Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Ellen Atkinson (1894–1965)

by Isobel White

This article was published:

View Previous Version

Ellen Atkinson (1894-1965), Aboriginal community leader, was born in August 1894 at Madowla Park, near Echuca, Victoria, fourth daughter of Alexander (Alick) Campbell, a labourer who came from the Baraparapa people near Kerang, and his wife Elizabeth, née Briggs, a descendant of Tasmanian and Port Phillip Aborigines. The Campbells moved across the Murray River to Cummeragunja, a government reserve in New South Wales, and Ellen remembered a happy childhood in a large, extended family: each of her parents had seven children by a previous marriage and four from their own. Ellen's family suffered intermittently at the hands of governments and bureaucracies: having shifted to New South Wales because of Victorian decisions to evict 'half castes' from Aboriginal settlements and to refuse them relief, they were to return to Victoria when authorities in New South Wales threatened to take their children to institutions for training as servants and labourers.

On 3 May 1911 Ellen married Edwin Atkinson (1888-1952) with Anglican rites at Christ Church, Echuca. They lived at Cummeragunja, a thriving, farming community, and had four children. Eddy worked as a carpenter, handyman and fisherman; in the harvest season they both picked peas, beans and fruit, and camped wherever there was work. In 1913 they were 'converted' by a 'native evangelist' from the Australian Inland Mission. Eddy began to preach, while Ellen assisted by playing the organ at services and by conducting Sunday School. Both of them were unpaid, so they continued to earn their living as they had previously done. In 1922 Eddy took over from his uncle as the local pastor, but remained unpaid. Appointed 'native helper' by the A.I.M. in May 1925, he was promoted 'native missionary' in 1928.

The Depression was particularly hard for Aborigines. The Atkinsons supported William Ferguson, William Cooper and Jack Patten who led Aboriginal protests against discrimination. Although the Aboriginal community had farmed Cummeragunja successfully, White settlers used pressure to have the fertile land appropriated and Cummeragunja was gradually dismantled. In 1939 the remaining inhabitants, including Eddy and Ellen, crossed the Murray River in protest and camped at Barmah, Victoria.

In 1940 the Atkinsons visited Melbourne and found that World War II had brought Aborigines better conditions, work and pay. They then travelled throughout Victoria, holding services in Aboriginal communities. The couple returned to Cummeragunja in 1941 and lived there contentedly for several years. Evicted after the war, they crossed into Victoria and settled at Mooroopna where Eddy became a salaried pastor for the Victorian Churches of Christ, with Ellen assisting as before. After his death in 1952, he was succeeded by a nephew (Sir) Douglas Nicholls.

Ellen continued to help in the local church. Known widely as 'Aunty Ellen', she was a loving mother and grandmother, a good neighbour, a community leader and 'a real battler'. She died on 30 August 1965 at Mooroopna and was buried in the local cemetery; her two sons and two daughters survived her.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Barwick, 'Coranderrk and Cumeroogunga', in T. S. Epstein and D. H. Penny (eds), Opportunity and Response (Lond, 1972)
  • I. White, D. Barwick and B. Meehan (eds), Fighters and Singers (Syd, 1985)
  • Australians, 1938 (Syd, 1987)
  • Pix, Nov 1941.

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Isobel White, 'Atkinson, Ellen (1894–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Campbell, Ellen

August, 1894
Echuca, Victoria, Australia


30 August, 1965 (aged ~ 71)
Mooroopna, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Key Places