Alice Cornwell (1852-1932)

Posted on: 13 August, 2020

Alice Ann Cornwell was an English industrialist, mine speculator, entrepreneur and newspaper owner. She made her fortune from gold after floating her company on the London Stock Exchange. Despite her achievements, she is one of the less known pioneers in Ballarat’s history. Alice lived during a time when it was rare for women to play any public role, and even rarer for them to be involved in business. She was famous for her business skills, her ability to find gold, and for supervising men as a mine manager.

Alice Cornwell was born in West Ham, England on 1 January 1852 to George and Jemima. When Alice was nine years old her family emigrated to New Zealand and later to Australia. Her father was an engineer but was a practical man with a sound business sense.

In 1873, when Alice was 21, she married a 55-year-old blacksmith named John Whiteman, much to her parents’ alarm. Alice gave birth to a son, George, in 1877. After six years of marriage the couple separated, and their son went and lived with his father. Alice then went into partnership with her father who, at this time, was prospecting around Ballarat but was not making a profit. Alice studied his ground and convinced others that a major find lay beneath his land. Shafts were created where she indicated, and gold was reputedly found within 30 cm from the spot she had marked out.

Alice and her father owned several mines including the Midas Mines near Dowling Forest, the Speedwell Mine and the Victorian United. The site of Midas Mine is shown on maps of the area to have been located between Mt Pisgah behind Dowling Forest racecourse and Mt Blowhard. There is no evidence today to indicate the exact spot. Alice became known as Madame Midas.

By the 1880s Alice was often called Australia’s first lady miner, perhaps an exaggeration but for a period she was certainly the wealthiest. In 1886 Alice returned to London as a millionaire. She floated the Midas Mine on the London stock Exchange. She also created the British and Australian Mining Trust and Investment Company. The purpose for creating this company was to allow people to invest their money directly into Australian mines. Here is the link to a newspaper report on the investment company which appeared in The Ballarat Star on 13 August 1889: Click here.

In August 1887 a large nugget was unearthed at the Midas Mine. The nugget weighed 617 ounces of pure gold and was valued at the time as being worth 720 pounds which in today’s money would be around $60,000 - $70,000. Here is the link to a newspaper report on the nugget find that appeared in The Ballarat Star on 24 August 1887: Click here.

In 1887 Alice bought The Sunday Times newspaper as a way of promoting her investment company. She sold the newspaper in 1893 to Frederick Beer. That same year her estranged husband died. She remarried in 1894 to Frederick Stannard Robinson in 1894. Alice died in Hove, England on the 7 January 1932, aged 80.

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Alice Ann Cornwell later Mrs Stannard Robinson
Barraud, H., published 1889. Alice Ann Cornwall. [carbon print]. National Portrait Gallery (UK), NPG Ax5458
Australian Midas Mine map
Ballarat Historian, 1986. Map of Midas Mine. 3(2).