In the same week that the Commonwealth celebrated the Sapphire Anniversary of its Queen’s succession, Australia’s other monarch announced his abdication. Following his Continental counterparts, Albert of Belgium, Beatrix of the Netherlands, Juan Carlos of Spain, Prince Leonard of Hutt (left) — now 91, blighted by emphysema and only two years away from his Golden Jubilee — stood down on Saturday, making way for his youngest son, Prince Graeme, Duke of Gilboa.
It was on April 21, 1970, that Leonard George Casley declared his 75-square-mile wheat property (almost 600 kilometres north of Perth) had seceded from Australia and become autonomous. It would soon become a principality, and he its prince.
In 1969, having recently bought the property, he and his older sons cleared 5600 hectares and produced 14,700 bushels of wheat, only to find that the West Australian Wheat Board would pay him for ten per cent of it, based on the average production of the last seven years. There was no appeal and no compensation.
When a petition to the State Governor, Sir Douglas Kendrew, a former British Lion, failed, Len declared independence from Australia and from the State. He called his land ‘Hutt River Province’, after the river that ran through it (which, rather ironically, was named in honour of Governor John Hutt, a proponent of systematic colonisation). An ingenious bush lawyer, Len unearthed the Treason Act of 1485 that made it illegal to impede a de facto prince and so Hutt River became a principality. Other states have seceded for less.
Ernest Hemingway’s younger brother, Leicester, was an early inspiration for aspiring princes when in the mid-Sixties he towed an 8×30-foot bamboo raft twelve nautical miles off the southwest coast of Jamaica and declared it New Atlantis. This spawned, after Wales, Britain’s next best-known Principality, the Principality of Sealand, founded in 1967 by Major Paddy Roy Bates on the abandoned World War II Maunsell Sea Fort off the Suffolk coast. Bates died in 2012 but Sealand also appears determined to survive the death of its first ruler.
Shrewd and plucky, Len was born on August 28, 1925, the son of a Kalgoorlie railroad fireman. He grew up on a railway siding on the Nullabor Plain and left school at fourteen. He fought for the RAAF in Borneo. At a wartime dance, he met Shirley Joy Butler from the modest southern Perth suburb of Palmyra. They married in Fremantle on April 19, 1947. Shirley bore her Prince four sons and three daughters; he prospered and bought what would become his kingdom.
Len, a single-minded entrepreneur and indefatigable showman, produced stamps and coins; he issued visas and passports. Most of their 40,000 annual visitors were young backpackers, but Shirley once received 24 Arab princesses. The Hutts made State Visits to South Australia and Queensland, including a memorable motorcade through Townsville with the car proudly flying the Hutt River ensign.
The life of a pretender feeds on concessions, blunders, oversights and nods and the Hutts seized on them all. On the basis of an early letter from the Office of the then Governor-General Sir Paul Hasluck, addressed to ‘The Administrator’, Leonard and Shirley managed to travel to Egypt, Greece, Lebanon and Israel using their Hutt River passports and claimed they were not required to pay tax earned within the principality (although Les made donations to his local council). Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg, the ruler of another miniature landlocked realm, has been hailed as a kindred spirit and mate.
A moment of real pleasure came with a message from their ‘neighbouring country’s’ Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, on the occasion of Len and Shirley’s diamond wedding anniversary in April, 2007. Although Len may have been crestfallen that it was addressed to ‘Mr and Mrs Casley’, they had always regarded themselves as loyal subjects of the Queen.
And so it was a particular thrill for the Principality to receive a letter from Buckingham Palace’s Senior Correspondence Officer in April, 2016, the envelope addressed to ‘Prince Leonard’, acknowledging his greetings on Her Majesty’s 90th birthday, “Your thoughtfulness is much appreciated. In return, I am to convey Her Majesty’s good wishes to you and to all concerned for a most enjoyable and successful celebration on 23rd and 24th of April to mark the forty-sixth anniversary of the Principality of Hutt River.”
The Prince had announced plans for hotels and a casino but, after nearly five decades, there are only six buildings, including a brick administration building containing the government office, post office, tea rooms and a swimming pool. Shirley’s dream of a chapel royal was realised just before her death in July, 2013.
The Hutts’ modest success led to more than twenty micronations across Australia. Mother and daughter, Princesses Helena and Paula, declared the Principality of Snake Hill, after litigation over a mortgage. There is the Principality of Wy, 700 square metres on Sydney’s North Shore; the 24-hectare Principality of Ponderosa, near Shepparton, Victoria; and the Republic of Awesome. Prince Leonard was dismissive of many of these pretenders. In 2011, he told the New York Times, “I know one chap, when he was younger, he seceded; I think it was his bedroom he seceded with. I’m not going to link up with these.”
His Royal Highness honoured loyalists and admirers with the Serene Order of Leonard. The writer, Colleen McCullough, was created a baroness; travel writer Alan Whicker was knighted. Princess Shirley became Dame of the Rose of Sharon, Sovereign Aide, patron and chair of the Red Cross of Hutt and patron and colonel-in-chief of the Royal Hutt River Legion.
With an eye on continuity and a nod to Ruritania, ennobled his children too: Crown Prince Ian; Wayne, Duke of Nain; Richard, Duke of Carmel; Graeme, Duke of Gilboa; and Duchesses Kay, Diane and Sherryl. Interestingly, the three duchesses exclusively constitute the Crown Council.
Why the youngest of Leonard and Shirley’s four sons has been chosen by the Crown Council is not yet clear, but the freshly crowned prince, Graeme, was, before his accession, Minister of State, Minister of Education and Grand Master of the Order of Wisdom and Learning. These titles are not totally undeserved, given Prince Graeme’s long career as a primary school teacher across rural and semi-rural Western Australia and remote Aboriginal schools in the Kimberley.
So, while his extraordinary father may have run out of puff, Hutt River’s new ruler endorses the Principality’s catch cry, ‘We are still here’ and, as the father of three sons, he is confident that the Hutt House of Casley will endure.
Mark McGinness is a frequent contributor to Quadrant