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Moree grabbed headlines in the 1960s when the town became a flash point for segregation, but its history is long, and no less divisive.
I’m so glad you’ve returned to our pursuit to find the best regional town in NSW. Up for grabs, as you know, is the attention of the Business Council of Australia (and a possible river of money as a result). So, today we are going to have a look at Moree.
As you will remember from the other town portraits, usually I start with a white ‘discoverer’. I am going to do that now as well, especially because this time the ‘discovery’ is more tenuous than most. And the man at the centre of it more interesting as well. We are talking about George Clarke, or, to his contemporaries, George ‘the Barber’ Clarke.
He got that nickname because he was working as a hairdresser in England when he was picked up for stealing and sentenced to transportation for life in 1824. First, he was sent to work for Benjamin Singleton, who had arrived here as a 4-year old in 1792, when his mother accompanied his convict father. Singleton later married Mary Lane Sherland, who was born at sea. A typical Australian pedigree.
Clarke soon walked out on Singleton, taking a horse, and then ‘assumed the cloak and colour of the natives on the Liverpool plains’. In short, he moved in with the local Aboriginal people, the Kamilaroi, who took him in and for three years accepted him as part of the community. It seemed to have been a reciprocal relationship.
When Clarke was caught, a contemporary source wrote that ‘his breast, arms, and shoulders have been tattooed by the blacks, among whom he says he lived in great familiarity’. He was also wearing a grass-bead necklace and a hair belt, leading to the comment that ‘such is his tout ensemble that few could have distinguished him from an aborigine’.
His biographer claims that the Kamilaroi saw him as the ghost of a dead tribesman and that he lived ‘happily amongst them’, with his Aboriginal wife.
In return, Clarke taught them cattle rustling, and for a while they had quite a system going. But in 1831, the escaped convict was caught and brought to Bathurst jail. First, he escaped, then he was recaptured and taken to Sydney. There he told Major Thomas Mitchell about the fertile plains he had been living on and the rivers that fed them. He even invented an inland sea to make it more interesting. That, in the end, got squatters to the place, one of whom set up a farm called ‘Moree’, ‘rising sun’ in the local language.
In the meantime, Clarke was sent to Norfolk Island for stealing horses, cattle and ‘goods’. The sentence was ‘to be worked in irons’ for three years. Then he was deported to Van Diemen’s Land, where he again set up a criminal racket and was finally executed. He was 31 years old. A full life if ever I’ve seen one.
Also on The Big Smoke
- Dubbo: A regional hub of bushrangers, notable criminals and the gallows
- Bathurst: A place of guerrilla warfare, unheralded wealth and untold violence
- Braidwood: A town of law, disorder and comparative racial harmony…oh, and Mick Jagger
- Small change: An open letter to the Wollongong residents who bashed a palm tree
Unfortunately, George Clarke remained one of the few white people who managed to find a way to live ‘happily amongst’ the Kamilaroi in Moree. That became painfully clear when Charlie Perkins and the Freedom Rides visited the town in 1965. As you may remember, I spoke to one of the people who were there. One of the Freedom Riders who Moree tried to kill because she spoke out against the discrimination Aboriginal people were suffering from in town at the time.
At the centre of the 1965 visit was Moree pool, which was segregated, because white people were convinced that Aboriginal men were out to ‘impregnate’ white women and were using the pool to ‘spread their seed’.
Perkins and his posse tried to get some Aboriginal kids into the water and for their trouble they were spat at, pelted with eggs, rotten tomatoes and stones, beaten and burnt with cigarette butts. People began shouting ‘string them up’ and ‘the only good Abo is a dead Abo’. It was ugly, and because there were television cameras around, it was now out in the open. People in the big cities, for whom discrimination hadn’t been as visible, were shocked, and the ‘colour bar’, as it was then called, became a serious topic of discussion.
Also influenced by the experience for the rest of his life was future judge, chief justice of the Supreme Court and Lt. Gov. of NSW, Jim Spigelman, then one of the students on the bus. In Moree, he was ‘knocked to the ground in a wild demonstration’. It took a long time to permanently remove the segregation at the pool and other places in town. But finally, far into the 1970s, even Moree had to get with the program.
By the time the Depression hit, Dion’s Buses were the best way to get around the Illawarra, especially because the family often waived fares and also didn’t mind if people paid with fresh seafood or recently trapped rabbits.
The relationship between white and Aboriginal people was also something that writers Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland noticed when they spent some time in Moree in the late 1940s. They had just gotten married and had been living in one room in a rat-infested house in Sydney when they decided to do the Australian thing and go on the Wallaby. Niland and his brother were hired to shear sheep, while Park did the cooking. In 1955, Niland used the couple’s experiences to write The Shiralee, a book that was made into a film with Peter Finch two years later.
In it, he described Moree like this: ‘It was fine but dull now. Life was drifting into the town. A fresh-faced baker jogged by in a painted cart. Two black-fellows hunched up with their hands in their coat-pockets dawdled along the street. With them was a dog with a visible backbone and ribs like a tin shed. A cherry-faced butcher in a striped apron came round the corner with a tray of meat on his shoulder and went into the pub’. For Niland, who had been born in Glen Innis, Moree must have looked like more of the same.
But Park, who would become famous for The Harp in the South, this was all new. She had just migrated from New Zealand, and the town, and the countryside in general, were like visiting Mars. In her autobiography Fishing in the Styx, she was almost poetic: ‘…on the pastoral plains, fenced with stony hills ruffed with bush, smelling of cracked riverbeds and diminishing waterholes, the air was so clear I could see twice as far as I could in the cities.’
But D’Arcy tells it best: ‘In the morning it was like walking through a house of glass. Then the sun came up like a dog to the whistle.’
Boy, don’t you love writers?!