Australian Biography

Charles Perkins - full interview transcript

Tape of 12

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What did you do for work while you were in England?

Well I was a fitter and turner. I, you know, had qualified and [was a] welder, and so I was able to find employment in the shipyards there on the Mersey River at Camerlads (?), and so I found that sort of employment. But then, when I moved to Wigan, after leaving Everton Football Club, I worked in the coal mines, Mosley Common Colliery (?) near Manchester, between Manchester and Wigan, and that was a new experience for me. But ...

What was it like working in the coal mine? I don't suppose there had been an Australian Aborigine working in the English coal mine before.

Not that I can remember, no. But there was another Aboriginal person there at the same, Wally MacArthur, one of the boys from the home. So I was able to relate to him, but he was living in a place called Lea. And you know I was living in Wigan. So we sort of related to each other, but he definitely did work in a coal mine and he played top grade rugby league over there in England for about ten years. He was great, a wonderful athlete. A world class athlete. But to work in a coal mine is an experience that you only have to have once in a lifetime and the shorter the period the better, preferably one week. You know a year's too long. It's just ... it's just so different.

Could you describe what you used to do when you went there each day?

Well, when I used to go down the pits I'd do nothing, because my mate and I - he's passed away now, a fellow called Terry O'Grady. He used to play on the right wing, on one of the wings for England, for Great Britain. And he's toured over here in Australia several times. He used to work in the same colliery and same for a fellow called Frank Griffin. He was a top grade rugby league player. Well Terry O'Grady and I used to go down the mine and we used to just do nothing, as little as you possibly can. Everybody else was working. And sometimes we'd just huddle into a corner, switch off our lights and have a bit of a sleep. That was the easy part, that was the good part. But when we were up on the surface of course you had to really work because you had the, they call them the gaffers up there, and watching you all the time. But it wasn't the place to be. And naturally my heart wasn't in that sort of work any how (car horn sounds). It was dirty, filthy, driven high winds driving coal in your face all the time, embedding it in your skin, and you know, in winter time it was freezing. And when you get down in the pits, right down below it's warm, and then, you go down when it's dark and you come up when it's dark in England. What sort of a life is that? And the money wasn't that good, and often times it was dangerous. But we played our part. I played my part there, but, you know, I didn't like the experience.

What about the other miners, how did they treat you?

Well, I got on very well with them. As I said before I found the English people, and particularly the Lancashire people, they're very friendly - the young Lancashire people. And the Yorkshire people and the Geordies. We'd drive to Newcastle. But these people in Wigan, in Lancashire, all round there ... As I said the Scousers, you know, around Liverpool, they're not so friendly. You've got to get in with them for a long time before they accept you. But Lancashire people are generally very good indeed. They're very earthy people, very friendly. They just take you as they find you, you know and they're not that wealthy. They sort of ... you have what they have and if you can put up with that and cop that and you accept that, well then that's fine, and you go along with it. And I did. I was able to move amongst them very easily and I used to go to all the dances all the time, and I used to go to the pubs with all the blokes even though I wasn't a drinker. And I used to sing along with them and enjoy it. And nobody ever came and asked me did I have a ticket to be there, or you know, nobody ever called me a 'boong' or a nigger. They always wondered who I was. I was sometimes taken for a dark Greek or Italian or Maori and so on, but nobody really bothered with that. They didn't want to know. They knew I was an Australian. They were very pleased with me being an Australian. They liked Australians. So they were lovely people, lovely people, and I stayed, as I said before, with Mr. and Mrs. Tilley in Wigan, and they just treated me as a son.

Did you have any English girlfriends?

I had dozens of them, and the English girls are very nice, not like Australian girls. Australian girls don't seem to have any class, and they don't seem to you know ... they just something ... sort of not so much reserved, but they're not natural. They don't sort of fit it and work around and want to enjoy themselves. They don't have to be promiscuous or loose, but they're just sort of ... With English girls you can have a good time and enjoy yourself and they're very friendly. They invite you into the home and you can have a meal with them and, you know, with people, and enjoy that and it's great. I couldn't do that in Australia. Not once did I do that in Australia. In fact when I was in Australia I went to a dance. I used to go sometimes to the dances, but I used to stand outside the halls, because you know, the girls didn't want to dance with an Abo, didn't want to be seen dancing with an Abo.

Did you ever ask them?

I did. On one occasion I was at the Town Hall in Port Adelaide and the room was full of all these girls and blokes. All the blokes were up one end - the usual old way it is to carry out these dances, and all the girls were seated round the edges. I went to every girl in that dance hall just to make the point and ask them for a dance - every one of them. And every one refused me. And you know I thought that, something I've never forgiven them for and I'll never forget. And ever one I just said, 'No I'm going to ask every one of these girls here'. And I knew what they were going to do, and I went to ever one, right around the dance hall by myself, and everybody was watching me. It was very embarrassing. But you know I said, 'I'm not going to let them put me down'. I asked them and then I went home. But I never went there again. And I never danced with an Australian girl again. Until I met my wife.

But you didn't have that experience with the English girls?

No, I had that many girlfriends, I had that many girlfriends, I got sick of it all. I couldn't stand up, and I used to stay out later and later at night enjoying myself, I could hardly go to work the next day. They were beautiful. The girls were beautiful. Friendly, you know, and they didn't sell themselves to you or anything like that or sell their souls to you, they just enjoyed your company, and you enjoyed theirs and nobody slung off at you or anything like that. Nobody asked you what you were, they just took you as they find you. You know, it was just beautiful and the dances were really fun and enjoyable. And I used to go with the lads, you know, and I was one of the boys amongst a big company of people, and it was a new experience for me. No embarrassment being in their company, and that was really good for me psychologically.

And what was happening with your soccer?

Oh, the soccer, well that wasn't reaching any great heights. I ... I was more over there to sort of live and learn and when I got ... cottoned on to that lifestyle, which was new for me, I was enjoying that a lot. People being friendly with me, you know, for no reason than, you know, they wanted to be friendly with me. And me sitting at the same table with them, which seems funny me saying that, but it's true: to sit at a table, you know, with a lot of white people, you know, and not be embarrassed, was a new experience for me. Now that, you know, seems impossible for me to say that because, you know, I've sat with all sorts of people: queens and princesses and emperors and heads of departments and prime ministers and all that, but in those days, you know, it was a difficult exercise. But in England, it was nothing. It was beautiful.

Father Smith and his wife had taught you a lot about how to behave in a sort of genteel fashion, hadn't they? Did that stand you in good stead do you think in those circumstances?

Yes. For all the time I'd know Father Smith, he was good to me and good to the boys, and his intentions were always good. And the same with Mrs Smith, obviously. And they were always trying to teach us, as raw as we were, the elements of, you know, good living, social graces, good manners, and we learnt, we learnt a lot from them and it stood us in good stead. And so that was very helpful.

With the soccer, one of the things that the English play did, was it was a much more sophisticated game in England than it was here, wasn't it? Did you learn much about your soccer while you were in England?

Oh, yes. You know I learnt a lot: how to play the game, how to really dictate the play as well. How to sort of control the play and how to be the hard man of the game. I used to always play the game to win. I never played to lose. I think coming second is never been involved. That's for nobody that. And I always played to win, and I've always played that way in my life as well. You know, I don't like losing, so when I got on the soccer field there, when I first landed in England and started playing there, I was taught a few hard lessons about how to play the game. Play it direct, keep it simple and go for goals, you know, go straight for the goals, don't mess around on the fringes in front of the beautiful and run around the edges because that's not where the goals are. The goals are up the other end of the field and so I learnt that pretty quickly, and how to play the game quickly and how to think quickly and how to sort of dictate the play and that stood me in very good stead, so that when I came back to Australia I was put straight away in the State team, you know, and I was made captain and coach of the team, that brought me back from England ...

How did you come to come back? What brought you back to Australia?

Well I ... I was playing there for a while in England and then, you know, as I said before with Everton, and I left Everton and I went to Wigan. I played with Wigan for a while but then a talent scout saw me from a place called Bishop Auckland, right up near Newcastle. Now they had ... they had a top amateur team in the world, you know, certainly in England. But amateur team at that time was in many ways comparable to all the professional teams. They were getting paid the same money, only amateurs were not supposed to get paid and the professionals were. But it wasn't much money anyhow. And I was asked to go up there for a trial, and I played that well I took the place of the England's left half. And I took his place and we had a really good team. And one of my team mates went to play for a first division team like Tottenham Hotspur and so on, and Chelsea. And ... but I kept playing for them, and just before I decided to come back to Australia, and I'll say the reasons in a minute, I had a trial with Manchester United, and they wanted to sign me on. Matt Busby was their manager at that time. He wanted to sign me on. A fellow called Taylor was the chief coach, and I had a trial at Trafford Park, at the ground there, the legendary ground with all their legendary players as a matter of fact. And I played well and they said we'll sign you up part-time for a start, and then we'll take you on full time later on. I said, 'No, I've got to go'. I said, 'I'm going'. And they couldn't believe it because most people would have given their right arm to be involved but I was sick of the weather. You didn't see much sun, you know, and really I should have waited for while because when you get in to part-time playing with them, and then you get full-time, well you see all of a sudden they'll sign you on. But working down the pits in the coal mines, and then in the shipyards, it was sort of hard going. Dark when you leave and dark when you come home, and you know a lot of this sort of weather: rain and cloudy, and a bit nippy, and then the snow and the sleet comes. So I said, 'No I want to get back. I'm homesick for that. Besides I want to do something else'. And then I had this offer so I left them, and I had this offer from Croatia in Adelaide. They said, 'We'll pay your fare back. Come back and we'll set you up, you know, in South Australia'. And I said, 'Well that would be a good idea', and so I accepted their offer, and a fellow called Ferguson, my good friend - still is a good friend, even though we don't meet each other much these days - he was the one that negotiated that arrangement for me. Got me back to Australia and I decided to come back, but I had the other thought in mind, not only of coming back to Australia but to go to university. I decided in England, when I played a game with Bishop Auckland against Oxford University. We played at Oxford and we played at Oxford University, and we beat them that day, and I was watching all these Oxford University people, you know, these university graduates and undergraduates, which I presume they were, playing against us, and the surroundings at Oxford. And I thought yeah, this is it. I am going to go to Sydney University. I mean, it was an impossible dream because I didn't have my matriculation. I didn't have a good education. But I said, 'That's what I'm going to do'. So I made my mind up when I was playing that game at Oxford University, that I would go to university because I wanted to ... you know, I felt I was not educated enough to be able to ... and articulate enough to put across the message I wanted to get across in Aboriginal Affairs to people. Because when I first spoke with Don Dunstan at Adelaide, when he invited me to speak, I spoke for about a minute and a half and ran out of words, and ideas. I thought, I can't have that happen again. And I thought I've got to go to university because when you do go, people listen to you, and you know what you've got to say anyhow. So at Oxford I decided that day, that game, during the game, that I would go to university. So when that offer came, I grabbed it, [and] left the Manchester United offer behind me, left all my girlfriends behind me at the railway station in Wigan, and took off for Australia. And you think, you never know whether that was a good decision or not.

How old were you when you arrived back in Adelaide?

I think I was about twenty-four, twenty-five, so you know, young enough to do anything. And silly enough to do anything. And ... but I had that dream in my mind then and I went back to Adelaide and I played a season or two there, so I must have been about twenty-three, twenty-four perhaps. I played a season there, and we did well, we won everything with Croatia and so on, and I decided to leave. And I said, 'No I'm going to pursue a career now at the University of Sydney', and I played professional ... played soccer to the highest level in Sydney. And so I went back there and met my wife there at a hotel there, at a big soccer dance.

In Adelaide ...

In Adelaide. This bloke, who was trying to go out with her, invited me to the dance. So I went along to the dance and I pinched his girlfriend and married her, which is a bit strange.

Given that you really didn't have a very high opinion of Australians girls, what was different about Eileen?

Well, it was at a soccer dance you see, and I forget what clubs were involved and she was there, and she was there with another girl, who'd had come along with another fellow, and she just made up the party, you see. And so we just met and we started talking and I thought, oh well, she seems pretty nice. You know different to the other ones, and doesn't mind me at all. And so we sort of cottoned on from there, you know, and went on from there. She was very good, and I met her family afterwards and they were all really nice. There was no sort of prejudice there in the family. An old German family she comes from as well, you know, that sort of established South Australia, the vineyards, and the wheat and the sheep and all that. They were the original settlers, the Lutherans.

What did her parents think of it when you wanted to marry her?

Oh, they had no problems, you know. I never had any problems with that family at all. Not on her side. Some of the in-laws I did have, you know - other Australians, you know, and they were a little bit apprehensive, but they were good too. They were really good, and they've all been very good really.

What did your mother think of you marrying a white girl?

Oh she didn't want me to marry a white girl. She didn't think it was a good idea because of prejudice and because she thinks there's too many problems and, you know, you get mixed up with all the other white people in the family and so on, and there's just going to be a lot of heartache. And she didn't really trust too many white people, you know, and so ... but I said, 'Oh no - this girl's white', so I brought her up to meet Eileen, and she liked Eileen, and you know we used to stay in that little old house that she had, which is a really poverty stricken shack. It was ... it was a housing commission fibro home, you know - wooden stove, cement floors and so on, and Eileen stayed there with me, and she, you know ... They liked each other then. And so they got on well. She knew Eileen wasn't really, you know, like the other Australian girls.

Did Eileen back your ambition to go to university?

She's backed my ambitions all the way along, on anything, and, you know, to go to university certainly, and she sacrificed a lot for me to go to university because she's smarter than me, and she could have gone to university and got a decree easy, no problem at all. But, you know, she thought it, well, it would be better that I do it and for all the reasons, the cause and all that, and so she supported me in it and submerged her own ambitions, you know, in that direction, to allow me to succeed.

Now you chose Sydney University. Why did you want to go to Sydney rather than Adelaide?

The best. Sydney was the best. All the white people in Australia said Sydney's the best. So I said, 'Righto', like the big bullies - knock the bully out and everybody else takes notice. So I said I'll go to Sydney University and I'll graduate from there. All dreams of course, because I didn't have the academic or the scholastic background for it, but I thought I'm going to go to Sydney University anyhow. But first of all I had to get my matriculation, which I didn't have to get to Sydney University. So I went to a college here in Sydney called the Metropolitan Business College, down at The Rocks down there. I don't know whether they're still there now, just off George Street right down there on the right down a lane. Now out of forty-five in a class, myself and one other person were the only two to successfully get through. And a lot of them had, you know, went to the best schools in Australia, I can tell you that. I worked six o'clock in the morning 'til eleven o'clock at night: hour on, I worked two hours, an hour off, two hours, an hour and a half off, two hours, an hour off, for a whole year. And during that time I played soccer, so soccer ... you know, being fit, it really complements your study. Makes you study better, you know. It's a diversion. You can relax, good therapy. And then during the breaks, Eileen used to work, where ever she could find part-time work to keep me going. And I played soccer to win because we had no other money come in really, and if we didn't win, we had no ... not much money to buy food. We lived mainly on mince meat and rice.

Who did you play soccer for?

Sydney Olympic. I became the captain and coach and I was the only ... at one time the only Australian in an all Greek team. But the Greeks - they're beautiful. They're beautiful people. I used to ... what I used to do to keep going at university, because there wasn't any great scholarships at that time, you know, I was sort of a front runner ... I used to work for the city council. I used to clean the toilets, down at South Sydney, and I used to do such a good job they said, 'Why don't you take this on full time?' I used to make them sparkle - all the public toilets round the place, and the one at South Sydney Depot, right down Redfern. And I used to clean them, I had no problem. Any job is a good job. And ah, you know if anybody else can do it I can do it. It's not demeaning at all and I used to take great pride in making all the toilets sparkle and then the other things I used to do was to take the rubbish, and do lawns, like a lot of students do, and I used to work at stacking boxes you know at some of the sports stores, loading trucks.

What was the basis of your payment in the soccer club?

Oh, it was it was pretty small in comparison to today's figures. Well, everything was then, you know, not too much ... there wasn't much money in it. But it was only part-time and it was good enough money to keep us going. You know it paid for our food and our rent and then I got money on the side that helped me to do other things.

You got paid more if you won?

Yes, oh you always do. Nobody pays losers. Who wants to know a loser? Nobody - in anything. So when I'd win ... when we'd win and win big matches, I'd, you know, find in my clothing ... I'd find you know, thirty, forty, fifty pounds, 100 pounds, a couple hundred at a time. And so, you know, everybody loved us when we'd win, especially the Greeks. The Greeks are bad losers. They hate losing you know. The world collapses when they lose on anything, but certainly on soccer. They're fanatics. But I love them for it, you know, because they're just great. And I never used to ... for years and even now, I can go into Greek restaurants and delicatessens, and I don't buy any milk shakes, or don't buy meals. They still remember me. You know, the old Greek families and so on. And the same with the Croatians. They're really generous people and they ... they've got good memories. If you do the right thing by them they'll do the right thing by you. And when I was on the field playing for them, I played my guts out, you know. I gave everything, everything.

Were you always a fair player? Did you ever play dirty?

I played hard. If anybody gave me one, I gave them one back. I gave it to them pretty quick and I gave it to them real hard. So they ... but I was regarded as a bit of a hard man on the field so nobody really interfered with me too much. I was what they call in soccer circles 'the enforcer', you know, in the middle of a field. I had to look after other players but I used to, you know, try to keep the game flowing and I used to make ... try and create the game in the middle of the field but often times I used to play in the centre forward position, kicking goals as well, which I did fairly frequently and ... and ... but I played, you know, for the team, not for myself. I'm a real ... I'm a team person but I like to play to win.

Did you have any trouble with your temper on the field?

Yeah, I'd ... I got a pretty bad temper sometimes but I'd never lose it. I'd never lose it that much but I have got a bad temper, yeah. It takes a lot of controlling. But on the field I used to sometimes lose my temper, yeah. I've been sent off a few times for booting players and so on. I took a couple of players off with me when I was injured you know. I took the best player off with me. I kicked him and then he kicked me back and we both got sent off. Ah in fact, he's a coach of Australia at the moment, Les Shinflue(?) and you know, him and I ... I took him off the field a couple of time because he was playing too good and I was injured. So I said, 'Right, I'll take Les with me', so I deliberately fouled him and he kicked me back and we both got sent off. And he didn't realise until we were walking off the field what I did. And we often laugh about it now.

But you felt that the end justified the means.

Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. If you left him on the field ... and I wasn't a bad player you see. If I went off, I'd take their best player off, so I took him off with me so we were equal then. And he didn't like that at all. He thought, it wasn't wasn't a good joke at all. We have a laugh about it now because he's coaching ... he's a coach of the Australian team of course.

It sounds like this was all terribly good preparation for your later life in Canberra, Charlie.

Everything was. Everything that I did from the day I entered University, or the matriculation school or the day that I left England was in preparation for what I've done since. Every bit of it: all the lessons, all the people I met and all the experiences I had. It was like water on a sponge.

That period that you were studying so hard, it required enormously personal discipline. Where do you think that discipline came from?

From my mother. Strength came from my mother, yeah. And from the ... and from the hatred of the system and from the ... not the hatred so much but the burning resentment against white people, you know. I don't have that today but I had it then. You know, it was a flame that kept burning away in me, you know. You've got to do it, you've got to get in there and you've got to succeed. You've got to ... Otherwise you know these things will go on forever and you've got to get your education so you can say certain things, you can do certain things. And people will listen. And you know, you can get organised yourself and you can organise others and university I thought it would be the answer to all of my prayers, which it really doesn't for anybody, but it does learn you to discipline yourself in your mind and to put things in sequences, you know, that are understandable, and make logical choices out of options.

You were also working to a very disciplined tight schedule and that isn't really something that we tend to associate with Aboriginal culture where things flow in a very different sort of time pattern. That is quite striking about you Charlie - that you were able at that relatively young age to pull yourself together into that kind of disciplined work.

Well, my wife was a great help, you know. I mean, she was a great help. Everything I have ever achieved is because of her. But what, you know, we decided then, when we'd have to do that and just do it - there was just no other options that we thought were worthwhile - to achieve that objective, you had to have that discipline. You had to organise yourself. Because I'm a fairly free-going, easygoing type of person and I mix in in lots of companies I think pretty easily and I get on with most people and I like to enjoy myself and have good times and so on but I thought no, you're going for something, go for it. And you know, don't sit around thinking about it, do it. And you know, I like to sort of set myself an objective ... objective and then really organise a strategy to get there. And the strategy involved disciplining yourself physically and mentally and, you know, organising your finances and your lifestyle to suit and we did that. And we thought that was the way to do it. And it was bloody hard, you know. In those early days not many people were doing it you know, especially with Aboriginal people, you know. It just wasn't thought of in those days. And ... but it had to happen. And the Reverend Ted Noffs was my mentor at that time, which made it a bit easier for me because he was the first time I had a guiding light outside of my family. And he was my guiding light, Ted, and he has past away since, but he was one of the three great people in my life. And ... there were three people I respected most of all in my life and he is one who sort of put me on that road: you can do this, you can do that. Don't go for this, go for that. You know, he raised my vision to the highest level and organised, you know, me in such a manner that I set myself those targets and felt that I could achieve them. You know, he gave me the confidence and his wife Margaret Noffs. That's where ... I met him when I first came to Sydney and he was the one that sort of sent me on the right path really.

How did you meet him?

A lady called Mrs. Knox, Knox, Mrs. ... Mrs. Cox. She's passed away now. She was a wonderful lady and she was very good on Aboriginal Affairs - a bit paternalistic, but lovely. She was ... she wanted to do something for Aboriginal people, wanted to sort of get people to realise our ... you know, how Aborigines were a disadvantaged group in Australia, in society, and she was one of the first white people I thought to myself, What's she doing, that white woman? Why is she sort of interfering? I mean why is she caring when none of the other people are caring you know? And I met her when I came to Sydney here and she ... she rang me up as a matter of fact, introduced herself on the phone to me, you see, because I was playing soccer then and and I said, 'This strange person, this white woman who wants to help Aboriginal people. She must be silly'. And ... and I got to know her then and you know she was a bit paternalistic but she was a very nice person. She really wanted to do something. She put herself out and then said, 'I'd like you to meet this fellow called Ted Noffs, you know. He's the minister at the Wayside Chapel down in, down in ... (Robin: The Cross) No, down in Castlereagh Street before Kings Cross. I helped him set up the Kings Cross Chapel. So I said, 'Well I'm not really great in going to the church you know'. Because all the church people really ... church really exploited Aboriginal people and deprived ... and, you know, dispossessed us. And she said, 'No, you go and meet Ted Noffs. He's a different sort of person'. So I went along to meet Ted Noffs and I just found a man who set me alight. He was really good. And he got me to speak at the Lyceum Theatre, which it was at the time in Castlereagh Street, with all the Methodists - you know all the mad Methodists coming every Sunday. Thousands of them. You know, they sit in there, fill up the whole Lyceum Theatre. And Alan Walker was talking then. That Alan Walker is a great man. And Ted Noffs was his right hand man at the Chapel. Not at the Chapel, at the Methodist Mission, the Lyceum Theatre, Castlereagh Street. And they asked me to speak with Sid Enfield you know: Marcus Einfield's ... Justice Marcus Einfield's father. He was speaker and so was I. Well, I mean, he just got up and spoke and spoke and spoke. You know what these politicians are like and he was good. And then they asked me to speak. Well I got up and stumble stumble, humming and ahhing you know. Got myself all mixed up and said something about Aboriginal rights and so on and sat down and thought, geese, what'd I say? You know, what a mess. And then Ted ... but Ted felt that I could do more and encouraged me to do more and away we went. He was just ... He was a father figure I never had. He was good.

How did he give you confidence? What did he do?

Well I think he gave me confidence as he does with everybody. Like Ted ... Ted was a man that looked after everybody. He ... he sort of ... They never called him Ted. All called him Mr. Noffs but I call him Ted now. But he was a man who looked after everybody, you know - prostitutes, drug addicts, no-hopers, alcoholics. The good, the bad and the ugly he looked after and he took an interest in me, as he did in them and he wanted to do something in Aboriginal Affairs because he was disgusted the way it was, because he was a minister of religion, minister for the Methodist at Wilcannia for a number of years and he just couldn't believe the pitiful conditions Aboriginal people were living under. So he wanted to do something about it. Him and I formed an alliance and out of that I was able to benefit with his wisdom, experience and his advice, you know, and to go on and do things and he gave me the confidence to do them. And you know, he pointed me in the right direction. And all I had to do was to keep going and just discipline myself.

[end of tape]

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