State Library of South Australia logo Your story
SA Memory. South Australia past and present, for the future

The man who might have been the Iron Baron
Title : The man who might have been the Iron Baron The man who might have been the Iron Baron
Add To My SA Memory
Creator : Brinkworth, Peter
Source : People
Place Of Creation : SA
Date of creation : 1893
Format : Photograph
The State Library of South Australia is keen to find out more about SA Memory items. We encourage you to contact the Library if you have additional information about any of these items.
Copyright : Reproduction rights are owned by State Library of South Australia. This image may be printed or saved for research or study. Use for any other purpose requires permission from the State Library of South Australia. To request approval, complete the Permission to publish form.
Description :

Franz Heinrich Ernst Siekmann, known as Ernst, was born in 1830 in the District of Minden, Prussia. In 1853 he took a ship from Bremerhaven to Adelaide where he found work as a woodcutter, storeman, bookkeeper, clerk and grocer. Then after a few years working in Kooringa (Burra) where he managed a large grocery, he set up his own successful business as merchant, wheat-buyer and auctioneer in Saddleworth, married and began a family. In partnership with John Moule he established a series of agencies in the mid-North to further his business interests including wheat buying, flour milling and so on, moving in the 1870s to Caltowie which had become a prosperous wheat-growing district. It was while he was in Caltowie that he became aware of the mineral wealth of Iron Knob.

Corunna (Station) was a large pastoral property around Iron Knob originally settled by Abraham Scott in 1861. During its ownership by brothers C.E. and J.H Morphett in the late 1880s, two Caltowie men, Bill Howie and his mate John Steicke, who were working a fencing contract on the property, noticed a massive red outcrop of ironstone several kilometres south east of the homestead. Once back in Caltowie, Ernst got to hear of it, and with several friends went to investigate, eventually pegging out the area around Iron Knob and Iron Monarch. Ernst, with his son-in-law John Ferry (who had married Caroline Lovy Siekmann, Ernst's eldest daughter), Messrs Boucaut and Blesing of Jamestown, and others, formed a public company called the Mount Minden Mining Company and named after his birthplace. These men were among its first shareholders. In June 1888, ten 80 acre leases were applied for and granted for the purposes of further exploration and mining of the ironstone deposits. Among the leases granted were:

  • M [Mary] Siekmann #1090 Sec. 16886 E. of Corunna Station
  • E [Ernst] Siekmann 1091 16887 "
  • F [Fred] Siekmann 1160 16885 "
  • Other leases were taken up by W T Campbell, P Martin, C E Morphett, J H Morphett, F W J Boase, E Bellhouse, J L Matters and L Solomon.

The company sank a shaft of approximately 500 feet, which established that iron ore existed to that depth, but not precious metals such as gold and silver as they had hoped for. At that time the only use made of the ironstone was as a flux for smelting lead. As the Broken Hill Proprietary Company (the BHP) had a lead smelting plant at Port Pirie just across Spencer Gulf, and ironstone was hard to come by, there was a small but ready market for the ore.

However, the ore had to be carted by bullock wagon to Point Lowly (near present day Whyalla), which was not very economical in terms of the small quantity required, and interest in the mine gradually waned. Thus the enormous mass of iron ore did not realise its potential because of the lack of demand for it at this time.

There was further trouble in 1893 when a general economic depression in the country caused a run on the banks, and many people including Ernst became bankrupt. He had been generous in giving credit to his clients and customers of his Caltowie businesses, but when they were unable to honour their promissory notes that he held, Ernst in turn could not satisfy his creditors. As a result, Ernst and Mary had to move to Adelaide to live, with little more than their furniture and effects. Bankruptcy had another unfortunate effect on the family. During that year, notices appeared in the South Australian Government Gazette advising of payments due on the Iron Knob leases of 4 each per 6 months in 1893 and 2 in 1894. The Gazettes also advertised meetings of the Mount Minden Mining Company in 1893 at the Selborne Hotel in Pirie Street. By August 1896, the leaseholders owed 12 each in rent on their leases, and finally on December 24, 1896, the mining leases were withdrawn due to non-payment of rent. (South Australian Government Gazette December 24, 1896 p. 1467) The Mount Minden Mining Company was liquidated in November 1897.

When he realised the implications of this situation, Ernst sent one of the company's men to repeg the leases, but for various reasons, he failed to do so. Meanwhile, John Darling of the BHP Co, taking the opportunity that presented itself, pegged out the Iron Knob leases in the name of the BHP. Since Darling's company had been the recipient of the iron ore mined there, and in Ernst's eyes a trusted client, Ernst felt that Darling should have been honour bound to repeg the leases on Ernst's behalf, but instead he had jumped the claim. Darling's move was of course legal, but Ernst felt that his action was at best ungentlemanly, at worst immoral. Ernst's replies to questions by a Parliamentary Select Committee are revealing:

"1139. Then you admit that the company (BHP) had a perfect right to take the

leases when you were in default? - Yes; legally they had a perfect right.

1140. Why not morally? - There is a code of morals to constitute a standard.

1141. You cannot express it? - No; but I do not think any honourable man

would do such a thing. After I showed them the place, asked them to

look at it, and then afterwards to go behind my back and do what is

dirty; I have got no name for it."

From SA Parliamentary Paper No. 135, 1900

The details of how Ernst and his company lost the Iron Knob leases are to be found in SA Parliamentary Paper no. 135 just quoted, Report of the Select Committee of the Legislative Council on the Broken Hill Proprietary Company's Tramways and Jetties Bill 1900, especially pp. 32-37, 46-49, 53 and Appendix A p. 80, where Ernst's evidence is given in detail. The Committee investigated issues related to BHP's application to build a tramway from Iron Knob to the coast for the transportation of iron ore. Ernst and others were called to give evidence regarding BHP's right to the leases.

The subsequent debate on the Bill was summarised in The Advertiser Thursday November 22, 1900 [p.6 col. 7] where it was reported that the Report of the Select Committee was adopted: 14 Ayes-7 Noes. The "Ayes" supported Darling's position that he had no case to answer, because his repegging of the leases had been perfectly legal. The "Noes" however were not convinced that Darling had done the right thing by Ernst. For the BHP Co., the outcome proved a bonanza. The wealth created by the iron ore mined at Iron Knob eventually led to the establishment of the city of Whyalla, because of its steel and ship-building industries developed by BHP, and helped BHP become not only Australia's largest mining company, but part of BHP-Billiton, the largest in the world.

If only Ernst (and his fellow shareholders) had maintained payment of the leases and if only those leases had been repegged, the name of Ernst Siekmann might now be celebrated as the original "Iron Baron". Poor Ernst died in 1917, if not penniless, then certainly rather poorer than he had been, or might have been.

Submitted by Peter Brinkworth, (A great-grandson of Ernst)

Period : 1884-1913



About SA Memory

Explore SA Memory

SA Memory Themes


My SA Memory


What's on