Sir Hubert Wilkins - A Brief Story

1888 - 1958

Sir Hubert Wilkins is one of the most remarkable figures in Australian history

yet one of the least understood. He was born in a remote area of South Australia in 1888, and had a lonely childhood on the family farm. He moved to Adelaide early in the 20th century to study electrical engineering. Restless, and wanting to escape the confines of a strict Protestant upbringing, he travelled around the state with a carnival, before running away to Sydney in 1908.

In Sydney he taught himself photography and cinematography, and was soon working in the early Australian cinema industry. In 1912, he carried his movie camera to England, hoping to get work shooting newsreels. Late in 1912 he was sent by the Gaumont film company to cover the war in the Balkans, and his first adventures on the world stage had begun. In 1913, Gaumont sent him on the Canadian Arctic Expedition, which was hoping to explore the unknown area north of Canada and Alaska. Wilkins spent three years on the ice, and became an experienced polar traveller.

In 1916, when he reached an outpost of civilisation, he learnt of the Great War, and returned to Australia to enlist. When he arrived in France, he was appointed as an official photographer to work with Charles Bean. Wilkins produced a record of the fighting at the Western Front unlike any other. He often went ‘over the top’ with the Anzacs, he was repeatedly wounded and he even received combat decorations, all while carrying his camera. At the end of the War he accompanied Charles Bean to Gallipoli to record the battlefields. Wilkins competed in the England-Australia Air Race in 1919. 

young sir hubert wilkins
A young Hubert Wilkins
hubert wilkins army photographer
Wilkins (behind camera) photographing an attack on the Hindenburg Line

Keen to help Australia establish weather stations in Antarctica, Wilkins made his first trip to Antarctica in 1920. The expedition was under-funded, so a year later Wilkins joined Sir Ernest Shackleton on the ‘Quest’, and returned to Antarctica, where Shackleton died.

Wilkins then spent two years collecting and cataloguing flora and fauna in Northern Australia for the British Museum. He again attempted to establish weather stations in Antarctica, but unable to raise money, he accepted the task of leading an expedition to explore the Arctic from the air. He made a series of flights north from Alaska in 1926 and 1927, then in 1928 flew from Barrow, Alaska, across the Arctic Ocean, to Spitsbergen Norway. The flight made him a celebrity, and he was knighted soon after.

Immediately after the Arctic flight, Wilkins, along with pilot Ben Eielson, travelled to Antarctica, where they made the first-ever flights. Wilkins explored the Antarctic Peninsula, and photographed it extensively from the air. He returned to America and flew around the world in the Graf Zeppelin airship in 1929.

In 1930, Wilkins began rebuilding a World War I submarine to use to explore the Arctic Ocean. He believed it would be possible to travel under the Arctic ice in the submarine, and reach the North Pole. He named his submarine Nautilus. His expedition left for the Arctic in 1931, and although he was able to prove it was possible to travel under the ice in a submarine, constant breakdowns meant he failed to reach the North Pole.

Following the Nautilus submarine expedition, Wilkins turned his attention back to exploring Antarctica. He led four expeditions to Antarctica on behalf of wealthy American explorer Lincoln Ellsworth, which resulted in Ellsworth becoming the first person to cross the continent in 1935. Wilkins again tried to set up Antarctic weather stations for Australia, but after his offer was refused, he returned to America where he bought a farm in Pennsylvania in 1939. Throughout World War II, he travelled, sometimes working as a spy for the US government. He worked as a consultant for the US Army designing clothing and equipment for Arctic survival.

Sir Hubert Wilkins made his last trip to Antarctica in 1957. He returned to America in 1958 and died of a heart attack in a hotel room.

sir hubert wilkins in chevrolet
Wilkins with his beloved Chevrolet
Dr Paul Kittel
Dr Paul Kittel
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Spent the day constantly gravitating back to your new book. Best book I’ve read in ages!!

Wilkins has met most of the greats of the early twentieth century. I enjoyed the story behind the man that you have uncovered!

Australians who read of Wilkins will be blown away by his background. He ticks so many boxes as a fearless explorer, pioneering photographer and cinematographer, early aviator and complex human being.

He lived his life to the full. This book is a fitting tribute to Australia’s greatest explorer of the industrial era!

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