Slate was discovered in the hills near Willunga before June 1840 by Edward Loud (1811- 1887) when the South Australian Register newspaper reported (6 June 1840) that: “A quarry of slate of the finest quality has recently been discovered in the neighbourhood of Willunga. It has been partially opened, and the slates are selling in town at £10 10s per thousand”. The Adelaide Chronicle newspaper (26 Aug 1840) subsequently mentioned that: “There is a slate quarry in the district, worked by Mr. Loud, at which about a dozen families are generally employed. The slate is of excellent quality, and easy of access”. Sampson Dawe (1813-1879) was the manager of Loud’s quarry just outside Willunga from 1840 and in 1841 Dawe found slate on his own property of 207 acres in sections 758 and 1150 (later called the Delabole quarry).

In 1842 the Colonial government offered the “Willunga Slate Quarry” for a three-year lease. They accepted a tender by James Gregor and Co. comprising of James Gregor (1816-1895), Thomas Polkinghorne (1813-1883) and William Bailey on 8 Nov 1842 for a quarterly rent of 5 pounds (20 pounds per annum). James Gregor & Co. abandoned their lease in 1844 and James Hamilton & Co briefly held the lease. On 28 August 1845 Sampson Dawe and Thomas Polkinghorne purchased 35 acres in Section 1008 near Willunga containing the “original” Willunga Slate Quarry for £70. They operated as S. Dawe & Co., and in 1847 they purchased an additional section of land with “more slate quarries” (Adelaide Observer 16 Aug 1845:1 & 4 Sept 1847:1). Dawe & Co appointed Mr W. Hutchens, storekeeper of Hindley Street, their sole agent in Adelaide  (Adelaide Observer 2 Oct 1847:8). Thomas Martin (1825-1900), operating as Thomas Martin & Co., purchased Dawe and Polkinghorne’s Willunga Slate Quarries in March of 1849 (one of the quarries later became known as Martin’s Quarry).

Slate flagging was available from at least three other sources in South Australia apart from Willunga as a quarry was opened near the city of Adelaide as early as 1838 (Southern Australian 27 Oct 1838:3), another at New Brighton (now Seacliff) (South Australian Register 24 Oct 1840:2) and a third at Brown’s Hill Creek (Adelaide Observer 16 Dec 1843:1).

Slate was also being imported into South Australia by 1838 as A.H. Davis & Co. advertised (writing) slates and slate pencils for sale at their store in Gilles Arcade (South Australian Gazette & Colonial Register 16 June 1838:1). In October 1838 the 135-ton Lady Emma imported 12,000 slates from Launceston, TAS (possibly transshipped from the UK) and the 461-ton Surrey brought 14,000 slates from London (South Australian Gazette & Colonial Register 27 Oct 1838:4). In 1841 slate imported from London by Siam (456-ton barque) and Lord Glenelg (368-ton barque) included 324 slate chimney pieces, 12 slate cisterns, writing slates and a quantity of slate slabs, skirting &c. (Southern Australian 6 July 1841:1).

Slate costs and availability

In July 1840 roofing slate was selling in Adelaide for £10 10s per thousand (Adelaide Chronicle 10 June 1840) and in 1841 in Sydney from £3 10s to £9 per thousand depending on the quality. At first the cost of Willunga roofing slate was extremely high but by 1843 the local Adelaide Observer newspaper (16 Dec 1843:4) felt able to claim: “now that the expense of slate roofing is become so moderate, it is surprising that those who can afford a good roof should choose to have any other”.

Some of the slate produced at the Willunga quarries was used within the Willunga and surrounding districts, such as at the Noarlunga Flour Mill which was described as having a ground flour “laid with Willunga slate beautifully fitted” (Southern Australian 5 March 1844:2) and the roof “of stout Willunga slate” (Adelaide Observer 9 March 1844:6).  The parsonage, for example, at Blakiston near Mt Barker was described as a substantial seven-roomed house with a roof “of Willunga slate and the verandah is paved with the same material” (Adelaide Observer 26 Dec 1846:5).

Some, perhaps most, of the slate available for sale at Adelaide and Port Adelaide from the 1840s onwards probably came from the Willunga slate quarries. In 1843, for example, at Phillips and Horne’s wind-powered flour mill located in West Terrace, Adelaide where the ground flooring was described as being made “of Willunga slate” (Southern Australian 28 Feb 1843:2). By 1844 Willunga slate was being used for “a large and very elegant mantelpiece” for “Mr F. Solomon, at his premises in Rundle-street”, Adelaide (Southern Australian 10 Sept 1844:2). Buildings in Adelaide including “Mr Solomon’s former Auction Rooms in Currie Street” and “the Scotch Secession Church (Rev. Mr Drummond)” were also already roofed with slate (South Australian Register 23 July 1845:2).

By 1845 Port Adelaide had become firmly established as a transhipment point for a range of building materials from various places, including roofing slate which sold for £4 10s per thousand, best roofing slate for £5 10s per thousand and slate flagging at 4d per foot some, or most of which, probably came from the Willunga slate quarries (Adelaide Observer 29 March & 24 May 1845).

From 1846 (the introduction of the “New Tariff”) imported roofing slates were subject to duty at the rate of 3s 6d per thousand (South Australian 15 Dec 1848). Despite this duty and the cost of shipment from the UK, some roofing slate was clearly still being imported as this advertisement indicates: “Welsh Slate – Best Bangor roofing slate of all sizes always on sale. Wm. Younghusband Jun. & Co.” (Adelaide Times 15 Oct 1850).

The transportation of slate

In the 1840s most Willunga slate was probably transported by dray (bullock wagon) all the way to Adelaide and Port Adelaide. Road transport was always a significant issue in moving slate from the quarries as this advertisement by Thomas Martin & Co. in 1849 suggests: “in consequence of the Southern Road having been almost impassable during the past winter, they have now, at the Quarries, a large quantity of Roofing Slates & Flagging” (Adelaide Times 8 Nov 1849:1).

The South Australian newspaper (26 Aug 1840) reveals that it was hoped that shipping by sea to Port Adelaide could provide another early option for moving slate: “We understand the (South Australian) Company intend roofing their buildings in the New Port (Port Adelaide) with them (slates); conveying them by dray from Willunga to Onkaparinga, and then shipping them for Port Adelaide”. Then the South Australian Register (26 Sept 1840) recorded that: “We understand the entrance of the Onkaparinga River has been found navigable for small craft, and that a cutter of about six tons went up the river and discharged a cargo of potatoes in the town of Noarlunga last week”. Thus the Onkaparinga River (commonly called “Onkaparinga” or “the Horseshoe”) could have become an early alternative outlet for some Willunga slate. The shallow water over the bar at the mouth of the Onkaparinga (fifteen inches at low tide) and restrictions in the width of the channel (only ten feet wide at about a quarter of a mile from the sea) always made the transportation of heavy goods such as slate by small vessels very difficult and alternative places to load slate were quickly sought.

From the early 1840s very small vessels such as Red Rover (6-tons; imported in sections by Prince Regent in 1839)) and purpose-built, lee-board barges like Onkaparinga Clipper (20-tons; built from salvaged timber from the wreck of David Witton) were regularly taking stores to Heppinstall’s (Hepenstal) whaling station at the mouth of the Onkparinga River as well as to the town of Noarlunga about three miles up the river. They were returning with wool, wheat or copper ore from the South Australian Company’s short-lived copper mine on the hillside near Noarlunga. Sometimes these, and other vessels, may also have been bringing some slate back to Port Adelaide but records are not specific on this and the quantities of slate were probably very small.

Slate exports to other colonies

By early 1841 slate was probably being transported to Port Adelaide by road (and perhaps by sea) and then by sea to other Australian colonies as this quote from the Adelaide Chronicle (21 April 1841) suggests: “Among the important articles of export from South Australia, slate of the very finest quality may now be enumerated. A contract to supply certain parties in Sydney with 20,000 has just been taken…”.  

Aldinga Bay had first been named “Deception Bay” by Colonel William Light and this name was occasionally used during the 1830s but it did not last. By 1841 it had become known as Aldinga Bay (and after 1856 it was named “Port Willunga”). In September 1841 Port Adelaide shipping agent John Newman chartered the South Australian Company’s 105-ton schooner John Pirie (built Aberdeen, Scotland in 1827; Charles Duke, master) to load 100,000 slates at Aldinga Bay for Sydney but unfortunately the vessel ran ashore in a gale on 23 September at Aldinga Bay after loading just 3,000 slates (Adelaide Chronicle 22 Sept 1841:2 & Southern Australian 24 Sept 1841). It was reported that ”Mr Newman’s lighter which was swamped at Aldinga Bay at the time that John Pirie was stranded has not, we regret to hear, been since recovered. Mr Newman’s loss on this occasion amounts to about £160” (Adelaide Independent 21 Oct 1841:2). John Pirie was later refloated and arrived in Port Adelaide for repairs on 22 Oct 1841 with a cargo including 30,000 roofing slates (Southern Australian 29 Oct 1841:2)

Meanwhile, on 4 October 1841, the 140-ton (or 121-ton or 104-ton) brig Emma (built Manning River, NSW in 1838; Alexander Sproul master) had arrived in Port Adelaide from Sydney with a general cargo. On arrival Emma was chartered by John Newman to replace John Pirie, which was ashore at that time, to load slate at Aldinga Bay for Sydney. After arriving at Holdfast Bay from Aldinga Bay on 21 October 1841, Emma sailed on 24 October for Portland, Port Phillip and Sydney with 40 steerage passengers and 85,000 slates destined for Sydney where the vessel arrived on 6 Nov 1841. (Southern Australian 29 October 1841:2). Shortly after this the South Australian Register (11 Dec 1841) reported that: “the slates are now removed from the quarry in drays, to the south extremity of Aldinga Bay, a distance of between six and seven miles, over a road moderately good in dry weather, but almost impassable after heavy rains. The beach, at the place alluded to, is so much steeper than at any other in the Bay…”. As a result Aldinga Bay quickly became established as the alternative to Onkaparinga as a loading point for slate where the slate could be loaded onto lighters (flat-bottomed barges) and transferred to vessels waiting offshore.

In early January 1842 the South Australian Company’s 28-ton schooner Victoria (built Hobart, TAS in 1837; Gilbert Hutchinson, master) was recorded as arriving at Port Adelaide from Aldinga Bay with either 16,600 or 20,000 roofing slates (Adelaide Chronicle 6 Jan 1842). The 50,000 slates carried by John Pirie and Victoria to Port Adelaide were probably used in the construction of buildings for the South Australian Company in the “New Port” at Port Adelaide, perhaps including the SA Company Warehouse.

By 1843 the Adelaide Observer newspaper (12 Aug 1843:5) claimed that “several small cargoes (of Willunga slate) have been exported” to other colonies in Australia. Unfortunately many of the details of coastal shipping voyages and cargoes for the period 1843 to 1849 are largely lacking, including which vessels carried cargoes of slate. Indeed, there may have been a hiatus, or at least a reduction, in the export of roofing slate from Willunga during these years as a result of changes in control at the slate quarries including problems experienced by James Gregor & Co (1842-1844).

Nevertheless, small vessels such as Albatross (13-ton, and later 18-ton, cutter; built Encounter Bay, SA in 1842), Foster Fyans (29-ton cutter; built Sydney in 1837; Robert Donald, master), Governor Gawler (15-ton ketch; imported in frame from England in 1840), Jane Flaxman (10-ton cutter; built in Port Adelaide in 1839), Onkaparinga Clipper (20-ton barge) and William Henry (6-ton cutter; built in Port Adelaide in 1842; Buck, master) are all known to have visited Aldinga Bay and Onkaparinga during the years 1843-1849. These vessels were sometimes recorded as “in ballast” and they may have loaded slate as a form of ballast.

One vessel that was reported as being chartered to bring up slates from Aldinga Bay in April 1846 was the 26-ton (or 35-ton) cutter Rose Anna or Roseanna (built Fremantle, WA in 1844; William Heard, master) and sailed for Sydney from Port Adelaide in May 1846. Throughout this period the difficulties associated with transporting large quantities of heavy slate from the Willunga quarries were considerable as this commentary in the South Australian Register (21 Oct 1846) suggests:

         The slate quarries of Willunga, about thirty miles off, are naturally capable of producing roofing slate and flagging enough for this and every other colony in the Southern hemisphere; but they yet lack the ready means of communication, which capital and labour must supply; and this is why the excellent and beautiful roofing slate of Willunga has not to a greater extent superseded the use of shingles in South Australia, and become more extensively an article of provincial export.

By 1850 flour, wheat, wool and, possibly sometimes, slate were being shipped from “Port Onkaparinga” or “Onkaparinga Bay” in vessels including the schooner Bride (65 or 100 tons; built at the Bay of Island, NZ in 1846), the barge Governor Whallan (59 or 120 tons; built Kangaroo Island in 1849) and the barge Maid-of the-Mill.


Adelaide Chronicle 10 June 1840

Adelaide Chronicle 26 Aug 1840

Adelaide Chronicle 21 April 1841

Adelaide Independent 21 Oct 1841:2

Adelaide Chronicle 22 Sept 1841:2

Adelaide Chronicle 6 Jan 1842

Adelaide Observer 12 Aug 1843:5

Adelaide Observer 16 Dec 1843:4

Adelaide Observer 16 Dec 1843:1

Adelaide Observer 9 March 1844:6

Adelaide Observer 29 March 1845

Adelaide Observer 24 May 1845

Adelaide Observer 16 Aug 1845:1

Adelaide Observer 26 Dec 1846:5

Adelaide Observer 4 Sept 1847:1

Adelaide Observer 2 Oct 1847:8

Adelaide Times 8 Nov 1849:1

Adelaide Times 15 Oct 1850

South Australian 15 Dec 1848

South Australian Gazette & Colonial Register 16 June 1838:1

South Australian Gazette & Colonial Register 27 Oct 1838:4

South Australian Register 6 June 1840

South Australian Register 26 Sept 1840

South Australian Register 24 Oct 1840:2

South Australian Register 23 July 1845:2

South Australian Register 21 Oct 1846

Southern Australian 27 Oct 1838:3

Southern Australian 6 July 1841:1

Southern Australian 24 Sept 1841

Southern Australian 29 October 1841:2

Southern Australian 28 Feb 1843:2

Southern Australian 5 March 1844:2

Southern Australian 10 Sept 1844:2


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