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Poltpalingada Booboorowie (1830–1901)

by Robert Foster

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Poltpalingada Booboorowie (c.1830-1901), Aboriginal fringe-dweller, better known as 'Tommy Walker', was a Ngarrindjeri man, reputedly born on the shores of Lake Albert in the upper south-east of South Australia, son of a man who was reportedly killed in a tribal fight with Kaurna people. Poltpalingada worked for settlers, and may have travelled to the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s. 

Unlike many of his countrymen who gravitated to Point McLeay Mission (Raukkan) after its establishment in 1859, he was more often a visitor than a resident, spending most of his life travelling among a network of fringe camps that emerged as European settlement displaced Aboriginal people from their country. He was one who, by choice or circumstance, spurned the restrictions of mission life for a precarious freedom that often brought trouble with the law. By the 1870s his constant companion was Mary. After she died in 1892 he was usually in the company of Ada Walker (Niledalli). Photographs and sketches depicted him with a full white beard and grey felt top hat, wearing a ragged jacket or tail-coat, and barefooted. He was also the subject of several portraits by the Adelaide artist Oscar Friström.

By the 1890s, perhaps for no other reason than force of personality, Walker became prominent among the community of fringe-dwellers in Adelaide. The press often reported on his activities and his numerous appearances in court, usually on charges of being drunk and disorderly, using insulting language or begging alms. These accounts revealed a man with a sharp wit and acid tongue. At times, his begging resembled a sort of street theatre in which he would parody the magistrate bringing down his sentence and imposing a fine. His activities inspired cartoons and doggerel.

One of many stories about Walker, recalled by Aboriginal people at Point McLeay mission, was that when in church the communion cup was passed to him, Tommy seized and drained it, crying eagerly, 'Fill 'im up again!' A renowned mimic, he spoke good English and scorned being addressed in pidgin. 'His goings out and comings in were watched with great interest, most especially by juveniles . . . ''It's a funny thing”, he exclaimed on one occasion, ''that a gentleman can't walk along the footpath without a crowd of kids after him”'.

In May 1901 he came to Adelaide with Aborigines from Encounter Bay to see the visiting Duke of York. 'Pollapalingda—known as Tommy Walker' died on 4 July 1901 in Adelaide Hospital. The Adelaide Stock Exchange paid for his headstone in West Terrace cemetery. But he was not laid to rest. In 1903 it was revealed that the coroner Dr W. Ramsay Smith had removed his skeleton before the burial and sent it, along with other 'anthropological specimens', to the University of Edinburgh. In an era when evolutionary anthropology was in the ascendant, a board of inquiry found that the coroner's actions had been 'indiscreet' and that he had allowed his 'zeal in the cause of science to outrun his judgment'.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Foster, ‘Tommy Walker Walk up Here . . .’, in J. Simpson and L. Hercus (eds), History in Portraits (Syd, 1988).

Citation details

Robert Foster, 'Poltpalingada Booboorowie (1830–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/poltpalingada-booboorowie-13154/text23813, accessed 25 September 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Walker, Tommy
Birth

1830
South Australia, Australia

Death

4 July 1901
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Occupation