Athol Stanley (Stan) Hilditche (1904-1992) was a prospector and discoverer of major iron ore deposits in the Pilbara region of Western Australia
Few Australians outside of the mining industry would readily associate Stan Hilditch with the vast iron ore mines of WA’s Pilbara; in the popular view of discovery and progress, other names tend to spring to mind. Yet, Stan Hilditch was central to the discovery and foundation of the Mt Newman mining operations. Upon his pioneering contribution has been built an outstanding legacy in the form of one of the largest iron ore mines in the world: at the time of his death in 1992, the mine had produced considerably more than half a billion tons of iron ore over a period of 23 years and the operators expected that more than this again would come from known reserves.
Aside from the extent of his investigation and discovery in the Pilbara, Stan Hilditch is also remembered for what one Chair of BHP noted as ‘his tenacity, vision and unassuming nature [that] represented the very best qualities of the people of Australia’s mining industry.’
Stan Hilditch was born in Newcastle, NSW, in 1904, and came with his family at a very early age to the Eastern Goldfields of WA. He spent most of his childhood in Kalgoorlie where he began a preparatory course at the School of Mines. He did not complete the course for the family moved again when his father took up land in the Pemberton region of South-Western WA.
After spending some time in agricultural and related pursuits, Stan Hilditch returned to prospecting and mining and spent a number of years exploring the mineral fields of WA. In this work he was partly supported by Charles Warman, the Kalgoorlie pump manufacturer. By 1957 he was working in the area around and beyond the Ophthalmia Range which lies just to the north of the present day site of Newman town.
Hypothesising a distant geological past where the hills caused to the precipitation of minerals Hilditch set out to search an area to the south of the Ophthalmia Range. In order to survey the countryside, he climbed a high hill that was later named as Mt Whaleback. Later, he recalled that “there it [the iron ore] was. I had a look at the structure, and it was obvious from the cut-outs on the south side of Whaleback that it was going to be deep-seated, high grade. An enormous deposit.”
The existing embargo on iron ore exports prevented any immediate attempts to capitalise the discovery. Hilditch waited and in the meantime continued his prospecting work. Four years later, in 1961, when the Commonwealth finally lifted he began his attempts to convince others that mining the vast deposits was feasible in spite of their distance from the coast, and the remote locality in a region of the State where population was very small and services few. One observer noted that this was a period when Stan Hilditch, Charles Warman and Keith Dodd (an executive of Warman’s company) experienced ‘long periods of frustration and delay over protracted negotiations with possible venture partners and customers, and government representatives’. A break finally came when the American Metal Climax company (later AMAX) agreed to examine the deposits in 1963. Following their assessment, the company moved quickly to begin further exploration of the resource. During this phase, Hilditch worked as a camp manager for some time. In 1965 AMAX formed an equal partnership with CSR and later, others. Eventually, BHP became the sole owners of the project.
Though the fruits of his work of discovery made Hilditch a wealthy man, arguably he never received the recognition that his pioneering work in the area warranted. He certainly remained a reserved and unassuming man who did not seek publicity. In the year of his death it was proposed to honour his service to mining by the award of an Order of Australia. Unfortunately he died before the matter could be finalised.
Australia Day Council of Western Australia, correspondence and notes.BHP Minerals/Iron Ore, BHP, Mitsui and Co (Australia), correspondence.BHP Iron Ore, Chronicle, 269 (June 1992), p.7.
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