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Mobourne, Ernest (1862–1918)

by Jan Critchett

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Ernest Mobourne (c.1862-1918), rural worker and Aboriginal leader, was born at Ettrick, near Heywood, Victoria, son of Jackie (Johnnie) Mobourne and his wife Eliza, both Aborigines. On 24 January 1893 at Lake Condah mission station Ernest married Margaret (c.1872-1917), who had been born on Glenisla station, near Balmoral, daughter of Aboriginal parents Robert Turner and Janet Callaghan. Ernest and Margaret had grown up on Lake Condah mission, established in 1867, and were well educated at its school. They had four sons, who died while young, and a daughter Ethel. From 1892 Ernest began to question the paternalism and authoritarian style of Rev. J. H. Stähle, the station's manager.

In 1897 Ernest wrote to the parliamentarian John Murray about mismanagement at Lake Condah. Falling out with Stähle, in May 1899 Mobourne moved to nearby Dunmore, where a number of 'half-caste' Aborigines, forced by government policy out of the station, had established themselves. To Stähle's dismay, other 'full blacks' followed. A police constable, sent to remove the 'pure-blood Aborigines' from Dunmore, reported that Ernest was 'without doubt a Bush Lawyer and the others recognise him as a sort of King or leader'. Ernest appealed to the Board for the Protection of the Aborigines not to allow force to be used against him, as he was 'earning a living' and 'much happier than I would be living on the Station'. By September 1899, however, the Mobournes were back at Condah.

Stähle was soon objecting that they wanted to roam the countryside 'in defiance of law and order'; he asked that they be moved to another station and their rations stopped. Ernest and Maggie responded by writing to the Hamilton Spectator and to the board and lodging a written complaint against Stähle with a justice of the peace. They were sent under an Order in Council to Lake Tyers station in Gippsland in March 1900, only returning to Lake Condah in 1903 through the intervention of the governor, to whom Ernest had written for help. In July 1907 Maggie eloped with Henry Albert, a 'half-caste'.

That year the B.P.A. decided to close Lake Condah and Ramahyuck stations. Lake Condah Aborigines fought to thwart these plans and Ernest played a leading role, petitioning the government and appealing to the ratepayers of the district for help—348 people signed the petition. Although Ramahyuck was closed, the protest saved Lake Condah mission, which was allowed to continue for a further decade.

Maggie returned to Ernest in December 1910. Stähle watched in disapproval as she came and went over the next few years, staying some months with Henry Albert, returning to the station when Henry left for shearing or other work, then living with him again when he returned home. Matters were further complicated by the birth in November 1911 of a daughter Dorothy ('Dolly'), fathered by Henry but raised as a Mobourne. When the Mobournes, upset by the behaviour of the station teacher, told Stähle that they planned to leave, he warned that they would be prevented from taking their daughter Ethel, who was still at school, and wrote to the board: 'these educated blacks are much more difficult to deal with than the old blacks were'. The Mobournes stayed.

Maggie and her baby Dolly were removed to Lake Tyers in January 1914. In August Ernest and Ethel were allowed to visit Maggie. Thereafter, despite constant requests, the board refused to allow him or his family to return to Lake Condah. In March 1916 he again wrote to the governor, bitterly complaining about his family's treatment by the B.P.A. and its secretary W. J. Ditchburn:

Why are we kept prisoners here and not permitted to return to our friends and our home? This country is free and we understand we are under the British flag, but it seems we [are] slaves in Mr Ditchburn's sight.
Maggie spent a month in hospital in Melbourne in 1916. She died on 30 May 1917 at Lake Tyers and was buried in the cemetery there. After her death Ernest was once more refused permission to go home to Condah.

Sociable and well liked, a fighter for justice, he was remembered by Joe Sharrock, a neighbour, as a 'happy sort. Orator, could speak good English, and once made a speech to the Governor. Very bald'. In his last years Ernest was a leader in Lake Tyers Aboriginal community, acting as a lay preacher and conducting services, with Ethel as organist. He died on 16 May 1918 at Bairnsdale District Hospital, and was buried in the local cemetery, survived by his daughter and by Maggie's daughter by Henry Albert.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Critchett, Untold Stories (Melb, 1998)
  • Portland Guardian, 11 May 1961, p 4
  • series B337, item 507, series B313, item 138 (National Archives of Australia)
  • series 1096, unit 51, S3275A, 1903, and series 3992, unit 1457, B5755 in file A5318 of 1907 (Public Record Office Victoria).

Citation details

Jan Critchett, 'Mobourne, Ernest (1862–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/mobourne-ernest-13103/text23705, accessed 26 September 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012