Harry George Hawker was born on 22nd January, 1889, in Moorabbin, a small town on the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia. Harry was the second youngest in a family of two boys and two girls. His father, George Hawker was an accomplished engineer blacksmith and wheelwright, who ran an engineering business in Moorabbin.
Harry commenced his primary education at the Moorabbin State school, and then later attended the St. Kilda and Malvern State schools. From all accounts, Harry was not impressed with schools, perhaps because he wanted to learn more and quicker than what was being offered. Perhaps because he was more interested in practical pursuits. In any case, Harry ceased his formal schooling after grade six, but this does not mean he was finished with learning.
Harry had been exposed to the grass roots of engineering from a very young age through his Father George, and his engineering business in a premises on the corner of Wickham Road and Point Nepean Road (now the Nepean Highway). George also built covered wagons for local market gardeners, who drove their horse drawn carts to the large markets in Melbourne along the specially built rail that ran down the centre of Point Nepean Road. George also built his own steam engine as well as many other machines and tools required for his trade and his business.
George Hawker was involved in a number of other pursuits including representing Victoria as a member of the successful 1887 team sent to Bisley, London; was a talented musician and conductor, and formed a brass band that was later to become the St Kilda City Brass Band. Harry was also a keen and skilled shot and also performed with his father and brother Herbert in the band which was conducted by George.
Upon leaving school, Harry, possessing a sound mechanical mind, went on to spend two years as a mechanic in the service of the firm of Hall and Warden, motor engineers. This exposure to the motor car increased his fascination with motor engineering and all things to do with internal combustion engines.
From Hall and Warden, Harry moved to Tarrant Motor & Engineering Co, which earlier, in 1901 launched a Tarrant motor car powered by an imported Benz engine. This was the first petrol-driven car made in Australia that actually worked successfully and that was sold commercially. In 1903 the Tarrant company released its 2-cylinder, 6-kilowatt, petrol-driven Tarrant. It was 90% Australian made – with only a few imported electrical components.
Harley Tarrant played an important role in local motoring affairs, lobbying on behalf of the Motor Importers Association for better traffic regulations. He also served on the governing committee of the Automobile Club of Victoria from 1906 to 1910, helping to demonstrate the capabilities of the motor car by organising and participating in the club's competitions and tours. In 1904 he had won this event in the club's first motor race meeting, averaging 26 miles (42 km) per hour.
Harley Tarrant's victory in two Dunlop reliability trials in 1905 and the success of a Tarrant car in 1906 helped to develop confidence in local manufacturing, however, they could not compete with imports that were produced in larger numbers, for a bigger market.
During his time at Tarrant, Harry Hawker made quite a name for himself as an accomplished and skilled mechanic, often being passed the more difficult tasks and problematic engines that others were willing to give up on. Whilst at Tarant he met the likes of Harry Kauper, Harry Busteed, Eric Harrison and Andrew Lang – all of whom also went on to have successful aviation careers and with whom he remained great friends.
You can only but visualise these young men, Harry Hawker, Harry Busteed, and Harry Kauper working on motor vehicles of the day, and discussing the intricacies of the internal combustion engine. To the majority of folk in those days these young men were known affectionately as the 'three Harrys, and were to a large extent inseparable in their working life as they were after working hours. They also worked alongside Eric Harrison and Andrew Lang in the Tarant Motor Garage, which at that time was located in Russel street in Melbourne.
During his early years as a mechanic, Harry Hawker developed a somewhat different way of solving his inquisitive mechanical questions. If he were in doubt about a particular solution to a mechanical or engineering issue, he would quickly start a discussion on the subject challenging the others to provide a feasible answer or solution.
Busteed and Kauper would be quick to take up the challenge to seek the solution that all could agree upon, with the result that Harry invariably got the information that he had sought. This was an approach to solving problems that Harry was known to use throughout his life.
In 1907, Tarrant Motors Pty Ltd ceased manufacturing motor cars and acquired the Victorian franchise for Ford.
The motor car was a scarce commodity in Melbourne in the early 1900s, and apart from working in a motor garage, such as Tarant Motors, access to them was limited. Harry was eager to increase his knowledge and his experience with the internal combustion engine and all of its uses. On occasions Harry would come across a motor vehicle and its owner outside of the motor garage, it was not uncommon for him to stop and have a quiet chat with the motorist.
Harry by now had earned a reputation as a fine driver and mechanic, and became quite well known amongst those who were serious motorists. In his pursuit of greater opportunities, Harry left Tarrant Motors and secured a job as chauffeur mechanic on a grazing property near Deniliquin in NSW. Not long after, he moved to Skipton in Victoria, again as chauffeur mechanic.
Whilst he was working at Skipton, Mr. Ernest de Little, of Caramut, hearing of Harry and also witnessing him drive, offered Harry a job which he could hardly refuse, looking after a fleet of motor cars, including a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and his soon to be acquired, new “monster”, in the guise of a 14-16-h.p. Argyll. Although Ernest de Little was then one of the most well known polo players in Australia, he would not attempt to handle a motor car. And not knowing enough to interfere with Harry’s work on the car, de Little allowed Harry to do what he liked with the car so far as its maintenance was concerned.
As chauffeur and mechanic, Harry took his role seriously and kept detailed logs of the trips he made with and for Mr de Little for each of the near on five years that he worked at Caramut Harry worked for the de Littles from August 1906 to June 1911. (only three log books have been recovered). For his first diary, Harry used a school text book.
Interestingly, on the cover of the text book where the Pupil’s details are intended to be written, he entered the details as follows:
Full name, Harry George Hawker;
Class :1 , and
Harry’s first entry in this diary was as follows :
At Mr E. R De Little with 14 X 16 hp Argyle at Caramut House, Caramut
The next entry was most likely the first trip in the Argyle, where Harry writes:
On Monday 13 August, I took the car to the railway and trucked it to Geelong. There I stayed the night.
On Tuesday 14 August I made a run to Caramut we started from Geelong We started about 10am the car going well we stopped at Mr Manifolds Station for dinner. Then went on (,) the car going very well right through the run. I stayed the night at the hotel in Caramut.
In 1907, he began using smaller, leather covered diaries, more suited to the task as the pages were dated. Mr. de Little paid Harry very well and also covered his accommodation costs at the Caramut Hotel, which was virtually across the road from the de Little property – Caramut House. The Caramut Hotel was to become Harry’s home for four or more years. Harry got on very well with the proprietors of the Hotel, the McPhees. When Harry was later to leave Caramut to pursue his ambition to fly, Mrs McPhee took out a life insurance policy on Harry’s behalf.
To assist Harry in maintaining the new cars, Mr de Little built a garage and workshop. This workshop was very well appointed with all the tools that Harry needed to keep the cars running in pristine condition. The cars being new, were easy for Harry to maintain which meant he had time to indulge in his own mechanical ambitions, which included the building and racing of motor cycles. Whilst at Caramut, Harry met and often raced against Cecil de Fraga as well racing against his colleague from Tarant, Harry Busteed. The venue they often used was Melbourne’s Princes Park race track (built for pedal cycles), then located near Flinders street station. Harry Hawker built two motor bikes during this period, one of which was a quite a large two-cylinder machine.
Outwardly, there were no obvious signs of Harry’s meticulous work on the de Little cars, that was well hidden under the bonnet. Harrys biggest aim at this time, was speed, and here he was quite fortunate, as more often than not, his passengers in that Argyll mostly consisted of sportsmen who spent a lot of time shooting, playing polo, and attending races. However, as soon as an event was over, if there were any cars on the road anxious for “a dusting-up” as Harry would put it, they got it from start to finish at the hands of Harry. Being such an accomplished driver, he was hard to compete against on the road. Indeed, no matter what the sport, Harry always put his very best into it. At billiards he was very handy with a cue and fought to the last ball dropped. With the boxing gloves he was fast, and reportedly, his hit was like the kick from a mule. But it was on the road where he proved himself to be a true natural. Those that took him on had to have a considerable amount lot of luck to beat him at his own game; either that, or very powerful car.
During his long tenure at Caramut, Harry would often take the opportunity to visit his parents
in Moorabbin as well as staying in close contact with his elder brother Herbert, who was also working as a chauffeur mechanic in the Western District of Victoria for the Afflecks, who interestingly were related to the De Littles by marriage. ( Ernst De Littles sister Constance married James Affleck)
Harry also remained in close contact with the friends he had made during his employment at Tarrant Motors, especially Harry Kauper, Harry Busteed and Eric Harrison, each of whom were either building engines or maintaining and repairing them.
Life for Harry as a chauffeur, and mechanic as well as living in the sporting atmosphere of Caramut House would have influenced him a great deal in becoming the competitive figure that he later became well known for. The great difficulty for Harry now was to find something fresh upon which to place his need for greater speed. Relief perhaps came as result of the Bleriot crossing of the Channel. From the day that the Frenchman lifted off the ground in that world-startling effort of crossing the English Channel, the lives of the three Harrys and Eric, had a new outlook. Here was something new, and this new form of sport was to prove the answer to their dreams.
At some time early in 1910, Harry and his friends received word that Erik Weisz, AKA Harry Houdini the famous escapologist, was going to attempt a powered flight in a Voisin bi-plane. At this point in time, no one had reportedly made a successful controlled powered flight in Australia. Harry, his brother Bert, brother-in-law, Bert Chamberlain, Harry Busteed and Harry Kauper along with some other friends from Tarant Motor days all made their way to Diggers Rest, west of Melbourne, to witness this historic occasion.