Margel Hinder's design survived many suggestions

WE all take the elegant, once controversial, Civic Park fountain in Newcastle for granted today.

It’s a timeless, classic design. One passionate Sydney radio broadcaster has described it as “one of the finest pieces of public sculpture in Australia”.

Even after all these years it still appears modern. Not a bad achievement for something that was unveiled back in November 1966.

However, today’s iconic fountain had a slow and painful birth, even being derided by one critic ages ago as looking like “the twisted wreckage of a huge burnt-out plane”.

The Newcastle Region Library in Laman Street, just above Civic Park, is asking Novocastrians to join in a trip down memory lane to celebrate more than 50 years of the Civic Park fountain. With striking parabolic arcs of water, it seems inevitable the fountain’s jets were to be later adopted as the city emblem. 

The timely exhibition also reminds us of how the fountain design ignited passions and of what the city might easily have had instead. The display, featuring 25 rare black-and-white 1960s photographs of fountain construction, is being staged until April 29 in the local studies lounge on the library’s second floor. 

The fountain was designed by renowned sculptor Margel Hinder (1906-1995).

“(My) shapes are intended to signify certain qualities that I feel are expressive of Newcastle: energy, vigour and a metallic strength,” Hinder once wrote.

Last week, local studies librarian Sue Ryan gave a public talk to offer an insight into the drama so long ago.

“The park and fountain grounds were once mining company land. Coal trains used to carry coal across the present park,” she said. “In the 1930s, Newcastle council then decided to turn the land into a park, but it wasn’t officially known as Civic Park until 1978.”

Ryan said the concept of a Civic Park fountain went back to 1958. Newcastle City Council eventually announced an Australia-wide competition to design a fountain in 1961.

“There was even an idea back then though to put in an underground car park there before putting a fountain on top,” Ryan said.  

About 90 fountain entries were received, with all three judges independently choosing Margel Hinder’s concept. Looking like “eroded formations on the coastline”, it was the contest’s outstanding design.

Most fountain ideas were very staid and traditional. One design submitted, however, featured a bizarre stairway to heaven wrapped around what appeared to be a surrealistic rocket.

Margel Hinder and her husband Frank worked together on her copper fountain sculpture for two and a half years and it came in right on budget. Fabricated at the Hinders’ Sydney base, the sculpture was then cut up for transportation to Newcastle, where it was reassembled.

The American-born Margel had married aspiring Australian artist Frank Hinder in 1930 and both came to Australia to work. They were later described as one of the nation’s most creative artistic partnerships.

Years later, Frank Hinder was asked what was Margel’s best work from her award-winning range. He replied: “I like the fountain at Newcastle best because it is so unusual, and only she (Margel) could have thought of it.”

“But even after the fountain was officially opened in 1966, people were still complaining the design was too modern,” Sue Ryan said.

“One councillor suggested it might have been better to shift the tall ‘Him and ‘Her’ statues from the Cultural Centre foyer into the park pool and have them holding fire hoses.

“In 1970 the fountain was officially called the Captain James Cook fountain. But one suggestion was to call it after Wangi artist William Dobell. This seemed a bit strange to me as the artist Margel Hinder, not Dobell, had designed and built it.”

“Then later, Newcastle council decided to put green lights in the fountain which was described as ‘incredibly insensitive’ by many. Margel threatened to sue council. It got a bit tricky for a while,” she said.  

Thrill seeker: Aviatrix Jessie Miller as seen on the cover of Carol Baxter's book.

Thrill seeker: Aviatrix Jessie Miller as seen on the cover of Carol Baxter's book.

PIONEERING HIGH FLYER

SPEAKING of women, who’s heard of the petite, pioneering Australian aviatrix Jessie “Chubbie” Miller? Not many today I’d wager.

That may change with the virtually forgotten Mrs Miller now being brought vividly back to life in a new book by author and dogged researcher Carol Baxter, whose past books include Captain Thunderbolt and His Lady.

Adventurer, thrill-seeker and a heartbreaker, the plucky Jessie Miller was an intrepid, one-of-a-kind woman. No danger was too extreme and men worldwide adored her. She is credited with being the first woman to complete an England-to-Australia flight and she participated in the famous the Powder Puff Derby of 1929 (an air race for women). She also became friends with aviation legend Amelia Earhart, who would soon disappear forever.

Not a bad record for a suburban Melbourne housewife who left her newspaperman husband for a six-month break in England in 1927. She never returned. Instead, she became an internationally known flyer and reportedly the world’s first female test pilot, but finally found herself a key witness in a sensational Miami murder trial.

Her largely unknown, fascinating true story has now been pieced together by Baxter in her 400-page book The Fabulous Flying Mrs Miller (Allen & Unwin, $29.99 rrp). 

After her copious research for this fine work, author Baxter admits much of the biography reads almost like historical fiction, or fictionalised history. She emphasises, however, that all the dialogue in this remarkable story was taken from original records, such as court transcripts, newspaper accounts and past interviews of Miller. She makes a clear distinction that her book is in the category of narrative non-fiction, or history told as a story of what really happened.    

But it is the puzzle of what happened to Miller’s lover, Bill Lancaster, that provides the book’s final gut-wrenching punch. His wrecked biplane, missing since 1933, was accidentally discovered in the Sahara desert along with his diary. But that was in 1962, finally solving a 29-year-old aviation mystery.

Ironically, Bill Lancaster’s heartbreaking death was to eclipse Miller’s stellar aviation career. She died in hospital in 1972 and her death went entirely unnoticed by the world’s press, including Australia.   

mikescanlon.history@hotmail.com