NAIDOC Week 2021 — Healing Country — 6

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My family on Gweagal land in Dharawal Country 1944-5 — I am front left, next to my sister Jeanette, my mother Jean, and on the right my brother Ian. In the back row are my Aunt Ruth, my Uncle Neil (born 6 July 1924) in RAAF uniform, and my Aunt Beth.

Yes, it is 9 July again. And that means I turn 78. Born far to the south in the same year, 1943, was this man:

What a great man he has become, and what a life he has had! Just this week his story was brought up to date by the TV program “Who Do You Think You Are?” on SBS.

The show is often emotional; delving into the past almost always is. But for an Aboriginal man, and moreover as a member of the Stolen Generations, that was especially true for Charles.

“(I’m feeling) overwrought, and a profound sense of loss. I’m really peeved,” he says. 

“It’s causing me to lose sleep. But that’s par for the course for a member of the Stolen Generation. If I didn’t have such a high profile, I would have never learned this, I would have remained in ignorance, that I was Wiradjuri man on my father’s side.”

Charles’ family story reveals a history of activism and resilience in the face of the brutalities of colonisation. But an unknown connection to the peoples of Tasmania on his mother’s side revealed a truly remarkable, and tragic family history. 

Charles is descended of an august line; his five-times great grandfather, Mannalargenna, was a highly respected Elder of his people, and acted as ambassador and emissary to surrounding clans.

Uncle Jack Charles — “Uncle” is a term of respect for an elder

Now a question I posed on Facebook earlier in the week:

Seems odd to say “way back in 2016” — but five years is five years, and I don’t get any younger. Well, five years ago I published the post linked to this, which in turn went back to five years earlier!

Question: Am I of Aboriginal descent?

Answer: Possibly, even probably. And no, I have not had a DNA test. But the story is in a way simple. I have (as you do) eight great-grandparents. I can account for all but one of them. In the case of my grandmother’s parentage — and a fine woman but troubled she was by all accounts — the father is unknown. That is, my father’s mother’s father.

The story — which I heard from my father and mother themselves — is that this grandmother was the daughter of an Aboriginal man, probably Dharawal (or maybe Yuin). We know nothing much about him.

But it is enough to make me look at Merrigong from my window with different eyes. The story was enough for Aboriginal actress Kristina Nehm, knowing the story, to always introduce me to Aboriginal people thus: “This is Neil. He is family.”

This is apart from the story of my brother’s wife, who is a descendant of the family of Bennilong.

Here is my story.

My grandmother, Henrietta Bursill.

And let’s finish with something we can all benefit from, speaking of healing — #NAIDOC 20121’s theme after all:

UPDATE

This effectively ends this series, having brought NAIDOC Week back home to my own life and family. Remember, the matter of our national truth and the absolute need seriously to consider the Uluru Statement from the Heart are matters for every week in this country.

Yes, we have learned, and are learning, much — but there are “miles to go before we sleep.”

NAIDOC Week 2021 — Healing Country — 5

A little more about the country I am on right now, Dharawal Country. If you come in from The Shire via Heathcote you might see this sign:

Not there in my younger days — in fact living on Dharawal Country though I was, I knew absolutely nothing about it! How different it is today, as we see from this map provided by the local Catholic Education Authority:

The Shire is also part of Dharawal Country, though not on this map. It is north of Illawarra, on the other side of Port Hacking.

The clan of Dharawal in The Shire are the Gweagal.

And to the west:

The day after Anzac Day 2021

Which in fact is a public holiday, Anzac Day having this year fallen on a Sunday. As I said I would I passed the day at home, particularly using Facebook to be my form of observance of the day. For starters, as did many others, I changed my profile picture to remember a veteran in the family, in this case my father for his service in the RAAF during World War 2.

CORRECTION: Not a public holiday in NSW apparently! Thanks, Bruce Part for the heads up. It was in Queensland. See ANZAC Day public holiday 2021 – are you getting Monday off?

I had done the same in 2020 as a matter of fact, and wrote the following accompanying text. However, it turns out that a few of my Friends had not seen that then.

My father, Jeffrey Whitfield, during WWII. Looking back now I appreciate what a fantastic Dad he really was. These days I know much better what he stood for, where he came from. His life path was not always smooth, but his byword was always “integrity”. He passed away in 1989, just one year older than I am now. I had the privilege of being able to tell him I loved him as he was dying, and to hear him say he loved me too.

Except that in 2021 I should have said “the same age as I am now.” I also referred in a supplementary comment to the letter my father wrote to my mother from Port Moresby in February 1945. You can find the full letter and more here.

14390 Cpl. Whitfield J. N.
Group 833
RAAF
Pacific
16-2-45

My Darling Wife

I came to work this morning thinking it was just another day, another hot steaming day, after a terrific thunderstorm last night. About nine o’clock a chap came in with some demands that had to be attended to and on dating them the realisation struck me, this was no ordinary day to me, but a very special one, the anniversary of the day when I made my very bestest pal in all the world mine for keeps, for worse or better. You notice I put the “worse” first, because I am sure many, many happy days lie ahead for us. Yes, we have had more than our share of worries & I have at times very selfishly added to them, sometimes quite unintentionally, because there really wasn’t any need for you to worry at all. I’m a bit of a tease really.

Anyway I promise you darling that I will try to make you just as happy as ever I can. I only hope that I am able to maintain a decent living standard for you & the kids. You are entitled to the best of everything by virtue of the fact that you have always been such a loyal pal always to me. If I can I will try to get some other sort of business going as well as the building so that we will be secure in our old age. Anyway dearest one I will try to do as you wish me to in everything. I have caused you enough heartaches. I can’t always help this of course, but I fully intend to try and make up for any short comings I may have. I can never repay the debt I owe you for giving me three such lovely children. I love them very dearly, and am exceedingly proud of their nice appearance & manner….

In the evening I added another memory of my father in relation to a photo (I think from the 1940s) of the War Memorial in Sutherland, where I lived for the first 20+ years of my life.

Here is a photo of Sutherland’s War Memorial which stood in the intersection of Eton Street and the Princes Highway. It has since been moved and rededicated, and the link on this post gives details of what is on it. It was more elaborate in its setting in the old days, as this photo shows.

Aside from seeing it so often in my first 21 years, I particularly recall it is the place where I first went to an Anzac Day Dawn Service, in the company of my father. I am not sure when, but it would have been before 1955-6. I was so proud! There was Dad with all his medals — a hero!

Afterwards we marched to the traditional RSL Breakfast, which I recall was held in a hall at Loftus, somewhere down the Mad Mile. I was so careful to keep in step with the marchers!

When you think about it, WW2 was probably less than ten years over at the time — and the talk and camaraderie at that Breakfast made me almost think I had entered a Biggles book — which I was rather a fan of in those days….

During the day I shared a video from the local newspaper, The Illawarra Mercury, of the Wollongong Anzac Day March, which the paper had live-streamed. A still showing Navy personnel leading the marchers, after a fleet of vintage cars carrying older veterans had passed by. (The Australian Hydrographic Office is in Wollongong.)

I mentioned that in the past I had marched myself: Anzac Day in Wollongong: honouring my father 1911-1989. One photo I took from within the march in 2012:

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Many other items I posted, finishing with a World War 1 classic song from a great Australian singer, Peter Dawson (1882-1961) — a song I remember hearing often on the radio in my own childhood — probably on Anzac Days!

Addendum

I forgot to include a post from a Dawn Service in Anzac Parade near my alma mater and former workplace, Sydney Boys High School. Anzac Parade is the school’s eastern boundary and many a cigarette did I smoke beside it between classes, I’m afraid to say.

I can’t recall, though there always has been an Anzac Day assembly within the school as with all state schools as far as I know, the memorial entry to Anzac Parade being utilised in this way. What a great idea!

I invited my Facebook friends to study the faces of 2021’s young Australia!

On at least one advantage of being alive when George VI was King — and one for Philip

On the excellent Historic Cronulla and Sutherland Shire Group on Facebook — not all nostalgia sites by the way are excellent: some are merely trivial, others pander to the most reactionary (and worse!) among us — there appeared this photo of Sutherland Post Office in 1940, during both World War 2 and the reign of George VI. My late sister Jeanette was born into our Auburn Street Sutherland family in 1940, and I came along in 1943. So as I (we) grew up, this was the local post office, and I clearly recall it. Not sure whether the picket fence lasted through the 1950s though. I have colourised the image for my own amusement.

So the issue came up: where exactly was this? David Little, the group moderator, wrote: “SSL LS has pinned the location as Corner of Princes Hwy & Flora St – this is open to debate and the caption will remain fluid until location is confirmed – members are encouraged to contribute suggestions.Photo: Sutherland Shire Libraries Local Studies collection.”

One comment (no longer there) claimed it must be Eton Street as there is no hill in Flora Street and even mentioned a likely weatherboard building in Eton Street that may have been this one. Personally I think that comment was thinking of the original Sutherland Library which I spent many an hour in, just up Eton Street from the Council Chambers.

Another comment from Faye Bray got to the truth:

This post office was definitely on the corner of the princes highway and flora st. Our family moved to Sutherland in 1946 and that is where it was… I also remember on the opposite corner was an old grocery shop with wonky wooden floors and the grocer had to climb ladders to get to items. I have so many memories of Sutherland, we lived in Oxford st for 18 years and watched the first part of the servicemen’s club being built.

I then contributed:

Faye Bray is right. I can remember being in that post office, and Vallance’s Stores next door. In this photo from the Sutherland Library collection you can clearly see the Post Office fence on the right of the photo. Corner of Flora and Old Princes Highway for sure! I was born in 1943 and lived in Sutherland and went to Sutherland Public School from 1949-1954. Lived in Auburn Street then Vermont Street, then from 1956 Kirrawee and then Jannali from 1959… I can vividly remember the sound of morse code being tapped in the telegram office part of that post office.

When I posted both pics on my own Facebook I elaborated:

A touch of colour for old Sutho Post Office, when post offices were just post (and telegraph) offices and not shops selling tat…. Old Princes Highway, corner of Flora Street — near the railway station. Have a look at this one (colourised by me) from the Sutherland Library collection. The Post Office fence is on the right of the photo. I can remember Vallance’s store too! We used to buy chook food, garden stuff and chaff for my brother’s horse there.

Here is that second photo:

Louise D’Arcens (who now lives in the house my family occupied in the 1940s-January 1952) also wondered about the Flora Street “hill”. My theory: ” I suspect that is not a hill but an optical illusion caused by the camera lens* or position. The photographer is somewhere on the north approach to the bridge over the railway. Flora Street also appears wet to me, as if it has been raining.”

* A wide-angle lens can do this to the edges of the field of vision.

But the clincher is this from the reminiscences of Mary Parker, in the Sutherland Shire Library Collection — and I have only just found this!

MK: And Flora Street was just a track in those early days?

MP: When my parents came there it was just a track – did I tell you on the tape?  Yes, there was a bush track and my mother used to put the lantern on the gate so my father would know that he was approaching the place and nothing for him to trip over a cow that might be lying in the track or fighting his way through cobwebs on the trees, yes.  Then, of course, I always remember Ellem’s shop, the old grocer shop on the corner, Ellem’s.

MK: Somebody mentioned that recently.

MP: Yes, Mrs Ellem’s.

MK: On the corner of where?

MP: On the corner of Flora Street and, what is it, the Princes Highway.

MK: On the north or south side?  No, the post office is on the north side.

MP: It’s where that bank is now.

MK: Right, yes, on the south side.

MP: And then, of course, on the other side was just this post office, just a little wooden building up there.

MK: I remember it, actually.      

MP: Yes, and I always remember the postman would deliver the mail on horseback.

Here is another colourised photo: On the back it says “March 21 aged 9” — Jeanette’s ninth birthday (19 March 1949) being crashed by me, it appears. Left to right: Connie Phipps, Jeanette, me, Gail MacNamara, Deidre Hawke. The Auburn Street house is in the background.

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Our neighbour, Tibby Doyle, worked in that Sutherland Post Office. Later, in the 1960s, she worked in Cronulla’s. And the Doyles were no longer in Auburn Street but in Glencoe Street.

Here is the same scene as that 1940 Post Office shot today, thanks to Google Streetview:

From the ramp leading to the bridge across the railway line.

I remember too the sadness in 1952 when King George VI died. Overwhelming really to my 8 year-old self, as just about a month before my much-loved sister Jeanette had died. So with that in mind, and in honour of the Duke of Edinburgh, I finish with a poignant few minutes from Saturday’s funeral.

Where did they go?

I can remember possibly when I was 8 or 9 years old Henry Kendall’s melancholy poem “The Last of his Tribe” appeared in the NSW Department of Education’s School Magazine.

Kendall was born on the NSW South Coast at Milton.

So I wondered where they had gone… Here is me in my class — circled — in 1952. There were no Aboriginal people in my class at Sutherland Primary School…

But look more closely. I now believe there was at least one. If I had a copy of 6A 1954 — yes some class skipping went on and hence the class set was different — I could now confidently point to two — the Simmons (Simmonds?) brothers, Malcolm and Mervyn. But we didn’t know then. Perhaps they did….

UPDATE: Looking a few hours after posting this, I think both Simmonses actually are in that 1952 photo — in the second row behind and either side of the boy with the blackboard. So that lifts the Aboriginal people in the class to two or three!

I was smitten in 1954 with The Queen anyway, who passed through Dharawal country on 11 February 1954, first by motorcade to Wollongong and then by train back to Sydney. And what a train! On Facebook yesterday I said:

And on that day my grandfather Roy Christison and I stood by the side of the line near his place (then Waratah Street Sutherland, now Leonay Street and still in the family — Aunt Kay lives there) and saw exactly this! I was over the moon at 10 years of age!

Grandpa was happy too, I think…

I had no idea then I was living in Dharawal country — despite some rather obvious clues.

At Jibbon Head, Budeena NSW — Sutherland Shire, Dharawal Country

Of course we knew about La Perouse — even went on a Sunday trip there to see the boomerang throwing and so on…

So I am reading at the moment Paul Irish, Hidden in Plain View — about how the First Australians of the Sydney coastal region, rather than disappearing, stayed, as the title says, in plain view — and that culture did not just disappear but was often passed on. He negotiates some notorious minefields in the book too, ones I have before today stumbled into — but more on that later.

In seven comprehensive, chronological and thematic chapters Irish has aimed to fill in gaps to provide ‘a readable narrative for people with no prior knowledge of Sydney’s Aboriginal history.’ The book begins ‘by challenging an enduring myth that Aboriginal culture has never changed and cannot change without ceasing to be ‘authentic’’ (p.7). With careful interweaving, Irish has succeeded in providing information that has been overlooked or missed, and he has joined the gaps through a careful re-scrutiny of contemporary documents and records. And he has used his eyes to look around!

He has also consulted with Aboriginal communities still living in plain sight in the Sydney region. He has taken into account their testimonies and oral histories. He has looked at particular family histories, consulted widely and, as a bonus, has provided informative maps and copious illustrations to emphasise his thesis. Irish has opened up a vital view of Aboriginal people he pertinently describes as having been ‘hidden in plain view’.

Paul Irish readily acknowledges and draws on the scholarship of others (among them Grace Karskens, Maria Nugent, Val Attenbrow and Ann Curthoys and more), and he provides useful, detailed references to a host of specialised works in the book’s final section devoted to ‘Further Reading’ and ‘Image References’. In addition to detailed ‘Chapter Notes’, there is also a comprehensive Index. This book is rich in source material that can be followed up by interested readers.

Today, kayakers and sailboarders share the Sydney waters and foreshores with container ships, tankers, jet planes, sailing boats and sea planes, dinghies and tinnies, ferries, tug boats and dredges, ocean liners, as well as millionaires’ cruisers.

In these same places, we must not forget that Aboriginal families lived here first. They hunted and fished, collected shellfish, trapped eels and land-bound creatures, and found shelter under soaring trees and rocky outcrops. With all Sydney’s CBD and suburban distractions, it may be hard for some to imagine the original custodians of Sydney living and using special knowledge and familiarity with locations, to sustain their families, their culture and clan life from one season to the next.

Paul Irish displays an even-handedness as an historian and archaeologist, and as such he wants to expand our knowledge and thinking to replace ‘The enduring perception of timeless territoriality [that] has imagined Aboriginal culture as a sheet of glass, strong and cohesive in isolation but highly vulnerable to the hammer blow of colonial impact’ (p.18). Rather the author wants readers to consider Aboriginal peoples’ resilience and mobility and to understand how Aboriginal people dealt with change.  Irish moves deftly from the early days of settlement to a period he considers less well known, ‘poorly understood’ and least documented, from the 1830s to the 1900s.

Paul Irish has successfully brought this history of the coastal people of Sydney much closer to home. 

Let me also commend Sutherland Shire Council. BTW — The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Census population of Sutherland Shire in 2016 was 2,435, living in 1,246 dwellings.