time were well preserved and as strong as the day they’d been cut but the timber that had been exposed to the air was always rotten and had to be replaced. It was like entering a mining museum.
While most of the old mines were shafts at the bottom of the gorges of Bakers or Swamp Creek; others tunnelled into the steep sides of the gorge and some were shafts from the top of the Hillgrove Plateau. For those not familiar with the area, it was much like looking down from Echo Point at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, NSW. We even went to work on an ore skip lowered down a precipitous tramline similar to Katoomba’s scenic railway but without seats or any safety devices and before OH&S were letters that meant anything.
At its peak, Hillgrove was as big as nearby Armidale. It had a hospital, hydro-electricity, schools, six pubs, four churches, a newspaper, a technical college, Australia’s best brass band and one brick building, the post office. More than three thousand people called it home in its heyday.
Mining in the 1880s to the early 1900s, when the Hillgrove mines were at their zenith, was always a dangerous occupation, as it was anywhere in Australia. The Hillgrove/Metz area around the mines, because of its precipitous nature, was not only dangerous for the miners but for their families, as I discovered during my research.