Jan 21, 2012

Retired Teacher Recalls Pioneering Days

Author: Denise Secomb

George Aslett’s parents, George E. Aslett and wife Josephine, with children, from left, Winifred, George and baby Marion (photo: Aslett family collection, 1932)

17th January 2012 Vol 22 Issue 30

Magnetic Community News brings to the attention of readers the mention in this report
of  some deceased Indigenous persons


Mr George Aslett’s audio tape is one of a number recorded by Magnetic Island History and Craft Centre interviewers that are a valuable resource for researchers examining pioneering days on MI, especially so as Mr Aslett (b1926) a retired teacher, graciously made himself available for a follow-up interview.

Most recently, marine biologist Dr Rick Braley has added to the MIHCC interview collection, taking it into the digital age in 2011 with a series of DVDs recorded of the local fishermen’s memories of MI.

However, having had it brought to my attention by a number of fishermen that they want to talk about the early days of fish traps on Magnetic Island, I put this to Mr Aslett.

He recalls the fish traps, other folk having described them as arrow-head in shape, similar to the ones used in colonial Australia.

Mr Aslett, of Arcadia, recalls Harry Manly and Perc Saunders had fish traps at Cockle Bay and that there were fish traps also at Horseshoe Bay and West Point.

Mr Aslett was a keen amateur fishermen who used a spear, having been taught while a six year old by a couple of 16-year-old Palm Islanders, Walter Tippoo (dec.) and Eric Dinduck (dec,) who befriended him while they were working at the Arcadia Guest House, forerunner to today’s Arcadia Hotel.

Other Aboriginal friends from that time included Reg Dodd (dec.) who also worked the Arcadia Guest House along with an elderly chap, whom Mr Aslett recalls as Old Peter (Pryor, dec.) who would bring Mr Aslett’s mother a big bunch of local golden orchid flowers every year.

However, it was the teenage boys, Walter and Eric, who presented young George with his own spear for his seventh birthday. They later showed him how to craft spears, selecting the right length of cottonwood and straightening and hardening the spears in the fire.

“I became an expert fisherman,” says Mr Aslett, who recalls his mum telling him Eric came looking for him at the family’s Townsville home. Eric was reportedly keen to go spear fishing but George was away in the army and that was the family’s last contact with him.

So keen a fisherman was Mr Aslett, that he experienced what it was like to be in strife for being late back from a school lunch break.

As a youngster, he and all the boys took off one lunch break to scoop up whiting from the mouth of the creek where they’d buried themselves into the sand. Alan Finch, whom Mr Aslett describes as having married a niece of Our Island Home’s Mrs Tidey, had netted the mouth of Gustav Creek and there were fish to be found buried in the sand if they dug around for them with their toes. The boys were so carried away with their catch that the teacher had to send down a lad who’d been home for lunch that day to fetch them back. The boys were kept in an extra hour after school for their misdemeanour.

When we first spoke, Mr Aslett was keen to set the record straight about Mrs Clara Tidey, proprietor of the Nelly Bay guest house, Our Island Home, in the pioneering era. He says she was the subject of a great deal of gossip after being prosecuted for sly grogging.

“She was conned into it,” he says. “Two blokes came over and rented one of the Island Home cottages and one came to her pretending the other needed a rum for a nasty cold and she eventually took pity on him and sold him the rum.”

He since wonders at the wisdom of bringing the issue up but if there’s lingering doubts, perhaps it’s best they be laid to rest.

Then we’re back to the fishing. Mr Aslett recalls Geoffrey Bay teeming with soldier crabs at low tide.

“They were excellent bait for parrot fish and mia mia fish (related to the leatherjacket)” he said at his home in Marine Parade, Arcadia recently. “Small live parrot fish on a set line often provided a good cod or coral trout.”

Mr Aslett recalled that Mrs Wilmett, who had a house where Bill John’s is today, used to buy his mia mia fish, George eventually buying a bicycle from his fish money.

“Dad bent a nail into a hook and that’s what I caught my first fish on, a flathead,” he says.

And young George was hooked, on fishing that is.

He recalls that he tried everything to catch a big cod under the big flat rock near the old Arcadian wharf where he would catch live bait. It was suggested to him, in jest, though he didn’t realise it, that he try clothesline.

“I caught that big cod on clothesline with a shark hook,” he told me, clearly still revelling in the story of his first big catch. “It was 52lb. Gordon Wilson (son of the folk from Arcadia Guest House) helped me push a pole through its mouth and gills so we could get it home.

“Another great catch was when I saw a lot of fins coming towards me when I was on the reef at Geoffrey Bay. I waded out on to the reef and pumped a spear into a huge shovel nose shark (pictured left). It took off out to sea at first then ran itself aground in shore.”

As a lad, his friends during school days on MI at Nelly Bay State School included Steve Coleman (recently dec.) and his sisters Evelyn and Chris. He was also mates with Charlie Gifford’s children. Steve also joined in the spearing of fish. Other mates were Peter Cowper and Syd Thorley, the Cowper family owning the first carrier business on MI and the Thorley family taking it over, including the family’s home which was at the southern end of where Bill John’s Arcadia shops are today.

However, perhaps the children who have had the biggest impact on him came in later years when, as a teacher, he was at Weipa South State Primary School, in an area which finally became subject to the 1975 Federal Racial Discrimination Act, as are we all since that Act was passed.

Comalco established the company township of Weipa in 1963. The nearby township of Mapoon was infamous in that era for the November 15, 1963 forced removal of its Aboriginal residents by Queensland police in the night. Police burnt the homes and community buildings to the ground the next day on instruction from the Queensland (Country Party) Government.

It was into this climate of apartheid and ideas of a State Government about enforcing assimilation that Mr Aslett arrived at Weipa, describing local hotels as allowing no Aboriginal patronage at that time and the Weipa schools as racially segregated.

Mr Aslett was teaching about 100 Aboriginal children with the help of another teacher and two Aboriginal teacher’s aides. He told me that the State Government had built a separate school for the non-Aboriginal children, who numbered just 19 but who had two teachers.

Of that time, he explains that Comalco had provided their workers with a pool and a supermarket but the local Aboriginal population were excluded, as was Mr Aslett because he taught at the Aboriginal school. Also excluded was the Presbyterian Minister, the nurse to the Indigenous people, and the manager of the Aboriginal Reserve and his wife.

These folk, together with the local Aboriginal population, could only shop at the Island Industries Board Store.

Nor was Mr Aslett invited to the official opening of the mine by then Country Party Premier Frank Nicklin (1895-1978).

The only good word to say about Comalco that Mr Aslett has is that they built homes for many Aboriginal people.

However, in the next breath he explains that the people did not want to move away from their homes at the beach and the only way to make them occupy the homes was for the government to tear down their huts.

“There were glass louvres in those new homes and there were a lot of injuries with people smashing their fists through them and a number of arteries were cut and one man died,” he says of that time.

Mr Aslett said this was in an era when the prohibition of alcohol to Aborigines had just ended and there was the beginning of alcohol-related domestic violence problems.

Eventually he was offered an associate membership of the Comalco social club, with the right to use the pool and the supermarket which he says he told them he was inclined to “tell them to shove but … accepted because then the next teacher coming in would have those benefits”.

The social club offer was made to him in the pub, while in the company of the Education Department Inspector and the teacher from the Comalco school.

Mr Aslett also failed to endear himself to researchers keen to use both he and his Aboriginal students as guinea pigs, so to speak, coming into the classroom to observe how he taught and how the children responded.

“I asked them did they have permission from the Director-General of Education to come into my classroom and that kept the researchers out,” he said, explaining that he then phoned Mr Bill Hooper, then Regional Director of Education, who reportedly said “good on you”.

Mr Aslett recalls going back for a second stint at Weipa South with many of the Aboriginal children keen to see him, some turning up dressed in high school uniform.

“I learnt later that on many occasions they travelled to Weipa township on the bus but they were not always attending school, according to the reserve manager and Presbyterian minister,” he says.

Continued next week: Justice issue started at local school

Aslett’s first cottage, behind Alma Den, Alma Bay (photo: Aslett family collection, c1920s)

George Aslett with his catch of the day  (photo: Aslett family collection, 1953)

Aslett’s Marine Parade home, Geoffrey Bay … the land was bought in 1930 for 70 pounds (photo: Aslett family collection, 1930)

Bathing costumes at Alma Bay (photo: Aslett family collection, c1920)



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