29. 12. 2015
William McHughes & the East Wellington Chapel
By Michelle Murray 2015
Autumn 1866. “Big Jimmy” shaved off his beard and caught a cold. Then he died. Young William buried his father as a Christian would, despite the opposition of the old men.
Spring. William got himself baptized by the man who brought Jesus to Lake Alexandrina, the missionary George Taplin. After examining William’s piety Taplin was satisfied that he would make a good Christian. He told the young man not to take notice of the ridicule of his fellow Ngarrindjeri but William said that wasn’t really the problem. The mockery of the white people was “far worse and far more frequent”.
George Ezekiel Mason, Sub-Protector of Aborigines at Wellington had lived beside the river in a hut that he built himself from reeds and animal skins. He lived among the local Ngarrindjeri people, speaking their language fluently and generally having the highest regard for them. When Taplin visited in 1851 he was looking for a suitable site for his mission. Things were going just fine until the discussion turned to God. Taplin was a bit horrified that the Sub-Protector didn’t think that converting the locals to Christianity was of any great importance.”Oh, I feed them well and make them comfortable in this life,” Mason said, “and I do not believe God would damn them in the next, at any rate I leave them to His mercy.” Taplin took Mason’s sentiment as a direct challenge to his missionary ambitions, and so, as any gentleman Christian might, he later found cause to write letters of complaint about Mason’s drinking. He thought Mason set a poor example to the Ngarrindjeri. But Mason’s drinking and cynicism were probably the least of young William McHughes’ concerns.
Taplin had high regard for William. He was hard working and carried himself with dignity. In 1867 Taplin recounted an episode that emphasised the frustration he felt at the white man’s prejudice against the original inhabitant of the land. William had been shearing at a nearby property when he fell ill. Unable to relieve his agony, Taplin sent William by boat to Milang to see the doctor. When the men accompanying William were crossing the lake a ‘tempest’ blew up that nearly tore down their mainsail so they were forced to let the gale blow them to the shore where some of them then dragged the dinghy, in water up to their necks, until they could carry William to a nearby house. One of the men then borrowed a horse and rode to Milang from where he sent a horse and cart back to fetch William. William, in extraordinary pain, was then refused lodgings at either of the Milang inns and had no choice but to accept the indignity of an outbuilding.
It would be fair to assume that this episode tested William’s Christian faith, or at the very least, his faith in Christians, yet by January 1868, he approached Taplin about learning to be a preacher. Local young men had offered a shilling each to support him financially through his studies. It seems they were pretty keen to have one of their own preaching to them. Taplin was impressed enough with William to support him with this goal and even managed to get the Aboriginal Friend’s Association to pay him a salary of £20.
Within twelve months William and James Unaipon – the father of the man on the $50 note – had bought themselves a dinghy with mast and sails, and set off up-river to read the Scriptures to the ‘natives’. Their second trip was in April 1869 but Taplin considered it a failure due to a lack of interest from the people up stream and the idea that reading Scripture to Aboriginal people had made William and James’ puff up with pride. This being undesirable, he assigned William to the stone masons, M. & J. Abbott who had just finished building the Point McLeay Mission church at Raukkan and were building a few cottages there too. This turned out to be a stroke of genius on Taplin’s part because William was to become one of the finest and most prolific stonemasons in the region.
These were formative times for William as he participated in the achievements of his people. The Ngarrindjeri of Raukkan had raised the funds themselves to build their church and they were financing and building some of their own cottages. Theirs was also the only church in the area at the time so both Aboriginal people and Europeans attended and made up the numbers on its council, not to mention sacraments being accepted from both Taplin and his assistant, James Unaipon.
By 1870 William McHughes was probably 25 years old give or take a few years. While the original idea the colony had was that for every run of land a white man took up, a portion had to be set aside for use by the local people, of course the portion set aside was always the least likely to have food or water. Since the parcels of land were rarely occupied permanently by the original owners, the European land owners slowly but surely pressured the government to let the blocks be absorbed back into the main holdings. As the opportunities diminished for Aboriginal people to lease and farm their own land, a few Ngarrindjeri men actively sought to lease where they could from the government.
In 1870 William acquired his first parcel of land on the Narrung Peninsula. It wasn’t a bad block for farming. But in 1872 a fire broke out in the scrub and burnt a swathe through the region including a lot of the fences of many small holdings, including his own. Never-the-less, William still managed to put in a good crop.
A good example of this young man’s ‘strong moral principles’ was noted in Taplin’s diary later that year. He gave his old mother, Meeltinda, a pair of nice new blankets. She used one for herself, very ill as she was, and the other she used tenderly to wrap the body of her late husband whom she kept in her ‘whurley’. Taplin described this as “A singular token of affection.” Within the month she herself died with Taplin describing her now as “a dark heathen to the last” presumably because she wasn’t interested in the salvation of his God. William buried her. But there was still farming to do. He and his mate Henry Lambert leased a flock of 400 sheep and by harvest the next year they had earned £54 for their wheat crop. It was good times for Henry but William used most of his to pay his debts. You see, William had shared his good fortune with others who “ate him up”. He ended up with little to show for his labours but there were probably quite a few people who managed to live another day because of his support.
Taplin wasn’t averse to intervening in Aboriginal people’s private affairs. In fact he was often asked to shelter girls and women in his kitchen to avoid their being married to a man they didn’t like. So, my guess is William had Taplin to thank for his marriage to Sarah (Sally) Smith. It seems that her father, Paddy, a tracker, was keeping a couple of potential grooms on a promise, bargaining with one while accepting gifts from the other. But it only took three months of negotiation by Taplin to presumably persuade Paddy to let his daughter marry William at Raukkan on 25 May, 1873. Yet, after all his trouble, all Taplin managed to say in his diary about the occasion was “Married W. MacHughes and Sally Smith”. Maybe he didn’t want his fingerprints all over their union. Maybe it had nothing to do with him after all. So, twenty-three year old William McHughes from the Jaralde Dialect group, Wutaltinyerar married sixteen year old Sarah, from the Tangane Dialect group. We don’t get to hear from William and Sarah on the topic of their marriage but it appears that it was a strong and happy union.
In June 1874, Taplin noted that William was going to finish building his house, and he had good reason to do so because his first child was on the way. He managed to get in a good crop of wheat as well, before Henry was born on 9 July 1874 at Raukkan. When he wasn’t farming and fencing and building his own home and caring for his family and reading scriptures, William was putting in for contracts as a stone mason. But just when Sarah was pregnant with their second child, their first child died, on the 4th January 1877, at just over two and a half years old. William buried yet another member of his family. Ruth was born five months later at Raukkan and Ettie came along in February 1879.
So just as William’s hard work, commitment and ambition was coming to fruition, Taplin’s own time was coming to an end. By now William was a well established member of his community and becoming confident in his moral authority. I don’t know if he was part of bringing the distressing news to Taplin that his son Frederick had been having sexual relations with young Ngarrrindjeri women, but he was certainly part of a delegation, years later that took the matter to the authorities in Adelaide. Taplin’s last diary entry, on 19 July 1879 came hot on the heels of what he considered the “diabolically false charge” that was brought against his son. The Australian Dictionary of Biography states the following:
Exhausted, he died of heart disease at Raukkan on 24 June 1879, survived by his wife and six children. He was buried in the village cemetery. Taplin’s son Frederick William succeeded him as superintendent of the mission.
But it was in a letter sent by his eldest daughter to Rev. John Roberts that Taplin, the man, is revealed in his final days:
I may say we were not surprised, for a long time past Father had been suffering from heart disease, which, sooner or later he knew would prove fatal, and from all I can hear the few days before he died he seemed to know his end was near. He went for a drive with Mother the day before, and Mother says if he had known he was going the next morning, he could not have talked plainer without saying positively that he was. All his accounts and everything are left in perfect order.
Between 1st April 1881 and 3rd May 1887, William and Sarah brought into the world four more children: ‘a boy’, Frederick William, Ruth and Estella. But by 1889 the strong leadership of Ngarrindjeri churchmen found Frederick Taplin’s abuse of his authority and trust, untenable. In 1880 there had been two allegations made against Frederick in regard to inappropriate relations with girls, and the Destitute Board had alleged that he was the father of a child of a young woman who was in his care. Finally, the Aborigines Friends’ Association in Adelaide who funded the mission, accepted a deputation from Raukkan consisting of William McHughes, John Sumner, Matthew Kropinyeri, John Wilson, Bertie Tripp, Albert Karloan and I. Lambert. They were there to request the removal of Frederick Taplin from his post as the mission’s Superintendent. Frederick Taplin was present throughout the allegations and was required to respond to them but he died a day later in a mysterious fire.
On the 29 March 1891, the extension to the Raukkan chapel was officially opened.
The improvements in connection with the building comprise the lengthening of the chapel and the erection of transepts, one of which is a reading-room and library for the young men, the other the Superintendent’s study and dispensary. The shingle roof of the old building has been replaced by galvanized iron, and tablets to the memory of the Rev. Geo. Taplin and Mr. F. W. Taplin, provided by the voluntary subscriptions of the natives and others, have been placed in the chapel. The whole makes a neat and compact building, which is an ornament to the Station, and a credit to the native, William McHughes, by whom the principal portion of the masonry was built.
Under T.M. Sutton, something of the old racial equality seen in George Taplin’s day was reinstated at Raukkan, with a church council comprising four Europeans and six Ngarrindjeri men including William McHughes.
Then began the exodus to Wellington. In 1892 William was successful in acquiring a lease on an Aboriginal Reserve at Wellington East. The Aborigines Friends Association made a point in their report to say that William was very deserving of this opportunity and they noted that he was highly praised for his stone masonry. Sarah gave birth to her eighth child, Hughie at Wellington that year. Allen then came along in 1896 followed by Hubert in 1899. By 1900 William was negotiating to have his children attend the Wellington school. This was obviously a problem for some because C. Rumball had written to the Protector of Aborigines to see if it was okay. The Protector responded that “there is nothing to prevent these children from attending the Government School, provided they are the required age, and are free from disease”.
By June 1901 the Protector of Aborigines reported that eighteen blocks of land had been leased to Aboriginal people and he mentioned three men in particular who had made improvements to their leases without government assistance: Muckray of Wellington, Napoleon Bonaparte at Hundred of Baker and William McHughes, Wellington. William had built a house of stone and iron with three rooms. His land was all fenced with six wires. He had a plough, spring dray and harness, a buggy, harrows, cream separator for his dairy, four horses, fifteen cows, four calves, eighteen sheep and three pigs. William appears to have been the picture of success. He had taken a gamble to leave the Raukkan community that more and more had little to offer him in terms of opportunity and leadership and he had led the way for other Raukkan families to do the same including those of George Muckray, George Karpany and Matthew Kropinyeri. It was a chance at autonomy, pride and initiative that they grabbed with both hands, supported by the Aborigines Friends Association, in whose interest it was to reduce the numbers of people dependent upon their mission.
These were the days before the White Australia Policy when there were small pockets within the state where European and Aboriginal people negotiated their relationships individually. William was one of these people who, despite all the restrictions put upon him, was managing to forge an independent life for himself and his family.
But, on the 28th August 1900, Sarah, William’s wife of twenty-seven years, died. An indication of how this impacted William might be glimpsed in the extraordinary thing he did next. In May of 1901 the Aborigines Friends Association sent their superintendent to East Wellington to report back to them. What Garnett found was William McHughes building the East Wellington Chapel entirely at his own expense even as he struggled to support his family on his small block of land. I can only imagine that it was into this building that William poured all his grief for the loss of Sarah. He had built, or helped to build many significant buildings in the region including private residences, the Raukkan Church and the Wellington Courthouse, but it is the East Wellington Chapel that stands even today as a memorial to his great love and to his extraordinary skills, compassion, vision, leadership and courage. Garnett must have been so struck by William’s efforts that the AFA honoured his request for £5 to pass on to William and his assistants in order that they could purchase food rations to see them through. And it was with this chapel that William was able to enact a kind of sovereignty over the life of his family and help to extend that to the other Ngarrindjeri families who had chosen to live without “leaning on each other”. It was in this chapel that both Ngarrindjeri and Europeans worshiped, where Ngarrindjeri people were actively creating a sacred space for all to share, where they were co-shaping the town of Wellington and negotiating their own way in life despite the ever increasing paternalism of the government.
Evidence, to me, that Ngarrindjeri men of Wellington were seen by the white community to be legitimate leaders as well as having a genuine engagement within the economy, was in their marriages to white women. In Conquest of the Ngarrindjeri, Jenkins quotes Garnett on his investigations into Wellington:
George Muckray is married to a white woman. He has about nine children. He also has made much progress. A cottage of four rooms: land fenced. He is a dairy farmer. He has about twelve head of cattle and owns a separator. His children milk the cows. He is a good shearer and generally industrious.
Jenkins notes that Muckray’s wife was not the only white woman to be married to a Ngarrindjeri man, but he suggests it would have taken a great amount of courage on her part, risking rejection from her own community and never really being accepted into his.
On the 16th May 1905, William McHughes (50 years old) married Alice Ledgard (48 years old) at her sisters house at Meningie. Alice’s parents had emigrated from Yorkshire and arrived in Adelaide from Hobart in 1845. Her father, Daniel, had been a tanner in England, had worked in forestry at Mount Lofty, had bought land with his brother Robert at Millbrook before it became the site of the reservoir. They had set up business as tanners at Brownhill Creek and they bought land and settled in Mitcham with Robert later moving to Spalding in the states north. By 1995 both Alice’s parents had died but she still had two brothers and two sisters. Her sister was married to A. A. Andrews of Murray Bridge. Perhaps Alice had remained a spinster because she had cared for her parents but now she found herself alone and remarkably, at first impression, chose to marry William and no doubt, care for his children. I do not get the sense that the Ledgards were anything but industrious and ambitious and William was no different. Alice perhaps saw in William all that a woman might wish for in a man in those times and she didn’t balk at caring for his many children and standing alongside him in the world. My research is not explicit in this area but I sense that while William was celebrated by those Europeans who kept notes on his life for his Christian and European qualities, my feeling is that this did not diminish his sense of himself as a proud Ngarrindjeri man. In fact, everywhere he went he would have been seen as Aboriginal first, Christian second, hence the emphasis from the settler authorities being on Aboriginal people distinguishing themselves as Christians. However, my feeling is that what William was able to do was find a balance within himself to live as well as he could for the times in which he lived. This I get from the impression I get of a man of dignity, intelligence, compassion, industriousness, and with a finely tuned spirituality. William was an extraordinary man. It is hard to believe that his wives Sarah and Alice were any different.
In February 1907 William was granted a further fourteen years on his lease at Wellington. The times had been particularly hard across the region with limited work but fortunately Narrung Station was cut up this same year and the new settlers needed the skills of the Ngarrindjeri men, in particular the stone masons, carpenters and fencers like William.
William died at Raukkan on 18 October 1931 at the age of 87 and Alice lived on for another nine years back at Lower Mitcham, dying in Adelaide in 1940.
In his book, Conquest of the Ngarrindjeri, Jenkins tells us that many of the descendants of those who left Raukkan for East Wellington over the time when William did, feel that it was the best thing they could have done. It gave them and their descendants the chance to “live free and proud”. I have heard the same sentiment while researching this project. I hope that William’s story here can help to represent those inspiring families who struck out on their own and helped to create the community of Wellington and a unique history that Wellington can be very proud of.
Graham Jenkin 1979, Conquest of the Ngarrindjeri: the story of the lower Murray Lakes Tribes, Rigby Publishers, Adelaide p.93, 145, 136, 137, 148, 174, 175, 193, 183, 229, 213. 232
Karen Hughes (2012): “MICRO-HISTORIES AND THINGS THAT MATTER”, Australian Feminist Studies, 27:73, 269-278
Karen Hughes (2013), “I’d grown up as a child amongst natives’: Ruth Heathcock (1901-1995) – disrupting settler-colonial orthodoxy through friendship and cross-cultural literacy in creolized spaces of the Australian contact zone”. Outskirts Online Journal, The University of Western Australia. P.2
• Report from Protector of Aborigines For Half-year ended June 30, 1868
• George Taplin’s Diary p. 2, 146, 158, 159, 176, 197, 214, 218, 219, 223, 242, 225, 226, 227, 229, 290, 289, 243, 244, 251, 265, 266
• Extract from 33rd report of The Aborigines Friends’ Association Inc. October 22nd 1891
• REPORT OF THE PROTECTOR OF ABORIGINES FOR THE YEAR ENDED JUNE 30, 1901.
• Protectors letter book 1892-1906
• SA Protector of Aborigines Out letter Book Vol 8[part] 1908-1913
G.K. Jenkin, ‘Taplin, George (1831-1879), Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/taplin-george-4687/text7757, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 14 June 2015
Doreen Kartinyeri, Ngarrindjeri Nation: Genealogies of Ngarrindjeri Families, https://books.google.com.au
South Australian Births, Deaths & Marriages – sourced at Goolwa Library history room 29 June 2015
• Chronicle (Adelaide SA) Sat 10 June 1905 p.29
Robert Turner, illustrated by Cliff Skene, (1977), Sand on the Roof: the story of Wellington on Murray, The Wellington Progress Association p.11