The days before the Hills Hoist.

Baby boomers like me may have memories of old ‘prop’ clothes lines. They had been around for generations,  although there was an attempt to improve on them as early as  1889. An Australian invented a device for carrying a double line, which could be elevated via a lever mechanism. It removed the need for props, but didn’t seem to catch on.


We have to thank a nagging wife for the first real leap forward in clothes lines. In 1945,  Mrs Hills from  Adelaide lost patience over a  growing lemon tree that was snagging  her sheets and towels. She told her husband Lance to either chop the tree down or design an alternative method of drying clothes. And he did! Admittedly he improved upon previous inventions to produce his compact, rotating line. It could  be lowered for ease of pegging, then raised to catch the breeze.   An early order books shows  they were pretty expensive, at ten quid each.

Hills Hoist Order Book
Early days


The first commercial batch of  Mr Hills’ hoists had an interesting historical component.

The struts were made from the metal frame of a giant underwater boom. It had been suspended below Sydney Harbour Bridge during  World War II, with the object of snaring enemy submarines. Lance Hills purchased the scrap metal as a job lot.

The Hills Hoist was a Godsend for a farmer’s wife.  My mother’s   old clothes line  had been put up in a paddock, as it was too long to fit in the garden. Often livestock nudged the props and  Mum’s snow white sheets would end up in the mud.

Nobody minded the new clothes line appearing in photos.   Family friends and fellow farmers the Rowes were happy to share the stage with their  rotary line. By the ‘sixties’ the Hills Hoist was as iconic as  Josie and Heather’s  duffle coats.

Rowe family photo 1960s
And was that a new car?  (photo credit Josephine Rowe)

I love this  slightly earlier  photo of my sister Robbie  and I proudly showing off our Brownie uniforms under the hoist. It must have been taken soon after being  installed. If you look closely you can spot the old line and  one of the props outside the fence.

Little Brownies under the Hills Hoist.
Where better to take the kids’ photo? Circa 1959

Here is the same Hills  Hoist a generation later.  My newphews  Rick and Peter  are sitting at the table and chairs their  Grandad  made circa 1970.  I see my mother’s garden is still flourishing and there’s a new fence. The lawn looks a bit dry though!

Hills Hoist
What a backdrop!  (Photo credit -Lorraine Bendall)

And here is their father Laurie installing a hoist in their own backyard, not that far way.

Installing  Hills Hoist
In goes another Hills Hoist.  

The new clothes lines meant that every kid had access to a hurdy gurdy.  We loved swinging on ours, although not if Mum was watching.

To be honest, Mum needn’t have worried as they are virtually  indestructible. Following  the devastation of  Darwin’s Cyclone Tracey in 1974,  one was discovered intact,  with washing twirling away amid the complete  ruins of a home.

The Hills Hoist is often used to express our cultural identity; in artworks, and in hit  movies such as Muriel’s Wedding and The Castle.  It even appeared in the closing ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Hills Hoist artwork Lin Onus
Fruit Bats by Lin Onus, 1991

Vegetarians might find the next picture a bit confronting. But hey, the bar-b-que  is part of Aussie life and a Hills Hoist makes an effective if bizarre rotisserie. Hope it didn’t dry out the turkey meat!

Hills Hoist rotisserie
Hills Hoist rotisserie. (ABC Tasmania)

On a more uplifting note, the photo below  illustrates  nature’s artwork. It was created when a family  accidentally left  a sprinkler on one frosty night.

Icicles on a Hills Hoist.
Yes, a Hills Hoist can look quite beautiful.

The Hills Hoist has been  listed as a National Treasure by the Australian National Library. I think that says it all.

Kookaburra's on a Hills Hoist
Two cultural treasures


Appreciator of all things vintage Clint Hardes found a hoist abandoned in the bush and recycled it into a nifty little drinks table. And yes, he assures me it still winds up and down.

I don’t have an outdoor clothes line at the moment and look what I have to contend with!😨 It’s more than my old brain can cope with. 

  1. Growing up, we had a double line that Dad built, clothes props at first were made of saplings, the Dad got some timber and made much more solid ones. Prior to Dad putting up the double lines, Mum used to use a very ola and large umbrella to drape ‘smalls’ on, all others were draped over bushes or trees or the fence.

    We still have a Hills Hoist, despite suggestions from family that long straight lines on a foldaway frame would be better. No could I make circus tents for grandchildren or add extra shade under blankets or sheets.. and where would my regular visitors, the butcher birds and kookaburras roost, not to mention the tawny owl who roosts there at night sometimes..

    • Pauline

      Your Mum was very creative, Chris. I agree, you can do a lot with a rotary clothes line. I definitely think you should keep yours.

  2. Love the pictures of the one covered in ice and tht Kookaburas.

    • Pauline

      The ice one is amazing, June. Dear old Kookas make anything look good.

  3. My goodness, ten quid, that sounds an exorbitant price for 1945. I had to buy my first ‘rotary’ line when moving to my current house in Yorkshire, due to only now having a tiny back garden.
    My rotary is certainly not so robust looking as the indestructible Hills Hoist version. I have to say that I much preferred my long line in Maidenhead where everything blew so beautifully while drying in the breeze.
    I have to add though that my mother would have been horrified if the washing on the line was immortalised in any family photo!
    I love some of your images here Pauline, especially the ice one; and I was very impressed to know the HH complete with washing on it was the only thing to survive Cyclone Tracey!

    • Pauline

      This is why I am so fascinated by social history, Marcia. It seems few people worried about the background of their photos. Maybe it was because so few were taken, relatively speaking. Also, the HH was usually plonked right in the middle of the backyard, so it was hard to avoid. Ten quid does seem a lot, but they were pretty substantial structures, and look how long they last! Haha. Remember, the one at our farm is still functioning sixty years on.

  4. Social history IS fascinating. Is the HH still made/sold? or was it like the old Morris Minor car, which they had to discontinue because it was so reliable, that owners never replaced them!

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