Cootamundra remembered

Last month 400 Aboriginal women and their families travelled to the town of Cootamundra in regional New South Wales to mark to the centenary of the Cootamundra Domestic Training Home for Aboriginal Girls.  Between 1912 and 1975 around 1,200 young girls were forcibly removed from their families and trained to work in houses, or on farms, as domestic servants.

Amidst the sadness and the remembering, there were moments of humour that had kept the sisterhood going through the difficult times. Canberra-based author Peter Kabaila interviewed 18 women about their time in ‘Coota’. The project was instigated by a phone call from Lola Edwards, one of the organisers of the centenary. Unfortunately, Lola didn’t survive to see the book or participate in the reunion. This is her story.

“I was taken from my family by the Aboriginal Welfare Board, as a four year old, along with my older and younger sisters and my brother Gordon. I never saw my father again. He died before I was released, even though he and Mum made many attempts to visit me in the Home. I did not see my brother for 20 years.  He died shortly after we found each other. But I was fortunate enough to have some months with my mother before she passed away. The Girls from the Home are still my ‘family’. 

We were being moulded into domestic servants, farmhands, honorary whites, resettled on missions sometimes far from our homelands. It was never intended that we should return to our families. Nor was there any proactive attempt at family reunion.

From the age of 18 years old I was no longer a ward of the State. I was free to go wherever I wished, on my own—so utterly alone. It was a feeling that I really can’t put into words because it is more a recollection of emotions and feelings. It was confusion and sadness.  An overpowering sense of being lost but also with an incredible unknown intoxicating sense of freedom. Having been taken from my family; denied access to my parents; excluded from my Community; indoctrinated that I was inadequate as a black; failed the white-test and now simply discarded to an unknown world. 

It is any wonder that some of us: can’t bond with our children; are over protective of our children; won’t let our children or grandchildren out of sight; can’t speak of the days in the Home to our children; can’t maintain a permanent relationship; can’t share our deepest hurt and sorrow; try to buy affection; camouflage our real feelings supress our memories; and are reluctant to trust. 

Even now many of us are still confused and caught between two worlds we can’t reconcile. A lonely, ambivalent, limbo experience. The most important tragedy of all is that many of us can never go home… It is a terrible, terrible, sorry business.”

In the Home, the girls had nothing of their own.  Everything belonged to the Home. Everything except for one thing—a painting by Albert Namatjira.  In 1956, while on a visit to Sydney, Namatjira took a side-trip to Cootamundra and visited the Home. One year later, he sent a painting of his country. It was hung over the door in the main dormitory so all the girls passed under that painting every day of their lives. They knew it was theirs, they knew that the famous Aboriginal painter Albert Namatjira had painted a picture of his country for them, for the girls who had lost so much. When the home closed, the painting disappeared.  But the girls never forgot about it and were always looking out for where it might be.

Lola later found the painting hanging in the headquarters of the Department of Community Services in Ashfield, Sydney. ‘I’m not leaving without it’ was her direct comment. And she didn’t. She left with the painting under her arm. It took some time for Lola and the other Home Girls to decide on where ‘Albert’, as they called the painting, should be kept. It was an emotional day when it was given into the care of the National Museum of Australia.

Lola Edwards spearheaded the creation of the book Home Girls, by Peter Kabaila, a collection of stories of the survivors intended to mark the anniversary. This blog appears with the permission of Peter Kabaila and the Edwards family. 

Paul House with gum leaves and smoke
Paul Girrawah House

Paul Girrawah House has multiple First Nation ancestries from the South-East Canberra region, including the Ngambri-Ngurmal (Walgalu), Pajong (Gundungurra), Wallabollooa (Ngunnawal) and Erambie/Brungle (Wiradyuri) family groups.

Paul acknowledges his diverse First Nation history, he particularly identifies as a descendant of Onyong aka Jindoomang from Weereewaa (Lake George) and Henry ‘Black Harry’ Williams from Namadgi who were both multilingual, essentially Walgalu-Ngunnawal-Wiradjuri speaking warriors and Ngunnawal–Wallaballooa man William Lane aka ‘Billy the Bull’ - Murrjinille.

Paul was born at the old Canberra hospital in the centre of his ancestral country and strongly acknowledges his First Nation matriarch ancestors, in particular his mother Dr Aunty Matilda House-Williams and grandmother, Ms Pearl Simpson-Wedge.

Paul completed a Bachelor of Community Management from Macquarie University, and Graduate Certificate in Wiradjuri Language, Culture and Heritage and Management from CSU.

Paul provided the Welcome to Country for the 47th Opening of Federal Parliament in 2022. Paul is Board Director, Ngambri Local Aboriginal Land Council, Member Indigenous Reference Group, National Museum of Australia and Australian Government Voice Referendum Engagement Group.  

Paul works on country with the ANU, First Nations Portfolio as a Senior Community Engagement Officer

Acknowledgement of Country

Reconciliation Australia acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing  connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this website contains images or names of people who have passed away.

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