Culture and heritage

Aboriginal cultural heritage

Living along Coffs Creek

In New South Wales (NSW) European settlement intensified throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, and Aboriginal people were displaced from their traditional country. Many took up residence in fringe camps that grew at the edges of country towns. Some camps were located on Crown Land that had previously been the location of traditional Aboriginal camping grounds.

On this web page, Aboriginal people from the Gumbayngirr community remember living in fringe camps along Coffs Creek in the 1940s and 1950s. People preferred living in these camps to living in government-controlled reserves and stations, or in State housing.

Living in the old camps at Coffs Creek

The whole of Coffs Creek was used as a camp during the mid-twentieth century, and became one of the main Aboriginal camps in Coffs Harbour. 

During the 1940s, many young Aboriginal men came to Coffs Harbour looking for work on the banana plantations where labour was plentiful. They were later joined by their families, and built 'humpies' (shelters made out of waste timber, sugar bags and old tin sheds) along the banks of the creek.

The camps were near bush tucker and culturally significant sites, while the creek and surrounding forests provided fish and game. The area was also used for recreation, and continued to be so well into the 1980s.

The main camps were across the creek at Fitzroy Oval, where the cricket ground and swimming pool are today. Aboriginal groups also camped at the showground, and on the other side of the creek past the cemetery, around the botanical gardens and across the industrial area (Hill 2003, Becker n.d).

The main family groups living at the Coffs Creek camp included the Harveys, the Gundys, the Buchanans, the Fergusons, the Craigs, the Carberrys and the Lauries. Family groups looking for work or marriage partners from the Bundjalung, Dunghutti and Gumbayngirr language areas also settled at Coffs Harbour. Many members of the Gumbayngirr community are still passing down stories of living at the old camps (Hill 2003).

Coffs Creek Camp
Coffs Creek fringe camp (Source: Coffs Harbour City Council)
The camps were typical of other Aboriginal camps on the fringes of towns. They were also like the shanty towns which accommodated Aboriginal people and white working classes and had developed round Coffs Harbour at the height of the depression in the 1930s (Goulding 2001).

For more information on fringe camps, see Living by the Macleay River.

The Aborigines Welfare Board (which had replaced the Aborigines Protection Board in 1939) considered the camps to be problematic and unsightly, and the European community saw them as 'dumps of misery' (Becker n.d).

The Aboriginal families living in the camps saw them quite differently. The camps provided a strong sense of identity and freedom, providing Aboriginal people with a link to the past that continues to shape their lives in the present.

Aunty Maureen Buchanan has fond memories of growing up at the Coffs Creek camps, and while living conditions were basic, she was proud of where she lived and of her family there, a connection that still remains strong today:

Aunty Maureen Buchanan
Aunty Maureen Buchanan holding an old bottle from the camp

'... The best days of my life was at Coffs Harbour at the old camp. When mum and dad [and] me lived down the cemetery, and me and dad used to go and carry water. I had my own little bucket, and me dad with his two buckets on his shoulders ... and we had one little tub to have a bath in ...[We had] just one crowded little room. And I remember mum, she used to grow these lillies - November Lillies - all around the house ... Dad used to have one bottle of wine every fortnight after work [on] pay day, and everytime he'd finish a bottle, she'd wash it and she'd put it inside. She had them right around the house and the garden. Anyway, one day I went down there and I was standing there thinking: "Now, this is where I lived here. It's my bedroom there, my bed here, mum and dad's bed there. The kitchen was there and the garden was there ..." and I'm standing there, moving my feet, and I could feel something so I bent down and I looked and I seen these bottles, and I remember mum planted the wine bottles, so I dug about seven up and I gave my family one each. They sit on the buffet with flowers in them ...and the lillies, I brought the lillies home, and I said: "Whenever I move, wherever I go, I take the lillies with me", they're out in my garden right now. I only trimmed them the other day for November, they come out every November, beautiful flowers, they're my mother's flowers. That's all I got, the memory of her.'

Aunty Maureen Buchanan, interview 21 February 2005, Coffs Harbour.

See Living at Grassy Heads camp for another memory of returning to a birthplace.

The camps functioned as both independent settlements near wild food resources and as town settlements near local facilities and services:

Aunty Maureen Buchanan & Adelaide Carberry at Coffs Creek Camp
Aunty Maureen Buchanan (left) and Adelaide Carberry (right) at Coffs Creek Camp

' ... The river was just there. We'd just walk down the back and go fishing and get some oysters, and we'd walk down every Sunday and fish and bring it back and a bucket of pipis home, make it [into] a big soup. We'd go to the dump and bring all the food back, potatoes and onions and pumpkin all growing out there ... I used to go up where Centrelink is now, there was a lane and it was all houses there then. And I remember I had a friend there I went to school with, I can't think of her name ... her mother used to let me milk the cow, and I used to milk the cow and take a can of milk home, and mum used to take the milk and she'd make cream out of it for me.'

Aunty Maureen Buchanan, interview 21 February 2005, Coffs Harbour

The surrounding sawmills gave Aboriginal people jobs and off-cuts from waste timber with which to build their homes:

Coffs Creek Camp shack
Coffs Creek camp shack (Source: Coffs Harbour City Council)

'On the train they took us up to the old camp, and we got out at the sawdust road (in the middle of the old camp they had a sawdust road) ... We were taken through the bushy tracks down to Uncle Percy and Aunty Lucy's home, to a shack they built themselves from waste timber that they collected from the mill, across the creek from where the camp was. Now, there was a mill that was situated right where the community village is today, and it was a big mill, sawmill, and they allowed the Aboriginal people to go down and get waste timber to build a house ... and we'd also get wood there too for our fire from the waste timber. And yeah, everytime we wanted a room or [to] build on a room like that, it was quite good. And they had newspaper lining for inside, it was comfortable, open fires [and] pit toilets.'

Aunty Anita Craig, interview 2 February 2005, Coffs Harbour

The camps were gathering places that connected Aboriginal families to the wider cultural landscape in and outside the Coffs Harbour region. Families living along Coffs Creek had many family connections to other Aboriginal settlements, such as the camp that had developed at Dung Hill during the 1940s.  

Connecting kin from the old camp to Dung Hill

Dung Hill camp was located at the southern end of Coffs Harbour jetty, which overlooked the north coast railway line to the west.

Aunty Sue Hoskins, a Bundjalung woman who grew up at Dung Hill, describes how she used to spend weekends at Coffs Creek camp with her grandmother's sister:

Coffs Creek Camp plaque
Coffs Creek camp plaque

'…my grandmother had a sister, Lucy Harvey, but she used to live up at what we used to call the old camp, and in those days, 'cause mum and them used to play cards, we'd go up there and spend the weekends ... and then we'd just come back to Dung Hill for school ... There was about fourteen, fifteen families there [at the old camp]. That's the ones that I can remember, sort of along the creek 'cause that's where my nan's sister used to live, and when we used to walk into the camp from where the army barracks, that training centre, is, that's where we used to walk in from that end ... Then you walked down a bit further and there was a tap and that's where they used to get water. And I remember the Carberrys, Nanny Lou and the Kellys, the Craigs and yeah, the Buchanans ... that was over the other side, there was another little camp over there.'

Aunty Sue Hoskins, interview 14 January 2005, Coffs Harbour

Working life and sharing resources at Happy Valley

Happy Valley Shack

Happy Valley Shack
Happy Valley Shack - outside and inside views (Source: NSW Aboriginal Housing Office)
The Happy Valley camp appeared along the railway line around the 1940s near Coffs Harbour jetty when the sugar, timber, farming and fishing industries were booming and the population was slowly increasing. The shacks at Happy Valley provided a place to stay when work was available in the area.

Aboriginal and European families lived at Happy Valley and created a close-knit community where families often exchanged supplies of food and relied on one another. Many Aboriginal families lived on the beach at the southern end of Coffs Creek estuary.

The shacks at Happy Valley provided temporary accommodation until three permanent cabins were built more recently (Goulding 2001).

Some Aboriginal families from Coffs Creek and Happy Valley camps were forced into State housing at Wongala Estate or into Housing Commission homes during the 1950s.

Page last updated: 26 February 2011