Nobody expects to find a tin smelter in the middle of one of Australia’s wildest World Heritage Areas. But that is exactly what was worked deep in Tasmania’s south west wilderness, until 2007. When the Rallinga mine closed, it was the last tin smelter operating in Australia.
Peter and Barbara Willson were an adventurous couple, having worked in mines and schools in Africa, before fishing in Western Australia and south west Tasmania. In 1974 they bought a tin lease at Melaleuca on the shores of Port Davey. The Rallinga mine was accessible only by foot, plane or boat, had just one neighbour and enjoyed frequent gale force winds and more than two metres of rain each year. It provided the Willsons with plenty of opportunity to practice their self-reliance and sense of adventure.
They transported all their provisions and equipment each year on the boat Peter designed. Barbara created a productive fruit and vegetable garden in waterlogged and acidic soils, baked bread and brewed her own beer. All the while the couple mined alluvial tin (cassiterite), becoming environmental pioneers by rehabilitating their workings as they mined.
An inventive man, Peter designed and built a reverberatory furnace to smelt and refine their ore. The couple worked together to mine, process, smelt and refine the tin. Smelting took up to two days of very heavy labour. By the time they stopped mining in 2007, the Rallinga smelter produced tin of exceptional purity. After cassiterite, coke (for flux) and shell grit was shovelled into the top of the furnace, molten tin was poured from the furnace into inverted 30kg pyramid moulds called floats. These rested on rails which allowed the tin to be wheeled away for further processing. After its final refining, pure tin was poured into 10kg bar moulds for sale to foundries, mostly Retlas Bronze in Hobart. The Willsons collected drips of tin which oozed through brickwork in the base of furnace and displayed them as sculptural pieces in their Melaleuca home.
The Willsons were not just resourceful miners. Like their neighbour, Deny King, they were legendary hosts and worked tirelessly to try and rehabilitate the orange-bellied parrot, a critically endangered bird which nests at Melaleuca. In 2009 Barbara was added to the Tasmanian Honour Roll of Women, largely for her voluntary efforts for the Orange-bellied Parrot Recovery Plan.
Although Peter passed away in 2011, Barbara continues to spend several months a year at Melaleuca, maintaining four decades of association with the remote and beautiful place.