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Dennison, Charles (Charlie) (1846–1956)

by Jodi Haines

This article was published online in 2020

Charlie Dennison, Toomelah, 1938

Charlie Dennison, Toomelah, 1938

family photograph

Charles Dennison (1846–1956), stockman, horse-breaker, horse whisperer, and cultural man, was born in 1846 at Whalan Creek station, Boomi, New South Wales, second of four children of Charles Dennison, a white man, and ‘Kitty’ Cubby, a tribal Aboriginal woman. He was from the Gomeroi (Gamilaraay/Kamilaroi) nation. Known as Charlie, he was married at least four times. His wives were Eva Wightman, Amelia Wightman, Ida Cubby, and Elise Hippi, and his descendants include Albert (Denny) Dennison (1896–1970), a veteran of World War II. He raised his families on Gomeroi country on reserves at Euraba (established 1912) and Toomelah (established 1927) near Boggabilla, northern New South Wales.

There are limited records of Dennison’s life in the 1800s. Born at a time when stock routes and lands were being appropriated by squatters and pastoralists on the Macintyre, Gwydir, and Barwon rivers, he survived an era of heightened tension and violence in the wake of the 1838 Myall Creek massacre, which saw seven white men executed for the murder of twenty-eight Murris (Aboriginal people). He began working for pastoralists as a stockman at a young age, honing his skills and living on country for days, weeks, and months at a time. At Boobera Lagoon, an important sacred site to the Gomeroi people, Dennison most likely would have practised his culture and language with his family. While working on a property at Moree in 1899, he was committed for trial on a charge of stealing and killing one sheep from an adjacent property, Moorelands station. What became of these charges is unknown. It is likely that he needed the meat to feed his growing family.

Well known as a horse-breaker, Dennison learned to soothe horses by playing tunes on a gum leaf, a skill he later taught his son Albert. As a stockman, he travelled far and wide, which allowed him to avoid the restrictions on movement imposed by the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Act 1909. This changed with his family’s compulsory relocation to reserves managed by the Aborigines Protection Board (APB), including Euruba. In 1919 Spanish influenza killed fifty-four out of one hundred people at Euraba and conditions there were so poor in 1926 that the board’s own inspectors described the reserve as ‘wretched’; ‘lack of water in dry times and floods in the rainy seasons being its principal defects’ (NSW Aborigines Protection Board 1927, 2).

Fluent in his Gamilaraay language, Dennison shared cultural knowledge with his family and with the anthropologist Norman B. Tindale, who visited Toomelah reserve in 1938 as part of the Harvard–Adelaide expedition. The ninety-two-year-old was filmed making a canoe from the bark of a red gum tree, demonstrating not only his deep cultural knowledge in the form of detailed and meticulous instructions, but also his youthful spirit. To everyone’s amazement, he climbed into the finished canoe at the end of the demonstration. His age was no barrier and he continued to ride horses into his hundreds.

In the late 1940s Dennison lost his sight in one eye in a mustering accident. He gave up riding horses in 1951 after cataracts impeded his sight in the other eye. The Australian public began taking notice of the nation’s ‘oldest aboriginal’ (World’s News 1952, 28) when stories about him in Dawn, the APB’s magazine, were reprinted in mainstream newspapers and magazines. A doctor at Goondiwindi Hospital read about him and offered to restore his sight. The operation was successful, Dennison reporting on his release from hospital that he was ‘as happy as a two-year-old’ (Barrier Miner 1953, 3).

In December 1953 Dennison’s daughter Leila wrote to the Sydney-based newspaper Truth asking for money to help her father realise his greatest ambition: to see Queen Elizabeth II during her tour of Australia the following year. He had ‘been loyal to five monarchs’ during his lifetime, Leila wrote, and seeing the Queen would make him the ‘proudest man alive’ (Dennison 1953, 47). Plans were made to take Dennison to Toowoomba to meet the Queen, but they were cancelled at the last minute, devastating Dennison who was dressed and ready to go. A keen gardener, he grew fruit trees in his backyard at Toomelah where his grandchildren often played. He died on 24 March 1956 at Goondiwindi Hospital and was buried in Boggabilla cemetery. His family and community remember him as a wise, resilient, and gentle man whose longevity and ability to survive the harsh conditions of his time enabled him to pass on his language and immense cultural knowledge, and to leave a legacy that will live on through the multiple generations of his family, his Gomeroi people, and beyond.

 

Jodi Haines is a Gomeroi woman from her father’s side with Tasmanian European heritage from her mother’s side, and is Ida Cubby and Charlie Dennison’s great-granddaughter. Born and raised in Tasmania as a member of the palawa community, she maintains proud strong connections with her family at Toomelah and consulted them in writing this article.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Buchhorn, Richard. Boobera Lagoon: A Focus for Reconciliation. North Sydney: Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, 1997
  • Dennison, Leila. ‘The Oldest Aussie Is Keen to See the Queen.’ Truth (Sydney), 27 December 1953, 47
  • Barrier Miner (Broken Hill). ‘“Happy as a Two Year Old” at 109.’ 9 September 1953, 3
  • Dawn. ‘Loveable Charlie, 110 Years, Is Dead.’ May 1956, 3
  • Dawn. ‘Nation’s Oldest Aborigine.’ September 1952, 12
  • Maitland Daily Mercury (NSW). ‘Moree.’ 25 November 1899, 5
  • New South Wales. Aborigines Protection Board. Aborigines (Annual Report of Board for Protection Of, For the Year Ended 30th June 1926). Sydney: Government Printer, 1927
  • Richardson, Kathy. Personal communication
  • South Australian Museum Archives. AA346/5/3, Harvard and Adelaide Universities Anthropological Expedition Genealogies, 1938–39
  • Truth (Sydney). ‘He Wants to See the Queen.’ 17 January 1954, 5
  • World's News (Sydney). ‘Australiana.’ 20 September 1952, 28

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jodi Haines, 'Dennison, Charles (Charlie) (1846–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dennison-charles-charlie-29902/text37018, published online 2020, accessed online 15 June 2021.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

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