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Reid, William John (Bill) (1917–1993)

by Ian Howie-Willis

This article was published online in 2019

William John Reid (1917–1993), Aboriginal welfare worker and emu egg carver, was born on 23 January 1917 at Wee Waa Aboriginal Reserve, New South Wales, youngest of four children of New South Wales-born parents Frederick William Reid, labourer, and his wife Charlotte Helen Josephine, née Leonard, a Kamilaroi woman. Bill was partly raised by his grandmother, because his mother often had to leave the reserve to work as a laundress on nearby pastoral stations. His grandmother taught Bill traditional Kamilaroi hunting and gathering skills. He attended school for two years at Wee Waa before the family moved to Pilliga Aboriginal Reserve. At the age of eight, shortly after resuming school at Pilliga, he was permanently blinded in his right eye after colliding with a girl holding a pen. This resulted in his nickname, ‘one-eyed Bill.’ Leaving school at fourteen years of age, he worked as a ringbarker and drover.

Enculturated to be ashamed of his skin colour, Reid lost touch with the Kamilaroi language and culture until the late 1930s. After meeting Aboriginal leader Bill Ferguson in 1939 he became involved in the Aborigines Progressive Association. In 1938 the APA had mounted a Day of Mourning protest and conference in Sydney to mark the sesquicentenary of European settlement. Ferguson persuaded Reid to attend the APA’s second conference at Dubbo as a Brewarrina delegate. Elected APA secretary, he joined Ferguson on a tour of the north coast missions and reserves to recruit members and rally support for the association. During World War II he joined Jimmy Sharman’s boxing troupe, touring around Australia. He later blamed boxing for having ‘addled’ (Reid 1993, 29) his brain.

On 9 September 1961 at the United Aborigines Mission Church, Bourke, Reid married Marjorie Isobel Smith. He subsequently obtained a permanent job with the Bourke Shire Council and involved himself in the life of the UAM Church. This helped him overcome a drinking problem he had developed during his years as an itinerant boxer; he eventually stopped smoking as well. He became a lay preacher at the church and, although unordained and untrained for the ministry, was known as ‘Pastor Reid.’ Much respected in the town, he joined the local Rotary Club and became involved in community welfare projects. With Wally Byers, another Aboriginal community leader, in 1971 he founded the Bourke Aboriginal Advancement Association (AAA). Reid was the president and Byers the treasurer. Reid and Byers became full-time AAA field officers. Their main focus was the construction of low-cost Aboriginal housing in the town rather than on the mission, to help Aboriginal people integrate into the wider community.

During Reid’s five years as an AAA field officer (1971–76), he became closely associated with Max Kamien and John Cawte, medical practitioners who were interested in Aboriginal health in the Bourke district. They recognised that improved Aboriginal health depended on medical practice being successfully related to Aboriginal society and culture; both regarded Reid as their mentor in this respect and formed enduring friendships with him.

Despite his lack of formal education, Reid succeeded in gaining a field officer’s position in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra in 1976. His duties included travelling widely among Aboriginal communities and assisting them in making applications for Commonwealth funding. He held the position until his retirement in 1982. Living in Tamworth—in the heart of Kamilaroi territory—he divided his time between painting and pyrogravure (‘pokerwork’); helping to retrieve the Kamilaroi language by building vocabulary lists; giving talks on Aboriginal culture to schools and community groups; granting interviews to newspapers and journals; and carving emu eggs, an artform for which he was renowned. In 1992 he composed a country and western-style song, ‘Pollution,’ the title and opening couplet hinting at his resentment of the effect of European settlement on Aboriginal society: ‘You introduced your alcohol, to sap us of our will. To gain possession of our land, you even stooped to kill’ (Koorie Mail 1993, 6).

Predeceased by his wife and two of their nine children, Reid died on 8 October 1993 at Dubbo Base Hospital and was buried at the Bourke cemetery. His grave remained unmarked until 2017 when Kamien engaged a local Aboriginal artist, Bobby Mackay, to produce a headstone. The National Museum of Australia holds a set of sixteen emu eggs carved by Reid and collected by Cawte.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Ellis, Rose. ‘Stories for Sharing: Mr Bill Reid Senior.’ Aboriginal and Islander Health Worker Journal 17, no. 6 (1993): 28–30
  • Howie-Willis, Ian. ‘Reid, W.’ In The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia, Vol. 2, edited by David Horton, 936. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1994
  • Kamien, Max. The Dark People of Bourke: A Study of Planned Social Change. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1978
  • Koori Mail. ‘Bill Reid Sees Reconciliation from Another Point of View.’ 6 October 1993, 6
  • New Dawn. ‘News from Bourke.’ January 1972, 4–5

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Ian Howie-Willis, 'Reid, William John (Bill) (1917–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/reid-william-john-bill-28252/text35953, published online 2019, accessed online 18 August 2019.

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