This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000
Mulga Fred (c.1874-1948), Aboriginal buckjumper, was born about 1874, probably near Port Hedland, Western Australia. His parentage is unknown. Called Fred Wilson and also Fred Clark, he became an expert drover and horse-breaker, but never learned to read or write. After travelling to Adelaide by cattle-ship about 1905, he joined 'Broncho' George's rodeo troupe; he later toured with the Mulder brothers and with Billy Kinnear, riding in shows throughout south-eastern Australia. Nicknamed 'Mulga Fred', he gave outstanding performances at a buckjumping rodeo held at the Melbourne Hippodrome in June 1911, and subsequently won several Victorian titles.
By the 1920s Mulga Fred's 'beat' lay in the Wimmera and Western districts. From Lake Condah Aboriginal mission in the south, he toured as far north as Kaniva, Dimboola and Swan Hill; in addition, he regularly appeared at the Melbourne Royal Show. Kinnear regarded him as one of the greatest rodeo riders of their day. Fred was rarely thrown; he could vault on to a moving horse; and he could ride from 'head to tail'. He continued to ride buckjumpers professionally until the 1930s, then turned to giving exhibitions: his last, for ten seconds at Swan Hill in 1948, brought him thunderous applause and a shower of coins. In old age he concentrated on rural labouring, and on subtle horse-taming as distinct from crude horse-breaking. He was also an expert at stockwhip-cracking and boomerang-throwing. Crowds at the football and the show frequently saw him whip a cigarette paper from the hands and lips of a volunteer. While lying on the ground, he could even use a stockwhip to crack paper from his own mouth.
In 1917 the clothing manufacturers J. K. Pearson and J. L. G. Law had renamed their firm Pelaco Ltd. The company's advertising soon depicted a bare-legged and bare-foot Aboriginal man striding along in a pristine white Pelaco dinner-shirt and exclaiming: 'Mine Tinkit They Fit'. A. T. Mockridge drew the original sketch. By the 1930s 'Pelaco Bill' sported a monocle and cigar, or stood resplendent in shirt, tie and trousers beneath the Australian flag. What began as a racist play on civilization and savagery had become something more inclusive. Pelaco Bill proved popular for almost forty years and contributed to the company's rising fortunes. Mulga Fred always maintained that he was the model for Pelaco Bill. Although the company acknowledged his claim by sending him shirts, it has oscillated (from 1948) about its connexion with him.
Mulga Fred was 5 ft 10 ins (178 cm) tall, full-bearded and softly spoken; in later life he walked with a limp, a legacy of rodeo work. A favourite with children, he was respected by adults, even when cadging a 'shillin'. He never married and spent his earnings on his drinking mates. Between 1927 and 1940 he was gaoled fifteen times for drunkenness: he reacted sometimes with defiance, sometimes with gentleness and sometimes with wit. En route to an appearance at the Dimboola Regatta, he was killed when hit by a train on the night of 2/3 November 1948 at Horsham station. He was buried in the local cemetery with Catholic rites. His tombstone is engraved with a stockwhip and boomerang, symbols of the two cultures he mastered.
Richard Broome, 'Mulga Fred (1874–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mulga-fred-11194/text19953, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 1 May 2017.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000