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Ernest Henry Higgins (1871–1945)

by Martha Rutledge and Graeme Osborne

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HIGGINS BROTHERS: Ernest Henry (1871-1945), Tasman George (1888-1953) and Arthur Embery (1891-1963), film cameramen, were born on 9 October 1871, 8 April 1888 and 25 October 1891 in Hobart, sons of Henry Higgins, butcher, and his wife Ann Maria, née Hooper. They were educated locally. Their father was one of the first to illuminate his shop by electricity. About 1900 Ernest rigged up a projector on the shop's balcony with a screen on a building across the street.

By 1903 Ernest was a bioscope operator at a Hobart theatre. Next year he bought a 'movie' camera and began to take and exhibit films of Hobart and its environs. In late 1905 he moved to Sydney and soon became an integral part of Cosens Spencer's production team. He filmed newsreels, travelogues and the Burns-Johnson fight in 1908, and made an industrial film, The History of a Loaf. In 1910 he made his fist feature film, The Life and Adventures of John Vane; several more bushranger films, including Captain Starlight, followed. In 1912 he flew eighteen times with the aviator W. E. Hart and made three documentaries.

Arthur had started work in an architect's office, but joined Ernest in Sydney in 1908 and was taken on by Spencer. In 1912 he made some documentaries for the Western Australian government. From 1911 Ernest and Arthur were closely associated with Raymond Longford. Arthur was barely 20 when he shot Longford's first film, The Fatal Wedding. Tasman, who worked as a clerk in Hobart, had joined them by 1912, when he helped Arthur to film Longford's The Tide of Death. Next year all three were cameramen for Longford's racist outburst, Australia Calls, in which Sydney was bombed by invading Asians. In this period they 'had to devise all the trick effects; process and edit their own films, and—most difficult job of all—do all the photography by daylight'. To film interior scenes they removed part of the studio roof.

After Spencer's Pictures Ltd merged with Australasian Films Ltd in 1913, Ernest, Tasman and Arthur founded Higgins Bros, cinematographers. They made documentaries and compilation films such as Australia's Response to the Empire's Call (1914), and one feature film, A Long, Long Way to Tipperary (1914), but were discouraged by their failure to get fair payment from Australasian Films. From January 1917 Ernest was sole proprietor of Higgins Bros. At the Methodist church, Lindfield, he married Elsie May Dickson on 24 April 1919. He made his last feature film in 1922 but continued to work in the industry, as Higgins Bros, until his death. Survived by his wife and son, he died at his Darling Point home on 28 November 1945 and was cremated.

Tasman had married Gladys Mary Walker at St Mary's Church of England, Waverley, on 4 September 1915. In the 1920s and 1930s he made about one feature film a year for different directors: these included Louise Lovely's Jewelled Nights (1925) and When the Kellys Rode (1934). He also worked on newsreels and became known for the high quality of his outdoor photography. In 1932 he spent three months with Charles Chauvel on Pitcairn Island to film In the Wake of the Bounty. Shooting from whale-boats was perilous and 'one scene was shot in a cave … accessible only by ropes'. He was cameraman for other Chauvel films, including the cavalry scenes in Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940). His last feature film was made in 1941. He died in a Parramatta mental hospital on 4 June 1953 and was cremated. His wife, daughter and three sons survived him.

After leaving Higgins Bros, Arthur worked closely with Longford & Lottie Lyell. He made Longford's best-known films, The Sentimental Bloke (1919) and On our Selection (1920); the latter included the bush-fire scene that was perhaps his most famous piece of photography. In 1928 he set up Arthur Higgins Productions and made a racing film, Odds On, and in 1930, with Tasman as cameraman, the visually spectacular Fellers. Set in Palestine, desert scenes were shot in sandhills near Sydney. The last reel was synchronized with a few minutes of dialogue. In May Fellers won the third (and only) prize in the Commonwealth film competition. After visiting the United States of America, from 1931 Arthur made features and a series of documentaries, Cities of the Empire, for F. W. Thring's Efftee Film Productions in Melbourne, and two films for Pat Hanna. He joined Cinesound Productions in 1936 but continued to make feature films for different directors until 1946.

Noted for his poetic outdoor photography, especially in Longford's The Woman Suffers (1918), The Blue Mountains Mystery (1921) and The Bushwhackers (1925), Arthur was also skilled at trick photography. He was the most experimental of the brothers, he developed his own colour process and about 1937 established a production company, Solarchrome Colour Processing Co., to produce screen advertisements, documentaries, and industrial shorts. For eight years he filmed races at all Sydney courses and was a familiar figure at 'the turn' at Randwick. Arthur had married Sheila Elizabeth Smith on 27 June 1917 at Moonee Ponds, Melbourne; they were childless. He died at his home at Potts Point on 22 September 1963 and was cremated with Methodist forms.

The quality of the Higgins brothers' cinematography was acclaimed by their contemporaries and can still be recognized in the few prints that survive. While the subject matter of these early films was often limited and repetitive, their photography equalled the standards that prevailed overseas, their documentaries recorded significant aspects of Australian social, cultural and economic history.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. Chauvel, In the Wake of "The Bounty": To Tahiti and Pitcairn Island (Syd, 1933?)
  • J. Cato, The Story of the Camera in Australia (Melb, 1955)
  • E. Reade, History and Heartburn (Syd, 1979)
  • A. Pike and R. F. Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977 (Melb, 1980)
  • Theatre Magazine (Melbourne, Sydney), 1 Mar 1915
  • Register (Adelaide), 25 Mar 1918
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 May 1962, 24 Sept 1963
  • R. F. Cooper, ‘And the Villain Still Pursued Her’. Origins of Film in Australia, 1896-1913 (MA thesis, Australian National University, 1971)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Martha Rutledge and Graeme Osborne, 'Higgins, Ernest Henry (1871–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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