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.
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.
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.