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Levien, Cecil John (1874–1932)

by A. M. Healy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Cecil John Levien (1874-1932), district officer and mining promoter, was born on 4 January 1874 at Bellarine, Victoria, second son of Jonas Felix Levien, and his wife and cousin Clara, née Levien, both Australian born. The family was Jewish, but Levien was raised as an Anglican. He was educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, and later worked with little success on the Western Australian goldfields and as a farmer in New South Wales.

Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force in March 1917, Levien trained at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, and served as a lieutenant in the military administration in New Guinea in 1919-21. Saddled with debts from his farming venture, he quickly recognized that New Guinea might offer prospects for a better life. His access to German official records indicated that payable alluvial gold might exist in the Watut River area, inland of the Huon Gulf. Noting that several Australian prospectors, particularly Arthur Darling and William ('Shark-eye') Park, had been active in German territory, he decided to wait for a significant strike before making his move. Meanwhile, he transferred to the post-war civil administration where his energy, maturity, and organizing ability were highly regarded by his superiors. 'Tall, broad-shouldered and tough', he proved a capable district officer.

In 1919 Levien opened a new government station at Buka. In 1921 he contrived to have himself posted as district officer to Morobe, where southern tributaries of the Markham River had once again become a focus for prospecting. He carefully plotted all reports of gold, and was the officer-in-charge in 1922 when Park struck rich alluvium in Koranga Creek, which flows into the upper Bulolo River. His powers under the Mining Ordinance of 1922 gave him a unique opportunity to monitor the promise of the field. In 1923 he began quietly financing Park and his partner, J. Nettleton; he also acquired alluvial leases in his wife's name. Recognizing after some months that he was involved in a conflict of interests, he resigned from government service and on 31 December took out the first miner's right issued in the Mandated Territory.

In 1923-24 Levien noted that limited drilling of the Bulolo flats, below Koranga Creek, produced encouraging results and he took out leases. He appreciated that large-scale dredging would be needed for profitable recovery. By April 1925 he had formulated an integrated plan for industrial development incorporating hydro-power to operate drills and dredges; a timber industry to defray the cost of a road or railway to the coast via the Markham; and aircraft to import personnel, building materials, and essential machinery. Levien cabled an old friend C. V. T. Wells, a Melbourne accountant, to float a development company; but interest in Australia proved inadequate.

Providentially, early in 1926 W. Royal and R. Glasson struck phenomenal alluvial gold in a higher tributary of the Bulolo, Edie Creek. The resulting publicity enabled Levien and Wells to register Guinea Gold No Liability in Adelaide in May 1926. Commissioned to undertake systematic testing of the flats to ensure that no exaggerated claims would be made, G.G.N.L.'s engineer, James Hebbard, presented an enthusiastic report. At the same time Levien was prominent in agitation which led in 1928 to the promulgation of a revised Mining Ordinance clearing the way for extensive dredging leases.

Under Levien's guidance G.G.N.L. established a field organization at Bulolo, funded deeper testing of further leases, and inaugurated an air service from the coast. Levien recognized the potential of air transport, and in December 1927 induced his fellow G.G.N.L. directors to float Guinea Airways Limited, New Guinea's pioneer aviation company, of which he became a director and major shareholder. Believing that essential development at Bulolo was well in hand, he then retired as G.G.N.L.'s field manager to continue prospecting for the company and crossed the Ramu-Markham divide in November 1929. The G.G.N.L. directors, realizing that the Bulolo leases were so extensive that international capital would be needed for appropriate development, offered options on its leases to Placer Development Ltd of Vancouver. In February 1930 an operating company, Bulolo Gold Dredging Ltd, was floated in which G.G.N.L. had shares.

This company, through the unprecedented use of G-31 air freighters to import everything needed for large-scale dredging, began to realize Levien's vision. The first of eight 2000-ton dredges started work in March 1932; but Levien did not live to see it. He died suddenly of pneumococcal septicaemia on 20 January 1932, while on a visit to Melbourne. His ashes were scattered over the Bulolo goldfields. His wife Margaret May, née Maxwell, whom he had married on 7 February 1911 in a civil ceremony in Melbourne, survived him; they had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • I. L. Idriess, Gold-Dust and Ashes (Syd, 1933)
  • L. Rhys, High Lights and Flights in New Guinea (Lond, 1942)
  • A. Healy, Bulolo (Canb, 1967)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Jan 1932, 14 Apr 1956
  • Argus (Melbourne), 21, 22 Jan 1932
  • C. V. T. Wells papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

A. M. Healy, 'Levien, Cecil John (1874–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/levien-cecil-john-7179/text12407, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 23 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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