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Minnie Berrington’s opal dreams

This is a sneak peek into edition 24 of Traces!

By Marianne van Velzen

Why would a good-looking, upper-class English girl choose to spend her life working as an opal miner in one of the most barren and unforgiving places in the world? That’s exactly what London typist Alice Minnie Florence Davies-Berrington did in 1926 when she packed her bags and took her younger brother on a voyage to Australia.

Digging shafts in the hot Australian interior may not have been everyone’s cup of tea in 1926, especially if the only other people around were a collection of scruffy, rough and weather-beaten men. But from the moment she drove into Coober Pedy with her 16-year-old brother, Victor, Alice Minnie Florence Davies-Berrington (who went by Minnie Berrington) was spellbound. She would later write: ‘It was pure magic. A golden light suffused everything. The air was so clear it seemed to sparkle … The sand was a lovely shade of rose. The enchantment of that golden serenity was so complete that I knew I would never willingly live in a city again.’

But how did this girl, who had attended a boarding school in England, end up in the Australian outback, working as an opal digger? To understand her motives, we need to go back to Minnie’s childhood, which is one of many upheavals and tragedies.

Minnie came from a wealthy family. Her grandparents owned a 19-bedroom mansion, and it was rumoured that the Davies-Berringtons were direct descendants of the Plantagenets, the ancient and powerful family that originated from France and had held the English throne from Henry II. Minnie’s father, Evelyn Davies-Berrington, had managed a goldmine in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Evelyn left the job when the mine began to show signs of downfall, alongside his health. Making his way back to England with his wife and three children, and fearing the cold English weather, Evelyn decided to stop in France for a while. With more than enough money to support his family and nothing to keep himself occupied, he began spending his days at the gambling tables in Cannes.

He lost everything he owned in a matter of months and returned to England penniless, where he died a few years later, leaving his family destitute and Minnie’s mother pregnant with their fourth child. Family stepped in to ensure that the three children were sent to decent schools. Minnie’s mother was left to fend for herself and her life became a daily fight for survival. Minnie’s youngest brother, Victor, was born three months after their father died.

To find out more about Minnie’s story, read the latest edition of Traces.

Pictured: Minnie with her dog Taff riding the camels to Five Mile. Image courtesy of Lorna Cameron Private Collection.

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