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Hancock, Langley Frederick (Lang) (1909–1992)

by Melville J. Davies

This article was published online in 2016

Lang Hancock, by Rennie Ellis, 1985

Lang Hancock, by Rennie Ellis, 1985

State Library of Victoria

Langley Frederick George Hancock (1909–1992), pastoralist and mining magnate, was born on 10 June 1909 in Perth, eldest of four children of Western Australian-born George Hancock, pastoralist, and his South Australian-born wife Lilian Yielding (spelt variously) Mabel, née Prior. Emma Withnell was his great-aunt and (Sir) Valston Hancock was his cousin. Following private schooling at home, Lang boarded, from age eight, at the Convent of Mercy School, Toodyay. Between 1924 and 1927 he attended the High (later Hale) School, Perth, where he proved an able if not outstanding student. He opened the batting for the school’s cricket first XI, played football with its first Australian rules team, and enjoyed swimming; later in life he was a keen competitor on the tennis court.

After gaining his Leaving certificate Hancock assisted his father on his Pilbara sheep property, Mulga Downs, along the Fortescue River, and his cattle station, Hamersley, near the range of that name. He quickly absorbed the necessary practical skills and took over as manager of Mulga Downs at the age of twenty-six. A hard taskmaster, he did not shirk from dirtying his hands and in the process acquired bushman’s skills and a feel for the land that stood him in good stead during his pastoral and prospecting careers.

On 16 October 1935 at St Mary’s Church of England, West Perth, Hancock married Susette Maley; she did not enjoy life in the bush and they were amicably divorced in 1944. In World War II he served part time (1943–44) as a sergeant in the 11th (North-West) Battalion, Volunteer Defence Corps. At the district registrar’s office, Perth, on 4 August 1947 he married Hope Margaret Clark, née Nicholas, a divorcee; good-natured and likeable, she was a calming influence on him. 

Hancock’s first mining venture, in the mid-1930s, involved crocidolite (blue) asbestos he had discovered at Wittenoom Gorge, near Mulga Downs. In 1938 he went into partnership with a school friend, Ernest (Peter) Wright. Their business alliance was sealed with a handshake, and their companies, Hancock Prospecting Pty Ltd and Wright Prospecting Pty Ltd, worked co-operatively under the label of Hanwright. Wright took the role of ‘negotiator and financial expert,’ while Hancock became the ‘spokesman and propagandist’ (Phillipson 1974, 48). The partnership was to endure until shortly before Wright’s death in 1985, ending as a result of diverging business philosophies and Wright’s disagreement with Hancock’s plans to start a new mine.

Hancock improved the process for treating the Wittenoom asbestos by designing his own machinery and plant. In 1943 he and Wright combined with the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. Ltd (CSR) to form Australian Blue Asbestos Ltd, retaining a minority interest. The relationship soured and they sold their shareholding to CSR in 1948. They then extracted chrysotile (white) asbestos near Nunyerry Gap, and also began mining copper, tin, and lead. 

The existence of iron ore in the north-west of Western Australia had been known since the nineteenth century, but its potential remained unrecognised. A competent pilot, Hancock claimed to have discovered the magnitude of the vast deposits in the Hamersley Range in November 1952, when he and Hope were forced by bad weather to fly low in their Auster aeroplane through ore-rich gorges. Neill Phillipson has cast doubt on the accuracy of this account, suggesting that Hancock promoted the legend to justify his claims of mining rights over much of the Pilbara (Phillipson 1974, 73). There is, however, no doubt about the importance of the part he was to play in the development of the ore-extraction industry in the region. He assumed the vital roles of publicising the value of the deposits to financiers and major companies throughout the world, and of campaigning against the Commonwealth government’s long-standing embargo on the export of iron ore.

In December 1960 the ban was lifted, but to protect the interests of the public, (Sir) David Brand’s Western Australian Liberal and Country parties’ coalition government froze the exploitation of all known high-grade iron-ore deposits not covered by leases, and invited individuals and companies to apply for temporary reserves over other deposits, both known and unknown. Those to whom reserves were granted could gain conditional tenure over viable finds and full mining rights once the government was satisfied that their proposed projects complied with its policies for the controlled and orderly development of the total resource.

Hanwright mapped and pegged rich deposits and set out to find partners able to provide finance. In January 1961 the Rio Tinto Mining Co. of Australia Ltd despatched a Swiss geologist, Bruno Campana, to examine and survey leases that Hancock hoped to acquire. Despite his favourable report, progress was slow. Hancock forced the situation by personally approaching (Sir) Val Duncan, chairman of the parent Rio Tinto Co. Ltd in London, and urging him to take action over the heads of the Australian subsidiary’s board-members. Duncan gained the support of Henry Kaiser, president of the Kaiser Steel Corporation in the United States of America, who sent Tom Price to investigate. Subsequently, Kaiser Steel took out a 40 percent interest in the venture. When Consolidated Zinc Pty Ltd joined them, a new company, Conzinc Riotinto of Australia Ltd (CRA), was established.

Being unable to afford to buy into the consortium, in June 1963 Hancock and Wright signed an agreement by which its operating entity, Hamersley Iron Pty Ltd, would pay the partners royalties of 2.5 percent of the value of all ore mined in perpetuity, not only the deposits that they had found, but others that would later be exploited by the company. Next month the Brand government gave approval for Hamersley Iron to begin developing the first two of its reserves. The royalties were to be the source of Hancock’s eventual enormous wealth; conversely, his dream of owning an iron-ore mine himself was never to be realised.

Following the closure of CSR’s uneconomic asbestos project at Wittenoom in December 1966, Hancock and Wright repurchased the mine and infrastructure, for which they were treated as local heroes who would save the town and the jobs of the mine’s employees. However, their grandiose plans to establish a vast industrial complex in the Pilbara, based on Wittenoom, were to be thwarted by an inability to obtain finance and, in their opinion, government obstruction. The mine remained closed and Wittenoom became a ghost town. For many workers and locals, asbestosis leading to mesothelioma was a tragic aftermath of the earlier production, but Hancock denied any responsibility, claiming there were other causes for the health problems, with proof of this being that he had not been affected.

Nor did Hancock see nuclear radiation as a health hazard, having accidentally but safely piloted his aeroplane through fallout from the 1952 atomic bomb test in the Montebello Islands. He was a committed supporter of nuclear power and the industrial application of nuclear explosions. Having consulted his friend Edward Teller, the American physicist, he advocated setting off nuclear devices underground to break ore deposits into fragments, foreseeing huge savings without harm to miners or the environment. He also sought to use controlled nuclear explosions to excavate harbours for large ore-carrying ships. Although (Sir) John Gorton’s Federal government gave cautious support to his plan to blast a harbour at Cape Keraudren in 1969, he ultimately did not gain approval for this and other nuclear schemes, and blamed his lack of success on ‘eco-nuts’ (Hancock 1979, 71).

Hancock’s relationships with Western Australian governments, especially those involving (Sir) Charles Court (Liberal Party minister for industrial development and the north-west (1959–71) and premier (1974–82) proved abrasive. Hancock adamantly believed that Court in particular, and successive governments and their advisers in general, had deliberately frustrated Hanwright’s—in his estimation—superior plans for the development of the Pilbara. When the Tonkin Labor government, with Opposition support, resumed a number of the partners’ temporary reserves in 1971, they complained of confiscation and injustice to themselves as the original finders. Hancock’s pamphlet, The Great Claim Robbery (1972?), denigrated Court’s character, ability, and fitness for office as a minister. Court contended that Hancock and Wright used Mafia-style tactics in their business dealings, rudely demanded concessions rather than negotiating, and were motivated by selfishness (Phillipson 1974, 32).

In 1987 Hancock and the Labor premier of Western Australia, Brian Burke, led a forty-strong trade mission to Romania to finalise a barter deal, estimated to be worth $1.5 billion. The Romanians would provide equipment Hancock needed to start a new mine at Marandoo and build a railway spur by which to transport ore to the coast. In exchange he would supply 53 million tonnes of ore and help expand Romanian port facilities to receive it. Hancock saw the venture as a first step in opening up markets in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He brushed aside widespread criticism for dealing with Nicolae Ceauşescu’s repressive communist regime, remaining ‘true to his code that business is business’ (Marshall 2012, 148). The venture was plagued with problems, and his daughter, Gina, was to withdraw from it, at considerable expense, after her father’s death.

Hope Hancock had died in 1983. On 6 July 1985 in a civil ceremony at Killara, Sydney, Hancock married Rosa-Maria (Rose) Lacson, his housemaid. Her flamboyance gave him new energy and he indulged her every whim, much to the chagrin of his daughter. Gina had been involved in her father’s business dealings from a young age, and had become his confidant and an active participant in his ventures. From the mid-1980s there was a falling out between them. He suspected that she and her second husband, Frank Rinehart, wanted control of the business. More immediately, Hancock resented her attacks on his relationship with Rose and her allegations that Rose was inducing him to spend ruinously. His uncharacteristic extravagance in building his wife an ostentatious mansion, Prix d’Amour, at Mosman Park, Perth, was one source of contention.

A minimalist, Hancock believed the role of government should be restricted to administering ‘the Police Force, the Titles Office and a nuclear-armed Air Force’ (Duffield 1979, 25). Attracted by their laissez-faire belief in small government, minimal taxation, and the promotion of individual freedom, he was a great admirer of Milton Friedman and Margaret (Baroness) Thatcher. He argued that retail and mining interests should gain control of the press and convert the public ‘to the path of free enterprise’ (Hancock 1979, 49). Subsequently, Hanwright floated two Western Australian newspapers, the (Sunday) Independent (1969–86) and the National Miner (1974–78). Hancock’s outlook was tempered by the view that, while ‘Australia north of the 26th parallel [should be made] an income tax-free zone [there should also be] a compulsory reinvestment clause of 40 per cent applicable to capital only,’ (Lawrence and Bunk 1985, 48) to encourage further minerals exploration, and the development of value-adding processing plants.

Hancock’s disdain for central government and its bureaucracy saw him promote and finance the Westralian Secessionist Movement. He envisaged Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and Queensland seceding and joining under a constitution that limited the power of government. Meanwhile, he considered that the only hope for Australia would be a Federal government led by the Queensland premier, (Sir) Joh Bjelke-Petersen, one of the few politicians—with Thatcher and Lee Kwan Yew—whom he respected. In 1976 he and Bjelke-Petersen had recommended the construction of a railway line across northern Australia, linking the Queensland coal fields and the Western Australian iron-ore mines.

Consistent with his broader stance, Hancock had extreme views on relations between whites and Aboriginal people. He opposed any recognition of land rights and believed that sacred sites should not receive consideration if they stood in the way of development. During a television interview in Queensland in 1981, he caused outrage by advocating the sterilisation of people of mixed Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ancestry. After his death a number of claims were to be made that, as a young man, he had fathered children with Aboriginal women on his stations.

A non-drinker and non-smoker, the dark-haired, short, solidly built Hancock has been described as ‘a rebel, an iconoclast and a subversive’ (Duffield 1979, 9). He was forceful, pragmatic, dogmatic, astute, and down-to-earth. In addition, he had simple tastes, was a great conversationalist, was very well read, and was an atheist. While he deplored social welfare and was not renowned for philanthropy, Debi Marshall has asserted that he made generous anonymous donations to causes of which he approved (Marshall 2012, 97). In Hancock’s view, his most valuable contribution to society was creating employment and wealth that benefited the local and national economy.

Survived by his wife and daughter, Hancock died on 27 March 1992 in a guest house in the grounds of Prix d’Amour and was cremated. Rose (later Porteous) and Gina fought an acrimonious legal battle over his estate for the next eleven years. An inquest into his death was held in 2001 and 2002 to hear Rinehart’s allegations that Porteous had unlawfully killed her husband. The coroner rejected Rinehart’s accusations, finding that Hancock had died of natural causes, and that much evidence from witnesses supporting her claims was dubious or fabricated. The long fight over the estate ended in September 2003 with Porteous keeping some assets, including Prix d’Amour, while Rinehart retained control of Hancock Prospecting Pty Ltd and its royalty stream. In 1999 the Hancock Range in the Pilbara had been named in Lang’s honour.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Duffield, Robert. Rogue Bull: The Story of Lang Hancock, King of the Pilbara. Sydney: Collins, 1979
  • Hancock, Lang. The Great Claim Robbery. Perth: Lang Hancock, 1972?
  • Hancock, Lang. Wake Up Australia. Sydney: E. J. Dwyer (Australia) Pty Ltd, 1979
  • Lawrence, Neil, and Steve Bunk. The Stump Jumpers: A New Breed of Australians. Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1985
  • Lee, David. ‘The Establishment of Iron Ore Giants: Hamersley Iron and the Mount Newman Mining Company, 1961–1969.’ Journal of Australasian Mining History 11 (October 2013): 61–77
  • Marshall, Debi. The House of Hancock: The Rise and Rise of Gina Rinehart. North Sydney, NSW: Random House Australia Pty Ltd, 2012
  • Marshall, Debi. Lang Hancock. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2001
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, W74963
  • Phillipson, Neill. Man of Iron. Melbourne: Wren Publishing, 1974

Additional Resources

Citation details

Melville J. Davies, 'Hancock, Langley Frederick (Lang) (1909–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/hancock-langley-frederick-lang-17492/text29181, published online 2016, accessed online 21 September 2018.

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