Culture and heritage

Aboriginal heritage

Living at Grassy Head camp

On this page, Aboriginal people from the Gumbayngirr community remember living at Grassy Head camp from the mid-20th century to the present day.

Keeping a step ahead of the Welfare Board

Many Aboriginal families in the 1940s and 1950s lived at Grassy Head camp, situated on the coast near Kempsey. This was a time when the Aborigines Welfare Board attempted to forcibly remove Aboriginal children from their homes.

For Aboriginal people to escape the controls of government bureaucracy, they often had to prepare for and react quickly to the signals that warned that Welfare Officers were approaching the camp:

Back row left to right: Catherine Bula (nee Donovan) & Wilma Davis, Front row left to right: Rosalind & Peter Donovan at Grassy Heads
Back row left to right: Catherine Bula (nee Donovan) and Wilma Davis.
Front row left to right: Rosalind and Peter Donovan. This photo contains images of a person who is now deceased

' ... We grew up in an era where the welfare was, you know, out to take Aboriginal children away from their families. Down at Grassy Head at the Ecology Centre when we lived there, it was just black sand. They were actually mining it ... but [our house] was actually built in the black sand ... But we lived there with the carpet snakes and the possums, and yeah, it was a lovely time ... but that was the time too when the welfare was after us children and my mother would starch our clothes, and we would be walking around in the black sand with starched dresses ... And I hated it ... And starched handkerchiefs pinned on our thing, you know, to wipe our nose, yeah, she just kept us immaculate just in case the welfare persons came.  And she taught us older ones, Allan and I ... we'd know their car like she knew it before it came up over the hill ... And she learnt to listen for the sound of that car and she taught us ... They used to come in a black car and the man would have a black suit on with a white shirt and the lady'd have like a white apron over the top of her dress ... It was always a pinstripe suit, very small pinstripe, yeah, I can see it and he'd wear a hat, you know, and the car had a running board on each side.'

Uncle Reg Davis, Catherine Bula and Rosalind Donovan, interview 30 November 2004, Stuarts Point

Rosalind Donovan was born at Grassy Head during the flooding season and recollects her childhood as being dominated by keeping the family together during the regular flooding and dealing with the imposing threat of Welfare Officers. The children at Grassy Head camp were kept in constant check:

Rosalind Donovan at Grassy Heads
Rosalind Donovan on the beach at Grassy Head

"In '54 I was born. In a flood, by a midwife that lived across the road and she was a non-Aboriginal lady but I used to call her nana 'cause she brought me into the world. And I've seen a couple of floods at Grassy Head there where we lived at the ecology camp, we had to pack up and move to higher ground because we got washed out ... And I remember my grandfather, he used to count us. And we used to go to school and every afternoon when we come home, he'd count us and then one day I plucked up the courage and asked him why, and that was when he told me about when they used to pick the kids up and take 'em away, the stolen generation, and he used to reward us if we all came home together, the weekend he'd buy us a bag of bullseye lollies, a bottle of lemonade and a pig's head, that was our treat for the week.'

Uncle Reg Davis, Catherine Bula and Rosalind Donovan, interview 30 November 2004, Stuarts Point

For more information on the impact of the Aborigines Protection Board and Aborigines Welfare Board on Aboriginal families, see Living by the Macleay River and Living in State Housing.

Connecting to family and Country

Relatives and extended family groups used to visit Grassy Head in the holiday season and particular social roles played an important part of growing up there. The extended Davis and Donovan family's connection to Grassy Head has helped keep them together:

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Catherine Bula (nee Donovan, Aunty Queenie Morris, Peter, Rosalind and Michael Donovan. This photo contains images of people who are now deceased. 

'When we lived at the Ecology Camp [at Grassy Head] they used to come. All the relatives that lived in Sydney, wherever, once a year or twice a year they'd come there to our place, and we'd, like, all the men would go with the boys to the river to get fish, whatever, to the ocean. And the women would stay home with the girls and they'd teach us to cook. And when we'd all get back together, we'd just have these big bashes with music, stories, dancing, yeah, it was really good ... We were a very close family, you know, even with our extended families that don't live here, they still come back here and when they're back, we mightn't have seen them for a year or two but when they're here, it's like they've never been away so we're very close to each other and we keep in contact with each other.'

Uncle Reg Davis, Catherine Bula and Rosalind Donovan, interview 30 November 2004, Stuarts Point

The Grassy Head camp has played an important kinship role for the Davis and Donovan family, but the importance of being Aboriginal and always remembering that connection to Country has been passed down to many generations during times of change. Uncle Reg Davis describes how three generations of his family have lived and continually maintained connections to the camps at Grassy Head:

Jim and Alice Davis
Uncle Reg's father and mother: Jim & Alice Davis. This photo contains images of people who are now deceased.

'Me mother and father used to live down at Grassy Head and then I was reared up there 'til I was seven years of age ... Well, mum and dad, they shifted back to what they call Grassy Head but they were still stopping where we was reared up ... 'cause the spring was over there and [we] wouldn't have to carry water, aye, and that's why they shifted over there ... But [mum], she used to tell me a lot of things when I come up here for a weekend, you know what happened? I said to her one day, I said: "Mum, why did you shift back out here instead of stopping at Nambucca Heads?" And, you know the words she told me, she said: "Look, we go back to the place we were born." That's where they were born down here, Grassy Head up here ... That's my mother and father and my grandfather was born there too, and my grandmother. So it goes back a long way ... and Grandfather Davis, he taught us, he used to teach us that you know we're a minority group, we don't forget where we come from but we have to learn to live with everybody else because we're ... that's the way life will be from now on, aye, it won't be like it used to be, it'll be different and that's what we've tried to do here, work together and live together.'

Uncle Reg Davis, Catherine Bula and Rosalind Donovan, interview 30 November 2004, Stuarts Point

For more information on connecting to family and Country, see Living on Cabbage Tree Island and Living by the Macleay River.

For another experience of going back to a birthplace, see Living along Coffs Creek.

Page last updated: 26 February 2011