Wallaga Lake

A large camp had existed in the Wallaga Lake area, on Merrimans Island, before the creation of the Station. A major Elder for the area, Umbarra also known as King Merriman, was closely associated with the camp and subsequent station.

An extremely condescending reference to King Merriman is contained in an article extolling the beauty of Tilba Tilba in the Bega Standard in 1879:

There is a Sunday school also regularly maintained by some of the ladies of the place, and about two dozen children are usually mustered for instruction. It may seem strange, but true it is, that one of the most attentive pupils in this school is an aged aboriginal. The docile old pupil, with an enthusiastic reverence for the truths that have been taught him, tramps, in wet or fine weather, half-a-dozen miles to attend the school, and is supremely happy if he manages to master some simple little hymn which tells of the Saviour’s love – a love that he knows extends even to him. Shame on our rulers that they leave these poor souls to chance: shall no crumbs from The Master’s table fall for them? No one knows Merriman’s age; he does not know it himself, only knows that long, long ago he was a smart young man, and that he “lived along o’ Mr.Jauncey down on the point.” His eyes sparkled with delight when, in reply to his enquiry for his old employer, he was told he was well and hearty.

Plate 4: Umbarra, also known as King Merriman, c.1900, photograph from the W.H. Corkhill Tilba Tilba Collection, National Library of Australia.
Plate 4: Umbarra, also known as King Merriman, c.1900, photograph from the W.H.
Corkhill Tilba Tilba Collection, National Library of Australia.

The newspaper piece continued the following week with an insulting but nonetheless informative description of a visit to the camp on Merriman Island at Wallaga Lake:

Merriman having given us a cordial invitation to visit the settlement that he “bosses,” we started for Wallaga Lake early on Monday, and passing through part of Mr. Hobbs’ fine property, we came to the edge of the beautiful sheet of water opposite the black’s camp on Merriman Island. A “coo-ee” set the camp on the qui vive, and soon the latest gift of the Government in the shape of a boat was at our disposal to ferry us over to the settlement. Arrived there, Merriman and his wife, who rejoices in the pretty name of Nerell, with about as fair a share of personal unsightliness as falls to the lot of the average gin of any age, did the honors for us. There were twenty two, or thereabouts, in the settlement, from the patriarchal Hawdon and the ancient Merriman and his spouse, down to the little bright-eyed toddler and the infant in arms. The children have a bright intelligent look, and many have pretensions to beauty from an aboriginal point of view, and it is painful to contemplate what must be in the future for these children, growing up without education, and void of religious training, amid the usual surroundings of an aboriginal camp. These little curly headed “black blossoms” might make presentable flowers if taught and cared for, but, as they are allowed to grow up, what, in all probability, will be their end? We have but to consider the position of several of their dusky sisters of the tribes about here to give an answer to this query. It may be said that there are schools close by at Tilba and at Noorooma that these children might be sent to, but the answer of one of the parents to such a suggestion is a sufficient answer for the whole tribe. A lady of our party, who has acquired an influence among these people by her endeavours to get them within reach of the Sunday School, pressed one of the parents in the writer’s hearing to send his boy to school. He had, we were told, been at school a few months, and exhibited considerable aptitude, and the little fellow himself seemed to rejoice at the notion of school. “Can’t send him,” said his father, “other boys make fun of the little blackfellows; no good to send them to school.” This is a very natural feeling, and presents an objection that can only be overcome by the establishment of special mission schools for the aborigines.

In examining issues of access to education for Aboriginal people in the nineteenth century the focus is usually on the racism of European parents and their active campaigning to remove Aboriginal children from the standard public schools. The quote above gives an insight into the racism amongst the children themselves that also acted as a barrier to Aboriginal children receiving a formal western education.

The same article goes on to give a brief description of some of the economic conditions for the Wallaga Lake people in the late 1870s:

Here at Wallaga are the remains of the coast tribes, some two dozen souls; all along the shores of the lake are spots admirably suited for forming a mission station; but these poor people have to live in bark gunyahs and have no right to strip a few sheets of bark without a licence, and have not (sic) where to erect their miserable shelter. One of the tribe, Merriman, settled down on a pretty point, cleared a bit of garden ground and built himself a hut. He had no tenure of the land where he could remember his people the sole owners of the soil, and knowing that the land could be selected by anyone with £10 in his pocket, Merriman became disheartened and went back to the waters of the lake to supply himself with sustenance. The only thing the Government ever did for these people was to give them a couple of boats. The first was obtained for them by the exertions of Mr. Love of Moruya, and the other is the boat that was to have come to Tathra. Merriman acts as skipper of the old one and Hawdon of the latest acquisition. If these people were supplied with a couple of nets they could ensure plenty of fish for their own use, and could probably find the means to purchase flour and other little necessaries by the sale of salted fish. We saw some of the women and children doing the Waltonian business, mostly using lines of their own making, and they succeeded in getting a good lot of fish. At times the fish will not bite, and the blacks are dependent on some of the neighbors (sic) for meat. By the help of their boats they manage to earn money punting goods across the lake, and if their operations were properly directed, and they were encouraged to cultivate the soil and had some certainty of tenure to encourage them, a mission station could be made self supporting, or nearly so. Here is work for the philanthropic. The Government will do nothing until they are shamed into action.

In the 1870s and ‘80s Umbarra (King Merriman) had worked for Henry Jefferson Bate at Tilba Tilba. In Mr Henry Jefferson Bate’s obituary in the local newspaper in 1892 reference was made to King Merriman:

Amongst those who came to pay their last tribute of respect to the memory of their old friend I noticed…. Also his faithful old servant “Merriman,” the chief of the Wallaga Lake blacks. Never shall I forget that poor old fellow’s grief as I saw him just before the mournful procession started ; he clasped his hands over his bowed head and the tears streamed from his eyes while in broken accents, he cried, “Oh, my poor old master, you’ve gone away ; you’ve left me, my good old master”.

Further along in the obituary it is stated of Mr Bates that:

In 1860 he came to Merimbula and erected a sawmill, and nine years later took up his residence at Tilba Tilba, being one of the first selectors in this district… He interested himself greatly in the aborigines of Tilba, and was after continued and untiring exertions, enabled to obtain for them the reserve on Wallaga Lake that they now occupy, together with the daily ration for the old and infirm and young children. By his death they have indeed lost a good friend.

In research conducted with Aboriginal communities in the early 1970s in relation to the issue of land rights Peter Tobin recorded the following account of how Wallaga Lake came to be formed:

What is now the [Wallaga Lake] reserve previousl
y formed a large camp for the old people. They lived along the beach where there was plenty of thick shelter and down near the water there are five different feeding grounds. Old man Bates (the father of Mr. Jeff Bates, MHR who comes from nearby Tilba Tilba) got the old Aborigines from here to clean his farm up. He gave them a big steak, bread and stew as pay, and they cleared all the property. Old Bates then said “You people can keep this land, it belongs to you, its your home ground” meaning the part now known as Wallaga Lake Reserve. Old Bates became ‘guardian’ of the Wallaga Lake Aborigines under the old Protection Board and rumours persist of the existence of a deed or some instrument in writing to evidence the gift.

Mr. Bates was a key member of the local committee of the Aborigines Protection
Board in the Tilba Tilba area.

Figure 15: Map of Wallaga Lake Reserve 13939.
Figure 15: Map of Wallaga Lake Reserve 13939.

At the urging of local European residents the Aborigines Protection Board established the Wallaga Lake Reserve on the South Coast in 1891. It was formed as a managed station from the start and was the reserve on which the APB attempted to ‘concentrate’ the population of the south coast and Monaro regions. A key element in the APB’s push to concentrate the population of the region on the Wallaga Lake Station was the fact that the Station provided the only Aboriginal school for the South Coast from the 1890s to the 1960s.

In its first year of existence, 1890, the Aborigines Protection Board gave the following report on Wallaga Lake reserve:

Wallaga Lake. Number of aborigines at the settlement, 99 – 45 fullblood, and 54 half-castes. Mr. J. D. Reece was appointed Superintendent of the station on the 7th November last, the duties to be performed in conjunction with those of teacher at the school built by the Board for the instruction of aboriginal children on their reserve.

Forty children are attending the school… Twenty-seven adults and 33 children are supported by the Board. Some of the men make slight efforts to support themselves by working with farmers in the locality and by fishing. Three females are in private service… There are two boats at Wallaga Lake, one of which is very old and much decayed, but the other is in fair condition. The aborigines at Wagonga River also have a good centre-board boat. The boats are used for fishing purposes, but very irregularly.

All are supplied annually with Government blankets. The issue is necessary, and they are in no way misappropriated. Very few complaints are made of their drinking habits. Generally speaking, they are much improved in this respect.

Ten years later, in 1900, the secretary of the Local Board of the Aborigines Protection Board at Wallaga Lake, Mr. Gilpin of Tilba Tilba, submitted an annual report on the station:

The number of Aborigines in attendance at the Station during the last week of the year was:- Full-blooded men, 24; full-blooded women, 12; half-caste men, 23; half-caste women, 18; full-blooded boys, 8; fullblooded girls, 4; half-caste boys, 19; half-caste girls, 13. Total, fullblood, 48; half-caste, 73. Births during last six months of the year, 5. Only one death occurred from senile decay, the victim, aged 85, being the last of the Wagonga tribe.

There has been no cultivation of crops on the Station, on account of there being no cleared land available. Forty acres have been felled and partly cleared, a small dam constructed, and two boat-sheds, stockyard, and cow-bails erected. Sufficient slabs and other timber for the erection of several houses have been obtained, also a large amount of fencing material. A very comfortable cottage of five rooms and kitchen has been built for the accommodation of the Manager. The health of the inmates of the Station has been very good during the six months, there being very few cases of sickness. During the last few months of the year there have been no cases of drunkenness reported. The district clergymen are frequent visitors to the Station, and take much interest in the residents. The relations between the local Board and the Manager have been most cordial, and the Manager and Mrs. Hockey deserve much credit for the earnestness displayed in their work. Mrs. Hockey has been having sewing meetings weekly, some of the work done being very creditable. Twenty-eight children attend the school, and appear to be cheerful and attentive.

Plate 5: The Wallaga Lake Aboriginal cricket team with Mr Hockey, c.1900, photograph from the W.H. Corkhill Tilba Tilba Collection, National Library of Australia.
Plate 5: The Wallaga Lake Aboriginal cricket team with Mr Hockey, c.1900, photograph from the W.H. Corkhill Tilba Tilba Collection, National Library of
Australia.

In the annual report of the Board for 1902 it was stated of Wallaga Lake Station that:

There are now 22 dwelling-houses on the Wallaga Lake Station, all covered with galvanised-iron roofs, the greater part of the timber used having been purchased by aborigines out of their earnings. A storeroom was constructed on the station, which facilitates the issue of rations to the aborigines, besides providing suitable accommodation for medicines and other stores. Additional iron tanks have been provided for water required for domestic purposes, and a new dam constructed, which is capable of holding at least a six months’ supply for the cattle and horses. The land being poor, it has not been possible to cultivate anything beyond a few small vegetable gardens, but a large area of bush land has been cleared and suckered, and the grass land freed from briars. The Local Board consider that the work carried out was very satisfactory. Unfortunately, during the year there was a fire on the station and several of the aborigines were burnt out; but they were granted material to enable them to re-erect their huts, and a number of articles lost through the fire were replaced.

There are 215 names on the station roll. The daily average number of residents throughout the year was 145, of whom 106 are provided with rations, namely, 54 adults and 52 children. There was but little sickness, though an epidemic of influenza carried off two children. The average daily school attendance was 22. There were 9 births (4 fullbloods and 5 half-castes – all males), and 2 deaths (1 full-blood and 1 half-caste). A sewing-class is held one afternoon in each week. On the whole, the conduct of the residents has been good.

By 1907 the number of children attending the school had increased, with 36 on the roll. The daily average population was 140.194 In the Board’s report for 1910 the following information on Wallaga Lake was included:

The residents on the station at 31st December numbered 126 [62 adults and 64 children]… the average number for the year was 100… of whom 86 (30 adults and 56 children) were in receipt of rations, and 126 (62 adults and 64 children) were in receipt of other assistance. There were 6 births… 3 deaths… and no marriages. Of 39 children on the school-roll, the daily average attendance was 12.

The poor nature of the soil at this station will not admit of it being selfsupporting, the greater part of the land being covered with scrub and timber, which is only useful for firewood. The Angora goats, of which there are a good number, have been keeping down the blackberries in the enclosure. The work done during the year included the erection of a brick chimney to the manager’s residence, the pulling down of six old houses, and the rebuilding of one.

The men on the station have been more industrious than formerly, having worked constantly and the able-bodied women do washing and house-cleaning at neighbouring houses when opportunity offers. The health of the aborigines has been better during the past year. The people are happy and contented, and altogether, the general state of the residents on the station during 1910 has improved.

In the following year, 1911, a member of the Board, Mr. H. Trenchard, visited the Wallaga Lake Station in company with the Board’s Secretary M. R.H. Beardsmore. Trenchard provided a report to the Board while Beardsmore compiled notes on each of the residences that they visited on the reserve. In his report Trenchard stated that:

I regret having to confirm the opinion of the Board that it is impossible to retain the services of Mr. Hollingsworth. Not only has he neglected his returns and the forwarding of amounts collected monthly as per regulations, but he does not appear to have exercised any control whatever over the Station or people… The people appear fairly contented, and not doing too badly in spite of bad accommodation, the numbers on the Station being much reduced in consequence of there being plenty of work obtainable, and fear of possible action by the Board under the new Act, which has been much exaggerated… It was made very plain to the residents that in future, men must work or leave the Station.

In the Board’s report for 1913 it was stated that:

The Board very wisely disposed of the Angora goats during the year, thus making more feed available for the milking cows and bullock team, which were in good condition at the close of the year. A permanent man is now employed to look after the cultivation at Snake Island, and it is hoped that results will be more favourable during 1914… Owing to the influx of a number of aborigines from Bateman’s Bay, the matter of providing additional accommodation has become urgent and calls for special attention. A better water supply also required. The number of aborigines on the station at 31st December was 104, with an average of 100 for the year, all of whom were in receipt of rations and other assistance. There were 2 births… and 2 deaths. The number of children on the school roll was 26, with an average daily attendance of 22.

In the first decades of the twentieth century the Aborigines Protection Board had increasingly intruded on the lives of Aboriginal people and communities. The Board acted to undermine economic self-sufficiency, freedom of movement, and cultural activity of Aboriginal people throughout the state. Despite the impact of the Board Aboriginal people and communities continued to fight for their rights and live their culture(s). Despite the coercive forces that led to residence on the reserve and the repression imposed by the management, Wallaga Lake became an important community both for the local Aboriginal people of the South Coast and for others travelling from around the state.

Taken from “Eurobodalla Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Study, South Coast New South Wales”. View the full study

Excerpt from "Eurobodalla Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Study, South Coast New South Wales", 2005. Story Contributed by Martin Ind from Moruya High School.