The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story

The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story

by John Harms


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780702235368
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
Publication date: 02/16/2006
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

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The Pearl

Steve Renouf's Story

By John Harms

University of Queensland Press

Copyright © 2005 John Harms
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7022-4391-2


Family Heritage

You're at home watching the tele. A team of fit, strong young men run onto the football field. They appear through the haze of smoke, through the rain of fireworks shrapnel. They're in the Broncos' strip, or the maroon of Queensland, or the green and gold of Australia. You're a bit excited, a bit pumped up. You wouldn't want to be anywhere else – except at the game itself. The last of the fireworks are going off in the background as the familiar voice of Ray Warren fills your lounge room.

You've probably had a few beers and half (nearly three-quarters actually) a Pizza Hut Supreme (no anchovies) and you're looking forward to the sporting spectacle which is about to unfold. You have every right to be expectant because you've seen plenty of great footy matches over the years and the two teams are going to be fair dinkum tonight. You're thinking about how the game will unfold.

Your team is made up of your boys. You love them. You feel you know them. You really do. You know something of them from the way they play They have on-field personalities. They have on- field character. You also know something of them as young men. You have seen profiles of them in the Courier-Mailand the Sydney Morning Herald and Rugby League Week. You have seen them on The Footy Show and heard them on Sports Today and the ABC's Grandstand. You probably know a little of where they are from, and how they got to be playing among the world's best rugby league footballers.

But most of us know only a little about them, in the same way that we don't know too many details about our own family history, our own identity – until we go looking. So we don't know where they have come from, and what has made them. We don't have much of an idea about who they really are.

Throughout his career, when Steve Renouf ran onto a footy field we knew he was an Aboriginal bloke from Murgon. We knew he had a rare brilliance that a lot of Aboriginal players seem to have. But we didn't know his story. Not just the story of how he came to top-level football, but his family story; the story that makes Steve Renouf who he really is.

At the Renouf family home in Palmer Street, Murgon there is a painting of Steve's maternal grandmother, Eileen South. The artist, Charlie Chambers, has portrayed her as an old woman, in her eighties perhaps. She holds a walking stick with a carved snake's head on the top. Her face is weathered, yet it has a liveliness. She looks at you: a dignified woman with a thousand stories. Despite all the injustices she battled, despite the impediments placed before her by the attitudes of her times and the laws of the day, her face expresses triumph. She passed on, as the Renoufs say, in 1990. But she lives on in the painting, and in the legacy of her rich life. She had an impact on many people.

Eileen South was born around 1900. Her father, Jim Crollick, was an Englishman. Her mother was Minnie South, sometimes known as Minnie Roberts, an Aboriginal woman of the Gungari people of south-western Queensland.

As a young child Eileen was taken from Minnie by the authorities, along with her sister Dora and her brother Alfred. Steve's mother, Nerida, tells the story:

Mum always told me that she was going to the Mungallala School [west of Mitchell] with her sister Auntie Dora and her brother, Alfred. But the police took them and locked them up in a shed and had them there for three days. I'm not sure whether they fed them or not. They didn't have toilets, and they didn't have a bath for the time they were there. Then Mum and Auntie Dora was taken to Deebing Creek and then put into Purga Mission outside of Ipswich, and that's where she grew up.

For many years Steve's grandmother went by the name of Eileen Crawley She went to work at Rockybar Station near Chinchilla. She had a daughter named Iris and then she moved to Cherbourg. At Cherbourg she was thrilled to find her mother, who was known in the settlement as Minnie South. So Eileen Crawley took on the family name and became Eileen South.

At that time Cherbourg was called the Barambah Aboriginal settlement. In 1897 the Queensland Parliament had passed the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act. This placed Aboriginal people under the authority of a Protector whose department had total control over the lives of anyone they deemed to be Aboriginal. The department controlled where Aboriginal people lived. It controlled where and how they worked. It controlled their movement. Aboriginal people had to seek permission to travel. It even controlled the money of individual Aboriginal people.

This was a severe system of oppression which disregarded the hopes and aspirations of Aboriginal people, and cut them adrift from their traditional ways. They were rounded up and forced onto missions, where they were often treated poorly and sometimes inhumanly. Their individual and collective identities were eroded.

Barambah was considered to be a 'dumping ground'. It was not made up of a single mob; it was a collection of disparate people from numerous mobs around Queensland, which further complicated things.

Historian Ken Edwards argues that sport provided one of the few positive experiences for inmates (as they were called) at Barambah at that time. These were the days of Eddie Gilbert, the Aboriginal fast bowler who played cricket for Queensland and could well have played for Australia had he not faced such prejudicial views.

Cricket was popular at Barambah during the 1930s, but rugby league was even more popular – and significant. The teams that wore the green and gold of Barambah helped build the spirit of the Aboriginal community.

Perhaps the greatest player in the crack Barambah football sides of that era was Frankie Fisher, an athletic, powerful and creative centre or five-eighth. He also coached the side. His immense talent has been carried into the later generations of his family. Cathy Freeman is Frankie Fisher's granddaughter. Coming into Cherbourg today you cross the Frankie 'Bigshot' Fisher Bridge over Barambah Creek.

One of the Barambah boys in those sides of the 1930s was Norman Bird. A fine footballer, he was the son of an Aboriginal tracker, Jerry Bird. His mother was Ethel, an Aboriginal woman, sometimes known as Ethel Charleville.

Norman Bird had a relationship with Eileen South which produced two children, Nerida in 1935 and Selwyn in 1937. When pregnant with her fourth child, Jim, she left Norman and Barambah and returned to the Purga Mission where she had spent time as a child and where a number of her people lived. But she moved on from there as well. Nerida takes up the story:

Mum left Selwyn and Iris [her first child] with Auntie Laura and she run away to New South Wales. I was only two and a half years old when she ran away. My father [Norman Bird] wanted me and she didn't want to give me up so she took me with her. We were in New South Wales until 1945 at Mooli Mooli just outside of Woodenbong just over the [Queensland] border. We lived in the mission and Mum used to do day jobs for Constable Stock and also for Charlie Mason who had the bus run. She used to do housekeeping.

Nerida was very happy growing up in Woodenbong with her mother and younger brother, Jim. 'It was wonderful,' she remembers.

They were beautiful days: swimming, fishing; we learnt to ride horses. Someone gave Jim a rabbit trap – Mum used to cook the rabbits up for us. There was no restriction put on us. We could walk into town ... We had a lovely teacher, Mr McBride. He was the most wonderful man. Me I'd be yap, yap, yap, yap and he'd say, 'Nerida, shut up talking.' But they weren't strict like they were out here at Cherbourg. Mum should have stopped in New South Wales. It was a good community. It was a happy community. They used to have their babies at home. The Aboriginal ladies would deliver the babies. Everybody helped.

During that time the seeds of Nerida's strong Christian faith were sown. As a child she became part of the Salvation Army. She remembers that when she was about five she said to the Salvation Army officer, Mr Soper, 'I want to give my heart to the Lord.' And he said, 'Nerida, I think you've already done that!' She has gone to church ever since.

But the family suddenly returned to Cherbourg in 1945. Nerida explains:

We left for Cherbourg because, we only found out later, Mum was pregnant to old Charlie Mason [with Hazel]. Coming back, it wasn't very nice. Every afternoon after school kids would be fighting. The language they used to use was something terrible. When I came to Cherbourg, they said, 'At least Nerida has manners'. Even though there was a creek we weren't allowed to swim in it. I lost interest when I came to Cherbourg ...

I was in Cherbourg until 1954 when we came to live in Murgon. Mum went to Brisbane to work for Mr Semple at Indooroopilly for a while. She left me in the dormitory at Cherbourg ... My father Norman Bird, he still lived at Cherbourg. He was an overseer and policeman at Cherbourg and he was a forestry worker. I didn't have a lot of contact with him other than through his roles at Cherbourg. But that didn't worry me. I was a happy-go-lucky kid. I just wanted to enjoy myself with the other kids. I just wasn't interested in all that stuff that was going on around me.

When Eileen South came back from Brisbane she sought to be 'exempted'. At that time individual Aborigines could apply for exemption from the Act, which altered their legal position in the state of Queensland. If granted, they had considerably greater freedom.

Eileen was granted exemption. She took her children and everything she had and left Cherbourg for Murgon. It was a decision of courage, forthrightness and independence. It was also risky: she would have to find somewhere for her family to live, and some way of keeping them. She needed a house and a job, in a community where the racist attitudes of colonial times were deeply entrenched, and Aborigines were looked upon with deep suspicion. Aborigines were not included in the national census until some years later.

Nerida remembers making that trip into Murgon:

The taxi driver tried to get us a house in town but the council and the people wouldn't agree with it so we stopped out along the road. No one would give us a home. The people of Murgon wouldn't give us a home. Only one old white fella gave us a home. Way out [of town]. We stopped at that place for a while. Mum [got work] doing different odd jobs around the place, like at the police station, until she got a job at Tiernan's [pub]. They had an old shop out the back and Mum lived in that for a while. Then she bought that old shop and had it put out along the road. She'd go there on weekends.'

During the mid-1950s Nerida, now a young woman, worked in various jobs in and around Murgon. They were very tough times. Occasionally she would travel to Brisbane where she would stay for a while.

It was during one of these visits that she met Charlie Renouf.

Hanging in the lounge room at Palmer Street is a framed photo of Steve's paternal grandfather, William John Renouf. He was born in Townsville in 1894, shortly after his parents had arrived in the Queensland colony. His father, Francis James Renouf, had French forebears. Born in 1866 in the Channel Islands, Francis had met Susan Talbot, with whom he had two sons out of wedlock. The couple married in Somerset in 1893, and emigrated to Australia. Susan died in 1900. Francis died in 1946 and is buried at the cemetery in Charters Towers.

William Renouf spent his early years in the north. He enlisted in the 31st Battalion at Enoggera in March 1916 and was sent to train at Broadmeadows just north of Melbourne. The battalion sailed in November, joining the Fifth Australian Division in Egypt before being deployed to the western front. On just their third day in action they fought in the infamous Battle of Fromelles. Over half of the 31st Battalion were killed – 572 men – and many of the others were wounded and gassed in a failed assault that lasted only ten hours. In all, 5533 Australians were lost that night. William was spared, but the battered 31st was rendered incapable and was out of action for many months. They were then involved in numerous campaigns at the Somme, Ypres, Menin Road and the Hindenburg line. William was gassed in one of the battles. These injuries, and the trauma and deep grief of his war experience, were to trouble him for the rest of his life.

When he returned to Australia he settled in the Isis district, cutting cane around Childers. It was tough, physical work and there was the constant danger of deadly snake-bite and Weil's disease, a nasty infection spread by rats. A lot of the cane-cutters stayed in the barracks and camps established for itinerant workers, many of whom were Kanaks, Aboriginals and Chinese.

William Renouf met Emily Simmonds, a black woman who lived in the Childers area. She had been born in Bundaberg. Her father was Simon Ober, who was brought to Australia to cut cane, for very low, if any, wages. Simon took the surname Ober, the name of the tiny Pacific Island from which he came. Emily's mother, Louise, was a full-blood Aboriginal woman with links to the Kabi Kabi people of Fraser Island, and also to Aboriginal people from western Queensland.

William and Emily developed a relationship which produced five children. Steve's father, Charles Edgar Renouf, was one of them. Charles was born in 1928 at Apple Tree Creek just outside Childers. The family had a simple house. During the Depression they had barely enough to eat.

Charlie and his sister Dulcie were very spirited, and throughout their fives they never lost the sense of mischief and humour that had sustained them during that terrible period. Sometimes it got them into trouble. Charlie's first cousin, Cliff Douglas (whose mother, Annie, was Emily Simmonds' sister), grew up with him. Cliff remembers: 'We had nothing. We had no money. But we were happy. We didn't think about it. We went fishin'. Huntin'. We'd try to pinch a few oranges or a watermelon. We'd have to watch out for the blokes firing the scatter guns. We were very happy.'

William Renouf had his own demons – the legacy of his war experience – and could be a stern man. He did his best to provide materially for his family. But some of his ideas had far-reaching, long-term effects on how the children thought of themselves. William insisted that there was to be 'no black talk' in the Renouf home. Consequently, much of the cultural heritage of Emily Simmonds' side of the family remained buried: the traditional names were never used, the traditional language was not used, the family stories were not told openly

The broader Renouf family believe there were two reasons for this. One was practical: William did not want his family to identify themselves as Aboriginal for fear that the authorities would intervene – as they had a history of doing. The second was spiritual and emotional: there was a lot of pain associated with thinking of yourself as an Aboriginal person at that time, and William and Emily may have been protecting their children from that. Whatever the reason, it was a position taken by a lot of Aboriginal people in those days.

Yet the flame of Aboriginality was never extinguished in the five siblings. Throughout her life, Dulcie, who did not look obviously black, retained a deep sense of her Aboriginality. She often wrote letters to the editors of newspapers. She always began, 'I am a proud black Australian woman', and she was not one to shy away from defending her rights nor her sense of right. Dulcie was an enthusiastic keeper of family stories, and she was able to pass on a keen sense of identity to her own children. Another brother, Uncle Chillie, passed on a strong sense of Aboriginality to his children as well. And Charlie himself was to become an advocate for Aboriginal justice.

In his late teens Charlie left Apple Tree Creek and went to Brisbane. He worked at various jobs, including time as a night worker at the Courier-Mail. He was an athlete and a boxer. Cliff Douglas, who used to help train him, reckons he was very quick and could have made it on the pro-running circuit had he not been so easily distracted – by women. Eventually Cliff got jack of it and he said to Charlie, 'Bugger yuh. If you're not going to be fair dinkum, I'm not going to waste my time looking after you, rubbing you down and stuff'

The history of Charlie s relationships with women is not easily uncovered. One older man who was close to Charlie says, 'You would use all of your fingers and toes and a few more counting the children he is father to.' Another woman said Charlie had fathered twenty-nine children, and then later remembered two more, to make thirty-one. The acknowledged consensus is twenty-six.


Excerpted from The Pearl by John Harms. Copyright © 2005 John Harms. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1 Family Heritage,
Chapter 2 Childhood,
Chapter 3 Junior Football,
Chapter 4 Lis,
Chapter 5 Apprenticeship,
Chapter 6 Struggle,
Chapter 7 Success,
Chapter 8 High and Lows,
Chapter 9 Established,
Chapter 10 Super League,
Chapter 11 A Footballers Life,
Chapter 12 A Sad End and a New Adventure,
Chapter 13 Life after Football,
Picture Section,
Imprint Page,

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