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Monday musings on Australian literature: Bread and Cheese Club and Indigenous Australians

February 10, 2014

Since last week’s Monday Musings post on Melbourne’s curious, but now defunct, Bread and Cheese Club, I’ve been doing further research into its various activities, and have found it to be an amazingly vibrant organisation. The club’s motto was “Mateship, Art and Letters” and a major focus seemed to have been Australian writers. Certainly its first Knight Grand Cheese, JK Moir, was a significant book collector, and it did publish around 40 or so books. However, its activities spread widely across what they would have described as Australiana. I might come back to them again, but today I want to write about their relationship to indigenous Australian culture.

Publishing

The club was quite an active publisher and among its publications were some rather significant works, for the time in particular, to do with Australian Aboriginal culture:

Albert Namatjira, 1949 (Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Albert Namatjira, 1949 (Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

  • Art of the Australian Aboriginal by Charles Barrett and Robert H. Croll (with a foreword by anthropologist AP Elkin), in 1943. Charles Barrett was a naturalist and journalist, and R.H. Croll an author and public servant. Both travelled widely throughout Australia. Barrett was passionate about protecting ancient Aboriginal art, writing that its protection “should be a national concern: white morons have already disfigured many”.
  • The art of Albert Namatjira by C. P. Mountford, in 1944. Albert Namatjira is one of Australia’s best known Aboriginal artists, a pioneer. Mountford was a mechanic and public servant turned anthropologist who, by the 1920s, was developing the interest in indigenous Australian culture that stayed with him the rest of his life. He was particularly interested in art, but I was intrigued to read in the Australian Dictionary of Biography that “in 1935 he was appointed secretary of a board of inquiry to investigate allegations of ill-treatment of Aborigines in the Northern Territory, at Hermannsburg and Ayers Rock”. He also travelled with Norman Tindale who is famous for his detailed map of indigenous Australia.

Interesting, I think, that it was this “little” club which published these books.

Donation to the Adelaide University’s fund for Aboriginal research

This one intrigued me, and is what inspired this post, in fact. I read in The Argus, 19 May 1951, that Albert Namatjira had donated £1000 to the Adelaide University’s fund for Aboriginal Research. But, apparently, the story goes, he did not make the donation himself because “as Australian law now stands, an aborigine cannot control an income of his own”! Enter Bread and Cheese Club founder JK Moir who made the donation on Namatjira’s behalf out of the proceeds of the book by CP Mountford. Moir is quoted as saying:

Albert, as an aborigine, cannot control his affairs, but I know what we have done has his enthusiastic endorsement. There is no precedent for this anywhere. An aborigine raising £1000 through his work for the cause of his own people is unique. I can assure you it will not be the last donation if we can help it.

Coranderrk and the Barak Grave

The final story activity I want to share is more in the style of those working bees that groups like Rotary and Lions have often done. It concerns the cemetery at Coranderrk. Coranderrk was an Aboriginal reserve established by the government for dispossessed indigenous Australians. It operated from 1863 to 1924. It’s quite a story that I won’t detail here, but in 1950 the land was handed over to the Soldier Settler Scheme. The cemetery, which of course contained graves of the previous indigenous residents, was by then in disarray. In a letter to the editor of the Healesville Guardian on 19 May 1951, naturalist David Fleay wrote of being “shocked at its state of absolute neglect and ruin”. Only two graves, one being that of, Barak, the last king of the Yarra Yarra tribe, were distinguishable he said. He also refers to the marble monument to Barak that had been in a significant position in the town of Coranderrk but was now in a depot. He argued that money should be put aside to renovate the cemetery and that the Barak monument go to its “rightful place”. He also suggests that “it is possible that the Melbourne Bread and Cheese Club, champions of Australiana would take a decided interest”.

And so, in fact, they did. A Healesville Guardian column by Oswald C Robarts on 11 November 1955 writes of their contribution. They seem to have become involved in 1952 and carried out at least one working bee in 1955. It’s not clear what else they did. A report in the Club’s journal, Bohemia, states that “we did a good day’s work and those who remember the terrible state of the Cemetery when we saw it on our first visit would be surprised. Much remains to be done.”

I will conclude though with Oswald C Robarts:

On January 23 this year, several members of the Club travelled from Melbourne, bringing with them the necessary materials and equipment for handling the heavy parts of the memorial. Working throughout the day in near-century heat, they completed the job. It should be scarcely necessary to add that these men, like others who have previously urged that something should be done about Coranderrk, were not concerned with public kudos nor material gain.

Basically, interest in the “old” Australians who have gone, and wise, firm and considerate care for those that remain, are matters of public conscience. There is by now fairly wide general agreement that far too often in the past, as well as today, they have been handed the seamiest side of Western civilisation. Here is a paradox to be removed, for Australia today is spending millions on the Colombo Plan, and bending over backwards to assure our Asian neighbours that there is no such thing as a “White Australia” policy in a racial sense.

There is an element of paternalism in “the wise, firm and considerate care for those that remain” but this seems to be to be pretty strong stuff for 1955. Thanks once again to Trove for making these papers available.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 11, 2014 7:46 am

    I’m Albert Namatjira and I paint the ghostly gums, I’m Clancy on his horse, I am Ned Kelly on the run, I’m the one who waltzed Matilda, I am Australian.

    (Do I do that every time you mention ol’ Albert? Probably.)

  2. February 11, 2014 8:13 am

    They seem to have been rather progressive for their time! What an interesting group of good people they were.

    • February 11, 2014 8:24 am

      Yes, Stefanie, they were clearly passionate about Australia and in an active, supportive, way. I think I have one more post in me about them.

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