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Charles Rasp, the Silver King of Broken Hill

Adventures
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Charles Rasp is credited as the founder of Broken Hill but there’s much more to his story than a simple miner striking lucky.

Hieronymous Salvator Lopez von Pereira was born in Saxony, Germany, on 23 November, 1847. But this Portuguese aristocrat is better known in Australia as Charles Rasp, the founder of Broken Hill. While most would hang on to such a colourful and well-connected name, Rasp’s father made the change is an attempt to hide from the famous Rothschild financiers. The deception went deep enough that Rasp had his own birthday and birth city – 7 October, 1846, in Stuttgart.

Rasp left the German army during the Franco-Prussian war and sailed for Australia to improve his health. By the mid-1870s he was living in Victoria, working on pastoral properties. From there he moved around Queensland and NSW until taking work as a boundary rider at Mount Gipps Station, where he developed an outstanding reputation as a bushman.

Although he’d received a first-class education – he spoke English, Russian, French and Portuguese as well as German – Rasp wasn’t trained as a geologist, which makes his discovery of the wealth at Broken Hill all the more surprising. Instead, he relied upon his powers of observation, a copy of the Prospectors’ Guide and presumably an inquisitive nature to uncover minerals at a site which had been examined before and dismissed as a worthless hill of mullock.

He pegged the first block on the rocky outcrop known as the Broken Hill on 5 September, 1883, where he thought he’d found a mountain of tin. Along with his employer, Mount Gipps station manager George McCulloch, and five other workers, he formed a syndicate of seven and a further six blocks were pegged, encompassing the whole ridge.

Looking only for tin, reports from their Adelaide-based analysts were disappointing until, in 1885, rich silver ore was detected. That launched the Broken Hill mining boom and within five years Rasp – who, unlike some in the syndicate, held onto his shares – had made a fortune.

The conditions they faced during the early period were harsh, with Rasp telling the 19 August, 1905 edition of the Melbourne Argus: “At the start it was very bad. There was no accommodation, water and provisions were scarce and the weather was very trying. It was an awfully dusty place. For 12 months it was really doubtful whether we would make anything out of it; I had unlimited faith in it right through. Of course, I did not think it would turn out as big as it has done, but I always thought it would be a fairly good thing.”

Rasp’s “fairly good thing” is a fine example of Australian understatement – Broken Hill turned out to be the largest single source of silver, lead and zinc in the world. Measuring 7.5 kilometres long and 250 metres wide, it would eventually generate more than $100 billion and it thrust the young Commonwealth of Australia into an important role on the world’s economic stage.

Yet despite being one of the largest shareholders in the Broken Hill Proprietary Company Limited – which was floated as a public company on 13 August, 1885 – Rasp never joined the board of BHP.

Now in his forties, he moved to Adelaide, where he married German-born waitress Agnes Maria Louise Klevesahl on 22 July, 1886. For their honeymoon the couple went to Silverton, and the following year, Rasp bought a gracious mansion in the inner-north Adelaide suburb of Medindie. He named it Willyama – the Aboriginal name for Broken Hill – and it seems his silver touch went with him as Willyama sold for $6.4 million in 2006.

By 1890, Rasp’s shares in BHP were worth more than £1,000,000 and with this wealth the couple travelled extensively, in Australia and overseas. In May 1897 the couple left for an extended holiday visiting Europe, Africa, China, Japan and India, while three years later – accompanied by their servant, Anna Paech – the couple left for a two-year visit to England and Europe.

On May 22, 1907, Rasp died suddenly from a heart attack at Willyama, aged 60. Agnes died in Adelaide on May 26, 1936, aged 79 and was buried in the same grave as her husband in North Road Cemetery, Adelaide.

Despite his obscure origins, there is no doubt as to Rasp’s immense contribution to Australia. Emeritus Professor of Economic History at the University of Melbourne Geoffrey Blainey stated: “Charles Rasp is one of the most important figures in the history of our land in the late 19th century. In discovering the silver-lead of Broken Hill he initiated and shaped a crucial event in our economic development.”

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