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Argyle, Jessie (Gypsy) (1900–1955)

by Stephen Kinnane

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Jessie (Gypsy) Argyle (1900?-1955), domestic, was born in the East Kimberley region, Western Australia, daughter of an Aboriginal woman and a White cattleman. The child's European name was Gypsy. Under the terms of the Western Australian Aborigines Act (1905)—which gave the legal guardianship of Aboriginal children to a chief protector who was permitted to remove them from their parents—Gypsy and her half-brother were deemed to be orphans and taken from Argyle police station to Wyndham in 1906; the journey of some 150 miles (241 km) by foot took ten days. From Wyndham they were dispatched in the cattle-steamer, Bullara, to Fremantle and thence by train to the Swan Native and Half-Caste Mission, Guildford, an Anglican-run reformatory and industrial school. As was common practice, the children's names were changed: Gypsy became Jessie Argyle and her brother Thomas Bropho. She was interned there for thirteen years and trained as a domestic servant.

In 1920 Jessie was contracted to work at Bridgetown for her first employers; she held positions as a servant for the next decade. Aboriginal servants remained under the strict control of the Aborigines Department, received low wages for long working hours, and experienced poor living conditions, isolation, curfews and abuse. When she suffered from a recurring bone-disease in her left leg and required hospitalization, the department labelled her a 'malingerer' and in 1924 ordered her to go to the Moore River Native Settlement for twelve months to be 'cured'. She believed that the reason for her removal was her relationship with an Englishman, Edward Alfred Byron Smith, which contravened departmental views on inter-racial contact. Jessie worked in the sewing-room and in the nurses' quarters. Conditions at the institution were notorious and she eventually obtained her release after smuggling a letter to a previous boss. Although monitored by the department and by her employers, from 1925 she continued her liaison with Edward.

On 3 February 1930 Jessie and Edward were married at St Bartholomew's Anglican Church, East Perth, the department having changed its attitude and given permission. The house that the couple rented in Glendower Street, North Perth, became a focal point for the local Aboriginal community. It also provided a haven for domestic servants between jobs, for women visiting their children in institutions, for people seeking contact with relatives, and for those who simply wanted companionship, or to join one of Jessie's marathon card games. Departmental officials were unable to shed their prejudices and harboured suspicions that these gatherings served the purposes of crime and prostitution. During World War II a number of Aboriginal soldiers also stayed at Jessie's place. A large woman of strong character and dignity, Jessie was a lively raconteur, affectionately known as the 'Duchess of Glendower Street', or, more plainly, as 'Mum Smith'.

Suffering from diabetic ulcers, Jessie was admitted to Royal Perth Hospital in 1954. Her left leg was amputated. Friends and relations came to the hospital to give their support, to have a yarn and to play cards with her. Survived by her husband and daughter, she died there on 1 September 1955 of coronary insufficiency associated with septicaemia and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery. One of the real old girls had gone.

Select Bibliography

  • West Australian, 3 Sept 1955
  • Jessie Argyle personal file (Western Australian Department of Community Services, Perth)
  • E. Smith diaries and photographs (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

Stephen Kinnane, 'Argyle, Jessie (Gypsy) (1900–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/argyle-jessie-gypsy-9379/text16477, accessed 18 November 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012