Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Timbery, Emma (1842–1916)

by Maria Nugent

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Emma Timbery (c.1842-1916), Aboriginal shellworker, was born at Liverpool, New South Wales, daughter of Hubert Walden, farmer, and his wife Betsy, an Aboriginal woman. Emma, a Dharawal speaker, was sometimes given her stepfather's surname, Lond or Lownds. On 31 May 1864 at Botany she married George ('Trimmer') Timbery (c.1839-1920), an Aboriginal fisherman, who had been born in the Illawarra. They had eleven children.

George fished regularly between Botany Bay and the Illawarra area. By 1882 the Timberys lived at La Perouse, where Aboriginal women earned extra income by gathering wildflowers and making shell baskets, for sale in Sydney and the suburbs. Emma was particularly accomplished at this craft. Shellwork had probably been introduced by missionaries who had spent time in the Pacific—it apparently had no basis in traditional Aboriginal art forms. In addition to their baskets, Aboriginal women at La Perouse became well known for shell-adorned, heart-shaped boxes, baby shoes and boomerangs. While the work was a social activity, carried out in the company of other women, each shellworker had an individual style. Emma regularly displayed and sold her handiwork at the Royal Easter Show in Sydney; in 1910 it was included in an exhibition of Australian manufactures in London. One Sydney newspaper reported that it was 'almost fought for'.

From her conversion in the early 1890s, Emma worked closely with missionaries at the La Perouse Aboriginal settlement, from whom she learned to read a little. In 1894 the La Perouse Aborigines' Christian Endeavour Society was formed, and Emma became its vice-president next year. Through their Christian work, she and the missionary Retta Dixon became 'friends and comrades'. When Dixon was installed as missionary at La Perouse in 1897, Emma, in front of a large crowd, promised Retta's father and friends to be a mother to her. The two women often travelled together, visiting other Aboriginal settlements along the south coast to 'spread the word'. Emma made a valued contribution to the early work of the La Perouse (United) Aborigines Mission.

A photograph of Emma taken in 1895 showed a small woman with a gentle yet determined gaze. That year the six acres (2.4 ha) occupied by the La Perouse Aboriginal settlement was gazetted as a reserve for its residents' exclusive use. As the community matriarch, Emma became popularly known as 'Queen', or 'Granny' Timbery (sometimes spelt Timbury). She died on 26 November 1916 at La Perouse, survived by her husband and by three sons and one daughter. Emma was buried in Botany cemetery, 'in the presence of a large company of mourners', with her funeral expenses paid for by a 'white friend', indicating her close association with missionaries and their supporters. A tribute in the Australian Aborigines Advocate noted that 'many wreaths and other floral tributes were sent along, and numerous letters of sympathy from white and dark friends'. George Timbery died at Berry on 21 December 1920.

Emma's grandson Joseph (1912-1978) won repute as a boomerang maker, and demonstrated his throwing skill on the Eiffel Tower in Paris and for Queen Elizabeth II on her visit to Sydney in 1954. The family workshop became the Bidjigal Aboriginal Corporation, based at Huskisson, Jervis Bay. Three fig trees at La Perouse Aboriginal reserve were dedicated in 1986 to the memory of Emma Timbery. The tradition of shellworking continued to be practised by many of her female descendents, including her great-granddaughter Esme Russell, née Timbery.

Select Bibliography

  • E. J. Telfer, Amongst Australian Aborigines (Syd, 1939)
  • La Perouse: The Place, the People and the Sea (Canb, 1987)
  • J. Kerr (ed), Heritage: The National Women’s Art Book (Syd, 1995), p 449
  • S. Kleinert and M. Neale (eds), The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture (Melb, 2000)
  • Australian Aborigines Advocate, 28 Feb 1910, p 4, 30 Nov 1916, p 4
  • M. Nugent, Revisiting La Perouse (Ph.D. thesis, University of Technology, Sydney), 2001)
  • La Perouse Aboriginal Community oral history collection, MRS 278/1-9 (Powerhouse Museum, Sydney)
  • Timbery family papers (privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Maria Nugent, 'Timbery, Emma (1842–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/timbery-emma-13218/text23935, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 22 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Walden, Emma
  • Lond, Emma
  • Lownds, Emma
  • Timbery, Queen
  • Timbery, Granny
Birth

1842
Liverpool, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Death

26 November 1916
La Perouse, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Occupation