30. BLAKELEY, Fred.
"he displayed a lamentable lack of ability as a leader".

John Bailey, Chairman of C.A.G.E. History of Lasseter's Reef, M. L. A2753, pg6.

 

Frederick Blakeley, ‘The Bicycle Bushman’, and leader of the first Lasseter expedition was born at Gilberton, an Adelaide suburb, on 1/10/1882. His father, Simeon was a painter from Yorkshire and mother Catherine Anne nee Greenwood. In 1888 the Blakeley family moved to Broken Hill, just five years after Charles Rasp made his remarkable mineral discovery and the Silver City was still a boisterous shanty town. The Blakeleys lived in a canvas house located in scrubland a few miles north of town.

The flimsy residence was subject to the whims of the elements and some of Blakeley's earliest memories are the sand storms that followed the prolonged drought commencing in 1890, with the drought came hordes of rabbits, typhoid fever and water shortages. Two of the six Blakeley children caught the dread disease but survived, largely due to the fortitude of their mother and all endured thirst for the wont decent water that had to be carted from Stevens creek and sold at exorbitant rates. Blakeley's fondest recollections of this difficult era are rabbit trapping, providing meat for the table and a few pence from the skins and no doubt the beginnings of a limited bush craft.

Young Blakeley had an erratic education, “
that is, on the occasions when I went at all“, finding frequent excuse to play truant and hunt rabbits, birds and reptiles with trap and shangai and occasionally odd jobbing at the town abattoirs. In his book Hard Liberty, Blakeley makes a disturbing note regarding his pet diversion, “Blood was my weakness, and so long as I was up to the ankles in it I was satisfied”. For a couple of hours work Blakeley would be paid in kind, “a sheep’s head, half a dozen tongues, perhaps a liver”, and his family’s disgusted reaction to his table offerings caused him much puzzlement and annoyance.

His formal education finished when twelve years old, apparently thrown out of class by an irate teacher who had endured enough of Blakeley's habit of bringing his reptilian friends to school and causing alarums to the more genteel scholars. Blakeley obliged readily and took on his first regular employment nippering for the navvies on the block 13 open cut, the job paid well for a youngster at five shillings and sixpence per day and he took considerable pride in contributing over a pound per week to the family budget thereby measuring himself a man before a teenager,
I was a hefty fat kid, and as strong as a young stallion, with a weight too of nearly twelve stone”, Blakeley recalls another quirk of character by describing his sleeping quarters as separate from the main residence, in a hole he called his dugout, “the dugout was a cunning plant” where he banked his savings in a coffee tin, hid various snakes and lizards, stored explosives and a useful base for night time assignations.

In time Blakeley became an assistant to the mines ‘powder monkey’ and acquired the keys to the explosives magazine. At midnight, New Years eve 1895 he gave his young mates a ’demonstration’ on the correct use of explosives, detonating 15 charges at 10 second intervals with a massive thirty plugs in the last charge, “
my pride swelled as each explosion grew louder than the last”, the police and hundreds of men investigated the ruckus but Blakeley and mates had long decamped, inevitably there was loose talk and the police and mine management confronted Blakeley who was ordered back to school.

Disinclined to further formal education Blakeley counted his savings and set out by Cobb and Co. coach to make his fortune on the White Cliffs opal fields. He worked his own claim for nearly a year, just 14 years old. “
I had cultivated a nice little moustache, and might pass for twenty as long as I held my tongue”. Although he did well on the opal fields the hard work and irregular income palled and he returned to Broken Hill to more settled ways for a while. In time organisation and discipline irked and he returned to opal mining.

A restless fellow, Blakeley alternated between the uncertain fortune and freedom of White Cliffs and the regular wage of the Broken Hill mines, “
those were walkabout days, and I was fated not to settle”. In 1900 and 18 years old Blakeley took on the high paying and dangerous job of building a fire wall in the ’big mine’ on block 12 where he was severely gassed and lead poisoned. Deciding health was more important than wealth Blakeley travelled to Western Australia prospecting and odd jobbing for three years, returning to Broken Hill in 1903, “smoking my pipe”, having forsworn tobacco until he had come of age.

The next five years were spent travelling outback New South Wales and Queensland by bicycle and coach earning a precarious living shearing, opal mining and various bush work, returning frequently to White cliffs and Broken Hill. He spent some time on the Bunkers opal field, about ten miles from White Cliffs and in the company of life long companions, Jim and Dick O’Neill and the men did reasonably well, however by 1908 the call of adventures further a field caused the three mates to consider ways and means of travelling to Darwin. Boat and pack horse were considered but thought to be too slow and expensive and bicycles were decided as the best means of transport.

In June 1908, Blakeley and the O’Neill brothers and a dog named Jethro with dingo antecedents set off on a remarkable journey that was the basis of Blakeley’s first book, ’Hard Liberty’, the book was published in 1938, some thirty years after the event. Hard Liberty is an autobiographical collection of reminisce and observation with little direct reference to the adventure and mishap of the track, fortunately there was little enough of that despite haphazard planning. The adventurers completed the journey paying their way by selling opals mined at White Cliffs and the Bunkers. There were occasions when food and water ran precariously low but nature and generous station owners saw them through. The greatest inconvenience was lack of rubber solution for tyre repairs.

Several months were spent in the Darwin district recuperating and exploring the mineral possibilities, eventually returning to Sydney by boat. By 1910 Blakeley was opal mining at Lighting Ridge and thereabouts and in 1915 travelled to New Zealand on a prospecting trip apparently without much success. Shortly after his return to Sydney in 1916 he received word from the O’Neill brothers to join them on the newly discovered Stuart Range (Coober Pedy) opal fields where he spent several years mining with moderate success. Blakeley makes a short reference to a motor vehicle journey north of Alice Springs in 1923 probably assessing the mineral possibilities of the Davenport and Murchison Ranges.

This difficult and fickle mineral field did not hold his attention for long, mainly being hard rock mining and he soon returned to the easier ways and ground of the opal fields. In 1930 and now 48 years old found Blakeley working in a Sydney abattoirs when he received word from his brother Arthur, now Minister for Home Affairs in the newly elected Scullin Labor Government to contact John Bailey and assess the veracity of Harold Lasseter and his story of a vast gold reef in the western Macdonnell ranges. Blakeley thought Lasseter’s reef worthy of investigation and was prepared to put fifty pounds towards the estimated cost of 300 pounds to form an expedition to check Lasseter’s claims. Lasseter’s story soon fired the imagination and greed of John Bailey and his colleagues who quickly formed the Central Australian Gold Exploration Company.

Blakeley was elected as leader of the expedition formed to rediscover Lasseter’s reef and his account of this journey of misadventure and contretemps is set out in his second book, Dream Millions’. this book was not published until 1972 perhaps with an eye to potential libel claims from the Lasseter family and Errol Coote. The expedition was a complete failure for many reasons, not the least was Blakeley’s poor leadership and the expedition returned to Alice Springs in September 1930, and arrived in Sydney in early October to a cool reception from the Bailey’s and the shareholders of C. A. G. E, none accepting Blakeley’s report that branded Lasseter a liar and perhaps a fraud.

Fred Blakeley returned to mining and by 1936 was working the Golden Chain mine near Delegate in the Snowy River country. He suffered a serious back injury while moving a heavy log and was laid up for several months in a snow bound but cosy tent. While recuperating he wrote the manuscripts to Hard Liberty and Dream Millions, now in his mid fifties and no doubt considering his future, his wandering days very likely over, back injuries and mining are not compatible.

Little is known of his movements over the next ten years although he wrote occasional articles for the press on his outback experiences, fossil discoveries and erosion control. During the Second World War he suggested using pack horses for transport in Northern Australia and bullocks in New Guinea, apparently, like Lasseter, having a horse and buggy mind set. In 1947 he retired to his mothers house in Concord New South Wales and 1955, aged 73, gave a lengthy interview to People Magazine where he went into some detail on the reasons for the failure of the Lasseter expedition.

Blakeley died of cancer on 31/08/1962 aged 80 and it seems that Philip Taylor, the young mechanic on the first Lasseter expedition was the executor of his estate. Taylor wrote to Pastor Scherer at Hermannsburg Mission requesting that Blakeley’s ashes be scattered at the foot Haasts Bluff . Pastor Scherer carried out his melancholy duty on 17/10/63 and had a cairn and signpost erected nearby. The wandering miner and prospector, by accident a minor character in Australian history, finally at rest in his beloved central Australia.

Fred Blakely was a bushman of limited experience and certainly not in the same league as Michael Terry or Ben Nicker and not overly familiar with central Australia, and had never travelled the western Macdonnell ranges prior to the 1930 Lasseter expedition. There is no mention in his writings of horsemanship and only passing reference to camels, his favoured means of bush transport being the bicycle, probably a practicable form of transport given that most of his working life was spent in the flattish country of the inland opal fields.

And by any definition Blakeley was not a leader of men and it is probable that the Lasseter expedition was his first and last attempt at this sometimes difficult duty. Blakeley did not have the strength of character or experience to weld the disparate personalities of the expedition into a team although in fairness he had very little choice in the makeup of the team, the members were chosen by the Baileys and the whole managed long distance from Sydney by telegram. As the Baileys quite clearly stated Blakely was appointed as leader because it was thought his connections to the Federal Government through his brother Arthur, would be useful, his mining and bush experience were secondary considerations.

Blakeley died unmarried and apart from his mother, women do not figure in his life except for passing reference to those stalwarts of the outback, the pioneers wives. Marshall-Stoneking in ‘Lasseter the Making of a Legend’, rightly points out that Blakeley lead a ’sheltered’ life and he might be considered gauche and nave and it’s quite likely that the older and worldly wise O’Neill brothers took the callow youth under their wing. He was certainly uncomfortable in the company of learned people, quite often referring to same by the insulting term as ’yabber men’ and always suspicious of their motives.

Perhaps like Coote he should not have put pen to paper as he exposes many flaws in a cross grained character. At best Blakeley could be considered an honourable plodder who knew his opals.

LASSETERIA

R.Ross. 1999-2006

Blakeley, Fred. Hard Liberty, Dream Millions.