• Aunty Esme Timbery, Uncle Charles 'Chicka' Madden, Aunty Sandra Lee and Uncle Dennis Foley shared their family stories. (NITV & NSW State Library)Source: NITV & NSW State Library
The project contains beautiful family histories from Aunty Esme Timbery, Uncle Charles 'Chicka' Madden, Aunty Sandra Lee and Uncle Dennis Foley.
Dijana Damjanovic

11 Aug 2021 - 11:10 AM  UPDATED 11 Aug 2021 - 11:10 AM

In his younger years, Uncle Dennis Foley's grandmother and aunties would tell him how Sydney used to be before development.

"You can see the freshwater pond, which later became the dairy, the old fishing pond and you can see how isolated the Northern Beaches were," he writes.

"That's why Aboriginal people survived here in such numbers up until the 1950's. The real settlement of the northern beaches happened after World War II ... it just blew out after that and it's never stopped."

The Gai-mariagal man's oral histories have been captured as part of a new digital experience by the New South Wales Library.

Four widely-respected Sydney Elders - Aunty Esme Timbery, Aunty Sandra Lee, Uncle Charles 'Chicka' Madden and Foley, have contributed their stories to the exhibition, which for the first time has been converted to online.

Sydney Elders is curated by Jonathan Jones and tells a personal story of Aboriginal Sydney - from the north, east, south and west.

It looks at how the subjects have continued the legacy of their ancestors through their contributions to the city.

The interactive online exhibition shows snippets of interviews combined with moving and intimate photography of the subjects.

It was designed to emulate the feeling of sitting down and having a cup of tea with an older family member.

The exhibition also gives rare insight into the Aboriginal experience in the city at the centre of colonisation.

"As Sydney has grown, it has continued to colonise Aboriginal lands, people and knowledge," said Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi curator Jonathan Jones.

"Every Sydney Aboriginal family has had their own way of dealing with colonisation, their own story of resistance and methods of survival."

Uncle Dennis Foley's family stories from the northern beaches reflect these themes.

He said he feels lucky to be born on his mother’s country but while his grandmother loved him dearly and doted on him, his early memories were of poverty.

“We didn’t have much, hunger was fairly common,” he told the exhibition.

He said in the 1950s, there were a few fringe camps around the harbour, and the main camp was at Narrabeen beach which at the time, was isolated and untouched.

By the 1960s the camp disappeared, when the land was converted to a National Park.

“I remember… the bulldozers came in and they just loaded the people up into a tip truck.. they took them out to Rooty Hill,” he told the exhibition.

Mr Foley worked in education and has published a book on his country, Repossession of Our Spirit: Traditional Owners of Northern Sydney.

Aunty Esme Timbery

Aunty Esme Timbery is a celebrated Bidjigal artist and elder from the Aboriginal mission community of La Perouse in Botany Bay.

Laperouse is the only Sydney suburb where Aboriginal people have kept their land from settlement until today.

The Timbery family can trace their ancestors back to pre-contact times.

"They were fishing there when Captain Cook came in, and they'd been fishing there for years and years and years," she said in the exhibition.

Ms Timbery has memories of life at Laperouse being centred around fishing, shell collecting and the church.

"Shell work is very important to me because my great grandmother was the first one to do it, and my mother,” she told the exhibition.

“And now I'm doing it, now my daughter's doing it, my granddaughters are doing it,” she said.

"I want them all to keep doing it. I don't want it to die out cause it's something, it's been in the family for so many years that it's got to keep going”.

Uncle Charles 'Chicka' Madden

Uncle Charles ‘Chicka’ Madden is from Gadigal country and was a student at Redfern Public School when the Second World War ended in 1945.

“After the war, you had a lot of the Europeans came out here from all over Europe.. It was probably one of the best things that happened for the Aboriginal community… cause we got called all the names in the early days… and when they came out, well, they got called the different names,” he told the exhibition.

Mr Madden said he enjoyed sharing his memories of the Redfern area for the project.

“It was good to talk to people about what I’ve done and where I have been, it was lovely,” he said.

Chicka Madden spent most of his life working in the construction industry around Sydney, especially around the Redfern, Waterloo and Mascot areas, which he said would have been the industrial hub of Australia at the time.

“There’s lots of good memories of the things I’ve done while working in construction, and so many things I’ve helped build are still there,” he said.

Aunty Sandra Lee

Aunty Sandra Lee is a Dharug Elder from Blacktown and is a window to the early days of life for Aboriginal people in Western Sydney.

"In those days, it wasn't smart to talk about being Aboriginal.. but since 1960, it's a lot better", she told the exhibition.

Dharug traditional lands are said to cover 6,000 square kilometres, including the mouth of the Hawkesbury River and stretching as far west as Mount Victoria in the Blue Mountains.

It takes in well-known Sydney suburbs of Liverpool, Campbelltown, Camden, Penrith and Windsor.

Evidence of Dharug life in the area includes stone tools, rock shelters, art sites, shell middens, burials and scarred trees.

Sandra Lee is related Maria Lock, to the first Aboriginal woman to marry a European and own property.

"It was built into my genes that Blacktown was home, Maria Lock, my great, great, great aunt, she was down at the institute," she told the exhibition.

"The government in those days was by putting people in institutes, was trying to teach them the white ways while the government knew where they were and could control them," she said.

Ms Lee said the site of the institute today is just vacant land with a few trees and her ancestors used to hand the land down from generation to generation.

She'd love to get the site given/returned to the Dharug people, after the paperwork was lost.

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