To all involved in the opal industry perhaps the most important person in the evolution of the industry was Tullie Wollaston. Through his pioneering efforts Australian opal was introduced to the world stage.
He was born on the 17th May in 1863 on the family property, Lake Hamilton, on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia.
Wollaston dealt in other gemstones but opal was his favorite. In 1890 he successfully marketed Queensland opal. The same year he marketed White Cliffs opal. In 1903 he dealt with Lightning Ridge opal and in 1915 Coober Pedy Opal..
I am amazed at Wollaston’s toughness and his resolve. During his long and arduous trips to the outback opal fields he endured the most extreme conditions. He kept a diary with entries that show his strength of character.
Kyabra Hills is an opal mining area in south western Queensland not far from where my Rainbow Mine was. I spent several years mining there. I prospected and visited a lot of the areas mentioned in Wollaston’s diary.
It is a long way from anywhere and Wollaston’s first trip to buy opal from Joe Bridle, as documented in his diary, is truly gritty.
He left Adelaide in November 1888 in one of the hottest summers ever (He noted the “temperature 111 degrees”.) One of his co adventurers, Herbert Buttfield, later perished from the harse conditions not that many kilometers from Rainbow.
Selected tip-bits from the diary of this trip read:
“Hergott Springs, red clay pan, treeless and grassless, stock dying everywhere.”
“December 14th- Innaminka at last. Only 23 days after leaving Adelaide, and it seems 23 years!”
December 19th “St John, my riding camel, fell with me three times today. Reached waterhole 7pm, tired out aching limbs and sore throat.
December 23rd “Same old conditions; sore footed camel: walked ten miles on foot. Mirages wonderful to-day; unbelievable till seen. The hours drag out so interminably we dare not look at our watches.”
December 27th “Heat awful. Self and beast utterly exhausted on reaching Tanbar at 9.30 pm.”
“I shall, as long as I live, remember that blood-red sun sinking over the blackening desert, that sickening hot wind, the smell of smoking clay and burnt stones, and the sickening sense of despair.”
He arrived at Joe Bridle’s camp on the 9th January 1889, covering 700 miles in seven weeks.
He had not seen Bridle for two years and it is not known if he actually purchased any opal from him. He does record, however, opal he purchased from the Breakfast Creek field. “Sixty one pieces of Breakfast Creek stone from Charlie Whitehead for twenty seven pound. It was small stuff but very brilliant, and the dancing lights pricked my hands in a delicious way.”
This last entry, to me, shows that Wollaston had opal fever. He obviously felt the magic that emanates from good quality opal. The lengths he went to, to acquire such gems, would have heightened his appreciation of it
Eight days after returning to Adelaide he was aboard the S.S. Sydney, bound for London with his wife and baby and a bag full of opal rough.
In London he was deeply disappointed to discover the gem dealers wanted nothing to do with Australian opal. Finally he found Hasluck Bros., of 104 Hatten Garden who were eager to give this new Australian opal a chance. So, at last, Australian opal was soon to find acceptance on to the world market place.
Wollaston’s life was one of adventure, excitement and he must have had an intense passion for opal. It must be remembered that at this time only the very best opal found its way on to the market place so he must have held some exquisite opal.
A much more detailed and absolutely fascinating account of Wollaston’s part and influence in the opal industry can be read in Len Cram’s book ‘A Journey with Colour’ Volume 1