Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Gilbert Woolcock (1874–1957)

by D. F. Fairweather

This article was published:

James Gilbert Woolcock (1874-1957), mining engineer and metallurgist, was born on 7 November 1874 at Alma, South Australia, third of ten children of Richard Woolcock, a schoolmaster from Cornwall, and his South Australian-born wife Caroline, née Bottrill. Richard became a Church of Christ (later Baptist) minister and the family moved often. James was educated at Unley High School, Adelaide, and the South Australian School of Mines and Industries where in 1892 he completed a course in assaying and metallurgy taught by E. H. Rennie. In 1894 he joined the Department of Mines. Employed at the State government's gold treatment plant at Mount Torrens in the Adelaide Hills, he became battery manager two years later.

In December 1896 the South Australian government sent Woolcock, as leader of a team of twelve men, to construct a gold-treatment plant in the Macdonnell Ranges at Arltunga, 60 miles (97 km) east of Alice Springs. Some seventy gold prospectors had been reported to be active there in what was thought to be a potentially rich goldfield. The decision to build the battery apparently owed much to the lobbying of F. J. Gillen. Under Woolcock's direction, the heavy equipment was transported by rail to the terminus at Oodnadatta, thence some 404 miles (650 km) by camel and horse-drawn wagon to Alice Springs, and finally another 60 miles (97 km) to Arltunga. Heat, drought, remoteness, a shortage of food and water, a fire in the goods shed at Oodnadatta, and recalcitrant camels were obstacles overcome on the journey.

When the site for the works, selected earlier by the government geologist H. Y. L. Brown, proved to be unsuitable because of insufficient water, Woolcock chose a new one 8 miles (13 km) away. Gillen eventually opened the plant in February 1898. With a fifty-five tons per week capacity and employing about thirty men, it comprised a ten-head stamp battery to crush the hard quartzite ore, amalgamation plates to catch the gold, a cyanide plant to treat the tailings, a large boiler and some buildings. Woolcock was appointed a commissioner of the peace on 8 June that year. As magistrate at Arltunga, he took an interest in the welfare of local Aborigines.

In November 1898 Woolcock resigned and returned to Adelaide. On 13 September 1899 at the Christian Chapel, Norwood, he married, with the forms of the Churches of Christ, Jane Johnston. He sluiced for gold in Victoria, worked as assayer on the Princess Royal mine at Norseman, Western Australia, and managed two small mines in South Australia, at Tarcoola and Deloraine. From about 1915 he was a mining consultant. After his wife died in 1938 he moved to Reynella. A director (1946-57) of South Australian Barytes Ltd, he helped to develop its mine near Blinman and the treatment plant at Quorn. Woolcock was a good-looking man of average height, with swept-back dark hair and a large moustache. In later years he participated in community affairs. Survived by three of his four sons, he died on 14 March 1957 at Reynella and was buried in Mitcham cemetery, Adelaide.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Woolcock, A Family Who's Who (Adel, 1981)
  • B. O'Neil, In Search of Mineral Wealth (Adel, 1982)
  • J. Mulvaney et al (eds), 'My Dear Spencer' (Melb, 1997)
  • Register (Adelaide), 12 Feb 1898
  • J. Banks, James Gilbert Woolcock, transcript of radio talk, 5CL, 1970 (State Library of South Australia)
  • M. B. Woolcock, A Family Review, 1960, in M. S. Fisher papers (State Library of South Australia).

Citation details

D. F. Fairweather, 'Woolcock, James Gilbert (1874–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


7 November, 1874
Alma, South Australia, Australia


14 March, 1957 (aged 82)
Reynella, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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