Some of Lismore’s original inhabitants.
Some of Lismore’s original inhabitants.

Fond memories of a place of plenty

In the late 1920s the Aborigines’ Protection Board decided to change the status of the Dunoon Road Reserve – where Aboriginal families had lived without white supervision and had a school – to an Aboriginal Station, with a white station master put in charge by the Australian government.

Many families decided they didn’t want a white station master and moved into North Lismore, only to find the white people didn’t want them there either. White people complained about having Aboriginal children at schools, so the Aboriginal children were told they were not allowed to come back. The North Lismore Progress Association said the Aboriginal people should move to South Lismore, and the South Lismore Progress Association pushed the case for moving them to Cabbage Tree Island, saying, “the Aborigines were no good to Lismore and Lismore was no good to the Aborigines”.

While Lismore Municipal Council aldermen argued about what was to be done, some of the Aboriginal people now residing in North Lismore, including Ida Bell and John Curtis, approached Council with a request to establish a small Christian mission on a stock reserve.

On May 13, 1932, an area of six acres along Leycester Creek, 7km out of Lismore at Tuncester, was declared a “Reserve for the Use of Aborigines”. In October 1932, one and a quarter acres across the road was added for the school.

The Reserve was known as Tuncester until 1947, when it was renamed Cubawee (place of plenty).

While some of the conditions people lived in would now be considered unacceptable, with large families in one room with earth floors, or families living in houses constructed from galvanised iron watertanks (gunyahs), the people who grew up at Cubawee recall it as a happy place, and have lots of fond memories of their lives there.

In May this year Cubawee was gazetted as a place of special significance to Aboriginal culture under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974.

For more than 30 years the people of Cubawee peacefully resisted the persistent and repeated attempts by white authorities to move them on again.

Ngulingah Local Aboriginal Land Council now owns the land that once housed the settlement of Cubawee.

Next Wednesday, July 7, as part of NAIDOC Week celebrations, members of the community are invited to attend the official ceremony to mark the gazetting.

There’s a Welcome to Country at 10am, followed by the official handing over and a celebration barbecue at Cubawee.

Lillian King, one of 10 children to Reg and Lorna King, was born in Lismore Base Hospital and lived at Cubawee from the time of her birth until 1964, when her family was forced to move to Gundarimba.

She recalls her time at Cubawee as a peaceful and idyllic childhood.

“When we were young in summer we would go swimming in the big swimming hole and the stream. We’d go down and jump off the big hill with ropes,” she said. “On the weekends we’d walk along the riverbank collecting lemons and go to the farms and get fruit – the farmers never minded.”

Auntie Lillian said her brothers Herbie and Gilbert used to go hunting for porcupine and turtles and caught plenty of fish.

“Cubawee was a good place, full and plenty; we never starved,” Lillian said.

“We used to go catching turtles,” Gilbert said. “One of us young fellas, he was a bit of a show-off and he used to like putting his turtles in a belt around his waist. One day, he didn’t quite break one of the turtle’s necks and it bit him.

“We had plenty to eat out there all the time.

“Les Exton had the best porcupine dog – one night on a hunt we caught eight up round the hills.

“There was plenty of bush food all the time:

possum, goanna, plus fish – we had plenty.”

Murray John Roberts Snr also grew up at Cubawee.

“It was a hard place to live but we swam and hunted and spear-fished and walked to the mountains at night,” he said. “My uncles and aunts, they were great people.

“My grandfather and grandmother were wonderful people and they would all watch us like hawks to make sure we were safe.

“When white people came to the mission we would go back to the house, and the Uncles and Aunties would go and find out who these people were and what they wanted.”

Murray John Roberts Snr said his uncle Pastor Frank Roberts held Christian rallies that brought Aboriginal people to Cubawee from different tribes as far away as the South Coast of NSW.

“He made sure Aboriginal people could go to high school in 1956. I went to an all-Aboriginal primary school and then went to high school in 1958. My uncle Frank did all that,” he said. “He wrote to the Aborigines’ Protection Board and lobbied for better buildings and houses for Aboriginal people; he was a great man.

“There is a lot of learning to do there for the broader community; they can look at the sorry business and all that. People can look at the conditions we lived in and they were horrific, but we made do with what we had.”

Many of the people who grew up at Cubawee went to Richmond River High School in Lismore, then got jobs in the area or moved to the city to find work.

Segregation was widely practised in Australia until the abolition of the White Australia Policy by the Whitlam government in 1973. Aboriginal people would not have been allowed to sit in the same section of the cinema as white people in the 50s and 60s in Lismore but neither Gilbert nor Lillian mentioned this when they spoke with The Echo, preferring instead to recall with fondness the good times they had walking into Lismore from Cubawee to go to the cinema with their siblings, cousins and friends.

“You’d try and hike a lift but sometimes you couldn’t get a ride and we’d get home at dawn from the pictures ’cause we’d walked from Lismore,” Lillian said.

Lillian’s family resisted moving until after the school had been closed and buildings bulldozed by the Aborigines’ Protection Board.

“When we moved from Cubawee it was real sad; things wasn’t the same. Me and mum and my eldest daughter and my sister, we was the last family to move, it was so sad,” she said, shaking her head, still not understanding after 46 years. “Leaving a lovely place like that; I’ve got a lot of memories still.

“In a way I didn’t know why we moved; they tried to tell us it was ’cause of the floods, that there were too many floods.

“When a big flood came, we’d just grab anything we could and go and live up in the banana sheds or sleep at the school until the flood went down.”

Lillian and Gibert’s parents Reg and Lorna King worked seven days a week, with Reg working on the railway during the week, then getting up at 4am on weekends to work on the fruit plantations. Lorna worked doing domestic duties and cleaning houses for the mainly Italian families around the area, with whom there was usually a mutually respectful relationship.

The kids were all expected to help their parents, and did so without complaining or question. Lillian and her sister Lottie used to carry all the clothes down to the river and do all the washing in a boiler, then carry it all back up the big hill.

“Mum was a very kind woman,” Lillian, who has seven children, 13 grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren, said. “At Christmas, she used to welcome anyone to Christmas dinner, help anyone out; what she had she used to share.

“I’m very proud of our mother and father: they looked after us real well.”

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