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Lasseter, Lewis Hubert (1880–1931)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Lewis Hubert Lasseter (1880-1931), gold-seeker, was born on 27 September 1880 at Bamganie, near Meredith, Victoria, second son of English parents William John Lasseter, labourer, and his wife Agnes, née Cruickshank. His mother died when he was young and his father remarried. His boyhood and youth are obscure but he claimed to have served four years in the Royal Navy, being discharged in 1901. 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 29 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 17 October. In August 1917 he re-enlisted in Adelaide but after an unspecified illness 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 28 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 for Sydney Harbour' and unsuccessfully solicited payment for six months labour spent on it.

On 14 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 over fourteen miles 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 that 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 sceptical 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 Workers' Union and told him of his find — this time thirty-three years previously, when he was 17! 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 for Ilbilba on 21 July comprised Blakeley, leader, George Sutherland, prospector, Philip Taylor, engineer and driver, Fred Colson, driver, Errol Coote, pilot of the aeroplane, 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 diary. 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 quarrelled and parted company and Lasseter, after his two camels had bolted, lived for about 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 of death as 30 January. His wife, their son and two daughters, and two daughters of his first marriage, survived him. Lasseter claimed in his diary, later recovered, that he had 'rediscovered' his reef and pegged his claim.

Lasseter, nicknamed 'Das' or 'Possum', was stocky, about 5 ft 3 ins (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 of a crank, very aggressive, very self-opinionated and full of large, hopeful visions'.

It is clear from Lasseter's lack of knowledge of both 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 gold 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 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 1935. 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 U.S.A.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Coote, Hell's Airport (Syd, 1934)
  • C. T. Madigan, Central Australia (Oxford, 1936)
  • F. Clune, The Red Heart (Melb, 1940)
  • E. Hill, About Lasseter (priv print, Adel, 1968)
  • A. Stapleton, Lasseter Did Not Lie! (Adel, 1981)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Western Australia), 1937, 1
  • Australian Coal, Shipping, Steel and the Harbour, 2 Sept 1929
  • Walkabout, 1 Aug 1936
  • People (Sydney), 9 Feb 1955, 23 Dec 1959, 2 Aug 1961
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4, 5 Mar 1931, 1, 8 Feb 1958, 15 May 1977
  • Bulletin, 2 Mar 1932, 15 July 1936
  • J. Bailey, History of Lasseter's Reef (manuscript, State Library of New South Wales)
  • F. Blakeley, Dream Millions (manuscript, State Library of New South Wales)
  • A3043, A6964 (State Library of New South Wales) and AI 30/512, 48/1143, C64/7 (National Archives of Australia).

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Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Lasseter, Lewis Hubert (1880–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lasseter-lewis-hubert-7039/text12247, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 26 August 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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