HAVE you heard the one about the St Patrick’s College sports star who discovered the world’s richest opal ﬁeld?
Not many know about Ballarat’s connection to Coober Pedy, home of the opal and one of the toughest towns in outback Australia.
Until recently, even St Patrick’s College was unaware of the exploits of one its ex-students, William Hutchison, who made the ﬁrst opal discovery as a 14-year-boy nearly a century ago.
And if not for a recent trip to Coober Pedy by a current St Patrick’s College student - himself just a year younger than Bill was when he made his stunning ﬁnd - the connection may have stayed hidden forever.
The tale of gold prospector James Hutchison and his son Bill (or Willie as he was sometimes known) is one that would make Burke and Wills proud.
It has everything - despair, seemingly insurmountable odds and, ultimately, a bittersweet ending for the young hero who won plaudits as a top athlete for his school.
The year 1914 was a tough one in many ways.
It was overshadowed in Australia by the outbreak of World War I, which wiped out a generation of promising young men.
It was also the year James and Bill Hutchison would set out to try and make their fortune in the blood red dust of the South Australian outback.
The party consisted of four hardy types. There was Jim and his son Bill, then a teenager, as well as PJ Winch from Melbourne and Mel McKenzie from Port Augusta.
They acquired camels and supplies at the tiny town of Hergott, now Marree, and set out hundreds of kilometres from their serendipitous ﬁnd.
It was gold they were looking for, which Jim hoped they would uncover in a few promising quartz reefs he’d seen during a previous trip made before the turn of the century.
What they found wasn't gold, but thirst.
The weather was stiﬂing. Sometimes it would get as high as 50 degrees in the shade, as the four searched fruitlessly for both water and gold.
“We were thinking what on earth has this little boy from St Pat’s got to do with the opal capital of the world?”
Their plight wasn't helped by a crippling drought, the worst the state had seen, that was wiping out livestock right through the region. At one station, Jim saw 400 dead and dying cattle.
Making things worse was the intense wind. It was blowing like a blast furnace, creating massive dust clouds out of the red earth that made it tough to see where they were going.
They carried plenty of water, but it wasn't always enough.
The further they went into the outback, the drier the country became. There were no birds or dingoes. Life was only spotted at the increasingly rare waterholes.
Even their camels were showing signs of distress from a lack of fresh water, making the group very nervous about what they would do if their supplies ran out.
After more than a month of searching, the group camped at the foot of the Stuart Ranges, what we now know as Coober Pedy. There they found a small supply of good water, but not enough to last the camels more than a couple of days.
It was still as hot as hell and they could barely eat a meal for the ﬂies.
On February 1, a Monday, Jim and the rest of the group left the camp at ﬁrst daylight with camels to go looking in different directions for water.
Jim decided to leave young Bill at the camp because he thought it would do him good to have a rest, instead of a hard day walking around under a baking sun.
That decision would ultimately be an historic one.
When they returned that night it was discovered that Bill had disappeared. It was after dark and the young fella had been gone for some time, judging by the state of the ﬁre.
Just as the group was preparing to try and ﬁnd Bill, he returned to camp with a big smile on his face.
He had discovered opal. More importantly, believed the young boy, he had found water.
According to Jim’s diaries, published 20 years later, Bill threw down half a sugar bag full of opal and said simply: “Have a look at that Dad, I think you will ﬁnd some good stuff there.”
Jim wanted to be angry at his son for leaving the camp, but couldn't. After all, Bill had found enough water for eight days. As well as all that opal.
That wasn't the last of their troubles, however. It wasn't until the end of March that Jim and Bill made their way back to Adelaide, again struggling with dwindling water supplies.
The discovery didn't make the Hutchisons rich. Due to the remoteness of the area, it took time before there was a rush to mine Coober Pedy. The later miners did better out of it than the Hutchisons.
One year later, perhaps thanks to his initial ﬁnd, Bill ended up as a boarder at St Patrick’s College in Ballarat.
A strapping young lad, Bill was a star athlete representing the school in running, football and as a rower in the Head of the Lake.
He was also a decent cricketer. According to the school’s 1918-19 sports record, Bill was “one of the most consistent performers who ever donned a pad” for the college.
Bill was also one of the more popular students at the school and known to many as a very decent bloke.
Unfortunately, Bill’s life was cut short. He died at just 21, while swimming in the Georgina River in central west Queensland. Flash ﬂoods were said to have swollen the river, which may have caught Bill unaware.
A decent bushman with strong swimming skills, he was droving 1000 head of cattle from Queensland to South Australia.
It was the end of a promising young life.
According to the local newspapers, Bill’s death cast a gloom over his home town of Mount Gambier. His parents were devastated.
His life may have been short and eventful, but Bill clearly felt a soft spot for his time in Ballarat.
In his ﬁnal letter to his mother he reminded her to pay his fees to the St Patrick’s College Old Boys Association.
St Patrick’s College wasn't aware of the story until current student Ben O’Connor discovered it during a trip to central Australia last month.
Ben was travelling with his family and stopped in to a museum. He was excited to see some items celebrating Bill’s life, including a St Patrick’s College rowing photo.
“I saw the St Patrick’s and I’m thinking ‘there’s plenty of St Patrick’s all over Australia’ and then I saw the St Patrick’s College Ballarat part and it was all the right colours,” he says.
After telling the school about the ﬁnd, St Patrick’s College archivist Catriona Banks was tasked with ﬁnding out more.
So far, a number of year books and photos have turned up that prominently feature Bill.
“We were thinking what on earth has this little boy from St Pat’s got to do with the opal capital of the world?” she says.
Like that historic opal ﬁnd more than 98 years ago, Catriona says the discovery of Bill Hutchison’s story by Ben O’Connor was pure chance.
“He just happened to be there and happened to notice the pictures and had a look.”