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Abbott, Hilda Gertrude (1890–1984)

by David Carment

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Hilda Gertrude Abbott is a minor entry in this article

Charles Lydiard Aubrey Abbott (1886-1975), politician and administrator of the Northern Territory, was born on 4 May 1886 at St Leonards, Sydney, son of Thomas Kingsmill Abbott, stipendiary magistrate, and his wife Marion, née Lydiard, both native-born. Aubrey's uncles—(Sir) Joseph and William—served in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly and his cousins—Joseph and Macartney—were to enter Federal parliament. Educated at The King's School, Parramatta, at 14 Aubrey left to work as a jackeroo near Gunnedah; after attempting to become an actor in Sydney, he took jobs as a stockman on stations at Mitchell and Roma, Queensland. Having been employed in driving horses that pulled trucks of sugarcane to Pleystowe mill, near Mackay, he joined the New South Wales Police Force and in 1908-14 was a confidential clerk at headquarters in Sydney.

On 11 August 1914 Abbott enlisted in the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force which captured German New Guinea. Transferring to the Australian Imperial Force in March 1915, he embarked for Egypt with the 12th Light Horse Regiment. He was commissioned at Gallipoli on 28 October. While serving at Sinai in July 1916, he fell ill and was invalided to England. On 24 October in Westminster Cathedral, London, he married with Catholic rites Hilda Gertrude (1890-1984), daughter of John Joseph Harnett, an Australian grazier. Rejoining the 12th L.H.R. in June 1917, Abbott took part in the charge at Beersheba (31 October) during the Egyptian Expeditionary Force's advance to Damascus. He was wounded in action in May 1918 and promoted captain later that month; his A.I.F. appointment terminated in Australia on 13 February 1920.

Financial assistance from William Abbott enabled Aubrey to buy Echo Hills, a property at Kootingal, near Tamworth. Active in the Graziers' Association of New South Wales and the Northern New State League, he joined the Country Party and stood unsuccessfully for the Legislative Assembly seat of Namoi in 1925, but in November won Gwydir at the Federal elections. He soon established himself as one of the promising younger members of parliament, serving effectively on the joint committee of public accounts in 1926-28. As minister for home affairs (1928-29), he was responsible for the Northern Territory which he visited in June 1929, taking 'particular notice of conditions in the pastoral industry'.

Defeated in the 1929 general elections, Abbott was concerned by economic collapse and social disorder: next year he became paid secretary of the Primary Producers' Advisory Council and evidence exists to suggest that he was an organizer of the paramilitary Old Guard. The conservative victory in 1931 saw him again returned as member for Gwydir; he remained in parliament until his appointment on 29 March 1937 as administrator of the Northern Territory. Vigorous and frequently authoritarian, he had immediate impact. His intervention in an industrial dispute on the Darwin wharf in July alienated the union movement. Town dwellers regarded him as insensitive and arrogant; he reciprocated by treating them with contempt. In contrast, he forged close links with the pastoral industry and attended meetings of the executive committee of the Northern Territory Pastoral Lessees Association. In 1938 he played a part in removing Dr Cecil Cook—long a target of pastoralists' criticism—as chief protector of Aborigines. While Abbott had good relations with his personal Aboriginal staff and a paternalistic solicitude for the general welfare of the 'natives', they were to him little more than a resource in the development of the cattle industry.

During the Japanese bombing attack on Darwin on 19 February 1942, Abbott and his wife were lucky to survive a blast which damaged their shelter. (Sir) Charles Lowe's first report (March) of his commission of inquiry into the events of that day criticized the administrator for lack of leadership. The finding was unfair: Abbott had been denied counsel, and many of the witnesses heard were unionists and others biased against him. Unlike a number of his detractors, he had remained in the town until 2 March to offer assistance and to organize the evacuation of the civil administration to Alice Springs. There he had limited powers and came into conflict with the local military commander. Abbott reoccupied Government House, Darwin, in July 1945, supervising the return of the public service. On 26 May 1946 he left the Territory on sick leave and was superseded next day.

Tall, handsome and powerfully built, Abbott could be a charming companion and host. He was an effective speaker and had been a hard-working administrator. His interest in and concern for the Northern Territory were deep and sustained. In 1947 he presented a paper on the region to the Royal Geographical Society in London and his well-received book, Australia's Frontier Province (Sydney, 1950), offered a perceptive survey of the Territory's development. A member of the Imperial Service Club, Sydney, he retired to Bowral where he continued writing. Survived by his wife and two daughters, Abbott died on 30 April 1975 in St Luke's Hospital, Darlinghurst; following a state funeral at St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, he was buried in South Head cemetery.

Hilda Abbott was born on 9 September 1890 at Eucumbene station, near Adaminaby, New South Wales. Trained as a secretary, in 1916 she worked in the office of the Australian Red Cross Society in Cairo before being invalided to England. She was president of the society's Northern Territory division in 1937-46. With Gladys Owen, she had written Life on the Land (Sydney, 1932); a children's book, Among the Hills (1948), followed. In the 1950s she became well known as a broadcaster and her work as an interior designer included a commission to redecorate the bedrooms of the Wentworth Hotel in Sydney. She died on 26 May 1984 at Bowral and was buried with Catholic rites in South Head cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • P. F. Donovan, At the Other End of Australia (Brisb, 1984)
  • A. Powell, The Shadow's Edge (Melb, 1988)
  • A. Moore, The Secret Army and the Premier (Syd, 1989)
  • D. Carment, R. Maynard and A. Powell (eds), Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography, vol 1 (Darwin, 1990)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1945-46 (40), 1946-47 (48)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 May 1975
  • H. de Berg, interview with Hilda Abbott (transcript, 1971, National Library of Australia)
  • M. Pratt, interview with C. L. A. Abbott (transcript, 1971, National Library of Australia)
  • C. L. A. Abbott papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

David Carment, 'Abbott, Hilda Gertrude (1890–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/abbott-hilda-gertrude-9987/text16319, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 21 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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