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Robinson, William Leslie (1896–1994)

by Lyn Brignell

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

William Leslie ‘Tracker’ Robinson (1896–1994), horse trainer, boxer, police tracker, and artist, was born on 16 March 1896 at Casino, New South Wales, youngest of three children of William Edward Robinson, horse trainer and special constable, and his wife Caroline. Young William was of Bundjalung descent. When he was about ten years old his mother died and he went to live with the Mitchells of Goolmangar. Bill Mitchell was a cream carrier, and during this time William developed skills as a horseman. At the age of fifteen he started boxing with Jack Ross’s travelling show. He began work as a coach driver at Keerrong and Goolmangar.

In 1916 Robinson went to Grafton for the annual cup carnival. He was recognised by a local policeman, who had observed his ability and fearlessness in dealing with the horses at Lismore police station—Robinson having taken charge of them when his father was on holiday—and who offered him a job at Grafton. On 10 April 1917 he married locally born Ruth Little at the Baptist manse, Grafton. Following her death in 1920, he married Grafton-born Mabel Evelyn Jackson on 18 March 1924 at the local Presbyterian manse. He would also share his life with Maude Daley and Kathleen Khan.

Robinson went on to have a lengthy career with the New South Wales Police Force. Promoted to sergeant in December 1945, he was renowned for his exceptional horsemanship and tracking skills. He also continued his boxing career. Known for his willingness to take on opponents of any class, he was able to overcome as much as a three-stone (19 kg) weight advantage with his speed and agility. During his years in the ring he held the bantamweight, featherweight, and lightweight titles for the North Coast.

Robinson’s distinguished police career was somewhat marred by the fact that, as a special constable, he was not entitled to a pension when he retired in 1961. This made life financially difficult. A special appeal was made to the premier, R. J. Heffron, but it was refused on the ground that it would set a precedent. It was not until Robinson was aged ninety-six that he received recognition for his service. At a civic reception in Grafton he was awarded certificates of honourable discharge and appreciation from the New South Wales Police Service. He ‘described [the event] as the most important thing to happen in his life’ (Wilson 1992, 1).

A self-taught artist, Robinson had painted for much of his life. In 1963 his career received a boost when his local Legislative Assembly member, W. R. Weiley, took two of his paintings to Sydney for appraisal. After they were exhibited and quickly sold, there was demand for more. The expert who did the appraisal commented on the ‘vividness’ and ‘freshness of color [sic]’ (Dawn 1964, 3) in his work. This is evidenced in his painting of Mount Warning held by the Grafton Regional Gallery, which fits broadly within the genre of naive painting, and shows a highly individualised sense of perspective and colour.

While Robinson did not believe that being Aboriginal had been an obstacle in his life, he recognised the difficulties his children would face if they were to succeed in white Australian society. His small cottage was home to a large extended family and although it was hard to make ends meet, all his children were encouraged to complete their schooling.

Athletically built, with a dignified bearing, Robinson possessed a deep spirituality, keen instinct, and innate talent honed by discipline. He had a wonderful sense of humour and a ready laugh, and at the age of ninety-six retained a ‘nimble, hopping gait’ (Wilson 1992, 1) and a twinkle in his eye. He died on 13 October 1994 at Grafton, survived by fifteen children. Three hundred family and friends attended his funeral at the Jehovah’s Witness church, Grafton, and he was accorded a guard of honour by the New South Wales police. He was buried in Clarence lawn cemetery, Grafton.

Select Bibliography

  • Dawn. ‘Former Black Tracker Succeeds as Artist.’ 13, no. 8 (August 1964): 3
  • Feirer, Mavis. Personal communication
  • McClymont, Mavis. ‘“Tracker” Bill is a Man of Many Skills.’ Daily Examiner (Grafton), 1 April 1978, 6
  • Moy, Mick. ‘Expert Sleuth of the Bush.’ Australian, 25 October 1994, 19
  • Wilson, Janine. ‘Police Finally Catch Up with Tracker.’ Koori Mail, 16 December 1992, 1

Citation details

Lyn Brignell, 'Robinson, William Leslie (1896–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/robinson-william-leslie-23121/text32381, accessed 19 December 2018.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012