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Hill, Mary Ernestine (1899–1972)

by Margriet R. Bonnin and Nancy Bonnin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Mary Ernestine Hill (1899-1972), journalist and author, was born on 21 January 1899 at Rockhampton, Queensland, only child of Robert Hemmings (d.1910), a factory manager from London, and his second wife Margaret Foster, née Lynam, a Queensland-born schoolteacher. Ernestine's childhood was spent in Brisbane where she won a bursary to All Hallows convent school. She appears to have been an outstanding student, although she later said that the nuns who taught her had not encouraged her to write. In 1916, however, Hibernian Newspaper Co. Ltd published her Peter Pan Land and Other Poems, with a preface by Archbishop (Sir) James Duhig. Next year she attended Stott & Hoare's Business College, Brisbane, having been coached by her mother for a scholarship there. First in her year, she gained entrance to the public service, and in January 1918 was appointed a typiste in the library of the Department of Justice. She later claimed to have begun preliminary studies towards a law degree at the University of Queensland.

In Sydney in early 1919 Hemmings entered the world of journalism as secretary to J. F. Archibald, literary editor of Smith's Weekly, of which she subsequently became a sub-editor. There began her association with R. C. Packer, the newspaper's manager. On 30 October 1924—'the happiest day of my life'—her son Robert was born. He was rumoured to be Packer's son, although he was never publicly acknowledged by him. Ernestine assumed the surname Hill. Robert grew to be a partner in the restless travels on which she based her life's work. About 1931 Hill began a decade of travel writing, primarily for Associated Newspapers, where Packer was managing editor. The colourful and enthusiastic style of her articles led to syndication and to acceptance by other publications such as Walkabout.

Her sensationalist reporting in 1931 of the discovery of gold in the Granites, north-west of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, contributed to a gold rush and a stock-market boom. The failure of this venture left many prospectors stranded and destitute, and Hill was attacked for irresponsible journalism. Many years afterwards she condemned another of her news articles in the Sunday Sun, headlined 'Black Baby Saved From Being Eaten' (1932), as the work of 'a wicked and ruthless journalist'. The Great Australian Loneliness (London, 1937), her vivid account of travels in the outback and a promotion of the Territory, led to Australian and American editions. Water into Gold (Melbourne, 1937), her romanticized history of the Murray River irrigation area and the dried-fruit industry, was praised by reviewers.

In 1932 Hill had met Daisy Bates. In a syndicated series of articles entitled 'My Natives and I', first published in the Adelaide Advertiser in 1936, she recorded Bates's experiences of living in remote desert areas with indigenous Australians. Although Bates did not acknowledge Hill's claim of ghost-writing Bates's book, The Passing of the Aborigines (London, 1938), she later confirmed Hill's contribution. Hill's Kabbarli, published posthumously (Sydney, 1973), was her personal tribute to Bates.

Hill's only novel, My Love Must Wait (Sydney, 1941), was based on the life of Matthew Flinders. Its completion was subsidized by a Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship. The book's success was followed by English and American editions, and it later became prescribed reading for school students. Miles Franklin was awed when its sales reached 60,000, but added the qualification 'pity it is so inaccurate'. Hill's writings were generally popular and respected, and The Great Australian Loneliness was used for the orientation of American troops during World War II. In 1940-42 she edited the women's pages in the A.B.C. Weekly. She was also a feature-writer on travel for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, and gave radio-talks about her journeys. In June 1942 she was the first creative writer to be appointed a commissioner of the A.B.C.

At this time her son was approaching eligibility for war service. She began a long struggle to have him exempted from conscription on various grounds—his pacificism, her need of him as a research assistant, and his health. It was an unhappy period. Her popularity began to wane and in September 1944 she resigned as commissioner, giving ill health as the reason. In October she wrote to George Mackaness who, with Dame Mary Gilmore, had been among her supporters: 'They have let Bob go'. She resumed her travels. In 1946 she bought a caravan, and she and Bob continued their wanderings. In the following year the novelist K. S. Prichard, who was with her at Coolgardie, Western Australia, wrote that Ernestine 'seems to take . . . flies and red-backed spiders galore . . . in her stride. She's a strange otherwhereish creature with big beautiful eyes, a hoarse voice and curious incapacity to argue logically about anything'. Hill's successful story of John Flynn and the Australian Inland Mission, Flying Doctor Calling (Sydney, 1947), preceded The Territory (Sydney, 1951)—a colourful and romantic account of Northern Australia and its people—illustrated by Elizabeth Durack.

Despite Hill's great ambitions and voluminous notes for future novels, plays, descriptive works and even film scripts, she published no further books. The last twenty years of her life were dominated by financial worries, and by troubles with her physical and emotional health. She was affected by her poor diet and cigarette smoking; her letters abounded with references to being 'old and done', and mentioned 'breakdown feelings'. Her 'wanderings'—as she called them—continued, but without the same financial or spiritual rewards. Her hopes were centred on what she considered to be her magnum opus, a huge novel entitled 'Johnny Wisecap', about the life of an albino Aborigine, which she repeatedly reported as almost ready for publication. She wrote that 'the ideas come thick and fast. I can't sort them out. A forest is here, nearly in bloom'. Her publisher, Angus & Robertson Ltd, although sympathetic, gradually began to doubt her ability to produce and after 1959 made no further financial commitments.

In 1959 Hill received a Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship which provided her with a small pension for life, but her personal distress remained. She continued to travel, mainly on the east coast, trying to settle in North Queensland, writing an occasional article and dragging her trunks of notes with her, always restless and unhappy. In 1970 she returned finally to Brisbane and to the care of her family. The effects of malnutrition, emphysema and shortage of money continued to govern her life, as did her inability to cope with the massive collection of notes, manuscripts and photographs from which she still hoped to publish. Survived by her son, she died on 21 August 1972 in Brisbane; in accordance with her wishes, she was buried 'just under a tree' in Mount Gravatt lawn cemetery. The Fryer Library, University of Queensland, and the Queensland Art Gallery hold portraits of her.

Select Bibliography

  • K. S. Inglis, This is the ABC (Melb, 1983)
  • C. Ferrier, As Good as a Yarn with You (Cambridge, UK, 1992)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 4 Jan-19 Feb 1936
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Aug 1972
  • M. R. Bonnin, A Study of Australian Descriptive and Travel Writing, 1929-1945 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Queensland, 1980)
  • Hill papers (University of Queensland Library)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Margriet R. Bonnin and Nancy Bonnin, 'Hill, Mary Ernestine (1899–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hill-mary-ernestine-10503/text18637, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 30 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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