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William Edward (Bill) Harney (1895–1962)

by Jennifer J. Kennedy

This article was published:

William Edward Harney (1895-1962), by unknown photographer

William Edward Harney (1895-1962), by unknown photographer

Harney/McCaffery Collection, Northern Territory Library, PH0510/0002

William Edward (Bill) Harney (1895-1962), author and bushman, was born on 18 April 1895 at Charters Towers, Queensland, second of three children of English-born parents William Harney, miner, and his wife Annie Beatrice, née Griffin. In 1897 his father went to Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, to search for gold; when he returned in 1902, work was still scarce. Young Bill attended Charters Towers Central (Boys') School before the family moved to Cairns in 1905. He found a job as a printer's devil with the Morning Post, his mother worked as a cook in a boarding house, and her husband continued on to Mount Molloy where Annie and the children later joined him. Harney and his father then went back to Charters Towers, seeking gold in the mullock-heaps, while other members of the family were employed on cattle-stations.

At the age of 12 Harney set off alone, droving in western Queensland, working on cattle-stations and boundary-riding a section of rabbit-proof fence near the Simpson Desert. Faced with unemployment, on 6 September 1915 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He trained in Egypt and served on the Western Front in 1916-18 as a signaller in the 9th Battalion. Discharged on 20 June 1919 in Queensland, he travelled west by train, then rode to the Northern Territory; he drove cattle, delivered mail by pack-horse and again worked as a boundary-rider. In 1921 he won £650 in a Melbourne Cup sweep. With the money, he took up land with Johno Keighran at Seven Emus Lagoon, near Borroloola. They made a meagre living by buying and selling cattle and mustering wild herds.

In 1923 Harney was convicted of cattle-stealing and spent three months in Borroloola gaol. He passed the time reading classics of English literature from the local library. Freed on appeal, he gave up his share of Seven Emus station and bought a sailing vessel, the Iolanthe, with money from his war gratuity. He and a mate Horace Foster gathered trepang in the Gulf of Carpentaria, and collected and sold salt from land they leased nearby.

On 5 April 1927 at the chapel of the Anglican mission, Groote Eylandt, Harney married 17-year-old Kathleen Linda Beattie, a part Aborigine; their daughter Beatrice (Beattie) was born in 1928, their son Billy two years later. When Linda fell ill with tuberculosis in 1930, Harney sold the Iolanthe and took his family inland where conditions were less humid. They roamed extensively in search of work and suffered hardships during the Depression. Linda died in 1932. Next year Beattie developed tuberculosis. Harney had to leave her in hospital in Darwin while he went road-mending and fencing, west of Katherine. He also maintained an aerodrome on Bathurst Island for a time. Beattie died in 1934. Billy was to drown in 1945, trying to save a child.

From 1940 Harney worked for the government's Native Affairs Branch as acting patrol officer and protector of Aborigines. He resigned in 1947 and built himself a hut on the beach at Two Fellow Creek, near Darwin. In 1941 he had begun to contribute pieces to magazines such as the Bulletin, Walkabout and Overland; he then concentrated on writing books, on his own life, the Northern Territory and the Aborigines. His publications included Taboo (Sydney, 1943), Songs of the Songmen, with A. P. Elkin (Melbourne, 1949), Life Among the Aborigines (London, 1957), Content to Lie in the Sun (London, 1958), Bill Harney's Cook Book, with Patricia Thompson (Melbourne, 1960), Grief, Gaiety and Aborigines (London, 1961), The Shady Tree, completed by Douglas Lockwood (Adelaide, 1963), and A Bushman's Life, edited by Douglas and Ruth Lockwood (Melbourne, 1990). Coloured with a wealth of bush lore and bush humour, his books attracted a large readership. His acclaimed radio interview (1958) with J. J. M. Thompson on his war experiences was to be published as Bill Harney's War (Melbourne, 1983).

Often leaving his home for months at a time, Harney worked as a grader-driver's assistant in Central Australia, as an adviser to the American National Geographic Society's expeditions (1948-54) to Melville Island and Arnhem Land, and on the set of the film, Jedda (1955). In 1956 he visited Britain where he gave talks on radio and television. Appointed ranger at Ayers Rock-Mount Olga National Park in 1957, he enjoyed the company of tourists and was able to explain the mythology of Ayers Rock (Uluru) which he had learned from two Aboriginal friends. He retired in 1962.

Although Harney had received little formal education, he taught himself and built up an exceptional knowledge. He communicated easily with the Aborigines and became an authority on their lore, customs, rites and languages. A gregarious and generous person who regarded everyone as equal, he was short and stocky, with hypnotic blue eyes and an expressive face. Above all, he was a superb raconteur. He died of a coronary occlusion on 31 December 1962 in his home, Shady Tree, at Mooloolaba, Queensland, and was buried in Buderim cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Carment and B. James (eds), Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography, vol 2 (Darwin, 1992)
  • Harney papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jennifer J. Kennedy, 'Harney, William Edward (Bill) (1895–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 22 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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