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McGinness, Valentine Bynoe (1910–1988)

by Tony Austin

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Valentine Bynoe McGinness (1910-1988), rights activist for Aboriginal people of mixed ancestry, musician and songwriter, was born on 14 February 1910 at the Lucy tin mine, Bynoe Harbour, west of Darwin.  His parents, Irish-born Stephen Joseph McGinness, miner and prospector, and his wife Alngindabu (Alyandabu), a Kungarakany woman also known as 'Lucy', raised their four sons and a daughter as Catholics.  Officially designated 'half-castes', Val, his elder brother Jack and younger brother Joe, were to become anti-discrimination activists.

Val spent the first eight years of his life with his family at the Lucy mine.  Following the death of their father in 1918, Val and Joe became wards of the chief protector of Aborigines and were taken to the Kahlin Compound for half-caste children at Darwin.  Forced to abandon the mine, Alngindabu accompanied the two boys into Kahlin, where she found employment as a cook.  Val often recalled the grim living conditions that he experienced as a child in the compound, but most of all he resented the poor standard of education he received.  He was to be in his thirties before he learned to read and write properly, after enrolling in Bible studies and becoming a Jehovah’s Witness.

The boys absconded from the home in 1923.  Their sister Margaret and her husband Harry Edwards, who lived in Darwin, took them in and the authorities chose not to interfere.  Val was apprenticed to his brother-in-law and in 1927 became a qualified blacksmith and wheelwright.  On 20 December 1930 at Christ Church of England, Darwin, he married Isabella Hume, from Borroloola; they later divorced.

Streetwise and tough, respectful of the police but incensed by injustice, McGinness held a variety of jobs in the 'Top End', including truck driving, railway maintenance, highway construction and catching brumbies.  During the Depression he worked on a government peanut-farming scheme near Katherine, before becoming a highly skilled self-taught motor mechanic.  A noted Australian rules football player, he was an outstanding member of the legendary Darwin Buffaloes club; he was also an athlete, a boxer—he had won the welterweight championship of North Australia in 1928—and a woodchopper.

In the 1930s McGinness, while working in Darwin as a wardsman, driver and general handyman for the medical service, formed a firm (but sometimes tempestuous) friendship with Xavier Herbert, a pharmacist in the hospital.  Herbert, convinced of the 'racial strength' of people of mixed Aboriginal and European ancestry, described McGinness as 'a great Australian', and 'the truest Australian I have ever met'.  He used McGinness as the inspiration for the character of Norman Shillingsworth in Capricornia (1938).  McGinness family members also provided material for Poor Fellow My Country (1975).  When Herbert was appointed relieving superintendent of Kahlin Compound for eight months in 1935-36, the two men collaborated in an attempt to improve the living conditions of inmates, with small success.  In the late 1930s they prospected together and formed a short-lived partnership to mine tantalite.

Herbert and McGinness helped to form the Euraustralian League (later the Northern Territory Half-caste Association) to press for full citizenship rights for people of mixed descent.  The association played a major role in convincing the Commonwealth government to make provision for exemption from the 1936 Aboriginals Ordinance of adult half-castes who could show that they were 'worthy' citizens.  Curiously, in view of his involvement in the association, McGinness rejected the authorities’ blandishments to request exemption, claiming that he had been born a British subject and should not need to apply for his rights.  The chief protector C. E. Cook exempted him from the ordinance anyway—an indication of the regard authorities had developed for this strong-willed young man.

McGinness was a fine mandolin and Hawaiian steel-guitar player, composer of local folk music and prominent performer with the Darwin String Band during the flourishing string-band era of the 1930s.  Living in North Queensland in 1938-60, where he worked as a mechanic in and around Cairns, on the goldfields, aboard pearling boats and for the Queensland Irrigation and Water Supply Commission, he maintained his interest in music.  Back in Darwin from 1960 he was again involved in the Top End music scene.  Jeff Corfield described him as the 'keeper' of many of the tunes and songs played during the early string-band days; in order to preserve them, tape recordings were made in 1988 and deposited in the Northern Territory Archives.  On 27 March 1967 at the Country Women’s Association hall, Darwin, he married Jaina Thompson, née Assan, according to the customs of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Knowing that he was terminally ill, McGinness returned to Queensland in 1988.  Survived by his wife and the daughter and two sons of his first marriage, he died on 1 November that year at Atherton and was buried in the local cemetery with Jehovah’s Witness forms.

Select Bibliography

  • J. McGinness, Son of Alyandabu, 1991
  • T. Austin, I Can Picture the Old Home So Clearly, 1993
  • D. Carment and H. Wilson (eds), Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography, vol 3, 1996
  • F. de Groen, Xavier Herbert, 1998
  • F. de Groen and L. Hergenhan (eds), Xavier Herbert Letters, 2002
  • J. Corfield, String Bands and Shake Hands, 2010
  • J. Corfield, Keep Him My Heart (ms, 2005, copy on ADB file)
  • K. Mills and T. Austin, 'Breakfast Was One Slice of Bread', Northern Perspective, vol 11, no 1, 1988, p 1
  • Northern Territory News, 19 November 1988, p 4
  • J. Dickinson, interview with V. McGinness, NTRS 226 (Northern Territory Archives Service)
  • personal knowledge

Citation details

Tony Austin, 'McGinness, Valentine Bynoe (1910–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/mcginness-valentine-bynoe-14671/text25807, accessed 19 November 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012