Billy Hughes and His Daughter

 Helen Hughes and her father 

One of the saddest episodes in early 20th century Australian history to emerge in recent years is the poignant story of Helen Hughes, daughter of  Prime Minister William "Billy" Hughes. It's a mysterious tale of bad behaviour, exile, suffering and ultimately death - as well as a terrible indictment on the cruel social and moral edicts of the era. The story, which had remained quietly concealed for over 70 years was brought to light in 2008 by actor and amateur historian, Martin Vaughn, who had become fascinated by mysteries surrounding Helen's life and death.

Politics of a Self-Made Man
Billy Hughes was the seventh Prime Minister of Australia, in office from 1915 (the same year his daughter Helen was born) to 1923, serving throughout the turbulent  years of WW1. He was a controversial, polarising figure, partly because  he was perceived as a Labour Party 'rat', after having deserted the party over the issue of conscription, which he had enthusiastically supported (throughout his career he was to change political parties five times) and partly because of his vivid, over-bearing personality. Reputedly he could be both charming and ruthless and seems to have been multi-facted, presenting as a hero to some and a scurrilous renegade to others. In any case, he was to distinguish himself as our longest serving parliamentarian and died at the age of 90, still working to the very end.

William Hughes
Born in London to Welsh parents, Hughes had  immigrated to Australia at the age of 22, working at first in various odd jobs, including stints as a bushman, labourer and cook. Later he moved to  Sydney, where, after a period of poverty, he became heavily involved in politics, joining the Socialist League in 1892 at the age of 30. Among other things, he became a soap box speaker for the Single Tax League, an organiser for the Australian Workers Union and the Shearers Union, secretary of the Wharf Labourers Union, National president of the Waterside workers union and eventually was elected as an MP in the very first Federal parliament in 1901. After years of part-time study, in 1903 he also managed to secure a law degree and became a Kings Counsel a few years later.

In addition to his political activities, in the early days in Sydney, Hughes had formed a defacto relationship with his landlady's daughter, Elizabeth Cutts, a union which produced five children. Cutts died in 1906 and five years later he married Mary Campbell, with whom he had one daughter, Helen.

Helen Hughes as a child
From all accounts, Helen Hughes was strikingly beautiful, stylish, vivacious and clearly the apple of her father's eye.. 52 when his daughter was born, Hughes used to take his daughter everywhere with him -their's was a particularly close father/daughter relationship. According to historian Diane Langmore, although Hughes was often volatile and abusive toward the people around him, he seems to have been unusually gentle and affectionate with Helen:

You see a much more tender Billy. I think there is a warmth and tenderness in his relationship with Helen that you don't see with any of his other relationships of his life.~ Diane Langmore, Rewind 

In fact, Hughes and Helen appear to have been much closer to each other than ether of them were to Mary Campbell. An affectionate letter from Helen in childhood to her father hints that there may even have been some jealousy or at least disapproval from Mrs Hughes toward the relationship:

Darling Daddy, I have just got your dear little letter. I hope you can come home soon. I miss you so much. Don't let Mummy see. She might get angry. Love from your only little daughter, Helen.

Helen virtually grew up in the public eye and as a young woman, was well known in society circles: a popular, feted debutante, often appearing at public events with her father, her photograph appearing in newspapers and women's journals. She had a privileged, golden future ahead of her and everything to live for. Yet at the age of 21, after leaving for a trip to London, ostensibly for a holiday, she disappeared from public view, never to be seen again. Six months after her departure Helen died, alone and ill in a London hospital.

Contemporary newspaper reports of her death were vague and contradictory - one reported she had died of appendicitis, another claimed her death was caused by a duodenal ulcer but in neither case did the facts really add up. Rumours surfaced in certain circles that she had died from an illegal abortion but nothing of that nature was reported in the papers. How different the media was back then - there was a tendency to regard the reporting of scandalous sexual conjecture about public figures as irresponsible - a painful and needless intrusion into private lives, as well as potentially damaging to public office. Things were hushed up.

Moral Failure
Some moral values in the early 20th century left something to be desired and were particularly punishing for women. In the 1930s, social mores were such that young women were taught  to eschew any thoughts of sex before marriage. It was regarded as a shocking thing to do - a woman's reputation could be eternally shattered by such a scandal. Sex before marriage presented a tremendous risk for the woman and if a pregnancy followed she would be utterly ruined. It would have been unthinkable that the daughter of such a prominent man, who held the highest office in the land, should find herself in such a situation. Thus it would have been most unusual for a woman in Helen's position to contemplate a pre-marital affair - the consequences were simply too great.

Helen with Billy and her mother Mary
Yet have an affair she did, because as Martin Vaughn eventually discovered after years of painstaking research, Helen was  indeed sent off to London because of an unwanted pregnancy. She did not however, have an illegal abortion but died from toxaemia as the result of a Caesarian, performed after  after a gruelling 24 hour labour. There is also a suggestion  that Billy Hughes arranged to have the medical records go missing. That all this should be uncovered so many years after the event is testimony to that old maxim - the truth will out.

It was of course, tragic for Helen that she should have been compelled by a now redundant and unjust moral code to hide away in a foreign country and suffer the agony of a lonely, painful and 'shameful' death  but also devastating for her family in Australia and in particular, a loving, doting father who appeared to have worshipped her. Ironic too, in that he himself had fathered five illegitimate children.

To add further intrigue to the story, it seems the baby, a boy, survived. Decades later, it was revealed that in 1938, nine months after Helen's death, Billy Hughes had made provision for the maintenance and education of a nine month old boy, D.E. Hughes, "under the guardianship of Australia House, London", though, sadly, it appears he had no relationship at all with the child, who remained a closely guarded secret. 

Given the social climate of the time, it would have taken remarkable courage and meant disgrace and the end of his political  career for Hughes to publicly acknowledge the means of his daughter's death and the grandson she left behind. It is perhaps more an indictment of the era than of the man. Helen's son, who has changed his name,  was eventually tracked down and is apparently living in Sydney. However, according to the historians who found him, he apparently did not wish to be identified, nor did he want anything to do with the Hughes family. 

Island Painting

Oil on canvas Island Painting - where in the world?
Mystery Painting
This lovely old oil painting turned up recently at a Church garage sale in Melbourne, Australia and was bought by an acquaintance for five dollars (after he outbid a $2.50 offer). We're trying to unravel the mystery of the location and if possible, the artist, though he/she is probably unknown. Just on the remote chance that a passing viewer might recognise the scene, I thought I'd put it up here.

The Gamine Haircut

Gamine Shirley Maclaine Source
Short, pert and easy to care for, the gamine cut, popularised in the 1950s/early 60s was a radical departure from the kind of fussy, contrived hairstyles that featured in the 40s and early 50s, with their overworked rolled bangs, pins and perms.

The word gamine comes from the French gamin and means 'waif' or 'urchin' - an ideal gamine is a little bit tomboy, yet paradoxically girlish too,  with a vulnerability and  unique appeal. You don't have to have short hair to a gamine (Audrey Hepburn was one) but the 'gamine cut' was designed to conjure up that particular look.

Not quite as radically short as the pixie cut, the 50s gamine left enough hair around the face and over the top of the ears to be flattering, allowing that sly femininity to sneak into an otherwise boyish look. 

Jane Russell

Mid 20th century sexpot, Jane Russell in a 'come hither' pose
The Black Queen
Described by film writer  David Thompson as "immense and impervious", with her cascading raven hair, fine, wide-spaced eyes, red slash of a mouth and generous physical proportions swathed in sexy cloths, American 40s/50s actress Jane Russell was the walking embodiment of a wolf whistle. Yet unlike many of the other sex symbols of her era, Russell's persona was not that of the whispery, pouty sex kitten but rather a feisty lioness with a soft underbelly for the right man. 

Typically tawdry Macao poster
Although some of her films were a tad tacky, with an obvious kind of Hollywood-charged sex appeal that left little room for subtlety, she  nonetheless managed to salvage a certain dignity in her performances. Onscreen she could be mesmerising - her luxurious dark looks were photogenic and her face had interesting dimensions; often she appeared to be on the verge of a sneer, which gave her beauty the hint of a hard edge.

While perhaps not the greatest actress (I couldn't see her playing Ophelia), through her considerable physical assets and a distinctive personality, she commanded attention and was well suited to the kind of simmering B grade dramas that were often thrown her way. She also had a wry line in smart rapport and a natural sense of humour: no small commodity in an industry plagued by ego and insecurity.

The First Feature Film

Ned Kelly's helmet. Source
The Story of the Kelly Gang
The Kelly Gang cast on location at Heidelberg. Source.
Surprisingly, the first feature film did not emanate from Hollywood or the UK but from Australia. A feature film is generally described as 80 minutes or longer and at over an hour in length, The Story of the Kelly Gang, released  in Melbourne in 1906 was the first long-length film to be made.

Alas, only seventeen minutes of the film survives but what has remained has been digitally remastered by the National Film and Sound Archive. The story centres around the legendary colonial Irish rebel, Ned Kelly, a bushranger and his gang of renegades - Dan Kelly, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart. In Australia, Ned Kelly was (and still is) is regarded by many as a National hero, who, while hung by the neck in 1880 for murder and theft, had colourfully symbolised the struggle of the poor and disenfranchised against the cruel establishment. There are others who view him simply as a ruthless cop-killer but either way, he is one of our most famous or infamous, historical characters and a fitting subject for our first feature film. It was to be the first of several film adaptations of Kelly's life,  two of which starred Mick Jagger (1970) and Heath Ledger (2003) as Ned.

Ruffles and Pussy Bows

A young Joan Crawford in a magnificently stylish pussy bow, circa 1930s
Ruffles and big, exaggerated floppy bows, as an accent on dresses, were very popular in the 1930s. It was the age of the soft Marcel wave and arched eyebrows and the desired look was feminine but sassy. Fluff and frippery around the neck created an effective contrast to the tailored,  slimline dresses favoured by 30s designers.