Richest women in Australia go to war over mining rights

Bitter rivals Gina Rinehart and Angela Bennett launch legal actions against each other

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The Independent Online

Friends since school days, Lang Hancock and Peter Wright discovered vast iron ore reserves in Australia's remote north-west in the 1960s, sealing their business partnership with a handshake. Half a century on, their daughters – the country's two richest women – are fighting each other in court over hundreds of millions of dollars in mining royalties.

Neither Gina Rinehart, whose fortune is estimated at A$29.17bn (£18.74bn), nor Angela Bennett, said to be worth A$2.03bn, is short of spare change. Yet the bitter rivals – both of whom have been sued in the past by their own families – have launched legal actions against each other.

The latest dispute centres on the Hope Downs mine in Western Australia's Pilbara region, named after Ms Rinehart's mother, Hope Hancock. Lang's daughter is determined to retain her 50 per cent stake for financial as well as sentimental reasons.

Ms Bennett, 66, is equally determined to secure 50 per cent of Ms Rinehart's share, with her lawyers arguing that the iron ore deposits have been jointly owned by the two families since the 1970s.

Ms Rinehart, 58, is famously reclusive, as is Ms Bennett. During a previous court case in 2010, the latter hid her face behind a towel to avoid being photographed. Ms Bennett's brother, Michael Wright, who died earlier this year, was a man of modest tastes who declared yachts "a waste of money", while his younger sister has a A$20m yacht. In 2009 Ms Bennett sold her riverfront mansion in Perth for A$57.5m. The mother of seven "downsized" to an A$8m apartment.

She and Ms Rinehart are said to loathe each other. According to The Australian, the latter "exploded with rage" when Ms Bennett and her brother – then joint owners of their family company, Wright Prospecting – won a nine-year court battle stripping Hancock Prospecting of its 25 per cent stake in another Pilbara mine, Rhodes Ridge. Ms Rinehart appealed, and is currently awaiting the outcome.

One mining analyst commented in 2010: "The original agreement between Hancock and Wright was a handshake deal between a couple of old mates. Now you've got these people born with silver spoons in their mouths fighting over it all."

The relationship between Mr Hancock and Mr Wright soured before they died, as they tried to straighten out their entangled business affairs. Presciently, Mr Hancock wrote to his former partner in 1982: "We will both have to do our best to solve the problems rather than pass on the mess to the next generation – a mess which, if not properly handled, could result in lawyers getting a large share of the pickings."

Iron Ore Queens

Gina Rinehart:

Age: 58.

Estimated worth: A$29.17bn.

Company: Hancock Prospecting.

Family: Four children, estranged from three. Second husband, Frank Rinehart, died 1990.

Lifestyle: Workaholic.

Home: A$25m Perth mansion.

Angela Bennett:

Age: 66.

Estimated worth: A$2.03bn.

Company: Wright Prospecting.

Family: Married with seven children. Estranged from brother and his two children.

Lifestyle: Sails around world on A$20m yacht, Platinum.

Home: Downsized from A$57.5m Perth mansion to A$8m apartment.