An original watercolour painting by Captain Brett Hilder of of Torres ship San Pedro entering Torres Strait in 1606.

Brett Hilder – author, artist, mariner, pilot…

One of the new exhibits in the renovated historical gallery contains a tribute to Captain Brett Hilder.

One of the exhibits in the new History Gallery displays is a leather flying pilot’s cap that was used and owned by Captain Brett Hilder MBE. 

Museum Curator Jim Dorman became friends with Brett Hilder and when he died his widow passed on a collection of art pieces, photographs and documents for the Lord Howe Island Museum.

Before the War

Brett Hilder was born in 1911 the youngest son of renowned water-colourist Jesse Jewhurst Hilder. 

In 1928 he joined Burns Philp Ltd as a deck cadet, which took him to the Pacific Islands and Indonesia, then the Dutch East Indies. 

He obtained his first command of a fishing trawler Millimumul trawling off the New South Wales and New Zealand coasts at the tender age of 27.  

He achieved his Extra Masters Certificate in 1938, another one not to be awarded in Australia until 1956.

Brett was a member of the Naval Reserve and at the outbreak of WWII he applied to the Navy for an immediate command of a destroyer. 

When this was not forthcoming during that same afternoon he crossed the road and joined the R.A.A.F. as a Navigation Instructor and later became a Chief Instructor.  

He applied for flying training and graduated as a pilot, commanding Catalinas, and achieved the rank of Wing Commander. He participated in many patrols and mine-laying operations through the East Indies, New Guinea and the Phillipines.

Leather flying cap worn by Brett Hilder during World war II, on display in the Historical Gallery.
Leather flying cap worn by Brett Hilder during World war II, on display in the Historical Gallery.
A dashing Brett Hilder, at the age of 27.
A dashing Brett Hilder, aged 27.

After the war

At the end of the war Hilder resumed his career as a merchant sea-captain and returned to Burns Philp and Co serving as master of the Muliama, Mangola, Morinda, Malaita and the Bulolo, eventually becoming Commodore of Burns Philp and Co.

During this period, Hilder started painting and drawing, producing many watercolour landscapes and portraits of the people and places he visited in both the Pacific and South East Asia. These were later exhibited in Sydney, Melbourne, Port Moresby, Honiara and New York. 

He also wrote extensively on navigation, ports, islands and other topics, such as forestry and architecture, publishing in magazines such as Walkabout.

In the collection at the Lord Howe Island Museum there is a series of nine postcards of watercolours painted by Brett Hilder depicting life in the islands he sailed as master of various ships. The text on these postcards show some fascinating detail of life in the islands at the time. There are also a number of original portrait watercolours, including one of Lord Howe Island resident Sid Morgan painted in 1962; and a number of portraits of New Guinea natives.

It was during his time as the Captain of the Morinda, Malaita and Muliama that Brett Hilder visited Lord Howe Island. 

Brett was a keen photographer and became good friends with the Island photographer Dick Morris, and in the Brett Hilder collection of items held at the museum we have a photograph showing the Malaita sailing between the Island and the Admiralty islets that was taken by Dick. 

Island resident Clive Wilson remembers Brett Hilder as being a fine seaman, who safely captained the Malaiata when the worst cyclone ever to hit Lord Howe Island occurred in January 1949, when the Malaita was sailing between Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands.

After Burns Philp and Co eventually sold its fleet of vessels, Hilder joined the Australian Liner Services as Master of Cape Arnhem, later doing relief work in Pacific Tankers.

The Hilder group of five islands was named after Brett Hilder by British Admiralty, as was Hilder Reef, in the Two Mile Opening to the north of Lizard Island off the Great Barrier Reef. This honour was bestowed upon Hilder in recognition of his discovery in 1963 of a new passage through the reef. 

Hilder was a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Royal Geographical Society and a member of the Company of Master Mariners and the founder of the Australian Institute of Navigation. In 1971 he was awarded the MBE for services to navigation.

Captain Hilder died in 1981, leaving a unique artistic legacy which is closely associated with the heyday of the Burns Philp era in the South Pacific.

Brett Hilder’s paintings

Some of the paintings and postcards by Brett Hilder, on display in the Historical Gallery.

Brett Hilder on TV

In 1977 Brett Hilder was honoured on the Australian TV programme This Is Your Life. 

He was also mentioned in a news feature on Today Tonight in 2014, telling the story of the MV Bulolo, which he captained from 1964 to 1968.


The Hilder Family
Willoughby District Historical Society & Museum website

The Story of the Tamil Bell
Brett Hilder, The Journal of the Polynesian Society

Artwork of Captain Brett Hilder
Maritime Books website

Captain Brett Hilder – Obituary
The Mariner’s Mirror, Volume 67, Issue 3, 1981

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