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Gribble, Ernest Richard Bulmer (Ernie) (1868–1957)

by Christine Halse

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Ernest Richard Bulmer (Ernie) Gribble (1868-1957), Anglican missionary, was born on 23 November 1868 at Chilwell, Victoria, eldest of nine children of English-born parents John Brown Gribble, a miner who became a missionary, and his wife Mary Anne Elizabeth, née Bulmer. Educated at The King's School, Parramatta, where he excelled at sport but was academically 'backward', he left in 1885 hoping to join the New South Wales Artillery. His parents dissuaded him. In January 1886 he went to Western Australia to help his father establish a mission on the Gascoyne River in the State's North-West. When the enterprise was abandoned, Ernie worked as a stockman and drover until parental pressure and a salary of £60 per annum enticed him to accept the curacy of Tumbarumba, New South Wales. In 1892 he was summoned to help his ailing father at Yarrabah Aboriginal Mission, near Cairns, Queensland, and found himself in charge after his father died on 3 June 1893. Driven by filial obligation and guilt, Gribble reluctantly embraced a missionary career. He was made deacon on 21 December 1894 and ordained priest on 1 January 1899. At St John's Anglican Church, Cairns, on 18 April 1895 he had married Emilie Julie Wriede; they were to have three sons.

His theology was a mix of High Church Anglicanism and muscular Christianity. A Social Darwinist in attitude, Gribble was paternalistic and authoritarian: compulsory church attendance, the Protestant work ethic and the Europeanization of Aboriginal culture prevailed on his missions. He segregated the sexes, confined children in dormitories, and satisfied his thwarted military ambition through regimentation, uniforms, parade-duty and mission police. Recalcitrants were imprisoned or given corporal punishment. Aided by legislation to enforce the removal of Aboriginal children to the mission, the population of Yarrabah rapidly increased. Yet, an embryonic indigenous Church also emerged to provide Aboriginal missionaries, synod representatives and the deacon James Noble. Such achievements won Gribble acclaim. Missionaries were sent to study his methods; he led expeditions in 1902, 1904 and 1905 to pioneer the Mitchell River mission, and was invited to establish others. In 1900 he had been appointed absentee warden of the mission on Fraser Island; he imposed his system there until the mission closed in 1904 and most of its people were transferred to Yarrabah. In June 1907 he and his wife separated. Gribble became involved with an Aboriginal woman; their daughter was born in September 1908. As a vocal opponent of miscegenation, he was tormented by the affair and suffered a mental and physical breakdown. The Church demanded his resignation from Yarrabah and he 'retired' on 17 June 1910.

In 1911-13 he served as rector at Gosford, New South Wales, where he wrote 'Life and Experiences of an Australian mission to the Aborigines' for the Gosford Times (1915). He then took charge of the Forrest River mission, in the far north of Western Australia, which relied on forced removals to build a permanent population. There he became a vocal protector of Aborigines who were abused by local pastoralists and police. In 1926 he helped to expose a massacre of Aborigines by a punitive police expedition; his demands for justice attracted international publicity and led to a royal commission (1927). Although its verdict entrenched Gribble's reputation as a champion of Aborigines, he was plagued by episodic depression and accusations of maladministration. In 1925 his licence had been temporarily withdrawn after mission staff and the local doctor reported that he was mentally unstable. Lean and virtually bald, with intense blue eyes, Gribble had 'altogether the appearance of a bushranger'. In 1928 A. P. Elkin described him as a 'conceited, uncouth tyrant' who ran a 'stud farm' for breeding natives. In June the Australian Board of Missions found Gribble guilty of financial mismanagement, authoritarianism, violation of Aboriginal traditions and an 'obsession with sexual morality'. Gribble's dismissal was sealed when he concealed from the police the complicity of a mission resident in a tribal murder. He left the mission on 20 November and defended his record in three autobiographical works: Forty Years with the Aborigines (Sydney, 1930), The Problem of the Australian Aboriginal (1932) and A Despised Race: The Vanishing Aboriginals of Australia (1933).

From 1930 Gribble was Anglican chaplain to the government Aboriginal settlement at Palm Island, Queensland. His rivalry with the Catholics fostered sectarianism, but he quickly acquired a large congregation by initiating an active social life centred on his church; he even used his dog to herd parishioners into services. While his authoritarianism persisted, his campaigns for Aboriginal rights won him respect. In 1939 he established the James Noble Fund to give Palm Islanders access to secondary education. He corresponded with William Ferguson and worked with William Cooper for Federal control of Aboriginal affairs, and was made a life member of the Australian Aborigines' League. Elevated to canon in June 1941, Gribble was appointed O.B.E. in 1956. He was a prolific contributor to Church journals; his memoirs, 'Over the Years' and 'The Setting Sun', were published in the Northern Churchman (1932-34, 1945-47). Although elderly, frail and almost deaf, he refused to retire from Palm Island. In 1957 the Church forcibly removed him to Yarrabah where he died on 18 October that year and was buried in the mission cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal Commission into the Alleged Killing and Burning of Bodies of Aborigines in East Kimberley and into Police Methods when Effecting Arrests, Parliamentary Papers (Western Australia), 1927, 1 (3), p xvii
  • Missionary Notes, May 1895, Sept 1900, June 1901
  • Western Australian Church News, Jan 1914, Aug 1925
  • Australian Board of Missions, ABM Review, July 1916, Dec 1918
  • Northern Churchman, Dec 1931, Nov 1938, Jan 1942, Feb 1944
  • C. M. Halse, The Reverend Ernest Gribble and Race Relations in Northern Australia (Ph.D. thesis, University of Queensland, 1992)
  • Palm Island journals of E. R. Gribble (North Queensland Diocesan Archives, Townsville)
  • Forrest River Mission journals (State Library of Western Australia)
  • Board of Missions in Sydney and in Western Australia, correspondence and minutes (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Gribble papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Christine Halse, 'Gribble, Ernest Richard Bulmer (Ernie) (1868–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gribble-ernest-richard-bulmer-ernie-10367/text18363, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 26 September 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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