1930s adventures in Papua New Guinea

BY AMANDA DIAZ

The NFSA's Teilo Nicholls discovered a recording in the collection featuring the voice of his great uncle – a well-known explorer in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s. 

Family Stories

Teilo Nicholls was a teenager when his parents first told him stories about his great uncle, Jack Hides. A fan of the Indiana Jones film franchise, Teilo was intrigued to learn that he had a relative who appeared to be a real-life version of the cinema adventurer.

Hides was a patrol officer in the former Australian-controlled territories of Papua and New Guinea (modern day Papua New Guinea) and later wrote five successful books based on the diaries he kept during his expeditions (including Papuan Wonderland, 1936). Teilo’s mother – Hides' niece – owned copies of the books, which she gave to her son to enjoy.

‘I remember reading that in his youth he used to sit under the house in Port Moresby and eat condensed milk out of a can, which is what I also used to do as a kid when I lived there', Teilo says.

‘And then there was the time he drove a truck up into the Highlands on a very narrow, steep dirt road on the edge of a cliff. It tipped over the edge and he jumped out just in time, before it rolled down the mountain!'.

'A culture untainted by European influence'

Teilo discovered his great uncle in the NFSA collection after searching his relative's name on a whim. He found a recording of a radio interview with Jack from 1935, in which he gives a colourful account of one of the expeditons he led:

The NFSA preserves the original recording of the interview on a shellac 78 rpm record but Teilo was able to share a digitised copy with his family members. 

'They were surprised that I had found a recording of his voice. My mum and uncles never met him but knew of his adventures from his brother (their dad). They could finally put a voice to the man they only knew from old photos,' says Teilo.

Meeting Errol Flynn

Hides was the son of the head gaoler at Port Moresby Gaol. Jack was said to be an excellent swimmer, sprinter and amateur boxer, and was educated in both Queensland and Port Moresby.

He joined the Papuan public service not long after his 19th birthday in 1925, becoming a cadet patrol officer less than a year later.

Hides developed a reputation for being tough and courageous. Among his many exploits, there's a family legend about his meeting Errol Flynn, before Flynn became a Hollywood star. 

Teilo recounts the story as told by his grandmother: ‘Errol Flynn was new in Port Moresby and wanted to make a name for himself. He asked around to find out who was the toughest bloke in town, and many answered that the bravest man they knew was Jack Hides. Flynn demanded to know where they could find this Jack Hides, and they answered that he usually had lunch up at the hotel when in town.

'Flynn confronted him, looking for a fight, but Jack said he wouldn’t fight him as he was on duty and didn’t want to disgrace his uniform. My grandmother reckons Flynn used this to his advantage and hit Jack knowing that he wouldn’t fight back. Jack took the punch and walked out … [but] they became friends later on.’

Papuan Wonderland

Hides is mostly remembered as an explorer. His expeditions into regions of Papua New Guinea previously unexplored by colonisers were not always without incident, and sometimes involved deadly confrontations with the indigenous Papuans. These incidents were criticised by others at the time for involving unnecessary bloodshed, but surviving evidence suggests that Jack did not routinely resort to intimidation or violence with the people he encountered, unlike some of his contemporaries.

After an all-too-brief career filled with danger, adventure and even the occasional search for gold, Jack Hides was struck down by a lung infection in Sydney after being caught in the rain – passing away in 1938 at the young age of 32. He left behind his wife and two children, as well as siblings including Teilo’s grandfather.

As part of the NFSA Collection Management team, Teilo says he has always appreciated the importance of institutions that can hold and preserve our history. Finding a personal tie to a collection item really helped this message hit home.

'If it wasn’t for archives like the NFSA, our heritage and connections to the past would be forgotten. Not only for present but future generations too.'