Harold Hunt was born in ‘The Bush’, that is the Corner Country, in far western New South Wales. Horse and buggy were still the main mode of transport and, as a child during the Great Depression, he was fascinated by the mystery of the many swagmen who trod the dirt tracks.
His parents separated when he was young, and his half-caste Aboriginal mother raised eight children on her own. Somehow she kept the family together during a time of government dislocation of Aboriginal people ‘for their own protection’.
He left school at the age of 14, working as a stockman with dreams of becoming a boss drover. But the lure of earning a steady income and the itinerant lifestyle of a shearer beckoned and was to be his occupation for the next 20 years.
By age 34, he was the father of four and a raging alcoholic, violent and causing suffering to those he loved. Then a chance meeting with some mates set him on the path to recovery through Alcoholics Anonymous, along with a move to Sydney.
Always looking for new opportunities and challenges, he chanced upon a training course as a counsellor to alcoholics and other drug addicts. So began a career in the public service, with his determination to help others who were experiencing the hell he himself had survived.
At 87, Harold was awarded an Order of Australia Medal in recognition of his services to the community. This is an autobiography of an extraordinary life, during a period of dramatic social change in Australia.
I am the third eldest of ten, only eight having survived infancy. I am a son of an Aboriginal woman and an Australian-born Irishman. I never knew my Dad’s people. He sometimes spoke of his family but they never kept in contact. He told me they ran a small pig farm near the little town of Coghills Creek, a rich farming area in the goldfields of Victoria. He had one brother, Tom, a schoolteacher. Years later I heard they had a bakery in Broken Hill, but I never knew of that before. Maybe they didn’t know about us.
We grew up with my mother’s family, with my grandparents, Jack and Hannah Quayle. Hannah – Gran, as we knew her – talked about family a lot.
Gran’s own mother was a traditional Maliangaapa tribal woman. I can’t recall her tribal name, but she is commemorated as Fanny Williams on the White Cliffs Cemetery register, having died at nearby Yancannia Station in 1916.
My gran was born of her mother’s union with a newly arrived Scottish grazier, William Feildon Hamilton. William, or Bill, as he came to be known, came from an elite Scottish background. At the age of seventeen, he was sent to Australia to ‘toughen up’. That he did.
He partnered with a man named Gayer, managing a pastoral lease on Morden Station in the far western country of New South Wales. The story goes that they refused a generous offer of purchase before the big drought and rabbit plague in the 1880s. Many landholders in Outback New South Wales and Queensland were affected. Their pleas to supporters in England for publicity and financial assistance fell on deaf ears. Bill walked away penniless from Morden around 1884 and returned to his family in England. Apparently, though, his taste for pioneering adventure was not sated. A short time later he sailed for another new colony, New Zealand, and made his mark there. But that’s another story.
Morden, and the neighbouring Wonnaminta and Yancannia stations, had a good relationship with the Maliangaapa people and other tribes who continued to live on their own land, even when active dislocation of Aboriginals was being enforced by government policy. In 1883 the government had established the Aboriginal Protection Board to control the Indigenous people. Their policy assumed that children would more easily be ‘socialized as Whites’ and that ‘Aboriginal blood could be bred out’, with them gradually being biologically assimilated into European society.
This could only be achieved by separating full-bloods from half-castes, so children of mixed descent were being forcibly removed from their families.
Gran’s mother Fanny stayed behind when Bill Hamilton left Australia. He, I am told, wanted to take her and their child Hannah with him, and rode the district for over two weeks searching for them. But Fanny had gone back to her tribe and the elders told him to leave her. She returned to ‘Cobham’ Tommy Williams, a full-blood Aboriginal, and they had two sons, Gilbert and George Williams.
My gran was a half-caste. Having grown up at Morden, she had learnt the ways of the white man’s domestic duties and was fairly at ease in both camps. In this time of significant social change for Aborigines, a shy young Hannah met a brash young stockman named Jack Quayle, who was working on the district properties. Like Hannah, his father was English, from the Isle of Man, and his mother a full-blood from the Corner Country. But Jack’s mother had returned to her tribal clan so he and his two brothers were raised by their white father. The three sons were reared in the manners of the English working-class by their father and built an honest reputation as hard workers. Their only education was in the form of tank sinking, fencing and whatever horse work came their way. With the boys barely out of their teens, Jack Quayle senior passed away. He had willed his tank-sinking plant, horses, harness, ploughs, scoops and all camping equipment to his three sons to carry on the business he had built up for them. However, on the station the Quayle boys were working on at the time of their father’s death, the owner falsely claimed there was a debt owing to the station. He therefore withheld what was rightfully the property of the young unschooled Aboriginals who could broker no argument, by law, against a white station owner. The three learnt an invaluable lesson. Without the protection of their father, who was schooled in the white system and of good reputation, they had little standing to argue.
Jack, the eldest, decided he must move on and he determined to make a life for himself and earn a living as a horse-breaker. There was a big demand for that type of work and he liked working with horses anyway. From his earnings in horse-breaking he was able to re-establish himself in his father’s trade – earthmoving, the work he’d been raised to do. By his early twenties, he was a self-made man. Jack Quayle and Hannah Hamilton married in the Roman Catholic Church at the nearby opal mining town of White Cliffs in 1895. By then, ‘Big Jack’ Quayle was a successfully established contractor in the Paroo River region with experience in tank sinking, fencing, horse-breaking, shearing and whatever else bush work was required. He became a man of great independence. He taught me that a person’s lot in life depended on what he was prepared to put into life. Having always lived on the land away from conveniences, he was an innovator. He thrived on the challenges of breaking new ground by modifying equipment and trialling various techniques, necessity in a harsh land being the added spur to invention.
By the late 1920s the nation was in recession, and it was especially tough in the bush. Jack now had a large family to keep, and to do that, he needed to work. He and Gran were rightfully proud of their home and their achievements, especially as so many of their own people were suffering. Legislation had been passed which gave station managers and police more powers under the Aboriginal Protection Act. Aboriginal stockmen were returning home from their work on the stations to find their women and children had been forcibly moved from their homes onto designated reserves, away from their homelands, without notice. Families and clans were dispersed and various tribes were thrown together by government decree. It was a further disintegration of their customs and dialects.