James Smith was known for his stolid, austere way of life, which in Tasmania was enough to earn him the splendid nickname ‘Philosopher’. “I cannot remember ever hearing him laugh,” his son recalled, “but occasionally he would smile at something amusing or pleasing.”
Spartan and Stoic in style, Philosopher Smith was actually a teetotalling Christian, with a strong faith that matched his sagacious beard. The son of convicts, Smith was an early settler in the lower reaches of the beautiful Forth River in north-western Tasmania, in the middle decades of the 1800s. After a stint on the Victorian gold fields as a younger man, he began prospecting in Tasmania.
This was no insignificant endeavour, as Tasmanians were desperately keen to uncover the colour of mineral wealth. With convict transportation recently halted, the island needed new economic stimuli; colonies elsewhere were gaining riches from gold, and the Tasmanian workforce was depleted by emigration to these fields. A forced amalgamation with the state of Victoria was not out of the question.
Philosopher Smith found small patches of minerals in the north-west, such as rutile, copper, iron and silver. But when he came upon a sample of tin-bearing cassiterite on the slopes of Mount Bischoff in 1871, the Tasmanian economy was to enter a period of optimism for the first time in many years. The following year, the prospecting Philosopher found a massive body of tin ore on the mountain: underground workings would go on to extract more than five million tonnes from Bischoff, and at a time it was the richest tin mine on the planet.
The man himself was hardy and undemanding, but some credit needs to be given to Philosopher Smith’s dog. On a previous venture, Smith had nearly been killed by a dog who, scrambling up the bank of a creek, dislodged a large stone which went “whizzing close past” his head. But the Philosopher continued to take dogs on his prospecting journey, and in 1871, he was with his “sort of Collie-Spaniel”, named Bravo.
It was towards the end of the expedition and Philosopher had run out of almost all of his supplies, when Bravo killed an echidna – provisions enough to keep the prospector out for another day to revisit the potential lode. The last of his tea-leaves went into the billy, and a morsel of bread (half-eaten by a native animal) went with the echidna meat. Philosopher Smith returned to the complex geological structure of Mount Bischoff and confirmed that there was tin in that hill.
“Good many blokes got their pockets well lined at that show,” says one character in a 1920s novel set in the area, as he nods back to Mount Bischoff. And so it was, but one man who did not make much from the mining of Bischoff was Philosopher Smith himself, who parted ways with the Mount Bischoff before the first dividend was paid. You get the feeling it didn’t bother him so much. He was still prospecting in the difficult country of north-western Tasmania a dozen years later.
He would eventually return to Launceston, where he had passed some time in his youth. Launceston was economically buoyant, largely thanks to Mount Bischoff – the wealth from its tin was being gleaned by Tasmania’s northern settlement as it was smelted and exported. Philosopher Smith found fortune of another kind: there, he married a widow named Mary Jane Love - “by all accounts a caring loving wife and quite attractive to boot,” according to folklore. He was approaching fifty years of age at this time.
Philosopher Smith would pass away two decades, and is buried in a cemetery in the township of Forth. Bravo’s fate, and the whereabouts of his remains, are unknown.
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