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Simon, Cinderella Jane (1902–1981)

by John Ramsland

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Cinderella Jane Simon (1902-1981), Aboriginal leader, evangelist and storyteller, was born in 1902 at Taree, New South Wales, daughter of Annie Russell, a Biripi woman who was a domestic servant. Ella’s father was probably Samuel Whitbread, a saddler at Wingham. Her maternal grandparents, Susan and George Russell, brought her up on the Aboriginal reserve at Purfleet, despite her non-Indigenous married father’s offer to adopt her. In 1909 her mother died of typhoid. Ella was educated at Purfleet Aboriginal Public School. Her grandmother (also known as Kundaibark) encouraged Ella to read the Bible aloud and taught her about Biripi culture and language through storytelling, an art for which Ella later became well known. Her re-telling of legends on local radio had a subtle, sometimes earthy, humorous twist.

Some time after Ella’s grandfather died in 1912 she was placed as a domestic servant with a local family. When she was 12 her grandmother told her about her father; until then she had believed that her grandparents were her parents. She and her father visited each other until his death in 1939. On 29 May 1916 at the Methodist parsonage, Taree, she married Clement Ritchie, a labourer.

An industrious, well-regarded domestic and child carer, Ella worked successively for several families, including one at Gloucester and another at Mosman, Sydney. She returned to Purfleet to nurse her grandmother, who died in 1932, and to support others on the reserve by her caring advocacy. Divorced in 1933, on 30 April 1934 at the Court House, Taree, she married Joseph Simon, a widower with four sons, who was a fine guitarist and singer. She had become an assertive and skilful spokesperson for her people with successive resident government managers, some of whom employed her as a domestic. During World War II she and Joseph grew vegetables at Avoca on contract for the army; he later worked as a professional fisherman. They returned to Purfleet in 1945.

The Simons were involved in exclusively Indigenous annual Christian conventions in north-east New South Wales. These conventions led, in 1947, to the formation of a self-governing Indigenous church and ministry. The long-serving Aboriginal pastor Bert Marr, of Purfleet, with whom Ella worked closely as an assistant, was elected as its evangelist. Ella and Joseph became travelling evangelists on a stipend provided by the United Aborigines Mission and spent considerable time at Gerard, near Renmark, South Australia, and Gulargambone, New South Wales. In 1956 the mission hall at Purfleet was reconstituted as the UAM church, Purfleet—an autonomous body with its own constitution. Marr was appointed pastor and Ella Simon served as church secretary and general assistant until 1961.

Granted certificates of exemption by the New South Wales Aborigines Welfare Board in 1957, the Simons were able to leave Purfleet without obtaining the manager’s permission. Ella did not miss the irony: ‘I had to have this piece of paper, like a passport, to give me rights in my own land; to be a citizen of Australia—my own country’. On her certificate she was described as a ‘light (caste) Aborigine’.

In 1960 Simon formed and became president of the Purfleet branch of the Country Women’s Association of New South Wales and mobilised other Aboriginal women to join. They worked hard to have electricity and stoves installed in the reserve houses for the first time. She helped to establish the Gillawarra Aboriginal gift shop, opened in 1962, and soon became the manager. Profits benefited the education of local Indigenous children and she arranged holidays for them outside the Manning Valley. Gillawarra, under her steady guidance, became a social and welfare centre for the Indigenous community. A baby health centre and a pre-school were created. In 1962 she was appointed a justice of the peace.

Simon moved into Taree when her Purfleet home was condemned in the late 1960s. She continued to work at Gillawarra until 1974. Drawing from a complex heritage—the spiritual and moral fibre of a syncretic Aboriginal-Christian faith—and using her considerable powers of persuasion, she fought against petty bureaucracy. In her autobiography Through My Eyes (1978) she noted that from childhood, because of her lighter skin, she had not always been accepted as Aboriginal. As a result she was critical of biological absorption and marriages between Aborigines and non-Aborigines; she abhorred all forms of racial prejudice. She was opposed to the ‘Black Power people’ who wanted the shop to be run solely by Aborigines. Instead, while upholding Aboriginal identity, she believed in the constant need to negotiate with the non-Indigenous community so as to move towards reconciliation. Predeceased (1961) by her husband, she died on 13 February 1981 at Taree and was cremated. Three of her four stepsons survived her.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Radi (ed), 200 Australian Women (1988)
  • S. de Vries, Strength of Purpose (1998)
  • J. Ramsland, Custodians of the Soil (2001) and The Rainbow Beach Man (2009).

Citation details

John Ramsland, 'Simon, Cinderella Jane (1902–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/simon-cinderella-jane-15750/text26938, accessed 18 November 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012