The town of White Cliffs, situated in northwest NSW, was Australia’s first viably commercial opal field and was first discovered in 1884 by a couple of stock-hands, kangaroo shooting during the drought, on Moomba Station. The roo shooters sent a sample of the colourful rocks they discovered, to be analysed in Adelaide. These beautiful stones were directed to the geologist Tullie Wollaston.

Wollaston couldn’t believe his eyes and embarked immediately on a journey to meet the shooters and to visit the area where the rocks were found. When he met the shooters he offered 140 pounds for the first samples. The shooters couldn’t believe their ears and so eagerly accepted the offer. Wollaston would have offered more.

Subsequently Wollaston became the first opal buyer in Australia. He promoted White Cliff’s opals in Europe and America, bringing this naturally beautiful and rare gemstone back to life after it’s demise, due to the exhausted mines on the Hungarian opal fields some hundred years earlier.

White Cliffs opal was unique in that it was the first commercial seam opal to be discovered. Forming in flat stones, in the mostly softer sandstone, it was easier to clean, grade and cut into the prized gemstone jewelry known around the world today.

For about 30 years from 1890, a small settlement grew once commercial mining began supplying the world with the precious gem. In that time fossils were excavated ranging from: opalised wood, snails, pippie and scallop shells and belemnites through to more major opalised fossils: dogsharks, plesiosaurs, ichthyosaur and the unusual ‘pineapple’ crystals. Unfortunately there was only a small market for such curios and so most of these fossils were cut into jewelry. The opal, displaying such vivid colours that had never been seen before, surpassed the quality of Hungarian opal.

By 1890 the settlement grew to be named White Cliffs, the name derived from the surrounding countryside with the white underlying sandstone outcrops along the escarpments of the hills contrasting from the rusty red topsoil typical of this area.

As a result of the succession of opal strikes the township grew to some 2000 miners with many others providing services for them. 1892 saw the arrival of the first hotel and general store run by William Johnston. The word got out about another run of opal and the following year saw another influx of miners. It seemed like opal was everywhere you dug a hole.

Building materials were scarce and the nearby mining town at Nutharungi was dismantled and used in White Cliffs by those lucky enough to afford it. Others began to live underground, converting their old mines into homes. This practice still occurs today with a number of the White Cliffs’ residents living underground in beautiful dugouts. One hundred million rabbits can’t be wrong!.

The town peaked at 1902 when 140000 pounds of opals were mined and sold.

For the next ten years, after 1903, the town slowly dwindled as the richer area of the field was mined out and the conditions proved too harsh. White Cliffs also suffered from the advent of World War 1 as the miners were called to fight the Germans - who happened to be the biggest buyers and dealers of opal at that time. Trading halted with Germany, and as a result, White Cliffs opal fields never really recovered.

The conditions were harsh. Water shortages meant that water was brought in with horses or camels from some 100 km away. The graves of many women and children, their headstones still standing, tell the tales of their hardships. The cholera-infected water took its toll, mostly upon the young. History also notes cases of typhoid.

Some of the old buildings and relics remain; reminding us of the colourful past. The Post Office is still the Post Office, the old Police Station has been extensively renovated into a private residence and the old church is still the old church. There are a couple of other buildings, less prominent but history all the same, like the old butcher’s shop which is surprisingly still standing. There are relic sites everywhere; like the cannery and it’s pile of rusty cans, the cordial factory with it’s scattered green bottles, the slaughter yards, the abattoirs and various other campsites

We’d like to thank Mr Len Cram for allowing us to reproduce a number of historic photos from the book, “A Journey with Colour” a history of White Cliffs over the past 100 years.

Len Cram is the author of a number of fine books about Australian opals. If you have any trouble obtaining copies of this book contact us via e-mail.