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Leonard (Len) Beadell (1923–1995)

by Tom Gara

This article was published:

Len Beadell, by Jeff Carter, n.d.

Len Beadell, by Jeff Carter, n.d.

National Library of Australia, 42558064

Leonard Beadell (1923–1995), surveyor and author, was born on 21 April 1923 at Pennant Hills West, Sydney, only son and elder child of New South Wales-born Fred Algernon Beadell, orchardist, and his Queensland-born wife Viola Pearl, née MacKay. Len attended Gladesville and Burwood primary schools and Sydney Grammar School. From an early age he spent many weekends camping with his scout group and developed a keen interest in surveying and navigation. During World War II he worked for the Metropolitan Water, Sewerage, and Drainage Board (MWSDB), before beginning full-time duty in the Citizen Military Forces in December 1941.

Beadell transferred to the Australian Imperial Force in September 1942. With the 2nd (1942–43) and 8th (1943) Field Survey and the 6th Topographical Survey (1943–45) companies, he served in Papua (October 1942–November 1943) and New Guinea (March–December 1945). Back in Australia, he continued survey work, assisting a Council for Scientific and Industrial Research mapping project in western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. In April 1946 he was sent to the South Australian outback to commence a survey of the Woomera rocket-testing range as part of the Anglo-Australian Joint Project. He was discharged from the army in December 1948, having risen to the rank of warrant officer, class two, and resumed work at the MWSDB. In 1950 he accepted a position with the Long Range Weapons Establishment and returned to Woomera. Lacking formal qualifications as a surveyor, he was employed as an assistant experimental officer. He completed mapping of the rocket range and surveyed sites for observation posts along the rocket firing-line for a distance of five hundred miles (800 km).

In June 1952 Beadell was dispatched to find a location in the desert west of Woomera for the British military to test nuclear weapons. He identified Emu Field as a suitable site for Operation Totem and two atomic bombs were detonated there in October 1953. Praised by L. C. Lucas, director of construction, for his technical skill as well as his ‘initiative, guts, common sense, and bushmanship’ (NAA D4233), he had been promoted to range reconnaissance officer in May. When Emu proved unsuitable for further tests, Beadell set off in his battered Land Rover, accompanied by (Sir) William (Baron) Penney, Britain’s chief superintendent of armaments research, and found another location, later named Maralinga, where the British conducted seven nuclear tests in 1956 and 1957.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, with a trusted team of road-makers, nicknamed the Gunbarrel Road Construction Party, Beadell established a network of graded tracks across the central deserts, linking the observation posts, meteorological stations, and other facilities required for the rocket tests. His roads effectively opened up more than nine hundred thousand square miles (2.3 million km2) of the outback to non-Aboriginal people. At first their use was restricted to military personnel, but by the end of the 1960s they were being used by oil and mineral exploration companies, scientists, patrol officers, and adventurous tourists. Following the tracks Beadell blazed across the deserts later became a rite of passage for many four-wheel-drive enthusiasts.

On 1 July 1961 Beadell married Anne Rosalind Matthews at All Souls’ Church of England, St Peters, and settled at Salisbury, on the outskirts of Adelaide. Len, often absent for long periods, named outback ‘highways’ and road junctions after his wife and three children. In 1965 he published his first book, Too Long in the Bush. A vivid and humorous account of his exploits in the outback and illustrated with his own photographs and sketches, it sold well, and led to Blast the Bush (1967), Bush Bashers (1971), and others. Well known as a raconteur and an accomplished public speaker, he presented hundreds of talks to organisations across the country and later led outback tour groups.

By the mid-1960s Beadell’s years of arduous travel and poor diet in the bush had taken their toll. Diagnosed with chronic hepatitis, he spent significant periods on leave and in 1968 was deemed unfit for further service in the interior. In August he was formally transferred to the design and workshop division at Salisbury as a drafting assistant. In 1984 he presented evidence to the royal commission into British nuclear tests in Australia. Despite the scrutiny and criticism of the tests, he looked back on that period as one of the most exciting of his life. He retired from the then Defence Science and Technology Organisation in 1988.

Tough and independent, Beadell was an expert navigator, well versed in bushcraft and survival skills, and dedicated to his job. In his books and lectures he portrayed himself as a fearless explorer, venturing into an outback wilderness never before traversed by humans. He rarely acknowledged the achievements of nineteenth-century European explorers of the western deserts and, more significantly, he gave scant attention to the presence of the Aboriginal people who had occupied those deserts for thousands of years. His books are entertaining, but not always historically accurate; his writing drew on a tradition of colonial exploration into inhospitable places.

Beadell had been awarded the BEM in 1957 and the OAM in 1988. Survived by his wife, and their son and two daughters, he died on 12 May 1995 at Elizabeth Vale and was cremated. A mountain in the Gibson Desert is named after him, as well as a subspecies of mallee eucalypt, an asteroid, and a public library at Salisbury.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Bayly, Ian. Len Beadell’s Legacy: Australia’s Atomic Bomb and Rocket Roads. Seaford, Vic.: Bas Publishing, 2009
  • National Archives of Australia. A6448, 7
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, NX134865
  • National Archives of Australia. D4233, L9527/7/1568 PART 1
  • Shephard, Mark. A Lifetime in the Bush: The Biography of Len Beadell. North Adelaide: Corkwood Press, 2000.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Tom Gara, 'Beadell, Leonard (Len) (1923–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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