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Hillier, Henry James (1875–1958)

by John Strehlow

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Henry James Hillier (1875-1958), teacher, collector and farmer, was born on 24 February 1875 at Ramsgate, Kent, England, elder of twin sons and one of five children of James Thomas Hillier, surgeon, and his wife Sarah Jane, née Thomson. Harry attended Dover College and grew up in prosperous circumstances until his father's death in 1888; while his eldest brother became a medical practitioner, Harry left school at 15.

Diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1893 and given about six months to live, Hillier came to South Australia. At Mr Gosnell's school, College Town, he met J. J. Stolz, through whose grandfather Rev. G. J. Rechner Hillier went to Bethesda Lutheran mission, near Lake Eyre, staying with Rev. J. G. Reuther and his wife Pauline. To both he became almost a son. In the dry, desert air his health improved dramatically. Learning German and Dieri, he revelled in outdoor life, accompanying an overland drive of cattle from Hermannsburg to Bethesda in 1901 and, for several days, J. W Gregory's 1901-02 expedition. Until 1905 he taught at the mission school.

Hillier was at Bethesda when it was the focus of scientific interest around the world, resultant upon A. W. Howitt's collaboration with Otto Siebert and publications about the Dieri. A skilled artist with crayon and water-colour, he made dozens of fine drawings of Dieri shields painted with traditional designs. Reuther resigned in 1905 and Hillier returned to England. He was a committed Christian, and when his health again deteriorated he applied to the Church Missionary Society to work in the colonies.

Hillier's previous friendship with Carl Strehlow brought him to Hermannsburg to work for the Lutherans instead. Arriving in May 1906, he lived in Strehlow's house, taught in the school in 1906-10 and learned Aranda (Arrernte). He also collected artefacts, which he sold at cost price through his mother to the British Museum, the Horniman Museum, London, Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, Edinburgh. Strehlow apparently supplied the accompanying data—some was in his handwriting. Doris Blackwell claimed that Hillier supplied the British Museum with 'more than two thousand illustrations of insects and other specimens', but their whereabouts today are unknown. His painting may have influenced the young Albert Namatjira, then among his students as were most of the later school of Hermannsburg water-colourists.

Pictures of Hillier showed a studious young man, reasonably good-looking, and thoughtful. But he found life at Hermannsburg difficult: it was too remote, there were too few white people and the Aranda had a more fiery temperament than the Dieri. According to Strehlow, Hillier was afraid of some of the men who were not attached to the mission. There were also problems in the school: he was not a good teacher and the children refused to obey him.

Leaving the mission in 1910, Hillier went to the Reuthers, then at Julia, near Kapunda. From 1916, as diocesan secretary and registrar for the Church of England bishop of Willochra Gilbert White, he was based first at Peterborough and later at Gladstone. Resigning in July 1927, he moved to Laura, working as accountant for the local Ford car dealer, and by 1931 to Kojonup, Western Australia, where he lived as a gentleman farmer. On 3 May 1934 at Norwood, Adelaide, he married Lilian Gertrude Williams, who went with him to Western Australia. The couple returned in the early 1950s to South Australia, where his wife died in 1953. They had no children.

Hillier was always the English gentleman, very pukka in his panama, but imperious and with a tendency to petulance which made him difficult on occasions. In his final years he sat on the bench as a magistrate. He died on 7 August 1958 in Royal Adelaide Hospital after an unsuccessful operation. Despite his delicate constitution, he had outlived all his family, including his twin.

A lifelong friend of the Strehlows, whom he often visited in Adelaide, Hillier had great affection for T. G. H. Strehlow, his godson, who inherited some of 'Uncle Harry's' books and drawings. He never realized his full potential, probably due to his aborted education, and was important chiefly for making Carl Strehlow's work and the Western Aranda known to English museum directors, notably A. C. Haddon at the Horniman. Material from Hillier is to be found in the Australian Museum, Sydney, and the South Australian Museum, Adelaide.

Select Bibliography

  • J. W. Gregory, The Dead Heart of Australia, (Lond, 1906)
  • D. Blackwell and D. Lockwood, Alice on the Line (Adel, 1965)
  • Willochran, Apr 1916, p 7, 1 July 1927, p 406
  • Frieda Keysser, diary, 1897-1917, and life story (in family possession, Berlin)
  • T. G. H. Strehlow, diary, 1958, book 22 (Strehlow Research Centre, Alice Springs, Northern Territory)
  • general correspondence file (British Museum, London)
  • Bethesda box and Finke River Mission box (Lutheran archives, Adelaide)
  • University of Cambridge, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology archives
  • Horniman Museum archives, London.

Citation details

John Strehlow, 'Hillier, Henry James (1875–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hillier-henry-james-12982/text23463, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 21 April 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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