The battle to acquire a replica of Bert Hinkler's Puss Moth for the Hinkler Hall of Aviation went right down to the wire.
The battle to acquire a replica of Bert Hinkler's Puss Moth for the Hinkler Hall of Aviation went right down to the wire. Max Fleet

The battle for Bert Hinkler's last plane

In Part 2 of our special feature on the revival of Bert Hinkler's legend, we look at the rebuilding of Hinkler House and the work done to create the Hinkler Hall of Aviation more than 20 years later. And, for the first time, we reveal the huge behind-the-scenes work to assemble all the aircraft that were pivotal to Bert's career. 

 

THE pallets of bricks that had once formed Bert Hinkler's house had been stacked in containers and loaded on to a ship at Southampton.

They took six weeks to arrive in Bundaberg, where Lex Rowland, Merv Purkiss and Stan Lohse were waiting impatiently after their month-long slog in England pulling the house apart.

The pallets were unloaded in Stan's company building yard.

If the dismantling was hard work, the rebuilding wasn't any easier.

But again, help came from a community that wanted to see the project succeed, and the Rotary Club of Bundaberg East offered up its members to start construction in August 1983.

The team of volunteers got Hinkler House to lock-up stage by Christmas, which was fortunate because the summer of 1983-84 turned out to be a big wet season, and it was a good time to give the exhausted workers a break.

Building resumed in the new year and it continued until two days before the official opening by then-premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen on June 16, 1984.

That morning, Lex could be seen sweeping gravel away from the perimeter of the house about 2.30am, and he and his team were trying to get memorabilia on display right until the last possible moment.

But they made it in time for the opening, and Lex and his band of volunteers watched on proudly as their impossibly large dream had become reality.

Lex Rowland in front of Hinkler House, whose dismantling, relocation and rebuilding he championed.
Lex Rowland in front of Hinkler House, whose dismantling, relocation and rebuilding he championed. Max Fleet

Then a new problem cropped up. The opening of Hinkler House brought forth a wave of donations of memorabilia.

"Mrs Hinkler was very generous. But we didn't know how much there would be that would come from everywhere else," Lex said.

For the next 20 years, the Hinkler House Memorial Museum and Research Association raked in an incredible collection and they knew it couldn't fit in Hinkler House.

"(The association committee) decided we should set up a national centre to house all the memorabilia for Hinkler," Lex said.

"But we had nowhere to put it."

The association estimated it would need about $7.5 million to create a centre worthy of Bert's memory, which would one day become the Hinkler Hall of Aviation, neighbouring his old home in the botanic gardens.

They started with a $400,000 grant from the State Government and slowly built up their funding through forming a close relationship with Bundaberg City Council - which applied for grants on its behalf - and through the continued support of Paul Neville, who by now was (fittingly) the Federal Member for Hinkler.

Eventually, they had enough money for building to start, and local company Jeff Lennox Builders won the tender process for the construction. The sod was turned in March 2007.

A crucial part of the museum was to display the five pivotal planes of Bert's life - the glider he had flown at Mon Repos; the Avro Baby, which he flew from London to Turin and Sydney to Bundaberg; the Avro Avian, which he flew from England to Australia; the Ibis, the amphibious aircraft he designed and built with engineer friend Roland Bound; and the Puss Moth, which he was flying at the time of his untimely death.

The glider had been a pile of timber under Bert's old North Bundaberg house, which the Hinkler Lions Club had retrieved and rebuilt, and later gave to the council.

His original Avro Avian had been left in Bundaberg and donated to the Queensland Museum, but the association was able to procure a replica from north Queensland that had originally been built for a shopping centre development.

An Avro Baby replica was built with grant money, for the purposes of visitors having their photos taken inside (later, in 2012, Hinkler's original Avro Baby was returned on loan to the Hinkler Hall of Aviation by the Queensland Museum).

The association had already built a replica of the Ibis between 1984 and 1988, a project led by John Farmer and aided by Lex and Bert Bent.

But it was the Puss Moth that was the great challenge.

"By this stage, Puss Moths were very rare," Lex explained.

"Eight of them had crashed, so they weren't too popular."

Through his Qantas contacts, Tom Quinn was aware of a Puss Moth the airline had once owned, which had later had a colourful life surveying airstrips in the Second World War and put to a variety of uses including flying for the Methodist Inland Mission, mining companies and joy flights in Sydney.

The plane was later broken up and displayed in bits, all of which were eventually acquired by a Victorian man named John Pettit, who planned to restore it.

"We spoke to John Pettit for five years and he never wanted to sell it," Lex said.

Time was running out. It was only a few months away from opening time for the Hinkler Hall of Aviation and they still had no Puss Moth.

Lex had one more roll of the dice.

"One day I rang John Pettit and pleaded with him again," he recalled.

"He admitted he probably wouldn't be able to finish it in his lifetime. But it was going to cost us $200,000 to buy and another $30,000 to finish off the restoration."

The association didn't have that sort of cash.

But in one final, grand show of support from the community, the money was raised - the majority from Bundaberg's Italian community.

And so, on December 7, 2008 - the day before Lex turned 72 - the Hinkler Hall of Aviation was opened to the public.

It is now one of Bundaberg's premier tourist attractions and in 2009 was a finalist in the Queensland Tourism Awards.

Lex has also now established the Hinkler Hall of Aviation Memorabilia Trust, meaning every piece of memorabilia that comes through it belongs to the people of Bundaberg.

Ask him what Bert means to him and he will joke: "A bloody lot of work."

But then he will pause and explain what Bert really means to him.

"I've become very close to Bert over the years," Lex said. "His attitude to life and achievement has been an inspiration to me. Few people understand in modern-day life his determination to make a success of his life.

"He was full-on aircraft design and he was visionary. All the things we know today - passenger planes, mail delivery - he was talking about them back in the 1920s.

"He didn't have much business sense but, gee, he worked hard."

Despite all his own hard work and challenges of the past 32 years, in the end what Lex Rowland has achieved is simple. He has ensured his friend Bert's legend has lived on in his home town and around the world.

"The memory of Bert Hinkler was almost non-existent when we started with all this," Lex said. "We've brought the greatness of Bert back to 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. 


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