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A family secret for a Prime Minister

It doesn't matter what job you may hold in your life, your children are always a piece of your heart. Despite being a doting father to his daughter, Billy Hughes - seventh Prime Minister of Australia from 1915 to 1923 - his greatest regret must be, not being by her side when she died mysteriously in 1937 half a world away, just before her 22nd birthday.

Billy Hughes was a polarising figure and a great supporter of conscription during World War One. Known as 'the Little Digger', he had an over-bearing personality that could be charming and ruthless in one breath. When it came to his only daughter Helen, to his second wife, however, he was a big softy.

Helen Hughes with her father, Australia's 7th Prime Minister, Billy Hughes. Contributed NLA.

One comment recorded by her is:

“If Daddy is cross with me I just pick him up, for he is very little.”

In fact, her nickname for the man with the most important job in Australia during the Great War, was 'My dear little daddy'.

Born in 1915, the same year her father took office, Helen grew up in the public eye. Queen Mary knitted her a little petticoat when she was a baby in London with her parents. She was strikingly beautiful, stylish, vivacious and clearly the apple of her father's eye, who was 52 years old when she was born. They had a close relationship and he would take her everywhere with him.

Helen as a little girl.

Helen had everything to live for, popular in social circles with her photo constantly in newspapers and magazines. In 1937, when her father was the Minister for Health, she travelled to London to attend the coronation of Edward VII, or as it turned out George VI. However, there was a more personal reason that Helen left Australian shores. One that wouldn't be discovered for many years later and would ultimately end in her death.

Newspapers of the day said her sudden and lonely death, just before her 22nd birthday, had been caused 'following an operation'. Some said it was for a duodenal ulcer and others an abdominal complaint. It wasn't until nearly 70 years later, when her death certificate was traced, that it was discovered she had died after giving birth to a son from a caesarean section. She had been pregnant when she left Australia.

Helen's final resting place at Macquarie Park Cemetery, along with her father and mother as they eventually followed her. Photo Kevin Banister.

The little boy lived, but his mother's remains were shipped back to Australia, where she was buried in Macquarie Park Cemetery (then Northern Suburbs cemetery). It is believed Helen's son lives under an assumed name in Sydney and has not given permission for his identity to be revealed.


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Thank you Samantha for another interesting, though very sad, story from the past. I thought the story was leading towards her death after a botched abortion, but this was not so. I wonder if she had any friends supporting her around the anticipated time of the birth. I wonder if her parents knew she was pregnant. A very sad tale and a tragic legacy for the child who survived.

Samantha Elley
Samantha Elley
Aug 03, 2021
Replying to

Indeed. I'd say the parents knew, which is why she went to England. I hope she wasn't alone.

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