Billy Drumley with wife Mary Ann Drumley (nee Sandy) and daughter Ida, circa 1890. – Thanks to Ailsa Coolwell & Yugambeh Museum for photograph.
RORY O’Connor first heard about his grand uncle Billy Drumley when he was a boy. Whenever his mother and aunts mentioned the mysterious Uncle Drumley, young Rory was instantly aware they were remembering a man of great importance.
Billy Drumley lived in Beaudesert during times of huge change for the Aboriginal people. He was an outstanding athlete and a strict family leader who encouraged Aboriginal children to be schooled, and older children to seek employment. He provided a home to a young Neville Bonner and ensured he completed his schooling. Bonner went on to become Australia’s first Aboriginal Senator.
Drumley would embark on legendary walks from Beaudesert to Southport, a 65km trip which he would complete in a day. He continued these journeys well into his 80s and Rory now organises the annual Drumley Walk in his memory.
Rory O’Connor reflects on the legacy of his Uncle Drumley
Billy Drumley was ahead of his time
RORY O’Connor never met the man he knows as Uncle Drumley, but he still feels like he knows him. He’s been hearing about this pioneering member of the Aboriginal community since he was a boy.
“When I was a boy of about five I came home from school to tell my mother I had won a race of some kind,” says Rory. “I thought I was a good runner and my mother said, ‘Well you should be because Uncle Drumley was a good runner. My mother would stand upright and look me right in the eye when she spoke about him, he was obviously a man of great importance to her.”
Rory grew up in Rochdale, in a rural setting similar to most ‘white families’. He was the son of an Aboriginal mother and English-Irish father. As he grew older he became more curious about his mother’s heritage, her history and their people’s language and stories. This curiosity led him to become the tribe’s scribe and that’s how he learned so much about Uncle Drumley. Rory, a broadcast journalist, began to speak to the elders and record their history.
“When I spoke to the elders about Billy Drumley some sort of transformation came over them,” says Rory.
Man of vision
Billy Drumley was born in Beaudesert in the 1850s and was an intelligent man of vision. Although unable to read and write, Billy Drumley realised that the future of his people and the survival of the Yugambeh tribe rested with their education. If they were to survive in an increasingly white world the Aboriginal people needed to learn to assimilate and the best way to do this was by being well-educated and able to be actively involved in the community.
“Drumley gathered a group of Aboriginal families at Beaudesert and he and the senior members of the community watched very closely the members of their community,” says Rory. “He gathered his clan around him at a place called The Lane, about 1km from the centre of Beaudesert. It’s now known as Drumley Street. He made sure the young men worked and the children were educated. It was a deliberate policy to become part of the system because it made it harder for them to be removed if they were entrenched in the system. He engendered great pride in them.”
One of those young children was a man called Neville Bonner, whose ageing mother was struggling to get him to and from school each day. Billy agreed to care for Neville at his home and ensure he completed his primary school education. In 1971 Bonner became Australia’s first Aboriginal senator. It was made possible by a 1967 referendum which gave Aborigines the right to vote and the right to be counted in the census. Bonner, who by now lived in Ipswich, decided it was time to enter politics and he joined the Liberal Party.
“You’ve got to get into the system, work through the system and make the changes,” he said at the time. “If you say a law is a bad law, you don’t break it, you try to change the law.”
In 1979 he was named Australian of the Year and throughout his political career he fought strongly against racial discrimination, which had existed since those days living with Uncle Drumley. The late 1850s and early 1900s were times of great change for the Aboriginal communities in the Beaudesert area. Their way of life was under threat from the new European settlers who were moving onto the local farming lands.
Times of change
“They were losing their traditional lands, they were losing access to the resources they lived on – they were being taken quite forcibly from them,” says Rory. “You had Queensland’s native police force active in the area, their job was to destroy Aboriginal camp life. You couldn’t really have pastoral land and Aboriginal camp life co-exist long-term , one had to go and it was the Aboriginal way of life. Drumley had grown up through that, he had seen other men and women who tried to resist disappear.”
Drumley knew there had to be a better way. He had watched with interest the approach taken by a man called Bilin Bilin (King Parrot).
“Bilin Bilin made a very simple negotiation with the Lutheran Missionaries,” says Rory. “He said ‘I’ll bring you people to study the bible but you have to protect us. It was a very simple deal but it worked. People like Drumley realised they were being swamped, it was inevitable.”
As well as being an incredible runner and all-round athlete, Billy Drumley was also a master with the broadaxe. As the name suggests, the broadaxe had a larger, broader cutting blade than an ordinary axe, which enabled the user (if he was talented) to produce smooth cuts of timber. So impressive were Drumley’s skills that he was commissioned to produce smooth timbers for many homes and buildings in the area. His handiwork can still be seen in Beaudesert, at the cenotaph where a flagpole carved by Drumley in 1918 still stands. He was also responsible for the timber used in the Tamrookum Church, outside Beaudesert.
“He was an artisan with the broadaxe, it’s an absolute art to do,” says Rory. “He was regarded as one of the best in the region… he was quite an important part of the community. He was also very well known for being a very hard worker, he was an athlete, a sprinter, a cricketer, a boxer. He would regularly walk from Beaudesert to Southport to see his sister Jenny Graham and her clan. When he arrived he would roast an echidna in her backyard. We have figured he was in his 80s and still doing it.”
“He was a powerful, tall, quietly-spoken man. The children really liked him, he had a sense of humour with kids. He was a tremendous family man… he led by example. He worked very, very hard, he was one of very few Aboriginal people to own land at the time. There was a law against it but somehow he managed it, I suspect someone else bought the land for him and transferred it to him.”
The walk from Beaudesert to Southport used to take Drumley one day. In 2005 Rory and some relatives decided to walk a similar path to the one taken by Drumley as a personal tribute to the man. Word spread and a group of about 30 uncles and aunts joined them on the walk which took them four days. After their walk Rory continued to receive phone calls from people unable to attend, expressing interest in being involved in the walk ‘next year’.
“I had a full-time job at Channel Nine at the time, it was hard for me to sneak away,” says Rory. “I hadn’t intended to do the walk the next year but some volunteers popped up and in 2006 about 80 people started out from Beaudesert. In 2009 we had between 200 and 100 people walking with us on any day.”
Since then the Drumley Walk has evolved and is now attended by a wider field of people than family and friends. In 2009 a group of women flew in from Sydney to be involved in what has developed into a cultural experience.
“It’s about people coming together to share an experience and enjoy each other’s company. It’s not a walk for tough guys, we try to make it as accessible as possible. It’s a nice way to pay your respects to people who have gone before us.”
The Billy Drumley story is just one of many amazing tales from a group of people whose work and efforts helped to shape the Scenic Rim visitors and residents love today. Rory, his mother Patricia and a dedicated group of volunteers have worked hard to preserve the history, language and achievements of the local aboriginal people at the Yugambeh Museum in Beenleigh.
“The Drumley story has become popular because I told it. We know there are many other men and women who also have wonderful stories to tell and we try to encourage other community members to come forward and tell their family stories too.”