Tasmanian Times


Those chairs …

The La Perouse chairs ...


Narryna is a National Trust house at Battery Point that has been transformed for this week only by 10 good dealers selling Antiques and Works of Art at affordable prices. 

Your Editor visited on the 1st of November and noticed a pair of museum quality chairs encrusted with shells laid over two wicker American chairs by Heywood and Wakefield of circa 1885. 

The chairs were purchased in Bombara, NSW some 15 years ago and were shelled in the Depression of the 1930s at the Aboriginal camp at La Perouse. This Depression Art is a little known Aboriginal art form from the Sydney basin. They are probably the finest such objects made during these difficult years. 

Hundreds of unemployed people camped at La Perouse during the depression of the 1930s and again after World War II. Intertwined with these memories are the histories of Aboriginal Australians, for whom La Perouse is a place that marks a significant beginning. It is a different sort of beginning, not a triumphant story of the coming of civilisation, but the beginning of the invasion, of dispossession and degradation.

La Perouse is the only Sydney suburb where Aboriginal people have kept their territory from settlement until today, and its history is a story of the survival of culture in the face of European invasion. 

La Perouse is situated 14 kilometres south of the city of Sydney on the northern headland of Botany Bay.

First inhabitants 

The original owners of the land were the Kameygal, and their proximity to the coast meant that they enjoyed a plentiful supply of fish. The area also had fresh water supplies and places of natural shelter. The Kameygal travelled with the seasons, and established relationships with other Aboriginal people along south coast of New South Wales. Today, many residents at La Perouse have strong connections with the Aboriginal community at Wreck Bay. La Perouse is the one area of Sydney with which Aboriginal people have had an unbroken connection for over 7,500 years. 

Europeans arrive 

To stand on the La Perouse peninsula and look down upon the expanse of glistening ocean, is to be reminded of the beauty of the natural environment. However, it was not the beauty of the place that Governor Phillip noted when he landed at Botany Bay in 1788. Instead, he deemed La Perouse unsuitable for settlement because the area was too exposed, the ground was too spongy, and there was a lack of fresh water.

Phillip also called it an ‘unhealthy’ spot for settlement due to the swampiness of the area, and he set out to find ‘a proper situation for the settlement’ which would later be known as Sydney Cove. On the way out of Botany Bay, he saw La Perouse’s ships, the Astrolabe and the Boussole, entering the bay. La Perouse was on a scientific expedition and needed to replenish his supplies and rest his crew. The beach he landed on was later named Frenchmans Beach.

He remained for six weeks, setting out to return home on 10 March 1788, but he was never heard from again.

Aboriginal La Perouse 

1878 marked a change in the nature of the Aboriginal community at La Perouse. Aboriginal people from the south coast moved to Sydney to seek employment or government rations and some moved to La Perouse, probably because it was a good fishing site. During the early 1880s, the Parkes’ government was under increasing pressure to take action on Aboriginal affairs, and in 1882 Sir Henry Parkes appointed George Thornton as Protector of Aborigines.

Thornton believed that Aboriginals should be removed from urban locations, yet he did honour the request of five Aboriginal men and their families to be allowed to stay at La Perouse. He justified his decision to Parliament by arguing that the camp was economically viable, in contrast with other camps in Sydney which were seen as parasitic and a nuisance to society. Thornton organised for huts to be built for people camped at La Perouse. By 1881 there were approximately 50 Aboriginal people living in two camps in the Botany Bay region, 35 at La Perouse and the remainder at Botany Bay. The people were free to travel between the two camps. 

In 1883, Thornton was replaced by the Aborigines Protection Board which followed a more isolationist and protectionist policy. The Board established reserves which effectively segregated Aboriginal people from white Australians throughout New South Wales. By 1885, seven acres (three hectares) of land at La Perouse had been officially declared a ‘Reserve for the Use of Aborigines’ and the only one in Sydney. Several missions were involved with the reserve at La Perouse, the most significant being the La Perouse Aboriginal Mission which was founded by white Protestants. Iris Williams, who lived on the reserve, recalls her mother preaching at the small tin church, and giving funeral sermons. 

Day trippers 

The very factors which made La Perouse seem an unattractive place to live – its isolation and absence of white settlement – made it attractive to city residents for day trips. From the mid-1880s the peninsula began to attract curious city dwellers for weekend visits. They came on Sunday afternoons to see the ‘natives’, the living relics of pre-colonial Australia. This was a cause of concern to both the Aborigines Protection Board and the UAM and led to further restrictions upon the freedom of Aboriginal people at La Perouse. 

Any attempt to develop the land for recreational purposes, such as building a hotel or a pub, was blocked by the Aborigines Protection Board. In 1895 the reserve was enclosed by a fence and only the local constable and the resident missionary had a key. Aboriginal people on the reserve were literally locked in. When the Department of Fisheries introduced a licensing system in New South Wales, Aboriginal people were prevented from selling fish at the markets.

They were only able to fish for personal consumption, and even this was restricted by the actions of local fishermen. The Aborigines Protection Board was also concerned that Aboriginal people from outside Sydney would travel to La Perouse, and from there gain access to the city. Thus, restrictions were placed upon boat and rail travel for Aboriginal people in La Perouse who wished to travel to Sydney. In 1897 the Aborigines Protection Board rejected requests from missionaries for more huts and increased rations because it was thought that such action would encourage more people to move from the south coast to La Perouse.

Resistance and continuity 

The same year, amid concerns about the interaction between Aboriginal people at La Perouse and white tourists, the Aborigines Protection Board decided that the place was no longer suitable for Aboriginal occupation. Both the New South Wales Department of Lands and missionaries on the reserve disagreed with the Aborigines Protection Board’s decision, arguing that it would be difficult to move the Indigenous population because of their long history of occupation of the area. Nevertheless, by 1900, the Aborigines Protection Board had decided that it would relocate Aboriginal people from La Perouse reserve to Wallaga Lake on the south coast. The people refused to move, despite the fact that the Aborigines Protection Board reduced rations, and eventually ceased supplying them. 

By 1902, it seems that the Aborigines Protection Board had given up, and resumed supplying rations to those on the reserve. In 1908 there were 73 people living on the reserve. During 1908, new houses were built and by 1912 the population on the reserve had grown to 106. In 1915 there were 124 people living on the reserve. 

The Aborigines Protection Board could not stop non-Aboriginal Australians making day trips to La Perouse, which became easier after the tram line was built in 1902. Aboriginal residents participated in the tourist industry, selling boomerangs and other souvenirs. From about 1909, ‘snake men’ drew many tourists. These snake men, in a pit just near the Loop where the tram from Sydney terminated, would allow snakes to crawl over them and sometimes bite them. 

Many people who grew up on the Aboriginal reserve have happy memories of the visiting tourists. Beryl Beller remembered collecting shells with her mother to glue onto various cardboard cut-outs and sell to tourists. Lee-Anne Mason recalled waiting in anticipation for the weekend tourists to arrive. People would ‘be flocking in all day’ to watch Mr Cann, the snake man. She also recalled diving for pennies and how she would always manage to catch the penny before it hit the sand.

The question of moving Aboriginal people from La Perouse re-emerged during the 1920s. Randwick Council wanted the reserve moved in the interests of big business. The South Kensington and District Chamber of Commerce wrote to the Aborigines Protection Board expressing concerns about housing conditions, sanitation of the reserve, and its ‘morality.’ The Aborigines Protection Board agreed that the reserve should be moved. Again, the people on the reserve refused to move. In 1928, a petition signed by 53 reserve residents was published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

It reads … 

“We, the undersigned Aborigines of the La Perouse reserve, emphatically protest against our removal to any place. This is our heritage bestowed upon us. In these circumstances we feel justified in refusing to leave.”

As a compromise, Randwick council converted part of the reserve into a public recreation area and moved the huts away from the waterfront.

During the 1920s, La Perouse people became politically active in support of land rights, particularly through involvement in the Australian Aborigines Progressive Association. Jack Patten, from La Perouse, was one of the leaders of the APA and Joseph Timbery, Wesley Sims, W G Sherrit, R McKenzie and Tom Foster all played a significant role in the 1938 Day of Mourning which was held to mark Australia’s sesquicentenary.

Depression shantytowns 

During the Depression, beginning in 1929, hundreds of unemployed people moved to La Perouse. It was a perfect area for camping, close to the ocean with access to fresh water and natural shelter. 

There were three separate camps: Hill 60, Frog Hollow and Happy Valley. Happy Valley was the largest of the three camps, with about 300 people living there. It was located at the end of Anzac Parade, in a gully which provided shelter from the strong winds. Frog Hollow was an Aboriginal camp near the reserve. Many of those who set up camp at Frog Hollow were relatives of people living on the reserve. The camp offered a measure of freedom that was not found on Aboriginal reserves. 

White and black children attended the same school. This was unusual at a time when government policy was geared towards keeping European Australians and Aboriginal Australians separate. Many children did not see any significant differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children. One woman recalled that when someone raised the alarm that ‘the Welfare’s coming’ (meaning that the Child Welfare department had come to take Aboriginal children) whereupon both white and black children would run and hide in the bush, the white children being unaware that the child welfare department had come only for Aboriginal children. 

The majority of non-Aboriginal people who had moved to La Perouse had Anglo-Celtic origins. However, during the 1940s and 1950s, there was an influx of ‘new Australians’ from Poland, Russia, Ukraine and Malta. Many of these people were employed, but homeless as a result of a severe housing shortage in Sydney. 

During the 1950s, many of the shacks were demolished and in 1954 Frog Hollow was closed. Some non-Aboriginal people were forced to move and Aboriginal people who had camped at Frog Hollow moved back to the reserve, or moved in with relatives living around it.

*John Hawkins was born and educated in England. He has lived in Tasmania for 13 years. He is the author of “Australian Silver 1800–1900” and “Thomas Cole and Victorian Clockmaking” and “The Hawkins Zoomorphic Collection” as well as “The Al Tajir Collection of Silver and Gold” and nearly 100 articles on the Australian Decorative Arts. He is a Past President and Life Member of The Australian Art & Antique Dealers Association. John has lived in Australia for 50 years and is 75 this year. In two of the world’s longest endurance marathons and in the only teams to ever complete these two events, he drove his four-in-hand team from Melbourne to Sydney in 1985 and from Sydney to Brisbane in 1988. Substantial quantities of this article were taken from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage … Read more here

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Ole Man a Ross

    November 5, 2018 at 9:35 am

    Well put, John. This is just another example of the arrogant hideous legacy of the British model of colonisation as opposed to the French who seem to have made great efforts to connect with the local inhabitants.

    Most of us in this state are descended from those having their roots in the British Isles, and if we have any conscience at all we should carry the scars of this appalling behavior toward Aboriginal peoples, especially about what we did to the original population of Tasmania.

    A long time ago in my early education institution, our history lesson usually consisted of some obscure bloody English war and other events that happened a long way away from Tassie, with absolutely no mention of our own terrible history in this country apart from Burke and Wills who would have survived if they had listened to the local aboriginal people, but they were just too damned arrogant.

    I understand that our grandchildren are now being made much more aware of our own early history of this country. Slightly off the track of our behavior to the original inhabitants, but still on the subject of history in general, I believe that we still glorify our own war efforts in all parts of the world, especially Gallipoli.

    If we are going to do these commemorations, then a much greater emphasis must be given to Kokoda where, if it were not for the amazingly brave efforts of young Aussies soldiers, our country would have been invaded by Japan as opposed to being invaded by the Turks in WW1.

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