By any measure Burra is a fascinating town. It calls itself 'An Historic Copper Town and the Merino Capital of the World', a title justified as it was declared a State Heritage town in 1994 because it has a wealth of outstanding historic buildings and offers a rare opportunity for the visitor to appreciate what life in a 19th century copper mining town was like. In more recent times the area around Burra has been used as a setting for films including the highly regarded 'Breaker Morant'.
Located 156 km north of Adelaide, Burra is on the edge of marginal land. It is a pretty and historic town where the visitor can easily spend a full day exploring the town's rich mining history.
No one knows how Burra got its name or where the word comes from. There is a school of thought that contends that the original name of the area was 'Burra Burra' (and there is written evidence to support this) but some claim 'burra burra' means 'great great' in Hindustani - a word which came from the early shepherds - while others argue that 'burra' is so common in Aboriginal languages (Tibooburra, kookaburra for example) that it has definite Aboriginal roots.
Copper was first discovered in the Burra district in 1845 by two shepherds, William Streair and Thomas Pickett. The area was so substantial that it was initially known as 'The Burra' and divided into a number of separate communities which reflected the origins of the miners. There was Redruth for the Cornish miners; Aberdeen for the Scottish miners; Llychwr for the Welsh miners and Hampton for the English miners. All these remnant villages still exist and can be explored.
By 1851 the excitement produced by the copper had led to 5,000 miners moving to the area but by the middle of the decade many had left hoping to experience vast riches on the Victorian goldfields.
In the early days the miners believed the copper lode would last for hundreds of years but it was exhausted after 32 years. By 1877 the open cut mining had stopped. Fortunately the town was not dismantled. It became an important regional service centre and, with a fine sense of its own importance, it became a State Heritage Town. Today visitors can experience something of the flavour of a fascinating boom mining town on the edge of South Australia's vast desert area.
Things to see
The Historic Passport
Local Tour Program which covers a total of 43 heritage sites (yes, there are that many) and includes details of an 11 km walk. There are some of the historic sites that need to be opened by a key and that is provided with the Historic Passport. For details contact (08) 8892 2784. The historic sites available to the Passport purchasers include:
The Burra Mine Site and Powder Magazine
Take the turn left off Market Street and drive up the hill (this is north of the town centre). This is a huge old copper mine which ensured the town's continuing existence. This area also offers excellent views from the Lookout (you don't need the key) and vast amounts of information about the mines which are contained on photographic boards around the site. A notice at the beginning of the site announces: 'The Burra Mine Open Air Museum has been developed to conserve the history and extensive remains of the Burra Mine. The Burra Mine which operated between 1845 and 1877 was once the largest in Australia. The site is one of the most significant mining heritage sites in Australia. Explore the site along self-guided walking tracks. Interpretive panels at key points explain the various mining operations.' In the same area, and only available to people with the key, are
Morphett Enginehouse Museum
A remarkable building which has been fully restored and has a number of displays of Beam Engines and Engine Houses. Also available is access to
In Blyth Street (east of the town centre) these dugouts were built in the 1840s as a simple kind of accommodation for the miners who flocked to the diggings. They were very basic accommodation in a time of great hardship. By any measure they are extraordinary and it is still possible to walk inside and inspect these simple dwellings. The 1851 census recorded that out of a total Burra population of 4400 about 1800 people lived in dugouts along Burra Creek and its tributaries. Of these one-third were children under the age of 14 and the unsanitary living conditions contributed to outbreaks of typhus, smallpox and typhoid fever. During 1851 alone there were 153 deaths in Burra, many of them young children in the dugouts.
Also available by key is the
Police Lock-up and Stables
On the corner of Ludgvan and Tregony Streets the police station was completed in 1847 when, after a number of years as frontier town some semblance of law and order arrived. As well there is
Located off Tregony Street it was built in 1856. This gaol now has an interesting collection of pieces depicting the kinds of prison conditions which existed in the 19th century. It was used extensively during the filming of Breaker Morant and there is now a room devoted to 'Breaker Morant' with suitable memorabilia from the film.
The placards around the gaol offer a rare insight into the life of the prisoners. A couple of favourite captions: 'In 1902 on escaping two girls cut their hair, donned boys caps and breeches and roamed for ten days in the guise of two lads looking for work ... In 1919 three girls Violet Benson, Ada Newchurch and Ursula Cruse were on the roof, dancing, singing low songs, swearing downright insolence, destroying the government property and undressing and exposing themselves to all passersby in only their flannels and bloomers.'
The key will also provide access to the Unicorn Brewery Cellars (in Bridge Terrace and built in 1873) and to Hampton, the ruins of the village which originally housed the English miners.
Bon Accord Mine Complex
Located on the corner of West and Linkson streets, the Bon Accord Mine Complex is an interpretative centre which allows visitors to experience what Burra was like in the 1850s when it had a population of over 5,000. For details of opening times and conducted tours contact (08) 8892 2056
Burra Market Square Museum
Located off Market Street and opposite the Anglican Church this museum includes recreations of a family home, a general store and a post office all of which have their original furniture and fittings. For details of opening times contact (08) 8892 2154.
Located on Paxton Square (just across the Burra Creek from the town centre) this delightful run of cottages was built between 1849-52. One of the cottages is open for inspection and some of them are available as accommodation for visitors. Contact (08) 8892 2154 for details.
Of particular interest (you will need a map because it is on the edge of town) is Hampton Township which was the original settlement for the English who came to live in Burra. It is distinguised by the fact that there are now no complete buildings. All the town is in ruins. Over the years locals have pilfered bricks from the site. It offers the best view over the town but it was the last to receive electricity and water and consequently people moved from Hampton into the main town.
Burra Tourist Information Centre
2 Market Square
Burra SA 5417
Telephone: (08) 8892 2154
Facsimile: (08) 8892 2555