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William Hatfield (1892–1969)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

William Hatfield (1892-1969), writer, whose original name was Ernest Chapman, was born on 18 March 1892 at Nottingham, England, son of Joseph Chapman, policeman, and his wife Mary, née Cudworth. After education at a Nottingham council school, he briefly attended Nottingham University and was articled to a solicitor. He decided to migrate, however, worked his passage as a steward and jumped ship at Port Adelaide in January 1912. Setting off on foot for 'the interior', by the evening he had reached Glenelg.

Hatfield soon became a first-rate bushman. For many years he worked in the north of South Australia, Central Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland as a station-hand, stockman, drover, cook, horse-breaker, kangaroo-shooter, dingo-trapper, book-keeper, seaman, miner, fruit-picker, painter and timber-worker. In 1915 he attempted to join the Light Horse but was rejected because of injuries. Over the years he sympathetically studied Aboriginal languages and customs.

Hatfield had always been ambitious to write but for twelve years accumulated rejection slips. While unemployed in Sydney, however, he wrote the successful Sheepmates (1931), a novel about a Central Australian station. In 1931 he made a car trip to Darwin and another round Australia in 1932, reporting on the way, which won him some celebrity. The trips were the basis for Australia Through the Wind Screen (1936). Angus & Robertson published seven more novels, of which Desert Saga (1933) about an Aboriginal boy was the most serious, and three children's stories.

During a visit to England Hatfield finally adopted his pen-name by deed poll in 1938. He was proud when Oxford University Press published his autobiographical I Find Australia (1937), a lively account which fully displays his energy, vitality and willingness to tackle any occupation. He had made a fair living from writing during the Depression, but on returning to Australia in 1939 he was soon destitute in Perth with a young family. He was awarded a Commonwealth Literary Fund grant, but in 1940 joined the Australian Military Forces, serving in 1942-43 as a lieutenant in the Army Education Service.

During the 1940s and later, Hatfield's interests concentrated on conservationist issues. He lectured as a declared Communist and wrote, notably in Australia Reclaimed (1944), on water conservation, irrigation, soil erosion and reafforestation, holding similar views to J. J. C. Bradfield's on a possible water-diversion scheme in Queensland. He argued vigorously in favour of breaking up pastoral leaseholds in northern Australia and promoting agricultural settlement.

After some years of ill health Hatfield died, intestate, at Concord, Sydney, on 2 February 1969 and was cremated. He was married three times: on 6 November 1916 at Townsville, Queensland, to Constance Jean Ferguson (d.1923); on 16 July 1930 in Sydney to a divorcee Winifrid Josephine Finlayson Lofting, née Wilson (they were divorced in 1937); and on 15 November 1937 at Bridport, Dorset, England, to Janet Guthrie Fulton who survived him with a daughter and a son.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Disher, ‘Before the age of hurry-up …’ Australian Landscape Writing 1925-1950 (M.A. thesis, Monash University, 1978)
  • Overland, no 9, Apr 1957.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Hatfield, William (1892–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 May 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

William Hatfield, c1933

William Hatfield, c1933

State Library of Victoria, H38849/1837

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Chapman, Ernest

18 March, 1892
Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, England


2 February, 1969 (aged 76)
Concord, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.