5 May 2024

Australia's parachute pioneer found his treasured 'pot of gold' at Clover Hill

| Jen White
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Man and woman with a dog in a lounge room.

Ben Turner and wife Jean, with dog Roger, at their Clover Hill home in 1955. Photo: Discover Shellharbour.

Benjamin (Ben) Horace Turner was a world record-holding parachutist and a pioneer of the sport in Australia, but in the Illawarra he’s probably better known for his quirky Clover Hill house, affectionately named Ben’s Folly.

Born in London in 1910, Ben was a stunt parachutist with the World’s First Flying Fair and Sir Alan Cobham’s Air Circus in England in the 1930s, with a dream of becoming an airman.

According to Discover Shellharbour, Ben’s parents couldn’t afford to send him to an air school, so he became a parachutist to learn how to fly.

In 1932, at the age of 22, he made his first parachute descent and over the next six years he made 299 jumps.

Not long after he began parachuting he achieved the fastest record for the ‘World’s Timed’ parachute descent, jumping from an average of 600 feet, six times in just over 28 minutes.

A newspaper article quoted Ben’s account of the first time he leapt from a plane: “Somehow or other I managed to pluck up enough courage and desperately clutching the strut and the side of the fuselage I waited grimly for the signal to drop off … I had little strength left anyway to hold much longer and it would have needed superhuman effort to get back again into the cockpit, so choosing the lesser of two evils I dived, counted to three and pulled the ripcord … There was a sudden jerk and looking up I saw the beautiful new canopy gleaming white in that cold November sun.”

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Ben joined the GQ Company making test jumps, and in 1936 he travelled to South America with the company where he learnt to service, design and manufacture parachutes.

In 1938 he was employed by Brigadier Denzil MacArthur Onslow, who had obtained the rights to GQ Parachutes in Australia and wanted Ben to set up the manufacturing of parachutes to cope with the massive wartime demand.

Once the parachute business was established, Ben tested the prototype parachute at Camden, setting an Australian record delayed drop jump from 6000 feet.

Later that year Ben, along with two others, made aviation history when they executed Australia’s first “mass” parachute jump. The event was watched by 5000 people and was the forerunner of skydiving.

Not long after, Ben founded Turner Parachutes, with a factory in Sydney’s Broadway and became the sole supplier of parachutes to Australian air and ground forces.

The company sold an estimated 80,000 parachutes during World War II and employed 140 trained parachute makers.

Ben pioneered the parachute industry in Australia, making stunt jumps all over the country. He performed to thousands of spectators, and with more than 300 jumps to his name, was only ever injured on two occasions.

At the end of the war with no need for parachutes on such a large scale, Ben turned his hand to manufacturing women’s swimwear.

He established the firm Scamp Pty Ltd, which was to become an Australian icon, and instructed the girls in his factory to stop sewing parachutes and start sewing swimsuits.

He ran a competition with his factory staff to come up with a name for the new business that would reflect the style of his designs. Ben’s secretary suggested Scamp and he loved it.

In 1949, Ben was struck with pneumonia and tuberculosis and was told by a doctor he had only a few years to live. He sold his interest in the swimsuit company to Berlei and retired with his wife Jean – who he had married in 1943 – and their English sheepdog Roger to their 162-hectare property at Clover Hill, Macquarie Pass.

He told the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1956 that “it was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for Jean and me”.

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He finally realised his lifelong goal of becoming a pilot in 1970. Four years later he gained his pilot’s licence, bought a four-seater Cessna and established Southern Cross Airways which operated across the South Coast and country NSW.

Sadly, Ben and Jean’s restored home at Macquarie Pass was lost to fire and the National Parks and Wildlife Service later resumed his farm for the national park. Around the same time, he and Jean separated after 30 years of marriage.

Ben was given permission to remain on the property for the rest of his life and built another home around natural rock formations on the farm, with the rocks forming part of the interior of the building.

Known locally as Ben’s Folly, though Ben referred to it as “Princess Manor”, the Tudor-style house grew with each passing year and became a local icon to bushwalkers and travellers up the pass.

In May 2001, Ben Turner passed away at his home at the age of 91 years and was remembered at a wake held in his honour at the Albion Park Hotel.

Shellharbour City Museum has an online exhibition of Ben Turner’s life, titled Not All Beer and Skittles.

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