Lords, Looters, Larrikins and Legends.

Lords of the Outback.


The English Vestey Group’s [established by brothers Lord William Vestey and Sir Edmund Vestey] main focus at the time was Argentina, but it accepted an offer from the conservative Australian government to build a Darwin abattoir in return for huge pastoral leases [12 million acres of crown land on 42-year leases] in the north.  Opening in 1917, it processed over 60,000 head during the next three years. With capacity of 500 cattle per day, the Darwin works anticipated shipping problems and included storage capacity for 6000 tonnes – the largest in Australia at the time. It was also the most expensive works of its time, costing around £1 million to build, four times the original estimates.

vesteys meatworks
Detail of a watercolour by Hans Walter Buser of the construction of
the Vestey Group meatworks at Port Darwin, NT, 1916. Courtesy John William Lewin, National Library of Australia.

The meatworks was completed in 1917 only operated for three years before closing in 1920. Over the three years of operation there were frequent strikes and union demands for higher wages, and the meatworks never processed the number of cattle that was anticipated. After a short season in 1925 it closed permanently. The closure had a devastating impact on Darwin’s economy. The lack of a local meatworks meant that cattle had to be sent long distances over stock routes to markets in adjoining states.

In 1914, Wave Hill Station was bought by Vesteys, who were able to make use of the now landless Aboriginal people as extremely cheap labour.  On stations across the north, Aboriginal people became the backbone of the cattle industry, working for little or no money, minimal food and appalling housing. There had been complaints from Indigenous employees about conditions over many years. A Northern Territory government inquiry held in the 1930’s said of Vesteys:

It was obvious that they had been … quite ruthless in denying their Aboriginal labor proper access to basic human rights. We were treated just like dogs. We were lucky to get paid the 50 quid a month we were due, and we lived in tin humpies you had to crawl in and out on your knees. There was no running water. The food was bad – just flour, tea, sugar and bits of beef like the head or feet of a bullock. The Vesteys mob were hard men. They didn’t care about blackfellas.

However, little was done over the decades leading up to the strike. While it was illegal up until 1968 to pay Aboriginal workers more than a specified amount in goods and money, a 1945 inquiry found Vesteys was not even paying Aboriginal workers the 5 shillings a day minimum wage set up for Aborigines under a 1918 Ordinance. Non Indigenous males were receiving £2/8/- a week in 1945. Gurindji lived in corrugated iron humpies without floors, lighting, sanitation, furniture or cooking facilities. Gurindji who received minimal government benefits had these paid into pastoral company accounts over which they had no control.

Heirs and disgraces

Stuart Millar and Alex Brummer – The Guardian

With Dewhurst the butchers Vesteys, Britain’s richest business dynasty – and the country’s most astute tax avoiders. Now they are worth a mere £650m and the bizarre fortunes of the house of Vestey is the stuff of legend. The official version tells the story of its founder William Vestey, working in the Chicago stockyards, in the last century – an existence laid bare on the stage by Bertolt Brecht. The founder of the dynasty recognised the potential value of the wasted meat products, which at the time were in short supply in Britain, and teamed up with his brother Edmund in the canning business.

They quickly came to realise that imported meat could be even more valuable if it were fresh rather than canned; they first experimented with a cold store owned by a friend. The key was to tap into the vast supplies of beef in the Americas to meet demand in the UK. With the invention of the first ammonia-compression plant, refrigerated shipments became possible and the Vestey fortunes took a great leap forward.

The family controlled a vast array of business, including land and assets in South America and Europe as well as ranches, food processing groups, canning companies, commercial property and butchers chains. It became the largest private conglomerate in the world, a vertical food chain which stretched from the Andes to the high street in Norwich.

“They did not live on the income; they did not live on the interest from their investments; they lived on the interest on the interest,” Phillip Knightley wrote in his biography, The Rise and Fall of the House of Vestey.

As the empire expanded, the Vesteys made the most of their wealth by using it to join the land-owning establishment. William acquired a peerage. After being handed control of the business in 1954, the third generation Ronald Vestey and his brother Mark began to make the most of their wealth, joining the land-owning classes by buying a country seat at Stowell Park in Gloucestershire, which stands in 5,000 acres. The tradition was established of dispatching a personal cheque of £250,000 to each Vestey descendant on reaching the age of 18, to spend as they saw fit.

But at the same time as they were mixing with royalty, the family were also benefiting from a massive – and completely legal – tax avoidance scheme. Since the earliest days, Edmund and William had developed an obsession with taxation which they feared would be the ruin of their business. They wrote to the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, demanding that they be exempt from income tax. King George V was so appalled by this behaviour, in the darkest days of the first world war, that he opposed William becoming a baron, but William handed over £20,000 to Lloyd George and got the title anyway.  And when the prime minister still refused to play ball, the family reacted first by going into tax exile in Argentina, then by setting up an elaborate avoidance scheme centred on a Paris trust which was the bane of Inland Revenue investigators for more than 60 years.

“Trying to come to grips with the Vesteys over tax,” one tax officer who attempted to take on the Vesteys is reputed to have said at the time, “is like trying to squeeze a rice pudding.”

In 1980, a Sunday Times investigation revealed that in 1978, the Dewhurst chain paid £10 tax on a profit of more than £2.3m. By this time, Edmund’s grandson, also Edmund, and his cousin, Lord Samuel, were at the helm. In an infamous remark the Tory grandee Lord Thorneycroft remarked: “Good luck to them.” Edmund’s reaction to the story hardly encouraged much public sympathy either.

“Let’s face it. Nobody pays more tax than they have to. We’re all tax dodgers aren’t we?” He continued: “It has been worked according to the rules and is all quite legal. I believe that it has been to the benefit of this country.” Lord Vestey managed to shrug off the allegations. “This matter has been taken to the highest court in the land and as far as I am concerned it is now settled.”

By the time the loophole was closed in 1991, experts estimate the family had legally avoided paying more than £88m in tax.

In contrast, non-Aboriginal workers enjoyed minimum wage security with no legal limit on the maximum they could be paid. They were housed in comfortable homes with gardens and had full control over their finances.

The Enigma 

In 1960 VRD was bought by Hooker Corporation, from William Buckland, who made many improvements, particularly in transport. By this time it employed a hundred men and the homestead had the appearance of a small country town. There was the manager’s house, a store, kitchen, mess, offices, radio room, single men’s quarters, bakery, blacksmith, saddlery, workshops and garages. The station was sold once more in 1984 to Peter Sherwin for $12 million. By 1986 Sherwin had become Australia’s largest cattle breeder. It was also during his time that heli-mustering, the rounding up of cattle by helicopter, first started as early as 1970, became very popular. Finally in October 1989 VRD was bought by Robert Holmes a’ Court through his Heytesbury Pastoral Company.

holmes a court1ROBERT Holmes a Court sat in a room in Sydney’s Regent Hotel in late 1988. Opposite him was Peter Sherwin, cattle king, a man who over three decades rose from a contract drover to be the largest individual landholder, boasting the biggest herd in the country. It was a meeting of opposites. The urbane Holmes a Court, accustomed to accoutrements of affluence, and the rustic Sherwin, ill at ease with the grandiose surroundings. The product of corporate breeding was face to face with the school of hard knocks. But they had at least one thing in common.

Each had embarked on privatisation bids during the year, attempting to take their respective empires off the stock exchange boards, away from the public arena and back into their own hands. Holmes a Court had succeeded, albeit in an humiliating fashion, losing most of his empire along the way and making headlines around the world. Over the years, Holmes a Court has earned the sobriquet, the Man of the Long Pauses. In face-to-face negotiations he could sit and stare out of the window, putting the wind up his opponent. He turned takeover confrontations into an art form. But, in the pauses stakes, Holmes a Court had met his match in Peter Sherwin. In meetings, Sherwin said virtually nothing; this man, who has built up more power at the Top End than any other man since Sir Sidney Kidman, was the very definition of the quiet man.

Since 1976, when he began his extraordinary expansion program, he withdrew more and more into himself. Eschewing the usual trappings of a successful entrepreneur – the extravagant lifestyle and the outspoken countenance – Sherwin, through his silence, became the stuff of legends. It was more than just the clamming up of a drover who had been forced by the sheer scale of his success to deal with the brokers and bankers of the corporate capitals. Sherwin was considered an oddity in his own territory.dip

Sherwin was no sentimentalist and soon understood that long distance droving was finished, when Noel Buntine began shifting sheep and cattle on his newfangled two and three deck road trains. Charlie Shultz had been first, when he trucked stud bulls from Adelaide to Humbert station in the Northern Territory in 1950.

One story of Sherwin’s prowess in the Territory has become notorious: when he chased a neighbour in his plane, landed on a road blocking his way and then engaged in a shootout. A colleague said:

“He won’t take any shit from anyone, he’d rather knock your block off your shoulders. But he hasn’t had a fistfight in 20 years. Nobody is game to take him on.”

Beasts moved south into tick free areas had to be dipped into pesticide. The process was repeated three days later when the inspector scratched them and ran his hands around the udders and up the back of the tail. If a single living tick was discovered the consignment was dipped a third time, then checked three days later. This left trucks waiting, the animals required extra feed, and the delay could mean missing the boat for the live trade.  An inspector refused to give a consignment of Sherwin’s cattle the tuberculosis-free approval. He wanted a second examination. Sherwin’s manager phoned, saying that he’d another herd for inspection at a remote yard. The inspector drove out to an empty yard, except for one of Sherwin’s sons. The inspector said the retreat back to his vehicle, and his rifle behind the seat, were the longest steps of his life.

Milton Hayes managed Gordon Downs for Vesteys, when it struggled to adjust to the economic reality of equal wages for Aboriginals, and began the distasteful process of expelling hundreds of families from its leases. These were descendants of the myalls who chose seventy years previously to live on station encampments in preference to their increasingly precarious lives in the bush. Vesteys had run a feudal operation that paid its Aboriginal jackeroos and their families with food rations, tobacco and one change of clothing and a pair of boots each year. They also provided rudimentary medical care and education, but with equal wages they couldn’t afford to keep big mobs of men, women and children on their books. They told them to clear off.

A fact of Northern cattle stations was that most managers and owners were poddy dodgers, that is, a cattle rustlers. Now and then someone was caught red-handed, but the owners didn’t prosecute. It just wasn’t done. The old drovers smile when remembering those days:

“Everyone done it. You show me a station manager that never branded next door neighbour’s cattle and I’ll show you a friggin’ liar. Of course, it’s against the law, but nobody ever went to court over it.”

Milton Hayes was dirty on Vesteys when they wouldn’t build him a new house. When a lone stockman ventured into the homestead one Sunday morning looking for a feed, he found Milton hard at work soaking the base of his house with generous quantities of diesel and petrol. The unexpected visitor shot down the road, where he found a traveling priest. “What’s he saying?” the priest asked a local as the man blurted out the story. “Just black fella talk,” the local replied, suppressing a smile. Hayes was unique because he rustled from his own employer, parking on the highway in broad daylight, and lunching with the stock inspector, while the beasts bellowed on the back of the truck.

Milton met his nemesis with arguably the biggest rustler of all, Peter Sherwin. The story varies from person to person, but the gist is that Milton drove a herd of beasts onto a Sherwin property and when payment was not forthcoming confronted him at Birrindudu station. Sherwin looked Milton in the eye and said he’d never received any cattle. Milton decided to teach him a lesson, but hadn’t counted on Sherwin’s training with the Marist brothers. Lenin Christie said :

“Milton took scars to his grave that Peter Sherwin gave him. He wasn’t a very big bloke, Milton, but he was tough, but Sherwin was a professional pugilist. They reckon Sherwin played with Milton. He just chopped him to pieces and chopped him into smaller pieces and chopped him to tiny pieces, eh, and Milton wouldn’t lay down to him.  Milton turned up at Gordon Downs to get help from Mrs Macarthur, who was a nurse. He needed extensive stitches”.

elliott-store-mapThe North’s fascination with Sherwin spread nationwide when two of his young jackaroos disappeared off stations in the Kimberley region of Western Australia and were found dead in mysterious circumstances five months later. The focus moved to Sherwin’s whole modus operandi: why were two youths each put in charge of a huge station, living alone with defective vehicles and radio equipment? Why were these boys put in the position where they were so exposed to dangers? Sherwin didn’t attempt to answer. He stayed silent in the face of an extraordinary media barrage, and he only confirmed the prejudices which were building when he refused at first to let the boys’ parents on to the properties from which their sons disappeared.

The story of Peter Sherwin’s route from drover to cattle king begins in Elliott, a small dusty settlement on the Stuart Highway between Tennant Creek and Katherine in the Barkly region of the NT. Only those in a hurry would pass through Elliott without stopping. It is 93 kilometres from the last roadhouse, at Renner Springs, and 109 kilometres to the next, at Dunmarra. It has three service stations and an outback-style pub dominated by a pool table and decorated by six aging tea towels hung above the bar showing faded Australian wildflowers. A sign proclaims: “You are now drinking in the most exclusive hotel in Elliott”. Elliott’s 350 inhabitants are mostly of Aboriginal descent. They live in monotonous Government-issue housing. Practically everyone worked for Peter Sherwin.

Peter was born in 1930 in Texas, Queensland, the youngest of four and the son of a drover who had died when Peter was nine. He was sent to Marist Brothers’ College in Brisbane to complete his education and is remembered by schoolmates as a good boxer and footballer. He was considered competent and ambitious. But in 1946, Peter headed for the Territory to become a jackaroo at Alexandria Station. Over six years, he saved enough money for the dogs, wagons and horses needed for a contract drover. He progressed to head stockman at Helen Springs, owned by the Vestey family, and then left the land for an eight-month spell as a stock inspector for the Department of Primary Production, a breed he would later treat with distaste. From the Public Service, Sherwin went droving again. By 1957, when he married Florence, he had saved enough to buy the Elliott roadhouse.elliot

It was from a deal struck at the Elliott roadhouse that Sherwin got his first breakthrough as a future station owner: enough money to apply for a pastoral lease in the Territory. Sherwin went to Montejinnie station and offered to buy a 1,500 head at £3 a head. Sherwin then drove the cattle down through the Territory to Camooweal, just over the border in Queensland, where he sold them for £17/10/- a head, a gross profit of £18,150. Sherwin was on his way.

While other pastoralists were as clever as Peter Sherwin, they hadn’t the steely personality that did anything to win. He’d buy a station, cut off the water to anything that didn’t make money, overgraze the land, exhaust the infrastructure, not pay the employees, beat up anyone who got in his way, steal the jackeroos’ equipment, and spend big to arrive at a bush meeting with a lawyer flown out from Darwin. He was the hunter who returned with fresh kill, while others were afraid to pull the trigger. At his peak Sherwin controlled 72,500 square miles, had an estimated 400,000 branded cattle, 15 prime mover trucks and five aeroplanes. He and Florence had made the ‘A list’ of cattlemen families, yet rarely attended social functions. Some called them Ma and Pa Kettle, two 1950’s bumbling hillbilly movie characters. He could estimate more accurately than the operators how many cattle a station had and, along the way, earned windfalls of thousands of additional cattle with his purchases. He could then strip them off and help finance his debt burden.

The real expansion program began in 1976 with the purchase of Anthony Lagoon Station from the failed Australian Pastoral Company. Through the late 70s and the early 80s, Sherwin was there to pick up the pieces when the big operators and corporates – such as the Vestey family, Hooker Corporation, CSR, the Tancreds and Winthrop Investments – sold out or scaled down their operations at the Top End. And Sherwin had a willing backer: Elders, which financed him along the way until, in 1986, he had racked up $40 million in debt to counterbalance his extraordinary asset base.

The massive expansion program revealed Sherwin as a consummate deal-maker. For example, in the purchase of Anthony Lagoon from Australian Pastoral Company, he stepped on the toes of the Mortimer family from Adelaide. They had virtually struck the deal for the purchase of Anthony Lagoon at a price of $1.2 million and had sold two properties in South Australia to finance the purchase. One of their men was already on the station preparing to take over and the Lands Department had been contacted for the transfer of the pastoral lease. Then Sherwin struck, offering $500,000 more and gambling on his belief that the station had a lot more cattle than the operators believed. Sherwin was right. A 12month legal battle followed his coup, but he won that too.


Again, in 1983, Sherwin waited until a final price had been struck with the Tancred family, then moved in offering the vendors, CSR, more money. When CSR refused to budge Sherwin got some political help from Ian Tuxworth, MP for the Tennant Creek area who encouraged CSR to sell to Sherwin, claiming he would get his cattle slaughtered in the Territory and Tancred would not. CSR relented. Sherwin got the stations, but he didn’t get his cattle slaughtered in the Territory. The people at Tennant Creek, whose abattoir stands abandoned today, haven’t forgotten. “The only cattle Sherwin got killed in the Territory are the ones that were run over,” was the dry comment of a publican in Tennant Creek.

Northern Australian cattle stations owned by Peter and Florrie Sherwin between 1958 and 2018:sherwin

  • Barkly Tablelands
  • Mungabroom
  • Anthony Lagoon
  • Walhallow
  • Creswell Downs
  • Eva Downs
  • Banka Banka
  • Brunchilly
  • Beetaloo / OT
  • Alroy Downs
  • East Kimberley and Victoria River District
  • Wallamunga
  • Birrindudu
  • Gordon Downs
  • Flora Valley
  • Sturt Creek
  • Nicholson
  • Victoria River Downs
  • Delamere
  • Queensland Channel Country
  • Cluny
  • Springvale
  • Diamantina Lakes
  • Keeroongooloo/Marama
  • Galway Downs
  • Top End and Gulf of Carpentaria
  • Kerlin
  • Broadmere

Until 1986 Sherwin won most of his battles, cutting a swathe through the Top End. Then the dream run came to an end. The bankers began to baulk at the huge debt burden. Sherwin owed Elders more than $40 million, and they could see a way out: bringing in public money through a float of the Sherwin pastoral empire on the Australian stock exchange. The float was masterminded from Melbourne and was a consummate public relations exercise. The prospectus – 120 glossy pages – was more like a coffee-table book than a financial document. The independent verification of cattle numbers by an employee of Elders Pastoral Company was heavily qualified. In the end, it came down to Peter Sherwin’s word. There were too many cattle for a bangtail muster. [A muster bangtailthat cuts the hair off the tail of each beast. Bangtail musters are seldom used today because they are long and arduous processes, often detrimental to the health of the cattle. In addition, electronic tagging is widespread]. Sherwin was called the success story of modern agriculture. Australian Business magazine said: “The float of the Sherwin Pastoral Company will be greeted with the same spirit of optimism as the royal charter companies 160 years ago.” And for the year ended 1986, the Sherwin Pastoral Company brought in a profit of more than $12 million. Optimism was indeed running high. Unfortunately for Sherwin, the honeymoon with the financial community was short-lived.

Sherwin wanted to control more of Australia’s cattle properties, to double the size of Sherwin Pastoral Company through a takeover of Australian Agricultural. A broker said: “Sherwin had just been a herd builder. He was like a Hindu, where wealth is measured by how many cattle you’ve got. Shareholders needed cash flow, profits; but that was an anathema to him. He just wanted to get bigger.” Sherwin’s own barometer for success, size rather than profits, was only one of the problems; so too was his failure, or inability, to communicate. It sent the city types into despair.

” Cridland did all the talking. It was ridiculous, he would say ‘Peter would think this’, ‘Peter would say that’, and Peter was sitting there all the time. There was no expression on his face; he is one of those expressionless people. Sometimes you would wonder if he was even listening to what was going on,”.

Sherwin topped it all off by sitting silently throughout the company’s annual meeting of shareholders, chewing Minties and refusing to field any questions. Once again, Cridland and Stacey played the ball.

The 1987 calendar year was disastrous for the Sherwin Pastoral Company. Thousands of cattle perished. Sherwin had been subjected to the media barrage that accompanied the deaths of the two jackaroos. Sherwin and Cridland privately retained advisers to investigate the possibility of selling-out all the properties to the Japanese. Sherwin would then buy back four of the properties from the Japanese and go back to being his own boss. By the early months of 1988, the bankers, Elders, had had enough. They weren’t getting enough financial information to satisfy their needs and the company had built up another $30 million or so in debt. And then the bombshell: the auditors refused to sign the accounts for the 1987 year until there was an independent review of cattle numbers on the Barkly Tablelands.

Sherwin is seen through many lens: the cattleman versus the corporate bankers; the personable drover who, as he acquired more power, became a recluse; the entrepreneur, the self-made man, who was unable to handle the accountability required when his empire became public; the megalomaniac who wanted to control 3 per cent of the nation’s cattle herd; the employer who saw tragedy when two of his young jackaroos perished in the desert; and the family man who did not bother to convey his sympathy to the families of those who died so tragically.

Update: 31 August 2019.

One of the giants of Australia’s cattle industry, Peter Sherwin, has died aged 88. At one point he was the largest private landowner in the country, with about 300,000 head of cattle, spanning across 17 cattle stations, accounting for more than one per cent of Australia’s total land mass. In a statement, his family said he would be best remembered as northern Australia’s renowned ‘Cattle King’. “It is with deep sadness that the family of Peter Sherwin announce his peaceful passing on Tuesday evening in Brisbane,” said the statement.

A Forgotten Australian Legendbeadell1

Never heard of Len Beadell? Then you have never heard of the surveyor and road builder who, with a team of eight dedicated assistants [basically bulldozer drivers, mechanics and a cook], in the 1940s and 1950s built more than 6,500 kilometres of roads which opened up the Australian inland desert.  It was Beadell who headed the “gunbarrel crew” which built that extraordinary track, the Gunbarrel Highway, from Victory Downs. just west of the Stuart Highway on the South Australia-Northern Territory border across to Carnegie in Western Australia. It was also Beadell and his crew who constructed the Anne Beadell Highway – access roads across sand dunes and deserts rather than sealed highways – from Mabel Creek Station (west of Coober Pedy) across to Laverton.  Beadell was proud of his work and he left small aluminum plates along the way to ensure that the drivers who followed didn’t get lost. Each plate was stamped with the latitude and longitude and, frighteningly, the distance to the next waterhole or station.

The actual construction makes fascinating reading: “The typical modus operandi was for Beadell to carry out forward reconnaissance in his Land-Rover by himself, and, on the basis of this, decide the best route for the road. He would then return to the rest of the group from which the bulldozer would lead off first with its driver guided by Beadell flashing a mirror or a flare from the top of the Rover. The rough track was then smoothed with an ordinary road grader.”

Remarkably the roads are still there nearly seventy years later and they still present a challenge to adventurous 4WD enthusiasts wanting to cross Australia’s Dead Heart.  It is entirely appropriate that one rocky outcrop in the middle of nowhere, along the Gunbarrel Highway, is named Mount Beadell. On it is a memorial which tells the story of this remarkable man.

Len Beadell (1923-1995) was born on a farm in West Pennant Hills [now a suburb of Sydney] in 1923. After taking an interest in surveying at the age of 12, under the guidance of his surveyor-Scout master, he began a career with him on the military mapping program of northern NSW in the early stages of the Second World War. A year later he enlisted in the Australian Army Survey Corps serving in New Guinea until 1945.

Living in the bush and surveying was deeply in his blood – a fusion which began years earlier when as a young lad in 1930, he joined the 1st Burwood Scout Group. It gave him experience in surveying, going on many weekend survey trips with his Scout Leader, Mr John ‘Skip’ Richmond. It also brought out the best in his pioneering spirit. Len regarded ‘Skip’ Richmond as his mentor. Len later stated: “He showed me it was possible to enjoy all the pleasures of the bush, particularly camping, while at the same time still doing something useful and constructive (that is, surveying).”

These survey trips were conducted within a 150 kilometre radius of Sydney, aroundbeadell scout Kiama and in the Blue Mountains. Skip would pick up the willing helpers on a Saturday morning in his bull-nosed Morris and return them home late on Sunday night. The children brought only a small back pack and a frypan. They loved camping in the bush, cooking [and burning] porridge, trudging up and down hills carrying theodolites and other equipment, and searching for old survey markers, as if on a treasure hunt. The purpose behind each excursion was to establish a trigonometric network for the Water Board and to plan the location and pipeline between major dams supplying water to Sydney.

While still in the army he accompanied the first combined scientific expedition of the CSIRO into the Alligator River country of Arnhem Land carrying out astronomical observations fixing locations of their new discoveries. Waiving his discharge for yet another term he readily agreed to carry out the initial survey for a rocket range later to be named Woomera. To assist Great Britain and allied European countries develop intercontinental ballistic missiles in the post WWII era, the Australian Government agreed to establish a rocket-launch facility in the Australian Outback. No other Continent in the world could offer Her Majesty’s Government the space to launch rockets with the promise that no matter how well or badly the launches went, the experimental rockets were extremely unlikely to cause much damage when they inevitably returned to Earth. A Rocketeer’s dream.  This decision led to a lifetime association with that project as a civilian till his retirement in 1988. After 41 years including continual camping, surveying, exploring and road making – he opened up for the first time in history over 2.5 million kilometres of the Great Sandy, Gibson and Great Victoria deserts.  He discovered the site for the succeeding Atomic test at Maralinga also laying out all the instruments needed to record the results.

beadellIn 1958 as range Reconnaissance Officer at the Weapons research establishment he was awarded the British Empire Medal for his work in building the famous Gunbarrel Highway, the first and still the only 1500 km link east-west across the centre of Australia.  Beadell wrote a number of books, amusingly most of them have “bush’ in the title, [Beating About the Bush, Still in the Bush, Too Long in the Bush, Blast the Bush, Bush Bashers] rich in anecdotes and stories about his adventures and they are still in print. There is also an excellent account of his life, complete with lots of photos and a map of all the roads he built, titled Len Beadell’s Legacy by Ian Bayly.

Today, the accuracy of Len’s maps and ‘fixes’ when measured with modern GPS systems are a testament to the man and the brilliance of his mathematical mind. Len’s dry sense of humor matched the land he travelled through – and on retirement, he told of his life’s work through video, audio and books and at countless guest appearances at community and service club meetings and at schools. Like his life’s work, Len’s talks also became ‘legendary’, never failing to raise a laugh and garnishing along the way, a strong following of his exploits which continues today.

Len passed away in May 1995 aged 72 years. As a testament to Len and Anne, their family continue to dispense Len’s video, audio talk and books [some ‘talking books’] so that those with an interest in Australia – no matter what their age – will never forget Australia’s Last Great Explorer.

The goanna


The first lessee of Newcastle Waters was Englishman Dr Browne, who in 1883 contracted Alfred Giles, an Overland Telegraph Line worker, to establish a homestead and stock the newly-acquired lease with cattle walked from Queensland. John Lewis, who in 1872 had operated a 480 km pony express service in the area, purchased the lease in 1895, his family retaining the property until 1952. The purchase of Newcastle Waters in 1983 by Australia’s richest man, Kerry Packer, was the genesis of Consolidated Pastoral Co which became a company in its own right in 1992.

Packer’s critics saw his ever-expanding cross-media holdings as a potential threat to media diversity and freedom of speech. He also repeatedly came under fire for his companies’ alleged involvement in tax evasion schemes and for the extremely low amounts of company tax that his corporations are reported to have paid over the years. He fought repeated battles with the Australian Taxation Office over his corporate taxes. His most severe legal challenge came in 1984 with the Costigan Commission alleging [using the codename of “the Goanna” in media reports] that he was involved in tax evasion and organised crime, including drug trafficking. He successfully counter-attacked the Commission with the assistance of his counsel Malcolm Turnbull. Mystery still surrounds Packer’s receipt of a “loan” of A$225,000 in cash from Brian Ray, a bankrupt Queensland businessman. When questioned about this transaction at the Costigan Royal Commission Packer said, “…I like cash. I have a squirrel mentality. I like to keep money in cash. It is by no means the most cash I ever had in my life.”

Notwithstanding the significant efforts made to preserve his security and privacy, Packer suffered two mysterious break-ins at his companies’ headquarters in Park Street, Sydney:

  • in 1995, 25 gold bars, weighing a total of 285 kg, and a Vegemite jar full of gold nuggets were stolen from Packer’s personal safe;
  • in 2003 a licenced Glock 9 mm semi-automatic pistol was stolen from a desk drawer on the executive level. Packer was not charged with failing to “keep safe” the weapon but he did subsequently surrender his firearms licence.

The ‘hot’ matron.

Albert Healy and his wife Jessie lived far more adventurous lives than the rest of the family. At one time they were the lessees of the Beltana Hotel where children spent a week’s holiday during the school vacation. Later they leased Innamincka hotel for some years. Gwen, the eldest child studied nursing [following in the footsteps of her grandmother] finally becoming owner/matron of St Margaret’s Hospital Payneham in 1934.

Gwendolyne Daphne Stevens (1908-1974), hospital proprietor, sheep breeder and mining entrepreneur, was born on 7 June 1908 at Quorn, South Australia, daughter of Hugo Albert Valentine Healey, painter and later publican, and his wife Jessie Gwendolyne, née Napier, both South Australian born. Gwendolyne attended several rural schools, including Innamincka Public, before proceeding to St Peter’s Collegiate Girls’ School, Adelaide. Miss Healey trained at Burra public and (Royal) Adelaide hospitals, and was registered as a nurse on 11 July 1929. She then moved to Parkside Mental Hospital where she gained a certificate in psychiatric nursing in 1931 and became sister-in-charge. In 1934 she bought a large house at Payneham that had been built by James Marshall, converted it into a private psychiatric hospital and named it St Margaret’s. As its owner and matron for eighteen years, she cared for patients suffering the early stages of nervous disorders, and provided them with a secure and restful setting, with aviaries amid beautiful gardens. That she took on such a task during the Depression, and succeeded in it, testified to her business acumen, organizing ability and compassion for those in need.ultimatesire

At the chapel of the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide, on 12 April 1940 Gwen Healey married with Anglican rites George Dempster Stevens, a clerk employed by Dalgety & Co. Ltd. They were to have two daughters. After she sold her hospital in 1952, she set up Sterling Downs, a Poll Dorset stud on 890 ha at Currency Creek, in 1957.

The Merino is one of the most historically relevant and economically influential breeds of sheep, much prized for its wool. The breed was originated and improved in  Extremadura, in southwestern Spain, around the 12th century; it was instrumental in the economic development of 15th and 16th century Spain, which held a monopoly on its trade, and since the end of the 18th century it was further refined in New Zealand and Australia, giving rise to the modern Merino.

The three Merino strains that founded the world’s Merino flocks are the Royal Escurial flocks, the Negretti and the Paula. Among Merino bloodlines stemming from Vermont in the USA, three historical studs were highly important: Infantado, Montarcos and Aguires. Before the 18th century, the export of Merinos from Spain was a crime punishable by death. In the 18th century, small exportation of Merinos from Spain and local sheep were used as the foundation of Merino flocks in other countries. In 1723, some were exported to Sweden, but the first major consignment of Escurials was sent by Charles III of Spain to his cousin, Prince Xavier the Elector of Saxony, in 1765.


Later in 1786, Louis XVI of France received 366 sheep selected from 10 different cañadas; these founded the stud at the Royal Farm at Rambouillet. The Rambouillet stud enjoyed some undisclosed genetic development with some English long-wool genes contributing to the size and wool-type of the French sheep. Through one ram in particular named Emperor, imported to Australia in 1860 by the Peppin brothers, the Rambouillet stud had an enormous influence on the development of the Australian Merino. Sir Joseph Banks procured two rams and four ewes in 1787 by way of Portugal, and in 1792 purchased 40 Negrettis for King George III to found the royal flock at Kew. In 1808, 2000 Paulas were imported. The Napoleonic wars [1793–1813] almost destroyed the Spanish Merino industry. The old cabañas were dispersed or slaughtered. From 1810 onwards, the Merino scene shifted to Germany, the United States and Australia; Australia had 33,818 sheep. John MacArthur [who had been sent back from Australia to England following a duel with Colonel Patterson] brought seven rams and one ewe from the first dispersal sale of King George III stud in 1804. The next year, MacArthur and the sheep returned to Australia, Macarthur to reunite with his wife Elizabeth, who had been developing their flock in his absence. Macarthur is considered the father of the Australian Merino industry; in the long term, however, his sheep had very little influence on the development of the Australian Merino.

Two of Eliza Furlong‘s children had died from consumption, and she was determined to protect her surviving two sons by living in a warm climate and finding them outdoor occupations. Her husband John, a Scottish businessman, had noticed wool from the Electorate of Saxony sold for much higher prices than wools from NSW. The family decided on sheep farming in Australia for their new business. In 1826, Eliza walked over 2,400 km through villages in Saxony and Prussia, selecting fine Saxon Merino sheep. Her sons, Andrew and William, studied sheep breeding and wool classing. The selected 100 sheep were herded to Hamburg and shipped to Hull. Thence, Eliza and her two sons walked them to Scotland for shipment to Australia. The Melbourne Age in 1908 described Eliza Furlong as someone who had ‘notably stimulated and largely helped to mold the prosperity of an entire state and her name deserved to live for all time in our history’

There were nearly 2 million sheep in Australia by 1836, and Australia had won the wool trade war with Germany, mainly because of Germany’s preoccupation with fineness. German manufacturers commenced importing Australian wool in 1845. In 1841, at Mount Crawford in South Australia, Murray established a flock of Camden-blood ewes mated to Tasmanian rams. To broaden the wool and give the animals some size, it is thought some English Leicester blood was introduced. The resultant sheep were the foundation of many South Australian strong wool studs.

The Collinsville tradition began in 1889 when John Collins bought 50,000 acres of rugged, inhospitable pastoral country 20 miles East of Hallett in the mid-north of South Australia and moved there with his family. They were true pioneers, gambling for their future in the harsh isolation of the Australian outback tolerating conditions and setbacks that demanded rare fortitude and perseverance. Within a year John Collins had introduced his first Merinos to form the foundation of the Collinsville Stud. It was officially registered in 1895 after he purchased a draft of ewes from the relatively mild climate of Burra to the harsh terrain of Collinsville station at the beginning of what was to be Australia’s severest drought. After eight years on limited rations of saltbush, bluebush and herbage, the surviving sheep emerged as an outstanding foundation flock. In 1910 Collins’ son Melvin went to the Sydney Royal show and paid a world record price of 1550 guineas for the Haddon Rig champion ram.sheep

Collinsville exhibited its sheep at all the main shows in Australia and established a thriving market for its sale stock both at home and overseas. South Africa and South America, were buyers of Collinsville sheep before the Australian government banned the export of Merinos in 1929. John Collins’ sixth son took over running the stud in 1918.

Art became the driving force of the Collins family and by the end of his life had gained a reputation among wool-growing nations of the world as an outstanding Merino breeder of the 20th century. He was committed to breeding large framed, heavy cutting sheep, which were able to withstand the most rigorous conditions and achieve a high lambing percentage. He developed an animal that has had more influence on the national flock than any other bloodline.1980

In 1985 the stud was bought by the Garnett family and this short ownership saw the greatest highs and lows of the stud’s history. During the boom of the late 80’s the stud achieved world records which still stand today. $450,000 and $280,000 for horned and Poll rams respectively. However within 7 years the stud was placed into receivership and was saved from dispersal by the Hanbury family who owned it for a further 20 years. Under their stewardship the size of Collinsville station also increased. Recently the stud and station have been purchased by the Millington family who are now only the 4th owners in 125 years. Their aim is to continue the tradition started by the Collins family by breeding large framed heavy cutting sheep that prosper in the harsh pastoral environment.

toxic waste barrels
toxic waste barrels

The existence of uranium deposits in Australia has been known since the 1890’s. Some uranium ores were mined in the 1930s at Radium Hill and Mount Painter, South Australia, to recover minute amounts of radium for medical purposes. Some uranium was also recovered and used as a bright yellow pigment in glass and ceramics. Following requests from the British and United States governments, systematic exploration for uranium began in 1944.RJtreatplant

In 1948 the Commonwealth Government offered tax-free rewards for the discovery of uranium orebodies. As a result, uranium was discovered by prospectors at Rum Jungle in 1949, and in the South Alligator River region (1953) of the Northern Territory, then at Mary Kathleen (1954) and Westmoreland (1956) in north west Queensland.

In 1953 the Australian Parliament passed the Atomic Energy Act, which established the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC) whose functions included advising the Government on nuclear energy matters: the Commission quickly decided that effective and informed advice could only be provided if there was underlying expertise directly available to it. Hence it established a research establishment at Lucas Heights, near Sydney and began assembling a world class team of scientists and engineers. It also began construction of a materials testing reactor, HIFAR, which first achieved criticality and started up on Australia Day 1958.


The AAEC’s research program was initially very ambitious and included studies of two different power reactor systems, on the base of substantial multi-disciplinary research in the fields of physics, chemistry, materials science and engineering. Later, recognising Australia’s potential as a source of uranium, AAEC also undertook an experimental research program in the enrichment of uranium.

In the late 1950s nuclear power was considered for the large new power station at Port Augusta in SA, which was eventually commissioned in 1963 to burn very low-grade coal from Leigh Creek. Victoria’s State Electricity Commission undertook preliminary studies on building a large nuclear plant on French Island in Westernport. In 1969 the South Australian government proposed a nuclear power plant in SA to supply the eastern states’ grid. Then the SA government in its submission to the Ranger Uranium Inquiry said nuclear power appeared inevitable for SA, perhaps by 2000.uran jabiluka

The development of nuclear power stimulated a second wave of exploration activity in the late 1960s. In the Northern Territory, Ranger was discovered in 1969, Nabarlek and Koongarra in 1970, and Jabiluka in 1971. New sales contracts [for electric power generation] were made by Mary Kathleen Uranium Ltd., Queensland Mines Ltd. [for Nabarlek], and Ranger Uranium Mines Pty. Ltd., in the years 1970-72.

Successive governments approved these, and Mary Kathleen began recommissioning its mine and mill. Consideration by the Commonwealth Government of additional sales contracts was deferred pending the findings of the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry, and its decision in the light of these. Mary Kathleen recommenced production of uranium oxide, after the Commonwealth Government had taken up a 42% share of the company. In 1979 it decided to sell its interest in Ranger, and as a result Energy Resources of Australia Ltd was set up to own and operate the mine. The mine opened in 1981, producing 2800 t/yr of uranium, sold to utilities in several countries.

uran mary-kathleen

Local graziers of the land surrounding Mary Kathleen mine are deeply concerned about the reopening of the mine, fearing contaminated dust will be blown onto their land and groundwater will be impacted leaving behind dead, contaminated land.


“They talk about strict standards but that’s a joke – there are none.”   Grazier Ian Campbell

uran mk
Photo: ACF Online

Though the tailings dam was mostly drained and capped with rock, thirty years on the rate of seepage is much faster than predicted. Metal-rich, radioactive waters have made their way into the local drainage system, contaminating the land and killing vegetation next to the mine.

Having noticed particular outcrops of rock at Sterling Park, Gwen Stevens arranged for drilling to be conducted, as a result of which she opened a quarry and sold building sands to the local council. In 1968 she became interested in the mining potential of the Northern Territory. She studied maps, obtained advice from geologists and concentrated on an area near Oenpelli, Arnhem Land. She received permission to prospect on 3320 km² of Aboriginal reserve and negotiated an exploration programme with Queensland Mines Ltd.

uran nabarlek_map_350In 1970 that company discovered what was then described as the richest body of uranium ore in the world, at a site known to local Aborigines as Nabarlek. Newspapers referred to Stevens as ‘probably the first woman in the world with a right to mine uranium’. In August 1971, however, Queensland Mines downgraded the ore reserves to about one-sixth of those announced a year earlier.

Intending to use some of the proceeds of her investment to benefit the health of the Aborigines, she visited the area twice during the early stages of exploration, negotiated a royalty agreement and transferred the exploration licences to Queensland Mines in May 1973. Suffering from hypertension, she died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 3 March 1974 in her Kensington Park home and was cremated. She was survived by her husband and their daughters. Her estate was sworn for probate at $416,266.

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Narbalek today

In 1980, Queensland Mines opened Nabarlek and the orebody was mined out in one dry season and the ore stockpiled for later treatment. A total of 10,858 tonnes of uranium oxide were produced and sold to Japan, Finland and France, over 1981-88. The mine site is now rehabilitated. At the end of 1982 Mary Kathleen in Queensland had depleted its ore and finally closed down after 4802 tonnes of uranium oxide had been produced in its second phase of operation. This then became the site of Australia’s first major rehabilitation project on a uranium mine site, which was completed at the end of 1985.

The mining company Conzinc [now part of the Rio Tinto Group, which owns Energy Resources of Australia (ERA), operators of the Ranger Uranium Mine in Kakadu National Park have consistently denied any responsibility for rehabilitation. This led to the mine becoming known as one of Australia’s most polluted environments due to the oxidation of sulphides and the release of acid and metals into the East Branch of the Finniss River.

An initial attempt to clean up Rum Jungle was made in 1977, which led to the setting up of a working group to examine more comprehensive rehabilitation. A $16.2 million Commonwealth-funded program got under way in 1983 to remove heavy metals and neutralise the tailings. uran rum_jungle_2011_05

One of the principal problems associated with rehabilitating the Rum Jungle Creek South (RJCS) open cut was that the area was converted to a lake after mining ceased, and as the only water body in the Darwin region not subject to crocodile warnings, the site quickly became very popular with locals and Darwin residents as a recreation reserve including activities such as swimming, canoeing and scuba diving.  After mining, the area suffered elevated gamma radiation, alpha-radioactive dust, and significant radon concentrations in air. Radiation protection standards were being revised, so that the levels of pollution would now be officially recognised as unsafe for human health. As a result, a supplementary $1.8 million program to improve Rum Jungle Creek South waste dumps was undertaken in 1990.

One of the main environmental impacts of uranium mining is the creation of large volumes of radioactive mine waste tailings which are left behind on the site. The major radioactive component of these tailings is uranium-238, an isotope with a half life of 4.46 billion years. In 2003, a government survey of the tailings piles at Rum Jungle found that capping which was supposed to help contain this radioactive waste for at least 100 years, had failed in less than 20 years. The Territory and Federal Governments continue to argue over responsibility for funding rehabilitation on the polluted East Finniss River. Contamination of local groundwater has yet to be addressed.uran OlympicDamaerial


Wollogorang: Beef industry veteran Paul Zlotkowski tells tales of drugs, death and determination on one of Australia’s most remote cattle stations.

By Carl Curtain 6 October 2015

Paul Zlotkowski spent his early years on the family property Ashra Downs, north of Longreach in western Queensland. His father, Stanislas, had drawn the block in a ballot in 1928, after serving in World War I. Home-schooled by his mother Katerina alongside his younger sister Sonia, Zlotkowski said he loved life on the farm, until it came to an abrupt end. “Unfortunately, my dad was killed in an accident there on the property,” he said. “He was blowing-up a dirty great tree to make charcoal in 1942 for the gas producer and something went wrong. “I was right beside him when that lump of wood hit his head. I was nine years old and my world then changed very rapidly.”

While his mother was able to employ a manager for the property, she moved the family to Mosman in New South Wales. Zlotkowski visited during school holidays and eventually took over the farm himself at the age of 24. From there he bought and sold various sheep and cattle stations throughout Queensland. In the late 1960’s, he decided to buy Wollogorang Station in the Gulf of Carpentaria, along with 15,000 head of cattle.

redbank creek
Redbank Creek

High debt levels and a crash in the beef market in the 1970s forced him to sell, and he found a willing buyer in businessman Bela Csidei. In his book The Accidental Gangster, Mr Csidei said he didn’t buy the property to run cattle but to gain control of the mothballed Redbank copper mine. Unfortunately he didn’t understand that owning the pastoral lease did not mean Mr Csidei owned the mining lease. “He’d spread himself very thin as he’d bought Wollogorang on the never-never,” he said. In desperation he finished up growing marijuana on the Redbank Creek. “The caretaker bloke – they called him Handbag Harold because he always wore a handbag – packed a harvest of marijuana into ammunition boxes, drove it into Mt Isa and consigned it with Ansett, and one of the airline blokes smelt it and they got the Federal Police”.

In 1978, Mr Csidei was convicted for conspiring to possess cannabis and sentenced to 15 csideimonths in jail. The caretaker of the mine at the time, Harold Herbert, pleaded guilty to possessing cannabis and was sentenced to nine months in prison. Zlotkowski said he had taken a “substantial deposit” for the property but was never paid the entire asking price. “The purchaser was in Fannie Bay prison, so we commenced proceedings against him and had him bankrupted,” he said. “Then I actually bought it back from the liquidator.” Zlotkowski said he discovered another marijuana plantation some years later, grown by another party.

There were also tales of cattle stealing in the decades before he arrived in the area. One case involved stock being stolen by the lessees of nearby Siegal Creek. There was a rim-locked area of country that made a good wait-awhile sort of paddock, where they’d put the Siegal Creek brand on the calves of the Wollogorang cows, but it didn’t always work and the calves would get out. Manny Campbell found six or eight Wollogorang cows with Siegal Creek-branded calves sucking on themm so he took them down to the station and the cops came out. The thieves wanted to dispose of the evidence before charges could be laid. In the dead of night, when the cops were asleep, [the thieves] got these cows out of the paddock with their calves and took them south, they got to a disused mine and shot the stolen cattle and pushed them down the mine, then dropped a lump of gelignite down there to cave it all in. Nevertheless, they were caught, went to court and did time.

In 1979, after taking back possession of Wollogorang, Paul took the plunge and moved his family there to live. By this stage, he had taken the decision to sell his father’s property Ashra Downs. “A lot of those places, when there’s a cattle slump like that, they’re not viable and you can’t just afford to keep on going year after year, running even,” he said. Mr Zlotkowski said the move to the Gulf country, a 5,761 square km property, had drastic consequences for the family. “My wife didn’t want to live there so she decided to go home and the kids decided to stay,” he said. “I was very lucky because I found another wife who wanted to be there soon afterwards, so it sort of worked out alright.”

But from 1970, with the introduction of the government’s Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Campaign (BTEC), hundreds of thousands of cattle were culled throughout the Northern Territory. Zlotkowski said the loss of so many stock made it difficult to survive financially. “We were forced to sign agreements with the government,” he said. “In the end it was just a consistent battle, mustering cattle for them to shoot. “If you didn’t muster for them to shoot, if they had to go out and shoot them, then you got little or no compensation.” Mr Zlotkowski said many of the short-horn herds were culled out and restocked with good quality Brahman cattle.


“It was just the sort of cattle that the export people wanted, the Filipinos first and then the Indonesians,” he said. In 2007, a 35-year-old Filipino worker was killed on Wollogorang after he fell from the back of a utility. The pastoral company was fined $60,000 for failing to provide a safe workplace. It was seen within the Northern Territory pastoral industry as a crucial turning-point, with several companies tightening rules for workers on stations, including the mandatory wearing of helmets while on horses and motorbikes.

Mr Zlotkowski said the safety of his workplace improved following the incident. “It was really just an unfortunate accident,” he said. He said government regulation was making it difficult to employ workers to perform the job required. “People are learning not to be responsible for their own actions. When you’re out in the bush, your boss can’t be leaning over your shoulder all the time. No one is going to learn to ride a horse if the horse has to be so quiet that kids can ride them. We’ve reached a stage now that you break-in your colts and then there’s no one to ride them. Under the Workplace Health Act, you’re not game to put anyone on a young horse, to make it into a horse, because he might get hurt.”

The Redbank copper mine is one of the most contentious mine sites in the Northernredbank1 Territory. Mr Zlotkowski said mining on the station dated back to the early 1900s. “That mine was first discovered by a whisky salesman. What he was doing, riding a horse out there in the back blocks of Wollogorang, eludes me. He spent the rest of his life there, living in a cave basically.”  Mr Zlotkowski said he first became worried about river water contamination in the 1980s when the water was tested. “The problem is, the water is getting out of that big pit, going down Hanrahan’s Creek, into the 12 Mile Creek and then into Settlement Creek, going past my house. They were finding pollutants in that waterhole in front of my house. I was forever chasing the minister for mines in Darwin, making an annual trip to knock on the doors of all those individuals. But I could not get an ounce of help. It wasn’t really until after the Land Rights Act and the Native Title Act, and after Aboriginal people gained more power in the system, that we were able to get a bit of action.” Mr Zlotkowski said each subsequent owner had inherited the environmental legacy.

In more recent years, Mr Zlotkowski has been spending less time at his beloved station and more time on his catamaran. “I’ve always had the attitude that you shouldn’t get married to a property and feel you shouldn’t sell it, even if your circumstances change. You think of all the good times but you’ve got the rest of your life to have more good times. It was a great place for all my kids to grow up and they all remember it very fondly.” Of those in Mr Zlotkowski’s generation, the beef pioneers, there are few that remain. “We’re probably dying of old age,” he said. “I don’t consider myself to be a pioneer though. It’s just the evolution of time changes things. My lifetime has been an interesting period to be on this planet.”


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