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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Wolmby, Isobel (1917–1989)

by Peter Sutton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Isobel Wolmby (1917-1989), Indigenous culture informant, a Wik Aboriginal woman also known as Kornomnayuh Telpo’ana Gothachalkenin, was born in 1917 in the bush south of Aurukun Mission, Cape York Peninsula, Queensland. Her mother, Yukwainten Wontuttin Peeoont Koowaytairun Marpoondin, was one of eight wives of Billy Wildfellow; Isobel was one of his seventeen children.

Isobel’s country was that of Wildfellow at Thaangkunh-nhiin, on the coast between the Knox and Kirke rivers. She called it ‘hungry country’ because of its paucity of resources. According to Isobel and her sister Telpoanna Yantumba, when they were young children Wildfellow and his family led a relatively isolated existence, staying by themselves at his base-camp Thaangkunh-nhiin for the wet season and seldom venturing much further than to go to nearby Knox River in other seasons.

Like most other Wik girls of her generation, Isobel was sent to school in the girls’ dormitory at the Aurukun Mission. This entailed periods of separation but she returned to her bush family for holidays and grew up multilingual and knowledgeable about the bush. Aged about 16, in 1933 she married Victor Wikmunea Teentingeitchya Wolmby (1905-1976), also known as Victor Coconut and Victor Pumpkin. Their only child, Marjorie, was born the following year. Victor’s male clan name Waalempay (hence ‘Wolmby’) referred to the ripples created as a shark cuts through the water. As a younger man Victor had been a pearl diver, absent for long periods in the lugger trade. Later he worked at the mission and on the coconut plantation at the mouth of the Archer River.

Rev. William MacKenzie, Aurukun’s superintendent, sent Victor and Isobel out into the bush as punishment for Victor’s having a son, Ron Yunkaporta, by another woman—Moira Walmbeng—in 1956. Banished for two wet seasons (well over a year), they joined the last of the Wik nomads who were not yet based at Aurukun, spending much time with the Old Arraman Mob between the Kendall and Archer rivers.

Victor helped to establish the first modern outstation on Cape York Peninsula, at Aayk on the Kirke River. On 2 June 1971 Alan Wolmby (son of Victor’s brother Colin) carved this date into a large tree. Victor rose to become the recognised head of the regional ceremonial group known as Apelech, and was both politically and ceremonially dominant in his later years.

In the 1970s Isobel Wolmby was recommended to the anthropologist Peter Sutton as a person of superior traditional knowledge of places and their stories and resources in the area between the Kendall and Archer rivers.  She was his principal linguistic and ethnographic informant, spending many months at Watha-nhiin Outstation, forty kilometres south of Aurukun, and in many bush camps over a large area.

Wolmby was a very strong personality, and a fighter, who had no time for men who showed weakness. She exemplified the combative competitiveness between the sexes in Wik society, an ancient psychology embedded in Wik legend and ritual practice as well as in daily life. In middle age, she decided her clan dialect should be called Wik-Iincheyn instead of Wik-Ngathan. Typical of the high political importance of names and titles in Wik thought, this act of self-differentiation arose from a conflict with others whose language was also Wik-Ngathan. Isobel’s politicking was vigorously local, though she took a distant interest in the tumultuous events surrounding the Queensland government’s takeover of Aurukun in 1978.

A non-drinker, at Aurukun on the night of 26 May 1989 Wolmby got into a heated dispute with a woman, Gladys Tybingoompa, who had been drinking. During the ensuing physical conflict, Wolmby died. Tybingoompa was charged and removed to Cairns. At the committal proceedings the magistrate found that no sufficient nexus existed between the cause of death of Wolmby (atherosclerosis) and the actions of the defendant, Tybingoompa. Isobel was buried in Aurukun cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Sutton, Wik-Ngathan Dictionary (1995)
  • Aurukun Mission diary for 1927, Box MS 2483/1, item 2, Aurukun Mission person cards (c 1927-76), Box MS 1525/34, item 239 (AIATSIS Lib)
  • Report concerning death by a member of the Queensland Police Force 26/5/89, file 89/101 (Aurukun Police Station, Qld)
  • Post-mortem examination report 42773, 7/6/89 (Office of the [Queensland] State Coroner, Brisbane)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Sutton, 'Wolmby, Isobel (1917–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 30 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Kornomnayuh Telpo’ana Gothachalkenin

Aurukun, Queensland, Australia


26 May 1989
Aurukun, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage