Woman Hill, Ernestine

Occupation
Biographer, Journalist and Writer
Alternative Names
  • Hemmings, Ernestine

Written by Ann Standish, The University of Melbourne

Mary Ernestine Hemmings, always known professionally as Ernestine Hill, was born in Rockhampton, Queensland, in 1899, the only child of Robert and Margaret Hemmings. Her childhood was spent in Brisbane, where she won a scholarship to All Hallows convent. An outstanding student, her first publication was a volume of poems, Peter Pan Land and Other Poems, which was released in 1916 with an introduction from the Archbishop of Brisbane, Sir James Duhig. The following year she attended Stott and Hoare's Business College, Brisbane, also on a scholarship. Topping her year meant she gained immediate employment in the Queensland public service, initially as a typist in the Department of Justice.

It was not long before Hemmings took on another position, as secretary to J.F. Archibald, the literary editor of Smith's Weekly. This was a newly established newspaper managed by Robert Packer, founder of the Packer media dynasty, and funded by the wealthy former lord mayor of Sydney, Sir Joynton Smith. By the early 1920s, Hemmings had begun her career as a journalist by becoming a sub-editor at the paper. In 1924, she gave birth to her only child, Robert, assumed to be the married Robert Packer's son (although Packer did not acknowledge him as such) and changed her last name to Hill.

As Ernestine Hill, she travelled with her son throughout Australia for most of the 1930s, especially in the outback areas of the Northern Territory, South Australia and New South Wales, but also in Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia - possibly under an arrangement with Packer that kept her away from Sydney. She wrote prolifically, mainly travel pieces published by Associated Newspapers, of which Packer was now managing editor. Her writing - vivid, enthusiastic and involving - was not always factually accurate but it was engaging and very popular. Her articles were often syndicated in other publications. She also wrote books in a similar vein, including The Great Australian Loneliness (1937) an account of travels in the Northern Territory which begins, 'It was in July, 1930, that I first set out, as wandering "copy-boy" with swag and typewriter, to find what lay beyond the railway lines'. This was followed quickly by Water into Gold (1937), a history of Murray River irrigation and fruit growing. In the 1930s she also met and began an association with Daisy Bates, which led to her contributing to Bates' popular book The Passing of the Aborigines (1938). Hill's memoirs of Bates, Kabbarli, would be published posthumously in 1973. Her depictions of Australia's Indigenous population were very much as a race dying in the face of white progress.

By the end of the 1930s, Hill was Australia's best-selling, most popular and avidly read writer. She was also leading promoter of Australia as a tourist destiny with her writing and a booster of white progress and development. Her journalistic ethics have been found wanting and Hill has been justly accused of irresponsibility, sensationalism and making things up in the name of attracting readers and sales. She was a single mother, on the road and desperate to make ends meet; 'truth' was not the main aim of her writing. Her colourful and affectionate accounts of Australian life may be misleading, but they caught the attention of many readers and contributed to the mythology of the Australian outback as well as to a sense of Australia as a booming economy and an adventurous destination during the 1930s and '40s.

In 1941 Hill published her only novel, a heavily fictionalised life of Matthew Flinders titled My Love Must Wait. It was an immediate success, with sales of over 60,000 and became a perennial on school reading lists. At this time, the height of her popularity, she also edited the women's pages of the ABC Weekly, wrote travel features for the ABC and made radio broadcasts about her travel; in 1942 she was appointed as a commissioner for the ABC, one of the first women to hold such a position.

Hill's popularity began to fade during the later years of World War II, as her attempts to keep her son from being conscripted were interpreted as unpatriotic. Her physical and mental health also began to fail, and she never reached the same levels of productivity she had during the 1930s. She and her son again travelled through Australia from 1946, and she published two more books - Flying Doctor Calling (1947) and The Territory (1951), which sold well, but not spectacularly.

Hill lived for another twenty years, but although she talked enthusiastically of projects on the go, none came to fruition and her publishers, Angus and Roberston, stopped supporting her. She was awarded a Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship in 1959, but this small pension did not solve her financial or creative problems. Unwell, unhappy and always anxious about money, she continued to be restless, travelling mainly along the northern East Coast. She died in Brisbane in 1972.

Additional sources: Papers of Ernestine Hill from the National Library of Australia.

Archival Resources

State Library of Victoria

  • Autobiographical notes, - 1972, MS 11261; State Library of Victoria. Details

Published Resources

Books

  • Hill, Ernestine, Kabbarli: A Personal Memoir of Daisy Bates, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, New South Wales, 1973. Details

Book Sections

  • Morris, Meaghan, 'Panorama: the live, the dead and the living', in Paul Foss (ed.), Island in the Stream: Myths of Place in Australian Culture, Pluto Press, Sydney, New South Wales, 1988. Details

Journal Articles

  • Morris, Meaghan, 'I don't really like biography', Australian Feminist Studies, no. 16, Summer 1992. Details
  • Thompson, Christina, 'Romance Australia: love in Australian literature of exploration', Australian Literary Studies, vol. 13, no. 2, October 1987. Details

Online Resources

See also