Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Hancock, Henry Richard (1836–1919)

by Oswald Pryor

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Henry Richard Hancock (1836-1919), mine superintendent, was born on 1 April 1836 at Horrabridge, Devon, England, son of George Hancock. He had a good education and much experience of assaying and surveying in local mines. At 23 he went to South Australia to manage a silver-lead mine near Strathalbyn. In 1862 he moved to Yelta in the area where copper had been found at Wallaroo in 1860 and Moonta in 1861 by shepherds of (Sir) Walter Hughes. After exploratory work by the Tipara Mining Association revealed great wealth the Moonta mine was opened in 1862 with James Warmington as captain (superintendent). Later that year he was replaced by his brother William, whose resignation was soon demanded by the miners. They won after a three months' strike, and in 1864 Hancock was appointed superintendent of the Moonta Mining Co.

Hancock's comprehensive report on the mine's various ores and his plans for expanding output soon won him repute, but his first need was more hands. The first miners at Moonta had come from Burra and Kapunda, and on his recommendation many more were brought from Cornwall and the Victorian goldfields. He also encouraged the tribute system by which independent miners could bid for their pitches and employ their own men; tributers numbered eighteen in 1862 and by 1874 represented nearly half the mine's workforce of 900. An enthusiast for machinery he introduced a steam-engine to replace hand-worked pumps, winches and ore-crushers; by 1865 tramways had reduced barrow work and by 1866 a railway replaced wagon teams for carrying ore to the smelters at Wallaroo. The mine's engineering shops were the best in the colony and enabled Hancock to experiment in replacing the slow and arduous labour of drilling holes by sledge hammer in the hard Moonta rock. He designed and patented a percussion drill driven by compressed air and capable of boring forty feet of shot-holes in an eight-hour shift. For separating sulphides from the ores he made and patented a jigger which was also used later at Broken Hill.

In 1864-73 the output of the mine trebled and gave shareholders some £840,000 in forty-four dividends, but variations in the price of copper were reflected in the miners' wages and employment. In 1873, Moonta's best year, Hancock persuaded the directors to maintain constant production and employment by assuring a minimum weekly wage of £2 for bad years. The miners were duly notified but in 1874 copper fell from £110 a ton to £87 and Hancock was ordered to reduce all wages to £1 16s. His protest to the chairman, then in Britain, was successful but meanwhile the miners downed tools and elected a strike committee. Their wives soon used brooms to 'sweep the insurgents out of the mine' and work was resumed.

In building 'Australia's little Cornwall' Hancock had personal assets. A commanding figure with a flowing beard, he wore a grey bell-topper and long black coat and spoke in cultured accents. A devout Wesleyan, he went to chapel twice each Sunday and early superintended the Sunday school. His large two-storied mansion, surrounded by native trees, was adequately staffed and connected by telephone to the stables where he had a special carriage. The mine office was equipped with speaking tubes and from a look-out on its roof he could survey the surface workings. In his own room he had a 'pulpit' desk, his papers far above the range of prying eyes. Most of his workmen lived in humpies scattered among the mallee scrub on the mining leases. When the town of Moonta was surveyed in 1865 the miners were expected to move into it but they preferred their rent-free homes, thus making themselves semi-tenants while employed on the mine. At one stage some 6000 people lived on the Moonta leases and the company found that it had assumed the functions of government with Hancock as a kind of chief justice.

However deep his concern for the welfare of his people, Hancock was a strict ruler. He compelled all employees to join the medical club at a small weekly rate, but medicines and consultations were free and sick pay was provided. He encouraged cricket, football, chess and glee clubs and many mutual improvement societies. He established a brass band, library and reading room and a compulsory night school for boys from the mine's sorting tables. He also helped to found the Point Pearce Mission for Aboriginals from the Moonta area, the local school of mines, the gas company and the Agricultural, Horticultural and Floricultural Society, serving on their boards for many years. For his varied powers Captain Hancock was held in awe. Any summons to his office was dreaded as an employee was liable to be questioned about things that had nothing to do with his work, and men who were sacked usually found no other job in the district.

After amalgamation of the Wallaroo and Moonta Mining and Smelting Co. in 1889, Hancock became its general manager and his benevolent bureaucracy brought many advantages to Wallaroo. He retired in 1898 and was succeeded by his eldest son, Henry Lipson, who managed the Moonta mine until it closed in 1923. In 1880 Captain Hancock had taken up Nalyappa, 30,000 acres (12,141 ha) of grazing land extending from the coast to the Maitland Road. He managed it from the mine office until it was subdivided and sold in the late 1890s. His first wife Sarah Annie had died of typhoid at Moonta on 27 June 1870, leaving two sons and a daughter. In Adelaide on 28 August 1872 he married Loveday Maria Jolly of Moonta. Hancock died at his home, Iveymeade, Burnside, on 14 January 1919. He left an estate valued at £21,000 to his wife, seven sons and three daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • South Australian Dept of Mines, Centenary of the Discovery of Copper at Wallaroo-Moonta (Adel, nd)
  • O. Pryor, Australia's Little Cornwall (Adel, 1962)
  • Register (Adelaide), 15 Jan 1919.

Citation details

Oswald Pryor, 'Hancock, Henry Richard (1836–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hancock-henry-richard-3706/text5813, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 22 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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