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Williams, Hylton Ernest (1898–1968)

by Christopher Nailer

Hylton Ernest Williams (‘H.E.’) (1898-1968), MBE, soldier, lawyer, banker, scout-leader, local government commissioner, was born on 21st September 1898, in Ballarat, Victoria, son of Lieutenant Colonel (later Major-General) Robert Ernest Williams (1855-1943), commander of the 3rd Battalion Ballarat Rifles militia regiment, and his wife, Annie Clara, nee de Hylton, both of whom had been born in Ballarat. Robert Williams was editor of the Ballarat Courier newspaper and also, from 1902, Town Clerk of Ballarat East. Five children were born to the marriage. Only the eldest, a daughter, Gladys Annie Quellyn, and Hylton Ernest, the youngest, survived infancy. Growing up as the only son of a prominent public figure was probably not easy. However, Hylton was like his father in physique, tall for the era, lean and wiry, and he grew up with a love of the outdoors, particularly sailing, which he learned as a youngster on Lake Wendouree, and hiking in the Victorian bush.

During the First World War, he was determined to enlist at the earliest opportunity. His enlistment papers indicate he tried to sign up in August 1916, while still only 17, but with his father as Victorian Commandant, he could not disguise his age; he was accepted into the Citizen Forces, but was only accepted for service abroad in March 1917. His father Robert tried to persuade him to train for a Commission but Hylton was impatient to prove himself and, after basic training as a gunner, sailed for France in November 1917, where he joined the 6th Field Artillery Brigade and was at one stage promoted to Acting Sergeant. He was gassed on 20th October 1918, during the final big push by German forces, and was hospitalised in England. While convalescing there, he was invited to Cornbury Park in Oxfordshire, the home of Lady Margaret Watney, where he was a guest of Mr Charles Phillimore KC, who had made it his custom to welcome soldiers from the wider Empire who were serving far from home. Mr Phillimore encouraged the young Hylton to study law, which he started at Oxford in the winter term, with his father’s further support. However, with the news of his beloved mother’s death in 1918, he was quick to request a return to Australia, arriving back on 20th May 1919, where he was discharged from the AIF on 25th July 1919. He stayed on in the Citizen Forces and was promoted to Lieutenant in 1924 and to Captain in 1926. He was appointed Commanding Officer of 22nd Field Battery in about 1927, to the Regimental Reserve in 1932 and attended the Staff and Command School in Sydney in September 1939.

Hylton completed a Law degree at Queen’s College, University of Melbourne, and was admitted to the Victorian Bar in May 1922. After a few years in private practice, he joined the Legal Department of the State Savings Bank of Victoria in 1928, with which he continued working – except for a second spell of military service in 1939-1945 – until his retirement. Court notices in the Eastern Victorian town of Traralgon note Hylton E. Williams prosecuting an eviction case there against a delinquent mortgagee on behalf of the Bank, in June 1932. In 1927, he married Dorothy Norma Graham, the eldest daughter of a Port Fairy family; Mr Graham was the bank manager there and in 1916, Dorothy had started work at the ES&A Bank in Melbourne. She was lively, an accomplished pianist and also fond of bushwalking. The couple bought a steep, timbered block of land in Kew, on the eastern bank of the Yarra River, where Hylton built a modest weatherboard house that was home for all of their married life. Their first daughter Claire was born in January 1928 and a second, Jennifer, was born in January 1933. The Kew reaches of the river were the focus for outdoor summertime activities and H.E built a number of small boats – canoes, kayaks and a sailing dinghy – that became an important part of family life. He and Dorothy, and later on the daughters, were active in leading local Scout troops and Cub packs. He was General Scout-Master of 1st Kew Rover Scouts from 1930 onwards.

Hylton was by nature conservative, church-going, a staunch nationalist, loyal to the British Empire and all it stood for, while also vigorously Australian, having inherited from his father a strong belief in civic duty and, from his War service, an ANZAC’s distrust of everything affectedly English, and of British Army leadership in particular. Returning from War service, he became a dedicated supporter of Toc H, a soldier’s rest and recreation centre founded on Christian principles, of Legacy and its work with war widows and orphans, and of the community service works of the Returned Services League. Along with other returned servicemen, he was active in the Scout movement and in the development of strong values in the next generation of young people. When the Victorian Police went on strike in 1923, seeking better wages and conditions and in protest against the use of anti- union spies, large-scale rioting, looting and destruction followed and Hylton was quick to join other ex-AIF and reservists as part of the volunteer special constabulary, sworn in at the Melbourne Town Hall, under the leadership of Sir John Monash.

A keen alpine skier, Hylton was one of the inaugural members of the Bogong Rover Crew, founded by F. W. ‘Bill’ Waters in the Victorian Alps in 1933 to promote the sport. The Bogong Rover Crew made the first wintertime ascent of Mount Bogong on skis that year. A photo the crew, saluting an Australian flag flying from two lashed skis planted in the snow memorialises the event. At that time, Victoria’s alpine regions were still used cattle grazing. Throughout the 1930s, the Bogong Rover Crew annually restocked the alpine huts used by drovers and graziers and they were regularly called out from Melbourne in mid-winter to rescue people lost in the snow.

On the outbreak of the Second World War, aged 41, Hylton immediately volunteered again but despite his Reserve experience, it took some persuasion before he was accepted for active service. He was formally re-enlisted in the A.I.F. in April 1940 with the rank of Major. The short-lived success of Finnish ski troops against the Russians in the winter of 1939 had highlighted the value of mobile ski troops, so when Australia sent forces to the Middle East in 1941, an Australian Corps Ski School was set up in the Lebanese Mountains on the Syrian border. Hylton joined an elite staff of 10, including some of Australia’s best skiers, who trained two intakes of Australian soldiers as ski troops over a three-month period towards the end of 1941. However, rapid German advances across North Africa and the entry of Japan into the war ended this experiment as other priorities became more pressing. In early 1942, he was sent to Egypt as part of the Australian 9th Division, where he served on General Morshead’s General Staff. In Egypt, he played a crucial role, planning the 9th Division’s contribution to the artillery bombardment with which the second Battle of El Alamein commenced, in October 1942, for which he was awarded the M.B.E.. The citation notes his efficiency in preparing complex fire plans in half the usual time and “his tireless energy and cheerfulness.” From this point on, the nickname ‘H.E.’ – the military abbreviation for ‘High Explosive’ – became more or less permanent. In January 1943, he returned with the 9th Division to Australia, where it retrained in Queensland for jungle warfare against the Japanese. He served in New Guinea with the 2/12th Field Artillery, on the Staff of General Blamey in the closing stages of the war, and was demobilised in October 1945 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

After the Second World War, ‘H.E.’ returned to his job at the State Savings Bank of Victoria, where he progressed from legal affairs into general management roles, in which he earned a reputation for vigorous and dynamic management of a kind that suited some in civilian life, others, less so. In 1952, he was appointed Assistant General Manager on the retirement of Mr. N. S. White, who had served in that position for 13 years. From this position, aged only 55, it seemed ‘H.E.’ might have been a candidate for the top job as General Manager. In 1956, with banks being early users of computers, he was sent to study modern developments in ‘automatic banking’, in the UK. On return, he was appointed the Bank’s ‘Co-ordinator of Development,’ a position which suggests his sometimes abrasive management style had begun to count against his chances of winning the top job. In 1962, his long-term friend, professional rival and colleague, Tom Hall was appointed to the position of General Manager and ‘H.E.’ was appointed to the position of Chief Inspector, a senior internal audit role responsible for monitoring operations across the Bank’s more than 300 branches. Provided with a car and a driver, ‘H.E.’ spent much of his last year with the Bank on the road, making both routine and surprize inspections of branches across Victoria. Prone to instant judgements about his fellow man, ‘H.E.’ became firm friends with some of the Bank’s most effective Branch managers, and equally, became infamous with others. He interpreted ‘inspection’ in the broadest sense, and on a flying visit to the site of a partly built branch, told the foreman to take down and rebuild brickwork that was out of plumb. In 1963 he retired from the Bank. Ever restless, in retirement he travelled extensively and took up photography and water-colour painting.

He continued to be active in the Scout movement, working closely with the Victorian Commissioner Mr Roy Nicholls, and in April 1964, was awarded the Scouts Association’s Medal of Merit for distinguished service. In 1964, ‘H.E.’ was appointed to lead a Commission of Inquiry into Local Government boundaries in Tasmania and spent the greater part of that year personally conducting hearings across the length and breadth of the State. The Reports of the Municipal Commission were published in 1965, and led to a substantial redrawing of local government boundaries. The Commission rekindled his interest in constitutional law, and in 1966, ‘H.E.’ took himself off on a working holiday world tour – partly visiting old friends, partly tracking down Hylton family descendants in his mother’s family line, and partly researching different systems of local government. Halfway through a second tour, in the United States, in 1968, he fell ill with what was initially diagnosed as pleurisy, but which, on later examination proved to be advanced lung cancer. He flew home to Melbourne, was operated on, and died shortly after. A vigorous and active man throughout his life, with an extraordinary sense of civic duty, regular attendee at the early Sunday service at Holy Trinity Church in Kew, and maintained the tradition of the annual Anzac Day march with almost equal devotion, a complex man with a simple outlook, he was cremated, survived by his wife Dorothy and their two daughters.

Original Publication

  • People Australia, 2014

Additional Resources

Citation details

Christopher Nailer, 'Williams, Hylton Ernest (1898–1968)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/williams-hylton-ernest-22182/text32065, accessed 10 August 2020.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012