Howard Hitchcock

I can only say,

I always gave my best for my community and my city. I was immensely proud of coming from Geelong.

I was born here, in March 1866, I was educated here, I worked here at the family business, I married a wonderful Geelong girl – and I had the honour to serve five terms as Mayor as well as representing this fine city in State Parliament.

I was never one to boast, but I’ll try to capsulate my life for you inside the five minute limit.

My family’s business was Bright & Hitchcock’s, the biggest department store in the region, taking up most of a central city block. As the company manufactured many of the goods we sold, we were also the largest employers in the district, and among the most affluent families.

I was brought up in the Methodist tradition of clean simple living. I never smoked, drank alcohol nor gambled throughout my life and neither did Louie, my wife. When our marriage was young, we were what you might describe today as a ‘celebrity couple’, very much always in the public eye. Louie was musical and artistic, we were both keen sports people, winning some championships at tennis.

Once I entered the family business, I was charged with modernising it by bringing in electricity. This innovation proved highly successful and I not only found myself considerably richer, but also, after the death of my father in 1912, the sole head of our company and a recognised Geelong business leader.

In this capacity, I wrote a letter to the Geelong Advertiser criticising Geelong Council’s decision to close down the town’s partly-built town hall and move to a smaller premises. This was seen as provocative by council, and I was challenged by them to put up or shut up.

In short, I chose to accept that challenge, stood for council, was elected, and served as Mayor from 1917 – 1922. During that short time, my team and I were able to either build, or set in place the means to build, much that is recognised today as Geelong’s unique infrastructure.

I should point out that Louie and I were not blessed with children. So instead, we devoted all of our time, energy and most of our money to improving our society. And this was a team effort. Louie was by my side always, she wrote my speeches – and we had good managers running the business while we worked at building Geelong.

The modernising works we carried out started with the town hall, which was finished, then Johnstone Park was completed and landscaped, the Gordon Institute was considerably expanded, as we believed that education was the true way forward. We built many new schools including the new Geelong High school, as well as libraries, laboratories and adult learning institutions. We poured money into scores of public schemes and projects including roads, bridges, the Eastern Beach bathing enclosure and the Geelong Hospital. We built a new concrete bridge over the Barwon at Moorabool St, and a long wooden one at Barwon Heads.

We supported the Geelong Football club as well as the entire town’s music and theatre groups. We brought big stars here to perform in benefit concerts and Royalty and Celebrities here to show off our tourism assets. And we never served them alcohol or cigarettes.

During my time as Mayor, Geelong prospered. I used a relatively simple business method to drive all the projects. First, I would get plans drawn up by professionals, then launch those plans at a big public meeting where I would challenge business owners to support their town by backing it with hard cash. I would then set the ball in motion by making a large personal donation, usually 1000 pounds. This would encourage other businessmen to contribute, we would take that amount raised to council and under my mayorship, council would match it pound for pound. Then we would take this to the State government and get it matched pound for pound by them, and further to the Commonwealth government to get them to contribute as well.

Then, with that funding stream in place, we would set up a trust to manage the funds and drive the project forward, usually with me as chair. At one point, I was chair of 31 different trust committees in Geelong – not counting that of my pet project – The Great Ocean Road.

That road proposal had been turned down by successive state and commonwealth governments, as having no useful economic or military purpose. But I knew from my trips overseas, to the United States in particular, that the automobile was going to change people’s leisure time – they would want to drive to see those beautiful views. Besides, building the road served as both employment and therapy for the returned soldiers from the Great War.

So I pressed ahead with that project against all opposition, sometimes, when funding was not forthcoming, paying the work gangs myself, for 14 years.

It was my great regret that I did not live to see the Great Road finished – I died a month before the opening ceremony. This was conducted by the Governor of Victoria, who rode in the second car during the Road’s first official, opening, drive. The first car was my Rolls Royce, with my chauffeur driving and my hat on the front seat. Louie was in the third car.

And when I was brought here after dying from a heart condition in the winter of 1932, it was said that my funeral was the biggest gathering ever held in Geelong, with every single citizen turning out to line the streets from the Wesley Church in Yarra St to here all to pay respect.

It was a truly memorable – and humbling experience for a person who simply set out to serve their community.

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