Typewriters in the Outback

Ernestine Hill’s much used Olivetti portable


By Robert Messenger


When the famous Australian journalist and author Ernestine Hill died at St Andrews Hospital in Brisbane on August 21, 1972, all she left behind was her Olivetti Lettera 22 portable typewriter and a camera, along with six typed chapters of her incomplete magnum opus, Johnnie Wise-Cap.

Hill bought the Olivetti, the last of her many typewriters, in the early 1950s, during her ongoing wanderings around the Outback of Australia, which had started in 1931. She travelled in a caravan with her son Bob Hill, who was the unacknowledged child of Robert Cylde Packer, father of newspaper and television tycoon Sir Frank Packer. grandfather of Kerry and Clyde Packer and great-grandfather of James Packer.

In Coolgardie in Western Australia, Ernestine Hill was joined by another noted Australian writer, Katharine Susannah Prichard, who was still using her 1920s Remington Model 2 portable typewriter (now on display at the Fellowship of Writers in Western Australia). These two pioneering female authors might well have teased one another about the difference in age between their portables, but in each case their choices of writing machines had been impeccable. Although the two typewriters were 30 years apart, no better portables to take around the Outback of Australia have ever been made.

Hill had learned her typing skills early on. Already a published poet as a young teenager, in 1917 she attended the business college of typewriter importers Stott & Hoare's in Brisbane, having been coached by her widowed mother for a scholarship there. First in her year, she gained entrance to the public service, and in January 1918 was appointed a typiste in the library of the Department of Justice. In Sydney in early 1919 she entered the world of journalism under J. F. Archibald, of Archibald Prize fame, who was then literary editor of Smith's Weekly. She went on to write biographies of Daisy Bates and Matthew Flinders – the latter sold 60,000 copies.

Katharine Susannah Prichard noted that, while typing and smoking almost non-stop, Hill took “flies and red-backed spiders galore in her stride.” The huge novel Johnnie Wise-Cap, about the life of an albino Aborigine, was repeatedly reported as almost ready for publication. Hill said “the ideas come thick and fast. I can't sort them out. A forest is here, nearly in bloom”. But publisher Angus & Robertson eventually withdrew its financial support, and Hill never finished the massive work.

Undaunted, Hill kept on typing on her Olivetti, and in 1959 received a Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship, which provided her with a small pension for life. She continued to travel, trying to settle in North Queensland, writing articles and dragging her Olivetti and trunks of notes with her. In 1970 she returned finally to Brisbane. Earlier this year a biography of Hill, Call of the Outback, was published.