The story of renowned war photographer Frank Hurley, the grandson of Cessnock pioneers Heinrich and Katherine Bouffier

Last month’s instalment of Fairfax Media’s Road to Remembrance feature referred to the renowned World War I photographer, Frank Hurley.

Coalfields Heritage Group secretary Brian Andrews OAM has since informed us that Hurley’s mother, Margaret, and his grandparents Heinrich and Katherine Bouffier were pioneers of the Cessnock area.

Mr Andrews documented the life story of Frank Hurley several years ago, and has shared the story with us to further enlighten our readers about Hurley’s adventure-packed lifetime (which also included five Antarctic expeditions and World War II).

INTREPID: Captain Frank Hurley (right) with his photographic equipment and driver in Belgium September 14, 1917. Picture: AWM E01995

INTREPID: Captain Frank Hurley (right) with his photographic equipment and driver in Belgium September 14, 1917. Picture: AWM E01995


By Brian J Andrews, OAM

In the 1860s Cessnock was almost nothing but dense bush, and was used as a camping place by teamsters and travellers journeying the Great North Road from Sydney and Wollombi, either up-country to the North or to Maitland.

There was then little or no accommodation except for the small slab hotel, called the Cessnock Inn.

About this time wheat growing was the flourishing industry in the outlying district, but was completely ruined when the rust disease set in.

Later on, in 1866, a German man named Heinrich Josef Bouffier and his wife Katherine (nee: Weber) arrived at Cessnock with their family from Paterson.

Bouffier soon discovered that the soil was of a volcanic nature, and best suited for vineyards and wine production, so he set to work planting vines and constructing wine cellars.

Many men had to be employed on the cellars and vines so the settlement of Cessnock then began to grow.

Years later an interesting story was told of Heinrich Bouffier. The story, which was re-told in the 1920s, commenced by stating that modern·sportsmen were proud of their pigeon guns; but in the days of the old muzzleloaders, the pioneers fancied a shooting weapon that could be relied upon.

It appears that old man Bouffier (who was later killed by a fall from his horse at McDonald's Flat, Pokolbin, in 1882) had one such gun, which was greatly coveted by one of his German countrymen and neighbour, Jacob Wetzler, as it was apparently a far better weapon than Jacob's own.

So Jacob tried to arrange a swap. He then proposed a challenge, boasting to Bouffier that he could easily put a bullet from his gun into a gum tree at 200 yards!

Bouffier could not believe such a remarkable performance was possible, but was prepared to give up his own gun, plus throw in a jar of wine, to possess such an accurate weapon.

The bargain was struck at night, and a test arranged for the next morning.

However, that night, the report of a gunshot might have been heard – but that was nothing unusual.

Next morning, a prominent gum tree near Wetzler's (later the Aberdare Central Colliery) was selected, and the requisite 200 yards marked off.

The gun for the marvellous performance was brought to Jacob's shoulder, and apparent deliberate aim taken – then bang!

The shooting party hurried off to the gum tree – and, sure enough, there was ‘a’ bullet freshly and firmly embedded in the sapwood beneath the bark.

The weapon and wine changed hands without more ado.

Discussing the matter afterwards with his cronies, Wetzler claimed that all was really fair, as old Bouffier had previously tricked him in another deal – it was now pay-back time.

On April 20, 1880, one of Heinrich's daughters, Margaret Agnes Bouffier, married Edward Harrison Hurley, a Lancashire-born printer and trade union official, at Cessnock.

Soon after they moved to Sydney, to live at Glebe, and it was there their second son, James Francis (Frank) Hurley was born on October 15, 1885.

On a summer morning in 1898, the boys of 6th Class at the Glebe Public School were feeling rather playful, and poured caustic soda over their teacher's chair.

Not noticing this, the teacher sat on his chair for a few minutes, and then, minus the seat of his pants, began a wild chase around the class-room after a thirteen-year-old boy, who he blamed for the prank – Frank Hurley.

Suddenly, the lad let fly with a full inkwell, the contents of which splattered over the teacher's shirt and provided a momentary diversion, allowing young Frank to escape out the door.

Scared of the consequences, young Frank made straight for the Darling Harbour railway yards, and ran away from home by hopping aboard a goods train heading west.

So began Frank Hurley's career of action and thrills.

He was to become one of Australia's finest photographers, while, on the side, chalking up a parallel reputation as an explorer, writer, lecturer, and movie-maker.

In a lifetime packed with adventure, Frank Hurley took his camera to the Antarctic five times, and also through the largely unknown New Guinea jungle, and across the battlefields of two World Wars.

Two world famous Antarctic explorers, Sir Douglas Mawson and Sir Ernest Shackleton, both chose Hurley as their official photographer for their expeditions.

In World War One, Frank went to France and Egypt as the inaugural official photographer to the AIF, and was given the honorary rank of Captain. He stuck to that title and, later, in 63 films and 12 books, called himself Captain Frank Hurley.

In World War Two, as an official war photographer, he held the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. But at war's end he preferred to return to the old 'handle' of Captain, as he continued to photograph world personalities, such as Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, the Shah of Iran, and King Feisal, of Iraq.

James Frank Hurley, after running away from home following the caustic soda and inkwell throwing incidents at school, was hauled off the goods train heading west, by the station master at Mount Victoria, in the Blue Mountains.

The station master promised to let him go if he fought a local larrikin, who had a habit of hanging around the railway station, scaring elderly ladies and children.

The whole town seemed to hear about the bout and they made a ring and cheered young Hurley on. But Hurley was no fighter!

His opponent proved too strong and tough for the young city boy, who eventually went away with two black eyes and other facial damage.

Before Frank departed, the station master presented him with two shillings and told him of a possible job with a gang of fettlers working out along the line.

He was taken on as a 'billy boy' at five shillings a week by the fettlers, but soon quit to become an apprentice fitter at the Lithgow iron foundry, at fifteen shillings a week.

While there, Frank finally wrote home to his parents, who decided to leave him where he was. His father sent him the advice that was to become his life-long motto: "You must either find a way or make one for yourself".

The foreman at the iron foundry was a photography enthusiast. On long weekend hikes, he taught young Hurley how to take his first pictures with a second-hand box-type camera, which the youth paid off at one shilling a week.

Once he reached twenty-one years of age, Frank decided to make photography his livelihood.

He returned to Sydney in 1905, and went into partnership with a veteran commercial photographer named Harry Cave in a postcard production business.

They rented premises in Dalley Street and Cave and Hurley began producing and selling photographic postcards.

Hurley began to earn a reputation for the high technical quality of his work, and for the extravagant risks he took to secure sensational images, such as a famous shot taken from the rails of an onrushing train.

The business prospered, and soon they had a staff of thirty.

Hurley gave talks at photographic club meetings, and in 1910, mounted the first exhibition of his work in Sydney.

But at the age of twenty-six, Hurley threw it all up to join Sir Douglas Mawson's Australian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-14, as a camera-man.

When Mawson first advertised the vacant position, Hurley's application was one of hundreds. Frank described himself as "first a photographer, second an experienced mechanic, and third a damn good stowaway if I don't get the job".

Mawson was so impressed that he sent Hurley a telegram of acceptance two days later. He had beaten hundreds of applicants, due to his initiative. The decision was, claimed Mawson, "probably more important than any other in Polar exploration".

The expedition sailed south from Hobart on December 2, 1911, in a former whaler, named the Aurora. Their destination was Adelie Land, where they were to experience worse conditions than ever previously encountered in the Antarctic.

Over a whole year, the wind speed averaged 80 km/h. During the frequent blizzards, it exceeded 150 km/h for twenty-four hours at a stretch.

With two scientists – Eric Webb and Robert Bage – Hurley was chosen by Mawson to undertake a special sled journey to the South Magnetic Pole.

Against the wind they averaged just nine kilometres per day, pulling a 325kg sled. However, returning, they covered 175km in just three days, with the wind behind them.

Nearing the home base in a blizzard, the trio missed a cache of food they had left for the return journey. Rather than risk delay looking for it, they dashed the final 107 km on only 280 grams of food each.

Hurley returned to Australia in the Aurora, before the second winter.

He went back again in 1913, in a relief expedition to pick up Mawson, who had stayed behind with a few others.

They eventually got back to Adelaide during February, 1914. Hurley had shot a film, Home of the Blizzard, on that second trip south and, after profitably disposing of it, set out on an overland expedition to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

He was accompanied by Francis Birtles, famous wanderer of the Australian inland. Hurley's principal reason for the trip was to thaw out after his two polar trips, and to take saleable photographs of Aborigines and the Australian north.

A few weeks later, however, an Aboriginal runner arrived at Hurley's camp on the Gulf. He brought with him a cable, sent out from the police station at Burketown. This was an invitation from Englishman, Sir Ernest Shackleton to join his forthcoming expedition to the Antarctic as his photographer.

Hurley sent an immediate acceptance and made a rush trip back to Sydney, where he was lucky enough to catch a freighter, leaving within a couple of days for South America. A few weeks later, he stepped aboard Shackleton's ship, the ill-fated Endurance, at Buenos Aires.

The story behind the cable was that Shackleton had been £20,000 short of his target funds for the expedition. A group of English businessmen then agreed to put up the amount, with a single requirement – that was that Shackleton take along Mawson's photographer and that he should shoot them another film as good as the successful Home of the Blizzard, then showing in Britain.

Shackleton's 1914-16 expedition to the Weddell Sea was an adventure epic, which gave Hurley the opportunity for probably the best photographic work of his long career.

They sailed from Buenos Aires a few days before the outbreak of World War One.

It had been planned to leave the Endurance in the Weddell Sea, trek across the Polar icecap and re-join the ship in the Ross Sea.

However, unprecedented pack ice stopped the Endurance within 50km of their objective, in January, 1915. The ship was wedged tight. All efforts to extricate it were useless and rapidly it was tightly frozen in, as though set in concrete.

For a while Shackleton was unperturbed.

Meanwhile Hurley took beautiful pictures of the stricken ship, while everyone else sat back and waited for the ice to melt.

Nine long months passed but still there was no concern. Then, on the afternoon of October 27, 1915, the ice suddenly expanded and began smashing up the ship.

All hands went to work frantically. They managed to unload three small open boats, and stores for about fifty days on the ice before the ship was smashed to matchwood.

Another five months passed, while Hurley and his twenty-seven companions waited for the ice to break up sufficiently to launch their boats and, all the while, they were slowly drifting northwards with the pack ice.

They would have starved had they not been able to add to their provisions a few penguins and seals. When these became scarce, they had to kill the sled dogs brought along for the expedition.

As the drifting ice came into warmer northern latitudes, it began to disintegrate. Their only hope of landfall was a bleak inhospitable lump of rock called Elephant Island.

In mid-April 1916, Shackleton decided the surrounding water was navigable for the boats. As the twenty-eight men pushed off from the then comparatively small ice floe beneath them, they were almost deafened by the din of grinding, smashing ice all around them.

The 160km trip to Elephant Island took them six days. It was torment all the way, as they pulled at the oars through howling wind and spray, which froze on their bodies. They huddled together, trying to slap and rub a little warmth into themselves.

When they finally reached Elephant Island, it was hardly better than the sea.

Hurley and twenty-one of the men dug in there, living and sheltering beneath their upturned boats.

Meanwhile, Shackleton and five others set off on on a further epic 1400km open boat voyage to another island, South Georgia, to get help at its permanent whaling station.

Eighteen weeks later, when they returned in a rescue ship at Elephant Island, Hurley and the others were nearly dead from starvation and exposure.

For weeks they had eaten nothing but limpets and seaweed.

Rescue brought with it the shock that the world had been at war for two years.

Frank Hurley raced off to London, where he put the finishing touches to yet another successful film, In the Grip of Polar Ice.

Working under the official war historian, Charles Bean, Hurley was known by the Australian Diggers as "that bloody mad photographer".

He took his camera to France, Palestine, and Egypt, to record their deeds both on and off the battlefield.

While in Cairo, he took time off to marry a French opera singer, Antoinette Leighton, after a whirlwind eight-day courtship.

SHATTERED: Soldiers from the 4th Division AIF field artillery during the Battle of Passchendaele in October 1917. PHOTO: Frank Hurley (Australia, 1885-1962); AWM E01220

SHATTERED: Soldiers from the 4th Division AIF field artillery during the Battle of Passchendaele in October 1917. PHOTO: Frank Hurley (Australia, 1885-1962); AWM E01220

After the war; Hurley-returned home to meet pioneer aviators Ross and Keith Smith. He was in Darwin when they arrived after their epic flight from England, and joined them in their Vickers Vimy plane for the rest of their flight to Adelaide.

With film shot on that flight, as well as postcard scenes of previous stopping places, he was able to complete another money-making film – faking it as an account of the entire journey.

With the profits, Hurley took off again on a photographic expedition to the head-waters of the Fly River in New Guinea. He came back with an exciting documentary film and, after showing it round Australia for twelve months, took it to the United States.

New York went crazy about the Australian veteran of three Antarctic trips.

Somehow, between lecturing and exhibiting the New Guinea film, Hurley found time to cash in on his popularity by producing a best-selling book, which sold out in ten days.

Back in Australia again, Hurley worked as pictorial editor of a Sydney newspaper for a while. Then he turned aviator but failed in an attempt to make the first Australia-England flight when he crashed at Athens.

Hurley went on to England by ship and, in a London street, bumped into Sir Douglas Mawson. As a result he accompanied his old Antarctic comrade on two more polar expeditions in 1929-31.

The newly established Australian film industry then attracted Hurley, and he played a major part in shooting some movies which you might recall – The Silence of Dean Maitland; The Squatter's Daughter, Forty Thousand Horsemen, and many other movies.

During World War Two, he again served as an official Australian war photographer in the Middle East, including the siege of Tobruk.

When the Australian forces returned home to meet the Japanese threat, Hurley stayed on in the Middle East as producer of propaganda films for the British.

Home again after the war, with an OBE Award, Hurley settled down to produce a series of Australian photographic books, which continued to keep his name before a world-wide audience.

He died on January 16, 1962, aged 77 years, at his home at Collaroy Plateau and was cremated.

He was survived by his wife, son, and three daughters.

One obituary summed up his amazing life by saying: "He fell in love with life as he saw it through the view-finder of his camera – and it was a life larger than life-size”.

Frank Hurley was always restless, a self-styled loner who braved danger in exotic areas to provide romance and adventure for armchair travellers.

He retained the use of 'Captain', to help cultivate his image. For three decades he inspired Australian film makers and photographers and was the most powerful force to shape Australian documentary film before World War Two.

I recently saw a documentary on Pay-TV, of Shackleton's disastrous trip to the South Pole and loss of the ship Endurance. It was a British documentary and was made up mostly of film and photos shot by Frank Hurley.

But he got no credit for his work, his film or his still shots – and received no mention in the credits. It was disgraceful and credit should be given where it is due.

A grandson of Cessnock pioneers, Frank Hurley certainly left his mark on Australia and the world.

Brian Andrews OAM is the secretary of Coalfields Heritage Group, the curator of the Edgeworth David Museum at Kurri Kurri, and has written more than 100 books on the history of the Hunter Valley. He was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in 2009 for his dedication to recording our local heritage and service to the community.