History of West Australia/Frank Herbert Backhouse


IN the great gold-producing fields of Western Australia, where metallurgical knowledge is of paramount importance to the colony's welfare, it becomes a matter of deep concern that skilful experts in chemistry should supervise operations. The treatment of local ores has been subjected to several processes owing to the want of water, and it is comforting to know that in the new processes we have thoroughly able, practical, and theoretical chemists to check, revise, and conduct. Few, if any, possess such a grasp of them in theory and practice as Mr. Frank H. Backhouse. His knowledge has been reaped from incessant experimental study in the laboratory and in the mine.

Frank Herbert Backhouse HOFWA.jpg
Photo by
Hermes & Hall.

Mr. Backhouse was born in Brisbane, Queensland, in 1863. His father was the Hon. Benjamin Backhouse, M.L.C., of New South Wales; his brother is a Judge of the New South Wales Bench. It would be a surprise if such paternal and fraternal intellectual endowments were but slightly disseminated in Mr. Frank, who received commercial and scientific instruction at the Grammar School and King's School, Sydney—institutions which in an efficient way prepared young lads for the University. Little external pressure or kindly demonstration was necessary to make Mr. Frank feel at home amid the noxious gases and disagreeable aromas of the laboratory. He revelled in its interesting disclosures, and before many months preferred, like every true scientist, to gloat over some pages of Roscoe to the sensational delights of a modern novel. Equipped with fundamental knowledge, he entered the college gates of the University. No one knows but the 'undergrad' the strange feelings, delightful yet strange, that pulsate through every nerve and fibre of the frame on the day he enters as a son of his alma mater. He now assumes the toqa viriles, and swells beneath its folds. Science was the faculty in which the name of Mr. Backhouse was enrolled. For three years he was a matriculated student of science. His career, as an alumnus, augured a bright future for him. By his perseverance and diligence in study, he won for himself the kindly guiding influence of the Professor, who gave him every encouragement in his work. After finishing his course he was appointed assistant professor to Mr. W. A. Dixon, F.I.C., Professor of the Chair of Chemistry in the Technical College, Sydney. Such an appointment, the desire and envy of budding graduates, can only be made to what is termed in academic phraseology a "star." For eighteen months he assisted Professor Dixon in scientific research in the laboratory. Part of his duties consisted in delivering a course of lectures to the students of the college on metallurgy, and another part in demonstration in the laboratory. For an assistant professor to gain the respect and attention of his students is not an easy task, but Mr. Backhouse was a favourite with the young fellows. Up to this point he had continued his scientific studies unremittingly. That nursery of inventions—the laboratory had been his abode and joy. Still, without the college walls, a wider world claimed the fruits of his knowledge. His first extra-academic appointment was as assayer to the Sunny Corner Silver and Gold Mine in the Bathurst district. He was there but a short time when he left to gain full acquaintance with the operations and ways of the mining world, and became assistant manager of the Australian K.O. and M. Company, Joadja Creek, Mittagong. Here his extensive knowledge of both inorganic and organic chemistry proved a remunerative boon to the company. He introduced cheaper and more convenient methods of treatment, and gave them the full benefit of his scientific knowledge. But somehow his heart was given to assaying. Metallurgy had always been his favourite subject, and back to Sunny Corner he went as Government Assayer. He was there nine months when he proceeded to the Evelyn Silver Mine, in the Northern Territory, as an assayer and metallurgist. On this mine he assayed for twelve months, and then resolved to exploit Kimberley, in Western Australia. The Kimberley Goldfields had been opened up six months before, and were reported as inconceivably rich. He managed after many weary days of travel, heat, and fatigue to reach the golden west. He started prospecting. Success, however, was moderate, and he returned to Sydney in 1889, and accepted the post of metallurgist in the Kohinoor Mine at Captain's Flat, Braidwood, N.S.W. Like Huma, the bird that never lights and is always on the wing, he went from there to the White Rock Mine in the Tenterfield district. Then he took the management of the Clyde Smelting and Refining Works at Granville, N.S.W.—very large and important works belonging to the Hudson Brothers. His next role was the managerial trust of the Nambucca's Head Gold Mine, situated in the Macleay district. Up to the time of the Western Australian excitement the mining pulse had long beaten slowly. The general tidal-wave that bore in its flood many fortune-mongers, received Mr. Backhouse on its crest and left him high and dry in Western Australia. This was his second Argonautic expedition to the land of the "Golden Fleece." In August, 1893, immediately after his arrival, he started practice in Perth as mining and consulting engineer. His scientific reputation was the means of his obtaining a considerable practice. His counsel and opinion were sought for continually in mining matters, and he gradually gained a business connection with leading mining companies.

The West Australian Goldfields, Limited, was absolutely the pioneer of English companies in Coolgardie. Its directors had just entered into some large mining transactions, and invited Mr. Backhouse to accept the managership of their mines; they acted with discretion in their choice. Since his appointment the company has flourished and been paying goodly dividends, due to the managerial ability. This company, which was floated on the London market by the Hon. H. J. Saunders, M.L.C., a few years ago, is now accredited with the possession of extensive real estate and various properties which necessitate Mr. Backhouse's travelling over large portions of the colony. In his twin capacity of manager and overseer, he inspects and takes accurate bearings and measurements of all the different properties. A series of flotations by the company early took place in rapid succession; the White Feather Reward Mine, Mount Jackson Gold Mine, Mount Margaret Reward Claim, the Princess Alice, the Quartz Hill Reward, and the Yerilla Gold mines. The subsidiary companies now owning these have invested large capital in them, and add the degree of "limited" after their names. As offshoots from the parent stem, it behoves Mr. Backhouse to carefully look to the young twigs and tender branches. Any advice, scientific or mechanical, is to be tendered to them.

Acute and observant, his reports and scientific accounts of the physical features of the country he has traversed, which includes all the gold fields of the interior, must be regarded as stamped with authority, especially in view of his extensive geological and chemical knowledge. He was the first mining engineer in Coolgardie to perform the journey from Coolgardie to Lake Way through the Murchison Goldfields to Geraldton. It was considered a great feat to accomplish. And such a luke-warm epithet does not in any way compensate for the fatigue and many harassing discomforts of the march. His trip was undertaken for a purely scientific purpose, namely, exploration.

In 1895 he was elected a councillor in the Coolgardie municipality. Various corporate bodies in their collective capacity claim his active services. He holds (1896) the honorary position of vice-president of the Chamber of Mines and Commerce. The utility of this body of mining men in standing by and seeing that justice is wrought is now beginning to be more widely recognised. Athletics is natural in the Australian citizen, and with all Mr. Backhouse's flood of business he finds time for patronising various kinds of sport. The Rugby Football Club of Coolgardie may think itself honoured by the presence of his name on the syllabus as vice-president. Similar sporting clubs enrol his name as patron or honorary office-bearer. The very surface of this sketch shows a rich outcrop of energy. That wealth of scientific experience, which is a mechanical mixture of theory and practice, serves well its twofold purpose in Coolgardie. The student of promise in the University has not belied the propitious prophecy. His alma mater has every reason to be proud of one of the ablest of her sons, whose name will long be associated with scientific progress in the gold mining industry of Coolgardie.