State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 85 May 2010


Sue Taffe
Fighting for Lake Tyers

A journalist speaks to Pastor Doug Nicholls and Laurie Moffatt who led 40 Aboriginal protestors opposing Government plans to close Lake Tyers, Melbourne, May 1963 (Courtesy Ian Spalding)

'This is our home here on Lake Tyers. We got nowhere [else] to go.'
Edna Harrison, 1 July 19611
'Secretary, Tambo Shire Council
Dear Sir,
Aborigines have been living on Lake Tyers for 103 years, and despite inducements to leave, there still exists a firm majority of the Lake Tyers people who desire to advance as a group.'
Pauline Pickford, 29 April 1963.2
IN THE EARLY 1960s Lake Tyers Aboriginal Station was an extremely isolated Victorian community. About a hundred and fifty men, women and children were 'looked after' by a manager and his wife who doled out rations, decided who needed to see a doctor and enforced a set of institutional rules, fining those who broke them. The Victorian
Aborigines' Welfare Board, which wanted to close Lake Tyers down, described the situation at Tyers as 'an archaic scheme of benevolent protection'. Dr Barry Christophers, the president of the Council for Aboriginal Rights, compared the treatment of Aboriginal residents of Tyers to that of the inmates of a mental institution.3 The people seemed passive and dependent. They were not allowed to own a car on the reserve and so even getting to the nearest town, Lakes Entrance, about thirty kilometres away, meant a very long walk. For most residents, this isolation was broken only by stints picking peas and beans on properties in the region.
In 1961 an elderly Lake Tyers resident, Mr Laurie Moffatt, made contact with the Council for Aboriginal Rights, a Melbourne based organisation which campaigned for justice for Aboriginal Australians. He explained that the people worked an eight-hour day for less than £2.5.0 [$4.50] a fortnight, when the minimum male adult fortnightly wage for Australian workers was £34.7.6 [$68.75].4 They received clothing as rations. They could be moved out of their homes and they couldn't leave the reserve, even for a few hours, without permission.5 On behalf of the residents, Moffatt set out plans for Lake Tyers. This was the beginning of what would be a long and ultimately successful campaign to ensure that the land at Lake Tyers, about 4000 acres, was not taken from the Aboriginal people living there, as it had been everywhere else in Victoria except Framlingham in the Western District.
Morale at Lake Tyers was low. There were twice-weekly rations. Educational opportunities were limited to basic primary school education provided on the reserve and, as a consequence, residents were totally out of touch with the processes involved in influencing Government decision-making. How then was a campaign to be waged? The power of friendships and the skill of an organised group of activists bent on changing the direction of public policy regarding the future of Lake Tyers were crucial. Fortunately, the wider community was beginning to take notice of issues like the Tyers community's struggle to keep their homes. By the 1960s, the ninety-eight percent of the Australian population which was non-Indigenous seemed more prepared than in earlier years to consider the position of this isolated, impoverished community opposing its dispossession. This article tells the story of the beginnings of the campaign to save Lake Tyers, focusing on the Aboriginal spokespeople who made their wishes clear, key supporters with whom they became friends, and a changing social atmosphere more conducive to a consideration of Aboriginal Victorians as Australian citizens than had earlier been the case.

The Council for Aboriginal Rights

When it was established in 1951, the Council for Aboriginal Rights (Victoria) was a body which was ahead of its time in two important respects. It was unlike existing bodies of mainly European Australians who were concerned about the position of Aboriginal
people in Australian society. Most of these concentrated on issues affecting their own state, whereas the the Council for Aboriginal Rights' concern was Australia-wide. It focused squarely on rights, the rights of those who were technically citizens, but whose active citizenship had been constrained and limited by repressive state laws. This approach was in contrast to that of older organisations such as the Victorian Aborigines' Group, which were more welfare-driven, intent on improving the lives of individuals, rather than attempting to change the society which discriminated against them.
The broad, Australia-wide focus of the campaigns initiated by the Council can be traced back to its formation, as a result of an injustice in the Bagot and Berrimah Aboriginal Reserves in Darwin, far from its Melbourne home. Here, in December 1950, Aboriginal workers began a series of strikes for better conditions. Threats and intimidation were used by the authorities but strike action continued into 1951. The Director of Native Affairs, Frank Moy, used his powers under the Aboriginals' Ordinance to exile strike leader Fred Waters to Haast's Bluff, 1900 kilometres from Waters' Darwin home. This move was challenged, unsuccessfully, in the High Court by the North Australian Workers' Union which, in response to the failed court challenge, mounted a campaign which brought the matter to the notice of sympathetic people in Melbourne.6 On 16 March 1951 a public meeting was held in Melbourne sponsored by members of the North Australian Workers' Union and the Communist Party of Australia. Pastor Doug Nicholls, remembered and admired by football-mad Melburnians as the brilliant Aboriginal winger for Fitzroy, writer Alan Marshall and Anglican clergyman Canon Farnham Maynard were also actively involved in the creation of what became the Council for Aboriginal Rights. This body aimed 'to plan, conduct and organise the widest possible support for a campaign to obtain just and humane treatment' for Aboriginal Australians. The Council would be guided by the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights formulated three years earlier, and would have a national impact on the organisation of campaigns for Aboriginal rights for the next twenty years.
Shirley Andrews, honorary secretary of the Council, brought an independent trained mind and a deeply held moral conviction concerning human rights to her reforming work for Aboriginal people. She became the secretary of the Council in 1952 on her return from a year in Europe when she attended the third Festival of Youth and Students for Peace and Friendship. Shirley admitted that, at 35 she was one of the older 'youths' in the large Australian delegation. She had joined the Communist Party of Australia in 1945, impressed by the possibilities for social justice she saw in socialism, and toured Eastern Europe eager to see and assess the workings of Russian Communism. The Communist Party of Australia was the only Australian political party at this time to have developed policy that recognised Aboriginal Australians rights to land and to be a people. In 1948 the 15th Congress of the party resolved that 'to arrest the extinction of the native race, to enable them to survive, and develop, it is urgently necessary that all further alienation of tribal lands cease immediately'.7
Shirley was a biochemist, a professional woman whose lively mind was not constrained by the forces of conservatism which characterised the Melbourne establishment of her youth. She enjoyed unsettling those who saw themselves as 'born to rule', especially if it was in the interests of a just cause. Shirley would hold the position of secretary of the Council for Aboriginal Rights for a decade, during which time she would build up contacts across the country from Port Hedland in the west, to Darwin and Cairns in the north and in the growing number of organisations springing up on the east coast. Her research training came to the fore when she set out a nine-page chart which demonstrated the different infringements on the civil liberties of Aboriginal Australians imposed by each state legislature. This was a huge, detailed and time consuming endeavour. It was the first time that the restrictions of these constraining state laws had been placed side by side, allowing people to see the unworkability of laws which defined who an Aboriginal person was and what such a person could and could not do inside state borders. When a person so defined crossed into another state s/he might even be defined as not being Aboriginal in that jurisdiction. This work, which would later be circulated as 'The Australian Aborigines: A Summary of their Situation in All States in 1962', posed questions such as 'Are Aborigines free to marry?', 'Do Aborigines have control of their own children?', 'Can Aborigines handle their own money?' The answers were often in the negative, demonstrating the stripping away of their human rights by state so-called 'Aborigines' Protection' acts.8
Shirley Andrews was one of the key activists responsible for the formation of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA) in 1958. This new Council bought together nine existing state-based organisations and established a national platform in their work for Aboriginal rights. (In 1964 it became the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, commonly referred to as FCAATSI.) By 1960, Shirley had become deeply involved with the issue of social service payments and equal wages. The Social Services Consolidation Act had been amended in 1959 making it possible for Aboriginal people, with the exception of those classed as nomadic, to apply for benefits such as the old age pension. As the Federal Government was doing little to alert potential Aboriginal claimants of this change, the amendment had little impact initially on social reality. Andrews was by now receiving letters from Aboriginal people in a number of states asking for help with social service applications or for gaining access to pensions which were being paid to trustees. She began to search for a suitable person to take over her work as honorary secretary of the Council for Aboriginal Rights to free her up for this research and advocacy work.
By 1960, while they had advocated for people in the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia, Council for Aboriginal Rights members were aware of their limited engagement with Victorian Aboriginal people. Bill Onus was at this time the only Aboriginal committee member, although Marg Tucker and Doug Nicholls had both been on the committee in the 1950s. Mrs Hyllus Maris had expressed an interest in
joining but pointed out that more effort needed to be made to get in contact with Victorian Aboriginal people.9 Shirley Andrews was intensely aware of her own limited social interactions with Aboriginal people. Her upbringing in a middle class family included boarding at St Michael's Church of England Girls' Grammar followed by study at Melbourne University. Her social world had not included Aboriginal people. She was so anxious about appearing to be patronising towards Aborigines that she often felt constrained and socially self conscious communicating with them.10
In September 1961 Shirley reported to Mary Bennett, one of her West Australian correspondents, that she had found a replacement secretary:
I have someone who is willing – a Mrs Pauline Pickford who went to the Hopevale Mission enquiry as our delegate. She is a very sincere person with great enthusiasm and warmth and I am sure she will be a great asset.11
Shirley's assessment proved to be accurate. The formative months of the campaign to retain Lake Tyers, from late 1961 to the march and presentation of a petition to parliament by Lake Tyers campaigners in 1963 was built on the strong friendships forged between Pauline Pickford and Aboriginal people from Gippsland, mostly resident at Lake Tyers. Laurie Moffatt, Cedric Parsons and his wife, Eugene Mobourne, Steward Hood, Cedric Harrison and family, Mrs Melva Walsh from Moe, Mrs Anita Hayes from Lakes Entrance, and many others wrote to Pauline, met her when she visited Lake Tyers, and visited her in her Heidelberg home in Melbourne. It was Mrs Edna Harrison whose initial plea brought to the Council for Aboriginal Rights the urgency of the situation at Lake Tyers.12 She wrote:
The manager what we got here now that's Mr Mills he wont let him [her husband] stay here on the Mission. My husband has been off the place for six months now his [sic] trying to get his home back with me but they wont let him stay here he didn't do anything wrong...the manager always gets the police out here to chase him about just like an escaped convict...I want to know if you could help me and my husband this is our home here on Lake Tyers. We got nowhere to go'.13
Pauline Pickford, who was about to take up the secretary's job when this letter arrived, would become deeply engaged with the people of Lake Tyers over the following years as she assisted them in their fight for their land and homes.
Pickford's warm personality and her natural preparedness to make human relationships a priority in her work as secretary strengthened the links between Gippsland Aboriginal people and the Council for Aboriginal Rights. Unlike Shirley, Pauline came from a working class background in which Aboriginal people figured as friends and neighbours. She described her mother as 'a termagant as far as race and class was concerned'.14 One of Pauline's neighbours, Mrs Dora Green with whom she socialised, was a member of an important Aboriginal Gippsland family, the Pepper clan, and provided links to other families. Pauline drew on common experiences such as bringing up children and childhood ailments in her letters to east Gippsland Aboriginal
women. She and her husband Arthur, a keen fisherman, would holiday at Lake Tyers beach and 'the blokes would come across [from the Aboriginal Station] and we'd have talks'.15 These relationships, based on a growing mutual trust, developed and became crucial as the people from Lake Tyers found their voice politically.
Concern about Victorian Government intentions regarding the land at Lake Tyers was not new. As early as 1948 the Australian Aborigines' League had submitted a paper, 'Terms of Reference for an Enquiry' into Aboriginal affairs in Victoria to the Government. The paper was unequivocal about the future:
The opinion of the League is that the Government should not dispose of Lake Tyers Station to any interests, organisation or persons whatsoever. It must take immediate steps to make Lake Tyers Station together with the Land Titles, all station housing equipment, livestock intact, the property of the Aborigines and mixed bloods as a community.16
Their views were to no avail and four years later Laurie Moffatt expressed a similar fear in a public statement which was reported in the Age. Displaying his knowledge of what had happened elsewhere, he wrote:
We do not want to see Lake Tyers finally sold to the white man in the same way as Ramahyuck, Condah, Ebenezer Mission and Coranderrk Reserves have been sold. All these have been hostels for the Aborigines in my lifetime and have been sold to white men to cultivate.17
In 1957 Charles McLean, a retired stipendiary magistrate who had been appointed to enquire into the state of Aboriginal affairs in Victoria and make policy recommendations for the future, tabled his report. McLean saw no place for Lake Tyers in the 'active assimilation' which he advocated. The policy of assimilation, defined and promoted by Paul Hasluck, Minister for Territories in the Federal Government, saw the future for Aboriginal people 'within the mainstream' of Australian life. Agreeing with this approach, the Victorian Government decided to put its efforts into housing in Victorian country towns for Aboriginal families who had been living in the primitive cottages at Lake Tyers. People would be induced to leave with the lure of a new house which included the luxuries of running water and electric light.18 Laurie Moffatt and others at Lake Tyers feared for the future of this land.
The Victorian Council for Aboriginal Rights in its own submission to the McLean Board of Enquiry argued that the 'reorganisation of Lake Tyers should be directed towards giving the Aboriginal people control over their own Reserve'. Moreover, the Council stated that 'the present set up is one that completely demoralises the people and saps all initiative'.19 The pleas for help from Mrs Harrison and Laurie Moffatt led the Council to apply to the Aborigines' Welfare Board for permission to visit Lake Tyers. This was granted and in December 1961 Pauline Pickford, Shirley Andrews, Neville Lloyd and Mrs E Smith, an Aboriginal woman originally from Cummeragunga who was married to a Gippsland man, visited Lake Tyers. Pauline Pickford recalled 'we were met
by a little group of residents and they conducted us around until the boss [Mr Miles, the manager] poked his nose in'.20 The delegation would report on the substandard living conditions endured by residents. Cottages had no water laid on, nor bathrooms nor laundries. Kitchen slops were thrown onto the ground. Flies were numerous and there were no screens and as a result of these conditions the health of the people, especially the children, was poor. Apart from recommending that these deficiencies be rectified the Council recommended that the reserve be secured 'as property of the Aboriginal residents'.21

The Beginnings of Organisation at Lake Tyers

When Pauline Pickford first met Laurie Moffatt in 1961, he was sixty two years old. Laurie was respected by the Lake Tyers residents as an elder of the community. Like Pauline he was a natural networker. She recalled that he went around the Aboriginal communities, not just in Gippsland but in Melbourne as well. 'He was here, there, and somewhere else'.22 He was also an organiser who was confident that he could get the Lake Tyers people to 'sign a letter making their wishes plain'.23 Laurie knew that the fate of other Victorian Aboriginal reserve land could very easily be repeated at Lake Tyers with the Victorian Government committed to relocating residents in country towns throughout Victoria and he understood his people's deep attachment to their birthplace. At a national conference in Canberra in 1965, Laurie told his audience that the Aborigines' Welfare Board was 'standing over the old Australians' who were 'being driven from the homes they had lived in for generations'.24 Pauline came to know him through his trips to Melbourne to attend Council for Aboriginal Rights meetings and around the campfire at Lake Tyers when she took her family there for summer holidays. He was a man 'of great personal charm, with a sense of humour and a sense of dignity' and was 'absolutely dedicated and persistent in his endeavour' to retain Lake Tyers.25 Through Laurie, Pauline would meet and become friends with other members of the Moffatt family as well as other Lake Tyers residents.
The files of the Council for Aboriginal Rights contain the initial letters written by Lake Tyers residents and other Gippsland Aboriginal people to Pauline Pickford asking for assistance with their old age pensions. Mrs Hayes, for example, explained that her pension 'is put in the store at Lakes Entrance and I only get ten shillings [one dollar]'.26 As the word spread through the settlement that Pauline was helping to solve these problems more people wrote. One man asked for help with his 'social service business', another with problems concerning taxation, and a woman asked that her great nephew be allowed to return so she could 'bring him up properly'. The young man's mother, Mrs Edna Harrison, who had been the first person to contact the Council, had died. Residents asked for a new manager. Shirley Andrews contacted the Department of Social Services, Pauline wrote to the Aborigines' Welfare Board and the Public Service Board
and a number of these problems were resolved. Grateful letters of thanks followed.27
A further, broader dialogue was also developing through 1962 as Lake Tyers residents came to trust Pauline Pickford and the Council for Aboriginal Rights. Laurie Moffatt joined the Council's committee in late 1961. The Council paid him a travelling allowance to allow him to get to Melbourne meetings where he saw politically experienced activists such as Shirley Andrews, Bill Onus, Barry Christophers and Pauline Pickford developing their campaign plans.28
The idea of a petition was discussed and in April 1962. Stewart Hood, a Lake Tyers resident, wrote to Pauline 'if you make out Petation [sic] I will get many Aboriginal to sign it themselves so you can see for yourself that they will want the Lake Tyers settlement' to be retained.29 Pauline drafted out a short, direct statement in response which read: 'We, the undersigned residents of Lake Tyers Aboriginal Station, desire to remain on the reserve and develop the property along co-operative lines'.30 Forty four people signed this petition, all of the adult residents, meanwhile Pauline arranged through her local member and the leader of the Opposition, Clive Stoneham, for Laurie Moffatt and Dr Alastair Campbell to formally present the petition to the Victorian Parliament on behalf of the Council for Aboriginal Rights in October 1962.31 This was not the first, nor would it be the last petition to the Victorian Government about the tenure of Lake Tyers.32
Recognising the need for a Melbourne-based body to develop the campaign for Lake Tyers, Pauline approached Bill Onus, vice-president of the Council for Aboriginal Rights. Bill had previously been on the executive of the Australian Aborigines' League, an all-Aboriginal body which had been active in the 1930s and 40s and, as mentioned above, had submitted a request for an inquiry into the future of Lake Tyers.33 Pauline suggested that if this League was reactivated it might take up the Lake Tyers cause.34 In March 1962 Doug Nicholls and Bill Onus called together a group of young people who were interested in reforming the Australian Aborigines' League. In the months that followed a Lake Tyers Campaign Committee, under the leadership of Bill Onus and Doug Nicholls, was formed under the auspices of the revived Australian Aborigines' League. This committee worked closely with the Victorian Aborigines' Advancement League, where Doug Nicholls was the very busy and active Field Officer. The Advancement League could call on its many branches in the Melbourne suburbs and in Victorian country towns for support.35 Doug Nicholls and Bill and Eric Onus formed the nucleus of the Lake Tyers Campaign Committee. Television and radio publicity and press releases on the issue were circulated. Information was sent to a broad section of the community including 'barristers, teachers, accountants, typing agencies, advertisers, printers, publicity agents, film makers, builders, furniture manufacturers'.36
By 1963 the campaign to retain Lake Tyers had gained momentum. At Easter the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement held its 6th annual conference, the first of
many to be held in Canberra, observed by foreign diplomats and reported on by local and international presses. Pauline Pickford had written to the honorary secretary Stan Davey, asking him to send conference material to Laurie Moffatt. Pauline explained 'They [Lake Tyers residents] have a social group which raises money for this and that. I suggested that he put it to the people to affiliate with the federal body even though they may send only one delegate'. She further explained that the Council for Aboriginal Rights would supply transport while the people would have to raise the affiliation fee and money for food and accommodation. Although the suggested affiliation did not happen, Laurie Moffatt went to Canberra representing the Council for Aboriginal Rights.37
Moffatt must have been heartened and emboldened by what he heard. The conference was attended by representatives from sixteen advancement leagues, eleven unions and four religious organisations. Thirty Aboriginal people attended from all over the continent, and, for the first time two Torres Strait Islander representatives were present. Motions were passed for 'social services to operate without discrimination for Aborigines', for 'equal pay for equal work and the same industrial protection as for other Australians'. Most importantly, however, would have been his experience of hearing of the pressure being put on the residents of Mapoon Mission to leave their homes on land which the Queensland Government had leased to Comalco to mine bauxite. At the same conference he would have heard of a similar threat to the people living on Yirrkala Methodist Mission. The Federal Council 's policy was that 'Aborigines on proclaimed Reserves should have an inalienable right to land tenure which may not be superseded by any mineral rights'38 In the all-Aboriginal session on Good Friday Moffatt would most probably have met Dooley Bin Bin from Roeburne in Western Australia, representing the successful Pindan Aboriginal Co-operative, and Aboriginal leaders from other states such as Kath Walker from Queensland and Malcolm Cooper from South Australia and heard politicians and church leaders speaking in support of equal wages and access to social service benefits for Aboriginal people.39
We can only guess at Laurie Moffatt's reports of this Canberra conference and the new Australia-wide support group which he had found, but he most likely conveyed a sense of optimism to his neighbours as he recounted all he had seen and heard. The next month forty people from Lake Tyers, most likely the entire adult population, made the long journey to Melbourne to take part in a public protest march up to Parliament House. Members of the deputation met and spoke with the Leader of the Opposition, Clive Stoneham, and the Leader of the Country Party, Sir Herbert Hyland. This was a huge step for Lake Tyers people who had endured policy shifts and changes before without acting. Were they emboldened by Laurie's accounts from Canberra? Their earlier simple request that people be allowed to remain on the reserve and develop the property as a co-operative had been expanded to a nine point policy proposal. The
residents now asked for:
The absolute retention of Lake Tyers for the benefit of Aboriginal people.
Full enquiry into all aspects of Board policy and management on Lake Tyers.
Abolition of restrictive regulations.
Full award wages and social service benefits to be paid directly to persons concerned.
Elected representatives of the residents to participate in management and control of the settlement with a view to full control being made over to the people in three to five years.
The opportunity to develop community projects.
Adequate financial support by the Government to launch such projects.
Standard housing and modern facilities to be provided on Lake Tyers.
Adequate regular transport to be provided to nearby towns.40
Following the march and deputation to Parliament, Laurie Moffatt and Gene Mobourne joined an all-Aboriginal panel which addressed a public meeting on Lake Tyers. Joe McGinness, president of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement, well known tenor Harold Blair, Doug Nicholls and Bill and Eric Onus together presented the case for the retention of Lake Tyers for its Aboriginal residents.41
The Lake Tyers people who had sought Pauline Pickford's assistance in their individual battles with indifferent bureaucrats had developed the necessary confidence to seek permission to travel to Melbourne to support the sentiments expressed in this petition and bring their case to public attention.42 A movement for change was being built.

The Public Respond

The question as to whether Lake Tyers should be retained for its Aboriginal inhabitants or sold off had now become a matter of public debate. An unprecedented interest in the issue was evident in the letters to the editors of daily newspapers, editorials and news items.43 One correspondent pointed out that Aboriginal people were being moved from Mona Mona Mission and Mapoon Mission in Queensland without the same level of community interest. Why had Victorians become interested in the future of about twenty-two Aboriginal families living on handouts at Lake Tyers? The debate seemed to polarise the community. The Victorian Government's position was that the Lake Tyers Aboriginal reserve consisted of substandard accommodation and the rationing of residents had created a demoralised population which had lost initiative and become passive. The chairman of the Aborigines' Welfare Board, Mr Meagher, the Minister for Transport, argued that 'as a matter of simple justice' to the children, the remaining families should be removed to 'decent homes in towns where their parents can obtain employment' and the children could have the 'educational opportunities and a chance to live the sort of life that any citizen of this State is entitled to expect'.44 Lake Tyers became an ideological battlefield. One side, supported by the Victorian Government,
argued that the people needed to be induced to move to better equipped houses in country towns often far from friends and family, to make their way in white society. The opposing side, supported by the Council for Aboriginal Rights, the Aborigines' Advancement League, the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement, the Australia Aborigines' League, anthropologists Dr Diane Barwick and Dr Donald Thomson who was a member of the Aborigines' Welfare Board, as well as churches and unions argued that this was coercive assimilation; that it would not work because people hadn't been equipped for this lonely isolating experience and anyway that people had a right to their own way of life and to land which they could call their own.
Pastor Doug Nicholls, who had resigned from his position on the Aborigines' Welfare Board because he disagreed with Meagher's reasoning, argued that the wishes of the people themselves were being ignored. He explained to Age readers that the people had 'reaffirmed their desire to improve conditions and to work towards independent self reliance as a community on their birthplace'.45 Moreover he questioned the likelihood of success for the rehousing project which the Government was embarked upon, pointing out the difficulties for unskilled Aboriginal labourers to make their way in white society for which they had not been prepared.46
Most correspondents who wrote letters to the editor of the Age in response to these views addressed the matter as if these two positions were incompatible alternatives: either the Lake Tyers residents should have the right to stay on the land of their birth and have a say in its future development, or they should be moved for their own and their children's benefit. One writer, Ian Spalding, convener of Aboriginal Affairs, a group of university graduates committed to providing information and stimulating a social conscience with regard to Aboriginal Australians, argued that Victoria could afford to allow Lake Tyers Reserve to remain in perpetuity. He pointed out that experience in other states and overseas suggested that social and emotional difficulties of minority groups were magnified when people had to take a place in the wider community before they were equipped to do so. The level of engagement in this debate meant that the Aborigines' Welfare Board would not be able to quietly close the Lake Tyers Reserve. The issue had been politicised and seemed to touch a nerve with writers who used the language of human rights, of a people's right to be a people, and of a right to land. The loss of Lake Tyers would be the 'final act of dispossession' one correspondent wrote.47

Extending horizons

From late 1961 to early 1967, about a hundred letters travelled between the residents of Lake Tyers and Pauline Pickford in Melbourne. This is one, perhaps unprecedented, measure of the trust which developed between Pauline, a white woman who was the honorary secretary of a council in far away Melbourne, and the residents of Lake Tyers
Aboriginal Reserve. To the initial letters asking for help with social service applications and direct access to pensions were added letters which focused on strategies to retain the Lake Tyers land.
Pauline Pickford was the linchpin in these early years, encouraging people to believe that the Government could be successfully challenged in its long-term goal of moving residents away from Lake Tyers and eventually closing it down. She broke down the isolation experienced by the Aboriginal people of east Gippsland. Laurie Moffatt accepted the invitation to join the Council for Aboriginal Rights committee. At the end of 1961 Pauline Pickford arranged an introductory meeting between Moffatt and the Secretary of the Trades Hall Council, James Stout. Stout had been in this position since 1938 and was an influential figure in the trade union movement. Having his support would be valuable in seeking the support of unions for a public campaign for Lake Tyers. This meeting was successful with the two men getting on well. The Trades Hall Council would become involved in the campaign for Lake Tyers, sending a delegation down to investigate and report in August 1963.48
Pauline worked at developing her relationships with Lake Tyers activists. She came to know and work with other members of the Moffatt family meeting Foster Moffatt when the Council for Aboriginal Rights contingent went to Lake Tyers in December 1961 and working with Dick Moffatt who had contacts with the Morwell Trades and Labour Council. She sent reading material to Gene Mobourne, which most likely included the Council's own publication Struggle for Dignity, a state by state damning assessment of the position of Aboriginal Australians. He wrote to thank her commenting 'those books are very interesting to read'.49 Relationships between the Moffatt and Pickford families as well as the Hoods and Mobournes were strengthened by the summer camping trips which the Pickford family made to Lake Tyers. Conversations around the campfire and meetings in Gippsland, Melbourne and Canberra nourished the political understandings of Laurie Moffatt, Gene Mobourne, Cedric Parsons, Melva Walsh, Stuart Hood and Charlie Carter: those most active at Lake Tyers on the issue.
Pauline used existing women's networks to empower Aboriginal women. Melva Walsh became friendly with Pauline, with their letters displaying an easy exchange of concern about each other's children as well as about Pauline's assistance in providing accommodation for Melva's son who came to Melbourne. Melva was a member of the Union of Australian Women (UAW), a leftwing organisation which supported campaigns for Aboriginal rights. The support was practical and resourceful. The members of the Moe branch of this union looked after six of her children while Melva went to the FCAA conference in Canberra at Easter 1964.50 The same year Pauline arranged for Gladys O'Shane, president of the Cairns Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement League, and UAW member, to speak to the Moe branch. Gladys O'Shane told her audience of the forced removal of the Mapoon people on Cape York
Peninsula following the discovery of bauxite.51 The pressures which the people at Lake Tyers faced were not unique, and the Lake Tyers folk could learn from the experiences of others.
The second way that Pauline Pickford supported Lake Tyers residents was by exploring ways of developing and encouraging Aboriginal participation in the political process. She explained to a colleague 'I feel very deeply that it's something I must try'.52 From 1963 to 1966 she arranged for Lake Tyers people to attend the FCAA(TSI) annual conference as Council for Aboriginal Rights delegates. She told Stan Davey, FCAA(TSI) honorary secretary, 'my view is that they [Lake Tyers people] need to see and understand the need for this type of action [lobbying at a national level]'. Following Laurie Moffatt's trip to Canberra in 1963, Gene Mobourne, Cedric Parsons and Melva Walsh, who lived in Moe but was born and reared at Lake Tyers, attended the 1964 conference and presented their case for retaining Lake Tyers for the Aboriginal residents. Reporting on this conference Pauline summarised the value of the trip to Canberra for them:
The people lack experience in organising. They do not lack ideas ... so this mixing and discussing each other's ways and means of handling common problems all helps to build morale and a feeling of security.53
The following year it was Maude Pepper, Laurie Moffatt, Charlie Carter and Melva Walsh who reported at the national FCAATSI conference. By now the idea of an Aboriginal right to land was being voiced from many directions. The Aboriginal caucus which met prior to the official opening of the conference passed the following resolution:
We, the Aborigines representing our people from all states of the Commonwealth, propose as follows: This Council requests that the respective Australian Government and/or Governments return to the Aboriginal people all that Crown land now not serving any particular purpose and sufficient for the reasonable welfare and development of the Aboriginal people and that in addition the respective Government and/or Governments pay to the Aboriginal people a just price for the land already taken there from. This just price could be assessed at 150 million pounds to be paid over a nine year period and to be paid to nominees of the Aboriginal people for the advancement and welfare of the Aboriginal people and that in the event of the said Government and/or Governments refusing our request this Council should take such legal and/or constitutional steps to achieve these objectives.54
This motion was 'enthusiastically' endorsed by the conference and in the discussion which followed. Dr Barrie Pittock contrasted the situation in Australia, where not one piece of land was recognised as being Aboriginal-owned, with the United States of America which first signed a treaty with the Delawares in 1787. He argued for establishment of the principle of Aboriginal entitlement to land. The 1965 FCAATSI conference was attended by affiliates from 61 organisations. There were 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people present. Importantly, representatives from foreign
legations attended, especially those attached to newly independent African nations, and Australian and international press were in attendance. The Lake Tyers activists were no longer alone. Rather they were a part of an Australia wide movement which proposed an alternative to the terra nullius view of Australian history which, until recently, had been little challenged.


By the mid 1960s community support for the Lake Tyers people in their bid to remain was such that the Government could not ignore it. Moreover, people who had been persuaded to leave to go to houses far from their support group were now trying to return. Foster Moffatt, an elderly man who, when his wife died, wished to come back to Tyers, was refused permission, despite the fact that he'd been told he could come back if he chose. The Victorian Government's plan to assimilate the Lake Tyers people by scattering them across country towns was in tatters. Stan Davey, Director of the Victorian Aborigines' Advancement League, publicised the inhumanity of the Welfare Board's response to the position of people such as Foster.55
From late 1961, when the Council for Aboriginal Rights began to focus on Lake Tyers, unions, the Trades Hall Council, religious bodies, branches of the Victorian Aborigines' Advancement League, Abschol, the Communist Party of Australia, trades and labour councils and Labor politicians all joined the campaign for Lake Tyers Reserve to be legally secured for its Aboriginal residents. The Council for Aboriginal Rights, mainly through the agency of Pauline Pickford, played a key role in the formative years of this campaign. She drew Tyers people into the networks which could support their goals. She gave them the opportunities to develop as political activists. Attendance of their representatives at FCAATSI conferences broke down barriers for the Tyers people; they saw that they were not alone. Laurie Moffatt and Gene Mobourne voiced their appreciation of the Council for Aboriginal Rights, writing, 'we know you and your organisation is [sic] really doing more than the other organisations by helping us to retain Lake Tyers'.56
Aboriginal agency was denied by those who opposed the retention of Lake Tyers. Mrs Edna Harrison's plaintive and desperate call for help with her graphic image of the manager of Lake Tyers calling the police to chase her husband about 'just like an escaped convict' was heard, however, by the Council for Aboriginal Rights. 'I want to know if you could help me and my husband' Edna had asked, 'this is our home here on Lake Tyers. We got nowhere to go'.57 Four years later Laurie Moffatt, in objecting to the Morwell Shire Council's plans to establish a transit settlement next to the Princes Highway for Aboriginal people, pointed out that 'our boys fought in the two World Wars and we should have some choice in the land for which we fought'.58 Charlie Carter did not want to see Lake Tyers lost, because 'we got our dear one[s] just over yonder resting in peace'.59
These were deeply held and deeply felt views, and yet the sentiments underlying them – of people's attachment to their homes – had been discounted by bureaucrats implementing Victoria's assimilation policy. In these red-baiting times the temptation to see Communists rather than the Lake Tyers Aboriginal people themselves as those driving the campaign was great. The cry 'they're being used by the Communists' was heard in the Legislative Assembly when Clive Stoneham, the Leader of the Opposition, presented the 1963 petition.60 In responding to a similar slur aimed at Pastor Nicholls, Stan Davey asked: 'Must it be only "enemies of the State" who oppose the alienation of tribal lands which takes place without consultation nor compensation of the original inhabitants?'61 To strip a people of agency, to see them as pawns in ideological battle, denied their humanity. 'They'll want TV this time' a member of parliament was heard sneering when Stoneham read the petition to parliamentarians in the Legislative Assembly.62 And in reporting on a protest led by Pastor Doug Nicholls when the Chief Secretary announced his intention to close Lake Tyers the Bulletin ridiculed: Last week Melbourne was offered the unique spectacle of a Member of the British Empire and Justice of the Peace picketing Parliament House.63 The sneering and ridicule display not just a lack of empathy but an attack on the Lake Tyers people's right to 'a little piece of Australia', as Moffatt put it.64
On 24 July 1971, to the applause of the Lake Tyers community, Charlie Carter received the unconditional title deeds to the 4000 acres of the Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust from the Governor of Victoria, Sir Rohan Delacombe.' This is what I fought for ... I'm very proud' Carter told his people, 'This land is our land, our land from the start'.65 This was the culmination of ten years of campaigning, waged by the residents and supported by a growing number of organisations and individuals. Carter, who took over as spokesman for the community following Laurie Moffatt's death in 1966, had realised the importance of remaining on the Reserve, despite the inducements made by the Aborigines' Welfare Board to the residents to leave.
While the paternalism of governments acting without consultation and against the wishes of Aboriginal communities has continued, the Lake Tyers struggle remains a beacon of hope. It exemplifies the power of community activism based on friendships and a dogged refusal to give up the fight against injustice. Reclaiming their past, the Tyers people now call their home Bung Yarnda (Blue Waters) the Gunai name for what became Lake Tyers Mission nearly 150 years ago.


Edna Harrison to Mr Innis [Innes] 1 July 1961, Council for Aboriginal Rights (hereafter CAR), MS12913/7/3, State Library of Victoria (hereafter SLV).


Pauline Pickford to the Secretary, Tambo Shire, CAR, MS12913, box 7, SLV.


Report of the Aborigines' Welfare Board, Victoria, for the year ended 30 June 1963; 'Chance for Lake Tyers aboriginals is urged', Herald, 3 April 1963.


V. H. Arnold, Government Statist for Victoria, Victorian Yearbook 1961, no. 73, Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, Melbourne, 1961, p. 428.


'Lake Tyers', transcribed from report dictated by Laurie Moffatt, September 1961, CAR, MS12913/7/3, SLV.


See Bain Attwood, Rights for Aborigines, St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2003, St. Lucia: pp. 131-135, and Joe McGinness, Son of Alyandabu: my fight for Aboriginal rights, Qld University of Queensland Press, 1991, pp. 58-66 for events in Darwin leading to the formation of the Council for Aboriginal Rights.


Resolution carried by the 15th Congress of the Communist Party of Austrtalia, Sydney, 7-10 May, 1948, 993, 592/48, State Records Office of Western Australia.


Shirley Andrews, 'The Australian Aborigines: A Summary of their Situation in all states in 1962', CAR, MS12913/3/4, SLV.


Minutes, CAR, 22 September 1960, MS12913/4/13, SLV.


Interview with Shirley Andrews, North Melbourne, 24 November 1999.


Shirley Andrews to Mary Bennett, 22 September 1961, MS12913/3/1, SLV


CAR correspondence register, MS12913/7/3, SLV.


Edna Harrison to Mr Inniss [Innes], 1 July 1961, CAR, MS12913/7/3, SLV.


Phone conversation with Pauline Pickford, 1 March 2009.




Terms of Reference for an Enquiry, submitted by the Australian Aborigines' League, 4 March 1948, CAR, MS12913/8/1, SLV.


Reported in the Age 28 January 1952.


Report of the Aborigines' Welfare Board, Victoria for the year ending 30 June, 1963.


CAR submission to the Enquiry, National Archives of Australia, Melbourne, B408, item 6.


Pauline Pickford, phone conversation, 27 February 2009.


'Statement on the Lake Tyers Government Aboriginal Settlement', 26 February 1962, CAR, MS12913/7/8, SLV.


Conversation with Pauline Pickford, 27 February 2009.


Pauline Pickford to Laurie Moffatt, 6 June 1962, CAR, MS12913/7/3, SLV.


Pauline Pickford, 'Summary of the 8th annual conference of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders', 5 May 1965, CAR, MS12913/10/7, SLV.


'Death of Vice-President', CAR annual report, 30 September 1966, CAR, MS12913/7/3, SLV.


Mrs A. E. Hayes, to Pauline Pickford, 6 October 1962, CAR, MS12913/7/7, SLV.


These letters are in the CAR, MS12913, box 7, SLV.


Gene Mobourne to Pauline Pickford, CAR, 18 September 1963, MS12913/7/6, SLV.


Steward Hood to Pauline Pickford, 11 April 1962, CAR, MS12913,/7/8, SLV.


Petition, 3 August 1962, CAR, MS12913/7/8, SLV.


Pauline Pickford to Campbell Turnbull, MLA, 16 October 1962, CAR, MS12913/7/8, SLV.


For example Lake Tyers residents signed a petition which was presented to visiting Government Members in January 1956, B408 item 6, National Archives of Australia, Melbourne. In 1963 a more detailed petition was presented. See Victorian Parliamentary Debates Legislative Assembly, 1962-63, vol 270, pp 3943-4.


Terms of Reference for an Enquiry, submitted by the Australian Aborigines' League, 4 March 1948, CAR, MS12913/8/1, SLV.


Pauline Pickford to Eric Onus, 2 February 1962, Correspondence register, CAR, MS12913/7/8, SLV.


By 1960 there were 19 branches in Victoria, Smoke Signals, April 1960.


Victorian Aborigines' Advancement League annual general meeting, 1 September 1962; 'Lake Tyers for Aborigines', nd but prior to 11 May 1962, Blackburn papers, MS11749/83, SLV.


Pauline Pickford to Stan Davey, 13 March 1963, CAR, MS2913/7/, SLV.


Resolutions of the 6th Annual General Meeting of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, Canberra, 12-14 April 1963, CAR papers, MS12913/10/6, SLV.




Victorian Parliamentary Debates Legislative Assembly, 1962-63, vol. 270, pp. 3943-4.


Report of meeting, 22 May, 1963, CAR, MS12913/7/10 SLV.


The Aborigines' Welfare Board annual report for the year ending June 1963 states that the adult population of Lake Tyers was 39, and that there were 45 children, p. 15.


For example, between 7 May and 30 May 1963 20 letters were published on the Lake Tyers issue in the Age, at a time when it was unusual to get one letter in a week on an issue to do with Aboriginal affairs.


Victorian Parliamentary Debates Legislative Assembly, 1962-63, vol. 270, p, 2592.


Pastor Doug Nicholls, letter to the editor, 'Lake Tyers', Age, 13 May 1963.


Pastor Doug Nicholls, letter to the editor, 'Why Retain Lake Tyers', Age, 27 May 1963.


Letters to the editor, Age, 4 to 30 May; Mrs J. P. Radic, 'Lake Tyers Settlement', Age, 15 May 1963.


1962-1963 Council for Aboriginal Rights annual report, CAR, MS12913/7/3, SLV.


Gene Mobourne to Pauline Pickford, 10 December 1963, CAR, MS12913/7/6, SLV.


Marjorie Oke to Pauline Pickford, 10 March 1964, CAR, MS12913/3/6, SLV.


Pauline Pickford interview, Melbourne, 29 October 2007.


Pauline Pickford to Eunice Gilmour, 17 April 1964, CAR, MS12913/3/6, SLV.


Pauline Pickford, Summary of the 7th Annual Conference of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Stait Islanders, 13 April 1964, CAR, MS12913/10/6, SLV.


'Reports and Resolutions of the 8th Conference on Aboriginal Affairs', 16-18 April 1965, CAR, MS12913/10/7, SLV.


Stan Davey, 'A "State of the Nation" Report on Victorian Aboriginal Affairs', June 1967, CAR, MS12913/7/9, SLV.


Laurie Moffatt and Eugene Mobourne to Pauline Pickford, nd, CAR, MS12913/7/3, SLV.


Edna Harrison to Mr Inniss [Innes], 1 July 1961, CAR, MS12913/7/3, SLV.


'"Give us back our land": plea made', Morwell Advertiser, 6 September 1965.


Reported by Gene Mobourne in a letter to Pauline Pickford, 30 July 1963, CAR, MS12913/7/3, SLV.


'Aborigines Petition Parlt. To Keep Lake Tyers', Age, 23 May 1963.


Stan Davey to the Editor, Advertiser, [Adelaide], 21 July 1963, Bryant Papers, MS8256, box 172, National Library of Australia.


'Aborigines Petition Parlt. To Keep Lake Tyers', Age, 23 May 1963.


'Don't Take the Lake', Bulletin, 27 March 1965, pp. 14–15.


'"Give us back our land:": plea made', Morwell Advertiser, 6 September 1965.


Charlie Carter,, accessed 21 May 2009.