Visit the humble cottage where Sir Hubert Wilkins was born

By Chrissie Goldrick February 7, 2023
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Best-selling author Peter FitzSimons, in his 2021 biography of Sir Hubert Wilkins, describes his subject as Australia’s greatest explorer. However, Wilkins’ name – which has so many “firsts” attached to it – is not as well known as it should be.

His extraordinary adventures included the first crewed plane flights across both Antarctica and the Arctic, and the first person to pilot a submarine under the Arctic pack ice. He was one of Australia’s first official war photographers, working with Frank Hurley on the Western Front during World War I, for which he twice earned the Military Cross for bravery. He was also a talented cinematographer, ornithologist, geographer and pioneering climatologist. 

His record-breaking global adventures unfolded a long way from his humble beginnings in the marginal farmlands of South Australia. George Hubert Wilkins was born in 1888 at Netfield, a stone cottage at Mount Bryan East near Hallett in SA, about 200km north of Adelaide. He was the youngest of 13 children born to farmers Henry and Louisa Wilkins. He walked 10km to school daily, worked on the farm and learnt to hunt. He trained as an electrical engineer at the South Australian School of Mines and Industries, but later developed skills in photography and cinematography after travelling the country with tent-cinema shows. In 1912 he moved to England to work for Gaumont as a cameraman. He learnt to fly and became a daring aerial cinematographer and stunt pilot. 

  Sir George Hubert Wilkins
  Sir George Hubert Wilkins. Image credit: reproduced courtesy Jeff Maynard

His exceptional skills took him to the Balkan Wars (1912–13), where he made the first known film of a live battle scene. While there, he was captured at various times by enemy troops and allies, both of which suspected him of spying. From there he joined the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913, the first of his more than 30 polar adventures in the Arctic and Antarctic. His list of exploits and achievements is long and illustrious. His lifelong interest in weather and how to accurately predict it undoubtedly arose from his childhood experiences watching his parents struggle to run a farm located on the Goyder Line, which marks the limit of reliable rainfall in SA. He tried to establish a series of weather stations in Antarctica and it was this goal that drove much of his polar exploration. 

Hubert Wilkins settled in the USA with his Australian wife, the actress Suzanne Bennett. He bought a farm in Pennsylvania, and although he rarely returned to Netfield, it always held a special place in his heart. The Netfield cottage fell into disrepair after the family moved on. Wilkins visited in 1939 and shot footage of the ruined building, which had lost its roof and part of its walls. More than 50 years later, Dick Smith flew over the site. A fellow aviator and adventurer, Dick knew Wilkins’ amazing story well but recognised the polar hero was virtually unknown to most Australians. Determined to do something positive to raise Wilkins’ profile and create a lasting memorial to him, he decided to save Netfield for posterity. Dick helped establish the Sir Hubert Wilkins Memorial Trust Committee, a group of volunteers who purchased the property in 1996 with financial help from AG subscribers. By 2001, the restoration was complete, and Dick attended a ceremony there, along with subscribers, local well-wishers and members of Wilkins’ family to officially open the attraction.

According to Dick, Wilkins’ low profile was evidence of his success: “He was too successful. He was a superb risk manager and only ever lost one man on all his expeditions (through no fault of his own). So he never became notorious, as others did.” 

Today, Sir Hubert Wilkins Cottage is a tourist attraction and fitting memorial to Wilkins’ virtues of courage and resourcefulness, forged, no doubt, in his knockabout rural Aussie upbringing. 

You can visit the cottage by borrowing the key from the Hallett Country Store on the corner of Alfred and Jessie streets, Hallett, SA (phone 08 8894 2078). The cottage is located approximately 21km east of Hallett by road. Open 9am–4pm Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday; 9am–2pm Saturday; and 9am–3pm Sunday. There’s a donation box at the site for the upkeep of the property. Find more information head to the Visit Burra and Goyder website.