Sir Hubert Wilkins

Sir Hubert Wilkins

South Australian country boy, stow away, adventurer, polar explorer, aviator, photographer, cinematographer, naturalist, meteorologist, newspaper correspondent, geographer, soldier, lecturer, submariner, author and consultant to the United States Military.

George Hubert Wilkins was born on a small farm at Mount Bryan East, South Australia, on 31 October 1888. Times were particularly hard for farmers in the mid north at that time. With droughts, rust, rabbits, Bathurst burr, locusts, low wheat and wool prices and a depression his parents had to struggle to provide for their large family.

The family had experienced hard times before and George was soon to learn to make the best of any situation. His grandparents, William Wilkins and Mary Chivers, had been among the very first migrants to come to South Australia. They arrived on Kangaroo Island in the Emma on 5 October 1836. Their son, Henry was born on 1 January 1837 at Glenelg, only three days after the landing of the officials, and most likely the first white child born after this historic event. However the honour of the first white child born in South Australia goes to a daughter born to Lucy Beare who was born within hours of the arrival of the Duke of York on Kangaroo Island on 27 July 1836. She only lived for two days.

By 1840 the family had moved to Thebarton. Henry (Harry) Wilkins grew up around Adelaide where his father William had the licence from 1841 of the newly built Market Hotel. With no bridge across the Hindmarsh river, William used his own money to build a wooden bridge, and increase the number of visitors to his hotel. The bridge was officially opened on 16 December 1841 and named the Wilkins Bridge. After his death on 23 January 1845, Mary took over the licence, married again and Harry worked for some time for his stepfather.

When only 15 Harry joined the exodus to the Victorian goldfields and on his return in 1853 moved north and worked in the Flinders Ranges. He married Louisa Smith at Port Augusta on 24 March 1863. After the wedding the young couple moved south and Harry started work at the Port Victor Hotel at Victor Harbor, owned by Louisa's father. Their first four children were all born at Victor Harbor. Eleven months after the wedding Henry George was born but only lived for just ten months. Harry William, born on 4 October 1865 lived until 4 February 1943. Their third son, Frederick Earnest, born on 6 September 1867, lived until 1950 and Frank James Smith, the fourth son, born in 1869 until 1946.


Birthplace of (Sir) George Hubert Wilkins

After the passing of the Strangways Act in 1869, which made it easier for farmers to buy land, Harry moved north and settled at Netfield, Mount Bryan East. Their next three children were born at nearby Burra. The first, which was son number five, was Thomas Walter. He was born on 24 September 1871 and became the oldest of them all, reaching the age of just over ninety years. Their other children, including their last child, George Hubert, were all born on the Netfield property. Several of the young Wilkins children attended the Mount Bryan East School. As early as Christmas Day 1879, F.Wilkins won a price at the Community Picnic organised by the school in James Thomas' paddock.

Mount Bryan Map

In 1883, at a public meeting held at Mount Bryan, Harry Wilkins was very outspoken in his opposition to a new land bill the government tried to introduce. It was his opinion that farmers should have some leasehold land to keep a few sheep. But regardless of the difficult times Harry did find time to play cricket. On 6 March 1886 he, and his son Frank, played a game at Hallett and although the Mount Bryan East team lost, both Frank and his father Harry (28 not out) played well. A few weeks later though Frank was involved in an accident when he was driving home six children in his trap. For some reason or another, the horse shied and the trap went over the side of a road cutting. Luckily no one was seriously hurt but all had cuts and bruises.

Between August and October 1890, Harry took out three leases with the right to purchase at a later stage. This he did on 28 June 1901 when he bought the three lease hold properties, which made up a total of one thousand acres. To find the 884 Pounds needed to finance the transaction he took out a mortgage, no 366306, from the Savings Bank of South Australia. This was discharged when he sold the property in June 1905.


A view from the Wilkins' cottage.

When young George went to school at Mount Bryan East, the average number of students attending varied from between thirteen in 1895, when Blanche Ayliffe was in charge, to twenty in 1897, when Mary Josephine Taylor was trying to educate them. Among some of the students were Myrtle Jane Bryce and Essie Bryce. According to Myrtle, George was something of a lone wolf. George's mother later said of her largely self-taught son, that he always was a great reader. Even while ploughing he had a book with him.

The 1890s proved to be very difficult times for the Wilkins Family. South Australia once more suffered from drought and depression and with at least five children still at home, Harry and Louisa would have been hard pressed. To make matters even worst, their first-born daughter Louisa Elizabeth, died on 24 March 1894, only nineteen years old. She was buried at Hallett.

Unfortunately for George his formal education was cut short by drought and the almost ruin of his father. It was during 1905 that his father, who had been appointed a Justice of the Peace on 4 December 1895, and now well past retiring age, decided it was time to take it a little easier. It was also in 1905 that George was best man at the wedding of his brother Arthur and Elizabeth Honan, who had lived on a property next to the Wilkins'. Their marriage was to be a long one. Arthur who had farmed at Mintaro, Mount Bryan East, Terowie and Strathalbyn, died on 25 March 1954 and his wife Elizabeth in 1965.

On 1 May 1905 Harry and Louisa bought a property at Oxenbould Street, Parkside where they lived for many years. Frank Wilkins remained for a while on the property at Netfield, Mount Bryan East. Harry died on 10 December 1914 whereas his wife Louisa passed away on 26 September 1928. Both are buried at the West Terrace Cemetery Adelaide.


The restored Wilkins' cottage.

In his first major publication, 'Undiscovered Australia', published in 1928, George Hubert Wilkins wrote, Twenty years ago I set out from Adelaide as a stowaway. I was in search of adventure and something out of the ordinary. Since than I have wandered around the world from east to west, from west to east and from the Arctic to the Antarctic, exploring many unknown places.

This is exactly was he did. While in Adelaide, George enrolled at the Elder Conservatorium of the University of Adelaide to take music lessons from Frederick Bevan from the third term of 1907 until the end of second term 1908. He also studied for a short time at the South Australian School of Mines but failed to sit for the exam. He became interested in motion pictures and soon travelled South Australia's country towns and the eastern states showing moving pictures. After a while he needed a little more adventure and hoped to find it in England. The cheapest way to reach England was to stow away at Port Adelaide.

Stowing away on ships at Port Adelaide was something done by South Australian boys on a regular basis. John Bull did it in 1851 to become a sailor, but finished up on the Victorian goldfields. John Henry Reid at the age of eleven years stowed away in 1871 and finished up in South America. George Wilkin's ship did not go to England either. He was kicked off in Algiers. Here he was captured by a mob of gun runners but finally rescued by a young Muslim girl. He made it to London just after his twenty-first birthday.

During 1910 he learnt to fly but once again failed to sit for the exams, which would have made him a qualified pilot. But then why bother about papers if you can fly!!! Having mastered this, it was time to start balloon flying and having realised the possibilities of taking a camera or even a film camera up with him he knew that there was money to be made from it. He was the first to take moving pictures in 1912 from actual battles, was caught in the Balkan and put in front of a firing squad. He must have had luck on his side, as he was able to tell about it later.

Next we find him showing movies to the Eskimos. In 1914 he walked more than three hundred kilometres to rescue Stefanson at the Arctic. Wilkins had joined his expedition at Vancouver in the spring of 1913. He took a liking to the place and covered nearly five thousand kilometres walking the arctic wasteland during the following three years. Rather different from the hot, dry and dusty South Australian outback!

With the outbreak of World War I, Wilkins returned to Australia, probably to visit his mother after the death of his father, joined the armed forces and went to France as official photographer. Between 1917 and 1918 he worked with Australia's official war historian C.E.W. Bean and was wounded several times. He was awarded the Military Cross twice. He had several very close encounters with tanks and was badly affected by mustard gas. His record of places and events were so accurate that they were later relied upon as historical evidence. He was there to record every major battle fought by the Australians. Several times he took his camera up in balloons, across enemy lines. Australian General Monash described him as the bravest man he had ever met.


Wilkins' Detroiter after it crashed in Alaska. It was later sold to
Charles Kingsford Smith and renamed "Southern Cross".


This replica of the Southern Cross made several loops over
the cottage during the official opening by
Dick Smith on 29 April 2001.

After the war he was given the job of organizing a display of his photographs of the Australian Forces in action. This gave rise to Australian War Photographs, a pictorial record from November 1917 to the end of the war, Edited by Captain George Hubert Wilkins.

W.H. Hughes said in its introduction, Many risks were undertaken by the official photographers .... and Captain Wilkins, who has already gained renown as a member of the Stefanson Arctic Expedition, has gone 'over the top' with the infantry on many occasions, and for his intrepid conduct has been awarded the Military Cross....

No sooner was this done or he was sponsored by the British Daily Mail to take part in the 1919 England-Australia air race, which was won by Ross and Keith Smith. Wilkins named his own plane the Kangaroo, but it only hopped as far as Crete, where it crashed.....into the wall of a lunatic asylum! Wilkins once more lived to tell the tale.

Later Wilkins was involved with a special job in Turkey, reconstructing the course of the Gallipoli campaign, extensive trips and stays on the Antarctic ice with Ernest Shackleton and a trip through Eastern Europe filming the effects of prolonged droughts. Simultaneously he was also conducting a secret fact finding mission for the United States Government.


Wilkins on his way to England in 1925.

It was Wilkins who was appointed in 1923 to lead the British Museum's Northern Australia expedition which was to take two years. This resulted in the publication in 1928 of his first book Undiscovered Australia. After completing the Australian expedition Wilkins went back to the Arctic and in 1928 fulfilled his dream and became the first man to fly across the Arctic, (3350 kilometres in 20.5 hours). It resulted in the publication of his second book, Flying the Arctic, and being Knighted by King George V. By the end of the same year Sir Hubert Wilkins was the first to make flights over the Antarctic.

During all this travelling, and being the first Australian to make a flight around the world in the German airship Graf Zeppelin, he still found time to get married to Australian singer and actress Suzanne Bennett on 30 August 1929. Two years later he made the first under-ice voyage in the Nautilus submarine, bought from the United States Navy for $1, in an unsuccessful effort to reach the North Pole. This gave enough material for his book, Under the North Pole.

For a number of years during the early 1930s Wilkins was involved with Lincoln Ellsworth, walking or flying the Antarctic. In 1936 he was a passenger aboard the Hindenburg on its maiden voyage to America. In 1937 Sir Hubert was back in the Arctic region searching for missing Russian aviator Sigismund Levanevsky. This adventure resulted in, Our Search for the Lost Soviet Aviators.

From 1942 onwards until his death Sir Hubert was employed by the United States Army. At first as a consultant in their planning division and later as Arctic consultant. Amazingly Sir Hubert still managed to be home (in America) on his farm, sometimes, and even found time for still more writing. In 1947, in conjunction with Harold Shurman he published, Thoughts through Space and also contributed to the 1955 publication of the Urantia Book.

In February 1958 Sir Hubert Wilkins, on his way from the Antarctic to Alaska, made a short stop at Sydney and continued to South Australia to visit his birthplace at Mount Bryan East. He stayed several days during which time he also called in at Burra, Ulooloo and Hallett. He died later that year on 30 November from a heart attack at Framingham, Massachusetts.

Although the British Government wanted to bury Sir Hubert in Westminster Abbey, a far more fitting resting place was found for him. On 17 March 1959, after a brief and very cold memorial service, the ashes of Sir Hubert were scattered across the North Pole by US Submarine Commander Calvert. Only the year before had the nuclear submarine Nautilus II, achieved what Wilkins in his $1 Nautilus had been unable to do.

Although still unknown to most Australians, Sir Hubert Wilkins, who has always remained an Australian, has finally been honoured in South Australia. Despite a heatwave and a gruelling red dust storm, about 340 guests attended the unveiling at Hallett of a memorial honouring Sir Hubert Wilkins on 29 November 1966. Conditions were much better during the opening of the restored cottage at Mount Bryan East thirty-five years later on 29 April 2001, and attended by about the same number of people. This project was made possible by Dick Smith, the Sir Hubert Wilkins Memorial Committee, chaired by local farmer John Honan and the $80,000 raised through the Australian National Geographic.

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