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Raggatt, Sir Harold George (1900–1968)

by D. F. Branagan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Sir Harold George Raggatt (1900-1968), geologist, was born on 25 January 1900 in North Sydney, second of five children of Percy Claude Raggatt, a native-born grocer, and his wife Martha Annie, née Barker, who came from Wales. Harold attended Gordon Public School where, through its headmaster 'Cocky' Fry, he gained a love of the English language. He proceeded to Sydney Technical High School and the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1922; M.Sc., 1932; D.Sc., 1939). After completing the first year of his undergraduate degree, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 4 March 1918 and embarked for England seventeen days later. In February 1919 he joined the 13th Field Company, Engineers, which undertook reconstruction work in the Meuse Valley, France. He also helped to build the monument to the 4th Division at Bellenglise, near St Quentin.

Demobilized from the A.I.F. in Sydney on 28 September 1919, Raggatt resumed his university course. He initially found it difficult to study, but came under the influence of Sir Edgeworth David and decided to pursue a career in geology. In mid-1922 he joined the team which conducted the Geological Survey of New South Wales; he became a keen publicist and in 1924-25 made radio broadcasts, beginning with a popular account of the geology of Sydney. At St Philip's Anglican Church, Sydney, on 19 January 1927 he married Edith Thora Hellmers, a schoolteacher who had been a fellow undergraduate.

Apart from two long periods of special leave, Raggatt remained with the survey until 1939. He worked mostly in the upper Hunter Valley and the central west, producing maps of considerable quality. Fired by a hope of locating oil reserves, he had spent his leave in 1925 with an exploration company in the Aitape district of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. For six months in 1934-35 he looked for oil in Western Australia, particularly in the Carnarvon Basin. Returning to New South Wales, he continued his search, while also examining various mineral deposits on which he published articles in learned journals.

In 1939 Walter Woolnough chose Raggatt—partly because of their mutual links with David—to succeed him as geological adviser to the Commonwealth government. Rejecting an offer to become involved in the search for oil in Timor, Raggatt was appointed in June 1940. He moved to Canberra where his post was transferred in 1941 from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Supply and Development. Gathering a small group of assistants, he began to compile a comprehensive inventory of available minerals, an important undertaking in view of the strategic need to ensure supplies during World War II. His title was changed to director, mineral resources survey. In 1945 he and the geophysicist J. M. Rayner were sent to North America to examine geological surveys and associated organizations. Their report led to the formation (1946) of the Bureau of Mineral Resources, Geology and Geophysics. Its head office was in Melbourne. Raggatt lived in that city until 1951.

The success of B.M.R. stemmed from Raggatt's astute leadership, from the support of his chief geologist N. H. Fisher, and from their young staff who were eager for mapping and field-work. It also reflected the extraordinary confidence in Australia's future that characterized many people in the immediate postwar period. On 16 July 1951 Raggatt was appointed secretary of the Department of National Development (which included B.M.R.). Based in Canberra, he was reluctant to lose contact with geological work, but realized that he had been given an opportunity to achieve greater national objectives. He was strongly supported by his minister Richard Gavin (Baron) Casey who made manpower and money available for the search for minerals.

Raggatt was associated with the Australian Atomic Energy Commission from its inception in 1953. He was also an enthusiastic member of the Snowy Mountains Council, the Coal Utilization Research Advisory Committee, the Australian Mineral Development Laboratories and the Australian Water Resources Council. In 1954 he was elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. He belonged to the Royal and Linnean societies of New South Wales, the Geological Society of Australia, the Society of Economic Geologists and the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. Made an honorary member (1961) of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, he was its medallist in 1964. He was appointed C.B.E. in 1954 and knighted in 1963.

Despite the time demanded by his official duties, Raggatt contributed to the Australian code of stratigraphic nomenclature and kept abreast of developments in the study of the Sydney Basin. He believed that geologists should be literate, in addition to having a thorough grounding in the basic principles of their profession. Following his retirement in 1965, he assisted the United Nations Development Programme, visiting countries in Africa and Asia.

Raggatt completed Mountains of Ore (Melbourne, 1968) just before his death: the book summarized the development of mining in Australia and encompassed his own contribution. His belief that oil would be found in Australia survived several disappointments. He passed his enthusiasm on to other officials, and to politicians such as (Sir) William Spooner, thereby ensuring the continuance of Federal government support. His sensitivity to the rights and responsibilities of the States enabled him to succeed in the delicate task of evolving a national policy for the development of Australia's mineral resources.

A man of firm convictions, Raggatt was generally well liked. He had a strong sense of justice and fair play, and was gifted with down-to-earth common sense. Rugged in build, with bright eyes, lively and alert, he retained his integrity, modesty and endless good humour, seen for example in his gentle amusement at the impact of his work on the world's stock exchanges. Sir Harold died of myocardial infarction on 2 November 1968 in his home at Hughes, Canberra, and was cremated with Presbyterian forms; his wife and their daughter survived him. The Raggatt Mountains in Enderby Land, Antarctica, are named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Wilkinson, Rocks to Riches (Syd, 1996)
  • Records of the Australian Academy of Science, vol 2, no 3, June 1972, p 62
  • Age (Melbourne), 3 Oct 1964
  • Canberra Times, 1 Feb 1965
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Nov 1968
  • Raggatt papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

D. F. Branagan, 'Raggatt, Sir Harold George (1900–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/raggatt-sir-harold-george-11477/text20465, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 3 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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