Money Pits: British Mining Companies in the Californian and Australian Gold Rushes of the 1850s by John Woodland (review)
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Reviewed by
John Woodland. Money Pits: British Mining Companies in the Californian and Australian Gold Rushes of the 1850s. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing 2014. xiii + 282 pp. ISBN 9781472442796, $124.95 (cloth).

The gold rush in popular imagination paints a picture of rugged landscapes of a young and wild United States, traversed by solo [End Page 455] miners looking to literally "strike it rich." To anyone not knowledgeable on the subject of nineteenth-century mining specifically or global business generally, this period and mania comes across as a rather unstructured, unsophisticated exercise in rent seeking. Money Pits, however, conveys the complex structures and operations of the various mining companies in California and Australia that emerged to seize opportunity, along with their numerous failures in the face of overwhelming obstacles and costs. In this text, Woodland highlights the expertise, financing requirements, and seemingly endless risks encountered by companies in their endeavor to reap profits in a vastly unsettled and wild countryside.

The book begins with a contextual overview before launching into a detailed exploration of company promoters: key individuals who were essential in the reputation building and growth of mining companies. The following chapters provide an interesting examination of general company structures and national government policies that impacted these various mining communities, as well as a description of a number of companies operating in both Californian and Australia. A comprehensive overview of this burgeoning industry in these locations is provided by including (1) companies of different origins (for example, the British Australia Mining Company, which was formed by two brothers, one each living in Great Britain and Australia); (2) companies with myriad internal structures, financing, and expertise; and (3) companies that faced varied local obstacles. These descriptions allow for an illumination of cross-border agency problems, differing modes of company control, and the multiple roles of company directors. This type of detail in the history of business in the 1850s is rare and indeed welcome, as too often historians of business turn to the late Victorian period or twentieth century for examples of complex corporate structures. The final chapters continue this important approach by examining shareholder activism within these companies and, at long last, success among a multitude of failures. These chapters allow the reader to gauge the significance and effectiveness of shareholder rights and activity from a distance, which appears all too familiar in the current age of multinational enterprise and rising foreign ownership. The final chapter examines the rather successful Port Phillip and the Colonial Gold Mining Company, which provides an interesting comparison against the many cases of failure Woodland details in the preceding chapters.

As mentioned, the book provides an overwhelming amount of detail on the companies presented, much of which has been gathered by newly issued Mining Journal and similar types of publications [End Page 456] intended for public consumption. Here Woodland has demonstrated excellent use of these sources and brought together details from these texts in an eloquent and succinct way. However, as a historian interested in the intricacies of business relationships, particularly in a global context, I am intrigued to know if personal correspondence and other such documents might provide a different or perhaps even more complex tale of failure and challenges. That said, the author has certainly provided plentiful details on the individuals and operations that were essential to this period and industry.

Woodland has raised a number of important themes for this period, which opens the door to further inquest and research in the early mining industries as well as any number of other cross-border business ventures undertaken in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Woodland's description of company promoters and mining experts highlights the role of the individual (not necessarily just the entrepreneur) in company successes and failures. Although not explicitly stated, his complex analysis of the various individuals and companies illustrates a complex network of international business activities. Adding to the significance of this study to the history of international business is the author's comparative analysis of individual government policies, a contextual detail sometimes skirted over in studies of industry and entrepreneurship. Finally, the detailed analyses of corporate control and decision making within the various mining...