03. 12. 2015
Discovering Wellington and William McHughes
– by Michelle Murray
At the beginning of this project there was a trauma in my family that was so potent it felt like it would rip me apart; as though the past had not finished with us yet. At the beginning of this project I also did my four weeks of residency in Wellington. It was autumn. There were days when the weather would rage across the lake like a wounded warrior and it felt like: that’s me, that’s how I feel. Then someone said how the wind comes with the change of the seasons and I thought, yeah, that’s what’s happening. Everything is changing. Then there were days of divine stillness where the lake and the sky would become one and I was in the liminal space: not really of the world, but not completely beyond it either. Wellington became a safe place for my soul. I could just be, for days and days. Each residency tended to start with tears and then a lot of walking; then there would be discoveries and then there would be joy at what a beautiful place it is, how it speaks to the soul, how potent the ancestors feel there. I didn’t feel alone.
I was looking for leads, looking for stories. I read books and academic papers, I visited my local history room, I looked into George Taplin’s diaries, I read parts of the Protector of Aborigines reports, I found some reports of the Aboriginal Friend’s Association. Within these bodies of work were the most intimate of histories, and this is where I found William McHughes, a Ngarrindjeri man, a stone mason, a preacher, a husband, a father, a farmer, a leader. I found a man of dignity and a man with a very sure sense of his own morality. He was someone who seemed to have been able to combine the Ngarrindjeri man in himself with this new world order of Christianity and European culture. But at the same time, I never doubted his heartbreak. He had a sense of the orphan about him.
By following his journey I passed by a lot of other stories that were equally compelling – I also tripped over stories about my own family in the north – but with William I knew that there was this little chapel, this little monument at East Wellington. There was this little church that he built out of his own funds, with his own hands and I trusted that it would be an important part of Wellington’s story. Even if I never knew why he did it I might at least get the chance to go inside and feel why. I managed to contact the owners and they were very generous in lending me a key. The day before we were to go to the church for the first time I was working on William’s time-line. His wife Sarah of 24 years had died in August 1900. Garnett, of the Aboriginal Friend’s Association had arrived in Wellington on a fact finding mission in May of 1901 and found William building the chapel.
That was my ‘eureka’ moment. William was discovered building the chapel only months after Sarah died. He was building it for her. He was writing his wife into history. So often women are not there or they are a footnote, but here was William putting Sarah centre-stage. All his skills, his passion, his grief and his fears were transformed into a sacred space that would be his gift to the entire community. On the page, William was an extraordinary man but now he was brought to life. The next day when I walked into the chapel with his great grandson, Didge McHughes, the air was thick with his story. We could touch what he touched, we could stand in the dirt where he stood, we could see the foundations he laid and we could look out over the view that he saw every day as he laboured on the build. The depth of his compassion was evident in that little ruin that still stands proud when so many other buildings from that time are long gone.
The Meeting of the Waters for me is about what happens when two bodies of water meet, as they do at Wellington where the Murray River meets Lake Alexandrina. That unique shallow environment is where things can grow that can’t grow in the main river or out in the lake. Given half a chance fish, yabbies, frogs, birds, insects and reeds flourish. But I wanted this to also be symbolic of what else might happen when two distinct forces meet. Wellington is Ngarrindjeri country. Historically we know there was a meeting of white settlers and the Ngarrindjeri people. Like everywhere else where we met there was devastation for the Aboriginal people but I knew from my own family that there might also be points of understanding.
When we look back on Australian history we tend to see two parallel stories that met in violence. It is powerful and distressing, but it is also really important, I think, that we know that that’s not the only story. One hundred years ago many individuals were forging meaningful, loving, lasting relationships across cultures and William was one of them. Five years after Sarah died he married Alice Ledgard whose family had emigrated from England. With a little imagination I can assume that she helped to care for his children, that she stood alongside him in the church that he built, that she helped him run the farm, that she supported him as a leader in his community. She must have understood the significance of marrying an Aboriginal man, but she wasn’t the only white woman in Wellington who did. William’s story shines a light into a past that was enlightened in surprising ways. William’s little church embodied what he knew to be true: that white and black can share a sacred space without diminishing each other; that white and black are equal in the eyes of God.