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Cohen, Bill (1914–?)

Bill Cohen, To My Delight, Aboriginal Studies Press, 1987, Canberra

SEX: Male

BIRTH DATE: 1914

BIRTH PLACE: Jeogla Station

FIRST LANGUAGE: English, then Gumbangarri

SIGNIFICANT LOCALITIES:

  • Paddy Gully: The traditional lands of the Gumbangarri clan, to the east of Armidale in Northern New South Wales. (p.2)
  • Jeogla Station: Bill was born in a bark hut at Jeogla Station, where his father worked for Arthur Wright. (p.6)
  • Fairburn Station: Bill moved to Fairburn Station, on the banks of the Maiden Creek, as an infant. (p.6)
  • Sandy Creek Station: Bill lived with his father at Sandy Creek Station after his mother died, until he started having nightmares and was sent to live with his sister Jessie. (p.10)
  • Lower Creek Station: Jack Cohen took Bill to live with his sister Jessie and her husband Doug at Lower Creek station after his wife died.(p.14)
  • Pee Dee: Bill moved from Lower Creek to Pee Dee station with his sister Jessie and her husband Doug. (p.14)
  • Kunderang Station: Jack collected Bill from Pee Dee and took him to Kunderang Station, where he had found work mustering for the Fitzgeralds (p.14) Bill returned to work at Kunderang for extended periods throughout his life.
  • Dyamberin Station: Jack and Bill moved to Dyamberin Station when the mustering at Kunderang was finished.  (p.17)
  • Armidale: Jack sent Bill from Dyamberin Station to live with his Aunt Nell in Armidale, so that he could attend school. (p.18)
  • Bill spent time playing football and cricket in Armidale while working on surrounding stations. (p.31) He also rode in the Armidale rodeo. (p.41)
  • Kindon Station:  A station in Queensland owned by the MacKenzies, where Bill worked with his father when he was fourteen. (p.22)
  • St Helena Station: Bill worked with his father on the St Helena Station, about 20 miles from Armidale, in his late teens. (pp.29-30)
  • Woolbrook: Bill moved to Woolbrook when he got an offer to play in the all-Aboriginal rugby league team. (p.49)
  • Tamworth: Bill travelled to Tamworth with Alf and found work on a property on the Upper Peel River. (p.61)
  • Moorabank: A property outside Tamworth, where Bill worked as a dingo hunter. (p.64)
  • Maitland: Bill lived in a hotel in Maitland and played rugby league in the local competition. (pp.70-72)
  • Newcastle: After leaving Maitland Bill proceeded to Newcastle and began boxing at the local gym. (pp.73-74)
  • Nulla Nulla Aboriginal Reserve: Bill’s wife and family lived at the Nulla Nulla Aboriginal reserve, which was near Kunderang Station and Kempsey.
  • Sydney: Bill lived at the Sydney Showgrounds while training for the army in 1939. (p.106)
  • Dubbo: Bill was sent to a training camp in Dubbo when he enlisted in the Australian army. (p.106)
  • Lithgow: As part of his army duties, Bill was sent to protect the Lithgow Small Arms Factory. (p.108)
  • Caroona Aboriginal Reserve: An Aboriginal mission north of Sydney, where Bill’s friend Curly lived. (p.118) Bill moved his family to Caroona so that he could work on the railways. (p.126)
  • Kempsey: Bill and his family were offered a house in Kempsey after kidney disease forced him into early retirement. (p.146)

INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL:

  • n/a

EXPERIENCES OF EDUCATION:

  • Bill had a few weeks schooling at Nulla Nulla Aboriginal Reserve while living on cattle stations near Lower Creek station with his sister and father. (p.13)
  • Bill’s father sent him to live with his Aunt Nell in Armidale when he was ten, so he could attend the Ben Venue School with his cousins. (p.19) Bill was reluctant to start school, but made friends quickly because he was stronger, faster and a better tennis player than the other child. (pp.19-18)
  • Bill was an excellent fighter, and describes himself as the school bully. (p. 59) He left school when he was fourteen to start droving with his father. (p.22)

EXPERIENCES OF EMPLOYMENT:

  • Bill began working for the Mackenzies at Kindon Station at the age of fourteen. (p.23) His jobs included making the fire, cutting wood and milking the cows. (p.24) Bill recalls that he was well treated at Kindon Station and that he considered staying on permanently. (p.24)
  • After Jack collected him from Kindon, Bill and his father began working at Dyamberin station. (p.28) Bill wanted to work for his childhood friend, Brud, who had become the manager of the station; but was invited to play cricket in Armidale instead. (p.29)
  • Bill returned to droving with his father on St Helena Station in 1931. He also played rugby league and cricket for teams in Armidale. (pp.29-32)
  • Bill’s father advised him to leave St Helena, when Jack learnt his son was having an affair with one of the domestic staff. (p.32) Fortunately, Bill was offered work as a milk boy, groom and roustabout at Kunderang station. (pp.33-34) The manager, Herb O’Neill, tutored Bill in horsemanship and encouraged him to take part in rodeos. (pp.41-44) Bill also started boxing professionally, and made ten pounds from his first match at the Kempsey show. (p.38)
  • After leaving Kunderang station, Bill got a job cutting sleepers for fences.
  • Bill spent his weekends at the Nulla Nulla Aboriginal Reserve, and lost most of his money gambling. (p.48) While at the reserve he received a letter offering a position in the Woolbrook, all-Aboriginal rugby league team. (p.49)
  • Bill walked back to Armidale after the season ended, and camped on a rubbish tip. (p.54) He made a name for himself as a bare-knuckle fighter, after beating an Aboriginal man who also lived at the Armidale dump. (p.54)
  • Bill left Armidale with his friend Alf, and jumped trains to Tamworth to look for work. (p.61) The pair met a farmer who offered them work on his property on the Peel River in exchange for food. Bill and Alf lived in a stockman’s hut, and hunted black ducks and rabbits. (p.61)
  • Bill then spent three weeks mustering cattle, shooting dingoes and fishing for salmon on a property named Moorabank. (p.62) He was paid two pounds a week plus nine pounds for the dingo scalps. (p.65)
  • Back in Tamworth, Bill entered the rodeo and won eight pounds as the runner up in the buckjumping competition. (p.66) He then got a job in a gang, cutting burrs for two pounds a week. (p.67)
  • When the burr cutting work ran out, Bill and five Aboriginal work mates travelled looking for work. One night, when they were camping in a railway goods shed to avoid the rain, Bill punched someone who he thought was trying to make them move on. He soon learnt that the man was a policeman. Fortunately, the young detective didn’t charge Bill, and gave him two pounds for food.  (p.68)
  • Bill was approached to play rugby league for East Maitland while on his way to Taree. (p.69) He was offered accommodation in the groom’s hut at the back of a hotel, two pounds a week, and three meals a day at the hotel. (p.70) Bill left the region when East Maitland failed to qualify for the semi-finals. (p.72)
  • By the time Bill reached Newcastle, his reputation as the “Bare Knuckle King of the Tablelands” had preceded him. He took the boxing name of Maxie Williams and was offered a spot training at Tom McGuire’s gym. (pp.73-74) Bill slowly adjusted to wearing gloves and fighting in a ring, and won his first amateur fight. (p.75)
  • Bill then travelled through Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria with Harry John’s boxing troupe. He was paid three pounds a week, and given free meals and access to the circus. (p.75)
  • Bill boxed in Melbourne for a month, until he earned enough to return to northern New South Wales. (p.75) He returned to Tom McGuire’s gym in Newcastle, and lived on his boxing earnings and rations. (p.80) He spent the following three months collecting and selling paspalum seeds on the Purfleet Mission, before playing another season of rugby league for the Bellbrook team. (p.82)
  • Bill returned to Kunderang Station as head stockman at the request of the new manager, Alec McDonnell. He earned a living mustering, and trapping rabbits and dingoes. (pp.82-89). He told Uncle Dan
  • When the mustering finished, Bill sustained himself by hunting dingoes and doing contract work. (pp.90-95) He then returned to Kunderang as a permanent employee. As head stockman, Alec entrusted Bill with the responsibility of caring for the property while he was away. (p.103)
  • Bill decided to enrol in the army when war broke out. He wanted to prove his courage to himself and others. (p.105)
  • Bill was sent to train as a soldier at the Sydney Showgrounds. (p.105) He recalls being called out of the practice trenches when Japanese submarines were discovered in Sydney Harbour. (p.106)
  • From Sydney, Bill was sent to Dubbo for further training. Bill excelled at orienteering and shooting. (p.108)
  • The army drills kept Bill physically fit, and he was able to beat the other soldiers in boxing matches. (p.107)
  • Bill spent two months in the Holsworthy Prison Camp, after punching and kicking a fellow officer. He was then sent to protect a small arms factory at Lithgow in the Blue Mountains. (p.108) From Lithgow, Bill’s unit was sent to the Gulf of Carpentaria. He spent the next eight months rebuilding an old army headquarters. (p. 113)
  • Bill was forced to leave the Gulf of Carpentaria when he contracted a virus. Upon returning to Sydney he was dishonourably discharged for getting into fights. (p.116) He returned to northern New South Wales and found work on the Carson banana plantation for the next two years. (p.117) Bill also served as the vice-captain of the Taylors Arm cricket club. (p.118)
  • Bill returned south with his cousin Harry and joined underground railway gang. (p.120) He relocated his family to the nearby Caroona Aboriginal Reserve. (p.126) After three years, construction on the railways stopped and Bill returned to the Nulla Nulla Reserve. (p.126)
  • Bill found work at Towal Creek Station near Nulla Nulla. (p. 129) He did stock work, trapped dingoes, and also taught horsemanship to the station owner’s sons. (pp.130-138)
  • After six years Bill returned to work for Alec McDonnell as head stockman at Kunderang Station. He stayed in this role for the next ten years, until he developed a kidney problem and was put on an invalid pension (p.146)

EXPERIENCE OF RELIGION:

  • Bill was a non-practicing Christian. He described the Bible as the “wonder book”. (p.115)

IMPORTANT INSTITUTIONS:

  • Kempsey District Hospital: Bill spent six weeks at the Kempsey Hospital after breaking his arm as a child. The nurses were very kind to him, and often took him for walks along the river. (p.14)
  • Holsworthy Prison Camp: Bill was sent to Holsworthy for three months after he punched and kicked a man who called him a ‘blackfellow’. (p.108) After two months he was released for good behaviour. (p.108)

SALIENT LAWS AND POLICIES:

  • n/a

PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH:

  • Bill broke his arm climbing a lemon tree as a child. He tried to hide the injury, and subsequently had to spend six weeks in the Kempsey District Hospital (p.14)
  • Bill had twelve teeth removed and spent nine weeks in a hospital while serving in the Australian Army during the Second World War. (p.109) He also contracted a virus while working in the Gulf of Carpentaria. (p.114)
  • Alcohol became a problem for Bill while he was working on the railways in Sydney. (p.123) On one occasion he had an attack of the “horrors”, and thought that small monkeys were chasing him. (p.124) Bill’s drinking created kidney problems, and he was compelled to give up alcohol later in life. (p.146)

RELATIONSHIP WITH PARENTS:

  • Sarah Cohen (Widders): Bill’s mother met Jack Cohen while he was working at Kangaroo Hills Station, and they had eight children together. Bill was Sarah’s “pet” son, and he loved her dearly. (p.8) He was distraught when she died giving birth to his youngest sister.
  • After his mother’s death, Bill’s siblings were sent to live with various family members. (p.8).
  • Jack Cohen: Bill’s father was taken to live on Oban Station as a baby, when his mother married the Gumbungarri leader, King Bobby. At the age of nine, King Bobby agreed to send his adopted son to work for the station owners, the Coventrys. (p.3)
  • The Coventrys sent Jack to school when he was eleven years old. (p.3) He fled the school and returned to live with the Gumbangarri tribe after being caned by one of his teachers. (p.3) Jack was initiated at the age of sixteen, and prepared for leadership. (p.4) Bill believes his father left the clan, and went to work for the Wrights at Kangaroo Hill Station, because he did not want to take over from King Bobby. (p.5)
  • While working at Kangaroo Station Jack married Sarah Widders from Walcha, and they had eight children together. (p.9) The Wrights recommended Jack for a job as a blacktracker in the nearby town of Ebor. (p.5)
  • Sarah died while giving birth at Fairburn Station. Jack subsequently sent all of his children to live with relatives, except Bill, who he took with him to Sandy Creek Station. (p.8)
  • Bill stayed with his father until he started having nightmares, and was taken to live with his sister Jessie. (p.10)
  • Jack collected his son some years later, and took him to work at Kunderang station. (pp.15-23) Jack then left Bill to work at Kildon station for Mr MacKenzie. (p.24) Mr MacKenzie was an excellent employer, and wanted Bill to stay on at Kildon, but Bill decided to follow his father when Jack returned. (p.25)
  • Later in life Jack Cohen worked at Long Flat near Kunderang. Bill was able to visit him often and bring him corned meat. (p.103)

RELATIONSHIP WITH PARTNERS:

  • Vera Chalker: Bill’s first relationship was with a domestic servant named Vera who worked at St Helena Station. (p.31) Bill decided to end the affair and leave the Station, when Jack warned him that Vera’s father would become violent if he found out. (p.32)
  • Maisie Bugg: Bill had a relationship with Maisie Bugg while working at Kunderang. (p.37) He was very popular with Aboriginal women at the time, which often created conflict. (p.38)
  • Maisie Nevell: Bill met and fell in love with Maisie Nevell at the Purfleet Mission. (p.80) Despite his affection for Maisie, Bill felt a strong desire to leave the mission and continue his travels. (p.81) One night he decided to flee Purfleet, without telling Maisie why he had left or where he was going. (p.81)
  • Esther Kelly: Bill describes Esther as girl with a pretty face, who walked with a limp. (p.94) She and Bill decided to marry when she fell pregnant. (p. 94) Esther tried unsuccessfully to stop Bill enrolling in the army in 1939, because they had three children by this time. (p.104)
  • While in the Army hospital, Bill had an affair with a pretty young German nurse. (p.110)
  • Bill had another affair with a young Chinese woman who he met while travelling back from the Gulf of Carpentaria. (p.115) He justified his infidelity by claiming that God created women for man’s pleasure. (p.115)

RELATIONSHIP WITH CHILDREN:

  • Bill had his first son with Esther in about 1936. (p.95) They had eight children together in total, who lived with their mother at Nulla Nulla Station. Alf and Greta were Bill’s favourites. (p.125)
  • When Bill’s son Ronnie was old enough to work, he came to live with his father at Kunderang Station. (p.146)

IMPORTANT/INFLUENTIAL FIGURES:

  • King Bobby of Oban: Bill’s adopted grandfather was one of the last kings of the Gumbangarri tribe. (p.1) King Bobby lived at Paddy Gully, but travelled widely, and was well liked by the neighbouring tribes. (p.2)
  • Bill’s grandmother and her young son, his father, were presented to King Bobby at a ceremony near Nymboida. (p.2)
  • The Coventrys: The Coventrys owned Oban station, which overlapped with King Bobby’s traditional land at Paddy Gully. When Bill father’s was nine, King Bobby’s took him to work for the Coventrys. (p.3) They sent Jack to school and gave him the name Cohen. (p.3)
  • Grandfather Widders: Bill’s maternal grandfather was a great stockman, and was once the manager at Cooplacurripa station. (p.7)
  • Doug and Jessie Archibald: After his mother died, Bill’s father left him in the care of his sister Jessie and her husband Doug at Lower Creek Station. (p.7)
  • The Fitzgeralds: The owners of the Kunderang station, where Bill spent time living while his father mustered cattle. (p.14) The daughters, Eileen and Flora Fitzgerald, were skilled with horses and often took Bill fishing or to the orchard. (p.15)
  • Maurice Wright: The Wrights owned Dyamberin station, where Bill moved with his father, Jack, after the mustering at Kunderang was finished. (p.15) Jack left Bill at the station homestead while he was away working, and he became good friends with the Wright’s son, Maurice. (p.17) Bill was very sad to say goodbye to Maurice when he was sent to school in Armidale. (p.18)
  • The MacKenzies: The owners of Kildon Station in southern Queensland. Mr MacKenzie noticed that Bill was a good rider, and offered the fourteen year old a job on the station. Bill liked Mr Mackenzie, and so agreed to stay on at Kildon while his father was away working. (p.23)
  • Mr Mackenzie was a kind employer, and Bill enjoyed learning from him and living at Kildon Station. (p.24) Bill considering staying at the station long term, but decided to follow his father when Jack returned. (p.25) Mr Mackenzie offered Bill a job as head stockman if he returned to Kildon as an adult. (p.26)
  • Tom MacDonnell: A boxer who was once the “Bare Knuckle King of the North Coast”. (p.38) Tom witnessed Bill’s fight with a jealous man at the Kempsey show, and offered his encouragement and advice about boxing.  He told Bill that to wear bandages dipped in rosin water and dried in the sun, to cut an opponents face in a long fight. (p.38)
  • Herb and Marjorie O’Neill: The managers at Kunderang station when Bill worked there as a teenager.
  • Herb worked alongside Bill and tutored him in horsemanship. (pp.39-44) He also encouraged him to take part in the Armidale rodeo. (pp.41-42)
  • Alf Jarrett: an older Aboriginal man, who Bill fought and trained with in Armidale when he was eighteen. (p.58) Alf convinced Bill to leave Armidale to look for work in Tamworth. (p.61)
  • Tom McGuire: Tom offered Bill a spot training at his boxing gym in Newcastle. (p. 74) He was angry when Bill left the gym to travel with Harry John’s boxing troupe. (p.75)
  • Pelky Jackson: Bill’s boxing partner at Tom McGuire’s gym in Newcastle.
  • Pelky offered to fight Bill after he returned to Newcastle from travelling with the circus. (p.78) The gong sounded for the end of their match, just as Bill was about to beat Pelky. (p.78)
  • Bill noticed that Pelky was punch drunk, showing signs of brain damage from repeated blows to the head, and promised to quit boxing before he became the same way. (p.80)
  • Alec McDonnell: Alec was the manager at Kunderang after the O’Neills. (p.84) He often entrusted Bill with the responsibility for the property while he was away. (p.103)
  • Jack Weir: The manager of the Nulla Nulla Aboriginal Reserve, where Bill’s family lived. (p.115) Jack gave Bill rations and took him shooting on the mission’s truck. (p.116)
  • George Cohen: Bill’s brother, who was also working at Kunderang station after the war. (p.116)
  • Curly Barker: A member of the railway gang that Bill worked with in Sydney. (p.121) Bill became good friends with Curly, and began visiting his home at the Caroona Aboriginal Reserve. (p.122) On one occasion, Curly bet on a horse for Bill and they won five hundred pounds. (p.125)
  • The Landers: the managers of Towal Creek Station. (p.127) Bill worked as a stockman for W.B Landers, and taught horsemanship to his two sons, John and David. (pp.129-130)

PREOCCUPATIONS:

  • Gumbangarri culture: Bill’s father was the adopted son of King Bobby and an initiated member of the Gumbangarri tribe. Bill avoided initiation under Thungatti law while living at the Nulla Nulla Aboriginal Reserve. When Jack Cohen learnt about this, he took his son to the local bora ground to initiate him according to Gumbangarri law. (p.92)
  • During the initiation ceremony, Bill and his father both painted their bodies with clay. (p.92) Jack did a chant to call upon Gumbangarri gods, covered Bill with the smoke of burning bush oaks, and circumcised him with a pocketknife. (p.93) Bill remarks that ‘Gumbangarri tribe so near to the Jewish law…’ (p.93)
  • On the last date of the initiation ceremony, Jack killed a bush turkey and shared the meat with his son. (p.93) From that time on, according to Gumbangarri law, Bill wasn’t allowed to face his Aunt Grace. (p.94)
  • Bill also relays the Gumbangarri method of making canoes by burning a large piece of bark until it becomes soft, and then using a strong green stick to tie the ends together. (p.113)
  • Bill is concerned that Gumbangarri knowledge will be lost when the elders die. (p.146)
  • Racial Discrimination: Bill recalls defending himself against racial slights. (p.70) He got into a thirteen round fight with an Irishmen who called him ‘black’. (p.71)
  • Bill got in another fight with an older man who called him ‘darkie’. (p.71) He knocked the fellow out quickly, and spent the next day worrying that he had killed him. (p.71)
  • While training for the army, Bill punched and kicked a man who called him a ‘blackfellow’, and was sent to Holsworthy Prison Camp for two months. (p.108)

MODE OF LITERARY PRODUCTION:

  • To My Delight was written by Bill Cohen. See Editors Preface by Helen Williams, and Foreword by Judith Wright.

Additional Resources

Source Project

This biographical entry was contributed by Australian Indigenous Autobiography Archive

Citation details

'Cohen, Bill (1914–?)', Indigenous Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/cohen-bill-17787/text29363, accessed 24 September 2017.

© Copyright Indigenous Australia, 2012