Holes In The Fabric Of The Hancock Legend
By Bernard LaganSeptember 3, 2012
A soon-to-be published biography recalls how the west’s iron ore was won — by Lang Hancock. But what if the facts were embellished long ago? Did Lang Hancock's mastery of public relations precede his fabulous riches?
The ragged flight of a rickety Auster aircraft named Hope has long been woven through narratives of the improbably opulent lives of the Australian iron-ore magnate, Lang Hancock and his daughter, Gina Rinehart, the world's richest woman.
Browned snapshots of Hancock alongside his war-era, three-seat Auster sprinkle the website pages of the company he founded, Hancock Prospecting — now headed by Gina. A sister Auster aircraft — re-painted to match Hancock's — was slung from the ceiling of the Miners' Hall of Fame in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia; and in the foyer of Hancock Prospecting's Perth headquarters, a silver-plated replica of the founder's J5 Auster Autocrat is mounted on a base of iron-ore.
They are not just totems to an obscure little plane; they recall an era, celebrate the ethos and provide an epilogue to the blazing life of Lang Hancock, and one epic flight of the Auster in which the already wealthy grazier, asbestos miner and pilot is said to have chanced upon Western Australia's Pilbara iron-ore deposits.
As Hancock told the world — and as it still is told on the Hancock Prospecting website — he'd been fighting his way through lowering storm clouds that forced his single-engine plane down into the gorges of the Hamersley Ranges. Even as he wrestled with the weather, he recognised the signs — the cliffs, rain-flushed and iron-red. It's those iron troves which have bestowed remarkable prosperity upon Australia; a mining-export boom which within the past two years has seen Australia's iron-ore exports — now approaching 460 million tonnes annually — eclipse coal as the nation's biggest export.
The Auster's escape from the storm through those gorges, and the chance discovery of iron-ore riches, form the backbone of the Hancock legend. It is the daredevil account on which Hancock launched his campaign to overturn Australia's ban on iron-ore exports — a ban that had long been thought necessary to preserve Australia's iron-ore, which was believed to be in sparse supply. It's an improbable thought these days, when that ore is gushing out in exports that earn Australia $63 billion annually. And there's the subsidiary river of cash — some $260 million dollars a year in royalties — which runs to Hancock companies and their associates, and which will last until the stocks of ore Hancock found in the Pilbara run out.
It was the discovery of this jackpot lode that Gina Rinehart urged Australians to look back on, when in 2002 she hosted a 50-year anniversary celebration of her father's 1952 flight at her parents' old mansion in Perth. That night, while archival footage of her father and his business associates played on an array of screens, Rinehart sought, in her speech to guests, the recognition in history for her father that she felt the discovery flight deserved, telling them:
"This country has never looked back, as they say. But it's high time we did so. That flight changed my parents' and our lives, and initiated a great wave of prosperity, which flowed to the state of Western Australia, to the federal government, directly to the companies and their employees involved in the industry and, invisibly, to every person in Australia."
The only biography of Lang Hancock to be authorised by his daughter will be published in a few months. Written by a family friend, the Brisbane-based publisher and engineer John McRobert, its account of the discovery flight portrays Lang Hancock wrangling the controls of the Auster, his wife Hope beside him. The couple struggles to escape the storm's slashing rain and the thick clouds that had ambushed them as they made the flight south to Woolleen from their property at Nunyerry in Western Australia's spartan northwest.
John McRobert, seeing peril for Hancock and wife in the massing cumulus clouds, writes: "He had to go under them. They forced lower and lower on to streaming red cliffs, jagged gorges and boulder-strewn flat tops of the Hamersleys.
"But he had not lived his life in the Hamersleys to end it here. He knew he was in the Turner River country. He knew he was somewhere over the source. It was country rarely, if ever, entered by a white man. He knew the water in the gorges running south must have been joining the Turner. So gorge-groping he went. Just over the tops of trees, he racketed down the gorges, always following the ever-increasing torrent of water. He had never been low down over this country before. He had always flown it with the safety of thousands of feet between him and the Hamersleys.
"The Auster gave everything he asked of it. He reached the Turner headquarters. Judging his way through the neck of gorge the Turner had cut (I've been there. It's about half a dozen wing spans), the pilot's practiced eye surrendered momentarily to the practiced eye of the prospector. The walls of this gorge were different. They were still red. But it was a different red. They were a sort of … a deep ochre red."
Hancock had found iron-ore — a discovery of such significance that his daughter, Gina Rinehart, felt able to proclaim a celebratory certainty in her speech marking the 50th anniversary of the find: "Lang Hancock was the first person to observe and realise that in fact Australia could supply the total world consumption of iron-ore for probably thousands of years."
In fact, the story of Lang Hancock's discovery flight is laced with myth, doubts and tragedy. The Pilbara's iron-ore had been discovered long before Hancock flew over it, there has been considerable doubt expressed over the years about the weather that Hancock claimed to have encountered, and long forgotten are those within the Hancock story whose destinies were not so generously endowed.
History must recall who it really was that first twigged to the riches contained in Western Australia's iron ranges. It was not Langley Frederick George Hancock piloting his Auster. It was a rangy Englishman with a crisp moustache aboard a camel.
Harry Page Woodward travelled from Norfolk, England, to South Australia, in 1883. He was 25 years old, and had come to take up the post of assistant state geologist. Less than four years later, the graduate of London's Royal School of Mines moved to Western Australia as that state's government geologist. A compulsive roamer, he spent his first year in Western Australia travelling over 13,000 kilometres and mapping 175,000 square kilometres of country — much of it by camel.
Woodward set down his legacy in the Annual General Report of the Government Geologist, 1890. Of his discoveries in the north of the state (some scholars have since narrowed the region Woodward was referring to as the Pilbara) Woodward wrote:
"This is essentially an iron country, for one cannot travel a mile in the parts where the older rocks appear at the surface, without encountering a lode. It occurs in many forms but the chief are magnetite and hematite which occur in immense lodes and would be of enormous value if cheap labour were abundant. There is enough to supply the whole world should the present sources be worked out. From the large quantity of iron in this Colony it is impossible to work with any degree of accuracy with a magnetic compass."
Some 60 years after Woodward set down his ringing prediction, Lang Hancock would make his flight and himself see the iron-ore of the Pilbara. And here begin the uncertainties; when did Hancock make his flight of discovery?
Gina Rinehart, the Hancock Prospecting website, and Hancock's authorised biographer, John McRobert, all say the flight occurred on November 22, 1952. Yet the first public accounts of the flight — quoting Hancock himself — give the day as "about" November 16.
Later a third date — the first few days of November 1952 — would be put forward in a book commissioned and approved by Hancock and his business partner, Peter Wright.
Perth's then-leading mining journalist, Lloyd Marshall, broke the story of Hancock's iron-ore discovery flight, publishing at the end of 1961 — nine years after the flight had occurred, under the headline, "Silver Lining to the Clouds", in the Perth Daily News, owned by West Australian Newspapers. Marshall had been sitting on his scoop for years after Hancock had told him of his flight and had initially forbidden its publication.
Marshall finally wrote in 1961: "I have just had what is reputed to be the biggest iron-ore of its kind in the world at my feet." He had returned from the Hamersley Ranges in the Pilbara in the state's northwest, where he'd inched a Land Rover across sand and rock near the now-dry Turner River bed, to the cliffs of iron Hancock had spotted in 1952. His story quoted Hancock as saying he'd made the discovery flight on "about November 16th, 1952".
Lloyd Marshall epitomised the ideal journalist of the time — a filmmaker might have cast him as himself. He was dark-haired, good-looking, a pipe-smoker and of high, understated intelligence. He'd been a fine navigator in World War II, choosing to join the crack Royal Air Force Pathfinder Bomber Command, which found and marked targets over Germany for following waves of Allied bombers. Later, upon returning to Perth and entering journalism, he shared a love of aviation with Lang Hancock. After studying politics and economics in the US on a Nieman Fellowship to Harvard University, Marshall also developed a Hancock-like fervour for the development of Western Australia.
When Marshall began writing articles urging the lifting of the ban on iron-ore exports, Lang Hancock slipped him a career-making scoop: he told Marshall of his 1952 flight and discovery of iron-ore and his subsequent testing that had shown there were vast quantities of the raw metal and that it was high-grade, better even than the ore the Americans fed into their blast furnaces. Until then, only Hancock and his then business partner, Peter Wright, knew of the find. Hancock had feared that if the Western Australian government learned of his discovery, he'd never get legal tenure over it; in addition to the federal Government's ban on iron-ore exports, the Western Australian Government had banned prospectors such as Hancock from pegging their finds.
Lloyd Marshall learned of the discovery from Hancock in 1958. He was sworn to secrecy and had to sit on his scoop for three years — until the lifting of the iron-ore export and pegging bans.
Marshall would later suffer greatly for his inside knowledge of Hancock's discoveries. Beginning with his account of the discovery flight he, more than any other journalist, was responsible for the public image of Hancock as a genius prospector. More of that later, for now our focus is on the date Hancock had given Marshall — "about November 16th, 1952" — as the day of his epic flight.
That date would be subject to change; in 1973, Lang Hancock and his business partner Peter Wright commissioned and paid public relations man and former Murdoch editor, John Moyes, to write a small, urgent book on their stellar prospecting finds and their bitter battles — then approaching a decisive stage — with the Western Australian government, to be able to hang on to their ore finds and be involved in their development.
Moyes wrote in the preface that he had been given access to any documents he wanted from Hancock. His book was clearly part of a Hancock-and-Wright public-relations campaign to keep control of their iron-ore discoveries. Moyes's book now gave a new timeframe for Hancock's discovery flight; it happened "in the first few days of November 1952".
That brought to three the number of differing time frames given for the flight in accounts and documents either created or sanctioned by Lang Hancock.
With this change, the first seed of scepticism as to the truth of Lang Hancock's discovery flight had been sown. The following year, 1974, another journalist, Neill Phillipson, produced a well-regarded, unauthorised Hancock biography, Man of Iron. Working off the original date for the flight that Hancock had given to Lloyd Marshall — November 16, 1952 — Phillipson claimed to have tracked down rain-gauge readings kept by the Western Australian Bureau of Meteorology throughout the Hamersley Ranges where Hancock said he'd flown. No rain, Phillipson wrote, was reported in the Hamersley Ranges on the date Hancock had first given for his flight.
Phillipson's conclusion was blunt: The discovery flight never happened — at least not in 1952. Phillipson wrote in a chapter, Flight to Fortune: "Fly he may have — I have not seen his log book for that particular day — but there was certainly no rain in the Hamersley Ranges on November the sixteenth. Nor the seventeeth nor, for that matter, on the eighteenth. Not in fact on any day during November 1952. Not even in October — or December. In short it was a dry, dry summer with the only recorded rainfall in the whole of the northwest of the state falling much further north in the Kimberley District in late December. Perhaps it is possible that Hancock has gotten his years confused — perhaps it was 1951 or 1953. But most emphatically it was not 1952."
Phillipson added that Lang Hancock deserved admiration for his use of the media, the legend of his discovery flight serving as just one example of his clever manipulations. The myth, Phillipson said, was created to obscure a basic fact: Hancock was not the first man to see, discover or realise the potential of iron in the Pilbara. His genius lay in being able to extract the maximum benefits from the Pilbara iron for himself.
Lang Hancock did keep a flight log book, as was required to maintain his licence to fly. And these days the record of his discovery flight is available for anyone to see. It has been posted on the Hancock Prospecting website.
According to an entry for November 22, 1952, Hancock flew his Auster southwest from his Pilbara base toward his sister's sheep station at Woolleen, where he and wife would overnight before carrying onto Perth the next day. The flight details are written in ink. A penciled annotation declares the entry to be the discovery flight. Curiously, however what appear to be out-of-sequence entries relating to earlier flights have been added to this page of Hancock's flight log book — the only page that has been uploaded to the website of the company Lang Hancock founded, Hancock Prospecting.
His authorised biographer, John McRobert, believes the original "about November 16th" date Lloyd Marshall used for his first newspaper account of the discovery flight was a mistake made either by Hancock or Marshall. McRobert says his book will include a Bureau of Meteorology "report for the region" covering the day of the flight.
However, rainfall records held online by the Western Australian Bureau of Meteorology do not show any rainfall in the Hamersley Range — where Hancock said he encountered the storms — on the date his biographer, McRobert, and his company's website now give for the date of discovery flight, November 22, 1952. Neither do they show any falls for November 16 or even days near that day — the period Lloyd Marshall was first given by Hancock. The Bureau holds rainfall records recorded by 12 stations in and near the Hamersley Range in 1952 and confirms Phillipson's assertion that November 1952 was a parched month in the area. Only two weather stations reported any rainfall in 1952. Both falls were slight and close to the coast at Karratha on November 2 and 3.
Hancock's authorised biographer, John McRobert, when advised by The Global Mail of the lack of evidence in official records for rainfall on the day of the flight, replied that he was relying on a weather summary from Marble Bar which he says shows rainfall around the time of Hancock's flight. But Marble Bar is located far off Hancock's intended flight path, which began at his property at Nunyerry, north of the Hamersely Ranges and tracked southwest. For Hancock to be near Marble Bar, he would have had to be flying far off in the opposite direction to which he intended; Marble Bar is located 200 km east of his departure point at Nunyerry. But even if, however improbable, Hancock flew far in the opposite direction of his intended flight path, official records also state that there was no rainfall in or around Marble Bar on the day Hancock is said to have made his discovery flight.
McRobert said he had not checked the official weather record himself. But he told The Global Mail: "Having lived and worked in tropical north Queensland, I have experienced the character of these summer rain storms. Patchy and intense. You can drive along a dry road and enter a veritable wall of water. It's like diving into a vertical pool — the cut off is so sharp and the rainfall is so intense. The above experience to me gave credit to Lang's account."
There is nothing in the extensive online rainfall records held by the Bureau of Meteorology to refute journalist Neill Phillipson's conclusion in his 1974 book, that Hancock could not have encountered the storms he described and which led him to discover the Pilbara's iron-ore. Hancock's account of the flight, is, as Phillipson wrote, almost completely unsupported by the weather facts. In Phillipson's view the only conclusion that could be reached — in the absence of facts to support Hancock's account — was that Hancock deliberately permitted the propagation of the myth to give added mystique to his discoveries.
But why? There is one plausible explanation; under changes to mining laws that had come into effect, Hancock had the best chance of retaining rights to his iron-ore discoveries if he would show they were "hitherto unknown". This would help him establish the all-important "first finder's rights" to his discoveries. It was therefore significant, as Phillipson recorded, that Hancock had gone to much trouble to disavow earlier knowledge of the existence of iron-ore in the Pilbara. His efforts had included repeated attempts to denigrate the ability and technical knowledge of our man long ago on the camel, Harry Page Woodward, who 60 years before Hancock's discovery flight had written that there was enough ore in Western Australia to meet the world's demands.
HANCOCK'S LONG SKIRMISHES with the Western Australian Government over rights to his ore discoveries, his early wealth from iron-ore royalties, and his inflated reputation as the father of the state's iron-ore discoveries polarised not only politicians but also Western Australia's media. Campaigns to tarnish his image were orchestrated by his political foes and business rivals.
Eventually Lloyd Marshall, who first wrote of Hancock's discovery flight, became a victim of his own reporting of Hancock's discoveries. In late 1967 Marshall had another Hancock scoop for his paper, the Perth Daily News. He reported that Lang Hancock had found more huge quantities of high-grade iron-ore — this time close to Wittenoom's asbestos mine.
But his employers were not pleased. Marshall was called in by the Chairman of the Board at West Australian Newspapers, who told him he could not believe that Hancock had discovered such a huge quantity of ore at Wittenoom. Or that the big Australian miner, CSR, which had operated the asbestos mine at Wittenoom, had missed it.
So Lloyd Marshall, who through his enthusiastic reporting of Hancock's ventures — beginning with his story on the Auster's flight — had done more than any other journalist to build his reputation as a genius prospector and deal-maker, was finished at the Daily News. Hancock was the cause.
Recalls the late Lloyd Marshall's daughter, Felicity, a Victorian-based artist and children's writer: "The lowest point for him professionally was when the management of West Australian Newspapers refused to believe his stories about the massive iron-ore finds made by Lang Hancock. They accused my father of lying and fabricating outrageous facts. My father asked him to fly up north and visit the sites and see for himself. He refused and sacked my father. This was a huge and unfair personal blow to my father and I don't think he ever recovered from this incident."
Felicity Marshall's brother Craig, a Perth geologist and head of the listed resource company Empire Oil and Gas, has a differing recollection. He says his father walked out his job at West Australian Newspapers. Craig believes his father resigned because he came under intolerable pressure from the newspaper management to disclose to them information he'd been given in confidence about the size of resource discoveries.
Says Craig Marshall: "The management of West Australian Newspapers sought privileged information on resource companies that Lloyd would never disclose. He had a reputation that allowed industry leaders to provide big stories that were released in the press at the appropriate time. This allowed Lloyd into the board rooms of many companies where significant new resource discoveries had been made."
The story of the discovery flight had brought Hancock and Lloyd Marshall together, and Hancock was angered by what had happened to his old friend and confidant.
In April 1969, Hancock and Peter Wright launched a new weekly Perth newspaper, The Sunday Independent and Lloyd Marshall was among the first to join its staff. It lasted until 1986 when new owners, Rupert Murdoch's News Ltd, shut it down.
There is one last prop in the story of Lang Hancock's discovery flight; his old Auster aircraft, which carried the registration lettering VH-KSV.
Hancock, who was certified by civil aviation authorities to maintain his own aircraft, cared meticulously for the plane and eventually sold it in mid-1972 to Murray Armstrong, who farmed at Vasse in Western Australia's southwest.
On the first Sunday in December that year, Armstrong, 40, took two 16-year-old local boys, Alan Sharp and Lindsay Albrey, for what would turn out to be a tragic and brief flight over his farm. The Auster spluttered soon after take-off. It cut out as Armstrong wheeled around frantically, to try to make a landing. Then it pancaked into the ground. An intense fire immediately started. Armstrong, a rookie pilot who was not licenced to fly any passengers, died along with the boys. The Auster was destroyed. The crash investigation later concluded that dead insects had clogged the engine's fuel supply.
The next morning, The West Australian newspaper carried a large story on page three about the tragedy. Alongside it was a photograph of the burned-out Auster. Only its skeleton-like frame remained. The story reported that the victims had been seen moving in the plane seconds after the crash, but that the intensity of the fire had driven rescuers back.
There was no mention, however, that this was the plane, which had made the discovery flight that launched the Hancock millions and, in his daughter's telling, Australia's wave of mineral wealth.
Perhaps it was oversight by the Western Australian newspaper which had long opposed Hancock's claims to his finds.
Perhaps it wasn't.