Peter Owens reviews a mineral we once exported to the UK that had unprecedented value to the allied victory in WW1.
From the ‘forgotten history’ archives, our country played a key role in the manufacture of top quality artillery shells for the British Army on the Western Front during WW1, and in the building of ships for the Royal Navy.
This was through the mining and export of scheelite, a tungsten ore, vital in the manufacture of strengthening the casing of heavy artillery shells and in the steel plate for warships.
In 1915 the British Government requisitioned our country’s entire output of scheelite which was being mined in Marlborough, Otago and in the Lakes District of the South Island.
And it was prepared to pay well for our scheelite – paying 80 percent higher for the ore than had been received before the war.
This cash incentive boosted the scheelite industry. Up until then, there were only five companies mining the ore, but by 1917 this had grown to 40 and scheelite mining was classified as an essential industry.
In 1917 over half of the scheelite exported to Great Britain was mined at Glenorchy, near the head of Lake Wakatipu. Today Glenorchy is a busy and popular tourist hub, but in 1917 it was remote from civilisation. Mining for scheelite at Glenorchy had started in 1880 after gold fossickers identified the metal. Curiously, a significant amount was also found at Macraes’ Flat in East Otago, now the site of OceanaGold’s massive gold mining operation,
The balance came from a number of small mines near Blenheim at Wakamarina and in various parts of Otago.
Despite the good returns, mining scheelite in those days was hard work. When seams of the ore were located they had to be chipped out by hand. The recovered metal was then crushed, screened and bagged for export.
The material was also appraised by the new Department of Imperial Government Supplies (also set up in 1915), which was charged with testing and grading the scheelite before it was exported to the UK.
Exporting such a valuable ore was not without risk. German raiders were active in both the Pacific and Atlantic throughout the war and mines were even sown at the entrance to Lyttelton Harbour.
The value of the scheelite was such that the British Government found considerable difficulty in insuring its precious cargo. Will Lawson, a journalist and writer highly regarded in both Australia and New Zealand, noted at the time that Kiwi scheelite shipments were more valuable than the Spanish “treasure ships” in the wake of the Conquistadores conquest of much of Central and South America!
And it is interesting to note that, before the outbreak of the war, mining companies in Glenorchy had been exporting a significant amount of their mined scheelite to the Krupp Works in Essen, Germany.
These sales stopped immediately on the outbreak of World War I.
After the war ended, the price of scheelite fell, and although mining was resumed in World War II and in the Korean War, scheelite mining in New Zealand has been moribund.