In 1894 a notice was put in the Government Gazette that Jandakot Agricultural Area No. 2491 (101 acres) had been made a public reserve, and set aside ‘for the use of Frederick Lewington, Aboriginal Native.’
Frederick was about 18 years old. His mother Ellen (sometimes known as Mary Jane - most likely a result of life in missions where names were given and changed on the whims of white people), was an Aboriginal woman married to Robert Lewington, a white man, and the whole family lived at Coogee.
In June of the previous year, Ellen Lewington had written a letter asking for a grant of land to be given to her, not unheard of for Aboriginal people attempting to get by in colonial times.
The following documents chart the progress and responses to her request.
A request for a grant of land
8 June 1893
Honb. the Colonial Secretary
Sir I am a native of this country I was Born in the york District if you would be so kind do your best to get me a grant of land and what the Government be pleased to give me I will be thankful for whatever they may be pleased to give me.
I remain your Humble Servant Ellen Lewington
Ellen’s letter was written by someone else, as she was illiterate. Other documents have her signing herself with an X, a common way for illiterate people to acknowledge their consent.
‘The character and respectability of Ellen Lewington’
As part of the investigation into her request, the Colonial Secretary (who was responsible for Aboriginal matters at the time) asked local police and magistrates to look into the ‘character and respectability’ of Ellen Lewington.
Ellen and Robert had been together 25 years, but only married for 12. They had had several children together, but Frederick was the only one who had survived into adulthood. Ellen was well known to the Fremantle police and law courts, having been charged with drunkenness many times since the 1880s, including once at the Woodman Point Racecourse.
Aboriginal people were disproportionately charged with alcohol-related offences during much of the 19th and 20th centuries, as it was illegal for them to drink, and illegal for white people to supply them with alcohol. Any level of drunkenness was considered a breach of the law, unlike for non-Aboriginal people who would have to meet a level of publicly unacceptable behaviour before police took action.
Ellen’s record with alcohol, on top of being an Aboriginal woman, was enough for the officials handling the case to disqualify her from being presented with land in her own right. In fact, the official who made the first declaration of her unsuitability wrote the following letter explaining his reasoning:
‘The original lords of the soil’
13 June 1893
There appear to me several good reasons why Mrs Lewington's application for a block of land should be regarded favourably:-
1st: As a descendant of the original lords of the soil, dispossessed by a superior race without compensation.
2nd: As being sufficiently attractive to captivate a white man of apparently sound mind and body and after twelve years of unlawful intercourse to retain such influence over him as to induce him to make an honest woman of her.
3rd: The courage and constancy of the man Lewington demand a dowry with his wife.
However as the lady is of depraved habits it would perhaps be well to settle and land granted upon the son.
This letter, addressed to The Premier from the Colonial Secretary’s office, was the first to suggest giving Frederick the grant. From then on, this suggestion was considered the most sensible option and became the government’s official stance. The attitudes displayed caused no comment from anyone involved in the case, so we must assume they were considered sensible and reasonable at the time.
Police report from Fremantle
The police report, made by an inspector in the Fremantle district, was turned in five days later, and included the story of Ellen and Robert’s 25-year relationship history, as well as the following passage:
Robert Lewington and his son are steady and work hard. Ellen Lewington often leaves home and is away for several days at a time and is a great drunkard. At the present time she is away from home and has been abroad about 5 days. Assumed to be somewhere about Fremantle.
Robert Lewington would later place a notice in the Daily News stating that his wife, ‘a native of this country’, had deserted her home and that he would not be responsible for any debts incurred by her.
Newspaper advertisements in this period were common methods of dispersing public information: similar advertisements would have been placed when businesses changed hands, or when land was bought and sold. It gave men a legal standing if debtors should attempt to hold them responsible for things they had publicly renounced - such as wives.
'A worthless creature': the Fremantle Magistrate’s suggestion
Fremantle Resident Magistrate Robert Fairbairn, a man who sat in judgement of many people over his long years in office, had this to say about the Lewingtons after meeting with them:
Mrs Lewington being a worthless creature I would recommend that the land be given to the son who informs me he would willingly accept. The parents are quite willing that the grant should be made to their son direct. They would like to select the land at or near Coogee.
Letters flew between departments, and it was agreed at the end of June 1893 that Frederick could select a block of about 100 acres and apply to the Survey Department for approval.
Ellen’s last attempt
No more letters were recorded until Ellen Lewington, with help, wrote a new letter to the Undersecretary for Lands in February 1894:
With reference to my application for a free grant of 100 acres of land, as an aboriginal, I beg to ask that the grant be made in the joint names of my son Fred Lewington and myself, instead of his own name.
If you will approve of my request, I beg to be allowed to select Jandakot lot 234.
This was refused on the same grounds as before, and it was reiterated that Frederick needed to apply for the land himself.
In March 1894, Frederick (who was also illiterate) had a letter written, which he signed with an ‘X’:
To the Hon Commissioner of Crown Lands
In answer to your letter no. 64/379 I have the honor to apply for Jandakot Agric. Area Lot 234, 101 acres and wish the application may meet with your approval.
I remain sir
Your obedient Servant
Granting the land
The selected block lay on the north-eastern border of Thomson’s Lake Reserve, which is further inland than what we now think of as Coogee. But at the time, the southern end of the Cockburn district was all known under the umbrella name of Coogee, and it was a thriving market garden community.
Robert Lewington was later recorded as living at Fawcett Road in Coogee, which may have been the family’s original home.
The final step was to have this block of land declared a reserve and let it to Frederick under certain land regulations, which was done by May 1894. Nothing was recorded of how they lived on their land, or what improvements were made to it.
The file contains some further notes that tell a sadder story than this somewhat satisfying ending.
‘Wandering about uncared for’: Frederick’s mother in 1905
In June 1905, Henry Prinsep, the Chief Protector of Aborigines (a position
created after Federation) wrote to the Under Secretary for Lands and stated the following:
The native woman Mary Jane Lewington is wandering about uncared for by her son who is in occupation of the block of land near Fremantle, set apart for her occupation with her husband. I consider that unless he performs his natural duties towards his mother the intentions of the Government are not being carried out. If it is possible I think he should be made to pay a sum of money, say from £15 to £18 per year for the old woman's support, or be deprived of the land.
‘Mary Jane’ in this circumstance is almost certainly Ellen; it is most likely a relic of Aboriginal life in missions, where children were named and renamed at the whim of mission staff. It is entirely possible that she had a ‘legal’ name and one she was known by in social life.
All the notices about her court appearances use the name Ellen, for example, but her husband used the name Mary in his declaration that she had deserted her home in 1894, suggesting that this was the name she gave out to people in person.
Cancelled land grant
The reply to this sad notice was that Frederick’s right to the reserve had been cancelled in 1901, and the land was now held by J.C. Anderson. It is likely that Frederick had his right to the land cancelled as a result of his involvement in a serious assault at Coogee in 1898, which resulted in him being sent to prison with hard labour for a year.
That this was unknown to the Chief Protector, supposedly the man with the most involvement in Aboriginal affairs, is a telling indictment of the situation in Western Australia at the time.
Frederick later went to live with his father Robert at his Fawcett Road home, which he inherited on Robert’s death in 1921, and lived quietly as fisherman.