Our River Days and the Croker Island kids

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I mentioned this book a few days back: see Croker Island Exodus. As you can see I secured a copy from Wollongong Library and have now read it. I also saw Croker Island Exodus last night.

Alice Briston and Jessie Lyons, in their 80s, still recall their group canoeing across a crocodile-infested river, tussling over who would eat a dead goanna, discovering leeches in a waterhole they were drinking from and walking barefoot for days across rugged terrain…

The two women had been forcibly removed from their parents and wound up with other youngsters from the stolen generations in a Methodist mission on Croker Island. Its supplies were running out after the Darwin bombing and the group had to evacuate, starting with a boat to the mainland but having to then bypass Darwin.

At one stage, the children walked single file almost 100 kilometres across Kakadu after the government trucks sent to pick them up became stuck. ”It seemed a long way … no shoes, nothin’,” Briston said softly. But ”I didn’t even take notice of my feet”, she added with typical understatement. ”I just enjoyed myself walking around with other children.”

At that age – many were under 12 – it seemed more a big excursion than frightening experience. ”I don’t think we were scared,” Lyons said. Returning to Kakadu as an adult, ”I got more scared just going back there and seeing what we went through.” A boy died along the way.

One of the missionary carers, Sister Margaret Somerville, 99, was recently reunited with some from the journey. The emotional scenes are captured in Croker Island Exodus, which weaves historical footage with interviews and re-enactments.

Somerville told their story in a book, They Crossed a Continent.

The Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, said: ”This is one of the greatest of all Australian stories of love and compassion.”…

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The documentary lived up to its promise. While it did not go into all that much detail about the children’s time at Otford there certainly were pictures worth the proverbial thousand words, especially colour footage of the children at Otford.

Betty Bezant’s book is even more an account of her childhood – and her family – in Otford than it is about the Croker Island children. It is a little repetitive, but nonetheless a good read and as memoirs go very accurate, I would say. One detail I found fascinating is that Clarence Greentree, originally the one teacher at Otford’s one room school – before the arrival of 76 Croker Island kids – went back to Croker Island after the war with the children and remained there as teacher. See also another memoir, Lorna "Nanna Nungala" Fejo.

Lorna was born in the late 1920’s to an aboriginal mother and a white father.

Lorna’s bush name is Minpirmngully.

She is a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormon).

Lorna was taken as a 4 year old, 1932, from her mother and became a part of the “Stolen Generation”. She was sent to Alice Springs to the bungalows. From here she was sent to Goulburn Island then to Croker Island in the early 1940’s.

She remained there until being evacuated to Sydney via Oenpelli and Pine Creek, after the bombing of Darwin by the Japanese. (They Crossed a Continent by Margaret Somerville) Photos contained in this book.

While in Sydney, Lorna attended primary school at Haberfield Primary School then moved to join the other children from Croker Island at Otford. She attended the Wollongong High School until the end of the war.

All of the younger children returned to Darwin on board the “Reynella”

After the war, Lorna returned to Croker Island, where more houses had been built to house the children. Schooling was provided by Mr Greentree. She was studying her 3rd year high school while also helping to teach children in grades 1-3. Her time at Croker was enjoyable…

See also Paint Me Black: Memories Of Croker Island And Other Journeys by Claire Henty-Gebert and Man with a mission: Alec Ross – House Parent at Wangkana Kari Aboriginal Hostel tells of his early years.

I was born at Barrow Creek in 1936, but I grew up in Sydney. I’m of Scottish descent, my father’s three quarters Scots. I work at Wangkana Kari Aboriginal Hostel as a house parent.

I was living at Neutral Junction with my mother when I was a baby and in those days they had a ruling that if you fathered a half-caste child, you weren’t allowed to be a father to it or stay with the child. My father was classed as a white man, he looked white but he wasn’t a white man. Then they took me away because my mother had me in the camp. The reason they gave my father for taking me away was that it was the law and that my father couldn’t do anything about it.

Because my father was classed as a white man, he couldn’t have an Aboriginal partner and so the child would therefore be taken away. They wanted us to grow up like a ‘normal’ white person I suppose and give us a better education and a better living.

While he was there my father actually took care of me but he had to go to Adelaide with R.M. Williams, the clothes manufacturer. They were good mates so he went to business in Adelaide with R.M. Williams and he said he couldn’t look after me, he left me with my mother and so the authorities came about a week later and took me away.

We all went to the Bungalow, the old Telegraph Station in Alice Springs, actually I think it was the Cullen Compound first and then moved to Alice. They kept us there for about two or three weeks, I’m not to sure and I was probably three or three and a half or something.

They then split us up into religious groups, Methodist, Catholic, Church of England and so on and they moved us south. They said, "You go with them and you go with them," and I ended up in a place called Croker Island in 1941.

The Japs started bombing there in ’42 so they had to move us in a hurry – they couldn’t find a place in Sydney, but they did eventually find somewhere at a place called Otford, about an hour outside of Sydney. We stayed there until the War was over. I remember all the Jap’s subs coming in and getting knocked out in the Harbour and that sort of thing. I remember the Japs flying over us at Croker and before we had to leave and then when they bombed Darwin.

We had to walk practically all the way from a place called Barklay Bay on the Arnhem Land coast right over to Pine Creek through the bush. It would have been two or three hundred miles and there were about eighty kids and three or four missionaries. We had two old trucks, an old Chevrolet truck and a couple of horses and that’s how we travelled through crocodile infested waters.

We went right through the Arnhem Gully across to Pine Creek and when we got there we met up with the Army. We put on an impromptu concert for them, I was one of the ten green bottles. I fell over and cut my lip on the stage!…

On the Island [Croker] they had taught us everything – gardening, fencing, anything that was there you had to try and learn to do. I think in my case it was very good thing because I look back at my family now and see them, the way they’re living and my half brothers and sisters. All the black fella side, my mother’s side, I mean they’re not the same, they’ve got no work, they’re just living out in the bush and coming in when they want to. They’re on the dole and they can’t get a job. But I’ve been working ever since I was ready to work and it was very seldom that I got on the dole queue…

Maybe some people are inclined to be angry and maybe they’re looking for money or some compensation from the government and that’s the big problem. Some of them did suffer more than I did because a lot of the older kids probably knew their parents better than me, I didn’t. Being so young, I was taken away and I hadn’t known my parents, so therefore it didn’t matter to me. All these kids who were running with me in the same age group would be like brothers and sisters…

Passing through the Otford Valley, Christmas 2010

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