ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEWS ABOUT THE BLOCK - 2007
27 January 2007
Kaye Bellear, with her late husband, Bob Bellear was involved with the early struggle to obtain housing for poor Aboriginal people in Redfern in the early 1970s.
Would you like to start from the beginning Kaye?Interviewer: Maggie Roche
Well the beginning was Ted Kennedy, John Butcher and Fergus Breslin, three Catholic priests, moved into the church at Redfern. They established an open-door policy where Aboriginal people could come there and other homeless people, any one who needed help. I don’t remember how I got involved with Ted, but Ted and I became really good friends. I helped there a lot with people who were sick, because of my nursing background, I was working at Rachel Foster at the time. In November of 1972 fifteen homeless Aboriginal people were arrested and charged with trespass in an empty house in Lawson St. They were taken before the court in Redfern. Ted was away and John Butcher and I went to the court and they were released into our custody. We housed them in the hall at the back of the church, which is now basically part of the Aboriginal Medical Service. We scrounged beds, I don’t know where from - the Brown Nurses, and various people - we got beds, we got bedding, and the people moved in there. We went from having I think fifteen people there to probably about fifty. Bob had become involved with Ted and each time there were any fights or disturbances Ted never called the police. Actually in his book he wrote that he never used the police, he used to just use this very large Aboriginal man with rippling muscles to come and sort out the problems, and that was Bob. Bob at the time was at University of New South Wales, just started his Law degree.
It very quickly developed into feeding dozens and dozens and dozens of people for a midday meal at the presbytery. There was not a lot of money and so Bob and a group of the people, the men who were drinkers, they started going round collecting bottles. They had those big forty-four gallon drums and they’d put the white bottles in one, the green in the other, the brown in another. They would go on garbage night and people got to know that they were doing this and would put their bottles out. Then they’d sell the bottles and that would provide the money to feed the people at Redfern. People made donations but this collection of bottles really provided a lot of money.
South Sydney Council then decided that St Vincent’s Church was breaching some bloody law so they put an eviction notice on the Archdiocese of Sydney, to get everyone out of there, which Ted fought. But in the meantime Bob and Ted and I had sat down and talked about trying to find some sort of housing, particularly for the homeless people, so Bob and Ted wandered around and there were quite a few Aboriginal people squatting or living in the Eveleigh Street, Vine Street, Louis Street area. There were a couple of houses in Louis Street that were in reasonable condition … so Bob decided that he would take a mob from the presbytery down, clean up these houses, and they’d squat. In the meantime he is trying to do a Law degree … he’s got a houseful of kids … So they went down there, they cleaned the houses and Bob contacted Bobby Pringle from the Builders Labourers Union. Bob Pringle played a really major role. They put a green ban on The Block so that IBK couldn’t develop it. I suppose Ian Kiernan could see the gentrification happening. Bobby Pringle got the Plumbers Union in, the Electrical Trades Union in, they fixed up the plumbing, they fixed up the electricity, and people started to live in these couple of houses.
Then Bob formed a committee of people, some Aboriginal, some non-Aboriginal. That would have been early 1973. The Whitlam Government was in. Gordon Bryant was the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. So Bob wrote a submission to Gordon Bryant for a grant to buy some of the houses, and that submission was successful. By this time I think IBK had decided they were going to have to sell because the blacks weren’t moving. So Bob and Col James went to the auction and I think, if my memory serves me correctly, they bought three houses, maybe it was only two, I can’t exactly remember. Then the housing company was formed and was registered. The Aboriginal Housing Company was registered in July 1973 and directors were elected, by the small membership. The membership was mainly made up of some family members and a few other active people in the Redfern area. They then employed Doug Hill, who was a builder, and Richard Pacey. Richard was the first sort of CEO of the place. Aub Phillips was the first company secretary. Then they employed a lot, a really large number, of Aboriginal men to start stripping the houses and doing them up. That process went on - those houses were really beautiful, the ones in Louis Street particularly, they were the first ones. Rita Smith moved into the first one, Edna Craigie into the second one, 17 Louis Street I think it was.
But during all of that time there was constant harassment from South Sydney Council, and they were a Labor council. Jim Cope, who was the local Labor Member, was the Speaker of the House of Reps, he tried to get Whitlam to support the South Sydney Council to stop the project. Bill Hartrup was the mayor and I know they talked to Whitlam on many occasions, and to Gordon Bryant, trying to get it stopped. At an ALP conference Bob Pringle got up and supported the concept of the housing. So there was a lot of political stuff to’ing and fro’ing and fortunately Gordon Bryant stood his ground and said no they were going to continue to support the housing company. There was a councillor called Terry Murphy and he used to walk around, look in windows, take photographs, and on television actually said that he was very disturbed about the ‘strange practices’ of the blacks. We used to go to South Sydney Council meetings, a whole group of us, and disrupt their meetings and argue with them about The Block and finally one night they got the police. John Butcher, Martin Mowbray, Inga, whose surname I don’t remember, and myself were arrested for disrupting the orderly conduct of a meeting. So we were all locked up and then we went to Newtown court and we were found guilty and fined, I forget the amount of money, or three days hard labour. So it was like, ‘Well when do we start our hard labour?’ John and Martin went out to Long Bay and Inga and I went to Silverwater. We did four days at Silverwater.
During that time from when people started to squat down there and when the rebuilding was going on there were a lot of non-Aboriginal people, and one Aboriginal woman actually, who absolutely led a charge through the media, anyone who talked to them, that they didn’t want these dreadful people living there, that it was going to cause all sorts of problems and there was a very heavy media concentration. There was a guy whose back gate I think came onto Louis Street, down the bottom end of Louis Street, and he was a security guard of some sort and he actually came out one night and fired shots into the houses. My brother-in-law and I went down there and I will never forget Sol and I running up Louis Street, taking giant steps, dodging bullets. This bloke was going to shoot us. It was hysterical. It wasn’t hysterical at the time.
Now that original group of Goomies that went down there with Bob - they stopped drinking and they worked so hard to keep those houses, it was absolutely their project. One of the things that Col James and Bob worked out when they were nutting out plans was that … hopefully they were going to buy all the houses in The Block … in the centre it was going to be open and was going to be an area to put in playground equipment, outdoor fires, all that sort of stuff, a communal living area.
But the thing that Bob really pushed the hardest was that there had to be really good accommodation for homeless people. Other people had decided that Caroline Street would be where those people would live. There was a big house built on the corner of Caroline and Louis Street. By this time Dick Blair (Richard Phillips) sort of peripherally involved as a name at the start, had become more involved. Aub Phillips, Dick’s brother, became the CEO of the place but Richard decided that he didn’t want the Goomies there, he wanted a black police force to control people. It sort of became this whole thing about the deserving and undeserving blacks. Richard and Yvonne ended up taking that beautiful huge house on the corner for themselves and one-by-one the Goomies were forced out. I remember that people like Bob and Naomi and Sol tried to keep the original principles, Naomi was running the medical service, Bob was doing a Law degree and trying to work part-time, I was working … there were huge, huge numbers of fights down there just on the principle of who was it for. I think Micky Mundine might have been working there as a labourer, not for a couple of years but then he eventually came and worked there. So rightly or wrongly, because we had huge pressures on our lives and there was this whole moralistic view that it had to be ‘the good’ blacks that lived there, basically we walked away. I mean we all had young kids, we all had big jobs to do, and we walked away.
When was this?
Probably about 1976, yes it would have been around 1976, 1977 I think. The whole ethos of the place changed. Prior to that people had been paying rent, a lot of the houses had been done up, and people were paying rent, and when Aub Phillips was the CEO there, the money was being put back into repairs of the buildings, for the houses, and so forth. But then it just moved into another phase where, I guess the Housing Company itself, didn’t have the same sort of vision and they didn’t sort out things like rent properly, from what I can gather, and didn’t do a lot of repairs on the houses. I think it was probably by the end of the 1970s it all started to go down hill and it has gone down hill ever since. But I think now, from what I can gather, and talking to people, that people like Mick Mundine, who I don’t think really understood the original concepts have developed their own principles about the place. Richard Phillips has since moved on. Now Peter Lonergan and Julie Cracknell have become involved as the architects and it sounds to me after twenty-odd years of real problems and not surviving very well and not housing people very well and buying other houses and putting family members in other houses, all those acts of nepotism that go on in all communities not just the Aboriginal community, I think finally we might be starting to come back to the original concept. I think Micky is really starting to push that original concept now … and is fighting with Sartor to keep the land, I mean I just haven’t been terribly involved in that.
The whole principle of it was that the Aboriginal community own freehold land. This was Bob’s principle, that they owned land in the middle of the biggest city in the country because traditionally Aboriginal people had always been pushed to the outskirts of towns; had never lived in towns, they were always on the rubbish dump or whatever. He wanted to secure a fairly substantial piece of land that would house Aboriginal people in the middle of Sydney, so that Aboriginal people would always be there and the rest of the community had to acknowledge that this land was freehold land, owned by the Aboriginal community. It was the first land owned freehold in Australia, owned by an Aboriginal community organisation. They still own it and that to me is a really, really important thing. All the other stuff that has gone on back and forth, back and forth, the mistakes and everything else, are relevant … but people have to grow, people have to get experience. People have to learn how to run these things, they have to work out their politics, they have to work out their morality, et cetera, et cetera, but through all of that the community still owns it. Now I think they are moving into the stage where it is going to be rebuilt and that whole concept is going to be there again. I don’t know, but that is how I feel. I am feeling more optimistic about the Housing Company and those houses than I have felt since probably about 1978.
So it needed to be freehold, and you and Bob wanted it to be for homeless people?
Not all of it. The original concept was that there would be housing for low-income families, single parents and people who needed housing, people who couldn’t get housing in the open market, but that there always had to be a certain number of houses that were for people who were absolutely homeless, who were living in empty houses, who had alcohol problems, who had mental health problems, so that they didn’t have to live on the street. Now once the money came in to buy the first houses and to start doing houses up and the houses were looking very nice, thank you very much, there was real pressure that it was for the ‘decent’ blacks, that it was not for the homeless, for the Goomies and for the people who had psychological problems, the most dispossessed. Bob wanted to make sure there was housing there for the most dispossessed. Housing for other people as well but that there was always housing for the most dispossessed. That philosophy moved on. When you are only a couple of votes, (well I mean I was never a director of course and I actually was never a member because I believed that all membership should be Aboriginal,) when all that moved to wanting ‘good’ blacks there, wanting a black police force to control the blacks, it just got that terrible mission mentality and so a whole group of people who were directors moved away.
How did you first get involved with The Block before the housing came to a focus?
Well Bob and I got married in 1966 and Bob was in the Navy and they were hard times for a white woman to be married to an Aboriginal man and we suffered a lot of racism. Bob left the Navy in 1969 and people in 1969, 1970, were starting to get together and look at shop front legal services and health services like the blacks had set up in America. So Bob and I just became involved with that group of so-called ‘black power’, ‘black radicals’ or whatever, in Redfern. The legal service was set up, the medical service was set up and then the housing company. There was a lot of help too from The University of New South Wales Law School for setting up the legal service and Fred Hollows did a lot of work getting voluntary doctors and nurses to set up the medical service.
The Empress Hotel was in full flight then and every Friday night, or Saturday night, Twenty-one Division, which was based in Bourke Street, (I notice on Ted’s he said they were from Newtown but they weren’t, they were based in Bourke Street), they were the division that were crowd control for demonstrations and stuff, remember all the anti-Vietnam stuff was going on then. Bob and I had been arrested at anti-Vietnam demonstrations. They would come to the Empress Hotel, these young white blokes in shorts and T-shirts, and stir up trouble. They would sort of make eyes at a woman or something, deliberately stirred up trouble, and then all those streets around there would be closed off with police cars. It was just … the batons came out and people were arrested, arrested, arrested, arrested, and that was just an ongoing thing. So people did what they called the ‘pig patrol’. People like Naomi, who was then pregnant with Tamara and Ted Kennedy got a lot of people down there, lawyers et cetera, who would take the numbers of the police, the numbers of the police cars to have a record of what was going on.
That finally absolutely blew up with the Lawson Square incident where there’d been a bit of an argument between a couple of Aboriginal men down outside the Empress. Twenty-one Division had been floating around, and then all of a sudden all hell broke loose. Bob was home with the kids actually studying and I’d come in, I’d driven some friends back into Redfern, and I’d seen my brother-in-law’s car outside the Empress, and I knew that Naomi was about to go to hospital to have Tamara. I stopped, went in, got a glass of Coke and said to Sol, ‘Has Naomi gone to hospital yet?’ Anyway it all blew up and it was then called the Lawson Square riot. I forget how many of us were arrested. I ended up in hospital. The police actually had my brother-in-law down on the ground. They were flogging him so I grabbed a broom off someone and hit a cop over the head with a broom and he ended up in hospital. Anyway we all went to court, fortunately we were able to keep my case out of the courts for eight years because I was looking at gaol. That night after we’d all been arrested Bob rang Gordon Bryant at home. When we went to court on the Monday the House of Representatives’ Aboriginal Affairs Committee were well represented in the back of the court. Bob said to Gordon, ‘You’ve got them up here so they can just see what the police do in Redfern.’ I mean constantly while the Housing Company was being developed, while people were squatting, and buying up the houses, there was just constant police harassment. It was just constant, we just all got arrested all the time. You got arrested for the usual - assault police, resist arrest, unseemly words.
You just got the trifector every Friday or Saturday night and went to court Monday, paid your fine and walked away. So we all spent quite a bit of time in the cells at Redfern.Twenty-one Division were the ones that … they were terrible. They were violent and they just arrested people willy-nilly and they stirred up the trouble and then all the streets were blocked off. In those days the divisional cars were big black cars and I remember those divisional cars blocking off all the streets and just cops from everywhere pouring out of them and they’d have the paddy wagons and people would be just thrown out of the Empress into the paddy wagons. Bob used to stand there, I’ll never forget, he used to stand there because they didn’t put the lock on, because they wanted to put more in, and as they’d go away to get more people, Bob would just undo it and say, ‘Get out.’ So there was this ongoing thing, it was really funny. Bob used to do that a lot, let people out of the back of the wagons. I can say that now because he is gone and they can’t do anything about it.
What did you mean by the term ‘black power’ and who were the people involved?
Well ‘black power’ is about black people taking control of their own lives. I mean you can have the foot of the oppressor on your neck for a certain amount of time but eventually people are going to fight back. That term was used to say people were violent but it was just a whole group of young Aboriginal people saying, ‘We have had enough, our families have had enough, on reserves, and we are going to make a difference. We are going to change our own lives because nobody else is going to change our lives for us.’ So they used the power, I suppose, of the group dynamic and all those really brilliant minds, you know like Gary Foley, Gary Williams, Paul Coe, Sol Bellear, Isobel Coe, Jenny Munro, Lyall Munro, Tony Koori, Bill Craigie, Lyn Thompson, Bob, Don Soloman, Frank Kyle, John Kyle, Patricia Kyle, Wilfred Morton, Rodney Connors, Gladys McAvoy,George Villaflor...God, I can’t go through all of them because I will leave someone out. Naomi Myers. There was just a whole group of young people who had nothing to lose and they just worked out how to set up these services, how they weren’t going to cop any more from the community, they learnt the skills to negotiate with government and so all the organisations that are now spread across the country all started in Redfern. I mean I set up the first Aboriginal Children’s Service in Redfern. Gordon Briscoe was one of the people involved. Shirley Smith. It is really unfair of me to be going through names because I am going to forget someone but anyway it doesn’t matter. Aub Phillips. It was just taking the power that the oppressor had over you back into your own hands and starting to take control of your own lives and your own communities. I mean that is what I think ‘black power’ was and boy, were governments and government departments and police and communities absolutely terrified. They were absolutely terrified of these very strong young people.
What was the process of buying houses for The Block?
Bob and Col James went to auctions and bought the first two or three houses. Now what the process was after that I really don’t know, but I do know that that original grant was placed in the Commonwealth Bank and every time they wanted twenty cents they had to prove to the Commonwealth Bank what they wanted it for. I mean it was so bloody racist. Eventually they got rid of that requirement. It wasn’t a requirement from the government. It was a requirement from the bank and it was just appalling.
What was the age range of the Goomies?
They would have been in their thirties probably, into early forties. I think most of them are dead now, most of them have gone.
What memories do you have of them?
They were from all over the country. There were a lot of people from Queensland, there were people from northern New South Wales, there were people from Victoria, people from South Australia. That group of people were people who had been really damaged by the Queensland act, had been damaged by Child Welfare in various states but had still survived, against all bloody odds had still survived. The group that went down with Bob to clean out those houses … there was Cyril Boney from Walgett, Jasper McGregor Grey from Queensland. God love him, he was wonderful. Who else went down? I’m going to have to think through who all of them were that went down. There was another guy there, Kenny Fraser. But the interesting thing was that when they went down to squat in those houses, they all got off the grog and they really protected those houses. Joe Mick from Queensland was another one of them. It became a real focus for them and even though the police harassed them and harassed them and harassed them, they still stayed very strong and held those houses against all odds until the money came through. I think that was what really, really upset Bob. Once the houses started to be bought and started to be repaired and renovated, the fact that this group of people that had gone down there with him and had fought the cops, had squatted, had really done the hard yards, they were the people that were first out. I know Bob wanted, and Ted Kennedy … they were the people to be housed first and it didn’t happen. I think that was one of the things that really upset Bob, in fact I know it was.