It’s been said that the vastness of the Australian outback was the only place big enough for Len Beadell’s huge personality. A positive, cheerful and commanding character, Len was devoted to the bush. The love affair lasted his entire life; something he considered a privilege.
This feature was originally published in 4x4 Australia’s April 2009 issue
Len was born at Pennant Hills West – north of Sydney – on April 21, 1923 to parents Fred and Viola. A year after Len was born they began moving through a succession of Sydney homes before settling at Burwood. This was important as it was attending Burwood Public School that set in motion a series of events that would ultimately create history.
A schoolmate, Jimmy Owens, invited Len to his Scouts group where he was to meet John Richmond, the pack’s scoutmaster. Richmond was a surveyor with the Sydney Water Board and passionate about his craft. He also lived permanently in a tent in his own backyard. It wasn’t long before Len began to share Richmond’s passion for surveying.
For ten years, almost every weekend was spent with Mr ’Mond (as Len called John) and other scouts on weekend excursions that were, in fact, Richmond’s ‘homework’ of establishing a trigonometric network for the Sydney Water Board’s planned pipe link between Sydney’s dams.
It was Richmond’s work with astronomical observations, his main focus, that Len really took to. He became fascinated with ‘star fixes’ – working out one’s position from the heavens – and Richmond imparted all his knowledge about this and the use of what would become Len’s tool of trade, the theodolite.
Len left Sydney Grammar School in 1939 and gained temporary employment with the Sydney Water Board, thanks to Richmond.
The pair was immediately engaged in making star observations for the Lands Department in northern NSW, as part of military mapping operations. The assignment lasted two months and Len couldn’t believe his luck at being paid to do what he loved doing.
In 1942, a year after being called up to serve in the Army Service Corps, while stationed at Bathurst, Len’s commanding officer told of his transfer to the 2nd Australian Field Survey Company based near Burwood.
Toward the end of 1942 Len was shipped to New Guinea where tropical conditions made survey work horrendous. Len was hospitalised after a spider bite numbed his arm and the troops endured scabies and malaria, which Len contracted.
Len had maintained his values through the stressful war years; he didn’t smoke, drink or swear. And he was known still for his cheerful disposition, enthusiasm for the job and his larrikin style. His modification to his army uniform was also quite unique!
After the war ended Len was seconded for a survey mission in the Northern Territory with the early CSIRO. Len was to later realise that if he hadn’t accepted, he would have left the army and missed the career on which he was about to embark.
Len began a long relationship with the Weapons Research projects. He selected the sites for the base at Woomera and then the nuclear tests at Maralinga and Emu for the British. There needed to be no risk of stray weaponry causing civilian injury so a long clear range was required. This was a 1600km stretch from the range at Woomera to 80 Mile Beach on WA’s north-west coast that became known as the centreline. In December 1948 Len was officially discharged from the army.
He returned to Woomera in 1949. To facilitate effective military transport movements around the sites of the atomic tests in 1953 Len was asked to do a recce and then construct a track between Mabel Creek and Emu Claypan; the beginning of the Anne Beadell Highway.
Next came Maralinga’s construction as Emu was proving too remote and it was here that the Gunbarrel Road Construction Party came into being.
In the ensuing years the group built more than 6000km of outback highways that changed the face of Australia. It was tough: Len almost died of thirst during one recce for the Gunbarrel Highway.
In 1960, Anne Matthews and her parents arrived from England and rented Len’s Salisbury (SA) home. By July 1961 they were married. Three children followed: Connie Sue, Jackie and Gary, whose names were all to take pride of place as names given to Len’s roads.
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As a family, the Beadells travelled extensively throughout the bush, camping in Len’s simple style. Anne’s mother was convinced baby Connie would not survive her first trip into the unknown as Anne and Len headed off on an early holiday!
All this experience and Len’s humour found its way into print through his books and also publicly as Len was often called on to give lectures and talks to all manner of gatherings to great acclaim.
For his endeavours Len received numerous awards and honours, notably the British Empire Medal (1959), the Advance Australia Award (1989) and the Order of Australia Medal (1989).
Such was his enthusiasm for the bush many a tour was graced with his presence and regaled with detailed stories of locations visited as the outback opened up to travellers in the ’70s and ’80s.
Amazingly, he was denied registration as a surveyor due to lacking a ‘pass’ in English on leaving school. He studied and achieved the leaving certificate, but never got round to the registration. In 1987 Len was awarded Honorary Fellowship to the Institute of Engineering and Mining Surveyors. Len was proud of that.
After several health scares Len faced major heart surgery in 1993. In April ’95, it was suspected that Len had the flu as he became very ill. It transpired that Len had an infection of the heart valve replaced in the previous surgery. Len died in May 1995 and his ashes were buried at Woomera Cemetery.
Len Beadell’s legacy is enormous, both in the physical and also to the many who spent time in his company. He gave time and sincerity and crossed all divides in his ability as a communicator. A true bushman. ‘Iron man of the Inland’.