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Wright, Ernest Archibald (Peter) (1908–1985)

by John McIlwraith

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Ernest Archibald Maynard (Peter) Wright (1908-1985), mining magnate, was born on 24 February 1908 at Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, third child of Victorian-born parents Frederick William Maynard Wright, produce merchant, and his wife Esther Maud, née Scotson. The family moved to Perth when he was 4. Ern attended state primary schools and Hale School, where he met his future business partner, Lang Hancock. He represented Hale at athletics, football, shooting and cricket. Finishing school at the end of his sub-leaving year, he worked for two years with the Bank of New South Wales and then Ford, Rhodes & Davies, accountants. In 1928 he joined his father’s agricultural machinery and produce business, F. W. Wright & Co. After he qualified as an accountant in 1930, he set up his own accountancy firm, E. A. Wright & Co., in the family’s Perth business premises. He became general manager of the family enterprise in 1938 and managing director in 1949, when it was floated as a public company, Wrights Ltd.

On 23 April 1932 Peter, as his wife would call him, married Pauline McClemans at St George’s Cathedral, Perth. In 1938 he and Hancock joined in mining ventures in the north of Western Australia after Wright had spent a holiday at Hancock’s Mulga Downs station near Wittenoom Gorge. Hancock inspired Wright to see the possibilities of mining in the remote region. Their partnership endured for many years, without a formal contract. Hancock commented, ‘he was the business head and I was to do the field-work’. Initially they operated a jointly financed blue-asbestos mine at Wittenoom Gorge. In 1943 they sold a controlling interest to Colonial Sugar Refining Co., which named the new company Australian Blue Asbestos. Dissatisfied with CSR’s management, Wright and Hancock sold their share in 1948.

From 1946 Wright had been involved in developing family pastoral properties, including his 3500-acre (1416-ha) sheep and beef station near York, east of Perth. Wright and Hancock intensified exploration in the Pilbara during the 1950s, proving it to be a mineral-rich area, with large deposits of high-grade iron ore. Their enthusiasm was a key factor in attracting major companies to the region. In 1959 they began negotiations with Rio Tinto Co. to finance iron-ore mining in the Hamersley region. After long, hard negotiations with Rio Tinto and the Western Australian government, in June 1963 Wright and Hancock signed a royalty agreement, whereby they received 2.5 per cent of the value of the iron ore extracted by Hamersley Iron Pty Ltd, the company formed to manage the mining. Great wealth flowed to the two men from that agreement. In some years they received more than a third of the after-tax profit from the company’s iron-ore mining. In 1985 Business Review Weekly estimated each man’s minimum net worth at $50 million.

Wright was the less flamboyant partner in a venture that played a major role in the development of Australia’s giant iron-ore industry. Hancock was the more visible and controversial figure, involved in many disputes with governments, and an evangelist for the Pilbara region’s potential to become one of the biggest sources of iron ore in the world. A softly spoken, courteous man, Wright often repaired relationships damaged by Hancock’s aggressive style. Playing no public part in Hancock’s vigorous campaigns, he was also more diplomatic in stormy negotiations with successive Western Australian governments over the allocation of exploration areas. A skilful negotiator, he assumed responsibility for the partnership’s administration and legal issues. Many of his contemporaries believed he did not receive sufficient credit for promoting the iron-ore industry. By 1975 the two men were drifting apart, insisting that they were still friends but pursuing divergent businesses. By then each owned a weekly newspaper and operated out of separate office buildings.

In 1935 Wright had become honorary Norwegian consul in Perth (a post he held for 46 years) and in 1951 he was appointed a knight of that country’s Royal Order of St Olave. A generous, anonymous benefactor, he lived modestly. He travelled overseas extensively for work and pleasure. While returning from his annual holiday in Europe, he died on 13 September 1985 in Bangkok. His wife and their two sons and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Focus on Friends (1969)
  • J. Moyes, Hancock and Wright (1972)
  • Australian Financial Review, 25 Aug 1975, pp 1, 6
  • Business Review Weekly, 16 Aug 1985, pp 85, 91
  • West Australian, 14 Sep 1985, pp 3, 10
  • private information.

Citation details

John McIlwraith, 'Wright, Ernest Archibald (Peter) (1908–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wright-ernest-archibald-peter-15650/text26844, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 16 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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