By 1969, the Aboriginal families had moved from this camp into houses in town. However their memories of life in the humpies are strong and a source of pride. For the Clevens and Mundys, it is important that both sides of Surat’s Aboriginal history are remembered – the pre-1969 life of segregation and discrimination, and the integration of Aboriginal people into the Surat town community. The humpies and everyone’s possessions were bulldozed into the river bank when the families were moved into town, and it is all now hidden by rusted car bodies. But for the families, this is a vital part of living memory, and they return here often, to remember where they grew up and to find peace in the beautiful surroundings.
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Mundy/Cleven Shelter, Surat
Astor Cinema, Surat
Reconstructed Mundy Humpy, Surat
Mundy Family Storyboard
Cleven Family Storyboard
There is a peacefulness about this grass-tussocked field that draws back the Aboriginal families who lived here again and again, to remember life in the camp beside the Balonne River. The Mundy family and the Cleven family lived from the 1940’s until the late 1960’s and these families still live in the township of Surat. The camp is special because of its beautiful location next to the river, and the strength of the families who made a place that was good for children – enough food, regular school attendance, and plenty of play and activity. These families forged their lives in conditions barely comprehensible to non-Indigenous people in Australia at that time. They lived in tents or humpies just like the replica that has been reconstructed on the site for visitors to see. Next to this humpy is an interpretive shelter, so that visitors can sit and read about the people who lived here. One Mundy family member expressed the importance of these structures by saying: “They bulldozed us away, but they won’t be able to bulldoze this. They can’t pretend we weren’t here.”
The humpies on this site were around 10-20 square metres, each housing a whole family, and were built of corrugated iron and canvas. With no electricity, people kept cool in the river, and under airy lean-tos made of tree boughs. Heating in winter was around the fires. People cooked on wood stoves or over the fire, and water was hauled up in buckets from the river. There was one toilet in the middle of the camp.
In the interpretive shelter are beautiful photographs of family ancestors, mostly now deceased. Everyone worked hard, as drovers, fencers, meatworkers, saw-millers, midwives, or domestic servants, working for non-Aboriginal businesses and families. Some died young doing their jobs, such as the young woman who contracted a deadly disease at the meatworks where she was employed, and the man who was electrocuted while working on a farm. Like other Aboriginal people
in Australia up until the 1960's, most of these workers
The reconstructed humpy and the interpretive shelter are the physical reminders of the past that visitors can see. There is a plaque beside the humpy where May, an Elder of the Kamileroi people, describes her life by the river. She says she would return to live there again if she could. The Aboriginal people of Surat are proud of the lives they and their ancestors forged for themselves in the camp, and the resilience which has made them an integral part of the Surat community today. This site is a special and powerful place to visit and reflect upon an Aboriginal past within living memory.
did not receive the bulk of their wages, which were sent to government officials under the Aboriginals Preservation and Protection Act. Permission from the ‘Chief Protector’ of Aborigines was required for women or men to marry or to work, for a person to spend any of their wages, or to travel to a different area. The Surat Aboriginal Corporation holds copies of many letters from the Chief Protector to members of the Aboriginal community, denying them exemption from this strict control. Some are shared on the interpretation panels of the shelter.
The reason the Aboriginal people of Surat lived in camps was that they were not permitted to live in the town itself, until after the 1967 national referendum that ended separate laws and controls for Aboriginal people. While the children walked to school in the town every week day, outside school hours they played together at the camp. Apart from fishing and swimming in the river, there was a cricket pitch on the camp site, with a real cricket ball but bats made from sticks. A sense of community and the strength of the families kept the camp mostly peaceful and safe, although there are still memories of individuals who occasionally terrorized women and children when the family men were away from camp working.
Yet in the midst of hard work and tough living conditions, and the segregation and discrimination that came with it, are tales of activities shared by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Surat – not only through sport but also the dress-up balls that were held for any number of reasons: to celebrate the football season, the Bachelors and Spinsters ball, the Shearers Ball, the Show Ball, and a ball whenever there was a possible reason to have one. Watching movies at the old Astor cinema on the main street was an activity shared by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal audiences with no segregation – something very unusual in Australia’s history. Aboriginal people also excelled in community boxing and cricket matches.