Tess Alfonzi

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Tess Alfonzi (the first woman in Broken Hill to own and operate her own mine) was a bush-woman, businesswoman, miner, and contributor to the NASA Apollo Space Program. She lived by one of her best-loved expressions: “there’s no such word as can’t.” Tess could drive a front-end loader, wield a heavy geologist’s hammer and shoot a .303 rifle.

Tess Alfonzi was born Theresa Bazzica in Oneta, a small village in northern Italy. Her family emigrated to Australia when she was eight and, with her knowledge of twenty-three Italian dialects, at the age of sixteen she found work as an interpreter in South Australia. She was drawn to Broken Hill in the 1920s and, in the bar of the Grand Hotel where she worked, heard tales of the riches being mined in the desert around the town. Broken Hill was by now famous for the discovery of silver, zinc and lead, but there were also lesser-known treasures, including a shiny, silvery mineral called mica that clings like fish scales to granite and other rocks. When Tess met and married Louis Kumm, a German miner, the adventure began.

Tess and Louis set up a camp in the Thackaringa Hills north-west of Broken Hill: a few hessian sacks stretched across some saplings, a billy, a rifle, a hammer-tap drill and a mule cart. They found mica, valuable for its use as an electrical insulator, but as soon as they had a small fortune in glittering rocks packed into the mule cart they were robbed. They started again. They found feldspar, used widely in glazes and ceramics, and beryl, of which emerald and aquamarine are varieties, and from which beryllium is sourced. These three minerals became the foundation for the Triple Chance Mine, and Louis and Tess mined it into a successful enterprise between the 1930s and 1950s.

Tess and Louis divorced and ten years later Tess married her foreman, Dominic Alfonzi. By now she had more than twenty mines in NSW and South Australia which provided most of the feldspar for the Australian market. The beryllium used for the Apollo Space Program came from Tessa Alfonzi’s mines, and NASA acknowledged her contribution to the mission. She was awarded the Order of Australia in 1980. Another of her favourite sayings was: ‘anyone can do anything if they want to’. 

Audio transcript available.