Lewis (Harold Bell)Lasseter
Lewis Hubert Lasseter, gold seeker was born on 27th September 1880 at Bamganie near Meredith in Victoria the second son of English parents William John Lasseter, a labourer and his wife Agnes nee Cruickshank. His mother died when he was young and his father remarried. His boy hood and youth are obscure but he claimed to have served four years in the Royal Navy, being dis-charged in 1909. He then went to the United States of America, where describing himself as a labourer, he married Florence Elizabeth Scott at Clifton Springs, New York State, on 29th December 1903.
about 1908 Lasseter returned to Australia and took up a small leasehold farm at Tabulam, New South Wales, worked as a maintenance man and wrote a little for a local newspaper. In 1913 he submitted a design for an arch bridge over Sydney Harbour and in 1915 lodged a provisional specification for a patent disc plough. On the outbreak of war he sold out, moved to Melbourne and unsuccessfully tried to enlist. On his second attempt, however describing himself as a “bridge engineer” he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in February 1916, only to be discharged as medically unfit on 17th October. In August 1917 he re-enlisted in Adelaide but after an unspecified was discharged in November. In 1919 he was granted a patent for an improved method in the treatment of wheat for storage: the patent lapsed when the fee was not paid.
On 28th January 1924 describing himself as Lewis Harold Bell Lasseter, bachelor, he married Louise Irene Lillywhite a nurse at Middle Park Methodist Church, Melbourne. Settling in Kogarah, Sydney, in 1925-30, Lasseter worked as a carpenter in Canberra and on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, feuded with the local council over his house, worked on another patent for pre-cast concrete construction and managed a pottery at Redfern. In September 1929 he publicly claimed to be the original designer of an arch bridge over Sydney Harbour and unsuccessfully solicited payment for six months labour spent on it.
On 14th October 1929 Lasseter wrote to A.E.”Texas” Green, Federal member for Kalgoorlie, outlining what he called an “out of the ordinary suggestion” to develop the mining, pastoral and agricultural industries. He claimed that eighteen years previously he had discovered a vast gold bearing reef in Central Australia, which was over fourteen miles long, assayed three ounces to the ton and which could be developed with an adequate water supply and capital of £5 million. Claiming to be a competent surveyor and prospector, he offered to survey an 800-mile (1287 km) pipeline route from a projected dam on the Gascoyne River to the reef for £2000. He sent a copy of his letter to the western Australian minister for mines and suggested the State and Federal governments share the cost of the survey.
In November Lasseter was interviewed by Sir Herbert Gepp, chairman of the Development and Migration Commission, and geologist Dr. L.K. Ward who were skeptical of Lasseter's alleged reef, which he vaguely located near the western edge of the MacDonnell Ranges. The government decided to take no action.
“Expecting the bailiff “, as he put it in February 1930, the following month Lasseter approached John Bailey of the Australian Worker's Union and told him of his find-this time thirty-three years previously, when he was seventeen! Travelling west from the MacDonnell Ranges his horses had died and he was rescued by a surveyor named Harding who took him to Carnarvon, Western Australia, whence they returned three years later and relocated the reef. Lasseter also told Bailey he was, a qualified ship's captain and that he had worked for years on coastal boats. In subsequent interviews with Fred Blakeley, Errol Coote, Charles Ulm and others the story varied in detail and aroused suspicion; nevertheless, the lure of gold in a time of economic depression led to the formation of a company to send out a search expedition for the reef.
The well-equipped expedition which left Alice Springs, Northern Territory, west of Ilbilba on 21st July 1930, comprised Blakeley, leader, George Sutherland, prospector, Philip Taylor, engineer and driver, Fred Colson, driver, Errol Coote, pilot of the airplane, Captain Blakeston-Houston, the governor-general's aide as “explorer”, and Lasseter as guide, paid £10 per week and insured for £500.
Lasseter's behaviour was peculiar, in turn unco-operative, suspicious and sulky; he passed his spare time singing Mormon hymns and writing up his dairy. No trace of a reef was found and when accidents and rough terrain forced the party back in September, Lasseter carried on his search with Paul Johns, an English dogger, who had a string of camels. They quarreled and parted company and Lasseter, after his two camels had bolted, lived for sixteen weeks with Aboriginals and died apparently of starvation at Shaws Creek in the Petermann Ranges.
Bob Buck, engaged to search for Lasseter, attested that he found his body and buried it in March 1931: a death certificate was issued giving the date as 30th January 1931. His wife, and their son and two daughters of his first marriage survived him. Lasseter claimed in his dairy, later recovered, that he had “rediscovered” his reef and pegged his claim.
Lasseter, nicknamed “Das” or “Possum” was stocky, about 5ft. 3ins. (160 cm) in height, dark complexioned with brown eyes; his partly bald scalp was deeply scarred. Self-educated, but literate and well spoken, Lasseter was a poseur who had little regard for the truth. To Blakeley he was “a man of jumbled moods lacking a credible story about anything in all his reminiscences”. Coote wrote that he was “a man of most eccentric nature”.
Taylor called him a “humbug”, and an old friend wrote that “ he was more or less a crank, very aggressive, very self-opinionated and full of large hopeful visions”
It is clear from Lasseter's lack of knowledge of bushcraft and prospecting, his conflicting and vague statements and his peculiar conduct during the expedition that he had never before been in that part of Central Australia, let alone found a gold reef. The myth of a cave or reef of gold (Earle's) in the Centre long predated Lasseter's story, which is remarkably reminiscent of an incident in Simpson Newland's novel Blood tracks of the bush (1900). David Hennessey's An Australian bush track (1896) and Conrad Sayce's Golden buckles (1920) also deal with fabulous finds in the Australian desert, while the American Harold Bell Wright's The mine with the iron door (1923) was a popular contemporary novel and photoplay on much the same theme.
Lasseter's addition of “Harold Bell” to his names on his second marriage followed the publication of Wright's novel. Given the existence of the myth, Lasseter may well have been suffering from an hallucination; or given his dire financial situation, he may have been hopeful of accidentally stumbling on a gold find once in the Centre.
The myth of “Lasseter's Lost Reef” has persisted and excited numerous further expeditions, largely as a result of Ion Idriess's romantic novel Lasseter's Last Ride, first published in September 1931, which ran to seventeen editions by 1933. Blakeley's much more reliable account Dream Millions (Sydney 1972), published posthumously, is highly critical of Lasseter but adds to the myth by suggesting that he did not die in the Centre, but somehow made his way out, ultimately to the United States of America.
This is the “Official” version. The one that follows was written by his daughter Lillian Agnes (Ruby) Hodgetts nee Lasseter.
After the tragic death of his first wife, Albert Melfort Hodgetts married his sister-in-law, whose husband William Hodgetts had been killed in an accident involving a tram. Her maiden name was Lillian Agnes Lasseter.
Because of the controversy in the press in the 1940's and 50's about her father and his lost gold reef, Lillian decided to write about the other side of her father's life, she wrote it all down in an old exercise book, but it was never published. The following is exactly as it is written in Lillian's own hand.
STORY OF LEWIS HUBERT LASSETER
Eldest legitimate daughter
Lillian Agnes Hodgetts (1960)
September 27th 1880 born at Bamganie, Victoria Australia.
December 29th 1903 married Florence Scott at Clifton Springs, New York State, U.S.A.
January 28th 1921 went thru form of marriage with a woman in Albert Park Melbourne (Irene Lillywhite)
Was youngest of 8 children of John Upjohn Lasseter and Agnes Cruickshank. Mother died of sunstroke when he was only a toddler - his father's sister (who had been one of Queen Victoria's seamstresses) came out from England with her son to care for her brother's children - eventually John Lasseter married again - a widow with 5 daughters.
Lewis Lasseter ran away to sea at an early age and spent some years knocking about the world - during which time while in the company of surveyor in W.A. they became lost and half crazed with thirst stumbled on a fabulous reef studded with gold. At this time they were more interested in finding water as they began to fear they would not get out alive so did their best to fix an approximate position by their watches - eventually they managed to find their way to help (more dead than alive) only to find that their watches were out, which made a difference of over 200 miles in either direction.
After their terrible experiences in the burning desert of Central Australia, neither one could face up to the prospect of going back - the surveyor swore he never would.
My father (always wanting to be seeing new places) he was at one time a gunner on H.M.A.S. Powerful, continued his roaming life and visited America, where he met my mother, then Miss Florence Elizabeth Scott of Phelps, New York State, and he decided to give up the sea and they were married on December 29th 1903 at Clifton Springs. They spent their honeymoon at Niagara Falls.
They resided on a small farm owned by my grandmother, Eliza, which he worked industriously, being extremely kind to my mother's mother who was bedridden most of the time. I was born on June 3rd 1905, a brother, Arthur, was born on 23rd January 1908 and died 9 days later and was buried in the Scott family grave. After my grandmother's death in 1908 (during whose trying last illness my father was both patient and helpful) he again became restless and persuaded my mother to sell her property in America to pay our fare to Australia 1908. The crossing to Liverpool was made on S.S. Arabic and to Australia on the German S.S. Frederick De Grosse, which we joined in Antwerp, Belgium - arriving in Australia in time to spend Christmas in Adelaide with his sister Lily McGrath. We proceeded to Sydney and after a period of looking around he decided to take up a selection on the Clarence River at Tabulam in the New England district of N.S.W. My sister Beulah was born at Tenterfield on 17th April 1911.
He built his own house with only the assistance of myself and my mother and made a living by contract work on roads and bridges and as a maintenance man on the road. He also grew vegetables (being 50 miles from the railway there was not much made out of them). Also he used to let his paddocks for agistment for men spelling their horses - in those days most commercial travellers either drove a tandem and kept a spare horse or else worked one horse going up and picked up the other going back - in those days the roads were rough and stony and it was mostly mountainous country through the New England Ranges.
Our supplies to the general store were hauled in by 2 bullock teams, one 28 horse team and a new-fangled “traction engine” which was always running of the road and having to be hauled up out of the gullies on it again by the bullock teams.
We had a 5-horse mail coach come through daily from Tenterfield one way and Casino the other and a 4-horse paper and parcel coach on Thursdays. The coach change was at the hotel run by Jim Jordan (20 stone).
Sometimes some of the local station owners (who breed horses as well as beef cattle) would have a consignment of horses “Walers” they were called as they were a special strain - mostly dark bays - that were fleet but strong and used to the dry mountainous conditions were eagerly bought by the British Army in India for remounts for use in the Khyber Pass on the Aphgan border.
My father took me several times on trips on the cattle boats with him in charge of these horses from Ballina to Sydney - he liked the trip as he was able to return to his old love - the sea - and also a few days freedom in Sydney and he took me as I seemed to have a “way” with horses being small was able to squeeze into the stalls when the beasts got down and sit on their heads to keep them quiet until the men could get a rope or two under them to get them on their feet again.
We used to return on the same boat usually and did they pitch and toss! For a time my mother was the mistress of a small school subsidised by the New South Wales government, but it was discontinued through lack of white pupils.
The Great War broke out in Europe in 1914 and my father immediately became restless (as did many other men). We got our coaches taken of the road then and the Royal Mail came by car which was everlastingly breaking down or running off the road, when they had send a horse coach to pick up the passengers and mail. He sold up our home and loaded our buckboard and horses on a cattle boat at Ballina and landed in Sydney where he drove us overland to Melbourne. He sold the buckboard at Euroa loaded us on the train and himself rode the horses to Melbourne. The horses were later sold to the Remount Department of the Police Force in St.Kilda Rd.
After a short period in Melbourne he moved to Meredith with the idea of his father coming to live with us - which he never did until he broke his leg.
He enlisted as soon as he could and from then on his whole personality changed - my mother was continually hearing of his numerous infidelities, which he took little trouble to hide.
From some reason women who had been quite respectable became fascinated by him. I could name several who had children by him - one he got a mate in camp to marry before her son (Kevin) was born - another one (an artist's model) and quite prominent was so enamoured of him that she followed from camp to camp in several states and my mother received a letter from her brother threatening to shoot him if he went near his sister again. She eventually married one of her brother's friends before her son (Lewis) was born.
After the war he tried to make a fresh start as a contractor in Gippsland - but habits found during the war years were too strong and he kept my mother continually short of money while he used to visit Melbourne and squander it on his women friends.
All this time he used to us that one day he would make us all rich, as he knew where there was a cave with gold sticking out all over “like plums in a pudding”.
Eventually he left us in Melbourne - my mother and I were working - he used to appear occasionally and one day he told my mother that he had been “shanghaied” into going thru with a marriage ceremony with a women at Albert Park - he said she was pregnant and wanted a ring and a certificate to show her people - but that she he was married at the time and only wanted him to stick with her until after the baby was born.
From time to time he sent mother short letters containing £1 towards my young sister's support saying that was all Rene would let him send her as she kept a tight hold on the purse strings.
He also had the prospects of getting the backing to go and find his gold reef when he hoped to be able to make up to my mother for some of the heart-ache he had caused her.
He eventually got the backing from a dubious crowd on the outer fringes of politics in N.S.W. at the time and the leadership of the expedition was put in the hands of a man names Blakeley who disliked my father intensely - almost from the beginning they where at loggerheads as Blakeley tried his very best to obtain from him the location of his reef which my father was too shrewd to give to him as he knew once he did that Blakeley would have no further need for him.
My mother received a note from him at this time saying that “things were not going as he expected - there was considerable friction between himself and the leader of the party and he had taken to sleeping in the truck with one eye open for his own protection as accidents can happen”. This letter was not addressed in his handwriting - as though he had slipped a note to someone he met on the quiet.
After a lot of mismanagement and wrangling he eventually went of with a dingo shooter named Johns. Not long after Johns returned to say they had had an argument during which he had shot and disabled my father's left arm and left him with some water and food and two camels - also at this time there was a great hunt on foe two airmen that got themselves lost in that area and no one seemed to be unduly worried for some weeks over his continued non-appearance.
He suffered great privations but located his reef - only to find that it was in an area the blacks regarded as sacred near a burying ground - he pegged it and one evening his camels bolted with his precious water supply. The only thing he could do was try and get on friendly terms with the blacks by bartering the few possessions that remained with him for water and food.
His films and papers he used to bury under the ashes of his camp fires but the blacks used to watch and dig them up again and Bob Buck told me he saw some of the gins wearing the exposed film around their necks as they liked the red paper.
Finally he got weaker through lack of proper food the tribe abandoned him to fend for himself but an old blackfellow he called “warts” and his gin stayed with him until near the end and shared their few roots and ants etc. with him.
However he died alone of dysentery and sandy blight in a lonely cave in the Peterman Ranges.
The blacks came and put his body in a tree wrapped in bark as they do with their own for a certain period.
Meanwhile the crowd in Sydney contacted Bob Buck of Tempe Downs Station and got him to take his camels and black boys in search of Lasseter - Bob Buck told me that they insisted on him going about 100 miles out of his way to Illabilla to report where the party had stayed to make their headquarters.
He said (when I saw him in Melbourne at the City Club Hotel) that if he had not had to do this he thought he would have got there before he died as he had not died very long before he found him.
There had been much underhand doings in Sydney and we have had to prise every bit of information out of them as their sympathies were entirely with the family he left in Sydney.
As nothing came of the mine we felt that there was no need to embarrass those children who were growing up - and “Irene” married another man and subsequently died.
Over the years there have been many stupid and lying articles printed in various papers, just to use the Lasseter name to sell their papers. We feel that it is time the whole truth was printed, as I am the only living person who can give all the facts and dates pertaining to his life.
My mother died about 18 months after he did - her death was hastened by the grief over the way he suffered and died. She loved him all her life and forgave him for all the heart-ache and misery he caused her.
Signed Lillian Hodgetts nee Lasseter