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Lancelot Leonard (Lance) Hill (1902–1986)

by P. A. Howell

This article was published:

Lancelot Leonard (Lance) Hill (1902-1986), manufacturer, was born on 15 December 1902 at Knoxville, Adelaide, second of four children of Alfred William Hill, slaughterman, and his wife Lillian Ethel, née Mott. Educated at Glen Osmond Public School, at 14 Lance joined the staff of the Hill family’s long-established bacon factory and meat cannery. He gained a steam engineer’s certificate and was put in charge of the boilers. In the 1920s he acquired skills in refrigeration and general engineering. He earned extra money at weekends by riding Indian and AJS motorcycles in dirt-track speedway races and by giving joy­rides in speedboats from the Glenelg jetty. In the 1930s he left Hills Bros and opened a motor garage at Prospect. Gregarious, witty and liked by all who met him, he wore spectacles and was only 5 ft 7 ins (170 cm) in height. On 4 October 1939 at Payneham Methodist Church he married Cynthia Harriett Mary (`Sherry’) Langman, née Carpenter, a saleswoman and a divorcee. They settled in Bevington Road, Glenunga, near his parents and other relations.

Closing his garage and enlisting in the Militia on 7 January 1942, Hill rose to acting warrant officer, class two, in September and transferred to the Australian Imperial Force in October. He remained in South Australia, instructing motor mechanics and motorbike despatch-riders. After his discharge from the army in August 1945 his wife complained that citrus trees in their backyard had grown so much that there was no room to hang out the washing on their single-wire clothes-line. To solve the problem he built a rotary hoist, using scrap metal and oxyacetylene equipment. After family and neighbours admired the result and placed orders he decided to earn his living making hoists.

Since 1905 several Australian firms had been manufacturing rotary clothes-lines. Many could not be raised or lowered and users pegged out washing by standing on a platform. Others were lifted hydraulically. From 1925 Gilbert Toyne produced hoists with a wind-up mechanism in Adelaide but they were too expensive to become popular. In 1928 he licensed his South Australian and Western Australian rights to the Lambert brothers at Fullarton. Their hoists were made of wood, which limited size and durability, and they sold few; Hill used only steel. His first small classified advertisement in the Advertiser in November 1945 drew six orders. Its successors brought an increasing flow. Most of the early customers were women. The price was ten guineas, plus £1 for delivery and installation, and five shillings extra if the hoist was set in concrete.

Postwar shortages posed a challenge. Damaged military aeroplanes became the main source of wire and anti-submarine mesh salvaged from Sydney Harbour furnished the stay rods. Hill’s father, Alf, straightened, cleaned and cut old pipes scrounged from many sources, and built a handcart to transport the hoists. Sherry Hill painted the finished product. By February 1946, struggling to meet demand, the Hills were working sixteen-hour days. Lance’s brother-in-law Harold Ling joined the business and took charge of accounts and marketing. Additional staff were recruited and production moved from the Hills’s backyard to leased land on Glen Osmond Road, Fullarton. Old army trucks were bought for deliveries. The first models were dubbed `chinwackers’, as they were raised by a lever that could fly from the operator’s grasp. Ling failed in attempts to buy a right to use Toyne’s patented winding mechanism and in late 1946 Hill designed and produced his own.

The first interstate branch was established in Sydney in 1947. To raise money for further growth, a company, initially called Hills Hoists Ltd, was formed in January 1948, with Hill as chairman. Its purchase of pipe-making and galvanising plants eliminated the need for painting. Modest prices and the `lifetime guarantee’ offered by Hill from the beginning enabled the Hills hoist to outclass competitors. By 1954, when most operations had moved to a 10-acre (4 ha) site at Edwardstown, sales had reached six hundred hoists a week and there were branches throughout Australia. The hoist became a national symbol. Hill developed additional products, including laundry trolleys, ironing boards and children’s playground equipment.

While on a trade mission in New Zealand in 1956 Hill suffered a major cardiac incident. On doctors’ advice, he resigned from the company. He sold his shares to Ling but stayed on as a consultant, assisting in crises at the factory and working on innovations. In retirement he became a keen angler and water-skier and, with his wife, enjoyed many caravan holidays to Queensland and Central Australia. Survived by his wife and their daughter and son, he died on 7 March 1986 at Largs Bay and was cremated. By then over one million Hills hoists had been sold.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Harris, What a Line (1996)
  • P. A. Howell, 'The Genesis of an Australian Icon: The Hills Hoist', Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia, no 35, 2007, p 98
  • Sunday Mail (Adelaide), 30 Sept 1979, p 28
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 10 Mar 1986, p 16
  • L. Hill, order book, 1945-46 (State Library of South Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

P. A. Howell, 'Hill, Lancelot Leonard (Lance) (1902–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 4 March 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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