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Withers, Rees Bedford (1913–1996)

by Robert Murray and Kim McGrath

This article was published online in 2021

Rees Bedford Withers (1913-1996), Australian petroleum industry pioneer, was born on 28 August 1913 at Camberwell, Melbourne, eldest of three children of Victorian-born parents Leslie William Withers, draper, and his wife Ruby Violet, née Graham. Rees grew up in Corryong in north-eastern Victoria, where he attended the local high school before working in his father’s store. Between 1934 and 1936 he served part time as a trooper in the 8th Light Horse Regiment, Citizen Military Forces. He studied accountancy by correspondence and by 1937 had moved to Melbourne. On 16 April the next year he married Nea Rosemary Hall, an insurance agent, at St Columb’s Church of England, Hawthorn.

During World War II Withers was an officer in the price control administration in Melbourne. He then became a partner in an accounting firm, Bee & Withers, which serviced a number of small oil-exploration companies based in south-eastern Victoria, where Australia’s first tiny oil field had been discovered at Lakes Entrance in 1924.

Following the discovery in 1953 of the first flow of oil on Australian soil at remote Rough Range, Western Australia, interest in oil increased, and Withers and colleagues launched a minnow company to explore a promising inland site at Woodside, near Lakes Entrance. In October 1954 there was a rush of investors for shares in the newly formed Woodside (Lakes Entrance) Oil Co. NL, but a lack of early success led share market interest to collapse. At one point, Withers had to forgo salary and pay staff and office costs out of his own pocket.

Share market interest in exploration companies returned following the discovery of oil and gas at Moonie, Queensland, in 1959. By then Withers was managing director of Woodside, the Melbourne stockbroker Geoff Donaldson was chair, and the company could afford to employ a staff geologist, Eric Webb, who encouraged Woodside to take up an offshore petroleum exploration lease over Gippsland coastal waters. Critics called it madness and Woodside’s offshore explorations came to nothing, but in 1965 Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd discovered the Bass Strait gas fields in deeper waters further out to sea.

Webb left Woodside in 1961 and the next year Withers recruited an internationally experienced petroleum geologist, Nicholas Boutakoff, from his role as deputy head of the Geological Survey of Victoria. Boutakoff had visited Western Australia following the Rough Range discovery and had returned to Victoria believing there was petroleum beneath what became known as the North West Shelf, off the northern coast of Western Australia. He shared his belief in the potential of the area with Withers and the Woodside board. This was the turning point for Withers: in October 1962 the company boldly applied to both the Western Australian Department of Mines and the Commonwealth’s Northern Territory administration for permits to explore for oil over a massive area mapped by Boutakoff. The permits were issued in 1963.

That year Burmah Oil Ltd, an expansionary British company, was sufficiently impressed by Boutakoff’s conclusions to sign a partnership agreement under which it would pay much of the cost of exploration. Soon afterwards Withers and Boutakoff persuaded the Shell group to join the partnership. The companies had access to capital that Woodside lacked for the immense exploration costs ahead. By 1966 Boutakoff had left Woodside over a dispute with Withers about whether he was entitled to an allocation of Woodside shares. Boutakoff’s ‘sense of betrayal by Woodside, and Withers in particular’ (Butcher, Collins, and Purcell 2018, 52) was amplified by the company’s subsequent success.

After a number of dry drills, Woodside’s punt paid off in July 1971 when it discovered one of the largest gas deposits then known at North Rankin. Withers retired as managing director of the recently merged Woodside Burmah Oil NL in December 1972. He cited ill-health, including a heart attack after major surgery in 1969, but there was media speculation that his departure was connected to a dispute between Woodside and Burmah Oil over information released to the stock exchange, Withers having been an advocate for greater transparency. He retained a seat on the board until 1976. Woodside went on to become Australia’s largest natural gas producer.

Nuggety and curly haired, Withers could be a tough businessman, but he retained some of the amiable personal style of a country boy. He enjoyed breeding and showing dogs, and horse racing. In 1959 he had been a founding member of the Australian Petroleum Exploration Association, which awarded him its gold medal in 1993. He was also a distinguished member (1975) of the Petroleum Exploration Society of Australia. Survived by his wife and their two daughters, he died on 2 August 1996 at Mitcham and was cremated. In an obituary, Webb described him as ‘a man of great vision and tenacity’ (1996, B2). Woodside named one of its gas tankers the Woodside Rees Withers in 2016.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Atherton, Graeme. Fifty Years of Woodside’s Energy. Perth: Woodside Petroleum Ltd, 2004
  • Boutakoff, Nicholas. ‘Geology of the Off-Shore Areas of North-Western Australia.’ APEA Journal 3, no. 1 (1963): 10–18
  • Butcher, Mike, Yolande M. J. Collins, and Peter Purcell. ‘Nicholas Boutakoff: A Geologist’s Life Revisited.’ Journal of Australasian Mining History 16 (October 2018): 39–58
  • Ellery, Peter. ‘Born in Fire: The Discovery and Development of Australia’s North West Shelf Natural Gas Resources.’ Early Days: Journal of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society 102 (2018): 93–107
  • McGrath, Kim. Crossing the Line: Australia's Secret History in the Timor Sea. Carlton, Vic.: Schwartz Publishing, 2017
  • Murray, Robert. From the Edge of a Timeless Land: A History of the North West Shelf Gas Project. North Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1991
  • Murray, Robert. ‘Woodside Inherits 50 Years of Oil Search.’ Australian Financial Review, 16 May 1972, 11
  • Murray, Robert. ‘Portrait of an Australian Oil Explorer Who Came Good.’ Australian Financial Review, 18 May 1972, 2–3
  • Murray, Robert. ‘Director Retires as Woodside-Burmah Split Opens.’ Australian Financial Review, 20 October 1972, 21
  • Power, Peter. ‘APEA Gold Medal to Mr Rees Withers.’ APEA Journal 33, no. 2 (1993): 23-25
  • Wilkinson, Rick. Where God Never Trod: Australia's Oil Explorers across Two Centuries. Balmain, NSW: David Ell Press, 1991
  • Webb, Eric. ‘A Leader in the Search for Oil.’ Age (Melbourne), 2 September 1996, B2

Additional Resources

Citation details

Robert Murray and Kim McGrath, 'Withers, Rees Bedford (1913–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/withers-rees-bedford-30034/text37262, published first in hardcopy 2021, accessed online 19 September 2021.

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