Aboriginal people have their personal stories which form their heritage and traditions and sense of identity. This is their personal story and no one else has the right to claim that story as their own. In this, we pay respect to these people, their elders past and present, and to their story.
As local people, each of us also has a personal story. Our stories are not the same as those of the Aboriginal people. In telling this story we aim not to minimise those differences. We aim not to lay claim to a heritage that we do not have. But just as our personal stories are woven into the tapestry of our local and wider Australian stories, so too the story of the Aboriginal people of this locale forms part of that same tapestry belonging to us all.
This work applies two rules for what is included. Firstly, it does not assume that all Aboriginal people are the same and that because there are descriptions elsewhere we cannot, without some other linking material, assume that they apply here. Where possible our comments only reflect this locality. Secondly, where there is reliance upon what is written by non-Aboriginal people we do not assume that these non Aboriginal people accurately understood what was said or done, or the applicable context.
Describing the people
To the west of Beecroft is the ridge along which Pennant Hills Road runs and then the road to Castle Hill. This ridge seems to provide a contemporary divide between the dialects of the coastal and inland peoples. It divides the people able to readily access salt water from those of the woodlands.
This divide is also where the surface geology changes from ridge top shale to sandstone. The trees change from a predominant Blue Gum forest to turpentine.
At the turn of last century, which is almost as far distant from us, as the writers were from the people at the time of dispossession, there were a number of names that appear for the languages and people who lived in this area. R H Matthews recorded in his notebooks from around 1904 that the northern language was called Wannungine. Archibald Meston believed that the Sydney dialect was called Bialba.
John Fraser distinguished between the Sydney dialect and that to the north known as Kuring gai.
Amongst this confusion, there does is consensus that the people living in this Beecroft Cheltenham area appear to be the ‘Wallumedegal’ living in an from roughly Thornleigh to the Parramatta River. There was another distinguishable group to the north of here to the Hawkesbury. On the western edge along Pennant Hills Road between North Rocks and Thompson’s Corner and to the west were a third group which some have named the ‘Tugagal’. Each of these peoples comprised between:
“30-50 people who foraged, hunted and moved around together, largely following a seasonal pattern of exploitation of both the coastal and inland environment. A confederation of such bands who spoke the same language, who were closely related by marriage, who shared the same customs and who met each other at intervals for ceremonial enactments of their religious beliefs is called a tribe by most anthropologists.”
The Wallumedegal were first written about in a letter from Governor Phillip to Lord Sydney in 1790. ‘Wallumai’ in the Sydney language means the fish we call ‘snapper’. They were primarily a river people but also hunted into the hills to their north. When Governor Macquarie supplied a Native Feast in Parramamatta on 28 December 1816 the Wallumedegal were in attendance. Their connection to their land was noted by William Walker in 1821 who said:
“The tribes adjacent [to Parramatta] are as follows: Kissing Point – some of whom I see every day, and have reason to believe they will settle at Bethel. Probably not the whole of them, as they are a most bigoted race of people to the ground on which they were born. The tribe is very small. Bidgee Bidgee is chief.”
Joseph Holt says that of those living around Cox’s Brush Farm “I have had one hundred of both male and feamale in my yeard together” at the turn of the nineteenth century but after a quarter century, in 1827, only 49 blankets were issued to the friendly members of this tribe.
Were these people identifiable by clans or tribes or even called by these names? Are these just later constructs used to try and make sense of distinctions that were imposed by later comers to this land? Contemporary evidence, particularly when it is considered that at the same time their society was being destroyed, is not conclusive.
Language is of course only part of the story. Carvings show that the closer to the coast there are, not surprisingly, more carvings of fish and to the west of terrestrial animals. The surviving art of the Tugagal comprises hand stencils and carvings of kangaroo in caves around North Parramatta. The Wallumedegal also engraved but are more noted for cave painting.
Meaning has disappeared but the distinction between the subject matter of engravings north and south of the harbour remains. North of the harbour eels on vertical surfaces point upwards and kangaroos have two legs whereas in the south, the eels point downwards and the kangaroo has four legs.
The closest extant engravings and drawings are at Cherrybrook. Near the headwaters of Berowra Creek are engravings of an emu and a bush turkey. These birds are linked in a traditional story, in which Dinewan (the emu) was tricked by flattery into thinking that she would be much admired if her graceful form was enhanced by cutting of her wings. The flatterer was Goomble-Gubbon (not surprisingly, the bush turkey). Once the emu realised the trickery, she retaliated by telling the bush turkey that all the smart people only had two chicks and she, accordingly, killed all but two of her chicks. To this day, the emu has small wings but many chicks and the bush turkey wings but only a few eggs.
Coastal men participated in a male initiation ceremony resulting in the loss of the right central incisor and had their beard singed – neither feature being seen amongst those living along the Hawkesbury. These men also painted themselves extensively with white clay for a corroboree. Their initiations were held near Farm Cove with men travelling from the North Shore areas to be initiated in February 1791, February 1795 and December 1797. The actual tooth evulsions were performed by the Camaraigals who lived around what we would now describe as the lower North Shore, and took place as one part of a much longer set of ceremonies of song and dance that extended over at least two nights. Sometime after the tooth evulsion the young men were scarred on the torso – often with two parallel incisions. Some also had their nasal septum pierced. Again, it is important to emphasise that our records cannot be conclusive of frequency or significance of meaning because they are of three incidents …. in one decade …. in a history of 30,000 years.
Bodily disfigurement was not restricted to the men, as women from this area were also often missing part of the little finger of the left hand. This was the result of girls having a ligature tied around the lower joint until the dead portion fell away. It is thought that this may have assisted in fishing rather than being an initiation right.
Their daily life just after 1788
Shelter depended upon the location. Generally it comprised a framework of branches from the stringybark. Moving into the hills, rock overhangs and caves provided shelter, especially if they were found to be facing north – as one does just above Devlins Creek, underneath the motorway.
Men hunted - looking for the grey kangaroo in the open grasslands or wallaby and possum in the sandstone slopes and bushland. The men set possum traps and decoys to snare small birds or bandicoots: “These were formed of underwood and reeds, long and narrow, shaped like a mound raised over a grave, with a small aperture at one end for the admission of the prey.”
A stone edge-ground axe was located at Beecroft and presented to the Australian Museum by Charles Wheeler in 1899. This is one of the only tools found in this area. Similar axe heads were found near present day Duncan Park, Seven Hills. With a favourable climate in the 1,000 years before 1788, the need to make finer tools for such finery as cloaking making had dissipated so that the hafted axe was one of the last remaining specialised stone tools used.
In earlier times, from about 6,000 years ago to 1,000 years ago a greater variety of stone tools was common. In particular the bondi point (initially found in middens at Bondi Beach) was a common tool. It was made of a special fine-grained stone with a small asymmetrical curve of about 20-25 mm in length. The stone came from at least 100 kms away. Because of its small size it presumably sat in a wooden handle. They are comparable to some tools found in Scandinavian peat bogs where it is clear that they were attached to spears or used as blades on small knives. When these tools started to disappear around 2,000 years ago they were replaced with locally sourced small irregular flakes of quartz without the delicate secondary working of the earlier tools. David Collins described how ‘the spear of the woods tribes ….were known from being armed with bits of stone instead of broken oyster shell.’ The stone was usually either chert from the Nepean River or red silcrete from ridges near South and Eastern Creeks.
Women collected figs, lilly pilly, geebung, yams and the nuts of the burrawang which were ground into a flour. Native bees provided honey and flowing banksia, grevillea and waratah provided nectar.
As a fishing people, the Wallumedegal would have obtained much protein from fishing and shell fish. The men fished with multi pronged spears shafted from the flower stalk of the grasstree (Xanthorrhoea) and tipped with sharpened bone and the women with crescent hooks made from shell (Ninella torquate). Each used canoes made from bark, usually from the she oak. It was bunched and tied at each end.
“A burley of chewed-up fish or shellfish was spat into the water to attract fish toward the hook which, being opalescent shell, also acted as a lure. The line consisted of strands of pliable bark tightly twisted together, made durable by impregnation of tree sap. It was attached to the line with vegetable gum. Although the earliest fish hook so far recovered is only about six centuries old, more durable evidence in the form of pear-shaped sandstone files used to shape the shell hooks date back nearly 2,000 years at the group of rock shelters of Curracurrang Cove in the Royal National Park.”
Also eaten were eels “which they procure by laying hollow pieces of timber into the water into which the eels creep, and are easily taken” and platypus caught as “the native sits upon the banks, with small wooden spears, and watch them every time as they rise to the surface, till they get a proper opportunity of striking them. This they do with much dexterity and frequently succeed in catching them.”
“At daylight we saw several canoes in the Cove we were surveying, they all fled, some out of the Cove… up to Lane Cove. We could by any means get these people near us … they thought we were following them and pushed up a creek to avoid us.”
Such ephemeral glances caught the first images of the Wallumedegal. Within 12 months the glimpses had been transformed when Lieutenant Ralph Clark was able to exchange a hatchet for two spears with Dourrawan and Tirrawan. Present with Clark on this trip along the Parramatta River, at the time was a convict, later noted for maintaining his friendship with Aboriginal people, James Squire.
These signs of connection were then rendered asunder. In 1797 a settler and his wife at Kissing Point were dangerously wounded and their possessions all burnt by a raid. In February 1798, three men (Nicholas Redman, Francis Bowerman and Robert Jenkins) were separately speared to death days apart at Northern Boundaries and buried in Parramatta. In June another attack was launched. In 1799, William Goodall was attacked on his farm on Hawkesbury Road near modern day Bella Vista.
These times were remembered by an old man, looking back on his childhood, as a time of darkness:
“I remember the place when we were a handful of white men camping in an unknown country crowded with hostile or doubting blacks. Even during the day we scarcely dared go outside the house unarmed; and constant alarms added to the toils of us first settlers.”
Signs of the first encounters also took other forms. From April 1789, evidence of pox was present amongst the Aboriginal peoples of Sydney. There continues to be much controversy as to its cause. It may have been brought with the First Fleet, although a period of at least fifteen months is a long period of incubation if it did arrive on that fleet. Whatever its cause, the evidence was clear that it had a crippling impact on the Aboriginal population.
Besides pestilence there was also the destruction of habitat. The description of the area north of Epping as ‘Barren Hills” from the later period of Governor Macquarie onwards is indicative of the high degree of destruction in an area noted for its timber and having as its first industry saw pits located at Epping and on Pennant Hills Road roughly half way between Thompson’s Corner and Observatory Hill Park.
The Aboriginal people into the twentieth century and beyond
At the turn of the twentieth century Catherine Martin whose family quarry off Midson Road and who lived on Murray Farm Road had help with her washing by local Aboriginal women. They used a local waterhole towards Pennant Hills Road.
In 1919, fifteen year old Margaret Tucker was placed with a family living in Beecroft Road Cheltenham. Margaret had previously been removed as one of the Stolen Generation from her mother at Moonahculla near Deniliquin. Margaret gardened and looked after chooks and ducks in a large yard running down to the railway line. She was beaten, her hair grabbed, dirty babies nappies thrown at her, hosed in the backyard and forced to live in the garden shed. She fed from the food thrown out for the chickens. She wore a Hessian sugar bag singlet in winter and summer.
In the 1930’s Mary lived in a hut near present day Fearnley Park and Chapman Avenue. She was thought to be Aboriginal. She was remembered as destitute and drunk.
We should not forget the Aboriginal people who came to this land; who walked this land, and who still live this land. Our history is but one of ephemeral glances.
 R H Matthews Notebooks: Ms 800/16 Ser 3 Field Book 5 p 36; folder 8 Note book 3 p 59 and folder 11 Red Notebook p 19 (National Library of Australia) quoted in R Hawkins Aboriginal Life in the Blue Gum High Forest (unpublished manuscript, 2011) p 10; K V Smith Warawara Website (2002)
 K V Smith Wallumedegal: An Aboriginal History of Ryde (Ryde, 2005) p 6