Australian Biography

Ruby Langford Ginibi - full interview transcript

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Ruby, what's your earliest memory?

Ah, back on the mission, I guess, where I was born.

Where was that?

Box Ridge Aboriginal Mission in Coraki, northern New South Wales.

And who were your parents?

My father's name was Henry, and my mum's name was Evelyn Anderson.

And what was their background?

Dad's father came from Boonah in Queensland, and worked on Main Camp Homestead when he was a youth. That was one of the first squatter's homesteads, you know? And then he met Auntie and married her and she was one of the Yuke family, not Auntie — Grannie. Grannie Mabel, she was a Yuke, and there were only three, three Aboriginal families that first kicked off that mission where I was born on, and they were the Yukes, the Wilsons and the Andersons. You know? So that's where we stem from. There.

And your family were the Andersons?

Yeah. Don't know where we got the Scottish name of Anderson from, but I could never find it out in research that I did. Have you ever seen a black Scotsman? No. I could never ever trace that, but usually the people that our families worked for, you know, gave them permission to use their names because they couldn't pronounce our traditional names. And the area where I come from, that was Bundjalung country, you know? Yeah.

So you're a Bundjalung woman?


And your ... your mother, what was her background?

Well, Mum's mother was a traditional woman and she came from the Tweed, and that's still Bundjalung country, but a different clan dialect, you know? Yeah, I think it was the Minjungbal dialect. And Mum actually came to grief through the rape of my grandmother, my tribal grandmother, by an Italian banana plantation owner. That's how Mum ever came to be. Later, she married a man by the name of Walker from Tabulum Mission and had two other daughters and they were named Maudie and Midgegay, which were my aunts and they were both full-blood, you see? So that's how my mother came to be, from that line.

And was your father ... fully tribal?

My father wasn't tribal. In this respect, that grandfather was a half-caste, you see, but Granny was full-blood. So I don't know what that makes me ... [laughs] ... better? But you know ...

Maybe with grandfather ...

The proper connections are there, yeah.

Maybe grandfather was half-caste, maybe that was where the Scottish name came from?

Probably so.

And what did your father do for a living?

Well, Dad was a log carter and cutter and he drove log trucks, you know? And carted the timber from the scrub, but before that, when they were young people, they all worked building up those big cattle hierarchies up there in Bundjalung country. They were all stockmen, all the men in my father's family were all stockmen. And the women were not only stock ... stockwomen too, but they were housemaids and servants and everything for the first squatters, you know?

How did they come to live on the mission?

Well, there was 10 acres that was given to them by old Tom Yabsley years ago, because that's where they got all their labour workforce, was from the mission. to build up those big cattle properties, you know. Actually, I think our people were the first pioneers, they taught them how to survive in the country. The place where I come from is known as the big scrub, you know? And the first squatters were there after the cedar. They were the hierarchy of the cedar-getting and cattle-getting industry. And it was big scrub, they could never muster the cattle in that, but the Aboriginal fellas, our mob, could do it. Good.

What was the set-up on the mission?

The mission was next door to the cemetery. It'd be about three miles out of town ...

Who ran it?

Well, from what I can remember, when I was a child I did hear the name Mrs. English She was the manageress, and later on when I was old enough to go to school there on the mission, it was run by a Mrs Hiscocks, who ended up being the manageress of that infamous Cootamundra Girls’ Home where they took our children. You know? And she was an old Trojan. Yeah.

So what was it like to be a child on the mission?

We had missionaries come and ram religion down our throats and most of the old ones, anyhow, they were all ... how can I put it? They used to sing hymns and ... and such and play guitars and a Jew's harp ... what were they called now? The harps with the hands and, oh, they made lovely music, but there was all this religious stuff, you know? Yeah.

Were you very affected by the religion? Did you buy it?

I used to wonder about what it was, you know? I mean, we were happy living the way we were, I guess, but we were only kids. We didn't know what was being done to us at the time, like indoctrine of other people's beliefs when we had our own beliefs and I was taught our own beliefs by the elders, so we had that as well as all this other stuff, you know? It was all rammed down our throats.

How did you make sense of it?

Well it didn't then, when we were children, you know? And every Monday morning on the mission you'd be lined up have a tablespoon of sulphur, raw sulphur and molasses, rammed down your gob. And this was a form of antibiotic to clean your systems out. This happened every Monday morning, you know?

What did it taste like?

Oh ... I'm allergic to sulphur, in any form today. And I mean, with my silly old bronchial chest, sulphur would be one of the drugs that could fix my chest up real good, you know, but I can't take it because I'm allergic to it.

Were you allergic to it then? Or they just made you allergic to it?

It made me ... it left me with the allergy. And we had jobs to do, like we had schooling for so long and then we'd have to go and work in the gardens because they grew vegetables and such, and the boys used to have to look after the vegetable plots and us girls would be weeding the girls' garden, you know, with the flowers and whatever. And I used to think to myself, ‘Wouldn't it be lovely if everything was like the garden where all the roses were?’ The perfumes were so beautiful, but it wasn't ... it wasn't that way I found ... [laughs] ... Through life. That everything was not beautiful like that.

So as a child, you were there with your mother and your father ... How many brothers and sisters did you have?

Well, I had two other sisters, Gwen and Rita, but when I was six years of old, my mother left and dad was out in the bush working. She ran away with a fella that she'd been seeing and I didn't find this out until afterwards, you know, because ... I remember waking up ... I could remember waking up one night and it was ... had this little baby, you see? And I could hear the baby crying and she was wrapping him up in a blanket. And I said, ‘Mum, where are you going?’ She said [...] ‘go to sleep,’ you know? ‘I'll be back afterwards.’ And wrapped the baby up and out she went. And I can ... I looked through the window and I could see the lights of a car down at the gate of the mission and away she went and she never come back. I never saw her again until I was a teenager.

What effect did that have on you?

Oh ... we were okay because we had Dad and he loved us. He took us out to the bush after she left. The old ones, they got word out to him that she'd gone, and he'd come and took us out to live in the scrub with him while he was working. And we ... Uncle Ernie, Uncle Ernie would, his mate ... became our ... our mother. He'd cook for us, damper and bush tucker. Used to get the swan's eggs and boil them up in billy cans for us, you know? And I remember he used to take us hunting while he got the bush tucker, too, you know? While dad did the cutting and carting of the logs.

Living in the bush ...

Living in the bush. And I wasn't aware of what he was telling me, see, because I thought Ernie was, Uncle Ernie he was a clever man, a doctor, a wuyun gali, you know. And our clever people were likened to have the power like the great yogis of Tibet. They had the power to heal, they had the power to kill, these men. And around the campfires at night we'd be sitting, and he'd be telling us stories about the bush animals and such. And what he was telling me, because I was the eldest of the three little girls, would stay with me all my life, you know? And I wasn't aware that what he was telling me was a handing on, the traditional stuff to me. Through what he was telling us.

What language were you speaking?


Do you still have that, or is it ...




Really fluent?

But the only trouble is, I don't have anybody around here that speaks it so I can talk to 'em. But I have a good go at it when I go home ... [laughs] ...

So you haven't lost it ...

NO!!! No. I mean, we were denied the rights to use language. On the mission you had to talk English and not talk language ... yeah ... terrible place ... it, it reminded me of a Nazi prison camp. You had to have permission to come or go and if any of your relatives wanted to come from another reserve or mission, they had to have written permission from that camp commandant to say, yeah, that they could stay. If they didn't leave when the time was up, then the police were sent to hunt them off. So we were a controlled people way back then, you know, we had no, no rights over our lives or anything like that. I mean, Dad eventually got us away from there or we would have been taken, too. So ...

Why would you have been taken?

Well ... it was the Protection Board's policy of removing Aboriginal children. And the family unit was broken up, you know, because they did not want them living tribally because our traditional ones were classed as heathens and vermin to be cleared off the face of the earth. And besides, they thought we'd all die out anyhow, which we fooled 'em, we didn't. And so to get us away, he [Dad] put us in a big long truck and he had to lie to the mission manager to say that we were going shopping, and he took us to another area to get right away from there. And I can remember sitting in that big truck with my two little titas [sisters] and crying because we were going away from this horrible place. You know? It was the only home we knew. Then up over the Richmond Range we went to Dad's, Dad's brother's place. Like he'd married into the Hinett family, Nell Hinett, Mother Nell, you know, was her name. We used to call her Mother Nell although she was my ... aunt and uncle, see ... through marriage. And ...

So you had a spell in the bush with Uncle Ernie?

Oh yeah ...

How long were you in the bush before he took you to your aunt's ...

Oh, it wouldn't be that long in the bush, it wouldn't be too long in the bush. Maybe about a year or so, or six months, something like that, you know, ‘cause they used to track the kids down and get them. That was ... they put them into the homes to be trained in servitude, you know? As I said, they didn't want them to growing up tribally. They did everything and they literally sort of tore our people apart by doing this, by taking the children, you know? And old Dad said, no, they're not taking my kids, so away he took us. It was a good move because the place, Bonalbo, where we were raised was a beautiful place to grow up in, you know?

Why was that?

There was no discrimination, no nothing there. There was ... it would have been different if we were still on the mission, you know? I mean, on the mission, whenever we wanted to go to the picture show in town we were roped off. You had blacks on one side and whites on the other. You'd get a segregated hospital with a little old ward down the back which says ‘Abos Only’. Not like that today, but it was then. And even, even the ... even racist crow in the bakery shop, can you believe that? We used to come in from the mission, you see, you'd have to walk across a big common to get to the town, a shortcut, and it was where they kept all the cattle, common, you know, and when it rained water laid there, very deep water and us kids would have to go in to get the fresh bread, see, we even had little sugar bags to fill it up and as soon as we'd poke our noses in the door of the baker shop, there was this black crow with a chain around his claw on the counter and soon as he'd spot us black kids he'd sing out, ‘Mum, there's blackfellas in the shop.’ What could be more, more blacker than he. We used to wish we could get hold of him and choke him, you know, the damn bird! But truly, this crow, that they split their tongue see, so that it could talk. And he'd sing out, ‘Mum, there's blackfellas in the shop.’ It's disgusting, isn't it? A racist crow ... Oh dear, that's just some of the funny elements, you know, but it wasn't laughable after a while.

And who did you stay with in Bonalbo?

Well, as I said, Dad's brother, Sam Anderson, had married into the Hinett family, and Mother Nell, we called her, her father was the head stockman of Buna-walbu Homestead, that's the tribal name for Bonalbo, Buna-walbu. And it means bloodwood tree, you see. Dad had a ceremony just last year acknowledging Thomas Hinett and commemorating the graves of him and his family as being the first, the head stockman, the first Aboriginal head stockman in that place up there.

What was life like for the three little girls with father Sam and Mother Nell?

Oh, they were a lovely couple. She was 10 years older than him and I never ever heard them argue, ever. And they never, never called one another Nell or Sam, it was always Mother and Father. She was a big woman like me, she used to wear a big apron, and in, in the apron she had to have pockets and she'd have a notepad there for little lists that she was writing and pegs and whatever. But she was a beautiful woman and I ... we loved 'em. She was always cooking cakes and he'd be passing them out the door to us and we'd be running and [she’d] say, ‘Father Sam, where's those cakes gone?’ ‘I don't know Mother,’ he says, ‘the fairies must have took 'em.’ And it was him pinching them all the time, you know, so we had a lovely childhood and night, night-times we'd sit out underneath the wisteria vine in the front, which was a big, big old wisteria vine and Father Sam would get a big melon and slice it up and we'd sit out there eating it in the shade of the afternoon, you know, then after, afterwards he'd be rubbing the watermelon in our faces and rubbing his beard in our face and it'd be on for young and old. We had a lovely childhood, you know ... [interruption] ... Yes you can, even magpies too, you know, they split the tongue, get the tongue, cut the tongue and it causes them to talk ... [interruption] ... That's what oral history is, repetition. You shouldn't worry about repeating anything ...

What was it like in the town of Bonalbo ... were there other Aboriginal people there?

No. There weren't any other Aboriginal people there at the time. But there's more there now today. You know. And we were not excluded from anything. You know ... And of course, the school only went up to sixth class. The kids used to ride there ... ride in from the farmhouses out of town, you know, by horseback and horses would be, they'd take the saddle off and let the horse feed around in the school yard. And saddle them up again to go home after school was out.

How did you get on at school?

I loved school. I liked all that learning stuff.

Did you do well at it?

Oh ... pretty well, I guess. I only got to ... like I had to go to Casino for high school. Dad wanted me to get a better education, and I went to Casino High School for ... in 1947-48, for those only two years of high school I did. And there were ... the class was 2F actually, it's a long way from A B and C, isn't it? And the rest of education we got in the school of hard knocks. There's no better teacher ... [laughs] ...

So where did you stay when you went to Casino?

Well, I was billeted out with a family called the Pentlands. She used to be a Miss Freedman [sp?], but she took in all Koori kids, you know? To look after them. We had no Koori organisations there that looked after kids that were having problems or had lost a parent or something like that, you know. That's if the Protection Act didn't get onto them and take them. But, they were lovely people, too. And they lived about ... they lived about three miles out of town, so it was a six mile go everyday to get to school. We used to take a shortcut across ... through ... along the riverbank.

You walked ...

Oh yeah ... walked. Run. Can't do that now ... [laughs] ... But did it then.

And what do you remember most about school? What was the best thing about it?

I liked school, in this respect, that with the learning and stuff ... I was a bookworm, I used to love to read. And out ... our old teacher was old, we called him ‘Tiger’ Magee. And his name wasn't Tiger, of course, but we christened him Tiger because he growled a lot, you know? But he was the loveliest teacher. He actually was the one deciding vote that got me the vote of class captain and school prefect. It was he. And he taught me the basics of the scales on the piano because I used to love ... pick tunes out by ear, you know? He was a lovely, lovely old teacher. I can't believe he's still alive, too.

And so what sort of lessons did you do best at?

Well, I liked geography and history and stuff like that. Wasn't much good at maths, but English, I used to ... I used to like to write poetry and stuff like that, too, you know. I had a very vivid imagination. Yeah.

Were you accepted as easily at Casino as you had been at Bonalbo?

Yes. Yes.

So you didn't encounter any ...

No, no, it was really good there, too. At the school, yeah. I can remember in those days, used to have sixpence a day. Six-penneth. That'd be to buy your lunch at the school tuck shop. And for six-penneth you could get ... two boiled saveloys and a big home-made meat pie for six-penneth. What would it cost you today? Oh, dear. I had a girlfriend who I'd swap all that for because she had baked bean sandwiches. And I loved them, you know.

So you mixed absolutely just as much with white children as the black children?

Captain of hockey and ... too, in school. Yeah. And, as a matter of fact, it was an Aboriginal girl that was the dux of the high school when I went there, her name was Beatrice Hogan [sp?]. Yeah.

Did you continue to see your father during this time?

Dad called every year at Christmas-time before ... when he got his holiday breaks from here in Sydney where he was living. He'd come that way and pick me up and then we'd go home to Bonalbo for Christmas together, you know. And he'd always go and check out how I was getting on with the headmaster. His name was, I don't know his name, but it was VJ Rubineck [sp?]. That was the initials. I can remember. And they wanted to put me through teacher's college and Dad said, ‘If my daughter wants to go to teacher's college, she'll get there on her own steam, not through the help of any Aborigine Protection Board.’ Because they all knew, you know, Aboriginal people knew what the board was doing to our families and that. By taking the kids and that, busting 'em up. So he didn't want to have nothing to do with it, you know. 00:23:31:21

So did you go to teacher's college?

No, no I never. As I said, I only went to second form, class 2F.

So why did you leave?

Well, I turned 15 in January before school went back for the ... when I would have sat for my intermediate, but I came this way to Sydney instead with Dad to find work in 1949. You know.

And by this time your father had come down to Sydney from the bush ...

Well Dad, Dad had been down in Sydney for a good while ... he worked for six years on Warragamba Dam as a dozer driver. Laying the groundwork for that before it was built, you know? And then from there he went into Alexandria and he was there for 10 years at Henderson Federal Springs, running wires and springs. And this ...

What about your mother, had she been in touch with you at all?

Well, Mum had never ever got in touch with us at all. And when we first came to Sydney with Dad, Dad had already taken up with a little woman we called Mum Joy, and she had two children to Dad. And every Saturday we'd come shopping down Botany Road, Redfern, from Great Buckingham Street, you know, and that's where we run into Mum one day and she had two of her other children to this other fella that she'd run away with. And Dad was pushing us behind him saying, ‘You didn't want my kids, get away’ and all this and that. And they were so angry, Mum was standing there crying. But anyhow, later on, with the insistence from Mum Joy, used to say, ‘You can't stop them from seeing their mother, that's their mother, you know? You can't do that, they're her children.’ And he let us go then afterwards. 00:25:24:17

Did you have much to do with her after that?

Oh yeah, I loved me mum. Afterwards I did have, you know, but at that time I was young and was in the machining business. I ... the rag trade ... it was Mum Joy that got me the job in Bracks Clothing Factory. Making trousers.

I'll come to that in a minute, we're a little bit ahead of ourselves, let's go back ...

Mum ...

I think we've got to get you properly from Bonalbo. So when you left school, what did you decide you wanted to do?

Well, I wanted to work, because I thought, gee, you know, Dad used to be always sending money for our upkeep to Mother Nell and Father Sam for our support, and I thought, gee whiz, you know I better get out and do some work to help out too, you know, I can't be a burden myself, on poor old Dad all the time. And so I really wanted to get a job. And the only other job that I had up there before I came to Sydney was like sort of a governess housemaid looking after a little kid on a farm. And it ... you know, while their parents worked.

And what was that like?

Oh, it was alright. Used to have to catch the mailtruck to get out there, that was three or four miles out of town, too. Then over the weekends I'd ... they'd lend me the pony and I'd ride home for the weekend and go back again so her husband could have the pony to ride into the sawmill, you know, when he went to work each day. And that was alright.

What made you decide to come to Sydney?

Well, it was Dad that wanted us to come to Sydney. So you could get a job, you know, 'cause there's nothing much going up there.

And by this time he had a little household established?

What was that?

By this time your father had a little household established ...

Well, he was ... he and Mama Joy's ... yeah, yeah ... they were set up in Great Buckingham Street, Redfern.

Did you all come down?

No, just Gwen and I, Rita was too young, she stayed. Besides, she was ... she was like Mother Nell and Father Sam's little girl until they had a daughter, you know, young Judy. And she was too young to come anyhow. So we come to Sydney.

And how did you feel coming down to the big smoke? Had you seen a big city before?

No. Never seen a big city before. When we were coming into the city, we had our noses stuck out the window and in those days you got the coal stuff, it used to get in your eyes, you know, you had no air conditioning in the old rattlers, the trains, the North Coast Rail. But I couldn't get over how ... how long it seemed to take us to get here. We must have been travelling for such a long time, you know? And ... I couldn't get over the buildings, tall buildings and neon signs and stuff like that. I was just in awe of how big this place was when we first came.

And you settled in ... in Great Buckingham Street, Redfern. And there were a lot of Kooris around there?

At the time, yes, there was a good few Kooris around there.

And so did you ... did it take you long to feel at home?

Oh, I was at home with Dad, yeah, and Gwen started off to Bourke Street school, she was finishing school at Bourke Street. I think she was about 12 or so then. Yeah. And we'd come to the pictures in Redfern. Every night there used to be the Lawson Picture Theatre. And dad would bring us down there of a weekend, go to movies. And even Redfern oval, the All Blacks had football teams way back then, you know? And we used to go there and sit on the hill of a Sunday to watch the football matches. 00:29:14:11

And did Mum Joy accept you?

Oh yes, she was a lovely woman. Well, Dad had brought her ... brought her home on Christmas with him, you know. And I can remember back ... looking ... sitting on the back verandah waiting for Dad to come from the bus stop and see the little, little ... it looked like a little girl, because she was only tiny, you know, little short person. Dad's got another girl, look there's a little girl. It wasn't, it was Mum Joy, she was so tiny ... [laughs] ... She was a lovely woman.

Did it take you long to get work?

Well she took me up to Brack's, where she used to work, and it was just around the corner from Great Buckingham Street and Elizabeth Street, there in Redfern, and I got put on as an apprentice trousers machinist and that's how I kicked off there in the rag trade. And worked there for 12 months before I became qualified. Used to do all the messages and take the money to the bank for the boss and make the morning teas and all that running around as well as trying to ... to use a power machine and the damn thing used to run away on me, you know, it was so powerful, I was only used to old Mum, Mum Nell's old treadle machine, where you had to pedal like billy-o, and with this you only need put your foot over and zoom, away it'd go, you know. Yeah.

But you'd had to use one ...

Yeah, oh yeah.

Now when you came to Sydney, you hadn't seen your mother for many years ...

Yeah ...

Since you were six years old. Did you know that she was in Sydney?

Yes. Dad told us that she was there.

So what were you thinking about that?

Oh, well ... well, wanting to see her and that, you know, and connect up again because we were kids, like young people, real curious. So he did relent and let us go after a while. To visit her. And she lived in Portland ... not Portland Street ... Beaumont Street, Waterloo was where she lived, which wasn't far away, just across Redfern Park and over there in Waterloo, you know. Wasn't far away at all. We used to go over on a Sunday sometimes for a visit. And say g'day. And she welcomed us, you know. 00:31:27:00

Did you ever ask her about why she'd left you?

No. No.

Not ever?

No. I never asked her. I formed my own opinions about it, though, they were both young. I didn't want to be judgemental, and judging either one of them, you know. But the two sisters never ever did forgive her. And she died without them even coming to say goodbye to her. But that's sad, you know. I mean, I didn't feel that way. I took up with ... with a boyfriend called Sam Griffin [sp?] and had ... later on had three children by, and Mum knew what sort of a person he was, but me being starry-eyed and in love, you know, you think your parents are trying to run your life for ... everything ... and I went and give her a mouthful of cheek and told her to mind her own business and she hit me so hard I was concussed, I tell you. Yep.

Literally concussed?

Yes. I couldn't go to work, couldn't sewing machine. When Dad found out he was ropeable. And he did take her to court. And we had to stand up and tell the, the magistrate that she never ever contacted us in all the years that she's been away and it prayed well for dad's case against her, you know, and slapping me. Even though I knew I'd deserved it. Because I shouldn't have been so cheeky. She was my mother after all, you know. And she was bound down to keep the peace. But later on, the, that old hurt healed itself and they were great friends, you know. Even before they died they used to have meals together, go and visit one another. So it ended, ended lovely. In the end.

How did you meet Sam Griffin?

Well, Mum Joy had a little friend that lived down the corner of Great Buckingham Street, on Cleveland Street, it was. And she used to come up and visit and her name was Alma [sp?] and then one day she brought a, a nephew to visit, was how we met, you know.

And was that your first romance?

Yeah. Yeah.

And what ... could you describe it after all these years?

Aw ... he was ... to me, he is tall, dark and handsome. Always nicely dressed. You know, a bit reserved and a bit stand-offish, but I thought it's because he might have been a bit shy. When later I was to find out he wasn't shy at all. Especially as far as other women were concerned, you know? And even my Dad told me things about what he'd seen and blah blah blah. You think you know it all when you're young, and when it's all boiled down, you know nothing, you know? You know absolutely nothing. You know?

How ... how old were you when you met Sam?

Well, about 15 and a half, going on 16. And by 17 I had his first child. Hmm.

Had you been told anything at all while you were being brought up about having babies and about men?

... [laughs] ... No. It never connected with me and I was a farm girl. I mean, I've seen cows having calves and stuff like this, you know, and it never connected with me, but anyhow ...

You didn't know the connection ...

I didn't know ... between sex and babies ...

True. True. We ... it was taboo to even talk about menstruation in front of men in those days. You know. When I was a young woman, it was taboo, and so nothing was openly discussed. You know. And it's ... it's ... I still say today it was just my ignorance and not knowing nothing that got me into the trouble I did ... [laughs] ... 00:35:28:06

How did you discover that you were pregnant then?

Ah well, Mum Joy, knowing that I was shacking up and said I better go and get checked up and went ... that's when I found out. And so I ... I left Sydney with Sam to go away because I didn't want to bring shame on my Dad, you know?

And it would have done that?

It would have done that. In those days, they looked on unmarried women as proper tarts and I knew I wasn't one of those, you know.

So did you think of marrying Sam, or did he think of marrying you?

Ah ... yeah. But he wasn't forthcoming in that, you know, but he was ... he always had a roving eye but I never ever believed ... he'd never do it in front of me, but he always had other eyes for other women. And he's fathered other children by other women, too. Matter of fact, one of them was a month younger — my Bill, my eldest, Bill ... Bill was born in October and he had a son to another woman a month after it. 00:00:34:21

[end of tape]

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