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John Campbell Miles (1883–1965)

by K. H. Kennedy

This article was published:

John Campbell Miles (1883-1965), prospector, was born on 5 May 1883 at Richmond, Melbourne, eighth of nine children of Thomas Miles, compositor and sometime goldminer, and his wife Fanny Louisa, née Chancellor. Little is known of his childhood or education. According to folklore he panned his first pennyweight of gold at the age of 7 on the family's Melton farm, and at 12 ran away to work with a Melbourne bootmaker. By 18 he was a farm-hand at Stawell.

In 1907, lured by the promise of higher wages, he moved to Broken Hill, New South Wales, and worked underground for several months. When news of a rush to the Oaks alluvial goldfield reached Broken Hill, Miles and a companion bicycled the 1550 miles (2494 km) to the North Queensland strike only to find the ground fully pegged. Subsequently, he prospected on the Etheridge field, but was again disappointed. In 1908 Miles was navvying on the Einasleigh railway. Over the next decade he was itinerant in every sense, working on stations, cutting sugar-cane and fossicking.

Back in Melbourne in 1921, he decided to try his luck in the Northern Territory. His journey was unhurried: by the following Christmas he had progressed only as far as the deserted Cloncurry, Queensland, copper-field. In early February 1923 Miles camped at the Leichhardt River, six miles (9.6 km) below Lagoon Creek. Observing mineralized outcrops, he took up a shoeing hammer and casually collected samples, ten of which he subsequently dispatched to the government assayer at Cloncurry. As Miles later admitted, 'I was not prospecting … I knew the piece of stone must contain mineral from its weight, but what it was I did not know'. The samples were lead carbonate assaying from 49 to 73 per cent lead, with rich silver contents.

Miles invited Bill Simpson of nearby Mica Camp to join him. They pegged three areas, forty-two acres (17 ha) around the original outcrops, soon known as the Black Star and Racecourse leases. Six months later the name, Mount Isa, was conferred on Miles's find, by which time several consignments had been sent to Cloncurry, and much of the new field taken up. Already, however, the field's future had passed into the hands of William Corbould who, with Douglas MacGilvray, had options over most of the leases, including those of Miles and Simpson.

Mount Isa Mines Ltd was floated in January 1924; 12,250 shares of £20 each were allotted to the promoters to secure the optioned leases. Miles received 500 shares, nominally worth £10,000, some of which he sold over the following twenty months to sustain his prospecting at Lawn Hills. In December 1925 Miles still held 8680 £1 shares; that dwindled to 2900 by 1929. In 1933 he sold his last 400 shares.

Miles's whereabouts was unknown to Mount Isa for almost three decades, years which he dismissed as 'wanderings'. In 1957 he was invited to inspect the company's huge mining and metallurgical undertaking. It was probably characteristic of the wiry, weather-hardened prospector, whose only admitted vice was pipe-smoking, that he should return to the north-west overland by car, camping under the stars, and then accept accommodation only in the workers' barracks. Miles died unmarried on 4 December 1965 at Ringwood, Melbourne, and was cremated. In 1968 his ashes were interred beneath the memorial clock-tower in Miles Street, Mount Isa.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Blainey, Mines in the Spinifex (Syd, 1960)
  • K. H. Kennedy (ed), Readings in North Queensland Mining History, vol 1 (Townsville, 1980)
  • I. Hore-Lacy (ed), Broken Hill to Mount Isa (Melb, 1981)
  • Queensland Government Mining Journal, Oct, Nov 1923
  • Department of Mines (Queensland), Annual Report, 1923
  • Mimag, Oct 1957, Aug, Nov 1962
  • North-West Star, 29 May 1973
  • North Queensland Register, 22 Oct, 12 Nov 1923, 9 June 1924, 5 Jan 1925
  • information from M.I.M. Holdings' share registry and public affairs division (Mount Isa Mines Ltd).

Citation details

K. H. Kennedy, 'Miles, John Campbell (1883–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 24 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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