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Jackson’s Track Revisited: History, Remembrance and Reconciliation

Chapter 6

The Story The Newspapers Tell

Carolyn Landon

Attitudes in the local and state-wide newspapers, reflecting those found in the Archive, construct an idea of Aboriginality that proves difficult to shake. Scandalous reports about goings on amongst newly ‘assimilated’ neighbours in the area represent Aboriginal people as children or animals, a primitive race, stone-age people, static, unchanging and dying out. Paradoxically, however, these media reports tend to express a desire to welcome Aboriginal people into ‘civilised’ settler society, to offer them civil rights, and give them opportunities to change their ways. This chapter paints a picture of failure of policy, and attempts to demonstrate what went wrong and why.

In the introduction to her book Untold stories, Jan Critchett admits to being ‘impressed and then appalled at the quantity and detail of the information [about Aborigines] that survived in official records’.1 I too am amazed and appalled at the amount of material there is available in the Archive about the people who had lived at the Track. Ian McFarlane from the Public Records Office of Victoria writes:

Aboriginal people... had long been under the microscope. Their activities and ‘morality’ were constantly monitored and analysed... Commentaries about individual Aboriginals disregarded all principles of privacy. [That] some documents read like a script for a modern ‘soap opera’ is revealing.2

Hector Cowden’s daughter, Flo, said that her father was disgusted with the Aborigines Welfare Board because the officers who dealt most closely with the Aboriginal people – Regional Commissioner of Housing H. Davey and Regional Director P. Felton – dehumanised them with labels and categories and with the details they reported about them in their official capacities. It is true that I feel almost voyeuristic looking at lists of people I know, finding details about their lives to which I should never be party. And it is true that while I am uncomfortable reading these lists, I have the distinct impression that nowhere am I finding any truth about the people on them. There is no true indication of their characters, their opinions, their values, their needs, their culture. It is impossible to hear their voices. Critchett says, ‘Perhaps it was my new preoccupation with individuals that opened my eyes’.3 It is my new preoccupation with one of these individuals in particular that has opened mine.

In one list I find a reference to Jimmy Bond and in an instant Pauline, who has been absent during my talk with Mr Jensen, is back with me, looking over my shoulder, waiting to see my reaction. I know Jimmy Bond. He, along with Dave Moore, was Daryl Tonkin’s best friend on the Track. While Dave was a teacher, storyteller and hunter in the community, Jimmy became a skilled worker. Daryl trusted him to be in charge of the fence posts and eventually had him working on the saws at the mill. Jimmy was a loyal friend to Daryl, ‘a man I could count on’, he said.4 When recounting how Jimmy was killed in a hit-and-run incident on the highway, Daryl described exactly what kind of a man Jimmy Bond was:

He was one of the old breed of blackfella. It’s hard to explain just what the qualities were that these old fellas had, but there’s no match for them today. You never saw such workers as the old ones. Gee, they were skilful people and they had the heart to tackle any job... And they looked like quality. I don’t know what it was that let you identify the quality in them, maybe they walked in a graceful, silent sort of way with their heads up noticing everything around them... I don’t know, there was something about Jimmy that was hard to explain – a kind of spirit.5

In a 1958 report to the Chief Secretary’s Department, Jimmy Bond is listed as a ‘hanger-on’ at the shack of Sid Austin.6 Other names the Board gives to people not, according to the Board, in the right place at the right time, are: blow-ins, lay-abouts, wanderers.7 Of course, Jimmy wasn’t a hanger-on. Apart from being a skilled worker, he was the self-appointed protector of the community at the Track. After everyone was dispersed, he made the rounds, on foot or hitchhiking, from Neerim South to Rokeby to the highway camp at Drouin back to the Track – a round trip of about thirty-five kilometres – to keep track of everyone and keep people in touch with one another. Everyone trusted and relied on Jimmy Bond, yet the only reference to him in the Archives is that he was a ‘hanger-on’.

In his report to the Chief Secretary, the Aborigines Welfare Officer M. C. Taylor talked of speaking with ‘Mrs Dave Mullett’.8 When I read that name I am on the alert. I know this woman to be Euphemia Hood, Daryl’s wife and Pauline’s mother, and I know that by 1958 she had not been anywhere near Dave Mullett for twelve years. I also know that she did not think of herself as Mullett’s wife, and nor did anybody else besides Mr Taylor. I wonder how he knew her name was Mrs Dave Mullett. Did Euphie tell him? If so, why? Was she afraid of the authorities and so reverted to her official Lake Tyers name? Or was it a clever feint on her part to keep him ignorant of her current life, to tell him only what she wanted him to hear and no more? What does Pauline think? Later, when I show her Taylor’s comments, she tells me that her Mum would have given her official married name because she thought her father might land in gaol if it were known he was the father of her children: “After all, Aunty Joycie’s man was thrown in Pentridge for the same thing!” said Pauline.9

In his report Mr Taylor detailed how many children Euphie had. He also stated – in spite of what he knew (that ‘Mrs Mullett’ was living with ‘a Mr Tonkin’, whom he described as White and the father of some of Euphie’s children) or because of what Euphie told him – where he believed Dave Mullett to be. The shape and wording of this report seems to me to include a snide accusation of ‘miscegenation and ‘promiscuity’10 on the part of Taylor who knew, as Euphie and Daryl seemed not to, that it was no longer considered an offence for a White person to ‘consort’ with an Aboriginal person. The law had changed with the formation of the Welfare Board and as a response to McLean’s report, but the accusation of ‘miscegenation and sexual promiscuity’ prevailed.

The Archives, more than anything, show the workings of the bureaucracy and the preoccupations and attitudes of the bureaucrats. In the documents relating to Aboriginal housing in Drouin from 1958 to the late 1960s, an incredible story unfolds of a struggle between the League led by Jensen, the Board led by Felton and Harry Davey, and the Buln Buln Shire Council influenced, it seems, by the overt racism of Gus Stoll. As soon as the Board discovered the existence of the group at the Track, a fight for control of lives ensued. As we have seen, Jensen wanted to convert Aborigines but in doing God’s work he became concerned with their physical well-being. He felt the families at the Track were in dire need of new housing, and so he turned to the Board for help in financing such a project. He knew that the Board would not agree to improving conditions at the Track. He also knew that the Board was adamant about moving people into towns. Because he had misgivings about the Board’s plan, he went looking for suitable spots to shift families to, with the aim of improving their lives and at the same time maintaining for them the safety of distance from interfering on-lookers. “Now, I knew they had to have decent homes,” he said, “but I thought it was a crying shame to put them into a nice home alongside people who didn’t understand.”11

He found two houses, one in Neerim South for the Austin family, Jensen’s most responsive recruits to God’s message, and another in Rokeby for another family he hadn’t yet decided on. The Austins were cousins of the Hoods and constant companions of the Mullett-Tonkin brood so their shift away from the Track was keenly felt by Daryl, to say nothing of all of his children and Stewart and Dora Hood. Unlike Cowden, it appears that Jensen did not have a sense of this social context or feel that the Austins were an integral part of a functioning community. In his interview, he seems pleased with himself at finding what he considered appropriate housing and at a good price of £100 for house and land. “Actually, I bought two of the houses, down here in Rokeby, two railway houses,” he says. “I bought them and Harry Davey said to me ‘Look, seeing you’re going to help, if you see any houses, let us know and we’ll have a look at them.’ I said, ‘Right. There’s two already available.’ Because I had it in mind... I would have paid for it myself if I could have afforded it.”12 He pressured the Board to pay for the houses. This activity makes Jensen look more like a collaborator than a controller of the Board. He would be dismayed to realise that is how he comes across in the record. Certainly Daryl thought he was a collaborator and, until I met Jensen, I thought so too. I wonder what the Aboriginal people thought?

At around the time Jensen located the railway houses, Mrs Rosamond Comber, a friend of Mrs Buchanan, offered a five-acre paddock near Drouin to the Board for lease at one shilling per annum. Jensen got busy finding a ‘bungalow in Catani’ for £50 to move to Comber’s land and the League men got together to ‘make habitable’ a small two-room cottage that came with the lease.13 These dwellings were meant for Stewart and Dora Hood and soon afterwards the Rose family, who wouldn’t stay at the Track if their Ma and Pop (Dora and Stewart Hood) were taken away. Meanwhile Bill and Pen Buchanan sold a block of land on Wood Street in Drouin to the Board for £200 where ‘the Board wishes to have a small house built for an aboriginal family of two adults and seven small children now living in a humpy on Jackson’s Track... The Board’s objective is to bring them nearer to possible venues of employment and medical attention.’14 There is no mention of who this family was and why they needed medical attention. Housing Commissioner J. H. Davey, not to be confused with Stan Davey from the League, wrote to Jensen (not the Buchanans) that he would see if the Housing Commission would build a house on the land. It turned out that Parliament had to amend the Board’s legislative powers to enable the Housing Commission to build. Finally, the ‘State CWA [Country Women’s Association] Thanksgiving Fund amounting to 1500 pounds was given to this project’15and the house was built and ready for occupancy in August 1960, almost two years after it was needed.

All this activity seems productive and could be called good works, except that there is no mention whatsoever of any sort of consultation process with the Aboriginal people themselves. In fact, there is hardly any mention at all of the individuals who would be most affected. I know from Daryl’s memoir that it upset the whole community at the Track, not least Daryl Tonkin himself. I wonder what Jensen told them: that he was moving them in the name of God or in the name of the Board or in the name of the League? Did the Aboriginal people ask Jensen for help? Did he have discussions about the moves with Stewart Hood? Did Hood, who was an Elder and the leader at the camp, advise Jensen on who to move and where to move them? There is nothing in the Archives, nothing in the local papers. When I ask Jensen if the Aboriginal people asked him to find houses for them he says “No, well, they didn’t ask as such because that’s not their nature, but, no, I can’t remember they asked me to get them a home. But it was my idea to get them a house not totally isolated...”16

I wonder what Jensen means about their nature. And I wonder what other words such as humpy and hanger-on indicate about who these people think Aborigines/Aboriginal people are. Clearly they had assumptions about what made their charges – why did they see them as charges? – different from themselves. I see a variety of attitudes being expressed time and time again that I would have thought had been erased by the 1960s. These attitudes, found in the public record in the Archive, construct an idea of Aboriginality that is very hard to shake. Beckett explains of the idea of Aboriginality that ‘there has never been unanimity. Nor has one construction ever been completely erased by its successors – unpopular ideas linger, to reappear at another time, perhaps a different context.’17 So Jensen can see Aboriginal people as children; Councillor Stoll, as I shall discover, can see them as animals; and all can see them as a primitive race, stone-age people, static, unchanging and dying out. At the same time, they want to welcome them into the civilised settler society, offer them civil rights, and give them opportunities to change their ways.

As soon as the people are moved into town things begin to go wrong. The Warragul Gazette reports that when residents heard the Wood Street property was for the express purpose of housing Aborigines, they got up a petition protesting that land values would go down and handed it to the Shire Council. Later, when the Board asked the Council to reduce rates for their housing, Councillor Stoll said ‘If the request were acceded to the Aborigines would be able to drink more and lay about drunk in parks’.18 At Comber’s five-acre paddock – the camp on the highway – it takes more than a year to complete a kitchen for the Rose family, who are living in the bungalow, and to get the stove working in the Hood’s kitchen (meanwhile they are cooking outside on an open fire). There is no water and only one ‘bush dunny’, which Jensen calls a toilet. “Proper toilets”, but which he quickly amends to “a dunny, not like we have”,19 had been erected for four adults and seven children.

Flo White remembers that the camp on the highway “wasn’t a place where you played. It was a very exposed cold place, facing west and open to the wind... very different environment to the Track.”20 She recalls her father being dismayed at the conditions at the camp for the Aboriginal people who moved there. “That was Dad’s main beef,” she said, “that there had been a plan to move these people... but the move had not been thought that well through and the place was not ready for the number of people or for their needs.”21

image

Picture of ‘the camp’ from The Gippsland Independent, 19 September 1963.

(Reproduced courtesy of the Warragul Historical Society)

Finally, the whole project of improving conditions became a disaster in the eyes of the non-Aboriginals whose vision it had been for Aboriginal people to eventually join the community as good, hard working, religious citizens. It is apparent that Jensen and Cowden blamed the Board for interfering and telling people what to do. The Board made decisions about who would live in which houses, after Jensen had moved the Austins, the Hoods and Roses without ‘proper’ procedure. When Jensen and Buchanan made suggestions about who deserved to find a good house, the Board rejected their advice with decisions that seem arbitrary.

“Oh, yes,” laughed Jensen, “the Board had a lot less respect for them [Aboriginal people] than the League did. The Board was only implementing the policies of the Government.”22

Control of the whole situation was eventually up for grabs, for it turned out that the Aboriginal people for whom everything was being done were not interested in changing their way of living. The Board began to complain that they couldn’t keep people in the houses they were put in. Field Officers couldn’t keep track of who was where and seemed to spend much of their time counting people. They became exasperated at the number of people living in particular houses. At one point there were as many as twenty-three people staying at the Wood Street residence. The Austin house was always full. Police were called to move on boyfriends, ‘hangers-on’, ‘family’. Jensen reports to Harry Davey that ‘Drunkenness is rife at the moment [at the Camp on the highway] with passing aborigines calling in and bringing liquor’.23 Later, Davey notes to Felton:

For information and necessary action: visited camp... noticed a tent well in the background carefully concealed in the bush; understand it is occupied by a Dowell [this is actually Dow, Aunty Joycie’s white husband with whom she has already had nine children and will go on to have nine more; it is the same man who was gaoled for consorting with Aunty Joycie, according to Pauline] a white man with an aboriginal wife and nine children. Mrs Jensen told me the conditions there are extremely squalid – youngsters in poor condition with sores, etc.24

It wasn’t until 1964 that the Board finally took the action Davey was looking for, but this was after scandalous reports about goings on at the Camp had begun circulating in the towns, the local media, and finally the statewide newspaper The Age. The League members seemed to concede defeat. It turned out that the Aborigines were intractable. All except Ma Hood had turned away from Jensen’s church. His idea of transitional housing was not working since they could not control those very same characteristics of ‘the Aboriginal’ that McLean had warned of in his report: living for the present with ‘lack of thought for tomorrow’, strong family ties, the ‘habit’ of sharing ‘which is deeply rooted among them’.25 In defeat, the League appealed to the Council to condemn the very camp they had so hopefully set up for the Aborigines (in order to get the Board to take action and find proper new houses in the town). They also asked the Council to move on or gaol whomever else was ‘squatting’ there. At a meeting in June 1963, the Council moved to cancel the lease at the camp. In support of this motion the Shire Health Inspector said, ‘The aboriginal settlement [i.e., the ‘camp’] is like a boil. Others move in on the people who were there and they move off. It is not a condition that should exist in this municipality’. Councillor Stoll argued against the request. ‘These people know their way of life’, he said, ‘and why should the Council make any decision that they were not happy? Treat these people as if they were one of us’.26 At first it is hard to know what Stoll means here; it seems a sympathetic statement, but that is not in the man’s character; elsewhere there is angry correspondence to the paper about him refusing to let Aboriginal people live anywhere near him. It seems he sees these people as animals and is saying they are probably happy living like animals.

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Headlines from the local papers

(Papers held by the Warragul Historical Society)

The Council passed the motion despite Councillor Stoll’s protests. They called for and heard more reports about the possible transmission of disease – specifically infective hepatitis (which had been found locally on some farms but never at the ‘Camp’) – from the Health Inspector, about fire danger from the Fire Officer, about condemned housing from the Housing Inspector. The Council served writs of eviction on the Hoods and Roses without offering them alternative housing. This incensed Jensen, who informed Davey, and the writs never took effect. The Council went over everyone’s heads and wrote to the Premier, Henry Bolte, sending a copy of the letter to the Board. This sent the Board into a panic and resulted in an angry letter from The Honourable E. R. Meagher, Chairman of the Board. By this time most of the Neerim League members seemed to have run for cover for they can no longer be found in the Record. Animated debate at Council meetings included talk of Aborigines living in filth, of ‘foul conditions not fit for human habitation’, accusations of irresponsibility, and finally absolute condemnation of the whole enterprise.27

When I read through all the documents and see this story build before my eyes, characters emerge in my imagination. Mr Jensen’s enthusiasm and energy, as well as his disappointment and even embarrassment as things go wrong, are abundantly clear in these papers. Felton’s assumption of superiority and sense of his own power comes through in his decrees to Harry Davey about who should live where and when. Davey is a practical man working at the coal-face and reporting dutifully to his bosses; Jensen tells me that he and Harry Davey had great battles, that Davey wouldn’t ‘bend’. The Honourable Meagher remains a shadow, deigning to come down from his tower only once in a while. The Shire Councillors are rural council stereotypes, conservative and complacent men who base their decisions mostly on local knowledge and practical common sense, except for Gus Stoll who is outspoken, racist and angry.

As for the Aboriginal characters at the centre of it all, I can get no picture of them. They seem to be stock characters, constructed for convenience. They are merely named – or if they are not named, they are given tags such as hanger-on – as if the names are labels on cardboard cut outs. The labelling and systematic categorisation of people demonstrates a profound lack of respect; it erases human dignity. If you steal people’s humanity it is easy to conclude that they have no culture, no history, no spiritual belief, no morality, no law. Assimilation seems like a good solution for a people who are left voiceless, completely silent. Yet the officals on the Board or in the Buln Buln Shire found out they were not so easy to assimilate.

This is a story of concerned people, overbearing in their enthusiasm, trying to control, help, erase or convert another people whom they seemed to completely misunderstand. The members of the Welfare Board, who mismanaged this debacle with the unwitting help of honest, but possibly misguided, local people, thought that by adopting the policy of assimilation they were generously welcoming the poor and battered native with open arms into a better way of life, a civilised life.

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Articles from The Gippsland Independent –15 August 1963 (front), and 24 September 1963 (back)

(Reproduced courtesy of the Warragul Historical Society)

From my point of view in 2004, it occurs to me to ask who should have been doing the welcoming here? The invaders to this land? Or the original inhabitants? It seems to me that when White Australians opened their arms in generous welcome, they had no right to expect Aboriginal people to be grateful. No wonder the Kurnai people of Gippsland seemed uncooperative. They could see that people like Jensen and Aunty Pen were being kind to them, but the idea that they were being welcomed into the whitefellas’ way of life would not have made sense to them. They already had a way of life, a way of being, and White Australians knew that. McLean knew it: why didn’t he take advantage of what he knew instead of trying to wean the Aboriginal people away from their way of life to fit White Australian constructions of who they were? Why did the Board set itself up in conflict with the League instead of in cooperation with it? Why did it bowl over people like Jensen and Cowden? Why was it so arrogant?

Endnotes

1     Critchett (1999, p. xv).

2     MacFarlane (1993, p 69).

3     Critchett (1999, p. xv).

4     Landon and Tonkin (1999, p. 167).

5     Landon and Tonkin (1999, p. 245).

6     B337, Housing – Drouin, Item 7, Report 4 December 1958.

7     B337, Housing – Drouin, Item 7, Report 4 December 1958, repeated in various reports and letters.

8     B337, Housing – Drouin, Item 7, Report 4 December 1958.

9     Interview with Pauline Mullett and Daryl Mobourne, Drouin, 31 May 2004.

10    McLean Inquiry, Item, 10: McLean, Charles, Report Upon the Operation of the Aborigines Act 1928 and the Regulations and Order made Thereunder, Melbourne, 1957, B408. p. 6.

11    Interview with Alwyn and Hilda Jensen, Neerim South, 8 April 2004.

12    Jensen interview.

13    B357 Box 5: Drouin Lease. Comber’s Land. Princes Highwqay, Drouin East. Report from Chief Secretary’s Department signed by P.E. Felton, Regional Supervisor of Aborigines Welfare 29 July 1958.

14    B357/0 ‘Drouin Wood Street Purchase’, Letter, 6 August 1958.

15    Warragul Gazette, ‘New Home for Aborigines’, 2 August 1960.

16    Jensen interview.

17    Beckett (1988, p. 196.)

18    B336 Box 3 ‘Drouin and District Rates. Districts – Gippsland 1959-26,’ extract Warragul Gazette, December 1960.

19    Jensen interview.

20    Interview with Flo Cowden White, Warragul, 22 April 2004.

21    White interview.

22    Jensen interview.

23    B357/0 Box 5 Drouin Camp Princes Highway 1958-64, League Annual Report Concerning Camp, 25 June 1959.

24    B357/0 Box 5, League Annual Report Concerning Camp. Note, Davey to Felton, 23 December 1959.

25    McLean report.

26    Gippsland Independent, ‘Aboriginal Settlement Danger to Health,’ 20 June 1963, p. 4.

27    The Age, 21 April 1964, p. 3; The Gippsland Independent, 19 September 1963, p. 1.

References

Beckett, Jeremy. 1988. The past in the present; The present in the past: Constructing a national Aboriginality. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Critchett, Jan. 1999. Untold stories, memories and lives of Victorian Kooris. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Landon, Carolyn; Tonkin, Daryl. 1999. Jackson’s Track: Memoir of a Dreamtime place. Melbourne: Penguin.

MacFarlane, Ian. 1993. ‘Glimpses from the past’. In My heart is breaking: A joint guide to the records about Aboriginal people in the Public Records Office of Victoria and the Australian Archives, Victorian Regional Office. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Cite this chapter as: Landon, Carolyn. 2006. ‘The story the newspapers tell’. In Jackson’s Track revisited: History, remembrance and reconciliation. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 6.1–6.12.

Jackson’s Track Revisited: History, Remembrance and Reconciliation

   by Carolyn Landon