Red truths and white lies

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  • Published 20120605
  • ISBN: 9781921922534
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

IN 2004 I drove to the Wave Hill area of the Northern Territory. I had been contracted to assist its Gurindji residents to develop a plan for their neighbouring communities of Kalkaringi and Daguragu, on the banks of Wattie Creek. A year with the locals was enough to evoke a continuing fascination with those communities’ inception mythology: the Wave Hill walk-off.

Subsequently associated with the national movement for Indigenous land rights, the Gurindji people’s strike of 1966 against their pastoral masters eventually accrued its own anthem, ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’.[i] The strikers’ vision after their protest was clear: to create their own homeland and run it with minimal interference. Their decision to squat illegally on the British beef baron Lord Vestey’s Wave Hill Station became a millstone around the neck of the federal government. A political brawl erupted, in which pastoralists and politicians claimed that the Gurindji’s communist supporters were puppet masters and had ‘stirred them up’ to strike.[ii] Sympathetic unionists and activists such as the writer Frank Hardy claimed the support they offered to the Gurindji was solicited by a group of tribal elders.

When news of the situation at Wave Hill reached the public in 1966, it came largely via Hardy’s hand. He had been languishing in self-imposed isolation in Darwin, waiting for a revelation. Wasting no time getting to the strikers, he arrived at their riverbed camp next to the Wave Hill Welfare Settlement a few days after the walk-off.[iii] Hardy was soon picked by the Gurindji as their chief correspondent, and he framed the event as a protest for basic labour and human rights. When the strikers squatted at Wattie Creek, it became apparent that they sought to reclaim their traditional land. The strike and occupation was what Hardy required to restrengthen his belief in the potential of an ideal society. In turn, he bolstered the Gurindji’s self-belief and steered them towards more sympathetic ears in the south.

Frank Hardy is one of Australia’s best-known postwar authors. His flair and bush-yarning Billy Borker persona – schooner in one hand, pipe in the other – were the gauche exterior of a troubled artist.[iv] An ale at the closest pub and a bet on the races (‘a lottery with four-legged tickets’)provided frequent relief from his struggles to balance his extroverted public image with the authentic, sensitive man within.[v] His sister Mary, the acid dominatrix of Australian commercial television and radio in the 1960s and ’70s, was plagued by similar though more intense struggles, and eventually took her own life.[vi]

Unlike other Indigenous strikes, where the adversary might have been a local superintendent or aspirational cow cocky, the Gurindji had taken on Lord Vestey, the head of an international fiscal empire. Their bravado seized the public’s imagination as Hardy worked to embed the protest in the national consciousness. Ever since this encounter it has been impossible to consider the walk-off’s narrative without examining the role of its primary herald, Hardy, the most prominent – and among the earliest – of scores of kartiya (non-Indigenous people) to attach themselves to the Gurindji cause.

As if he was not confronting it himself in the days after the strike, the question of Hardy’s involvement as a catalyst for the Gurindji’s course of action was raised immediately in the press.[vii] In the hands of conservative politicians and pastoralists it was used to discredit them and resist their demands. Hardy sought legal advice from the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Lionel Murphy.[viii] On the strength of Murphy’s advice, a petition for a barely heard-of concept, land rights, was addressed to the Governor-General, Sir Richard Casey.[ix]Appended were the stamped thumbprints of four Gurindji elders, and the signatures of Frank Hardy and Bill Jeffrey, the local welfare officer.

Hardy wrote much for the pre-literate Gurindji, beginning with a sign proclaiming ‘Gurindji Mining Lease and Cattle Station’ for their camp at Wattie Creek, and two years later producing a book on the subject of the walk-off, The Unlucky Australians[x] (Nelson Publishing, 1968). As my interest grew, I knew that to understand the events of forty years earlier I needed to read his work in its setting. A 1968 edition arrived in the mail and I read it half a mile from where much of it had been written. The Unlucky Australians chronicles the entwinement of the Gurindji’s concerns with those of its self-doubting author. As I shuffled the book’s disintegrating pages I found that Hardy situated himself, painfully exposed at times, in the text, laying out a direct challenge to the reader: either to defend the position that an objective account of history exists or to accept that we must realise ourselves as actors in the events we apprehend – in this case, the aftermath of Australian colonialism. After justifying his principled support for the Gurindji, at the end of the book Hardy excoriated himself by linking Australia’s once-militant labour movement, with which he strongly identified, to the racist birth of ‘White Australianism’. He ended with a direct challenge repeated to the reader: ‘How do you plead?[xi]

Two years after the book’s publication, the campaign Hardy had helped organise was at its zenith, and the radical writer was indisputably one of its stars. On 31 July 1970 a large protest was organised outside the offices of the Vestey company in Sydney. A flatbed truck with a large PA system mounted on the back was borrowed for the day. Hardy was handed a microphone, and managed to maintain a somewhat disjointed monologue of invective and encouragement from the tray amid the chaos on the street. Two young activists, Rod Williams and Warwick Neilly, were in the cabin, and decided that to breach the police line with the bumper bar would be politic. They let the machine lurch through the cordon of coppers attempting to hold the protestors from the foyer of Vestey’s Australian headquarters. By the time the enraged police had managed to wrest the driver from his cabin door, the passenger had long disappeared into the crowd on the other side, the key in his sock.[xii]


IF THE GURINDJI campaign was increasing Hardy’s purpose and notoriety, he had an unknown jack-of-all-trades called Bill Jeffrey to thank. Jeffrey had been seeing out an uneasy stint as a public servant with the Welfare Branch of the Department of the Interior when the Gurindji walked off Wave Hill. By virtue of being in the right place at the right time Jeffrey had played a significant role in the walk-off’s early days. A freshly politicised and eclectic drifter, he had landed a job at the Wave Hill Welfare Settlement after working on the neighbouring Camfield cattle station. A handful of Gurindji stockmen had aired their grievances to Jeffrey on Camfield, and he had resolved to join the Welfare Branch to ‘do something about it’.[xiii] When the long line of strikers appeared and sat down in the creek bed near his house, Jeffrey and his family did what they could to support them.[xiv]

To aid the Gurindji cause, Jeffrey hosted Hardy as a personal guest on the settlement at a time when leftists, academics and reporters were forced to battle Director HC Giese for the privilege of entering Aboriginal Reserves.[xv]According to some strikers’ accounts, he also surreptitiously donated tools from the Welfare Settlement to the Gurindji’s new camp at Wattie Creek through a hole in the fence.[xvi] It is conceivable that in the early weeks of the strike, when entreaties were made by Vestey’s for the Gurindji to return to work and union-donated food was low, they could have been swayed without such practical support. He was certainly not the disciple of departmental doctrine that Director Harry Giese would have hoped for.

According to Hardy, as the Gurindji’s strike continued Jeffrey found the Welfare Branch’s expectations increasingly restrictive. During the heightened isolation of the 1966-67 wet season Jeffrey and his wife, Anne, also came to feel that the Gurindji and others at Wave Hill had turned against them.[xvii] Their daughter Sue was sent to complete her schooling in Adelaide, and as Bill’s transgressions of Welfare Branch policy continued, pressure on the Jeffreys – both real and imagined – built to the point where Anne sought ‘respite’ in a Katherine hospital.


FOUR DECADES AFTER Jeffrey’s posting to Wave Hill, I was living a few hundred yards from his former residence. After attending the funeral of the last surviving member of the Gurindji’s walk-off leaders, in 2006, I became obsessed with the mystique of Bill Jeffrey. Why had a man so significant in the saga completely disappeared? Even the people who worked on the Gurindji cause in the years after Jeffrey had no idea where he had gone. I turned to my only source of information, The Unlucky Australians. Recounting his first trip to Wave Hill, with the union official Paddy Carroll in the days after the walk-off, Hardy introduced Jeffrey:

There is only one Bill Jeffrey and this must be he. He drew himself up to his full six feet five inches and said gruffly, ‘Have you got a permit to visit this settlement?’

‘No, we haven’t,’ Paddy Carroll said.

‘Well,’ said Jeffrey, a gleam of mischief in the shrewd, peasant eyes set in his massive head, ‘you can’t visit [the Settlement], but you can visit my house as my personal guests for as long as you like.’[xviii]

Jeffrey, for his part, made it clear that he was a staunch admirer of Hardy, and delighted at having met him: ‘In my youth, this person Frank Hardy was like a guiding light to fellows such as myself. I am an ex-seaman and we all knew of Hardy on the Waterfront.’[xix]

Hardy, when writing his book, had provided Jeffrey with a tape recorder and asked him to tell his own story. Jeffrey obliged, describing a childhood on a North Queensland cattle station dominated by his father’s and uncles’ violent treatment of their Aboriginal employees. This, he explained, had given him a ‘guilt complex’ about blackfellas. This information, along with the names of his wife and daughter, was the little I had to guide my search to find Bill Jeffrey or his family.

Thinking to start with some reliable documentation, I looked for World War I records of Jeffrey’s forebears – ‘Light Horsemen from the First World War, tough, knockdown merchants’ – that would lead me to some biographical information on their son and nephew.[xx] As I pored over National Archives’ records, dates and geography failed to align. To complicate things further, in every instance that Jeffrey’s name was committed to print it was spelled differently – at times even on the same page.

Clues slowly emerged. I discovered that some articles were published in Jeffrey’s name in 1967 by a Melbourne student newspaper, which had led to a raid by the special branch.[xxi] Gough Whitlam, the Leader of the Opposition, had enquired in parliament about the sacking of a ‘Mr JW Jeffrey’ of the Welfare Branch in 1968.[xxii]

More research, then a small breakthrough: a telegram sent by Jeffrey from Far North Queensland to the Gurindji’s ‘Handback’ ceremony in 1975, offering his congratulations. This led me to an old electoral roll address in Cairns for ‘Anne Jeffrey – Teacher’ and a man by the name of ‘Jackson William Jeffrey – Engineer’. Armed with what I now presumed was Jeffrey’s real name, I began sending letters to every Jackson, William, Anne and Sue Jeffrey in the country, while trawling the cemetery records and archival sources of Far North Queensland.

One night I discovered that a woman with the same name as Jeffrey’s wife had died in Adelaide five years earlier. I obtained the details of the funeral service and sent an email. Days later the director replied, providing me with the name of the daughter of the deceased. I sent a letter to an address in western Victoria, and another week went by. Then an email appeared one morning. The ‘Anne Patricia Jeffrey’ living with Bill Jeffrey in Cairns in 1975 was the woman who had died in Adelaide. Her daughter congratulated me and told me that her time at Wave Hill had been the most significant of her life.

‘Sue Jeffrey’ turned out not to be a Jeffrey at all, and she didn’t use the name Sue either, but Essie W. Her once infamous ‘father’ was not related to her but had been in a de facto relationship with her mother, ‘Anne Jeffrey’ (actually Pat W), through the 1960s and ’70s. It was only blind luck for me that Anne had not reverted to her maiden name, Avilda Grace, after her subsequent two-year marriage to Jeffrey.

With the gloss finish of the family image painted in Hardy’s book now flaking, I asked Essie about her stepfather. It turned out that Bill Jeffrey was a Jeffrey, but that was the only part of her stepfather’s identity in the book that had not been sacrificed to his love of a good yarn. I learned from Essie and Jeffrey’s surviving children (who had been deposited in Victoria with his parents and ex-wives for the duration of their childhood) that his self-portrayal for Hardy was not based on fact.[xxiii] This was a lifetime modus operandi for the man who liked to be called ‘Wild Bill’.

Further research confirmed that Wild Bill was born in suburban Melbourne to strict Methodist parents, both of whom had died in the two years preceding the walk-off.[xxiv] Far from being raised by lubras (Aboriginal women) under the racist regime of cruel cattlemen in the North Queensland frontier, the young Jeffrey’s paternal influence came from a teetotaller who worked in Victorian forestry. Jeffrey’s mother was a strong woman whose father was Christopher Mudd, a travelling lay preacher and respected botanist to King Edward VII.[xxv]

Tracking events after those described in The Unlucky Australians, I also learned that Wild Bill had been transferred to the Bamyili Welfare Settlement to remove him from the politically charged environment at Wave Hill. He had been sacked, and found powerful enemies after he began making public denunciations about his former employer. In subsequent articles in the press Jeffrey cast himself as a bush radical, a larger-than-life Australian Castro clad in elastic-sided boots and chewing a cigar. He mythologised himself as a product of the dark frontier: ‘My earliest memories as a child among the Aborigines are of happy times, but I can never recall them without one terrible act of inhuman cruelty stalking across my mind… I could hear my father and his brothers abusing them [Aboriginal workers] as only wild Irishmen can. Then the fight started… My father and uncles went into the shed behind the house, then came the crack of rifle fire…they left the shed carrying a pick, shovels and a crowbar. “They are going to mend the fence,” my mother said. But I knew – and she knew I knew. I still don’t know if they managed to reach the safety of the scrub, or had been shot down.’[xxvi]

In creating a childhood for himself defined by his (fictional) family’s military achievement and by Aboriginal suffering, Jeffrey probably sought to impress Hardy and create a better fit with the Gurindji protest. He may also have sought to distance himself from a bitter truth: that although he had genuine political ideals he was primarily a skilful opportunist, successfully passing between jobs and even professions with the ease of a natural yarn-spinner and chameleon.

As an activist, Jeffrey’s aim was variable. On one occasion he wanted to ‘keep on upsetting the can (of Government) until I get a Royal Commission’, and on another he wanted to sue Vestey’s for the Gurindji’s allegedly withheld wages.[xxvii] At times, Jeffrey’s ‘wildness’ – for example, admitting to a hope of becoming a frog in his next life – possibly did little for the Gurindji.[xxviii]

During the fallout from Jeffrey’s well-publicised criticisms of the Northern Territory Administration and the pastoral industry, the Northern Territory Cattle Producer’s Council (NTCPC) went as far as contacting his former employer at Camfield, the station neighbouring Wave Hill, for a character assessment: who were they dealing with? Camfield’s Manager Paul Vandeleur was of the opinion – although he barely knew him socially – that Jeffrey had ‘something of the gift of a good confidence trickster’, and even suggested that people may have been misled about Jeffrey’s integrity and expertise by his wife being ‘evidently so intelligent’.[xxix]

Whether or not Jeffrey felt guilty about bluffing Hardy as an author or a mate is unknown, though at times the issue seems to have been close to the surface. Sitting together with a bottle of rum by Manly Beach in Sydney after the great events in which they had been embroiled at Wave Hill, Jeffrey offered Hardy a telling line: ‘I bet those bastards in Canberra are checking up on me. Hope they find out a few things; I’m not too clear on me own early history.’[xxx] After a few months as a whistle-blower he took a job managing a hostel for Indigenous boys in Sydney, never to return to the limelight.


THE SECRETS OF Wild Bill were never revealed, and he retired to the country that had seized his imagination: Far North Queensland. After two decades together, Jeffrey married his de facto, Anne, and the two were divorced within eighteen months. According to his neglected sons (with whom he never reconciled), even during his last years he was fiendishly useful with his hands and had little need for money, bartering his repair and engineering skills around Ravenshoe to meet his wants. He was plagued by diabetes, and his oscillations and flights of fancy became more pronounced. One day he was a great friend of the local Murris (Aboriginal people); the next he found them despicable. He developed stories about his own Indigenous roots in the Pacific Islands, and died in 1997 with little to his name: some cassettes filled with his ranting, a workshop full of tools and a half-built miniature steam engine.

With both men having gone – one in rural anonymity and the other with the trappings of a state funeral – it is Bill Jeffrey, or Walter Robert Jeffrey, or Jackson Jeffrey, who deserves the greatest ‘Billy Borker’ prize of all. The Unlucky Australian‘s ‘Bearded Devil’ hoodwinked Hardy, the barroom champion of bush yarns, leading him to recount, unawares, a pile of bullshit in the middle of a great Australian tale preoccupied with the ethics of accountability.

On Jeffrey’s death, one of the few books among his possessions was a signed copy of The Unlucky Australians dedicated to him by its famous author. The sections mentioning ‘the Bearded Devil’ had been delicately highlighted with paperclips, sticky tape and arrows, as if by a reader who had dwelt upon them for the pleasure they offered many times. Hardy’s final words on his mate Wild Bill were: ‘you sit doing a black and white sketch of him, and wishing you could immortalise him, in all his outrageous, ironic, kind-hearted, rebellious humanity.’ This, Hardy almost achieved. In the end, the larrikin ways of both men and their support for the Gurindji cannot be disputed, and surpass the mistruths of Jeffrey’s serpentine, self-created lives.


[i] P Kelly and K Carmody, From Little Things Big Things Grow, Universal Music Publishing, Sydney, 1991.

[ii] B Atwood, “The Articulation of ‘Land Rights’ in Australia: The Case of Wave Hill.” Social Analysis 44(1): 3-39, 2000, pp. 4.

[iii] J Long, ‘Frank Hardy and the 1966 Wave Hill Walk-off’, Northern Perspective 192: 1996, pp. 1-9.

[iv] ‘Billy Borker’ first appeared in the ABC’s television series The Yarns of Billy Borker and Billy Borker Yarns Again, 1964-67. The series starred Peter Carver as Billy Borker and was directed by William Eldrige. The television series were based on the stories of Hardy that were published in two eponymous books: The Yarns of Billy Borker, A.H. & A.W. Reed, Sydney 1965; and Billy Borker Yarns Again, Nelson, Melbourne, 1967.

[v] C Semmler, Pictures on the Margins, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, 1991.

[vi] R Hayward, (Director), ‘Mary Hardy: IOU’, Artscape, Australian Broadcasting Commission, 2008.

[vii] Letter to the Editor, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 October 1966.

[viii] N Hollier, From Hope to Disillusion: A Literary and Cultural History of the Whitlam Period, 1966-1975. PhD Thesis, School of Communication, Culture and Languages, Victoria University, Melbourne, 2006, pp. 191.

[ix] V Lingiari, et al, Correspondence to GovernorGeneral Casey. Rob Oke, Private Collection, April 16 1967.

[x] F Hardy, The Unlucky Australians. Melbourne, Nelson Publishing 1968 (Reprint, One Day Hill, 2006).

[xi] Hardy: op cit, pp. 248.

[xii] R Williams, Digital Recording of Interview Recorded 2009 by Charlie Ward, Darwin, Northern Territory Archives Service (hereafter NTAS), NTRS 3609, BWF 1, 2009.

[xiii] JW Jeffrey, Farrago, Student Newspaper, University of Melbourne, March 4th 1968.

[xiv] E Warmuth, Oral History Interview Recorded by Charlie Ward, Darwin, NTAS, NTRS 226, 2010.

[xv] R Hempel, Oral History Interview Recorded with Charlie Ward, Darwin, NTAS, NTRS 3609, BWF 7, 2010; C Holmes, The Unpermitted, The Australian, 12 February 1970.

[xvi] B Bunter, cited in Daguragu Community Government Council, From the Darkness into the Light: Gurindji Freedom Banners, Daguragu Council. Kalkaringi 2000; M Rangiari, Interview with Mick Rangiari recorded by Jack Doolan. Oral History Collection, Darwin, Northern Territory Archives Service. NTRS 226, 1987.

[xvii] Hardy: op cit, pp. 154.

[xviii] Hardy: op cit, pp. 85.

[xix] Hardy: op cit, pp. 102.

[xx] Hardy: op cit, pp. 102.

[xxi] JW Jeffrey, Farrago, University of Melbourne, March 8, 22, 1968.

[xxii] Commonwealth of Australia, House of Representatives, Parliamentary Debates (Official Hansard), Canberra, Australia, Commonwealth Government Printer, 8 May, 1968.

[xxiii] F Jeffrey, Oral History Interview Recorded by Charlie Ward, Brisbane, 2010.

[xxiv] H Law, Christopher Mudd 1852-1920: The Peregrinator, [],[n.d.], pp. 43; R Jeffrey, Personal Communication. 1 February 2011.

[xxv] Austlit Database,, Accessed 1 February 2011; Law, loc cit.

[xxvi] Collins, M, ‘Would You Let Your Daughter Marry an Aboriginal?’ The Australian, 21st December, 1968.

[xxvii] Newspaper Clippings, Private Collection of F Jeffrey, November 1967.

[xxviii] ibid.

[xxix] P Vandeleur to W De Vos, NTAS, Darwin, NTRS 3548 Item C1/5K, 17 March, 1969.

[xxx] Hardy, op cit, pp. 237.

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About the author

Charlie Ward

Charlie Ward is a writer and historian based in Darwin. He has worked as a researcher with the Stolen Generations’ Link-up program in Alice...

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