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Lester (Charlie) Leon (1900–1982)

by Jack Horner

This article was published:

Lester (Charlie) Leon  (1900-1982), Aboriginal activist, was born on 20 June 1900 at Forster, New South Wales, son of Samuel Leon, probably a Forster sawmill worker, and Ada Simon of Taree.  His family origins were both Aboriginal and Chinese.  Alongside some formal education, he learned from the Worimi people about civility, the bush and the stars.  Hostile white neighbours enforced a re-gazettal of the Forster Aboriginal reserve in 1911.  He remembered this incident of racial hatred.

Aged 16 Charlie left home:  he travelled widely, sought jobs fishing, fencing and clearing properties, avoided policemen and lived off the land.  He said that he met Errol Flynn  in Tasmania.  After working in Sydney in 1920, Leon joined an all-Aboriginal Rugby League team that included the amateur boxer Bill Cohen, who became a close friend.  On 8 August 1925 Leon married Doris Newman, a 15-year-old domestic, in the Methodist parsonage, Taree.  Next year, three months after the birth of their daughter, Doris died.  At Grafton in 1929 'C. L. Leon' was listed among Baryulgil dancers, performing at a benefit concert for the city’s ambulance.  Forming a travelling vaudeville troupe, 'Leon’s Entertainers', he donated half its earnings to local hospitals.  Leon married Lily Rose Sampson (d.1953), a widow, on 11 August 1932, also in the Methodist parsonage at Taree.

In 1930 at Gunnedah Leon had met William Ferguson, who inspired him to fight the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Board.  Poor living conditions at Purfleet 'mission', where no manager or teacher kept order, prompted him to leave his mother’s relatives and 'country', appalled by the common illiteracy.  Moving south, he took his family to Morpeth on the Hunter River.  There, workers earned a living by growing and stacking millet for broom-making.  He invented a less strenuous method, which the workers accepted.  Encouraging Forster relatives to commute to Morpeth by car, he became a busy, steady works organiser.  He fought for the children’s right to attend a non-segregated primary school, a reform that did not occur until the 1950s.

A serious, politically astute but quietly spoken man, Leon was tall and dark with broad cheekbones and glossy black hair worn straight back.  His authority and intelligence gave strength to his civil manners.  He discovered that, unlike the Kinchela Boys’ Home near Kempsey, which allowed Aborigines only farm labour, the State railway yards employed men and boys on merit.  His family found good employment opportunities at Werris Creek rail junction, near Quirindi.  Settling in Sydney, Leon worked mainly as a builder’s labourer.  During World War II he was employed as a painter and docker at Garden Island Naval Dockyard.  There he joined the Communist Party of Australia.  From the mid-1950s he lived with Peggy Bedford, known as Leon, in Sydney; in the 1960s they obtained State Housing Commission homes, first at Riverwood and then at Green Valley (Ashcroft).

After the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship was founded by Pearl Gibbs in 1956, Leon was involved in its campaign for full acceptance of Aborigines and the lifting of all legal restrictions against them.  As members of the AAF executive, Charlie and Peggy established weekly Redfern dances for young Aborigines whose parents had left rural towns.  When Leon succeeded Herbert Groves  as president (1958-67, 1969), he proved an ideal leader.

As a member (1960-63) of the Aborigines Welfare Board, he formulated an eight-point program for reform.  In 1964 he called for a 'land rights' policy for New South Wales reserves, based on his experience in the campaign at Cummeragunja the previous year.  He was a patron of the Aboriginal Children’s Advancement Society, and a life member of the revived Aborigines Progressive Association in Sydney.  In 1961 Leon chaired the small 'Aborigines only' section of the conference of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement in Brisbane and, as AAF president, he opened the successful 1965 conference, run by Aborigines, in Sydney.  From 1974 he served as an elected member of the Aborigines Advisory Council and the Aboriginal Lands Trust of New South Wales.  Leaving the Communist Party in the mid-1950s, he became a Pentecostal Christian.  Survived by Peggy and his six sons and four daughters, he died on 16 July 1982 at Lidcombe and was buried in Leppington cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Bandler and L. Fox (eds), The Time Was Ripe, 1983
  • B. Cohen, To My Delight, 1987
  • H. Goodall, Invasion to Embassy, 1996
  • Churinga (Sydney), December 1965, p 15
  • New Dawn (Sydney), March 1974, p 5
  • Duran-duran (Messenger), November 1982, p 9
  • A6119, item 3849 (National Archives of Australia)
  • A. T. Duncan, Charles Leon (ts, 1963, copy on ADB file)
  • J. Horner, A Short Account of Charles Leon’s Life (ts, 1982, copy on ADB file)
  • private information and personal knowledge

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jack Horner, 'Leon, Lester (Charlie) (1900–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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