James 'Philosopher' Smith

Mt Bischoff mine (AOT, PH30/1/75)

James 'Philosopher' Smith (182797), prospector and mining investor, sparked Tasmania's mining industry, which invigorated its economy and widened its economic and political base. Born at George Town, he was largely self-educated. His humble circumstances and the stigma of convict parentage probably spurred his determination to prove himself by emulating contemporary heroes like the missionary explorer David Livingstone.

After joining the Victorian gold rushes, in 1853 Smith settled near the Forth River. For twelve years he searched the inhospitable highlands for an 'El Dorado', improving his prospecting skills but impairing his health. Insatiably curious, he loved nature and bush adventures. In 1871 his perseverance was rewarded by his discovery of a rich tin deposit at Mount Bischoff. Smith received £1500 and 4400 paid-up shares in the Mount Bischoff Tin Mining Company, from which he split in 1876 after a disagreement over the mine management of Ferd Kayser.

Smith expected Mount Bischoff to conform to the Cornish model of a long-serving payer of moderate dividends. The share 'skyrocket' which actually followed would have made him a mining magnate had he not sold many shares earlier to anchor his family's future in property. Yet this studious, self-made gentleman was hardly the disenfranchised prospector of legend.

Mount Bischoff precipitated a mining boom which made Smith Tasmania's first native-born popular hero and probably Australia's first prospector hero. He campaigned for public works, fostered the Zeehan and Heazlewood silver fields, and in his final years the sinewy, bearded Smith was 'reborn' as a prospector. A devout Congregationalist, this diffident man was famous for his high principles and charitable nature.

Further reading: N Haygarth, Baron Bischoff, Launceston, 2004; D Groves et al, A century of tin mining at Mount Bischoff, Hobart, 1972.

Nic Haygarth