Australian Biography

Jack Hazlitt - full interview transcript

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Did everything always go smoothly when you started flying?

Well nothing was smooth in those days, 'cause the aeroplanes themselves were so crude. They were mostly powered by a very strange type of engine, called a rotary. The ... they were unreliable. They had a nasty habit of apparently when you swung the propeller and got the engine going everything sounded all right and you'd indicate to the pilot or if you were flying the plane yourself you thought that everything sounds okay. The plane would choof off. You see we didn't have any proper airports then. They were just football grounds or open paddocks and so on, usually with power lines or all sorts of obstructions not far beyond the take off point. Well these rotary engines have a nasty habit of taking off all right, and getting up flying speed and all of a sudden start to conk out, so having nasty crashes were quite frequent in those days, naturally, because they didn't fly at the speeds of the modern jets. The damage was mostly to the plane itself and the pilot, and if there was a passenger, would survive.

Were you ever involved in a crash?

Over twelve of them dotted around Victoria various places. The worst one was ... This little company that I was working for had got a very lucrative thing from a big insurance company, APA, as it was in those days and it booked to take the plane from Melbourne, landing at various places on the way, Mildura, and then up the Darling River and landing at a lot of the big stations. Some of them are still their homesteads. And we carried with us a very colourful man, who was specialised in writing probate insurances for huge fees, and we used to land at anything that looked like a landing near each of these homesteads and of course, almost invariably nobody there had ever seen a plane, let alone gone up in one and we used to entice the owner of the property, or if it ... some of them were still owned by English people [and] had a manager there, the manager - one or the other - and take him up for a quarter of an hour and let him have a look at his property. This always was very popular and, of course, then this insurance representative - I won't name him, although I'm sure he's no longer alive - but he was a master at this. He used to then go back to the homestead and start talking about ... asking questions about the man's life. That's the owner and so on and then sell him probate insurance, which was enormous sums in those days, and this insurance agent used to get the whole of the first year's premium. That was his commission. Then we'd take off and go up the Darling River and land at another station: Cuthro or one of those big places and anyhow we finally got to Broken Hill and we were given a mayoral reception there because they'd never seen a plane before. Landed on the football ground there and we were there about a couple of days and then after we felt that we're running out of welcome, we thought we'd better take off and then go back the way we came, down the Darling River into Victoria and so on down to Melbourne. Our rotary engine was still motoring very well. It was a Sopworth Camel plane - you know the old aviator. Remember to stop a Camel in World War One. All went well. We crossed down into Victoria and landed for refuelling up near the Murray River at a little place called Chinkapook. I think it's an aboriginal name. We spent the night there, at a little single pub and then took off the next day, making down for south-east towards Melbourne. Anyhow we had to land for fuel then at another town called Cuthro and I wasn't flying the plane because I'd been ... I wasn't given a license because my heart was supposed to be crook, so I was the engineer. Anyhow this was the worst crash I've ever had because I think the pilot, Jack Fullerton, had got a bit tired and the planes in those days - it was absolutely vital, particularly if they had a fair load on, that you kept up flying speed even on turns. All I remember is he was coming into land at this little town and all of a sudden he'd put its nose down into a spin, which they could do in those days. Now the spin doesn't matter if you're up high enough. Any pilot can pull it out of a spin but we weren't high enough and we hit the ground in this little town. Well that finished me off for a year in hospital. The pilot lost most of his ... I think the little windscreen in front of him ... most of his nose and upper lip were removed. He wasn't killed but he took a long time to recover and, as I say, I was in there for about a year so I could go on ...

You were what for about a year?

About a year in hospital.

What happened to you?

Well you see my whole left leg was shattered from a piece of the metal undercarriage [which] came up through the floor when we hit the ground. And they had a terrible time getting it all together again. I couldn't walk, you see, for a long time.

Did it mend completely?

Oh mostly, but I was warned that when I got older, it'd probably get arthritis in it. They always do these wounds. Well so far it hasn't but ...

So that leg still is fine for you?

It still carries me around but a half a mile along a beach down here is about as much as I can do and I want to go home. [Laughs] Well that was the worst one but it is so hard these days to realise the difference in aviation because they very rarely have any trouble with their engines. The jet engines have made the thing so reliable. But the old piston engines and the hose rotaries, you never knew when they were going to stop and you only had one engine. You didn't have two or four. If that stopped, you stopped, so it was a risky sort of a life. And that was the first company I worked for down in Melbourne, in a little aerodrome at Port Melbourne, right where General Motors built their big plant. I had a few others but they didn't put me into hospital.

What sort of work were you doing when you married?

I had finally bowed out from working for an aviation company and through ... The secretary of J.C. Williamson's in those days was Ted Major. His daughter was married to my eldest brother, Audrey. And that little connection was very helpful to me when I was trying to get back into some sort of ... I didn't want to stay in aviation. I couldn't see any future in it for a long time, and he knew one of the directors of one of the big motor companies in Sydney - Carter - and he gave me an introduction to Carter to see whether Carter could help me get started on something to do. And fortunately they had just formed a new company to handle the Chrysler in New South Wales and he interviewed me and eventually started me off there as their first service manager. And that started me then, and I worked on that in Sydney until I retired, nearly forty years later.

What year did you get married?

1926. Got married three months after I got this job.

Tell me about your first wife.

Well she was a French teacher out at the War Memorial School at Hay. That's where we met. She was about three years younger than me. Oh, I can't describe her. She's good looking and well educated.

What made you decide to marry her?

We got married in, I think, it was June in a little church in Manly. The thing was there was nothing wonderful about the wedding because in those days she was a Catholic. I wasn't. And there was always a fuss made over that. So we weren't even married in the little church at North Manly. We were married in the porch of the church. That's as far as I was allowed to go. Anyhow, that was just an interlude.

But the fact that she was a Catholic and the fact that there might be some social problems with you getting married, didn't bother you?

No, well, when, I think, two people get pretty keen on each other, I don't think anything bothers them. [Laughs] Of course I had to yield to the demands of that day, which have been buried for years now. Any issue of the marriage had to be baptised as Catholics, so all my four kids were baptised in the Catholic religion.

Were you happy with that?

Oh yes. All the lurid stories I'd heard about married to a Catholic: the house is full of nuns and priests could keep call all day, I found that didn't happen. The whole married period, we never even had a decent row and she finished up as a French teacher still at the North Sydney Girls High School. That's where she died. 'Cause on her birthday and she'd gone off to teach at the school from where I lived out at Hunters Hill and I was phoned up at midday to say that she ... it was lunchtime there at the school and she'd fallen on the floor and was dead. And I didn't suspect that there was anything wrong with her. Wonder why I'm telling you all this?

Because I'm asking you.

Well you'd better just see that I don't get too much on detail.

Well, but it's good to hear about the personal things that meant a lot to you. That must have been a big blow to you.

Hmm, oh yes, because we got on very well together and with our kids.

It was always a happy marriage.


Why do you think that was? What do you think ... What was it about it? Because a lot of marriages last a long time but aren't very happy, as you saw with your own parents with a marriage there that wasn't very happy. What was the secret of the happiness of your marriage?

Yes, you almost ask for time to think that one out. [Laughs] We did a lot of travelling around in holiday time. The the four kids, of course, we saw that they all got good educations. She was very keen on that as much as I was. The eldest one, June, she went off to England. She'd got a university degree then in Arts and she got a job with the American air force, running a library in one of their big aerodromes there.

But do you think that there was anything about your marriage with your wife, with your first wife, that was different from other marriages, that made it so successful?

Well I suppose, my feelings on the thing. We never got bored with each other. We were always good mates. We could have a conversation together without getting into an argument. I never once thumped her. [Laughs] Never wanted to. We had the four kids and we didn't have any problem with them except that the eldest one went off and got married in England and went to America so we'd lost her for a long time. We went and visited her years later. And they all ... I only had one son, and this was where, I suppose, the mixed marriage came in he wanted to join the church, the Catholic church. I think he was influenced a fair bit by an aunt, who was a nun, and he finished up becoming a priest and he went over to Rome for four years. Worked under Pope John.

Is he still a priest?

He is back. He's now down the South Coast. I don't see him very often. He doesn't come up to Sydney but we see each other now and again.

Jack, what about your own religious views? Are you a religious man?

Well I believe in the Christian faith. The older I get the more that belief is very strong. I saw samples of that, you know, in ... actually in the front line. Because we had all sorts of fellows you're training with them - real scallywags, many of them. Language worse than a bullocky and they seem to have no beliefs but I've seen them hit and obviously not going to make it. Hit with shell case or machine gun bullets and so often you'd hear them appealing to the Deity, just before they expired. That made me think more than once. Even from those hard bitten blokes, who profess no beliefs.

What does it mean to you, your religious belief in your daily life? Are you practising? Do you practise your religion or is it just a belief that you hold inside yourself?

What period are you speaking of now?

Well I'm saying just now, just overall your whole life, has religion played a big part in it?

Oh, well, it certainly has but it ... my wife is very, very strong [in her] belief. She's a regular church goer. I think, when we decided to leave Sydney to come and live up here, I know she wouldn't have been happy here if we hadn't found that the Avoca Beach St. David's [had] just got the right kind of people in it, and they share their beliefs and she's very happy over it. So that's been her attitude right through. She ... she is a very strongly motivated Christian. That makes it ... if I had any doubts about it at all, they've been dealt with by marrying her.

Do you think that there is going to be life for you after death?

Oh, that's a curly one. I know it's very strong in the teachings but I best say, Robin, that my strongest belief is that if people grow up and try their best to practise the teachings of Christ and the Christian religion there's nothing better, or as good, to help them through life and not get in some way torn apart. What happens afterwards is so mysterious. For instance, that question you just asked me, take my brother who's in that cemetery in Cambridge in England, if I was absolutely sure nothing would make me happier than perhaps meet up with him some day in some mystery, but I can't make myself believe that that's 100 per cent sure. In other words, the implication there is that when you go you're gone.

You've faced death many times, haven't you?

Oh yes.

Many more times than most people. Have you thought about it a lot?

No. I ... See take me at the present moment now I'm hanging on but, you know, without sounding dramatic now I know that I can't expect to go much longer. You read about some of these people up in the Himalayas supposed to live to 130 and 140 but I don't think I'll ever be one of them. But it doesn't impose on me, it doesn't make me feel miserable. The main thing is that I hope when it happens to me that it's quick - not like some of these poor old fellows I know now that are hanging on, very unwell, everything wrong with them. They can't see or they can't hear or they can't sleep and life's just ... They're better off to go. But I ... it doesn't frighten me, not a bit.

You remarried in your seventies. Tell me about your second wife.

Oh well, she might be listening.

Better still.

Well, where do I start?

How did you meet her, and what has that marriage meant to you life?

Oh well, yes that's easy. Matter of fact I met her up here in this neighbourhood. She had this property up here and I didn't know her then and I had been much longer in holiday time down the hill here about half a mile away. I had two blocks of land down there. And when my first wife was alive and I and the kids we used to go up there for school holidays and that sort of thing. When she - my first wife - died as I mentioned a while ago, suddenly, I was left very lonely and my kids were scattered by then, all over the place, and I used to go across ... That's one of the winds that got me to the Fiji Islands for a while, as I was mentioning to you a few days ago. A little island there and also I used to go on over to California to visit my eldest daughter. They lived in San Diego. They still live there but they're divorced, like so many Americans. And ... separated now. But ...

Back to Lesley. What ... what has Lesley meant to you in your life now?

Well she provides the remedy for loneliness, which I think is a terribly hard thing for anybody to grow old on their own and see most of the old chaps that are still Gallipoli veterans, they're still alive but their wives aren't, and they're either in a nursing home or living on their own, but I don't think they're exactly happy about it. Whereas, if their wife hadn't predeceased them, they'd have been much better off. 'Cause we've been married now twenty years. We only had our anniversary about a week ago and I'm not going to make this statement as a dramatic one - it's not meant to be - but I'm quite certain that when I was in my seventies - that's when I met Lesley - if she hadn't been around ... I met her ... People I used to tenant the property to, had a party there one night. That's where we met for the first time. I don't think I'd have gone on too long because I ... She tells me I'm looking better than when she first met me and I think she meant it. No, she's been a tremendous factor in the last few years that I've been alive.

She's quite a lot younger than you.

Yes well she for instance - I know she won't hit me over the head if I tell she was born in 1924, and I was born in 1897 [laughs] so there is a bit of difference.

Did you hesitate to marry someone so much younger than you?

Very much so, and her children too were a bit perplexed over it too. And, oh, I wondered very much about it because I knew of so many cases where it didn't work. People remarry after years of being on their own. Whoever they marry, at that age, they think differently and they don't get on. Anyhow, that's been a terrific experience for me being married to Lesley. I don't hope it'll last a long time because that ... you say that when you're in your younger years.

But it's probably lasted a bit longer than you expected when you got married. Now let's go back, right back to the beginning again, and start looking at it from the point of view of your feelings and thoughts about what your life has meant because you can look back on a rather longer life than most people. First of all, the fact that your father left in the very early days, what do you think that actually meant to the way you developed as a man?

Well, I think, the only way I can view that as an answer is my mother's initiative in going up the road and meeting the headmaster of Haileybury. That, in one of the journals that that school produces there an illustrated journal there, there is one article there about this, where it give credence to the fact that she went in and asked whether she could teach music there in lieu of fees. If - just iffing now - if that hadn't happened. If she'd gone into that school and no - not interested, that sort of thing - I think it's quite nasty to think what have might happened to us. Because, you see, all her roots and so on were from England. We didn't have any wealthy family and relatives around here. They were an old family from Somerset, Somerhayes by name. They go back for hundreds of years. I've seen all their past records there but they never had any money and without a father to bring in regular income and so on, I think it ... the ... putting us into that school saved the day.

Do you feel very angry with your father, in retrospect?

Oh well, I think he was a brutal man. He used to drink a bit. I can just very vaguely remember some of the awful rows. On one occasion in a two storey house in South Yarra, he hurled her down the stairs in a blind rage and so on. I won't go into any more of that.

Now, some boys who experience that sort of thing, then later themselves become quite brutal. Why do you think that didn't happen to you?

I never thought out a reason. I just grew up as me. I haven't got any thoughts on that. Sorry.

Did you miss having a father or did you find other male models, male people to ... to give you a lead of how you should grow as a boy?

Well, the nearest approach to that, was my old headmaster. See, for instance ... an instance of ... He was a very keen early day motorist, in the days when you had two cylinder Derdien cars chugging around, and very few people had cards, but he used to import them from England. He had a Humber there and a Derdien at different times. And on Sundays, he used to take me out in the car, choofing around the bush. It was all bush around Brighton then. Well that was really taking the place of a father, wasn't it?

Did he have children of his own?

Two: a boy and a girl. The girl, Dorothy, was a very interesting thing because she was the only girl that ever went to Haileybury. It was always a boys' school. And she was about my age and the father insisted that she had be the same. For instance, she practised gymnastics. She had to come up and do all the activities with the right kind of clothes on, of course. And we were very friendly, and when I went back to revisit the school after I got back from the war they had a little party down there. I'd married Lesley then, and we visited there and she was still alive Dorothy, Dorothy Rendore. And ... much ...

Did the boys accept her perfectly well in the school? Did you all just take her as one of the pupils?

Yes I never ... Mind you the discipline there was so tough that I doubt very much ... I never saw any evidence of what I call funny business being tried out - all those boys. No, she was very popular. But tragically, after Lesley and I had visited her where ... near where the old school used to be - she suddenly died.

[end of tape]

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