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Harrison, Eileen (1948–?)

PUBLICATION: Eileen Harrison and Carolyn Landon, Black Swan: A Koorie’s Woman’s Life, Allen and Unwin, 2011

NAME: Eileen Harrison

SEX: Female

BIRTH DATE: 1948

BIRTH PLACE: Lake Tyers Aboriginal Mission, Gippsland, Victoria

FIRST LANGUAGE: English

SIGNIFICANT LOCALITIES:

  • Lake Tyers Mission: Eileen’s birthplace, and home until she was 13.
  • Eileen returned to Lake Tyers when she fled form her parents’ house in Ararat, and stayed with Uncle Charlie and Aunt Phyl. (p.136) Eileen found that Lake Tyers had changed for the worse since her childhood, and she only stayed three months because she found this unsettling. (p.138)
  • Ararat, South-West Victoria:  The town, 132 kilometres away from Dimboola, where the rest of the Harrison family settled in 1963. Eileen sees the estrangement associated with this shift as a catalyst for the decline of her once stable family.
  • Warragul: where Eileen went with Laurie when she fled Ararat, and where he was caught for stealing a car and imprisoned for three months. (p.136) Laurie and Eileen moved to Warragul when they were married, and when Laurie's parents moved back to the mission they signed the house over to them. (p.15)
  •  Eileen left Warragul when she left Laurie, but eventually returned and started a new life there.
  • Geelong: where she moved to live with Margaret when she broke up with Laurie (p.185), and again to work for Geelong Employability. (p.196)

EXPERIENCE OF EDUCATION:

  • Eileen started school at the Lake Tyers mission in 1954. Unlike the physical work, she enjoyed the educational elements of the mission routine. (p.10) Eileen was always aware of the value of education, and was good at mathematics, handwriting, and art, but had difficulty spelling. (p.44-45)
  • Landon comments on the inappropriate reading material, which was based on the experiences of white, middle class families. However, Eileen claims that this didn't bother her as a child. (p.45) At the time, Eileen trusted and respected her teachers, and attempted to obey them. (p.47)
  • Eileen did however resent the school’s sexist standards. She noted that domestic skills were taught by the women to the girls, and the male teachers taught academic subjects, focusing their attention on the boys. (p.42)
  • Eileen also notes that her education was focused on the history of Anglo-Australians, and was designed to facilitate their entrance in settler-colonial society.
  • When Eileen’s family moved to Ararat, her attitude towards schooling soured. She was much older than the other students, and she felt alienated as the only Aboriginal student in the class, and was subject to racist taunts in the school yard. (pp.81-82)
  • She felt discounted by the teachers because of her hearing problems.
  • Eileen experience was so negative that eventually she left school (p.88), and refused to return, even upon the social worker’s command. (p.97)
  • It wasn’t until 1993 that Eileen reconnected with the education system. To provide support for her daughter Jacey, Eileen took Higher School Certificate subjects at the Macmillan TAFE College in Warragul. (p.193)
  • In retrospect, completing the TAFE course was a pivotal moment in Eileen’s life: the “beginning of something”. (p.194)
  • Eileen later studied fine arts at the Koorie Unit of the Central Gippsland TAFE in Morwell. (p.226) She received her Diploma in Cultural Studies and Art in 2003, and was the Central Gippsland TAFE student of the year. (p.228)

EXPERIENCE OF EMPLOYMENT:

  • At a young age, Eileen had to do laundry after she finished school. Eileen enjoyed the educational component of the mission routine, but didn't enjoy the taxing physical work.  (p.10)
  • When Eileen left school, Aboriginal Employment Service arranged for her to do three-month placements as a domestic worker. (p.94)
  • Her first position was on a farm 20 miles out of Ararat. Eileen cooked for farm labourers, did laundry work and cleaned. (p.98)
  • Aboriginal Employment Services then found her an interlude job in Lake Bolac, as a live-in nanny.
  • Eileen was then placed in a large and luxurious house Toorak, with the Bacon family. Eileen was well treated by the Bacon family, particularly the daughter, and made to feel part of the family. (pp.102-104)
  • Landon describes the Bacons' attitude as part of a general shift in white Australians attitudes towards Indigenous people. (p.102)
  • Eileen’s problems at home in Ararat increasingly came to affect her work. While Mr Bacon offered his help, Eileen was too embarrassed to talk about her problems, or to introduce the Bacons to her parents.
  • Eileen soon left the Bacon's home, she moved to the Littles in Cheltenham. Eileen liked Mrs Little, who was a hairdresser and often used to do her hair. However, again, Eileen’s personal problems interfered with her work life. (p.105)
  • Eileen returned to the Aboriginal employment services in 1991, and they arranged a job for her cleaning houses for elderly people (p.192) It became obvious to the staff at the Disability Employment services that Eileen was good at dealing with people with disabilities, and so they offered her a carer position. (p.195)
  • Eileen was then offered and accepted a position as a trainee employment consultant with Geelong Employability.
  • When Eileen returned to Warragul following her cochlear implant, she took up painting with the encouragement of Jenny Murray-Jones. (p.201) When her work was displayed at the Warragul Arts Centre’s Culture Day Eileen began making a living as a professional painter. (p.225)

IMPORTANT INSTITUTIONS:

  • Public Records Office in North Melbourne: Where Harrison and Landon's searched the records from the Lake Tyers mission, which included many "biased and derogatory" remarks about Harrison's family (p.40)
  • The Victorian Aboriginal Group: Recommended vocational training for all the Aboriginal children at Lake Tyers in 1930. These recommendations were still in place when Harrison started school. (p.42)
  • Victorian Aboriginal Advancement League:  An organization founded by Aboriginal Pastor Doug Nicholls and Stand Davey, with the aim of promoting “integration (rather than assimilation) of Aboriginal people with the rest of the community”. (p.54)
  • The Blackburn Branch of the Advancement League sponsored Eileen and other children from the mission to visit Melbourne and stay with a white family for ten days, so as to “get them acquainted with what was to come if their parent were pushed off the missions as the Board intended.” (p.54)
  • Harrison hated her first trip to Melbourne, when she stayed with "church people", who forced her to dress up as a "Mammy". (p.54) Due to her complaints, she was allowed to stay with her favourite teacher, Miss Binny, during her second trip. (pp.54-57)
  • The Church of England: Built the Harrisons a large weatherboard house in Ararat, which the moved into when they left Lake Tyers. (p.78)
  • The Aboriginal Welfare Board: Arranged and oversaw the Harrison family's relocation to Ararat, and monitored the family once they had moved. (p.78)
  • The Ararat Public Pool: The Harrison family were prevented from using the public pool in their new home town, which came as a major affront. (p.84)
  • Aboriginal Employment Service: Social workers forced Eileen to visit the Aboriginal Employment Service when she dropped out of school. (p.98) They arranged Eileen’s three-month placements as a domestic worker. (p.94) Eileen returned to the Employment Service in 1991, and they arranged a job for her cleaning houses for elderly people (p.192)
  • Salvation Army Children's Home in East Camberwell:  Where her younger siblings were placed after the police took them into custody (p158)
  • Winlaton Girls' Training School in Nunawading: A home for delinquent girls, where Eileen’s sister Margaret was taken when she was picked up by the police in Melbourne (p.162)
  • Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital:  Eileen first visited specialists about her hearing disability when she was 16. (p.104) In 1997, Dr Peyman from the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital recommended that Eileen have a cocheal implant. (p.198)
  • Warragul Arts Centre: An Aboriginal arts organization, which held a Culture Day where Eileen’s art was first displayed. (p.222-223) This marked the beginning of her professional career as a painter. (p.225)
  • Regional Arts Victoria: Eileen took part in their cultural development project, by participating in the “Possum Skin Cloak Making Project” which was made for the 2006 Olympics in Melbourne. (p.231)

IMPORTANT/INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE:

  • Mrs Miles: the mission manager, who used to clean Harrison's ear every morning (p.10), and inspect the Harrison home and children, and forced them all to cut their hair to prevent lice. (p.12-13)
  • Granny:  Her maternal grandmother, who was a fellow resident of Lake Tyer’s mission, was a central figure in Eileen’s informal education.
  • Aunty Lou and Uncle Boliva; A respected elderly couple who lived at the Lake Tyers Mission, who used to take Eileen and her sister camping, and taught her about the spiritual importance of the black swan. (p.27-28)
  • Miss Binny: A favourite teacher at the Lake Tyers school, who took Eileen and Clara Carter in to her home during their second trip to Melbourne, because they had complained about their previous trip. (p.54) The children enjoyed wearing Miss Binny's little sister's clothing, eating three course meals, sleeping in fresh beds, and going to the zoo (pp.54,-57)
  • Rhonda Leggett: Eileen’s sole friend at Ararat primary, who came from a large, shambolic house.
  • Mrs Jackson: Eileen’s first employer, who lived on a property outside of Ararat. (p.99) Mrs Jackson’s kindness softened the experience of having to leave home for the first time. Exposure to the Jackson’s family life awakened Eileen to her own domestic issues. (p.99)
  • Gywanda and Frank Matthews: the unofficial foster parents of Eileen’s sister’s Helen and Margaret. (p.115) The Matthew’s also arranged a place for her brother Roderick, and then took him in when his own foster parents were divorced (p.147)
  • Eileen herself stayed with the Matthews when in need, notably after she got in a fight with her father. (p.141)
  • Dr Peyman: Eileen’s regular doctor at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital. Dr Peyman gave Eileen excellent treatment, recommended that she get a cochlear implant, and coached her through the process. (p.196)
  • Jenny Murray-Jones: An educated Aboriginal women who became Eileen’s best friend when she returned to Warragul following her cochlear implant, and who encouraged her to paint. (p.201) Jenny encouraged Eileen to get involved with Koori Culture Day at the local high school, where she meet Carolyn Landon and Marceil Lawrence.
  • Marceil Lawrence: a woman from Yarrabah, who was invited to the Gippslands to help “unify the Koorie community there and bring them out of the shadows”. (p.215) Marceil introduced Eileen to Carolyn Landon, who later helped her to write her autobiography. (p.217)

SALIENT LAWS AND POLICIES:

  • Central Board for the Colony of Victoria established the Lake Tyer’s Mission in 1861. Its aim was to convert Aboriginal people to Christianity and train them as domestic and farm labourers. (p.11-12)
  • The Free, Secular, Compulsory Education Act of 1872 dictated that the Lake Tyers mission had to have the same education as every other school in Victoria (p.1) The emphasis of curriculum was changed in 1957, with the establishment of the Aboriginal Welfare Board, to a focus on “finding goals, working hard for the future and making choices." (p.46)
  • In 1886 the Aboriginal Protection Board attempted to exclude people of mixed-race from missions in Victoria. However, when it became apparent that “no 'half-caste' with black skin was going to be able to make it in the white world in 1890s” this law was reversed." (p.60)
  •  In 1961, the residents of Lake Tyers registered their complaints about the mission administration, and began the ‘Handover Campaign’ that ended with community representatives being granted freehold title in 1971. (p.67)
  • Eileen’s family did not participate in this campaign, because in 1963 her father relocated them to Ararat. Eileen had long queried her father’s decision. Archival research for the book revealed that the missionary manager Mr Miles had recommended the Harrison family to the Aboriginal Welfare Board as ideal candidates for the assimilation, which had become the official policy in 1957. (p.71) Eileen found the idea of the mission manager convincing her father to leave Lake Tyers offensive. (p.71)

PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH:

  • Harrison was born with a severe hearing impediment. Mrs Miles, the mission manager's wife, didn't believe her when she complained that she couldn't hear, and made Harrison visit her before school every day to have her ears drained. Later, when a specialist confirmed that Harrison was deaf, Mrs Miles apologised for her skepticism. (p.10)
  • Eileen impairment caused problems for her at school, and her teachers often chastised her for not listening.
  • When she was 15, she went on her own on a train from Ararat to visit the Royal Victorian Ear and Eye Hospital.
  • Her hearing affected her employment as a domestic servant. One of the reasons she lost her job in Toorak was because she couldn’t answer the phone. (p.105)
  • In 1997, Harrison got a Cochlear Implant at the Royal Victorian Ear and Eye Hospital. She was hesistant to get the implant, and immediately after she thought it had been a failure. (p.198)
  • However, after some training from Dr Peyman, Harrison began to feel the benefits of the operation.
  • The cochlear implant gave Harrison a new lease on life, and caused her to reflect on how much she had been held back by her hearing impediments.
  • When Harrison returned to Melbourne she succumbed to the heavy drinking that prevailed in her household in Ararat. (p.121) Eventually, she was forced to flee from her parent’s house, so as to avoid self-destructive behavior and abuse.
  • After the death of her son Brendan, Harrison became a depressed alcoholic, for about three years, before giving up cold turkey (pp.187-191)
  • After five years of marriage, Harrison’s husband began drinking heavily and being violent towards hers. (p.182)

PARENTS:

  • Harrison’s relationship father, Cedric Harrison, was stable while they lived in Lake Tyers. On the outside, Gwynda Matthews writes, Cedric "seemed a wonderful fellow: outgoing, at ease with people and always smiling." (p,171-172)
  • When they moved to Ararat, Cedric continued to go to work everyday, and brought home his wages. (p.109) However, Evelyn’s assessment of her father changed dramatically after she witnessed him sexually abusing her older sister Viv, and she realized that this had been happening for a long time. (p.109)
  • Cedric began working on the railroads, and would come home on the weekends with a large group of drinking partners. (p.109) After one drinking episode, he attempted to 'cuddle her up' as he had her now married sister. (p.125) Evelyn fought him off and reported the incident, however the police did not take the crime seriously. (p.126)
  • When Cedric starting beating her mother for running away, Harrison hit her father with an iron rod. (p.141)
  • When she left Ararat, Evelyn saw him just once (p.170), before discovering that Cedric was hit by a car in 1969, and died at the age of 43. (p.167) Evelyn denounced her association with her father.
  • However, as she learnt more about his life of "hardship and bitterness", she forgave her father somewhat for his considerable flaws. (p.174)
  • Maria Harrsion: While they were living at Lake Tyers, Maria and Cedric were considered a happy couple. (p.183) When Harrison was young, she relied heavily on her mother, and parting with her when she went to Melbourne was painful. (p.98)
  • Eileen remembers her mother crying on the train to Ararat, (p.75) and her father prevented her from returning to Lake Tyer. (p.108) When Eileen finished school, she noticed that her mother was depressed, and had taken to drinking and fraternizing with questionable men. (p.94-96) She speculates that this was because of idleness, loneliness and racism in Ararat.
  • When she began neglecting her children, Gywanda and Frank Matthews convinced Maria to relinquish her care of her older two to them. (p.94, 114-117) Eileen presumes that this well-meaning act in fact exacerbated the Maria’s condition. (p.114)
  • Eileen became frustrated with her mother’s behavior, and their relationship broke down. (p.117)
  • After Eileen had escaped from Ararat, and was living in Warragul with Laurie, her mother turned up again and informed Harrison that the police had taken her children into custody.
  • After Cedric died, Eileen looked after Maria in a house on Peace Avenue.
  • Maria then moved in with Eileen. She continued to drink and, on top of looking after her own children and her brother Roderick, this made Harrison's life difficult (p.174-175).
  • Maria soon disappeared and died of injures from a fight. (p.175) Reflecting on her misfortunes, Eileen forgave her mother as she did her father.

RELATIONSHIP WITH PARTNERS:

  • Laurie Moffatt: Eileen met Laurie through friends in Ararat. When the drinking and violence in her home became too much for her to handle, Eileen escaped with Laurie in a car that he had stolen. (p.127-129) As she was now in his care, Eileen felt obliged to succumb to Laurie’s sexual advances. (p.146)
  • Eileen had no sexual education, so she did not know that she was pregnant until Gwynda Matthews informed her. (p.146) Matthews then persuaded Laurie and Eileen to get married. (p.147)
  • Despite the pleasantries of the ceremony arranged by Matthews, Eileen felt the wedding was forced and unnecessary.
  • Eileen and Laurie’s moved to Warragul, and had a stable marriage for five years.
  • Laurie then started hanging out with "slim" (Lionel Rose) and his older cousins: took to drinking and became violent. Harrison concealed the domestic violence from the rest of the family, however it eventually became intolerable and they separated in 1983. (p.183)
  • Landon celebrated Harrison’s strength, in breaking the “classic pattern of family violence by leaving Laurie.” (p.184) However, at the time, Eileen felt defeated by the breakdown of her marriage, which increased her susceptibility to alcoholism.
  • When Eileen moved to Geelong some of the children moved back with Laurie (p.185) When Eileen visited Laurie in Warraful, it was obvious to her that her husband was neglecting her children. Eileen took her children and cut off communication with Laurie. (p.185)
  • When she began drinking heavily after the break up of her marriage and the death of her son, Eileen had an unsettling affair with one of the barmen at the Railway Hotel. (p.188)

RELATIONSHIP WITH CHILDREN:

  • Eileen was unaware of her first pregnancy, until Gwynda Matthews pointed it out, and encouraged her to marry Laurie Moffat, the child’s father. (p.146) While she had not planned to have a child with Laurie, Eileen nonetheless enjoyed motherhood. After Richard, their first son, Laurie and Eileen had Brendan and Jacey.
  • When Eileen left Laurie and moved to a caravan park, Brendan refused to live in a caravan park with Harrison's family. (p.186) Eileen relocated to a house in Sutton St so that her sons might live with her, however she was still unable to prevent Brendan and Richard from leaving home. (p.187) The absence of her teenage sons caused Eileen considerable anxiety, which proved founded when Brendon stole a car, took it for a joy ride, and was killed just before his 18th birthday (p.187) Brendon’s death exacerbated Eileen’s alcoholism.

MISSION LIFE:

  • Eileen gives an account of life of the Lake Tyers mission, or "the mish". (p.8) Eileen and Carolyn describe the history of the Lake Tyers mission, (p.31-33) the strict routines, chores and inspection, (p.8-11) the limited rations, which were supplemented by diary and garden – products and hunting (p.8-9) the mission layout, her family, the routines and daily work (p.5).
  • Eileen claims that, as it was all she was familiar with, life on the mission seemed normal to her. (p.5)
  • Despite this personal reflection, Carolyn claims that Eileen’s stories and comments show that “the routine of the place and the authority it gave certain people seemed unnatural and restrictive to most of the people at the Mission, not just the old people.” (p.13)
  • It was for these reason, she speculates, that Eileen enjoyed spending time in the forest behind the mission, where they used to play as children (pp.15-17) go fishing (18-19) tell stories around the fire (p.20) and learn to make baskets (p.21-22).

Family breakdown:

  • Eileen described the disintegration of her family life from the time the family left the Lake Tyers mission. Black Swan presents the Harrison family as one trapped in the cycle of alcohol abuse and despair, initiated by the Government's assimilationist policies.
  • Drinking became a frequent occurrence, and the children weren’t aware of the risks.
  • Eileen claims that fights were common at Lake Tyers. (p.112)
  • However, the fights at Ararat were different, because they were alcohol fueled, there was no arbitration, and the feuds were often within the same family. (pp.112-133)
  • The household situation was such that Eileen’s siblings were removed both officially by the child welfare department and informally by the Matthews. Eileen claims to have been unsurprised by the departure of her siblings.
  • Landon speculates that the removal of children added to the Harrison families’ self-replicating problems.
  • Eileen was distressed by the placement of her sibling in various institutions and homes. When she was older, and living with Laurie, Eileen made an effort to reconnect with her siblings, and to bring them to live with her.

ABORIGINAL IDENTITY AND ASSIMILATION:

  • Carolyn uses Eileen’s story as an example of the failing of the post-war assimilation policies, which sought to facilitate the absorption of Aboriginal communities into largely non-Aboriginal towns. Carolyn cites anthropologist David Thomson, who wrote an article in The Age on the 27 May 1963 claiming that the "the policy appears to be directed at breaking down the communal and family life of the aborigines in Victoria and dispersing them over the state." (p.73)
  • Carolyn and Eileen both hold these policies responsible for the breakdown of Eileen’s family, as it robbed them of their existential secure.
  • The experience of Eileen’s family – particularly their struggles with alcoholism and domestic violence – is seen as part of a general trend caused by pressures place upon Aboriginal people by assimilationist policies.
  • When Eileen began painting and connecting with the Gippsland Aboriginal art community, she got a feeling of pride and identification she believes was denied her by assimilation policies.
  • Eileen learnt many new things about Aboriginal culture, which she claims she was ignorant of because of her hearing problems as a child.
  • Eileen also believes she was able to express her innate knowledge of traditional Aboriginal culture, particularly through her art.
  • Eileen’s art works also draw from her life experience, including the history and early photography of the mission (p.31-33) the fight for the mission to become "self-supporting" (pp.67-68), her emotions about leaving the mission (p.69), and returning to TAFE. (p.194)

MODE OF LITERARY PRODUCTION: Black Swan is Eileen Harrison’s life story, as recounted by Carolyn Landon. Eileen’s story is told in the third person, and Carolyn plays an active role in recreating Harrison's past, often sharing her own reactions to the story alongside Eileen’s.

Additional Resources

Source Project

This biographical entry was contributed by Australian Indigenous Autobiography Archive

Citation details

'Harrison, Eileen (1948–?)', Indigenous Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/harrison-eileen-17792/text29370, accessed 18 November 2017.

© Copyright Indigenous Australia, 2012