Upper Hunter Case Study : Reading 103

Upper Hunter History of Aboriginal and European contact

The Impact of Dispossession Railway Tents, 14lb Hammers and Assimilation

Employment in the railways was a major factor in bringing Aboriginal people to the Upper Hunter Valley and places such as Scone, Aberdeen and Muswellbrook were once the scene of numerous tents sited along the railway tracks. One Aboriginal man recalls that while there was discrimination against his people in the railways there was equal pay. He states:

We camped near Scone, I was 17 I suppose and Old Blue Stewart was the ganger. There was still a stigma about Aboriginal people and we were fighting for just basic individual rights. In the railways you were treated equal as long as you were prepared to sweat it out with others.

Here Aboriginal men worked long hard days on the end of 14lb hammers as labourers and fetters. The following photo was taken at Scone and shows Aboriginal men performing the arduous task of laying railway sleepers following the Great Flood of 1955.

Aboriginal men often lived with their families in the tents, which were hired from the Railway Department for around 5 shillings a week with optional extras such as wooden planks which served as floors and larger two room tents. There was no electricity and kerosene lanterns provided light at night, while food was cooked on fires. Despite employment in the white world Aboriginal people maintained a cultural sense of place and identity:

My father took Rob and I around Murrurundi, Bob Smith Mountain (named after my grandfather) and the Burning Mountain, before it became a tourist attraction, and the significance it meant to our people, my father and grandfather. And old grandfather Archibald who spoke seven languages and travelled through the Upper Hunter Valley in his younger days, took us and showed us where our people camped.


Wannin Thanbarran
A History of Aboriginal and European Contact in Muswellbrook and the Upper Hunter Valley
Greg Blyton, Deirdre Heitmeyer and John Maynard
Umulliko Centre for Indigenous Higher Education
The University of Newcastle
A project of the Muswellbrook Shire Council Aboriginal Reconciliation Committee


Aboriginal Men, Private Contractors and Liddell Power Station

Liddell Power Station is located between the towns of Muswellbrook and Singleton and during the 1970’s Goodsir and Cooper employed an Aboriginal company called Smith’s General Contractors to lay rail siding at the power station. A director of the Aboriginal company was called by Goodsir and Cooper a fortnight after the work was completed and was informed:

Two weeks after they called us down and commended the Aboriginal men who did the work as to how well they behaved. There was still a lot of discrimination in those days against Aboriginal people, but they said we were more than welcome back to do more jobs. The men stayed at the Central Hotel in the main street of Singleton and spent their evenings sitting around playing guitars and singing and they never thought Aboriginal people could be so well behaved, and a lot better than some of the other work crews that stayed at the hotel.


Wannin Thanbarran
A History of Aboriginal and European Contact in Muswellbrook and the Upper Hunter Valley
Greg Blyton, Deirdre Heitmeyer and John Maynard
Umulliko Centre for Indigenous Higher Education
The University of Newcaste
A project of the Muswellbrook Shire Council Aboriginal Reconciliation Committee

No Time Like the Present : A Note from Deirdre Heitmeyer

The day of September 11 2003 dawned, promising fine weather. I set off to Muswellbrook South Primary School at the invitation of Roz Nean. It was the school NAIDOC and Education Week celebrations. The school had decided to combine the two events.” that way you get both lots of parents…” (Roz Nean)

On the drive through the valley I think of many things. Life three hundred and fifty years ago. How different things would have been and looked like. The beautiful Coquun (Hunter River) bringing life in all forms to the valley. I thought over the past 20 years spent in Aboriginal education. The days of consultation with community about the NSW Aboriginal Education Policy. Had we come very far? There are many people, albeit scattered, working hard implementing what was dreamed of those seemingly long years ago. We ask so much from the Aboriginal community; asking people to relive horrible memories to add to the pieces of the jigsaw; to help everyone to understand and move forward.

I arrive with these thoughts racing through my head.

I’m guided to the school hall where an Aboriginal performer, Matthew Doyle has turned the students of Muswellbrook South Primary School into kangaroos, emus, and goannas. The children’s’ faces capture the future. Australian children sharing in what is theirs…knowledge about their country. Sadness creeps over me as I think about those terrible years of knowledge lost, all through ignorance and misunderstanding, yet happiness to know that these children will take with them a clearer understanding of who they are, and where they fit in the future.

If we get it right in the schools the relationships between the Aboriginal and non Aboriginal world will gradually heal. I look at the teachers they are all smiling ………. Is this the generation of teachers and other community members, both black and white that will take the lead forward in implementing the policy in partnership with the Aboriginal community?

The performance ends. Great applause…excited children, faces painted…teachers as well!!!!

Walking out of the hall I run into Ron Powell from DETYA. This Department administers ASSPA, (Aboriginal Student Support & Parental Awareness). This is the program that causes a lot of misinformation in the community. I hear so often that Aboriginal children get paid to go to school. “They do not” I tell my students. The school receives funding for every identified Aboriginal child that attends the school ($110). This money is administered by a committee comprised of Aboriginal parents, principal and interested teachers. Decisions are made as to how Aboriginal education is to be presented in the school, a mandatory obligation for all schools in NSW. Ron informs me that part of the funding for the performance has come from ASSPA.

Ron: “Because of NAIDOC Day the school’s ASSPA funds can be used for cultural activities. 20% of these funds can be used for cultural activities and they can draw from the parental involvement % as well. That’s the idea to get parental involvement in the schools.

How many schools receive this funding in the Upper Hunter?

Ron: “I have 92 schools in the Uh but only 76 applied. Of those 92 schools there are a lot of small schools where they have only 1 or 2 Aboriginal kids…and they more than likely have moved on…..”

What do you see as the successful programs?

Ron: “It’s really good if you can get the principal on side, if you have a really good principal in the school you don’t have the problem of getting the parents involved within the ASSPA. If there is no encouragement or perceived support Aboriginal parents will shy away from the schools.

Here at Muswellbrook South Public a lot of parents attend the ASSPA…One of the main reasons is the principal and the involvement of the parents……

I’m looking at the relationships between the Aboriginal and non Aboriginal people of the community. Is there a flow over from ASSPA to the rest of the community?

Ron: “I think so. Whenever there are ASSPA activities held in the school, the whole school benefits. One of the things that I stress to the ASSPA committees is not just only to get the Indigenous kids and their parents involved but also to educate the non Indigenous parents and kids in the Aboriginal culture….in some of the schools I have involved with you get some of the non Aboriginal parents getting involved in the ASSPA activities and that’s not just only those parents who have Indigenous kids…that’s parents who don’t have Indigenous kids. It’s not many but it happens.”

Building relationships, that’s what can be achieved by this initiative.

I ask Roz Nean how it was decided to combine a celebration of Aboriginal culture with Education Week.

Roz: “We planned our NAIDOC Day for September and it just happened to coincide with Education Week.

" The ASSPA committee and Rotary are supplying the bar b cue. The Rotarians and ASSPA committee are cooking for the whole school and guests. The food was donated by businesses in the community and the school pays half of Matthew Doyle performance and ASSPA the other half that way the whole school can have something special for the day."

How do you find the non Aboriginal parents take to the cultural activities?

Roz: “At first they didn’t 13 years ago, it’s taken me 13 years to get the trust of the non Aboriginal community but now they participate in all our activities.

" It flows onto the wider community. The school community has input into the community reconciliation committee through my membership; and I’m involved in projects with the local Council, with Department Of Community Services in organizing the artwork for the community services building. Our stage 3 children are doing a mural on a fence that many of our students use as a walkway. Muswellbrook South and the High School are participating in this project.”

How do the kids feel when they have a lesson with you?

Roz: “I hear the kids say ‘Yes she’s here.’ I teach Aboriginal studies to kids from K-6. The non Aboriginal children get the same lessons.”

You’ve been here 13 years do you still see the kids from a few years ago in the street?

Roz: “Yes they still say hello. I get invited to non Aboriginal kid’s birthday parties, when they turn 18 and 21 ……education is the backbone to the building of relationships. It can’t happen without it. It has to happen.”

The tutors Maureen Bronwyn and Kelly participate in the Numeracy & Literacy Strategy for the Aboriginal Students at this school. This is a federal initiative to raise the standards of Indigenous children’s Numeracy & literacy levels.

What got you first into this Maureen?

Maureen: “Well I’ve always had my name down as a teacher’s aide and there were not enough Aboriginal people to participate in the program. I got a phone call to ask if I was interested and I said yes.

Bronwyn: “I’m like Maureen I got the phone call and said yes”

Kelly: “I’m a school bus driver and when I heard about this project I put my name down.”

Maureen: “I get so much from working with these kids”

Kelly: It does make a really big difference. The teachers can notice the change. With me being in there the two kids have reached the stage where they help one another and are succeeding which is beautiful."

Maureen: “When I first met my two students they were very shy but now we wave in the street.”

Kelly: I chat with one of the students mum...its good

Will reconciliation start with the kids?

Kelly:Yes the kids will do it they don’t see a problem they see me as their support.”

Is this the future for this community? Moving forward after the bad times?

I see a parent and ask if I can ask a few questions about living in Muswellbrook .
Paula McGrady Swan, parent of Ethan and Liam, is a Kamilroi woman, originally from Bogabilla.

Paula: “I moved here in 1991 and I’ve enjoyed living here. It’s different from Moree where there are a lot of Aboriginal people compared to here where there is not so many but most of the people here I’m related to. I moved down here to be with my Mum. We spent most of our time living in Queensland”

What do you like about Muswellbrook?

Paula: “I like the friendly people I’ve never encountered any racism since I’ve been here. But Moree has also changed things are much better.

" There is some racism here but I’ve never encountered it, and I’m dark. Coming from Moree I think I would have been one of the first to pick it up and I haven’t.

" If I hear something I pull them up I tell them if they are being racist. Most people accept this in fact some of them to this day pull me up in the street to have a chat. It’s only about misunderstanding.”

As an Aboriginal parent do you think that days like this are a good idea?

Paula: “I think it’s a good idea. I’ve worked for hospitality for 9 years I think that the participation of Rotary is brilliant. I’ve worked in restaurants and have met these people. Relations are very good here. Schools have got a lot better. Aboriginal students are being taught within schools and this has made things better. The parents get a lot more involved. The high school where my daughter finished year 12 last year…I’ve gone up and taught a few lessons. There are definite people here in the community that can pass on a lot of information to the kids if given the opportunity

"Kids are great they love this information

"They see me in the street they say hello

"My kids are proud that I come up here and get involved.

"When I was at school mum and dad didn’t feel comfortable to come to school you know how things were back then………….

"All I remember Capt Cook discovered Australia and I remember one day thinking where do I fit in/ where am I? But my family has given me my Aboriginality.

"I can be very political but things are fairly good today we need to be open as to what happened in the past. That is what will make things good…………”

I think on my way home all the conversations that I have had in the day. The strong confirmation that education is the backbone….but it is the community that must build the backbone. As I drive back down through the valley I think back on the early Europeans who made such a mess of the relationship building, with the exceptions of a notable few. And now these people who I have just met, ordinary folk, who demonstrate that respecting one another, will bring about change.

Pp 80 - 88

Wannin Thanbarran
A History of Aboriginal and European Contact in Muswellbrook and the Upper Hunter Valley
Greg Blyton, Deirdre Heitmeyer and John Maynard
Umulliko Centre for Indigenous Higher Education
The University of Newcaste
A project of the Muswellbrook Shire Council Aboriginal Reconciliation Committee



Muswellbrook Shire Council Document for Reconciation

Statement of Principle

Our Commitment to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People
Muswellbrook Shire Council acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islanders were the first people of tis land and have survived European
for more than two centuries.

Muswellbrook Shire Council Recognises that the arrival of Europeans brought
massive change to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and to the land.

Muswellbrook Shire Council acknowledges the past injustices towards
Aboriginal and Islander people and in doing to makes a
to support self-determination.

Muswellbrook Shire Council welcomes the rights of Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islanders to live according to their own values and customs, within the

Muswellbrook Shire Council acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander culture strengthens and enriches our community and commits itself to
respecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, protecting their special
places and significant cultural sites.

Muswellbrook Shire Council accepts its responsibility to develop an awareness
and appreciated of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and culture and,
will positively promote their culture in conjunction with Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander people at a local, regional and national level.

Muswellbrook Shire Council commits itself to the rights of Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander people to equity and access to Council,
its resources and community services.

Muswellbrook Shire Council supports all people working together to achieve
mutual respect and harmony within the community.