It was barely two pages: the story of the murder and midnight burial of a new-born ‘half-caste’ child on the far south coast of New South Wales in April 1864, witnessed by a 14-year-old domestic servant, Emily Wintle (née Gillespie). Of all the histories that I explored while writing Looking for Blackfellas’ Point (2002), it was this story that continued to unfold long after it was published, unsettling the memories of the families involved, revealing previously hidden details and shifting at the edges as more information came to light. What began as a subject of historical research became increasingly personal. In 2002 I knew little of Emily’s background or what happened to her after she gave evidence in court. I had only the fine detail of this one, long moment in her life. I had no idea of how the story had resonated in the lives of her descendants or how it had been passed on in family oral history down the years. The story that I originally saw as a metaphor for the ‘repression of the memory of Indigenous Australia’ became even larger and more mysterious after its telling.1
In May 1870, Emily Wintle sat in Sydney’s Central Criminal Court, the primary witness in a quite extraordinary case. Barely 20 years of age, she was there to explain events that had taken place six years earlier, late on the evening of Sunday, 9 April 1864. For most of her childhood, Emily had lived at ‘Bredbatoura’, the Tarlinton family homestead near Cobargo, 40 kilometres north of Bega.
Emily had been ‘taken in’ by the Tarlintons at 6 years of age, after her parents’ relationship had descended into endless quarrelling and violence and her mother had decided she could no longer look after her. Like many young women at the time, Emily assisted her foster family with domestic chores in exchange for her board and lodging. On this particular evening in 1864, Mr and Mrs Tarlinton were away in Sydney and would not return for several weeks. Emily was at home alone, together with her sister, the Tarlintons’ daughters Elizabeth and Margaret, and the Tarlintons’ sons Alexander, James and Thomas. On Saturday evening, 8 April, Emily had gone to bed around 9 pm. In the room next to her, as always when their mother was away, slept the Tarlinton sisters, Margaret and Elizabeth. Shortly after going to bed, Emily was woken by the sound of the sisters moving to an upstairs bedroom. They were forced to pass through Emily’s room to reach the stairs. Emily immediately got out of bed and stood at the foot of the stairs, listening to the sound of Elizabeth and Margaret moving about upstairs. They had never slept upstairs before. She waited for around ten minutes and went back to bed.
The next day, Margaret Tarlinton was ill and remained in bed. Emily visited Margaret in her room, and tried in vain to comfort her as she ‘roared out with pain’. Later that same evening, Sunday, 9 April, Emily and her sister again slept in the parlour where they had slept the night before. After a few hours, she was woken by the sound of a baby crying in the upstairs room. Again, Emily got out of bed and stood at the foot of the stairs. She listened to the baby’s cries until she heard Margaret Tarlinton call out, ‘You little wretch, you have caused me all this pain’. It was midnight. Emily went back to bed but was unable to sleep, kept awake by Margaret’s constant moaning and the cries of the child.
‘Just before daylight’, Emily heard Elizabeth come downstairs. She lay awake, her eyes closed, her body perfectly still, as Elizabeth stood for a moment over her bed. Certain that Emily was asleep, Elizabeth hurried back upstairs before coming down again, but on this occasion Emily could see she was carrying a ‘black bundle’. When Elizabeth had passed through her room and out the front door of the house, Emily got out of bed and looked through the parlour window. She watched as Elizabeth took a spade hidden in the raspberry bushes, walked through the garden and down into the orchard. Alarmed, Emily hurried back to her room, put on her clothes, and walked round the back of the house. As she approached the water closet, she saw Elizabeth Tarlinton digging a hole near the fence. She waited quietly, being careful not to be heard. When Elizabeth had finished digging, Emily saw her place the ‘black bundle’ in the hole and lay a wooden board on top, before filling the hole with earth.
After Elizabeth had gone back upstairs, Emily scratched away the earth with her bare hands. It was now daylight and she was worried that ‘the blacks’ would see her and think that it was her child. Removing the soil, she found the body of a female infant with black curly hair, its skin dark and yellow. Wrapped in a black silk petticoat, the child had a piece of white calico tied around its neck. Emily washed the child’s head with water, wrapped it in the petticoat and reburied it. The next morning, she saw bloodstains on the floor of the upstairs room where Margaret had given birth to the child. They appeared to be smeared, as if someone had tried to wash them away with soap and water.
She told the court how two ‘darkies’, Dick Bolloway and ‘Briney’, who had been hands on the station for three or four years, were often seen ‘skylarking’ with the Tarlinton sisters. Mrs Tarlinton had apparently once found Dick’s trousers under Margaret’s mattress. William Tarlinton, the man who ‘discovered’ the Bega Valley, had also one day found his daughter Margaret and the ‘half-caste’ Bolloway ‘skylarking’. He threatened to break Margaret’s legs if he saw them at it again.
One month after the birth of the child, Mr and Mrs Tarlinton had returned from Sydney, and Margaret had recovered from the birth. Her conscience racked with guilt, Emily told Margaret what she had witnessed that Sunday evening. She felt she should reveal the information to others. Margaret warned her that ‘she would fetch her into it’ if Emily dared to tell anyone. Sometime later, when Emily was about to make her first confession, she asked Margaret what she should say to the priest. She was worried that if she didn’t confess what she had seen, she would remain in a state of sin. Margaret told her it was not Emily’s sin to confess. She told Emily she would confess to the priest herself, and again warned her not to tell anyone. Emily tried to do as she was told. But she would eventually tell Margaret’s mother what had happened. Foolishly, she also told her father, the person who had beaten her as a small child, and who now threatened to ‘punish her’ if she revealed the matter to anyone.
Emily stayed on at the Tarlinton homestead until she was 18, and remained silent. One year later, she married, immediately telling her husband what she had seen five years earlier. In October 1869, her husband supplied the information to local police. Four weeks later, a Bega police officer, Senior Constable Cleary, visited the Tarlinton homestead. He informed the Tarlinton family of the allegations, and why he had come, although by this time they were no doubt well aware of the purpose of his visit. Digging in several places, Cleary uncovered the bones of an ‘infant’ close to where Emily had told him the child had been buried.
In court, Emily’s evidence was cast in doubt by the counsel for defence. He alleged that her husband, a man who had selected land close to Tarlinton’s property, was known to be in dispute with Tarlinton. He also cast aspersions on Emily’s character, exposing her violent family history and her uncertainty about the child’s date of birth. The witness who Emily claimed had told her Margaret was pregnant when she visited the Tarlinton homestead six years earlier, now denied she had made the remark. Finally, doctors called in by the court to comment on the bones found by the police stated that while they were probably that of a newborn child, they were in such an advanced state of decay that little could be proved by examining the few that remained. Remarkably, at the end of the case, the foreman of the jury stated that he did not wish to hear the judge sum up, and found the prisoner not guilty. She could leave the court, he said, ‘without a stain on her character’.
Reporting the judgment, the editor of the Bega Gazette expressed relief, claiming Emily’s allegations had been little more than a vindictive conspiracy against a ‘most respectable resident in the district’. But reading the transcript of the proceedings, it is difficult to believe that Emily’s allegations had been fabricated merely for the benefit of scoring points in a petty squabble. The detail is too precise, and the evidence, though not conclusive in a court of law, certainly suggests a high probability of truth. Emily’s recollection of events, driven in part by her desire as a recently confirmed Catholic to be truthful, appeared convincing. She was not wealthy, she was uneducated, and she had little to gain by going through the ordeal of telling her story in a Sydney court, 500 kilometres from her home. It would have been much easier if she had remained silent. Instead, she left the court with her reputation tarnished, while that of the founding squatter’s family, and his daughters Margaret and Elizabeth, remained intact. Emily’s sister, still living at the Tarlinton homestead, had refused to speak to her from the moment she went to the police with the information.
The more I thought about the case, the more I came to see how much Emily’s story revealed. The veracity of the story was still important to me, but I would never be able to know or prove it to be true. I could only come to a conclusion based on my retrospective interpretation of events. Yet in her story, the story of an illegitimate child, born of an Aboriginal father and a white mother, there are many implicit meanings. The midnight burial of an Aboriginal child, strangled at birth, was emblematic of the settlers’ desire to erase the history of sexual relations between black and white, especially those between European women and Aboriginal men, and ultimately, Aboriginality itself. But it also erased a history of frivolity and sexual pleasure, a history of shared humanity that did not fit comfortably in the prevailing ethos of settler culture.
When I thought of the earth being shovelled hastily over the child’s body, I came slowly to see it as a metaphor for the repression of the memory of indigenous Australia. But in Emily’s story, I saw a different metaphor, one that would eventually break the cycle of repression, and help to create a different history.
I discovered ‘Emily’s Story’ before the digital highways of Trove existed. Newspaper archives for this part of New South Wales—a narrow stretch of small coastal towns and national parks that extends from Narooma to the Victorian border—were scattered between the National Library, the State Library of New South Wales, local libraries, historical societies and private collections. No one collection was complete. Winding through reels of microfilm or leafing slowly through originals—their pages could tear easily when turned—there was little rhyme or reason to the search aside from diligently scouring obituaries, ‘pioneer recollections’, significant anniversaries and following leads found in other sources. Accidental discoveries, usually encountered while looking for something unrelated (and incidentally, the kind of ‘find’ that is far less likely on Trove’s ‘search engine’) often threw up gems.
Working my way through a box of documents collected by local historian W.A. Bayley in the 1920s, I came across the original newspaper report of the trial that Bayley had cut out and filed. Until then, I had no knowledge of Emily’s story. Now I was able to cross-check the reports in other newspapers, most of which, as I discovered, were syndicated from the report of the trial published in the Sydney Morning Herald.2 In the years since Trove’s existence, I uncovered no new details regarding the trial itself, but by searching the names of Emily, her family and the Tarlintons, I managed to unearth one or two surprising facts that for me at least added significantly to the story’s allure. But for the moment, these can wait.
Looking at the same reports of the trial more than 15 years later, it was striking how tiny facts that now leapt out—either for their telling detail or dramatic effect—had appeared less significant at first glance. I was reminded of the time when I lost nearly six weeks of notes while working on Manning Clark’s biography in 2009. Returning to the same manuscript files that I had pored over only weeks beforehand, I recognised many of the excerpts I’d originally selected. But what alarmed me was the number of things I now saw as extremely significant that I had previously dismissed or missed entirely. Other sections that I had painstakingly transcribed I now decided to leave behind. In the space of little more than a month, my critical judgement had shifted. It was yet another reminder of the subjectivity of my ‘reading’ and interpretation of historical sources. Returning after a 15-year hiatus to the evidence presented in the trial of Margaret and Elizabeth Tarlinton in 1870, my interpretation of the evidence remained largely intact, but there were several details I’d overlooked that could have made my telling of the story stronger. By describing Emily’s uncovering of the baby’s body in the early hours of the morning in the third person, I had deprived the story of the vividness of Emily’s voice:
When I uncovered the child I saw its eyes were only half-closed; the naval string was not tied. I took particular notice of it; I washed the head of the child to satisfy myself; I scratched the earth away with my hands; it was daylight when I did this; I did it in a hurry lest the blacks should see me, and think it was my child; I was then not quite 15 years of age; my sister was with me when I took the water to wash the child’s head; it was 12 o’clock at night when I heard the child cry; I struck a match and looked at the clock.
The images are almost photographic in their recall: the umbilical cord untied, the bathing of the cold forehead, the soil on her bare hands, and a few hours earlier, the striking of the match a few minutes before midnight: ‘I looked at the clock in order to fix the hour at which the child was born.’ With the event told in her own voice, I could feel the intensity of the memory she had carried with her for more than six years. If Emily was concocting the story, potentially as payback for a grievance with the Tarlintons over horses or cattle as the defence counsel implied, she was doing a remarkable job of invention, not only of the tiniest details, but also of the emotion in her telling. Her recollections were etched forever in the memory of the teenage girl she then was.
Although I had mentioned her recent conversion to the Catholic faith, it now seemed an even stronger catalyst for her to tell the truth when I listened again to her own voice: ‘I was confirmed about twelve months ago. I partook of the Holy Eucharist sometime before I was confirmed; I took it on the occasion I went to confess, after I had told the prisoner I was going to confession.’ She had taken communion to give her strength to confess the knowledge she believed was ‘sinful’ to withhold. Other details that I had originally passed over now seemed more important. One person who testified, a neighbour of the Tarlintons, distinctly recalled that about two months before Good Friday 1864, while visiting the family homestead, Brebatoura, how he had ‘remarked to Mrs. Tarlinton that her daughter, Margaret, was getting very fat’. He had also ‘frequently seen blacks about Mr. Tarlinton’s station’.3
Given that Emily’s testimony against the Tarlinton sisters was presented six years after the events took place, it was easier for the judge and jury to find the evidence she presented inconclusive. While police had found the bones of a child not far from where she thought them to have been buried, the findings of the three medical experts invited to examine them differed substantially. One thought the bones belonged to a child, nine to twelve months of age, another found it difficult to tell. All remarked on the fact that bones were missing and that the calico and black silk petticoat Emily referred to could not be found. Combined with the fact that the police concluded that the stains on the floorboards were caused not by blood but by ‘the decay of the board’ itself, this was sufficient to cast enough legal doubt for Emily’s case to be dismissed.4 Yet I remain convinced that Emily was telling the truth, especially in light of the family oral history that has come my way since 2002. This is when the story took on yet another inflection, six years after my book was published, when I received a letter from Val Ruttley, in New Zealand.
My name is Val Ruttley and I am the Great Great granddaughter of the Emily Wintle that you mention in your book, Looking for Blackfellas [Point]. About 25 years ago, an aboriginal woman told me this story. Her description was very short, but told of how Emily found the baby and was not believed when she went to court. I found your information on the net tonight and am amazed. Thank you for telling the story again, and in such a way, that gave Emily credibility at last. Emily’s daughter Jane, who lived until she was 111, is my great-grandmother.5
Val told me that she later discovered that Emily Wintle’s story had been passed down in other parts of her family for over a century, and despite the fact that the court dismissed Emily’s evidence, declaring the reputation of the squatter’s daughters to be unblemished, Emily, she insisted, was telling the truth. The fact that Val had claimed to have been told initially by an unnamed ‘Aboriginal woman’ was the first evidence I had of the story’s existence in Aboriginal oral history. I would discover more about this side of the story later. But I found it remarkable that the story I had written, based on a newspaper report of the trial in Sydney, now returned to me, verified independently by Emily’s descendants’ telling of their family history.
But something even more remarkable was about to unfold. In December 2009 I met the author and academic Felicity Collins in Sydney, and again, six months later, at a conference in Dublin. She had grown up in the Bega Valley, and she explained to me how ‘Emily’s Story’ had affected her more than any other part of the book. It continued to stay with her, but it was not until several years after first reading the book that Felicity realised the full import of the story. Her sister, Janene, who had long maintained an interest in their family’s history, phoned her unexpectedly: ‘Are you sitting down?’ she asked Felicity. ‘Elizabeth Tarlinton is our great-grandmother.’ Felicity was shocked. She could not ‘recognise’ Elizabeth Tarlinton as part of her family tree. She immediately retrieved the newspaper report of the trial and tried to digest what her sister had told her. Still, she did not experience the moment of ‘recognition’ until suddenly, some days later, returning from a family barbecue, it finally arrived.
I realise that Elizabeth Tarlin[g]ton is as close to me, in time, as my mother is to her great-granddaughter, Ivy Elisabeth. A cry of recognition escapes. It’s her! It’s them! It’s me! Great-grandmother Elizabeth’s hands held my grandmother. They could have held me. When Elizabeth and Margaret gave birth, when they held their newborns, when they nursed their grandchildren, did a memory flash up of that first birth? If that birth, that baby’s first cries, slipped their minds, did their hands remember the black silk petticoat wrapped around her body, the strip of white calico tied around her neck?6
Collins’ personal experience in coming to terms with her family history, evocatively described in her article ‘Tarnished Memory: “Emily’s Story” and my family tree’, points to the difficulties many local communities across the nation continue to face in coming to terms with frontier history. Shortly after Looking for Blackfellas’ Point was published, a review appeared on Amazon, signed (somewhat incriminatingly) by ‘Tarlo’, denouncing the book as a ‘load of rubbish’. I have often wondered which member of the Tarlinton family posted the review, long since taken down. More recently I received an extremely supportive email from another Tarlinton descendant, Christine Goonrey, Elizabeth Tarlinton’s great-granddaughter and Felicity Collins’ first cousin. While she rightly pointed to one medical expert’s conclusion in the trial that the bones found on the property belonged to a child of approximately 12 months age, she also described how ‘the accusation of infanticide and the trial was known among our family but never discussed … It was particularly interesting’, she wrote, ‘to see the phrase “without a stain on her character” in reference to Margaret Gilbert in your book, as it was the phrase my father had repeated to us nearly 100 years later.’7
The disturbance of Collins’ family history caused by the airing of the historical record is something that could potentially happen to many other families in Australia. Yet the Tarlintons’ case remains unusual. Settler oral history that tells of frontier violence and mistreatment of Aboriginal people is often generic in form. It speaks of Aborigines being ‘mowed down’ or ‘wiped out’, but rarely identifies the names of those responsible. In the many stories that acknowledge wrong-doing on the part of settlers, there is often an inbuilt protection mechanism, a convenient element of forgetting. Responsibility is rarely claimed. Everyone and no-one achieved dispossession.
I had now had contact with the descendants of both families involved in the story and I thought that there was little more to reveal. But there was more to come. In August 2015 I received an email from David Wintle, who had read the book and found my contact details online.
I have an enquiry to make and hope you can assist me please. You have a chapter in the book regarding Emily Wintle. Emily Wintle is my great grandmother and the story of the murdered child had been unspoken family knowledge. The Tarlinton family and mine were close friends but also often adversaries, resulting in Emily’s husband Walter Wintle being put in gaol fifteen years later based on Tarlinton’s evidence. I noticed a reference you made to the true trial transcript and would like to ask if you know how and where I may access the full transcript of the trial or if you have these scanned and available? Any details would be greatly appreciated, thank you kindly. David8
In the months that followed, I met with David several times to discuss Emily’s story. As a filmmaker, he was also interested in the story for its dramatic potential. In the course of our conversations, David passed on much of the family history. As I listened, I came to appreciate the deep significance of the story for successive generations of Emily’s family. The ‘stain’ on her reputation that she had felt when her evidence was rejected in court was felt down the years by her descendants, all of whom were convinced, as David told me, that Emily was telling the truth about the events she witnessed in 1864. David was able to tell me much more about Emily’s life, both before and after the trial.
Her parents, Michael Gillespie and Elizabeth Winter, were of Irish, Scottish and English ancestry. Married in 1844 in Sydney, they had a ‘rancorous relationship’, separating several times and dividing their children between them. At one point, in the early 1860s, Emily’s mother accused Michael Gillespie of abandoning his family and took him to court, after which he was forced to pay a tiny maintenance, which was unable to sustain the family. Shortly afterwards, Emily was ‘bound over’ to the Tarlinton family, when her father, Michael, who worked on their property at Cobargo, north of Bega, convinced them to take Emily and her younger sister Elizabeth as domestic help. They would stay on this relatively isolated property for the next 13 years, doing both household and heavy farm work in exchange for ‘good schooling’.
Emily’s mother, Elizabeth, was traumatised by the separation from her children. Whenever she attempted to visit her daughters at the Tarlinton homestead she was turned away. In 1860 she was driven to attempt suicide, after which she was fined 10 pounds in a Bega court and incarcerated in the ‘mental hospital’ at Darlinghurst Gaol in Sydney for 12 months. It is not hard to imagine the strain this would have caused for Emily and her sister, as David explained.9
Emily and her sisters and brothers were witnesses to these dramatic events and their mother’s suffering, yet they also remained loyal to their father Michael … [Barely] fifteen in 1864 Emily was a witness to the murder of a ‘half caste’ aboriginal baby at the Tarlintons household. Emily remained adamant of what she saw as a young girl but under threat by the Tarlintons remained silent about what she witnessed being committed by the two Tarlinton daughters. Under duress she stayed silent, still working at the house … During the 1860s Walter Wintle appeared in Bega. He was ten years older than Emily, and worked in the area, including the Tarlinton property, stripping and shipping wattle bark up and down the south coast … Michael Gillespie worked with Walter Wintle and they had a good relationship, yet he disapproved of the marriage between Emily and Walter, a non-Catholic. Walter and Emily eloped in November 1868, and were married in Sydney by a dubious minister named Rev. Bailey who ran a ‘marriage shop’ at his ‘Free Church of England’. Within a few years all the marriages were annulled by the NSW Courts. Emily and Walter returned in December 1868 to Bermagui to build a farmhouse at Camel Rock on land previously in Emily’s name, now in the name of [her husband] Walter Wintle.10
It was at this time that Emily made the decision to confess her knowledge of what she had witnessed in 1864. She told her new husband, Walter Wintle, who ‘convinced Emily to go to the police and reveal she heard the murder and witnessed the burial of a baby on the Tarlinton property after Margaret Tarlinton gave birth to a half caste child, whilst the Tarlinton parents were away in Sydney’. The pressure on Emily was so great that in 1869, shortly after she was married, she followed her mother’s example and tried to commit suicide. This was one way to relieve herself of the burden of what she had seen. As the local press reported, ‘Emily Wintle pleaded guilty to attempting to commit suicide’ and was ‘bound over to keep the peace towards herself for twelve months, in sureties for 40 pounds’. That Emily recovered her strength of will to go to court only months later and testify to what she had seen is further evidence that she was unlikely to have put herself through such an ordeal if she was not telling the truth.11
From what David told me, relations between the Tarlintons and her husband, Walter, continued to be strained long after the trial in Sydney. He was twice accused of ‘cattle theft’ by the Tarlintons, charged and fined on the first occasion and imprisoned on the second, in 1885. By this time, with her husband in jail, Emily was bringing up nine children on her own at two farmhouses near Wallaga Lake. Three days after Walter died in 1887, Emily gave birth to their tenth child, a daughter, Elizabeth. Her eldest was then only 16. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the south coast of New South Wales was connected by steamers that plied up and down the coast, carrying local produce and passengers to Sydney. The wharves were often hard to reach and subject to storm damage.
To support her family, Emily ferried goods across the water from Wallaga Lake to Narooma so they could be shipped to Sydney; carted stores and back-loaded railway sleepers with a team of eight horses, and was sometimes seen ‘leaving the farm house, riding side saddle, searching for stray calves, and having to camp overnight and return the next day’. At a time when local newspapers regularly lauded the exploits of the ‘pioneers’, her ability to overcome adversity equalled anything that her male counterparts in the area had achieved. In 1893, another baby arrived in Emily’s household, named Amanda. Emily was then 45.
Although she explained that she had ‘taken in’ the baby after a ‘friend’ had been unable to care for her, David believes that Emily was bringing up her eldest daughter Jane’s child. Ten years later, another of her daughters, Florence, aged 21 in 1903, died from blood poisoning after a back-yard abortion in Cleveland Street, Sydney, went horribly wrong. ‘Flo’ was buried in an unmarked grave in Sydney’s Waverley Cemetery. For many women of her own generation, and that of her mother’s and daughters’, whether because of racial and religious boundaries or gendered social mores, they were forced to live out their pregnancies in secret, carry the burden of social opprobrium, and risk their lives in the process.
What David had shown me was that Emily’s life was not defined by her witnessing the midnight burial of a ‘half-caste’ child, nor by the trial six years later. Seen in its entirety, despite the fact that we know little more than its bare outline, ‘Emily’s story’ transcended the events that took place that night in 1864. In retrospect, her experience seemed to touch almost every aspect of Australia’s history from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Fortunately, two of her sons—Alf, who fought in the Boer War and later with his brother Jack, in the Dardanelles and on the Western Front—returned home from the Great War. Although Emily continued to run the farm near Wallaga Lake until she was in her seventies, she moved to Bondi with her daughter Dolly and son-in-law Edwin Ward in 1932 and died there in 1937 at the age of 89.12
Three years before her death she wrote a brief memoir. There was no mention of the events that surrounded the trial in 1870, only of what had happened when her parents’ marriage collapsed, and how she was sent to live at the Tarlintons.
It was a very cruel time for me as I was bound over to Mrs. W.D. Tarlington. I was there for 13 years under a very severe training where I often sat broken-hearted thinking of my dear mother. I lived there until I was 18 years of age and during that time I assisted scrubbing and clearing timber on the property besides numerous other jobs like chipping corn … gardening and housework. When my mother used to call to see me I was not allowed to see her and Mother was abused and sent off the property. Mrs. Tarlinton always carried a whip on her belt … I have been beaten black and blue for nothing and sometimes deservedly.13
After one misdemeanour, she described being confronted by Mr Tarlinton: ‘he came with the whip’. Emily’s experience as a young woman ‘bound over’ to the Tarlintons was probably not unusual at the time. She would have been told countless times how lucky she was to be ‘taken in’, regardless of how she was treated.14 Violence and corporal punishment were a standard means of ‘superiors’ exerting their control over their underlings. But her memoir of hardship and struggle was given yet another dimension when David sent me what he believes to be the only known photograph of Emily in existence.
Taken by the renowned photographer William Corkhill, circa 1900, it shows part of the congregation gathered for the funeral of ‘Queen Narelle’ (wife of ‘King Merriman’) at what was then known as ‘the Aboriginal reserve’ at Wallaga Lake, the first to be established in New South Wales by the Aborigines Protection Board in 1891.15 Emily is sitting on the right of the photograph, wearing a peak cap. Her farm at Camel Rock was adjacent to the reserve. That she is present for the funeral, and one of the few non-Aboriginal people there, is evidence of her standing in the community. Surrounded by young Aboriginal women and their children, she is one of the few not to look directly at the camera, yet she appears entirely at home.
Knowing that Emily’s story was passed on by an Aboriginal woman to Val Ruttley, sometime in the 1980s, it’s now clear that she would have been held in high esteem by the local Aboriginal community, who would undoubtedly have respected her for risking everything to take the story of infanticide to court. Living so close to the Wallaga Lake mission over a period of more than 40 years as she brought up her family, the bond between Emily and her Aboriginal neighbours was likely far deeper than we will ever know. Not only had she testified bravely to what she had witnessed in 1864, she had also shared her daily existence with Aboriginal people for her entire adult life. The one long moment of Emily’s life that I had originally seen as a metaphor for the deep racial divide in colonial Australia, I can now see as something larger and far more hopeful: a life lived across racial boundaries—a life that in so many surprising ways encapsulates Australia’s ‘shared’ histories.
Casting my line in Trove still threw up unexpected and strangely fertile facts. Emily’s father, Michael Gillespie, died at the age of 81 in 1890. His obituary described how he had lived and worked on the far south coast of New South Wales for 50 years. He claimed to have worked for the Scottish entrepreneur Ben Boyd on one of his early dairy farms in the 1840s. As one of the first ‘landowners’ in the area, he had fathered the ‘first white child’ born at Cobargo—a crown for which there was always stiff competition among settlers—Emily’s brother, John. But there was one detail that I found particularly startling, not only for its resonance, but that it should be included in the obituary at all: ‘In his youth, [Michael Gillespie] was accidentally speared by a young blackfellow. A small portion of the wood remained embedded under [his] eye which caused a wound, the mark of which he carried to the grave.’16
Thinking of the photograph of Emily surrounded by the Aboriginal community at Wallaga Lake in 1895, and her ordeal in a Sydney courtroom in 1870 as she testified to having witnessed the burial of a ‘half caste’ child, it was tempting to see the tiny piece of spearhead embedded in her father’s eye as a prophecy of a kind, a physical and spiritual omen that would be played out in the course of his daughter’s life. •
Mark McKenna is one of Australia’s leading historians. His books have won several state and national literary awards, including the Prime Minister’s Prize for Non-Fiction (2012). His most recent books include From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories (MUP, 2016) and Quarterly Essay 69, Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s Future (Black. Inc., 2018).
- The italicised telling of Emily’s Story is from my Looking for Blackfellas’ Point: An Australian History of Place, NewSouth, 2014 , pp. 79–83.
- The Sydney trial at which Emily testified was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, 14 and 16 May 1870 and Bega Gazette, 14, 24 April and 26 May 1870.
- All further details quoted can be found in the report of the Sydney Morning Herald, syndicated widely, including, for example, the Monaro Mercury and Cooma and Bombala Advertiser, 28 May 1870, p. 6.
- Sydney Morning Herald, 28 May 1870.
- Val Ruttley to me, undated, late 2008.
- Felicity Collins, ‘Tarnished Memory: “Emily’s Story” and my family tree’, Memory Studies, 6 (3), 2013, pp. 273–85, quote on 276.
- Christine Goonrey to me, 9 May 2017
- David Wintle to me, 10 August 2015.
- Emily’s mother’s suicide attempt and all other details, David Wintle to me, late 2015.
- David Wintle to me, late 2015.
- Wintle to me, late 2015; Emily’s suicide attempt is reported in Bega Gazette, 8 July 1882, p. 2 and Bega Standard, 8 July 1882, p. 2.
- All details, David Wintle to me, late 2015; a sketch of Emily’s life can also be found in Ron Gaha and Judith Hearn, Bermagui: A Century of Features & Families, Gaha, 1994, pp. 207–8; for details of steamers and the south coast, see Lenore Coltheart, Between Wind & Water: A History of the Ports and Coastal Waterways of New South Wales, Hale & Iremonger, 1997, pp. 51–3, 99–104.
- Memoir of Emily Wintle, photocopy sent to me by Shirley Laird, February 2009.
- Memoir of Emily Wintle.
- ‘Funeral of Queen Narelle, Wallaga Lake’ (c. 1900) can be viewed online at the National Library’s website, <http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an2511328>.
- Michael Gillespie’s obituary, ‘Death of an Old Resident’, can be found in Cobargo Watch, vol. 1, no. 10, 22 March 1890.