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32 years dedicated to Bert Hinkler's memory

BERT HINKLER: Lex Rowland holding a photograph showing Bert Hinkler (centre) and his mechanic (far right). Photo: Mike Knott / NewsMail
BERT HINKLER: Lex Rowland holding a photograph showing Bert Hinkler (centre) and his mechanic (far right). Photo: Mike Knott / NewsMail Mike Knott

MOST people probably don't know it, but aviation legend Bert Hinkler lives in a spare bedroom of a home in the Hummock - looking out over the glorious view of the Bargara coastline and probably wishing he could soar over those shores just one last time.

He can't, of course.

Bert died in Italy in 1933 as he was attempting another record-breaking solo flight.

But he has been kept alive by engineer and businessman Lex Rowland, who has devoted the past 32 years to making sure people understand the determination, daring and passion that drove Bundaberg's favourite son to succeed and push the limits until it eventually cost his life.

  • Bert and Lex's stories are included in the NewsMail's special publication, The Bundaberg Hall of Fame, available now.  Get your copy from the NewsMail for $9.95. 

Lex, the chairman of Hinkler House Memorial Museum and Research Association, shares a home with wife Ivy, but readily admits Bert is the other occupant of the home - the third bedroom is full of memorabilia about the pioneering aviator.

There is a little of the serendipitous in Lex and Bert's bond.

To begin with, the two were both born on December 8.

And although Bert died three years before Lex was born, the glimmer of the aviator's legend was still shining relatively brightly at the time Lex was growing up in Bundaberg in the 1930s and 1940s.

"I used to run messages around North Bundaberg as a boy and I would often run into Mrs Hinkler," Lex explained.

"She always had a story about Bertie. She was so proud of him.

She always had a story about Bertie. She was so proud of him.

"That set my mind going."

Decades later, in the early 1980s, Lex was having a cuppa with his mother, also named Ivy, when he learned Southampton City Council in England was planning to use Bert's former home either as a local library or to knock it down to make way for a new housing estate, which he thought would be a terrible shame.

In 1983, when the Federal Government was calling for 1988 bicentennial projects it could support - and Lex discovered Southampton council had decided on the demolition option - he suggested Hinkler's home should be dismantled and brought to Bundaberg.

The project was accepted, setting off a series of events its instigator could never have anticipated.

Lex had to work quickly. He was asked by the national bicentennial organisation to set up a local committee to bring the ambitious project to fruition, and he called upon Paul Neville, then the manager of the Bundaberg District Tourism and Development Board, and Tom Quinn, a long-time accountant and corporate executive for Qantas who had retired to Bundaberg a few years earlier.

Tom and Paul worked to raise money and call in favours, while Lex worked towards bringing Hinkler House home.

They had some early wins. When the story about the lofty plan broke in the metro papers, Sir Robert Mathers (founder of the shoe empire) got in contact and volunteered $5000 towards the cause.

Wide Bay Capricorn Building Society also chipped in, and Qantas donated the cost of the seats to fly Lex, local builder Stan Lohse and motelier Merv Purkiss to England so they could begin their enormous task of dismantling Bert's Southampton home.

They left on May 21, 1983. Just prior to boarding the plane, Lex was called on to make a difficult decision and solve an argument between Bundaberg City and Woongarra Shire councils, over where the house would be located when it came home, either North Bundaberg or Mon Repos.

The choice was between where Bert had lived, or where he had famously flown his first glider.

He chose North Bundaberg, in part because that had been where Bert had first nurtured his dreams of flying, but also because the location there would most likely lead to another legacy project - the building of the Bundaberg Botanic Gardens, which would be constructed around the house.

"We brushed aside cowpats to build Hinkler House," Lex said.

"At that time, the botanic gardens site was just an open paddock with two lagoons."

The trio arrived in Southampton with a great deal of support on their side.

The council had gifted the house to them and had given them office space to work from as they needed.

But all of a sudden they realised the magnitude of the task they had in front of them.

Bert Hinkler during his prime time, carrying flying cap and goggles.
Bert Hinkler during his prime time, carrying flying cap and goggles. John Oxley Library, State Librar

"We had no tools and no money," Lex said.

He pooled some cash together with Stan and Merv, and the threesome pitched up at the local hardware store.

They wanted to hire tools, but the hardware man was prepared only to sell them. They were forced to establish an account and had no idea if they would have enough money to complete the project.

Meanwhile, back in Australia, Tom and Paul were desperately continuing to try to rake in funds so the whole thing would not fall in a heap.

But then came help from unexpected quarters.

The works manager from the nearby Avro factory in Hamble (where Bert had been a test pilot after the First World War) often drove past the house site on his way to work, and one day he stopped in to see if Lex, Stan and Merv needed help.

"The next day he brought his works foreman," Lex said.

"Avro also opened some doors at the hardware for us."

That included the hire of scaffolding to enable them to more easily access the house they were trying to dismantle.

Before long, Lex got a call from an Australian navy lieutenant who was on a British posting at the time and had also heard about the project.

On the next long weekend he turned up with family, helpers and extra equipment on loan from the navy.

"They helped us clean the bricks and stack the pallets, which was a big help to us," he said.

"And it enabled us to get over the hump. From then on, things got a little bit easier."

After a month of hard yakka and 12-hour days, Lex, Stan and Merv were ready to return home.

PART 2 TOMORROW:

  • The challenges of rebuilding and opening Hinkler House and, later, the incredible negotiations that took place to acquire the aircraft for the Hinkler Hall of Aviation. 

Topics:  bert hinkler bundaberg history



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