Australian Biography: Ruby Langford Ginibi

Australian Biography: Ruby Langford Ginibi
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
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The life of Ruby Langford Ginibi (1934–2011) is a story of triumph against the odds.

She was born on a mission station in Coraki, NSW, and her mother left the family when Langford was six years old.

At the age of 16 she embarked on the first of 4 tumultuous relationships and went on to raise 9 children, working as a fencer, cleaner and machinist.

Three of her children died, and one son has spent almost half his life in correctional institutions.

In 1984, after overcoming an alcohol addiction, Langford wrote her autobiography Don't Take Your Love to Town, which won the 1988 Human Rights Literary Award.

Read a transcript of the complete interview.

Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: November 15, 1995

This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project.

Ruby, what's your earliest memory?

Ah, back on the mission, I guess, where I was born.

Where was that?

Box Ridge Aboriginal Mission in Coraki, northern New South Wales.

And who were your parents?

My father's name was Henry, and my mum's name was Evelyn Anderson.

And what was their background?

Dad's father came from Boonah in Queensland, and worked on Main Camp Homestead when he was a youth. That was one of the first squatter's homesteads, you know? And then he met Auntie and married her and she was one of the Yuke family, not Auntie — Grannie. Grannie Mabel, she was a Yuke, and there were only three, three Aboriginal families that first kicked off that mission where I was born on, and they were the Yukes, the Wilsons and the Andersons. You know? So that's where we stem from. There.

And your family were the Andersons?

Yeah. Don't know where we got the Scottish name of Anderson from, but I could never find it out in research that I did. Have you ever seen a black Scotsman? No. I could never ever trace that, but usually the people that our families worked for, you know, gave them permission to use their names because they couldn't pronounce our traditional names. And the area where I come from, that was Bundjalung country, you know? Yeah.

So you're a Bundjalung woman?


And your ... your mother, what was her background?

Well, Mum's mother was a traditional woman and she came from the Tweed, and that's still Bundjalung country, but a different clan dialect, you know? Yeah, I think it was the Minjungbal dialect. And Mum actually came to grief through the rape of my grandmother, my tribal grandmother, by an Italian banana plantation owner. That's how Mum ever came to be. Later, she married a man by the name of Walker from Tabulum Mission and had two other daughters and they were named Maudie and Midgegay, which were my aunts and they were both full-blood, you see? So that's how my mother came to be, from that line.

And was your father ... fully tribal?

My father wasn't tribal. In this respect, that grandfather was a half-caste, you see, but Granny was full-blood. So I don't know what that makes me ... [laughs] ... better? But you know ...

Maybe with grandfather ...

The proper connections are there, yeah.

Maybe grandfather was half-caste, maybe that was where the Scottish name came from?

Probably so.

And what did your father do for a living?

Well, Dad was a log carter and cutter and he drove log trucks, you know? And carted the timber from the scrub, but before that, when they were young people, they all worked building up those big cattle hierarchies up there in Bundjalung country. They were all stockmen, all the men in my father's family were all stockmen. And the women were not only stock ... stockwomen too, but they were housemaids and servants and everything for the first squatters, you know?

How did they come to live on the mission?

Well, there was 10 acres that was given to them by old Tom Yabsley years ago, because that's where they got all their labour workforce, was from the mission. to build up those big cattle properties, you know. Actually, I think our people were the first pioneers, they taught them how to survive in the country. The place where I come from is known as the big scrub, you know? And the first squatters were there after the cedar. They were the hierarchy of the cedar-getting and cattle-getting industry. And it was big scrub, they could never muster the cattle in that, but the Aboriginal fellas, our mob, could do it. Good.

What was the set-up on the mission?

The mission was next door to the cemetery. It'd be about three miles out of town ...

Who ran it?

Well, from what I can remember, when I was a child I did hear the name Mrs. English She was the manageress, and later on when I was old enough to go to school there on the mission, it was run by a Mrs Hiscocks, who ended up being the manageress of that infamous Cootamundra Girls’ Home where they took our children. You know? And she was an old Trojan. Yeah.

So what was it like to be a child on the mission?

We had missionaries come and ram religion down our throats and most of the old ones, anyhow, they were all ... how can I put it? They used to sing hymns and ... and such and play guitars and a Jew's harp ... what were they called now? The harps with the hands and, oh, they made lovely music, but there was all this religious stuff, you know? Yeah.

Were you very affected by the religion? Did you buy it?

I used to wonder about what it was, you know? I mean, we were happy living the way we were, I guess, but we were only kids. We didn't know what was being done to us at the time, like indoctrine of other people's beliefs when we had our own beliefs and I was taught our own beliefs by the elders, so we had that as well as all this other stuff, you know? It was all rammed down our throats.

How did you make sense of it?

Well it didn't then, when we were children, you know? And every Monday morning on the mission you'd be lined up have a tablespoon of sulphur, raw sulphur and molasses, rammed down your gob. And this was a form of antibiotic to clean your systems out. This happened every Monday morning, you know?

What did it taste like?

Oh ... I'm allergic to sulphur, in any form today. And I mean, with my silly old bronchial chest, sulphur would be one of the drugs that could fix my chest up real good, you know, but I can't take it because I'm allergic to it.

Were you allergic to it then? Or they just made you allergic to it?

It made me ... it left me with the allergy. And we had jobs to do, like we had schooling for so long and then we'd have to go and work in the gardens because they grew vegetables and such, and the boys used to have to look after the vegetable plots and us girls would be weeding the girls' garden, you know, with the flowers and whatever. And I used to think to myself, ‘Wouldn't it be lovely if everything was like the garden where all the roses were?’ The perfumes were so beautiful, but it wasn't ... it wasn't that way I found ... [laughs] ... Through life. That everything was not beautiful like that.

So as a child, you were there with your mother and your father ... How many brothers and sisters did you have?

Well, I had two other sisters, Gwen and Rita, but when I was six years of old, my mother left and dad was out in the bush working. She ran away with a fella that she'd been seeing and I didn't find this out until afterwards, you know, because ... I remember waking up ... I could remember waking up one night and it was ... had this little baby, you see? And I could hear the baby crying and she was wrapping him up in a blanket. And I said, ‘Mum, where are you going?’ She said [...] ‘go to sleep,’ you know? ‘I'll be back afterwards.’ And wrapped the baby up and out she went. And I can ... I looked through the window and I could see the lights of a car down at the gate of the mission and away she went and she never come back. I never saw her again until I was a teenager.

What effect did that have on you?

Oh ... we were okay because we had Dad and he loved us. He took us out to the bush after she left. The old ones, they got word out to him that she'd gone, and he'd come and took us out to live in the scrub with him while he was working. And we ... Uncle Ernie, Uncle Ernie would, his mate ... became our ... our mother. He'd cook for us, damper and bush tucker. Used to get the swan's eggs and boil them up in billy cans for us, you know? And I remember he used to take us hunting while he got the bush tucker, too, you know? While dad did the cutting and carting of the logs.

Living in the bush ...

Living in the bush. And I wasn't aware of what he was telling me, see, because I thought Ernie was, Uncle Ernie he was a clever man, a doctor, a wuyun gali, you know. And our clever people were likened to have the power like the great yogis of Tibet. They had the power to heal, they had the power to kill, these men. And around the campfires at night we'd be sitting, and he'd be telling us stories about the bush animals and such. And what he was telling me, because I was the eldest of the three little girls, would stay with me all my life, you know? And I wasn't aware that what he was telling me was a handing on, the traditional stuff to me. Through what he was telling us.

What language were you speaking?


Do you still have that, or is it ...




Really fluent?

But the only trouble is, I don't have anybody around here that speaks it so I can talk to 'em. But I have a good go at it when I go home ... [laughs] ...

So you haven't lost it ...

NO!!! No. I mean, we were denied the rights to use language. On the mission you had to talk English and not talk language ... yeah ... terrible place ... it, it reminded me of a Nazi prison camp. You had to have permission to come or go and if any of your relatives wanted to come from another reserve or mission, they had to have written permission from that camp commandant to say, yeah, that they could stay. If they didn't leave when the time was up, then the police were sent to hunt them off. So we were a controlled people way back then, you know, we had no, no rights over our lives or anything like that. I mean, Dad eventually got us away from there or we would have been taken, too. So ...

Why would you have been taken?

Well ... it was the Protection Board's policy of removing Aboriginal children. And the family unit was broken up, you know, because they did not want them living tribally because our traditional ones were classed as heathens and vermin to be cleared off the face of the earth. And besides, they thought we'd all die out anyhow, which we fooled 'em, we didn't. And so to get us away, he [Dad] put us in a big long truck and he had to lie to the mission manager to say that we were going shopping, and he took us to another area to get right away from there. And I can remember sitting in that big truck with my two little titas [sisters] and crying because we were going away from this horrible place. You know? It was the only home we knew. Then up over the Richmond Range we went to Dad's, Dad's brother's place. Like he'd married into the Hinett family, Nell Hinett, Mother Nell, you know, was her name. We used to call her Mother Nell although she was my ... aunt and uncle, see ... through marriage. And ...

So you had a spell in the bush with Uncle Ernie?

Oh yeah ...

How long were you in the bush before he took you to your aunt's ...

Oh, it wouldn't be that long in the bush, it wouldn't be too long in the bush. Maybe about a year or so, or six months, something like that, you know, ‘cause they used to track the kids down and get them. That was ... they put them into the homes to be trained in servitude, you know? As I said, they didn't want them to growing up tribally. They did everything and they literally sort of tore our people apart by doing this, by taking the children, you know? And old Dad said, no, they're not taking my kids, so away he took us. It was a good move because the place, Bonalbo, where we were raised was a beautiful place to grow up in, you know?

Why was that?

There was no discrimination, no nothing there. There was ... it would have been different if we were still on the mission, you know? I mean, on the mission, whenever we wanted to go to the picture show in town we were roped off. You had blacks on one side and whites on the other. You'd get a segregated hospital with a little old ward down the back which says ‘Abos Only’. Not like that today, but it was then. And even, even the ... even racist crow in the bakery shop, can you believe that? We used to come in from the mission, you see, you'd have to walk across a big common to get to the town, a shortcut, and it was where they kept all the cattle, common, you know, and when it rained water laid there, very deep water and us kids would have to go in to get the fresh bread, see, we even had little sugar bags to fill it up and as soon as we'd poke our noses in the door of the baker shop, there was this black crow with a chain around his claw on the counter and soon as he'd spot us black kids he'd sing out, ‘Mum, there's blackfellas in the shop.’ What could be more, more blacker than he. We used to wish we could get hold of him and choke him, you know, the damn bird! But truly, this crow, that they split their tongue see, so that it could talk. And he'd sing out, ‘Mum, there's blackfellas in the shop.’ It's disgusting, isn't it? A racist crow ... Oh dear, that's just some of the funny elements, you know, but it wasn't laughable after a while.

And who did you stay with in Bonalbo?

Well, as I said, Dad's brother, Sam Anderson, had married into the Hinett family, and Mother Nell, we called her, her father was the head stockman of Buna-walbu Homestead, that's the tribal name for Bonalbo, Buna-walbu. And it means bloodwood tree, you see. Dad had a ceremony just last year acknowledging Thomas Hinett and commemorating the graves of him and his family as being the first, the head stockman, the first Aboriginal head stockman in that place up there.

What was life like for the three little girls with father Sam and Mother Nell?

Oh, they were a lovely couple. She was 10 years older than him and I never ever heard them argue, ever. And they never, never called one another Nell or Sam, it was always Mother and Father. She was a big woman like me, she used to wear a big apron, and in, in the apron she had to have pockets and she'd have a notepad there for little lists that she was writing and pegs and whatever. But she was a beautiful woman and I ... we loved 'em. She was always cooking cakes and he'd be passing them out the door to us and we'd be running and [she’d] say, ‘Father Sam, where's those cakes gone?’ ‘I don't know Mother,’ he says, ‘the fairies must have took 'em.’ And it was him pinching them all the time, you know, so we had a lovely childhood and night, night-times we'd sit out underneath the wisteria vine in the front, which was a big, big old wisteria vine and Father Sam would get a big melon and slice it up and we'd sit out there eating it in the shade of the afternoon, you know, then after, afterwards he'd be rubbing the watermelon in our faces and rubbing his beard in our face and it'd be on for young and old. We had a lovely childhood, you know ... [interruption] ... Yes you can, even magpies too, you know, they split the tongue, get the tongue, cut the tongue and it causes them to talk ... [interruption] ... That's what oral history is, repetition. You shouldn't worry about repeating anything ...

What was it like in the town of Bonalbo ... were there other Aboriginal people there?

No. There weren't any other Aboriginal people there at the time. But there's more there now today. You know. And we were not excluded from anything. You know ... And of course, the school only went up to sixth class. The kids used to ride there ... ride in from the farmhouses out of town, you know, by horseback and horses would be, they'd take the saddle off and let the horse feed around in the school yard. And saddle them up again to go home after school was out.

How did you get on at school?

I loved school. I liked all that learning stuff.

Did you do well at it?

Oh ... pretty well, I guess. I only got to ... like I had to go to Casino for high school. Dad wanted me to get a better education, and I went to Casino High School for ... in 1947-48, for those only two years of high school I did. And there were ... the class was 2F actually, it's a long way from A B and C, isn't it? And the rest of education we got in the school of hard knocks. There's no better teacher ... [laughs] ...

So where did you stay when you went to Casino?

Well, I was billeted out with a family called the Pentlands. She used to be a Miss Freedman [sp?], but she took in all Koori kids, you know? To look after them. We had no Koori organisations there that looked after kids that were having problems or had lost a parent or something like that, you know. That's if the Protection Act didn't get onto them and take them. But, they were lovely people, too. And they lived about ... they lived about three miles out of town, so it was a six mile go everyday to get to school. We used to take a shortcut across ... through ... along the riverbank.

You walked ...

Oh yeah ... walked. Run. Can't do that now ... [laughs] ... But did it then.

And what do you remember most about school? What was the best thing about it?

I liked school, in this respect, that with the learning and stuff ... I was a bookworm, I used to love to read. And out ... our old teacher was old, we called him ‘Tiger’ Magee. And his name wasn't Tiger, of course, but we christened him Tiger because he growled a lot, you know? But he was the loveliest teacher. He actually was the one deciding vote that got me the vote of class captain and school prefect. It was he. And he taught me the basics of the scales on the piano because I used to love ... pick tunes out by ear, you know? He was a lovely, lovely old teacher. I can't believe he's still alive, too.

And so what sort of lessons did you do best at?

Well, I liked geography and history and stuff like that. Wasn't much good at maths, but English, I used to ... I used to like to write poetry and stuff like that, too, you know. I had a very vivid imagination. Yeah.

Were you accepted as easily at Casino as you had been at Bonalbo?

Yes. Yes.

So you didn't encounter any ...

No, no, it was really good there, too. At the school, yeah. I can remember in those days, used to have sixpence a day. Six-penneth. That'd be to buy your lunch at the school tuck shop. And for six-penneth you could get ... two boiled saveloys and a big home-made meat pie for six-penneth. What would it cost you today? Oh, dear. I had a girlfriend who I'd swap all that for because she had baked bean sandwiches. And I loved them, you know.

So you mixed absolutely just as much with white children as the black children?

Captain of hockey and ... too, in school. Yeah. And, as a matter of fact, it was an Aboriginal girl that was the dux of the high school when I went there, her name was Beatrice Hogan [sp?]. Yeah.

Did you continue to see your father during this time?

Dad called every year at Christmas-time before ... when he got his holiday breaks from here in Sydney where he was living. He'd come that way and pick me up and then we'd go home to Bonalbo for Christmas together, you know. And he'd always go and check out how I was getting on with the headmaster. His name was, I don't know his name, but it was VJ Rubineck [sp?]. That was the initials. I can remember. And they wanted to put me through teacher's college and Dad said, ‘If my daughter wants to go to teacher's college, she'll get there on her own steam, not through the help of any Aborigine Protection Board.’ Because they all knew, you know, Aboriginal people knew what the board was doing to our families and that. By taking the kids and that, busting 'em up. So he didn't want to have nothing to do with it, you know. 00:23:31:21

So did you go to teacher's college?

No, no I never. As I said, I only went to second form, class 2F.

So why did you leave?

Well, I turned 15 in January before school went back for the ... when I would have sat for my intermediate, but I came this way to Sydney instead with Dad to find work in 1949. You know.

And by this time your father had come down to Sydney from the bush ...

Well Dad, Dad had been down in Sydney for a good while ... he worked for six years on Warragamba Dam as a dozer driver. Laying the groundwork for that before it was built, you know? And then from there he went into Alexandria and he was there for 10 years at Henderson Federal Springs, running wires and springs. And this ...

What about your mother, had she been in touch with you at all?

Well, Mum had never ever got in touch with us at all. And when we first came to Sydney with Dad, Dad had already taken up with a little woman we called Mum Joy, and she had two children to Dad. And every Saturday we'd come shopping down Botany Road, Redfern, from Great Buckingham Street, you know, and that's where we run into Mum one day and she had two of her other children to this other fella that she'd run away with. And Dad was pushing us behind him saying, ‘You didn't want my kids, get away’ and all this and that. And they were so angry, Mum was standing there crying. But anyhow, later on, with the insistence from Mum Joy, used to say, ‘You can't stop them from seeing their mother, that's their mother, you know? You can't do that, they're her children.’ And he let us go then afterwards.

Did you have much to do with her after that?

Oh yeah, I loved me mum. Afterwards I did have, you know, but at that time I was young and was in the machining business. I ... the rag trade ... it was Mum Joy that got me the job in Bracks Clothing Factory. Making trousers.

I'll come to that in a minute, we're a little bit ahead of ourselves, let's go back ...

Mum ...

wseI think we've got to get you properly from Bonalbo. So when you left school, what did you decide you wanted to do?

Well, I wanted to work, because I thought, gee, you know, Dad used to be always sending money for our upkeep to Mother Nell and Father Sam for our support, and I thought, gee whiz, you know I better get out and do some work to help out too, you know, I can't be a burden myself, on poor old Dad all the time. And so I really wanted to get a job. And the only other job that I had up there before I came to Sydney was like sort of a governess housemaid looking after a little kid on a farm. And it ... you know, while their parents worked.

And what was that like?

Oh, it was alright. Used to have to catch the mailtruck to get out there, that was three or four miles out of town, too. Then over the weekends I'd ... they'd lend me the pony and I'd ride home for the weekend and go back again so her husband could have the pony to ride into the sawmill, you know, when he went to work each day. And that was alright.

What made you decide to come to Sydney?

Well, it was Dad that wanted us to come to Sydney. So you could get a job, you know, 'cause there's nothing much going up there.

And by this time he had a little household established?

What was that?

By this time your father had a little household established ...

Well, he was ... he and Mama Joy's ... yeah, yeah ... they were set up in Great Buckingham Street, Redfern.

Did you all come down?

No, just Gwen and I, Rita was too young, she stayed. Besides, she was ... she was like Mother Nell and Father Sam's little girl until they had a daughter, you know, young Judy. And she was too young to come anyhow. So we come to Sydney.

And how did you feel coming down to the big smoke? Had you seen a big city before?

No. Never seen a big city before. When we were coming into the city, we had our noses stuck out the window and in those days you got the coal stuff, it used to get in your eyes, you know, you had no air conditioning in the old rattlers, the trains, the North Coast Rail. But I couldn't get over how ... how long it seemed to take us to get here. We must have been travelling for such a long time, you know? And ... I couldn't get over the buildings, tall buildings and neon signs and stuff like that. I was just in awe of how big this place was when we first came.

And you settled in ... in Great Buckingham Street, Redfern. And there were a lot of Kooris around there?

At the time, yes, there was a good few Kooris around there.

And so did you ... did it take you long to feel at home?

Oh, I was at home with Dad, yeah, and Gwen started off to Bourke Street school, she was finishing school at Bourke Street. I think she was about 12 or so then. Yeah. And we'd come to the pictures in Redfern. Every night there used to be the Lawson Picture Theatre. And dad would bring us down there of a weekend, go to movies. And even Redfern oval, the All Blacks had football teams way back then, you know? And we used to go there and sit on the hill of a Sunday to watch the football matches. 00:29:14:11

And did Mum Joy accept you?

Oh yes, she was a lovely woman. Well, Dad had brought her ... brought her home on Christmas with him, you know. And I can remember back ... looking ... sitting on the back verandah waiting for Dad to come from the bus stop and see the little, little ... it looked like a little girl, because she was only tiny, you know, little short person. Dad's got another girl, look there's a little girl. It wasn't, it was Mum Joy, she was so tiny ... [laughs] ... She was a lovely woman.

Did it take you long to get work?

Well she took me up to Brack's, where she used to work, and it was just around the corner from Great Buckingham Street and Elizabeth Street, there in Redfern, and I got put on as an apprentice trousers machinist and that's how I kicked off there in the rag trade. And worked there for 12 months before I became qualified. Used to do all the messages and take the money to the bank for the boss and make the morning teas and all that running around as well as trying to ... to use a power machine and the damn thing used to run away on me, you know, it was so powerful, I was only used to old Mum, Mum Nell's old treadle machine, where you had to pedal like billy-o, and with this you only need put your foot over and zoom, away it'd go, you know. Yeah.

But you'd had to use one ...

Yeah, oh yeah.

Now when you came to Sydney, you hadn't seen your mother for many years ...

Yeah ...

Since you were six years old. Did you know that she was in Sydney?

Yes. Dad told us that she was there.

So what were you thinking about that?

Oh, well ... well, wanting to see her and that, you know, and connect up again because we were kids, like young people, real curious. So he did relent and let us go after a while. To visit her. And she lived in Portland ... not Portland Street ... Beaumont Street, Waterloo was where she lived, which wasn't far away, just across Redfern Park and over there in Waterloo, you know. Wasn't far away at all. We used to go over on a Sunday sometimes for a visit. And say g'day. And she welcomed us, you know. 00:31:27:00

Did you ever ask her about why she'd left you?

No. No.

Not ever?

No. I never asked her. I formed my own opinions about it, though, they were both young. I didn't want to be judgemental, and judging either one of them, you know. But the two sisters never ever did forgive her. And she died without them even coming to say goodbye to her. But that's sad, you know. I mean, I didn't feel that way. I took up with ... with a boyfriend called Sam Griffin [sp?] and had ... later on had three children by, and Mum knew what sort of a person he was, but me being starry-eyed and in love, you know, you think your parents are trying to run your life for ... everything ... and I went and give her a mouthful of cheek and told her to mind her own business and she hit me so hard I was concussed, I tell you. Yep.

Literally concussed?

Yes. I couldn't go to work, couldn't sewing machine. When Dad found out he was ropeable. And he did take her to court. And we had to stand up and tell the, the magistrate that she never ever contacted us in all the years that she's been away and it prayed well for dad's case against her, you know, and slapping me. Even though I knew I'd deserved it. Because I shouldn't have been so cheeky. She was my mother after all, you know. And she was bound down to keep the peace. But later on, the, that old hurt healed itself and they were great friends, you know. Even before they died they used to have meals together, go and visit one another. So it ended, ended lovely. In the end.

How did you meet Sam Griffin?

Well, Mum Joy had a little friend that lived down the corner of Great Buckingham Street, on Cleveland Street, it was. And she used to come up and visit and her name was Alma [sp?] and then one day she brought a, a nephew to visit, was how we met, you know.

And was that your first romance?

Yeah. Yeah.

And what ... could you describe it after all these years?

Aw ... he was ... to me, he is tall, dark and handsome. Always nicely dressed. You know, a bit reserved and a bit stand-offish, but I thought it's because he might have been a bit shy. When later I was to find out he wasn't shy at all. Especially as far as other women were concerned, you know? And even my Dad told me things about what he'd seen and blah blah blah. You think you know it all when you're young, and when it's all boiled down, you know nothing, you know? You know absolutely nothing. You know?

How ... how old were you when you met Sam?

Well, about 15 and a half, going on 16. And by 17 I had his first child. Hmm.

Had you been told anything at all while you were being brought up about having babies and about men?

... [laughs] ... No. It never connected with me and I was a farm girl. I mean, I've seen cows having calves and stuff like this, you know, and it never connected with me, but anyhow ...

You didn't know the connection ...

I didn't know ... between sex and babies ...

True. True. We ... it was taboo to even talk about menstruation in front of men in those days. You know. When I was a young woman, it was taboo, and so nothing was openly discussed. You know. And it's ... it's ... I still say today it was just my ignorance and not knowing nothing that got me into the trouble I did ... [laughs] ...

How did you discover that you were pregnant then?

Ah well, Mum Joy, knowing that I was shacking up and said I better go and get checked up and went ... that's when I found out. And so I ... I left Sydney with Sam to go away because I didn't want to bring shame on my Dad, you know?

And it would have done that?

It would have done that. In those days, they looked on unmarried women as proper tarts and I knew I wasn't one of those, you know.

So did you think of marrying Sam, or did he think of marrying you?

Ah ... yeah. But he wasn't forthcoming in that, you know, but he was ... he always had a roving eye but I never ever believed ... he'd never do it in front of me, but he always had other eyes for other women. And he's fathered other children by other women, too. Matter of fact, one of them was a month younger — my Bill, my eldest, Bill ... Bill was born in October and he had a son to another woman a month after it.

Sam didn't marry you, but he stayed with you for the birth of the baby?

Yes, well, we ended up staying together for about five years. And I presented him with two more kids, you know. I had three children to him.

Where was your first baby born?

In Coonabarabran.

Where's that? Why were you in Coonabarabran?

Well, as I said before ...

Ask again. I left Sydney...

I'll ask you the whole question. Where was your first baby born?

In Coonabarabran. I left Sydney to go to Coonabarabran when I was pregnant with the first child, and that was 19 ... 1951, when I had Bill. In Coonabarabran. And I had the ... two more other children to Sam. I stayed with him for about five years, I think it was, and had three children all told to him.

Where did you live in Coonabarabran?

Well, I lived on the Gunnedah Hill in a tin shack with his mother and his stepfather and their family, and Sam got work out in the bush on the sawmills, and he never came home until the weekends while I was waiting for the bub to be born.

Tell me about the birth of your first child. You've now become quite expert in giving birth, but can I take you back to when your first baby was born. Do you remember what it felt like?

Oh, what an experience that was. You see, I knew nothing about ... as I've said I've never connected up with giving birth and what it was like. I used to talk to Sam's mother, whose name was Ruby, too. I used to call her Mum Rube, and I used to ask her about what it was like to, to give birth. And how would I know when it was time to go to hospital and she being an old seasoned veteran of seven births, she knew a bit about it, so she told me, you know, you'll get these labour pains in the front and they'll go around to the back and then they'll get stronger and stronger until you feel like you want to bear down and then you know you've got to get to the hospital real quick. Which is what happened, but the first birth, with my son Bill, was a long birth, being my first child, and the pain was excruciating. I ended up punching ... [laughing] ... the nursing sister and she showed me a bruise on her arm the day after he was born. Bill was born and he looked like a little skinned rabbit. He was so tiny, he was six pound, one ounce, my Bill, the smallest baby I ever had. Yeah. Don't know where the hell Sam was, he was always away, never came much. But I had a friend, Neddy Hatfield, who crocheted a bonnet and bootee and carrying coat set for him and brought it to the hospital for me and he was so small and, as I said, she had to turn around and alter the bonnet so that it'd fit his little head. You see.

So Sam wasn't there when your baby was born?

Nah. No it was Mum Ruby that put me in a taxi and got me to the hospital.

And who were the other children that you had with Sam?

There was Pearl. Pearl. And Pearl was born not in Coonabarabran. We later on left and went back to Bonalbo. Up to my country, and Pearl was born in the hospital there. And the girls who were the nurses were the girls that I went to school with, so it was lovely. And she was born on the first of December, 1990 ... no ... 52. I get the dates mixed up, I do ... [laughs] ...

So that was the next year you had another baby?

Yeah. Yeah. So I got the yearning to want to go home. Something was telling me to go home, and so I asked him to take me home. And when I did go home, I just missed out on my cousin's wedding, they couldn't find where I was, you see. And I'd lost contact with them, and it was my cousin's wedding day the day before. And we got as far as ... the train took us to Casino, and there was no bus over the weekend going from Casino to Bonalbo, you know. It used to take the mail and passengers that were going that way from the train station and lucky for us we were sitting in the park in Casino and there was a football match on, on Richmond Oval, and who should be coming down with the crowd when the match was over ... was my cousin Richard got married to, and they rounded us up and put us back in the bus with them and took us back to Bonalbo that way, you know. She said, ‘I've been trying to get in touch with you, I wanted you to be my bridesmaid for my wedding,’ you know. But I missed out on her. But anyhow, Dad was there and Mum Joy were there for the wedding too, so we had a whole family hook-up again, you know, connect up again with each one of them.

Had they seen Billy yet?

No. Dad hadn't seen his first grandchild and Mum Joy, and Billy was about six months old then. And Dad was ... Dad was nursing him and he'd grab the piece of wedding cake out of Dad's hand, started munching on it and smiled up and Dad and Dad was thinking he was going to choke ... [laughs] ... Oh dear ...

And your third child?

Dianne. Dianne Joyce are named after Mum Joy and after that song, of course. 'I'm in Heaven when I see you smile, smile for me my Diane.' Oh dear ... yes, she was born in Sydney, here. Because before I had D ... giving birth to Dianne, Sam and I had broken up. I was about three months pregnant.

And how did that happen?

Ah well ... I found out that he was running around on me. And everything that Dad was telling me about him was true and that actually happened back here in Sydney. We were staying with one of Dad's friends over in Waterloo, and I followed him one night and I found him with this other woman and I was pregnant ... with Dianne, about three months pregnant, and Bill and Pearl were only little toddlers, you know? And so I got in a taxi and took off over to Dad and told him, ‘I'm sorry for misbelieving what you were telling me all along. You were telling me the right thing.’ And that, that night he had me and the two kids on the train going to Ipswich and then over in Toowoomba to where cousin Shirley and Ritchie were, you know.

So by this stage, you'd actually ... since you'd left Bonalbo, you'd been doing a lot of moving around?

Oh yeah, yeah ... And I stayed with Shirley for a while, 'cause Mother Nell was dying. She was in the hospital in Toowoomba at that time and I ... Shirley was always pushing me to go ... to go to the movies with her boarder. He fancied me. And I told him straight, I said, I'm pregnant, you know, don't want to be ... become involved with it. Well, you're honest enough to tell me, just come along, let's go to the pictures. So I ended up with this fella, Gordan Campbell his name was.

Was he an Aboriginal?

No, he was a gubb. Blue-eyed, blond hair. And after a while, I come back to Sydney because ... with Gordan because we wanted to get work, and Dad got him a job and got us a flat in Great Buckingham Street, just up the street a bit from where Dad lived. As a matter of fact, I could look out the window every morning and see Dad and wave to him like that. And ... there.. and this was where I was then when I had Dianne. She was born at Crown Street and then who was ... who was more nervous was ... was Gordan walking up and down pacing with Dad. Because Dad was an old clucky hen too, you know. That kind of fella. But a big, surly, strong man, he very seldom smiled, you know. But he had crow's feet there and he liked to have a good giggle sometime, I know that. But he was real ... he gave this real stern, stern outlook, sort of thing. But he wasn't. I used to ... used to love to joke and get him going, torment him. I said ... one day I can remember back when I was working there, ‘Gee Dad, your face would stop a train, you know.’ Then he looked at me, real deadpan, and said ‘Mine might stop a train, my dear, but yours would make one run off the line’ and that's ... [laughs] ... he was that sort of person. But he was a loving father, you know.

What did he look like?

A real tall, tall man. About six two. And lovely dark hair, pure black hair. He used to always wear Brylcreem and we used to have a go at him about .... how come you've got no grey hair in your head, Dad? And he said, aw, and I use Brylcreem, he said, and when I wash my hair, he said, I never wash it with anything but Sunlight soap and cold water, he reckons. Wouldn't use hot water in his hair. And we used to josh him and sing that little ditty to him, you know, ‘Brylcreem, a little dab'll do ya’ ... [laughs] ... He was a loving father and he set up and got Gordan a job with him and then before long I was pregnant with a child to him. And that's Nob, and he was born at South Sydney Women's Hospital in Newtown. And that was on the 21st of the fifth, 21st of May 1955, when he was born. And he was the biggest baby I'd ever given birth to. He was one ounce off 10 pound. He looked like a month-old baby when he was born, and he was born sucking his fists. I'd always told him, even today, that he's always been hungry ... [laughs] ... Hungry for life, you know? Oh, dear me ...

Why was he called Nobby?

Nob. Well, in those days they had ... if they didn't tie a boy's ... especially a boy's cord, umbilical cord properly, it would sort of rupture and stick out. And the old remedy for this was put a piece of sticky ... cotton wool ... big piece of cotton wool and push it back in and then tape a penny over it with sticking plaster and it would grow back. So that's how he came to get the nickname of Nobby ... Nobs. Not Nobby. But it grew back in eventually because I did ... I did the bit with the penny and it did grow back in.

Now here you were, a young woman, just in her early 20s, already with a number of children. Did you sometimes wonder how you'd managed to acquire all the children?

I soon found out, didn't I? Oh yeah ...

Did you think at all ... were you given any information when you were in hospital having children about birth control. Did you think about it or wouldn't you have wanted to do that?

Oh, well, nothing was available, I don't think, at the time about birth control, well they never invented the Pill in my day, that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

But they didn't ... no-one sort of suggested to you when you ... available then ...

No. No.

So again, you weren’t ever given much information about it?

No. This was it.

Before we move on to talk a little bit about your life with Gordan, can I go back and ask you, with Sam Griffin, when you were with him, what was the relationship like? Did he offer you much support?

No, he was very slack, actually. I mean, if I could have seen how slack he would have been, or would have become, I would never have had anything to do with him. But he was never ever there. 00:13:39:14

Did he give you money to take care of the kids?

I'd have to argue, argue with him for money. He was forever going out and then just leaving the whole responsibility of the kids up to me. He was very, very unresponsible.

So where did you get your money from, to take care of them?

Oh, I worked! I worked.

Where at?

Ah ... Well, when I was in the bush, I worked bush work, fencing, tree lopping, ring barking, burning off, pegging roo skins — 10 pound a hundred I used to get for pegging them out. And it was a good thing it was close to the water because I stank like billy-o after. Because they were off, you know, they, these roo skins — well the shooters'd shoot the roos and their skins were kept in bags in a freezer and they were kept there for so many weeks before they got to you to peg them around. Yeah. It was on the nose sort of thing. Maybe that's the reason why I like so much perfume nowadays ... [laughs] ... But anyhow, that's what I did, you know. And ... when I was in the city I had the trade of machining ... you don't have machining trades out in the bush, in the scrub, so it was bush work, you know?

And did you survive alright on that?

Oh yeah.

What they ... did you ever have to go onto the pension? Did you ...

No. Not then, no.

Not when the kids were little?


You always made ends meet somehow ...

Oh, of course, I worked.

Where did you live?

When we were on the fence lines, lived in a tent on the fence lines ... on the ground. And with kids, with school and that, I used to teach them by correspondence courses. You know? Out in the bush. And one of the fence lines was a place where it had all these big gilgais ... you know what a gilgai is? It's a big hole in the ground and after it rains, it would fill up with lovely fresh water, you see, otherwise the homestead, the one, this property I'm talking about would be ... would be ... 15 miles away and the nearest town, 70. So to wash clothes and have clean kids those waterholes come in handy. Of course, you only had a 44-gallon drum filled with drinking water from the boss's station. And most times those drums were ... what they'd use for kerosene and stuff like that. And you still had the paint and smell of that in the drinking water. You had to boil it before you could use it, you know. But with these gilgais, they were lovely.

You had to drink water that tasted of kerosene?

Yeah! And put cordial or something in it to take the taste out of it, you know.

Was Gordan any better as a husband? Or as a mate?

He was a good worker, but he was a drunk. He drank. And he, he'd go away and leave me on the job like, you know, and be missing for days and days. And we'd have to carry on with the work no matter what. To get it done because you were contracting work, you know.

It was with Gordan that you went fencing ...

And Peter, too. That's the fella I married. The only marriage I did have was with Peter Langford. He was the fella that we were fencing with at one time, you know.

Now you camped ... did you always have a decent camp or did you sometimes have a makeshift ...

Makeshift bush camp?

How would you describe it, what your camp was like?

Well, we'd have a tent and that's mostly where I'd put, you know, the kids and the men would sleep in the cars or on a bedroll on the ground. The fire, the campfire and we'd have the stakes in to hold the billy and the cooking pots whatever. And all this stuff went with you, your whole camp oven, your cook pots when you travelled. You had a meat safe that you used to keep the meat in, and you'd get a sheep a week from the boss when you're working on these fence lines. He'd supply a sheep which you had to kill yourself and then you'd either bury the guts or the innards, or stick it up a hollow log or something, you know, because in the night time feral pigs ... oh the boys would be out with a spotlight because they can smell the kill and they'd come into camps. Many times I'd have to get up and shoot to frighten them off.

Did you ever help with the fencing?

Of course.

Did you work as hard as they did?

Bloody harder than them at times, what are you talking about? ... [laughs] ... And I held my hand up for more pay, too, just as good as they did. I could tie a number eight knot in a fence line as good as any man. And my kids used to do the marking. Matter of fact, Nob and Bill, being the two big boys, they used to do the mark ... they would mark from one post to the other and you'd have a restraining post every, every 10 chains. And on that ... the mark, and then we'd come along with the ram and look for the irons posts and then the steel posts. And put them in and then the restraining post which had ... you have to dig a big hole. Ah, we broke the record, me and Peter while Gordan was away on one of his binges. Three miles of fencing within three weeks. And that's pulling down the old boundary fence as well as erecting the new one. Not bad going, eh?

At the end of the day when you'd done all this fencing with these men, who'd cook the dinner?


So you could fence alongside them, but they didn't cook the dinner?

They wouldn't know how to cook a feed ... [laughs] ... In those days men thought they were just ... they didn't have to share the responsibility of doing all this stuff, you know. I mean, women have got it real easy today compared to back then. But we had ... like there's ... there were two dams on this property with the fencing lot that we were on, and one dam we'd use for the drinking water at this place, was okay it was a dam, see, good clean water, and the other one we'd use for bathing and washing ourselves. And you ... you dived in there to get cleaned up. You, you had the yabbies biting at your toes and your bum and whatever ... [laughs] ... you wouldn't stay in ... real quick you would give yourself a good wash and flying out again, yeah, but it was a good life, you know.

So what did you cook?

Oh ... The ... the meat. We used to have to corn the meat. I used to carry the coarse salt, you know, to corn the meat and ... in a barrel ... and then when it was cooked it was put in the meat safe. But usually I'd ... I'd make ... cook the chops and such like that. I don't know ... porcupine ... we used to get bush tucker. 00:20:50:02

Bush ... who taught you how to get bush tucker?

Uncle Ernie, didn't he? Long time ago.

Back there in the bush ...

Living in the bush. Catch a porcupine ... [interruption] ... Yeah. Kill the porcupine by hittin' him on the head.

How do you cook a porcupine?

Well, wait, I'll tell you. You cut his throat open, they got two curdles in there and this is where all the ... the ants, the whole flavour of the ants, goes into these things, you know? It's like a gallbladder thing. What's in its throat. And when you take that out it ... because if you cook it with those in there it'll still have the flavour of ants and to get the quills off, a lot of the old people used to just burn them off. Because they'd burn over the fire, you know. Until they'd burn right down to this end, but the best way is boiling water and cold water and then get the tommy axe and knock them off and they'd all come out and it's just clean. It comes up just like pork.

Is that what it tastes like?

And bake it, stuff, stuff it up ... after you've taken the innards out and fill it up with some seasoning, breadcrumbs and stuff, bake it in the camp oven. And yabbies, curried the yabbies. Rice. We used to eat good. For sweets, doughboys and syrup, cockies’ joy. Oh ...

How did you make the doughboys?

Just with the flour and water and a bit of butter and then roll them up and put them in boiling water and then syrup over the top of them. It was dessert. We had chocolate cake in the ashes, too, I did.

In the ashes of an open fire?

Yeah ...

How do you make a chocolate cake in the ashes of an open fire?

Well, you know, all those years ago when they used to do the Christmas cakes in ... in beautiful tin? You'd get that and line it with greased paper, brown paper on the bottom and all round the sides, put the paper in and make the mixture for the cake and put it in, then put more brown paper over the top and then the lid. Put it down and get a shovel and get the hot ash, not with all big coals unless they're ash, over the top about 20 minutes and take it out. Pull all the brown paper off it, make your icing sugar and mix it up. COME AND GET IT! ... [laughs] ...

Did it last long?

No. You get a craving for things like sweets like that because you had no access to fresh fruit and stuff like that when you're out in the bush and was roughing it, you know? But it was a good life. And it was a healthy life.

During the time that your kids were little, you spent some of the time in the bush, and some of the time in the city — which did you prefer?

Well, I liked the city where you didn't have to cart water and you could. ... you could just get water out of the tap and make a nice cordial and stuff like that, you know. And you didn't ... and washing machines for washing clothes and things like that or laundromats whatever ... But out in the bush it was another ... another thing. You had to do that. Not only that, for entertainment-wise, too, you know? If you had a radio out in the bush you had to have batteries for it and stuff, and you've got all those conveniences like that in the city and nothing out there. It was a very lonely sort of life in a way, because when the kids would go to sleep and they'd ... you'd have time to sit and have a bit of reflect about the day's work, then you were off to sleep yourself because the next day was up and you had to, we go on again. You know what I mean? And you were up, as we'd say then, sparrow fart, which means daylight in the morning ... [laughs] ... You know? Yeah ...

Did you ever, with all this hard work, did you ever get ahead financially?

Never got ahead financially. What you see in this little room of mine is 61 years, nearly 62 years of living. It's what I got to show for it. Quite a bit of valuable artwork, but it's enough for me to get by among ... never had any high designs for money. Money ... money does not buy you nothing. 00:25:01:19

But when the kids were little ... and you worked so hard ...

Yeah, yeah ...

... did you ever find then that you had a little bit behind you, to be able to take care of a rainy day?

I wished I had, but I never ever did have. Because you was always robbing Peter to pay Paul, there was always some debt. That come up, you know.

Did you incur the debts or did the men?

Oh, the things I needed for the kids, well, I'd buy them out of the fencing stuff, you know. Their clothing and such, but I used to make a lot of their clothing by hand, too, when I had a spare moment. I used to do so much sewing by hand that I used to have no thimble and I'd have all holes in my finger from where the needle'd go. I used to make their dresses for Christmas and such like that, you know? Because I was a seamstress and I could do these things but as far as other things that had to be bought like shoes and stuff like that, had to ... we just made do. We'd go to an op shop when you went into town and stuff like that, you know. But there was always, always a way to ... how can I put it? To get around things. You had to be a little bit ingenious in your way of thinking, but where there was a will there was a way. And you just never let it beat you. You know?

How did things end with Gordan?

Ah, well, I had two more children with Gordan. The second son, David, was born and by this time we were back in Coonabarabran. Four of my children were born in Coonabarabran. It was three miles out on the Purlewaugh Road going to the Warrumbungles at a farmhouse there. And lived in a bush camp there. But he used to be a tractor driver so he was away sowing wheat and that in Gunnedah so there was only just me and the kids in the camp. And old blue dog, you know. And when I was back there, of course, I connected up with Mum Rube again, and when I was pregnant on the way with Dave, lucky for me they came out and said, it's going to rain soon and you’re going to be stuck out here, time for you to come and take the kids, and they took the other kids while I went and had David.

So your first bloke's mum stuck by you?

Yeah, oh yeah. And I don't know what I would have done without her help, you know, she was a lovely old woman. And ... then I had Aileen, and Aileen was born in Coonabarabran, too. So there's only 12 months between the birthing of each one of my first six children. You see.

So how did you manage with six children in ...

Don't know ... some good spirit up there likes me, I'm telling you ,he's watching over me, I really don't know how I made it through. You know?

Often on your own.

Mostly on my own. Because the ... all I ever wanted was a working man and all I ever got was the bums. And my kids say to me, ‘Don't talk about our fathers just like that, Mum.’ I say, ‘Well, they were’ ... [laughs] ... But you know, I mean, my kids have been the mainstay of my life because where are their fathers? They're gone, but I still have my children. Still have their love and respect, you know. They always say.. and they even send me Father's Day cards. So how's them apples? ... [laughs] ...

So what brought it to an end with Gordan?

Well, the drinking. And just ... he just went ... he was drinking. He was a good worker, a solid worker, he'd come from a good family, too, his family came [from] Moree and they were property owners. You know? Yeah. And just, he just went away drinking and just never came back. So my mainstay was old Chub, Peter Langford, and I ended up with him.

So he ... you'd got to know him because he was Gordan's fencing mate?

Yeah ...

And he stuck by you?


What was he like with the kids?

Oh, he was a larrikin. He was good with the kids. Used to be dancing around, singing, what was that song, Tutti Frutti, what a rooty, dance around, the kids used to sit up, they'd clap him and watch him dance with his old baggy work shorts and that on, you know? Not a bad fella, old Chub, he was a good worker too, you know? But that went down the drain too. I had two children to him, Ellen and Pauline.

Did you stick with him the whole time after Gordan left, or did you have another go with Gordan?

No. Oh, I was with Chub for a while, I got him to take me home to Bonalbo when Gordan was still away been drinking, but Gordan came back, crying and sobbing, to Bonalbo, and this was when I'd already taken up with Chub, see? And I was pregnant to Chub, but didn't know it at the time, and went back to Gordan, because they had a fencing job to go to. This was this one I'm talking about, just talking about, at Thomby station in Queensland. And, that didn't last long, as I said, because he just took off and that was it. You know. So Chub was always there. He was good in that respect. 00:30:24:13

So how long did it last with Peter?

Long enough to bless me with those two kids and when I was pregnant with Pauline, he left me on that Gunnedah Hill in an old leaky tent while he came back to Sydney to find work, and he never came back either. But there was a fly in that ointment because his father, old Jim Langford, didn't approve of me because I was a woman that had children to other men, didn't approve of Chub marrying me. But we did marry, you know, it was my only legal name change ever.

Was he Koori or gubb?

No, he was gubb. So I know what it's like both sides of the fence, you see. I had an inside view of both sides. Yeah.

And how was the difference between both sides?

Actually, they're both on an even power, I think. Both, both all dickheads as far as I can see. You know. Oh, well they all had ... I can't say that ... that everything was bad about them, you know. Each one of them had some special quality about 'em, that I saw that was nice, you know. And I thought that that would suffice, but it didn't. You know? I mean, Peter was a happy-go-lucky fella and wouldn't let anything beat him down, Gordan was the drunk and drank, I don't know why he drank but he did drink, you know, and Sam was just non compos mentis most of the time because Sam looked after Sam and nobody else. You know. You find these things out, so it was a hard lesson that I had to learn. You know.

How did you come to tie the legal knot?

Well, we came back to Sydney from St George in Queensland, when I found out that my father died. We were on a camp outside of ... after the fencing had finished in St George in Queensland, and word got ... Sam Griffin came there, if you believe it, from on a ring barking track from Moree to St George. And he drove into the camp with these people in a truck, you know, they were coming to pick up more men to go ring barking. And he saw us there and he come over and said, ‘I'm sorry to hear about your father,’ and I nearly fell dead on the spot because they'd been trying to reach me when I was on that fence line, 15 miles away from the homestead and 70 miles from the nearest town, that my father died. And so nobody in the township knew me because we were way out on the fence lines. And all the police reports and everything, they'd never found me because they didn't know I was there. So it was two months after he died that I came back to Sydney. Me and Chub and the kids, see. Come, caught the train at Mungindi, sold the car and everything so that we could get back here. And that's how we ended up back in Phillips Street, Alexandria, which is where my father and Mum Joy lived at the time, you know. And we stayed with Mum Joy there for a while. And I was going to have to ... we busted up through our problems, and he had a sister there in Sydney that lived in Great Buckingham Street, same old place again, so he went and stayed with her and I stayed with Mum Joy. It was only a two, two bedroom little place. Two bedrooms upstairs and a lounge-dining room and kitchen and laundry and bath out the back. And I was going to have to do something, I was, you know, I was going to have to put my children in the homes so that I could go to work for 'em, back to machining. And the night before this happened, I cried myself to sleep in the bedroom. Mum Joy took the two boys out of their room, Dennis and Kev, in with her and let me have this room for me and my kids, see. And in the middle of the night with me crying and wailing to myself that I was going to have to ... I had all this arranged, they were coming to take the kids in a couple of days.

Why did you do that instead of leaving them with Mum Joy to mind?

Mum Joy was in enough agony over my father, I didn't want to put my problems onto her. She got two kids of her own to look after, Kevin and Den, my two young brothers to Dad, you know? They were only about 11 and 12. So I'd arranged this with the church people, to take the kids and I'd pay for them while working, so go back to machining, and I was crying and sobbing, having to give my kids up, and all of a sudden, Dad's spirit was there, through the door open and it was padlocked, Fsssssss ... the wind came howling and I could feel Dad's presence right beside me and I could feel him pat me, and all I could say was, ‘Dad,’ and I went sound asleep ... I woke up the next morning ... it was him, reassuring me, telling me that everything would be all right. And next morning, guess who was there? Mr Langford, saying. ‘Get dressed quick, I gotta take you somewhere, put your prettiest dress on, we got to go somewhere’ and rushed me in his sister's car up to Newtown there, and stood me in front of a ... a jewellery shop and said, ‘Pick out which ring you want, we're getting married.’ How romantic. And my problems ... I don't have to give my kids away. Woo!! You know what I mean? So I married him, and he loved the kids too, there, you know. It made no difference to him.

How would you describe your relationship with your father?

Well that is ... as a role model to me in his ways. Very quiet, unassuming sort of man. Worked every day of the week, nearly, and on a Sunday he played cricket, he captained a cricket team at St Peters for many years. And somewhere amongst the family they've got a hat-trick for bowling and stuff. And cricket blazers, I think, gave ... went to one of the cousins of mine, after he died, who was named after Dad, his name was Henry. He had a surly sort of expression, like real stern, but he was a fun guy when you got to know him, you know. I think all the pressures of him and Mum's break-up and that left him sad and mad, in his own way, 'til he found Mum Joy and a new life started for him again. 00:02:02:21

Do you think he really loved your mother and missed her ... ?

Oh yes. I know he did. I found ... I found ... when I was only a teenager up there in Bonalbo, I rung once to get his shaving gear out of his suitcase one Christmas, I found this photograph of this beautiful woman sitting there with a big white picture hat on and sitting on a stool, and I looked at her and I said, gee she's beautiful, to myself, you know, and I must have been taking so long to get this stuff because I was busy looking at the photograph and I turned it over and it had on the back of the photograph, ‘You are my sunshine, Love Evelyn.’ And I knew it was my mother. And just then Dad come in and caught me, didn't he? And so, he said, ‘Couldn't you find my shaving gear?’ And I said, ‘No, I've found this photo — this is our mother, she's beautiful, Dad.’ And he said, ‘Yes, she was beautiful. Let's put the lid on the ...’ — and never said no more. But he'd never talk about her to us, you know. It was only when they came in contact with one another, when they used to have the blues when we first came to Sydney in 1949, as I said. But afterwards they became good friends, you know. And I know he did care for her. And she for him, too.

Was he always there for you?

Always. He was the only one that was there, always there. He worked and supported us and looked after us, you know. And even when I went away to the bush, when I was having the babies and working up there, he'd send boxes of ... of clothing for the little ones and for myself. Up to the nearest railway station. I'd write to them, you know. Because he knew we were living in hardship in the bush. And that, and struggling, and working from place to place. Always be a letter come along from Dad and Mum Joy. Go and pick up a parcel, you know, there'd be a great big box full of all this ... all the goodies for the kids and for myself. He was always a good father. Yeah.

And how did you lose him?

Well, Dad had a heart attack. He had a couple, as a matter of fact. The second one took him. He had a clot in the heart valve.

How old was he?


That was young for that to happen.

Too young, but the stressful life that he lived through the break up of him and Mum, and struggling to keep us kids going. He used to ... at that place he worked, Henderson Federal Springs in Alexandria, for 10 years he worked, and he used to lift a blacksmith anvil so that white men could win money on just to show how strong he was.

They bet on him?

They bet that he could lift it. And he did, you know. And ... and to the detriment of his health. I guess that would have happened. You know? But he was a good man.

When you got news that he was dead, what effect did that have on you?

Well, in my own turn, it sort of like knocked the guts out of me. Here I was a woman that had these, all these children, and I went away so I wouldn't bring shame on Dad, and to hear of his death two months after he was gone, you know, it knocked me for a loop ... [interruption ... Yeah ... you don't see him very often, but look at this. They go and look around, check it out to see if it's been looked after. Well it looks pretty good to me. Mmm ... Now where do we go again?]

I'll ask you a question.


So when the news came through to you that your father had died, what effect did that have on you?

Well, in one way it sort of knocked the guts out of me. You know. Because I left Sydney in the first place when I was a young unmarried woman. To go away to the bush and I hadn't been back all those years. And to lose Dad like that, you know. I mean it was two months after he'd been dead and buried 'til I found this out. It really knocked me for a loop. You know? So, me and Peter had to sell the car to come back to Sydney. Sell the car and we caught a train from Mundingburra, got back to Sydney, went to 19 Phillip Street, Alexandria, it was, where Dad lived with Mum Joy. And stayed there, then, with her. You know? For a while.

Now it was while you were staying there that you thought you'd have to give your children up?


Do you think the loss of your father made you lose heart for a little while?

Oh, yeah. Yeah. 'Cause, I mean, in the long term he was the only person that really cared about us. You know? And he was always there for us. Always. We could count on him. He was like a pillar of strength. Always there. But it wasn't that way with Mum, you know. We never knew where she was. Or she'd never connected up, or sought us out. But he was always there. You know? And I vowed to myself that when I had children of my own I'd never leave my kids, either. Coming from a broken family.

And you never did?


Do you think one of the reasons that Peter asked you to marry him was because he felt that, he kind of sensed that you needed a bit of stability?

I wouldn't know. He might have been feeling a bit lonely. Who knows what he was thinking, you know? But it came in just at the right time. For me, it meant that I didn't have to give my children away, you know, and I thought, well, being married and stable it might turn right, you know what I mean? But it didn't.

Did it turn right?


So what happened with Peter, what went wrong there?

Well, we went back to Coonabarabran, where we went back to take Mum Rube's daughter home, Brenda. And we stayed in Coonabarabran and there was a few jobs around, but nothing after a while, so he left me, as I said, in a tent, a leaky tent, on the Gunnedah Hill while he came back to Sydney looking for more work. And, just never came back. But then again, his father was a fly in the ointment, he disapproved of me, being a woman that had many children by other men, marrying his son, you know? Yeah.

So had you had enough of men by then?

Well, running ... getting pretty sick of all the, all the ... oh, what can I say? All the not ... not caring stuff, like, you know, looking after and providing ... being a provider and stable. I think this is what I saw in my father. He was always, as I said, the standing strong one that always provided, and there was nothing like that in any of these men. The only thing that they did good was plant me with my children, you know?

How many did you have with Peter?

Oh, I had two with Peter, that's Ellen and Pauline. Ellen was born in 1960 and it was the same year that my Dad died. She was born in April, on the 22nd, my father died in February of 1960. You know? Yeah. And Pauline was born in 1962, because I was pregnant with Pauline when my husband left to come back to Sydney to look for the work and never came back, you see, yeah.

And that was the last you saw of him?

Yeah. For many, many years. When I did finally come back to Sydney and got a housing commission home of my own, he showed up 16 years after and wanted to ... wanted to have another go at getting back together and I showed him the door. I said, ‘How dare you,’ you know? Well, it wasn't ... let go of some swear words I can tell you. Showed him the door and said git.

Now there you were with eight children by this stage in a leaky tent and nobody there ...

Seven camp dogs to warn me if anybody come. I used to sleep with a butcher's knife under my pillow ... [laughs] ... My toilet consisted of three pine trees with a hessian bag all around. And a pan that the council left and changed one day a week, and an umbrella on a branch in case it rained, so you wouldn't get wet ... [laughs] ...

And were you all in one tent?

Ah, we were until I managed to get another tent. There were two army tents that I bought off the butcher up in town. And I paid some of the young men from the mission, which was 200 yards away over the road, over the road from where the track was — bush track, you know, coming up on the back of the mission — and I paid them I think it was about 10 dollars or something like that to put it up for me, and they rigged these two tents up, and the first wind storm that came around blew it right down on the top of us, their arms and legs, kids sticking out, trying to get out from underneath the tent, you know, and I went and cut a big branch off a tree and I went down and I got ... these two young fellas, so they saw me coming, I said are all ... fell down on top of us, well you get up here and fix this and you know, they run. But anyhow, two of the old fellas there said, come on missus ... we’ll fix it up for you, and they set the tents up beautiful. They even put drainholes down the side with tin near so that if it rained, the water would run down and not come inside the tent. It was ... put it real good, it was, you know? Yeah. But oh dear ... [laughs] ... Never saw those two young fellas for a good while there. They kept a long way from my tent.

And how did you manage for money?

Well, in those days I had the endowment for the children and nothing else, and no support of course coming in. I issued a maintenance order for Langford, but they never caught up with him, anyhow, for years and years, so nothing come in there and we had to go to the police station to fill out forms to get the dole because of this, you see. And with the endowment book, I could sign the endowment book after one, two and three months in advance, and you'd just get foodstuffs from the shop, and they'd hold the book that I'd already signed and collect the money, so I'd pay for my bill, you know, there. And with the food order that you got from the police, you'd get so much groceries, and then you'd get one little order for a bit of fresh meat from the butcher and it was mostly on the cheap cuts, you know? Like neck bones and stuff like that to make soup and such.

So you got good at cooking cheap meat ...

Oh yeah. And used to ... I used to set rabbit traps on the hill there. I used to set rabbit traps to catch a rabbit. And besides, I'll ... poor old Mum Rube' s old husband, Harold, he used to be a rabbit trapper and every time he finished his rabbit run he'd bring in rabbits for us, so there was always plenty of that stuff, you know? Sometimes the boys would go hunting for roos and that there, too. So there was always kangaroo tail, to make a big soup and stuff.

So the kids never went hungry?


Perhaps you'd taken on the role that your father'd had ...

Somebody's got to do it.

Did you ever get maintenance from any of the men?

No. Never. Never got maintenance. Never ever.

So had you finished with men?


What happened?

Well, there was another big, tall handsome fella walked past my tent, you see, and waved at me.

And you were a goner?

I was in love again ... [laughs] ... One day I was out, washing outside of the old tent, you see, you got your washtub sitting up on drums so that I could reach the wash, and I could see this fella going past on the road, going up to Mum Rube's, up the top of that hill, and he waved, and I thought, gee that looks like Sammy, but it wasn't Sammy. Anyhow, I never took no notice and I'd ... by then I'd had Pauline and she was the baby and she had a bit of a heavy chest, so later on in the afternoon I trotted up the hill, got the biggest ones to look after the bub while I run up to borrow some camphorated oil off Brenda to rub Pauline's chest with, see? And Pauline ... Brenda's living in the little tin shanty too, see, her and her husband Reggie with their little baby, and next minute this big, tall fella walks in there, knocks and walks into their house and she introduced me, ‘Oh, this is Lance Marriott. This is brother Bruce's friend,’ you know? I shook hands, ‘Hello, how are you?’ and then we had a talk and a yarn and she gave me the camphorated oil and I was just about to leave and he said, ‘Goodbye, shorty’ and ... 'cause I'm only short, you know, and rubbed, patted me on the head, and he's about six foot two. I slapped his hand away from me and I said, ‘Don't you dare manhandle me!’ And walked off in a huff, see? Next day, who's coming down the road carrying an axe? He said, ‘I didn't mean to be insulting, missus, I heard you were living down here by yourself with the kids, could I cut some wood for you?’ And away he went, I said, ‘Okay.’ I give him a mug of tea. Before long he came back each night with his guitar and sat at the open fire and serenaded me, didn't he? And all the kids from the mission would come up and sit around listening and singing with the music. And I was gone again. But that was the last one. Definitely the last one ... [laughs] ... Yeah.

Did you have any children with Lance?

I had one child to Lance.

Was he more reliable?

Well, he loved my kids, I told you I was a sucker for anyone who loved my kids. And he was, he was, he was a good man. Oh, and we came back to Sydney after we started living together and Pauline was still a baby, because I had to have an operation from all that gutbusting and scrub, I had a ruptured navel myself. And it used to come out like that, you know?

That was from fencing?

From heavy lifting. And of course having babies one after another. The old people used to say to me, ‘You're a woman, you shouldn't be doing this hard work.’ But nobody else was going to do it for me. They were my kids and my responsibility, you know, and somebody had to do it. Couldn't just let it, let it go. And so I came to Sydney to have that operation because they couldn't perform it up there. The day we were leaving to come to Sydney, we had our ... we ... the train ... I think the train come in about 2 o'clock in the afternoon and in the morning there was Neddy my old mate helping me make sandwiches for the trip, and Lance was there shooting the dogs and burying them because we couldn't leave them there to starve. I gave all my camp ovens and cookware and tent stuff to Brenda because she was only in a tin shed and it'd be falling down soon, she'd need something else anyhow. And on to Sydney we came. And by that time, Mum Joy had left Phillip Street [in] Alexandria and was living across from the Big E, the Empress Hotel on top of an old coffee shop, and that's where we stayed with her until we got a house in Ann Street in Surry Hills, and Lance got a job on the Water Board. But first me in the hospital to have the operation and my Mum come to see me, all dressed up, beautiful she was. When I was in hospital, giving me ice to suck because I was so dry in the throat. I was only there for about eight days and they sent me home. Everything fine. As soon as I got back home to Mum Joy's place, between her and Lance looking after the kids, then all the kids were come down with measles and I never slept for a week. After coming out of hospital. And you got the laundry downstairs, we just had to wash everything, you know, and all these sick kids ... [laughs] ... I really don't know how I survived, you know, I tell you. Good spirits up there looking after me. And still doing it. But oh ... and from there, then my Auntie had a house that she was leasing over in Ann Street, Surry Hills, and she said, ‘You and Lance need a place for your family and he's working, right,’ so away we went and saw the lady about the house and she just signed the lease over to us, and we moved in. It was a three-bedroom place, Lance working on the Water Board, I went back into the machining and Ann Street in Surry Hills, there at the big Silk Knit factory making Reuben F Scarf suits for a living. And that's how we lived.

So things began to look up.

Began to look up and with both of us working, and had a cousin come and stay there in the back room, so that we could look after the littlies while I worked, you know? Yeah ...

And did the kids settle in at school there?

The kids settled in at school, went to Cleveland Street school.

So how long did that go on for? Did anything go wrong? I'm getting hopeful that things will get good for a while.

... [laughs] ... Oh, well. It went alright until I sort of found him out with my best mate.

With your best mate?

Mmm. And here I was a silly old woman that trusted people too much. That's the biggest problem with my life. Is I trust people. And take people as I find them, if they're good to me and blah blah blah. But there's a lot of ulterior motives in lots of people's minds, too, I guess, the same with everybody. You don't really know what they're like until you really live with them then you find out. You know? And I was real naive, I guess. But anyhow. When I found that out, it was the beginning of the end, even though we made friends afterwards. I caught her out at the Big E, at the Empress, and I pulled her out and then I belted her and they carted her away in an ambulance. You don't get broken knuckles like that for fighting for nothing, you know? And I was a woman that was taught Christian ways, to turn the other cheek. But there's times in your life that you can't walk away from so much shit being put on you, you know? So I hit back. You know? It was the first time I'd ever raised my hand in anger to another human being.

So you hit her, not him?

No, I belted her. I got him later ... [laughs] ... You're having fun with this, aren't you?

How did you get him later?

Oh well, when he's tall, the way's to bring him down with a saucepan or a frypan ... [laughs] ...

Was he ever violent to you?



He was the sort of man that'd ... would like to be dressed up and lovely, if we went out together. I'd dress up and there was days I was nice, good looking young woman, you know? Put the make-up on and the perfume and go. The nicer I looked the better he'd like it, he was so proud, he'd stick his chest out, but you let some man come up and put his arm around me, then it'd be on for young and old. He was jealous, you know? But it was alright for me to be the nice one doing the right thing and being faithful and truthful and while he was doing the other thing, you see? Was a ... I must of had a sign put on my forehead from way back then, ‘Fool,’ you know? This is what it made me feel like in the end. And you think to yourself that, hey, what's wrong with me? Then after a while, a good while of thinking things out, what'd I do wrong? I realised it wasn't me. It was them. You know? It was them. 00:23:12:15

But it took you a long while?

It took me a long while, yeah. It took me a long while.

So ...

It hasn't turned me against men. There's still ... some good ones there somewhere. It's only just that I don't have the chance to get around and socialise and look see any more.

Did the men who were with you ever knock you about?

Yeah. We had our fights and rows. Lance was pretty good with his fists. Well, as I said, I could bring him down.


Hit him on the head with a saucepan or frying pan, whichever was the closest thing. As soon as he went down, to my size.

Were you always successful in stopping your beatings?

Well, not always successful. I ended up with the worst end of the stick, you know?

When was the worst time?

Just being scarred about, I had ... being hit in the mouth and broke my dentures and I'd had a top plate then and it cut my lip wide open. I've had chairs, flagons, and even a guitar over my head at one time or other. So I'm still lucky I've got a head even ... [laughs] ...

What made him do it?

Drink. Violence. And his lifestyle, too. You know? Where he comes from. I think it leaves them with scars.

Where did he come from?

Down the grape growing country, down Wentworth. His mother ... he lost his mother through cancer and his brother ... my youngest fella's named after his brother, Jefferey. He died of cancer too. He was only 20. And he was on the road, too, when he was only a bit of a kid. Only 13 or 14. Round and round looking for work.

Did you have any children with Lance?

Lance ... I had one child, and his name is Lance Jefferey, but he never refers to himself as that, his name's Jefferey. He didn't like to use the other name. That's his second name. In actuality it's his first name.

And that was ... was that then soon after you got together with Lance?

No, no. It took about six years for me to fall pregnant and have Jefferey. I think it was nearly six, let me count it up. Pauline was born 1962, and Jefferey was born '66. But I miscarried before I had Jefferey. I lost another child.

So was Lance pleased to have a baby?

Oh, Lance was ecstatic. Yeah.

He liked kids ...

Oh yeah. He thought it was wonderful to have a son. I mean, I had eight kids normally, and the ninth by caesarean section. Because when you have your baby through like caesarean section, kids are not allowed to come into the hospital, King George V was where I had him. And so the girls and that, they're not being old enough, they used to have to put lipstick on and ... and high shoes to walk in and make out they were big teenagers, you know, so they could come to see me ... [laughs] ... And I only lasted 16 days in there and then I signed myself out because I was worried about the kids. Well, when I went home, back to 2 Fitzroy Street, Newtown, where we lived at the time, the kids were off to school, floor was scrubbed, and we had no gas but there was an open fire burning and it was great, you know.

This was Lance?

Yeah. And he loved the kids in this respect, that once there was a fella exposing himself to the kids, the girls down in the park where they used to play. Little corner park, and he just chased that fella, gave him such a thumping, you know, and dragged him off to the police station. But he was always protective of the kids. And we lasted for about, nearly 10 years, I think. Nine or 10 years, something like that.

So what led finally to breaking up with Lance?

Well, after he assaulted me that time, I'd had enough of being knocked around. And it was because I'd found him out with another woman and he was bound down to keep the peace and stay away from me. And he circled around where we were living at the time in Portland Street, Waterloo. For days on end he circled around and then he was gone. You know? And I never saw him anymore, then. And I moved from Portland Street, Waterloo up to Riley Street, Surry Hills, where my kids ... this was after the deaths of my two kids.

Tell me about that.

I lost Pearl when I was in Portland Street, Waterloo, in 1969. She made history being the first Aboriginal to dance with any Prime Minister in Australian history in 1968. It was John Gorton at the time.

How did that happen?

Well, they were having a Debs ball, which Charlie Perkins organised it when he used to be the administrator of the Aboriginal place down in Foundation, in George Street. Yeah. And with that ball, like I think there were 22 girls that were making their debut. And, gosh, didn't have any money, had a little old sewing machine that's a second-hand portable one. Went to the Smith Family and asked them did they have any white gowns and the only white one they had was a size woman's fitting and Pearl was a size eight. So I pulled that to pieces, remade it, got halfway through sewing it, pawned the machine, finished the rest by hand. Then off to the ball we went with a ticket Charles gave for me so that I didn't have to pay any money. And made headlines of her dancing with the Prime Minister. 00:30:06:04

Did you see that?

Well, when I was coming back from the toilet, I could see them dancing, and I said, ‘Who's that grey-headed old man dancing with my daughter,’ you know? They said, ‘Oh! That's the Prime Minister!’ Oh, dear ... [laughs] ... Ah, anyhow, it was a wonderful occasion, you know. She was really excited about it, my Pearl. And then in December of '69, she got hit by a car walking along the footpath. Going to the swimming pool with a transistor in her hand and a towel over her shoulder, and a taxi and a Kombi van had a collision at an intersection in back of her, the taxi hit the Kombi and the Kombi went that way and hit her up against a brick wall. And she went into a coma and she never recovered. And I buried her on Christmas Eve of 1969, and then eight months afterwards the eldest boy, Bill, with epileptic seizures. He was washing his trousers in about eight inches of water and he took a seizure and that's where I found him, but he was already dead. I pumped and gave him mouth to mouth but he was already gone. This was eight months after. So I had to go past one grave to bury the other, you know? And it really ...

Why did he have epileptic seizures?

Well, he had meningitis when he was a baby, you know, 'cause we were living at Muli Muli Mission at the time, when he was only just about two and toddling, he was, he was lucky to live. Oh, he would've grown out of it, he had just scarring of the brain tissues, 'cause I'd had brain scans and that done, and it was just scarring of the tissues, that would've grown as he got older. Yeah. And he took the seizure and he was gone. Just eight months after Pearl. And they were real close, you know, 'cause she used to always look after him when he went to school. If it ... if your brother takes a turn, go and get somebody to help, you know, 'cause your brother's sick. And she'd do that. But it was hard for him to understand too that he had epilepsy. 'Cause I used to have to fight with him to get him to take his tablet each day, you know. To control these seizures. Hmm ...

How ... you must have felt extremely puzzled that this had happened to you, to your children in one year. Did it ...

It was unbelievable to me for quite a while and I don't think you ever recover from losing ... I still count heads. And some member of the family in some way, now Ellen with the way she laughs, is David, and Nob with his talk sometimes, Bill, you know. So they're there, there's continual reminders. And not only that, with our way, there's names. I've got Jefferey David, these are grandchildren, you know? Jefferey David, Christopher David, Tyson David, I've got Roberta Pearl, Nikita Pearl, so the name lives on, you see? And these things ...

So Pearl died in this freak car accident, and Billy died from an epileptic seizure ...

And Dave from a drug overdose. In 1984, the year I picked up pen to write that first damn book, Don't Take Your Love to Town. Yeah. And I buried him on the first of December, 1984, and he was the father of two little kids, you know, through a drug overdose. So I know what it's like to lose. But life goes on.

What happened to your other children, how did they get along?

Well, with Pearl, my other kids were all the way in Melbourne, with Harold Blair at the ... they had holidays that they used to take underprivileged Koori kids down there and billet them out to families, you know, so they'd have a good Christmas with people, and my younger ones were down there when I lost Pearl, with the exception of Jefferey and Pauline, they were too little, and they were staying with a friend of mine when I buried Pearl. But the bigger ones were, you know, down there. I said, ‘No, leave them down there, don't let them have to come home to face this.’ And with David, ah, it was terrible ... Billy died.

Bill ...

What happened to the other children?

Well, they were mostly there, and with Pearly, Nob was brought out of the children's home for Pearly's funeral in handcuffs, from the boy's home. And I think it was in the boy's home when I lost Bill, too. And he was brought again. You know, in handcuffs. So these sort of things have a disastrous effect on my family, Nob's never been able to accept the fact of deaths in the family because they were all very close. The kids ... and I always taught them to care for each other, you know? Because I used to say to them, like that song, united we stand, divided we fall, you know? And this was how I taught them, to be that way, and they were good kids to one another, I'm real proud of them. I've had compliments from people about ... even my doc ... my family doctor. Can you believe it? They were coming home from school and it started to rain and the doctors had lived just up the corner from me in Fitzroy Street, Newtown ... pulled up to give my kids a ride home in the car, this was raining, and Pearly said, ‘No thank you, Doctor. My Mum told us we're not allowed to get in the cars with strangers.’ These are the sort of kids they were, you know? ... [laughs] ...

Did any of your children ever get into trouble with the police?

Yes. Nob and David.

How did that happen? How did it start?

It may ... it mostly happened the times of the deaths of my kids. You know, my two kids?

When Billy died, Nobby was already in a home ... what was he in a home for?

Ah, that was the time they found that their school, their sports room open, and he and a whole heap of little school friends got in and had a field day with all the sporting stuff, wasn’t it? You know? They took the bats and balls and everything and hid 'em somewhere in a fort that they'd built. For goodness sake. It wasn't their fault, it was the teacher's that'd left the place unlocked anyhow. Anybody could have gone in there, but these bunch of kids did.

And they got sent away for it?

Oh yeah. Six months. For that.

For stealing sporting equipment ...

Sporting equipment from the school that the door wasn't locked anyhow.

Where was he sent?

I think it was ... it was not Yasmar ... Albion Street children's shelter. Nob never made it to ... to Yasmar, only David made it there. Yeah. The deaths of the two were hard on the kids.

Was Nobby very close to Billy?

Very close. They were the two who, you know, eldest boys. Well he's the eldest boy now, Nob, that Bill's gone.

Was Nobby about when Billy died?


Was Nobby about when Billy died?

Yes. Well he was, he was, he was at home and came in when I found Bill like this. He picked Bill's body up and put his body on the bed and he was only a big lump of a 13-year-old kid, I think he was, and put him on the bed and covered him up with a blanket and run out of the house. Never saw him for days, you know? Just in his grief.

When he was in the children's home being punished for stealing sporting equipment, I suppose he met a few characters that didn't ... weren't particularly good for him to be associated with ...

That's it. Yeah. I mean, it takes all sorts I suppose, but then like me, I suppose you could put it with my choice of men, they weren't too good, too good with their choice of friends. And which led them into trouble with the law.

Did Nobby continue to have trouble with the law?

Well, he never seemed to be able to break away from it. No matter how much ...

What kinds of things went wrong for him?

Well, mostly just the deaths of the kids and I guess me dragging the kids from pillar to post, too. Even though I'd had them all together, kept them together, wasn't a life for kids, and kids got funny way of hitting out, too, you know. Some places they could bring friends home because it was big enough to have friends come and stay or whatever, and then some places you couldn't even swing a cat around it was so small and pokey, you know. So, I sometimes feel a bit guilty about that because I thought I could've put them in the homes and maybe they'd've had better lives, but then again they wouldn't have had mother's love, you know what I mean? And there was quite a time that I put myself down for that, you know? And when I lost the kids, I drank terrible. I used to be able to drink my son-in-law under the table. You know. And today he'd leave me for dead.

And you ... and you think that while you were drinking, too, they were getting into trouble?


That's quite a common thing to happen, isn't it? Women with big families with nobody helping them ...

That's true. No, no father figure, you know? Somebody to look up to. Somebody to be stern enough to say, you know, if you're going to muck up I'm gonna kick your bloody arse for you or something like that, you know? It was hard being a mother and a father.

So what did Nobby do to get into big trouble?

Well, he did six years jail for something he never did to begin with. And he just did not get any better. From there on in.

What did he do it for?

He was supposed to've fired shots at police to escape a lawful apprehension, and attempted murder, and it wasn't he that was firing the shots, it was a 14-year-old girl in the back seat of the car. He was as drunk as a monkey in the front, next to the driver, because he had found his girlfriend with another fella. So he was going through throes about broken love affairs when this happened to him. Ironic, isn't it? ... [laughs] ... I'd like to sit down one day with a psychiatrist and talk all this out, maybe he could give me some answers. You know, but ...

And so he got put away ... what happened to the girl?

Well, the girl went crown's witness for the police under pretext that she'd get treated lenient, she went to girl's home, and another 16-year-old went to boy's homes, and my boy was 17 and a half in Long Bay Jail, charged with attempted murder. And he never even fired a shot. You know what I mean? I'm writing his life story. And it's called Haunted Past, Nobby's story and others, and I'm inserting six Aboriginal deaths in custody with that, too, because there's nothing written from our side of the fence and we're the most jailed people in this country. You know. We can't be the most bad, evil people here.

And did he serve the whole six years?


Did he get in to trouble again?


What sort of things has he got into trouble with?

Oh, let's see. I can't remember most of the charges unless I look 'em up, but there was charges of this and ... petty thievery, joy riding, this was when he was a teenager in cars, stealing cars, things like that. But nothing worse than, nobody was ... I mean, people have done less time in jail for murder. Nineteen years of my son's life is given to the jail systems in this country. You know, because he is a victim of circumstances, not a bad, evil man, and he's found his spirit. His real Aboriginal spirit. Yeah.

And how's that?

With the painting. That's the only thing that's saved him.

He's a painter?


Tell me about his art and how he discovered that.

Well, in our Koori way, we say he's had to go back time and time again to that place he calls a shithole, meaning jail, to find his true spirit. And he's always had an identity crisis because his father's white and I'm the only black connection to his culture that he's got. So we know why he's had to go back and back and back to that place to find this spirit, it comes out in the paintings. He can paint portraiture, and he can paint traditional stuff. And I mean he's never ever seen a traditional Aboriginal person in his whole damn life, you know. And I said to him, ‘Well, how do you paint? How do you paint these portraits of these ...’ and they're all Elders, see. He said, ‘They come to me in my dreams.’ So our old ones are talking to our kids. The spirit will never die, and it will just be passed on along, too, you see?

Did you bring your children up entirely in Redfern?

Not only in Redfern. I don't think there's a suburb around the city that I haven't been in. Redfern, Alexandria, Waterloo, Surry Hills, Newtown ...

So it was all in the inner city?

All around.

And did you ...

I waited 10 years for a home, a housing commission home.

And where was that?

Green Valley.

So you moved to Green Valley when all the children were still pretty well at home?

Yeah. Yeah. 1972. I moved to Green Valley. And I was there right up 'til '78, which was the year that Nob came out. You know.

And that was your housing commission home?


So was that ... were there other Kooris around?

Ah, well, the housing commission estate there where we were was the government's policy of assimilation that Paul Hasluck legislated for in the 1940s, ‘50s, assimilate Aboriginal people as urban Kooris, you know, coming from the bush to the cities to look for work and that. Put us into these white housing estates in amongst white people so that we'd assimilate and integrate and become white in our thinking, give away culture. It was cultural genocide is what was practiced, well-documented what they wanted to do with our people, assimilate us so that there'd be no Aboriginal problem whatsoever. And it worked well in this respect: three of my daughters married white men and only one married an Aboriginal, you know. So ... and then this is what's happened to our people. And those housing estates, not only Green Valley, Mt Druitt the same, has something like 46,000 Aboriginal people. With the assimilation policies in Mt Druitt alone.

So, how did you feel when you went to this house ... when you first saw it, what did you imagine life was going to be like?

I cried. I cried, there was not even a light, I was looking at it with a torch ... [laughs] ...

Why did you cry?

Well, it was the first time I'd ever had a home for my kids. A real roof over their heads. There was no covering on the floor, it was only just polished pine, and it was just beautiful, four bedrooms, you know, running off a hall, and a big lounge and a dining room, kitchenette, a laundry and bath. Lovely. Had a garden and everything. But didn't last long.

You had nine kids ...


This was the first time you'd had four bedrooms ...

Yeah. Ever. We could swing 10 cats around there ... [laughs] ... Yeah.

And did you get a good welcome?

Well, the lady next door came and invited me over for a cup of tea and cake the next morning, saying that my kids would be going to school with her kids, it was just down the road, this Ashcroft High School was where Aileen and Ellen went, and Pauline and Jefferey were still at primary school, so ... but they eventually went to Ashcroft High School after that, but, I mean, if any one of your people come to visit and overstayed, or just stayed overnight, they'd be ringing up the commission and reporting you 'cause you're not allowed to have visitors unless you have permission from the housing commission. There were so many rules and regulations, I thought we got away from that when we were on the damn mission, you know? And here we were confronted with the same thing. People were controlling us and telling us what to do and running our lives for us.

So you started off well with the neighbours ...

Started off well and kids, yeah, and it ended up it was horrible.

What was horrible?

Oh, this is what I'm saying, they reported you for the least little thing. We had a dog, it was a barker and a yapper and we used to have it on a chain so it wouldn't be worrying anybody. Kids' pet. And if you let it off the chain it'd run chasing the cars. We had the poor dog taken and put down and that same woman next door who was reporting me, about the dog ... in her backyard there was a little dog wandering around that had no voicebox because she'd had it surgically removed, you know? I mean, these sort of people. Discriminating against me and making me send my dog away and yet here ... being so cruel and so unfeeling as to do that to an animal, you know? Disgusting. What do you reckon? ... [laughs] ...

What about your kids, did they feel ...

And the kids copped the same stuff but they made friends, the kids used to come over and kids sort of get together anyhow, and they had their little tiffs and ups and downs and it's gone and forgotten in next to no time. You don't take notice of kids fighting because the next day they could be best friends. You know it'd be a bit stupid, you'd become fighting all the time if you were to take notice of children. Besides that, they got on well, they liked ... there were some ... my young fella, Jeff, he was a football star, best and fairest in Green Valley. Undefeated premiers in Sadleir, and things like that. I was a football mum, you know, the football oval was just around the corner and that, we used to go of a weekend. It was lovely. For a while.

Then what went wrong?

Just too many rules and regulations that you had to put up with. Besides, all the kids grew up and went their own way in life and I didn't need a four-bedroom home just for me and Jefferey, did I? You know? So we moved back into town. And let the house go. Into Charles Street, Erskineville, but first we stayed with Dianne for a while in Eveleigh Street. And then we got this one-bedroom flat in Charles Street, Erskineville.

And what happened about your writing? When did you first get the idea to write?

Ah, look, you ask any of my kids, I've been saying for years and years, I'm gonna write a book, I'm going to write a book about us mob. And the reason why I wanted to write and always was, was, because I could.. I could see that the way ... how humour kept us going, with our laughter, about all the situations we found ourselves in, no matter how heavy it was, we could make a joke of it and laugh our way out of it, that's the only way. It's our survival mechanism, it's the thing that kept us going, you know? And this is why I wanted to write, so when there's only me and Jefferey then, in the little house in Pritchard Street, Marrickville, where I lived at the time, in 1984, and Jeff was doing ... what was he doing? His spraypainting course and, you know, working and then doing one day at tech, and so I picked up a pen and I started to write. And I haven't stopped since 1984. Oh, sure, a lot to pour out about the writing of the book, the first book took all the pressures from me and put it on the pages of that book, and I wrote it so that people would understand how difficult it is for us to survive and live between the two cultures, black and white in this country, and how we got no acknowledgment for any input, or anything in this country, you know? And well, that's basically why I wanted to write. And I haven't stopped.

What was the first time you ever wrote something that had actually earned you any money?

Well, I earned a guinea once in 19 ... this was the year Pauline was born, 1962, up in the bush tent on Gunnedah Hill. I wrote an essay for the NADOC week, Aboriginal ... National Aboriginal Day Observance week ... they have every year, and the essay was about what I'd best like to become if I could study, you know? And I wanted ... I said I'd like to be a doctor and I wrote about that and what I thought a doctor should be. You know? And I won the adult section for it and the prize was one guinea, and a few years after that happened, when things were opening up, guess what the prize was? This is the story of my life, eh? Not one guinea, it was an all-expenses paid trip overseas! ... [laughs] ... You know. Yeah, and the State Library, they hunted that up and found that it was in a Dawn magazine, one of the first Aboriginal magazines, you see? Yeah. One guinea ... [laughs] ... oh dear, it wouldn't even buy a loaf of bread today, I don't think ... [laughs] ...

People wouldn't even know now what a guinea was?

True, true.

Your father's father, your grandfather, Anderson ... who was he?

He was Sam Anderson and he was born in a little place called Boonah, near Beaudesert, other side of the Queensland water in Queensland and when he was a youth, in his teens, he migrated down across the border into New South Wales and worked on one of the first squatter's homesteads called Main Camp for a fellow named ... by the name of Cunningham Henderson.

... [repeat of question] ... Tell me about your grandfather, your grandfather Anderson, who ... your father's father ... who was he?

... [interruption] ....

And what was your grandfather like?

He was a very tall man, tall rangy fella, they were ... all the Anderson men were six footers. And all the women were short and fat like me. Can't get away from your genes, can you? ... [laughs] ... My grandfather should've wore the green and gold of Australia in cricket, he scored over 100 centuries in his career of cricket ...

Who did he play for?

He's a legend on the north coast of New South Wales. Richmond, Tweed and all around there, where he was cricketing, Sam Anderson. He lived to see Donald Bradman for a duck in 1928, and there were only two Aboriginal cricketers to ever do that, and there was Grandfather Sam and Eddie Gilbert. But you won't find that in any Australian history books. Don Bradman called him a black bastard and Grandfather was going to hit him with the bat ... [laughs] ... I wrote a story about it called Tracing My Roots, and it was published in the Independent Monthly, and instead of them asking me for certification or proof that Grandfather had got him out for a duck, they got in touch with Sir Don, and he said ... his reply was, ‘Yes I do remember a game of cricket I played in Lismore in 1928, and it may well have been Sam Anderson who got me out.’ You know? But no, he was brought down here to teach Sydney University Students the game of cricket and they walked off the field and wouldn't play with an Aborigine. This is fact. But he was a legend. They called him the Prince of Darkness, Prince of Darkness or the Bungawalbin Crack. That was Grandfather. And I witnessed a game between him and his three sons, my father included, and he done 'em like a dinner ... [laughs] ... And they threw the bat in and they wouldn't play with him no more. And he just stood there throwing the ball up and saying, ‘Come on, goodfulla, come and play your father cricket, come on goodfulla.’ He always called everybody goodfulla. He used to give us kids these hot peppermint lollies, you know, good for your colds. When I was in high school for these two years, I'd find him waiting for me in the park and he'd get me to tear pages out of my exercise book and write a letter to Dad for some money. And he'd disappear and I'd meet him back in the park when he wanted me to write another letter. Because he used to be a drover, you know? And that's where they found him when he died, in a drover's shack. They were all horsemen, stockmen, they built up all those cattle hierarchies up there. For no acknowledgment whatsoever. They were the first pioneers.

Were both of his parents Aborigines?

Yes ... Yeah ...

He had no white blood in him ...

He was declared a half-caste in those days of caste, whatsaname, you know, with the Protection Board. It was stated that he was a half-caste, but I don't know where that part came from. Because Grannie was full-blood. Grandmothers on both sides were full-bloods. You see.

So maybe it was through his father's side?

Yeah. I don't know. I was never able to trace that back. Yeah. But he was a grand man, he was. He got me to speak, I was a real pouty child at the mission there, and I wouldn't talk, sit there with my lip like this, you know. ‘Come on, good fella, come on, talk to grandfather.’ Wouldn't talk. Picked me up like and put me in the saddle of Kangaroo, his stock horse, 17 hands high, I soon yelled out, ‘Get me down, Poppy, get me down, I want to get down!’ ... [laughs] ... It sure got me to talk. He was a lovely old man. When he used to come to visit he used to go to the ... the slaughter yards and come back with the innards of the bullocks, you know? The heart and liver and intestines and that. Wash 'em up and clean 'em up, roll in flour and fry 'em. We called it mugoi [sp?] in my language. Mugoi means ghost, white, you know? Here, come and have some mugoi.

How did it taste?

Good. You've had heart and liver, haven't you? It's much the same. The offal stuff, yeah,

Now coming back to your ... skipping over generations from your grandfather, your own children, now, how many of them did you finally raise to adult life?

I've got six of them left, and 21 grandchildren, last count. And two great-grandchildren, last count. Nob's my eldest son, now. And Dianne's my eldest — she's 42. Nob'll be 41 in May of next year.

And how did you lose David?

David died through a drug overdose when he was 28 years of age in 1984, because his white wife left him and took the little girl and left the boy. And someone shot him up with some dope and it killed him.

Was it ... did he, do you think arranged it, or was he using ... ?

No. He used to smoke grass, pot, whatever you call it, but somebody hit him with heavy stuff because it was heavy narcotics, you know? That killed him. And he had trouble with his breathing, too, anyhow. When I went to the place where they found him, it was a half-way house for prisoners that came out of jail, and I looked at them with all their misery, there, and they weren't even able to help themselves let alone help my son. For one of them could've taken him ... they were walking him around, so I believe, to try and keep him awake, instead of ringing an ambulance and he might have been still alive. And if they didn't want to get caught out because drugs were rampant on the place anyhow, it must've been. They could've taken him out in the street and got somebody else to call an ambulance, do something, but they did nothing. So my son's gone. And like with the mixed-bloods that are in my family alone, you got some fair ones and you got some ... Dave's dark like me. And I used to call him ‘my little black buck’. Yeah. Or Davy Crockett. Yeah. He was the only one of the kids that always needed to know that he was loved. Davy Crockett. Yeah. And he used to say to me, ‘Why couldn't you make me big and six foot like Nobby, instead of little and black?’ And I used to say, ‘There, there, I gotta have one of youse like me, I'm little and I'm black’ ... and he'd shut up then. And walk away smiling.

Looking back on the way that you lived while you were raising your kids, all the different places and the different men, most of whom didn't do much to help ... how is it different for you, from the life of a poor white person?

... [interruption] ...

Well, I don't remember reading anywhere about any poor white woman doing the work that I done. But my story, you must understand, is not just mine. I know there are poor white people that live in poverty, too, and don't have money to send their kids to the best schools and whatever. But my life story is not only mine. My life story is the story of every Aboriginal woman that's got jahjums — children — to raise in this society in Australia today. I'm only one. There are many more like me. But, because nobody's written their stories or told their stories, and this country knows nothing about us, there are many, many more. I'm only just one, and I want to stress that. I'm not super ... I'm not superwoman. I'm just one of the many.

And they have the same stories, too, that I have. Neddy's got the same sort of story as me. Nerida Pearl. Mostly all of hers are dead. Her kiddies. You know? I mean, this country looks at Aboriginal people and say they're all drunks and they're all no hopers, but they don't look at the thing that causes how people to be so distressed, so misplaced. Our dispossession in our own land is what's killing us like flies, and nobody gives a damn, that's what I find. Nobody gives a damn. Leave it up to multiculturalism right over our heads as if we weren't here and the country really was terra nullius, empty land, and I don't think our Indigenous people, big black warriors, they were, were bloody invisible, you know?

The women that share your story ... [interruption] ...

... were they the ones that used to help when you were down?

Of course. Neddy helped me. Tidda Gert helped me. Mum Rube helped me. Mother Nell helped me. They all had something to give me in this respect about life and show me. So, my story is their stories, too. You know? Mum Ruby for the childbearing one, Mother Nell for teaching me how to respect my elders, to sit at the table and eat, not have my arms out here and fly like a fowl, sit nice, and speak when you're spoken to. These things, you know what I mean? And if I used to whistle, she'd say to me, ‘Whistling maidens nor crowing hens are neither good to God or man.’ I used to think, ‘Gee, what the hell does that mean?’ ... [laughs] ... You know? And there was all this stuff used to come out and these people, they were good people, but Mother Nell had all that Victorian squattocracy stuff piled on here. They used to wear the dresses with the corsets, you know, that was so tight you'd have to pull 'em up here like that. High collars and pinched waists, all this stuff, you know. It was just like looking at ... people from England, there, at home. Because their attitudes were like that, and this is what the assimilation stuff did to my people. It denied us the rights to be our own damn selves, the real people we are, you know? Didn't wind me up too much ... [laughs] ...

How long were you at Green Valley?

From 1972 to 1978, what's that, eight years, isn't it? Eight going on nine years, something like that.

And why did you leave?

All the kiddies had grown up and branched out and gone their own way in life and there was only me and the young fella, Jefferey, there in the house, and it was a four-bedroom house, and I didn't need a four-bedroom home for just myself and him, you know? And, so we'd leave, so we went into town and stayed with Dianne for a while until ... it took about three weeks to get a little one-bedroom flat in Charles Street, Erskineville. That's where we were.

And during the next stage of your life with your children pretty well grown up, what was life like for you?

Oh, I suppose it was alright. You know? I was pretty set in my ways. While I was living in that little flat in Charles Street, I began going to the Aboriginal medical service, they advertised for a sewing teacher, you know, and I, being a seamstress, I got the job. It was only for one day a week, but it was better than nothing. And it was an outlet, and Jeff was still in high school, Cleveland Street High School actually ... yeah ...

The old people predicted that you'd have a hard time with your health in old age because of all the hard work that you did when you were younger. Did that come true?

Yes, yeah. It really did. I've put on a lot of weight because at the time I was drinking. And I went to Weight Watchers, this was when I was in the Valley, before I went there, and got in with the Weight Watchers program there, and lost something like one stone, two pounds the first month I was there. I was queen of the month and I had a little sash ... [laughs] ... But, with the dieting and just not eating right, I ended up losing nearly four stone, and I nearly had a heart attack 'cause I was cutting the calories down and not eating right, you see, and this is what made me sick. I went leg up and I ended up in hospital with nearly a heart attack, you know? So the doctor went crook at me and told me to start eating right again, you know, and do it properly or it would make me sick, and, at the time I was on Valiums still from the children, recovering from the loss of the kids, and I'd go to the pub to socialise with my friends at the Big E and I'd feel a little bit uptight and I'd pop a Valium, then I'd wash it down with a beer, and I didn't know but that was a potent mixture, and it nearly had me climbing the walls. You know? And made me real sick so I had to give 'em away, flush 'em down the toilet and I said I'd never ever take another antibiotic, and I have — not antibiotic — antidepressant, yeah, and I've never taken one since, you know? But, because of all the gut busting and that, yes, I had to have more surgery on my stomach, and in 1980 they cut nine kilos off my stomach. I was 27 stone. I think all the fat was my security blanket to hide me from all the pain and suffering that I've been going through. But, the doctor's name was Dr McGlynn [sp?] at Prince of Wales Hospital, and he just used to look at me and shake his head, but anyhow, it come out okay. And ... it left me pretty weak and that, you know, and I did lose more weight than that, too. But, there were other things that were going wrong with me as well. I had blood sugar levels, and it was caused I think by the drinking and not eating right. Stuff like that. I don't know how many times the kids used to rush me in an ambulance to get me to the hospital because I'd be going out of it, going hypo, you know, sort of thing.

Have you got diabetes?

No. But I was a borderline diabetic. But it was controllable by the diets, you know? Mm ...

And you also had a battle with cancer?


How did that happen?

Well, that that was only a recent thing, 1991, after doing all the research for my third book, My Bundjalung People. I went up for my son's 25th birthday, up in Raymond Terrace when they used to live up there in the housing estate. And I noticed a lump and it was painful, and I'd never discovered it before, and then the year before that I had a mammogram and nothing showed up. And, oh, my daughter-in-law said to me, ‘You'd best get that checked out, Mum.’ And so as soon as I come back to the city, I went in and had it checked out, and it was cancer. It was only two centimetres and I had ... they put me in hospital on a Sunday night and on the Monday morning I had the lump taken under a local anaesthetic and then 24 hours after they come back with the results and said, yes, the rest has to go. And so I had a massive mastectomy. And I was in hospital for about a month, but they said I'd beaten it. And I was on tomoxophin, that wonder drug, for three years. And I'm still clear. And will remain clear, because if you can beat cancer you can beat anything, you know, but I was too busy with the research and what I was doing, you know, to even notice, actually, and it was good that it happened so quick so that we just got it [done], you know? But I was still in mourning over that. You know, I mean, losing part of your body and, oh, you can live without a boob, but you know that it's not there. And besides ... I'm that round you wouldn't even notice that I haven't ... that I only have one boob, you know? But anyhow, I know. I knew. And I was in mourning for a little while there. Doc said it'll settle down after a while. You do. You start to get a bit of common sense about yourself, and say, well, you know, enough's enough. You know? You're alive. And I'm grateful for that. I told you, there's good spirits up there watching me. Not one, but many of them ... [laughs] ...

Now the battle of cancer ... cancer was one of a long line of battles that you'd had in your life with different things?


And one of those was ... was a battle with the grog?


Now, can we talk just a little bit about grog and its place in Aboriginal life, because it is an issue for so many Aboriginal people, the question of grog, when they're in a bad situation. Could you tell me from your own point of view, from your own experience, and from the experience of people that you've been close to, how that works?

Yeah, well, I think it was my way of handling the deaths of my kids, was the hardest thing that I ever had to face, and, well, the booze, it hid the pain for a little while. You know? But then you'd wake up next morning and the pain'd be still there. It was something that wouldn't go away. But, I never drank or had a drink until I was 29 years of age. 28, 29, something like that. And I never had a cigarette even, 'til I was 33 years of age. And I did that on a dare. You know? On ... on my birthday, my 33rd birthday. They dared me to have a smoke. A juhm , we call it in my language. So I lit up and then I coughed and sputtered all over the place and I nearly chucked up, you know, and it was the same with the beer. The first time I ever had a beer, I said, ‘That bitter stuff, who'd want to drink that, yetch it's horrible,’ you know? But anyhow I drank to drown my sorrows, and yes, it is a problem with our people. It's not drugs, it's the alcohol. And I'm just lucky that — how can I put it? — with my problem with the booze, I had a family to raise and one day the girls come and said to me, Mum ... this was ... there was only me and Jeff left in the place, you know, that I had in town. ‘Do you know why the young fella goes away every weekend and doesn't stay home? Because you go to the pub and socialise with your friends and havin' a whale of a time and having a good old party and drink up.’ I said, ‘No, he's gone there because I'm not home, I suppose.’ ‘No, Mum,’ they said, and this is my four women, called me up for a family conference to do this, and they said, ‘He goes away to the pub, to the one of the family of a weekend to get away from you because when you come home, after your drinking, you abuse him and call him all the names you can lay your tongue to because you think he's Lance. Because his name is Lance.’ You know? And I said, ‘What?’ I wasn't even aware that I was doing this to my son. My baby especially, you know. And oh my god. I said, God, my father, reared me to do this to my children? And I gave it away and I haven't been back since.

And you gave it away just like that?

Yeah. It's true. Thank goodness it never addled my old brain or I wouldn't be able to do what I've been doing, you know? And memory to be so good, but I used it as a ... the alcohol, it was a form of relief to get out and get amongst friends.

It was part of the socialising, was it? Because ...

It was a part of the socialising, you know.

The Empress ...

The Empress was like a home away from home ... it was a meeting place ...

... for Aboriginal people.

What was the place of the Empress Hotel in your life as Aboriginal people in the suburbs of Sydney?

It was our meeting place, it was the only place that we had as a meeting place. You see, for Kooris coming from the bush to the city, they'd only have to go to that pub in Redfern there, The Big E, we called it, and they'd find somebody who knew where their people were. So, in this sense, it was a meeting place. Somebody would know where their family were, you know? And that's how they'd connect up again. It was a meeting place. And besides, they sponsored our All Blacks football team, they were ... trophies ... God knows what else around there. And that old publican, he must be a multi-millionaire by now, I think, you know? But ... like of weekends there'd be dances, disco, and they'd have a band, talent quests and stuff like that. It was a way of socialising. And no matter where they'd come from, which they'd come from all over the place to meet there at that pub of a weekend. You'd see no fewer than four police wagons out the front at shut up time. Back in the 60s they used to have a curfew there for Aboriginal people, and those police would wait out the front until they ... they'd come out as the pub shut, these were 10 o'clock closing times, you know? And then grab them and just take them in for drunk ... pinched for drunk. It was a whole ... they'd be waiting there. Always. Just to herd them off the street.

And in my book I wrote about how I used to come from the Valley, Green Valley, because I missed being amongst people, my own people, you know? And when I'd go in there sometimes of a weekend to be with my ... my daughter Dianne, who lived in Eveleigh Street, we'd go down to the Big E and on coming home, I'd have ... they'd wait with me at the taxi rank which is just on the corner, so ... or I'd get a taxi from there, or I'd catch a train home, you know, if it wasn't too late. And one night the police were herding the people off the streets, back towards Eveleigh Street, get off the street. And they asked me what was I doing sitting on the seat and I said, ‘This is a taxi rank, I'm waiting for a taxi.’ And they were going to pinch me, you know? And all the footballers swarmed around me and they said, ‘Auntie, you don't move from there, that's a public transport, that. They don't have no rights to herd you off there.’ You see, our people didn't know nothing about the laws and stuff like that. But they used to herd our people off the street there, they'd be off the street by 10 o'clock, you know. That's every day of the week in that place in there, it'd be terrible.

The Empress worked in a positive way ... it could be a place where you could all get together ...

Yeah ... get together ...

and alcohol helped oil that process ...

Oh yeah ... yeah.

What was the negative side of it?

Well, the negative side of it would be that, I suppose, the hangovers that people got from it and their fighting and stuff like that. Rows which this caused. And a lot of families have broken up because of alcohol, you know. And stuff like that. So it had its effect. But then again, I guess it has the same sort of effect in white situations, too. You know? I mean, but I think it myself, it was one of the most powerful things that've been ever introduced into our culture and it had a worse effect, whatsoever, and still has, you know? And, even to drugs today. It's disgusting. Makes you think and that about what sort of society we have when, you see, you know, even young kids with booze and drugs. It's terrible.

With the men in your life, did alcohol play much part in the fights that you used to have with them?

Well, with Lance and Gordan it did. Chub ... Peter wasn't much of a drinker, but he was a terrible gambler, you see that? All had something ... well, I mean ... I think I was trying to compare all those men that I had as husbands to my father. I was looking for an image that was like my father, because of ... he was a hero, you know? Yeah. He was quite a man. But I never did find ... but they had some special quality about them, I guess. There must have been something that attracted me to them. But I had that search, same search as everybody else, for someone to love. And permanence. You know? I envied my sisters with that, their longstanding marriages. Gwen's been married for something like 36 years and Midge, my cousin, her and Dougie have been married for 43 years. Rita was married for 27. You know?

And so what do you think, what do you think went wrong for you?

I don't know whether I could say that I must have had that sign on my forehead saying, fool fool fool, or something like that, you know. But no, I was just — how can I put it? I was just not good at choosing. I was always a sucker for a sad story. A sob story. Always wanting to help somebody. And too trusting. Which was the way I was brought up to be. You know? To turn the other cheek and all this stuff.

Do you think that when you were younger and you were putting up with things from these men, that you really, probably shouldn't have put up with, that it ... that it had anything to do with the sense that you actually weren't worth what you were really worth? I think I'm asking the question, did you all through your young years not really understand what you had to offer?

That's true, that's true in some sense, yeah. Yeah. And when everything fell apart for me, as I said before, I started examining myself and saying, ‘Gee, what the hell's wrong with me?’ And it made me feel bad because I thought, what's wrong with me? You know? Why are these things happening to me? Am I such a bad person? It does ... oh it makes you feel no good, you know? And then I realised after a while, that hey, no, I think my priorities are alright. It's their problem. And their problems are on top, putting, dumping on top of me, made me feel that it was my fault and it wasn't my fault. They were just users, you know? And I did the best I could for my kids. Yeah.

And what about with your kids? How did you try to teach them to manage the world as it is today? What kinds of things have you tried to raise them to believe?

Well, I taught them most of all to care for one another, no matter what. And what else? I taught them never to be ashamed, to show love for each other. And although they have their differences, they'd always reach out and help each other. One falls down, pick 'em up. This is what I taught them. Yeah.

And did they learn that well?

Well I think, I think they did. They have their squabbles and get the pops with one another, but you let somebody else come along and say something about any one of them, you got to fight the lot ... [laughs] ...

You've now written quite a few books. Could you tell me what motivated you to write each of them? First of all, Don't Take Your Love to Town, which in itself, actually, that title, Don't Take Your Love to Town, tells of a woman who regrets some of the men that she's been involved with.

Yeah. Well, funny thing about that first book, was ... some of the working titles for it were going to be: Ruby's Story, at one time; The Reminiscences of Ruby, that sounded a bit off, you know; Redfern Ruby; Ruby of Redfern. But I settled for just Ruby's Story for the working title, and I never got a name for that book until I was just about finished. I was doing rewrites for it when I had major surgery in 1987, you know, at Prince Alfred Hospital and it took four years, four and half years plus one near nervous breakdown to write that book. I was suffering stress when I came to this hostel where I now live. From doing that book, but I was also recovering from major surgery where they'd taken another 13 kilos off my stomach after I'd lost another two stone in weight. You see? And I was lying in bed and the nurse used to come to do the dressings 'cause my wound still hadn't healed, in that Henderson Road where I lived with the young fella, Jeff. As a matter of fact he used to do the dressings sometimes for me. She showed him how to do it. And I was listening to my radio beside the bed, and a song came on, it was Kenny Williams [Kenny Rogers] singing Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town. And I said, ‘That's it! ‘Don't Take Your Love to Town’! That's the title!’ you know, because you couldn't use the full title of the song, which is Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town. But ‘Don't Take Your Love To Town,’ anybody could say that and my name is Ruby, that's how it works that way. That's how I got the title of it, you know.

How did you come to write the book? Who suggested it to you?

I suggested it to myself. I always did say I'd write a book, you know? From as far back as you can ask my children ... oh, when they were little I used to say, ‘I want to write a book one day,’ and I wanted to write about all the laughter and happy times, you know? But I had a family of nine kids plus another nine of some mothers’ sons. They weren't all black either. The kids that I picked up, you know? On my wild journey through life. They're some mothers’ sons, and they're mostly all boys that have been in and out of children's homes and the big house. Jail. So Mum Shirl's got nothing on me. You've got, you know, we'd made a bed down for 'em somewhere, they're people, human beings, and I like people. I'm a people person.

And the other books that you've written?

The second one was a book of short stories. It was published by Angus and Robertson’s imprint in 1992. Ernie Dingo launched it for me here in Sydney, and Mudrooroo launched it over at the Adelaide Writer's Festival of that same year. And it's a book of ... I think there's 18 short stories and poems. And then there's photographs there and Real Deadly in urban Koori talk means ‘real good,’ you know.

And this is the book that's called Real Deadly?


And why did you write that book?

Well, I'd had some little short stories written for a while and I thought I'd get them together and with that I couldn't think of a title, but Tom Thompson, who's the publisher of that when he was with Angus & Robertson, and he said, ‘You've already got the title, you keep saying it in how you talk.’ I said, ‘What're you talking about?’ He said, ‘You're always saying “aw, that's real deadly”, that's your title.’ Ah, good, thanks very much, you know? And that's how that one come to be.

And My Bundjalung People?

My Bundjalung People ... I always wanted to go back to the mission to connect up with my family and tell my people's story from their side of the fence, from an Aboriginal perspective, you know? And there's nothing written from our side of the fence in this country so that's what I did and Pam Johnston, she was one of two Aboriginal artists that had a go at doing the cover of my first book, Don't Take Your Love to Town, and she took photos and that, you know, and she's quite a good photographer and that, and I said to her — I was telling her what I wanted to do — and she said, ‘Well, I've got the car, I'll take you.’ But before that we applied for ... she applied for the Women in the Arts [Fellowship], because she asked my permission, you know, to ... for me to get permission from the Elders when we went back to do a documentary ... not a documentary, a photo exhibition, photographic exhibition, and be damned ... I went for the History Fellowship and I won that, and so did she win her Women in Arts Fellowship, and so we had the money and away we went. I nearly travelled 20,000 kilometres in the first part of 1990, you know? It was just wonderful. Six Aboriginal reserves we researched on, and they're all my mob in Bundjalung country, and I got permission from the Elders for her to document my research with photographs. And I transcribed their stories and I interviewed them with a tape, on these journeys we went. Yeah. And it culminated in that. And that first exhibition was shown on the first of July, 1991, and it was an outstanding success. People came from all over and it was the first time that Bundjalung art had been displayed in Bundjalung country ever.

And during that time that you were discovering all this background that you'd not known about, what was the thing that you remember most? That happened during that time?

Well, going back to do that research, Pam would be laughing at me because I was crying around every corner. She was, I know, ‘Stop crying now.’ Because every corner I turned around brought back the pain of all what went down when we were kids there, you know? Going around past the segregated hospital, coming onto the mission, and I could remember, you know? It was just ... it just knocked me for a loop. And I saw my Auntie and asked her permission and I used to call there and interview her, take sandwiches and stuff like that, for cups of tea and a yarn. And it was wonderful. And on to Cabbage Tree Island, Muli Muli Mission. Tabulum. All around.

Now, what you'd actually been taught properly about the Aboriginal ways, had all happened in the first six years of your life ...

Yeah ...

Because when you went to live with Mother Nell and Father Sam, they didn't know your people in that way ...

No ...

So those early six years was when you ... Can I ask you about what it was that you learned in the first six years of your life that you now remember best? The stories, the ways that you were taught?

Well, I can remember the language, the language, you know, and I can remember the people more closer together and more caring and sharing all that stuff, you know. And what I found when I went back is that our people have been divided and quartered and split apart and torn asunder. It was all gone. And they lived in such poverty, you know? And sad. And that's what knocked me in the guts actually. Yeah. Just to see how they lived. And these are the people built up, as I said, the big cattle hierarchies ... up there for no acknowledgment, no nothing, you know, and living in not third world conditions, but fourth world conditions in poverty compared to the affluence of the hierarchy, of the cedar-getting and cattle-getting industry and living in mansions on the hills.

But when you were small, there were happy times ...

There were happy times.

What are some of the things that you remember?

Well, I mean, we were so poor that the toys what us kids used to have, we used to make steamrollers out of Sunshine milk tins, fill them up with sand and put the lid on, put a bit of wire through, a bit of nail and put hole through it, and one of us would pull it and run with them, or a hoop, you know? A bike wheel with all the spokes taken out of it and just with a stick run it in a groove like that. I can remember trying to ride a bike, a boy's bike, with my little legs put through it like that when I was six, going down the hill, and I ended up in a lantana bush, all scratched and bruised up from trying to ride it though — with my legs through there 'cause I was too small to sit on top of it, see? On a bike. Oh, there was a hell of a lot of wonderful things there. And heaps of guava trees growing 'round this mission of mine. There. And us kids used to have special favourite ones, and I bagsed that one and I bagsed it and ‘don't you touch it,’ and put a little mark there, you know, and watch to see that the other kids didn't go on and pinch your guavas from. That was the only fruit we had there in those days, you know? 'Cause they had the old rations. The woman, as I said before, that was the manageress of that mission when I was a child there was Mrs Hiscocks, who became the manageress of that infamous Cootamundra Girls’ Home. You know, she was an old Trojan. Yeah.

Did your mother ever teach you how to find bush tucker?

Yeah. Mum used to take me and Gwennie when there was only just the two of us and she'd sit us on the side of a creek or swamp and she take her bloomers up like that, in her dress, feel with the feet like that for the turtle — binging — and wring its neck and chuck it on the bank. And we'd be sitting there with the little chaff bag waiting to put the binging in. Back home ... [interruption] ...

Turtles. Yeah. Take 'em home when she's got enough of them. And that was like you ... it was how you'd kill 'em. Just wring their neck and throw it out. But she'd have them turned upside-down on her back like that in the old field stove in the oven. Yeah. She used to cook 'em up for us.

The stories that Uncle Ernie, the old wise man ...

Wuyun gali ... Wuyun gali ...

Wuyun gali.... used to tell you, those stories, do you ... do you remember any in particular?

No, he used to tell us about the bush animals and stuff like that. But there was a lot of knowledge that he was passing on to me that I wasn't aware. He was telling me about our culture and that, and that we were totemic people and about the Dreamtime, like this. And my totem of my tribe was willy wagtail and me being the eldest, he says, ‘Now you gotta remember this.’ And he'd sit there and tell us these stories and two girls, one was sitting on this side of his lap and the other one there, Gwen and Rita, there was no room for me, all I'd have to do is just sit up and lean up against him, and he'd start to go to sleep beside the open fire while he used to tell these stories, and he was a big drover's fat man, you know, and I'd be poking him in the belly, ‘What next Uncle Ernie? Tell us what next? Don't go to sleep.’ He used to have us spellbound, you know? But, no, that's where we got mostly all the cultural stuff was what he was telling us. And it was wonderful stuff. Do you understand about the Dreaming?

What did Uncle Ernie, the wuyun gali, tell you about the Dreaming?

Well, he told me that we were totemic people and I ... when the first settlers came here they never understood that Aboriginal people, we had our own Gods and that, you know, our own spirituality and stuff like that. But they classed us as heathens and vermin, you know, they thought we were Godless. But our Dreaming, in white man's concept of religion, you've got that God created heaven and the earth, and he worked for six days and rested on the seventh and that all life formed, evolved from Adam and Eve, or from the sea, you know? Well, in our religious beliefs, it was before creation time, when the earth was flat and the great spirit forces moved over the land giving it its physical form, creating the mountains and valleys, the rivers and streams and everything in it that is. The animals, birds, fish and insects, and setting down the laws and rules for Aboriginal people, the world's oldest surviving people, to live by. This is our Dreaming, and it's as valid as any religion — Catholic, Protestant, Methodist, you know. That's our version. And this is what Uncle Ernie was teaching me, you know.

And the bush animals, where did they fit in?


The bush animals he taught you about?

Well, we were animals, birds, fish and insects, before we became human beings. That's our Aboriginal spirits out there. You know? That's where we come from. And when I die, I'll become a willy wagtail, or my tribal name which is ginibi, I'm a big old bird, you see. Ginibi is black swan, and that's my tribal name, so either one of them, I have a choice of what I'll come back as, okay? 'Cause we believe in reincarnation and we are reincarnated as our totems, you know?

If I say to you, what's your name? how do you answer?

My name is Ruby Langford Ginibi, but proper name, Ginibi. My Auntie gave me that name when I ... in Lismore when I was doing a lecture for International Women's Day, and I said to her, ‘Auntie, please pick me a good name, a tribal name, I want a tribal name.’ And she said, ‘I will, niece,’ and in front of all these people that had come to hear us talk, me and Pam, she calls out halfway through my lecture, ‘Niece, I got a good tribal name for you. It's Ginibi,’ she said. Then my sisters, they talked to me when they fly over and I bust out crying in front of all these people. Hard to give me my tribal name while I'm in the middle of a lecture! Oh, dear. I thought it was beautiful, isn’t it?

You're writing a book about your son, Nobby. Tell me about him.

The only sore point in my life has ever been that my son has never been free of the brutal jail system and police brutality in this country. Through wrongful conviction when he was only 17-and-a-half years of age. The charge was firing at the police to escape lawful apprehension, and attempted murder, although nobody was murdered or maimed. But my son did six years jail for that, you know? And whilst there, there was a breakout and he was amongst the breakout. There was about seven of them. One prisoner went along and opened up all the cells and they all run, tied bedheads and jumped a 30-foot wall, Long Bay Jail, and my son was the last one to be caught. After three weeks on the run. And this was all happened when he was only ... when he was still a kid, teenager.

While he was on the run did he come to see you?

Yes. I wrote about it in Don't Take Your Love to Town. He was only there quick and gone. But, he always did say that he'd want me to write his life story. And with the way things are, with Aboriginal people, you know, we're not quite two percent of the total population of Australia, yet we're the most incarcerated people in Her Majesty's jails in this country. There are 6,430 Aboriginal men, women and juveniles incarcerated in this state alone, New South Wales, and I get these statistics from Pam who works in the prison system, you see? She's a teacher, an art teacher in the jails. So it's all true, you know? But I wanted to write his story and so I thought, what better way with the 19 years of incarceration he's done, on and off, which stems from that wrongful conviction way back then. My son's not a bad, evil man. He's done some stupid things and been easily led and stuff like that, but we're all human, but nobody's been murdered or maimed, and his continual fight to just get justice, you know? And Aboriginal people don't have justice. How can we be the most bad, evil people in the whole of this now multicultural Australia when we're not quite two percent, as I said, of a total population which now stands at 18 million? You know?

We don't have any justice because Aboriginal people always had to conform to the laws of the invading powers of our country, because we were never allowed to be ourselves. We had assimilation forced on us, had to give away language, identity and become like white people. And even today, governments do not classify urban Aboriginal people with a degree of Abo ... caste of, you know, caste in us, like half-caste, quarter-caste, you can't say that today. You're either Aboriginal or white, but years ago it used to be you were half-caste, quarter-caste, full-blood, three-quarter-caste, one-eighth-octoroon, you know? This is how they defined us. But even today the governments of Australia define us, urban Kooris of mixed blood, as not real Aboriginals. The only real Aboriginals here according to them are the traditional tribal ones out in the desert sitting on a rock with a spear in his hand. You see, this is how they've always defined us, but we define ourselves as the children of the Indigenous people, you know, the ancestors of the Indigenous people, and we're sick of other people telling us who we are.

And where we come from, and forever having us under a microscope because every time they dig a bigger hole we've been here longer, type thing, you know? And I say to students, when I'm lecturing sometimes, you know, ‘The last carbon dating of Aboriginal people on this continent was not 50,000, it was 60,000 to 100,000 years ago. And compare that with 207 years of European migration to this country, there's no comparison, you know?’ And I thought, to write my son's life story, I will incorporate Aboriginal deaths in custody in his life's story because there has been nothing written from our side of the fence, you know? About our people being the most incarcerated. And nobody seems to give a damn, you know? It's the biggest shame.

As mother and adopted mother to a lot of boys who've got into trouble, you've often had to protect them and hide them when they've run from the police?


Tell me some of those stories.

Well, my adopted son, Allan, was in Maitland in jail. No, not Maitland, Cessnock Jail, and he used to write letters and that to me, you know, and this is how I came to meet Patrick, the other adopted son, who gave me the money to buy the car so Nob could take me on research, you see? They were in the football teams up there and they went jogging and they never pulled up until they hit my house in Green Valley and I never knew, for about a month afterwards, that they had escaped. I just thought that, naturally, that they'd been discharged from prison and let out, you know? And I could've been ... I could've been pinched or put in jail for harbouring them myself, you know? Because come there and raided my house and I was away at Dianne's at the time and they took them from there back to jail again. I didn't know that they'd been jogging and they ended up down home ... [laughs] ... Aw, true, some things I've had to do. Once there was a young kid out there run past my back door, and he said, ‘Mrs Langford, can you hide me, the police are after me,’ and I hid him up in my manhole. And my washing machine was right underneath it, you know, and next minute the police come past and they called out, ‘Did you see a young fella running past here?’ I said, ‘Yes, he went that way,’ you know? And here he was up here in manhole. Aw, but it's a terrible thing to have to do, but it makes you so sad you've got do something to help them, you know?

Well, you see, quite a lot of women would say what you should've done, for their own good, was to turn them into the police, but you wouldn't do that. Could you tell me why?

Well, I guess it's from what's happened to my son, you know. And I mean, our people are still being brutalised in the brutal jail system in this country and nobody gives a damn, you know. With the Royal Commission that they had into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody there were recommendations on 99 deaths that they did hold at that commission, and there were ... 339 recommendations of change and not one of them have been implemented as yet. And, you see, with the research that I've been doing, I feel that not only the police and prison officers, the whole judiciary and the lawyers and everything, need to know about Aboriginal dispossession and how it has left us, so then they will perhaps be a bit more understanding of where we're coming from, you see. They see an Aboriginal person drunk and staggering down the street, they say, ‘Oh, they're all like that.’ This is the stereotypes that we've had to live with. They never look or think or the reason why our people like they are. Why they drink. It's hopelessness, you know. We don't have a voice, we don't have any human rights in this country of ours. Why, there are some Aboriginal communities that don't have fresh drinking water and our people are dying of curable diseases and are the most incarcerated people in Her bloody Majesty's prisons, you know? Big shame, Australia. That's what I say. Big shame. And it's disgusting.

What hope do you have?

I have hope that we'll ... Aboriginal people will get the recognition that we are the first people of this land, the Indigenous people, and input. We want to have input with everything else that goes on in this country. Why are we forever being excluded from white social enclaves? We have always been locked out. We've always been like that proverbial ... what was the bird on the biscuit tin. On the outside looking in. And never allowed to, you know? And this year we've got Paul Keating saying that there's going to be, with the new social justice change, three seats for Aboriginal people in parliament. Why the hell didn't they put Aboriginal people in parliament years ago? We don't have a voice there because we still have a white minister speaking on our behalf. We have ATSIC [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission], which is Aboriginal commissioners from all over the country, nationwide. Their chairperson is Lois O'Donoghue and if they make decisions about funding for this and that, it's always got to be taken back to the white minister and that is still governmental control and that is not self-determination for my people. There's still governmental control, which they have always had. And I mean, for instance, Maori people have been sharing parliament with the Pakeha for over a hundred years. They had a treaty and it was not honoured, that's why they're still fighting. See all the horrible fighting going on about land rights over there? We have never had a treaty.

Aboriginal people have never seceded this country to no foreign power, it was cultural theft, you know? And in fact, we are forever being blamed for what they have done to us. That's why we are like we are. There has to be acknowledgment of Aboriginal people as the Indigenous people of this country and there needs to be change in the constitution which states that, too. Because when the referendum in '67 ... giving us the rights to vote and be real people because before that it was terra nullius, you see, and nobody here, which is a damn lie. The other great lie was that Cook discovered this place. It was the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, the Germans, that came long before he came and graced our shores, but they came and they went. They never came to dispossess my people of their land or their Dreaming. And this is truth. We've been lied to enough, you know. And this country's been lied to enough and I feel that people want to live and migrate into this country, they must know the real history of this country, and that's from the black perspective, a Koori perspective, you know.

At the individual level, with somebody like Nobby, your son, what's your hope for him as a person now at this moment in jail. What do you think will save him?

Well, his art is the only thing that saved him. Because, as I said before when I spoke about him, that being a child and growing up and me being the only black connection he's got to his culture, and never ever meeting a tribal person ever. And for him to paint and do the ... he's found his true spirit, he's found his identity, you know? And he doesn't need anything else. He's got his art, his creativity, and he's a very good human being. To meet him, you wouldn't think that this man has given 19 years of his life to that brutal penal system that still exists here, you know, in this country with my people. You wouldn't think he's the same person. He's, he's the biggest clown, fighting, wrestling, going with the kids, stirring all the grandkids up and then running and leaving and getting them to chase him. You know. Can you imagine what it was like with me? I won a fellowship to take him home to write his life story and just me and him in a car travelling, going back to Bundjalung country, me and him, and I used to sneak sideways glances at him to see if he was really there in the car 'cause I haven't been in a car with that son of mine since he was damn eight years of age. And he's a 40-year-old man, you know? So that story is, you'll pardon the expression, I'm going to knock them on their bums with it. Yeah. Because I don't hold anything back with what I'm writing, you know? And that's the only sore point in my life, is that he's never been able to live free of that police brutality that still exists in this country with the jailings of our people, you know?

Do you ever regret leaving Bundjalung country?

I'm sorry that I ever left home. I should have stayed home. I wouldn't have had all these dramas, would I? To contend with. And still contending with, I might add ... [laughs] ... I'll have to have a good lie down when I finish all of this ... [laughs] ... I told you I got no sleep last night. This was just like bringing back all the hurts again, and it was like reliving the deaths of my kids. It was like reliving that terrible life. People must think that I'm quite an idiot to be laughing it off, you know, after going through such trauma, but the laughter is the only thing that's kept me going. Because without it, I surely damn well cry. You know? But as I said, my story is not only mine. There's a lot of other black mothers out there too with kids, I'm only one.

You learned to laugh to get through the hard times ... it seems also that when you were younger you were too ready to feel ashamed of yourself ...


Could you talk about that? About how that sense of shame was put into you?

Well, it was ... it was shame ... well, it was a shameful thing to be an unmarried mother. In those days they really looked on you as a tart, you know? Like you were a low-life, you know? And that's what made me feel ashamed.

Were you made to feel ashamed of being Aborigine?

Yes, yes. As I said, I know what it's like from both sides of the fence because I lived with two white and two black men, and I had children to all of them. So in other words, like both sides of the fence. Yes, I know what it's like to be refused entry to places where only white people can go. And with the way I was brought up, I didn't think this was fair because with all this talk, my father used to stand us girls up before we were going out anywhere and he'd say, ‘I've got to look at youse to see if youse is dressed right.’ This was when we lived in Great Buckingham Street when we was only teenagers, you know, make sure everything's all right. We got so much going against us that we have to dress and prove that we're upfront the same as everybody else. That stuck to me all my life. I might get around here without my shoes on, perhaps not even my false teeth in my head, but when you guys come I got to dress up properly, eh? Put the war paint on. Be upfront. This is where it comes from. He passed on a lot of great knowledge, you know?

When did you learn to stop feeling ashamed of yourself?

Oh, when I get with my kids, I think to myself, when we're all together, they call me ... I talk a lot. When we're all together I shut my mouth and just let 'em go. Because I wouldn't trade places with the Queen of England for what I got in my backyard. You know. She could never have as much fun than what I can have with my children alone and this ... they're always there for me, you know? Their fathers might be gone, their own ways in life and doing what they want to do, but I've still got my children's love and respect and that means more to me than any mad love affair, you know?

You've had quite a few honours heaped on you, haven't you?

I tell you, I'm a bit intimidated by honours. I'm just me, and a bit wary of things like that.


I don't know, it's a bit intimidating. I don't like accolades, I'm just plain old Rube, you know?

Do you feel you might have to pay for them?

Well, let's put it this way, I don't know whether it's a logical way of thinking, but I went through life once with a happy state of mind and everything in my garden was lovely, and bang, bang, bang, my kids are gone, my world fell to pieces. And I'm frightened. I'm frightened of getting so high and happy that it's sure there's got to be something else to come and knock me on my bum again. That's what life's taught me, not to be sure of anything. Live for today. And that's it.

How do you keep the laughter going?

It's my sense of humour. I got a good constitution, I guess, but I like to laugh and I like people. I don't reckon it's love that makes the world go 'round because there isn't enough of it. I think it's just people like you and me. ‘People who need people,’ as the song says, ‘are the luckiest people.’ That's my way of thinking.

Is it the Aboriginal way?

Yeah. We hac the most democratic form of government before white men ever come and stuck their noses into our affairs. We had family clans, all one people, no kings or queens, that's only white men's concept. We had Elders, the lawgivers, you buggered up in tribal society, you were either banished ... I mean, not for a couple days ... go, for good. If you broke the marriage vows, you got stood about in the flat there and they threw spears at you until you were dead. Gone. There's justice. Aboriginal man was a social father to all the children of the clan, and Aboriginal woman was a social mother to all the children of the clan. And the Elders and the children were the most loved of our society. The Elders always got the choicest cut of some meat, and the children were spoilt. They settled their disputes in their own ways, you know? If two men had a dispute, they'd throw a spear or something and when blood was drawn, it was quashed, finished, you know?

You don't think from your point of view now that it would have been a bit harsh to spear someone for breaking a marriage vow?

What could be more harsher than what I've gone through in life, you know? There's time I wished I would've been dead and gone, too, but you just fight back up and get up and go. Ah, the will to win and not to let anything beat me, and I had that instilled in me from when I was a child, you know? Yeah, go back to then.

What date were you born?

I was born on Shame Day. We called it Shame Day, 26th of January, 1934, Australia Day. We called it Shame Day. I call it Shame Day. This was the day we were dispossessed of our land. And our Dreaming. When we were invaded and nothing's been the same since. But we're good adaptors, we've had to be. But we've always had to be the ones to conform to other people's standards, laws, rules, because we were never allowed to be our damn selves, you know?

What are some of the accolades that you've been given?

A human rights award for that first damn book, Don't Take Your Love to Town. Take me places I've never been, and then some. And human rights ... the only reason why I took that award was, I thought, ‘Boy, they're opening up doors for my people to come in.’ Because there were four Aboriginal awards given on that night, and it was the 10th of December, 1988. And I was thinking, you know, we really don't have no human rights in this country. However there are some Aboriginal communities that don't have no fresh drinking water and stuff like that. We really don't. But I thought, I'll go and take it, and I said to my kids, I threatened them, actually, I said, ‘Don't dare come with jeans and thongs on, dress up, dress up, the Governor-General'll be there and all this mob, you know. We got to be upfront.’ So my girls came in stiletto and high heels and stockings, the whole lot, and they looked gorgeous, you know?

And there were four awards being given, two for Aboriginal newspapers and the other two was Kevin Gilbert and then me, and Kevin Gilbert was getting his award just before me. They called out his name and he stood up and said, ‘I wouldn't feel good about taking this award, because there was bits and baubles and stuff like that was given to my people to dispossess us of our land and our Dreaming. I don't want it.’ And sat down. Left the Governor-General with his mouth wide open ... [laughs] ... And I whispered to my kids, I said, ‘Gee I could go out in favour with him,’ and they said, ‘Mum don't you dare, we got dolled up and everything to come and see you get this award.’ And so I thought, ‘No, I'll take the award because they were opening up doors for us to come in, and you'll be accepted into their communities and their enclaves and whatever,’ and I soon found they can slam the door just as quick in your face, as well as open it, so it's just a token gesture for me.

How did you find out that?


How did you find that out personally?

What's that?

That they could slam the door?

Well, I've had the door slammed in my face lots of times, you know? I mean, I was the first Aboriginal author invited into the Ministry of Arts. To judge the writing. And there's Aboriginal authors that have been writing for longer, and look, Jack Davis, about 55 years, I don't know, it's nearly 40 years, Kevin Gilbert, 30-something, I think, and Mudrooroo nearly 40, easy. Why didn't they ask some of them to go in and judge? And I said to them, this sounded a bit tokenistic to me, why haven't my people been invited into your white social enclave before, and they said, no, no, no, we want to right that great wrong. And I said, yeah, yeah, you know, and the next year, this is 1993, The Year of Indigenous People [The International Year for the World’s Indigenous People], that this happened. [In] 1994 there was not [an] Aboriginal author on that panel, so it was a tokenistic gesture, you see. They're screaming out for reconciliation with Aboriginal people and they're cutting us off at the legs at every turn we take, you know? So how are we going to be one nation when we're so divided, and split apart and torn asunder — how? How do we go about fixing this up? I don't know. It's not for want of trying on our part, I know. I'm sick of banging my head up against a brick wall all the time.

With some of your ... with some areas now, Aborigines do have their own arrangements and their own services, like medical services and dental services. Does that work well for you?

Well that's hard-earned. Plus they've done those things for themselves against great odds, you know, to establish these places like the medical services and such like that. This building is owned by Aboriginal Hostels Limited, but it's leased by the Aboriginal Medical Service and yes, they train Aboriginals in at the medical service. They have a portable there where they're instructed under a doctor and a nursing sister and they do a 12-month course which gives them a second year nurse's certificate, which they can go into mainstream nursing or whatever, or back to their communities and take that expertise back there, you see. We need our people to get the expertise and take it back to the communities to lift the communities up, you know what I mean? Yeah.

Tell me about your relationship with your mother?

My mum, yeah. My mum's name was Evelyn May Sue Ellen, she told me that my hair used to be auburn and ginger like hers when she was a young woman. She was a very beautiful woman, my mum. But as I said, we never got to know her until we were teenagers and brought down here to the city. The other two girls, Gwen and Rita, never forgave her for leaving them, but they were only little children, you know? And it had a lasting effect on them, having no mother. But I loved her.

Did you ever get to talk to her?

Oh, yes. When I was writing Don't Take Your Love to Town, I used to go and shanghai her. She had Parkinson's Disease, you know, and she was a big solid woman, bigger than me, she was taller, and she shrunk up to a little old lady with white hair, and I used to go and pick her up and bring her into Henderson Road where I used to live when I was finishing off the book, and I'd prop her up in my bed, brought her cups of tea and I said, ‘Mum, I'd like to talk to you about you and dad's marriage and where you were married because I know nothing about you fellas,’ you know, and blah, blah. And so she started to talk. And her voice with the Parkinson's was very soft and that, you know? And she told me about how her and dad were married on the mission, and it was Mrs English [sp?], the manageress, who made the wedding cake, and she walking across the common, and the common was, as I said, the shortcut into town from the mission, where water laid heavily after, heaps of water, you know? And she's coming along carrying the wedding cake and she went down in one of the holes of the water like this and she's holding the wedding cake up there and I couldn't help busting out laughing, I said, ‘What? She wet the ... the cake got wet in the water?’ She said, ‘No, no, she was wet but the cake wasn't. She was holding it up’ ... [laughs] ... And I asked her who was best man, and she did say the name, I can't remember now, but the wedding went on and everything. And I found out later on, not from mum because she never told me this, and from one of the Cowans, Uncle Jackie Cowan, he said, ‘Oh, I remember your father and mother getting married in that little church on the mission there,’ he said. ‘You was about six months old,’ he said. Yeah ... and I'm all ears for this, you know? And he said, ‘Your mum and dad was getting married and they were having the words said over 'em, and all of a sudden you start crying up the back of the church, and you were crying and making such a racket your mum had to stop the ceremony, come back, and give you a suck of titty and shut you up and go back to finish the marriage,’ And I burst out laughing ... to live that down, I shouldn't even be telling you that ... [laughs] ...