On 16 November 1952, Lang Hancock discovered iron ore deposits in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.
Langley Frederick George “Lang” Hancock was an Australian iron ore magnate from Western Australia who maintained a high profile in the spheres of business and politics.
Famous initially for discovering the world’s largest iron ore deposit in 1952 and becoming one of the richest men in Australia, he is now perhaps best remembered for his marriage to the much-younger Rose Porteous, a Filipino woman and his former maid.
Hancock’s daughter, Gina Rinehart, was bitterly opposed to Hancock’s relationship with Porteous. The conflicts between Rinehart and Porteous overshadowed his final years and continued until more than a decade after his death.
Aside from his extensively publicised personal life, Hancock’s extreme right-wing views on the government of Australia, Indigenous Australians, and sociopolitical topics caused widespread controversy during his life.
Hancock was born on 10 June 1909 in Leederville, Perth, Western Australia. He was the oldest of four children born to Lilian (née Prior) and George Hancock; his mother was born in South Australia and his father in Western Australia.
His father’s great-aunt was Emma Withnell, while a cousin was Sir Valston Hancock. Hancock spent his early childhood on his family’s station at Ashburton Downs, later moving to Mulga Downs Station in the north-west after his father, George Hancock, bought a farming estate there.
After initially being educated at home, at the age of eight he began boarding at the St Aloysius Convent of Mercy in Toodyay. He later attended Hale School in Perth from 1924 to 1927, where he played for the school cricket and football teams. Upon completing his secondary education, he returned to Mulga Downs Station to help his father manage the property.
As a young man, Hancock was widely considered charming and charismatic. In 1935 he married 21-year-old Susette Maley, described by his biographer Debi Marshall as “an attractive blonde with laughing eyes”. The couple lived at Mulga Downs for many years, but Maley pined for city life and eventually left Hancock to return to Perth. Their separation – formalised in 1944 – was amicable.
Also in 1935, Hancock took over the management of Mulga Downs station from his father. He partnered with his old schoolmate E. A. “Peter” Wright in running the property, later boasting that no deals between the two men were ever sealed with anything stronger than a handshake.
During the Second World War, Hancock served in a militia unit, the 11th (North-West) Battalion, Volunteer Defence Corps, and obtained the rank of sergeant.
On 4 August 1947, he married his second wife, Hope Margaret Nicholas, the mother of his only acknowledged child, Gina Rinehart. Lang and Hope remained married for 35 years, until her death in 1983 at the age of 66.
In 2012, Hilda Kickett, who had long claimed to be Lang Hancock’s illegitimate daughter, claimed that the late mining magnate had had an illicit affair with an Aboriginal cook on his property at Mulga Downs resulting in her conception. These claims have not been corroborated.
The Pilbara discovery
On 16 November 1952, Hancock claimed he discovered the world’s largest deposit of iron ore in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Hancock said he was flying from Nunyerry to Perth with his wife, Hope, when they were forced by bad weather to fly low, through the gorges of the Turner River. In Hancock’s own words:
In November 1952, I was flying down south with my wife Hope, and we left a bit later than usual and by the time we got over the Hamersley Ranges, the clouds had formed and the ceiling got lower and lower. I got into the Turner River, knowing full well if I followed it through, I would come out into the Ashburton. On going through a gorge in the Turner River, I noticed that the walls looked to me to be solid iron and was particularly alerted by the rusty looking colour of it, it showed to me to be oxidised iron.
The story is widely accepted in modern descriptions of the discovery, but one biographer, Neill Phillipson, disputes Hancock’s account. In Man of Iron he argues that there was no rain in the area of the Turner River on 16 November 1952 or indeed on any day in November 1952, a fact the Australian Bureau of Metrology confirms.
Hancock returned to the area many times and, accompanied by prospector Ken McCamey, followed the iron ore over a distance of 112 km. He soon came to realise that he had stumbled across reserves of iron ore so vast that they could supply the entire world, thus confirming the discovery of the geologist Harry Page Woodward, who after his survey asserted:
“[t]his is essentially an iron ore country. There is enough iron ore to supply the whole world, should the present sources be worked out”.- Annual General Report of the Government Geologist, 1890 The report was ignored.
At the time, however, the common perception was that mineral resources were scarce in Australia. The Commonwealth Government had enacted an embargo on the export of iron ore, while the Government of Western Australia banned the pegging of claims for iron ore prospects.
Hancock lobbied furiously for a decade to get the ban lifted and in 1961 was finally able to reveal his discovery and stake his claim.
In the mid sixties Hancock turned once more to Peter Wright and the pair entered into a deal with mining giant Rio Tinto Group to develop the iron ore find. Hancock named it “Hope Downs” after his wife. Under the terms of the deal Rio Tinto set up and still administer a mine in the area. Wright and Hancock walked away with annual royalties of A$25 million, split evenly between the two men. In 1990, Hancock was estimated by Business Review Weekly to be worth a minimum of A$125 million.
Death and inquest
In March 1992 Hancock died, aged 82 years, while living in the guesthouse of the Prix D’Amour, the palatial home he had built for his third wife, Rose. According to his daughter, the death was “unexpected” and came “despite strong will to live”.
An autopsy showed that he had died of arteriosclerotic heart disease and police investigation revealed no evidence to contradict that. However, Hancock’s daughter insisted that her stepmother had unnaturally hastened his death. Two successive state coroners refused to allow an inquest, but one was eventually granted in 1999 under the direction of the WA Attorney-General, Peter Foss.
After preliminary hearings during 2000, the inquest began in April 2001 with an initial estimate of 63 witnesses to be called over five weeks. The inquest was dominated by claims that Porteous had literally nagged Hancock to death with shrill tantrums and arguments.
Porteous denied the allegations, famously explaining: “For anyone else it would be a tantrum, for me it’s just raising my voice.” In the last few days of Hancock’s life, Porteous had attempted to pressure him into changing his will and Hancock eventually took out a restraining order against her.
The inquest was put on hold after allegations that Rinehart had paid witnesses to appear and that some had lied in their testimony. It resumed three months later with a smaller witness list and ended with the finding that Hancock had died of natural causes and not as a result of Porteous’ behaviour.
With a legal bill of A$2.7m, Rose and William Porteous commenced action against Rinehart, that was eventually settled out of court in 2003.
Hancock’s daughter, Gina Rinehart, continues to chair Hancock Prospecting and its expansion into mining projects continues in Western Australia and other states of Australia, estimated to be earning about A$870 million in revenue in 2011.
Rinehart is Australia’s richest person and was also the world’s richest woman for a period of time, with a net worth of A$29.17 billion during 2012; by 2019, her wealth had eased to around $US14.8 billion, according to Forbes.
The Hancock Range, situated about 65 kilometres (40 mi) north-west of the town of Newman at 23°00′23″S 119°12′31″E, commemorates the family’s contribution to the establishment of the pastoral and mining industry in the Pilbara region.