Culture and heritage

Aboriginal heritage

Living in State housing

On this page, Aboriginal people from the Gumbayngirr community remember being moved from fringe camps into State housing in Coffs Harbour in the 1950s, and about Aunty Grace Roberts' successful campaign to gain better housing for Aboriginal people. 

Moving from the old camps to State housing

Many fringe dwelling camps were demolished during the 1950s so Aboriginal people would have to move into State housing. These areas of land were rarely conserved because the government considered they had little aesthetic appeal or historical significance (Smith and Beck 2003).

During the 1950s, under the authority of the Aborigines Welfare Board, the Aboriginal Welfare Committee moved Aboriginal people from places such as the old camps at Coffs Creek to a State housing estate, consisting of eight houses on the Pacific Highway north of Coffs Harbour:

Wongala Estate Houses
Wongala Estate Houses (Source: Coffs Harbour District & Local Aboriginal Land Council)

' ... But I remember the grown-ups, the people that were living there, saying: "The welfare's going to move us out there. They're going to put us in these lovely new homes ..." and yeah, I know it was the Welfare Board that moved them and from my understanding of that move, the people that was living down at the old camp had to be married to go with those houses, so yeah, I don't know and I don't think nan did, because it was something where you moved when welfare said: "Move!" and there wasn't any negotiating, there wasn't any communication, it was: "This is what's happening and this is where you're going ...". It was, like, the 50s, this is when you did what welfare told you ... I think you look back, go back into that time when Aboriginal people were being taken away from, you know, like taken ... Well, take the old camp for example where the people lived, they took them from there and put 'em out to Wongala [to the State housing estate] because the white man wanted that land and there was nothing Aboriginal people could do.'

Aunty Sue Hoskins, interview 14 January 2005, Coffs Harbour

Limited facilities were available at the housing estate. The design of the houses reflected the conditions imposed on Aboriginal families by the Aborigines Welfare Board. There was no electricity, no fencing around the houses and no railings on the verandahs that were perched high off the ground. There were no doors so Welfare Officers had easy access to residents. Families were not allowed to house extended kin, even during the holiday seasons (Becker n.d) but in any case, the houses were too small to house many people comfortably. They had only one bedroom, which could not accommodate large extended family groups common to Aboriginal society, neither did they provide much privacy:

Wongala Estate House
Wongala Estate houses (Source: Coffs Harbour City Council)

'They had the little aeroplane houses then. They moved there about 1950. They made one-bedroom houses. Now, up the top end, the houses had the front room and the verandah. You walked into the front room and the door was this way, it was a one-room, see ... and everyone had big families around then and you walked straight through that way to the kitchen ... The bottom houses, now, they were a different shape and size. You came into the front room off the verandah, then you'd walk in through the bedroom 'cause you'd access to the kitchen. So the bedroom was open right up to anybody who came who wanted to come in and sit in your kitchen, you had no privacy, no doors in the place, just open doors.'

Aunty Anita Craig, interview 2 February 2005, Coffs Harbour

For more information on the impact of the Aborigines Welfare Board (and previously, the Aborigines Protection Board) on Aboriginal families, see Living by the Macleay River and Living at Grassy Head camp.

Campaigning for better housing

In 1963, the local Aboriginal Welfare Committee worked to have the houses on the estate upgraded. As there were no Aboriginal representatives on the committee, members of the community were invited to express their concerns at a meeting. The late Aunty Grace Roberts, a Bundjalung Elder, attended the meeting and talked about the plight of young people living on the estate. In 1970, Aunty Grace stirred the people at the estate into action, and six people got together to officially form a housing body (Becker n.d).

By 1974, the Aboriginal community recognised that they needed a formal corporation to enable them to apply for housing grants. The Wongala Housing Company Ltd was formed after the people had received legal advice. The name 'Wongala' was an Aboriginal word given by Aunty Grace that meant 'working together'.

The late Aunty Grace Roberts
Please note: this is a photograph of a person who is now deceased.
The late Aunty Grace Roberts

'Aunty Grace was the founder for Wongala. 'Cause I remember when she started campaigning for housing, I think I might have had one child then ... and I remember going with her a couple of times to Sydney, and she'd drive to Sydney whenever she could [to] go to talk to [the] people for funding, and I had one of the new houses and nan was still down the jetty, and that was in 1974.'

Aunty Sue Hoskins, interview 14 January 2005, Coffs Harbour

Wongala Estate Houses 1978
Wongala Estate houses 1978 (Source: Coffs Harbour District & Local Aboriginal Land Council)

Coffs Harbour District & Local Aboriginal Land Council
Coffs Harbour District and Local Aboriginal Land Council
In 1976, a grant from the Department of Aboriginal Housing was approved to develop four houses on the estate, but it was then discovered that Wongala did not have any title to the land as it had previously been an Aboriginal Reserve.

After much litigation, the title to the land was passed over to the Aboriginal Lands Trust with a ninety-nine year lease. Three houses were completed using Aboriginal labour on Aunty Grace's insistence.

In June 1978, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs presented the keys to the first tenants and announced financial assistance for four more houses. Twenty-two homes were eventually built (Becker n.d).

The Coffs Harbour District and Local Aboriginal Land Council building now stands in the compound of Wongala Estate and is a reminder of Aunty Grace Roberts's struggle for better housing for Aboriginal people.

Page last updated: 26 February 2011