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O'Chin, Andrew (Jack) (1917–1978)

by Gary Osmond

This article was published:

Jack O'Chin, Kingaroy, Queensland, c.1960 [detail]

Jack O'Chin, Kingaroy, Queensland, c.1960 [detail]

State Library of Queensland, 66948929

Andrew (Jack) O’Chin (1917–1978), Aboriginal community leader and rugby league footballer, was born on 28 August 1917 at Hughenden, Queensland, son of Aboriginal–Chinese labourer Charlie O’Chin from the Hughenden/Cloncurry region and either Guwa (Koa) woman Topsy Mitchell, also known as Katie O’Chin, or Daisy King. Jack was removed to the Barambah (later Cherbourg) Aboriginal Settlement as an infant with his mother, who died soon afterwards. Barambah had a boys’ dormitory, but it was severely overcrowded. With family and others willing to care for him, he was raised at the settlement by his aunties Tottie Clements (later Collins) and Zoe Button before being fostered by Lizzie Thomas. He was schooled to Year Four only. On 26 January 1930 he commenced work at the settlement’s manual training workshop, learning carpentry, joinery, and plumbing. His nickname ‘Chinney’ probably stems from this time.

Except for a stint cutting sugar-cane around Ingham during World War II and a brief period as a carpenter at the Woorabinda Aboriginal Settlement, most of O’Chin’s working life was spent at Cherbourg as a carpenter. There, on 10 September 1936, he married Brisbane-born Lorna Loder. They would have five children: Marie, Patricia, Leslie (Andy), Veronica, and Arden.

O’Chin began playing cricket for Cherbourg as a teenager, but it was in rugby league that he made his greatest sporting contribution. A ‘clever’ (Shaw 1937, 8) and ‘elusive’ (Connolly 2013) fullback, he played for the Rovers, one of three Cherbourg rugby league teams, from the 1930s to the 1950s. He and a fellow Cherbourg footballer Frank Fisher were an ‘unstoppable duo’ (South Burnett Times 2008, 25). In one typical play, O’Chin would pretend to hand the ball to Fisher who would then turn away and run with two tacklers chasing while O’Chin ‘politely placed it under the sticks for four points’ (South Burnett Times 2008, 25). The journalist Evan Whitton, who grew up at nearby Murgon in the 1930s, remarked that O’Chin was ‘as great an artist … as ever stepped on the football pitch’ (Whitton 1977, 20). Before a high-profile game in Brisbane against a State representative side in 1937, he was described as ‘the best full-back in the country’ (Shaw 1937, 8).

A foundation member of the Cherbourg Welfare Association in 1945, O’Chin took an active interest in community activities, from operating the settlement’s movie projector, performing vaudeville-style acts and playing musical instruments at community concerts, to helping construct and supervise displays at the Brisbane annual exhibition. When boy scouts began at the settlement, he became a scout master with the nickname ‘Fox.’ Following Lorna’s death from tuberculosis in 1951, he married Nellie Cobbo on 22 September 1951 at Cherbourg. They would have twelve children: Robin, Hope, Sylvia, Lance, Glendora, Alexandra, Laurita, Jack, Faith, Retta, Craig, and Joseph. O’Chin also fathered other children who were recognised in the community and by his family as his offspring.

Shortly after their marriage, O’Chin and Nellie, who had been born and raised at Cherbourg, began supervising the boys’ dormitory, caring for up to fifty children at a time. During the 1950s he campaigned for the recognition of Aboriginal art and artists and helped to establish an artefact industry at Cherbourg, including a boomerang factory. He also helped to develop a pottery training program and managed the curio shop at Cherbourg.

On 26 May 1966 O’Chin was elected to the inaugural Cherbourg Community Council, becoming its first chair. He served on the council for the next twelve years. In the late 1960s he joined the Aborigines Inland Mission Peoples Church and was baptised in 1968 in Barambah Creek, serving as deacon, preacher, song leader, and Sunday school teacher. Extending his civic responsibilities beyond the Cherbourg community, he chaired the consultative committee of Aboriginal councils (1966–69) that would become the Queensland Aboriginal Advisory Council. In July 1968 he represented his State at the Conference of Commonwealth and State Ministers responsible for Aboriginal Affairs at Parliament House in Melbourne that was opened by Prime Minister (Sir) John Gorton. The following year he served on the Queensland Citizens’ Committee for the Captain Cook Bicentenary. He was the first honorary warden appointed under the Queensland Aboriginal Relics Preservation Act 1967 and a foundation member of the Relics Advisory Committee to the Department of Aboriginal and Islander Affairs (DAIA), which provided advice on the preservation of Aboriginal material culture in Queensland.

Well-spoken with a warm personality and engaging manner, O’Chin left an indelible impression on Neville Bonner who met him as a teenager. When Bonner’s wife Nell passed away in 1969, O’Chin and Nellie took his youngest son into their home and cared for him, enabling Bonner to enter politics. O’Chin was awarded the Imperial Service Medal following his retirement on 20 January 1978, but died before receiving it. Survived by his wife and at least nine daughters and six sons, he suffered a stroke brought on by an asthma attack and died on 24 August 1978 at Cherbourg and was buried there.

In 1981 the Cherbourg Council resolved to name its new sporting grounds the Jack O’Chin Oval, provoking the retort from a former resident that O’Chin had done little ‘but say YES to the Director of the DAIA’ (QSA ITM645229). Like many Aboriginal leaders on Queensland settlements and missions in the 1960s and 1970s, O’Chin had cooperated with white officials, including the State’s long-time premier (Sir) Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who he counted as a friend. These relationships, which made him unpopular with Aboriginal people who advocated a more militant style of politics, serve as a potent reminder of the difficult path that Aboriginal leaders navigated in the latter half of the twentieth century. In 2008 he was selected as one of South Burnett’s one hundred greatest league players and voted onto the seventeen-member team of the century as first reserve. Boomerangs carved by O’Chin have been displayed at the Queensland Museum and the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art.

 

Gary Osmond consulted people from the historical Cherbourg community in researching and writing this article. He is of European descent.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • AIM. ‘Well-Known Aboriginal Leader Dies: Andrew (Jack) O’Chin.’ 12, no. 9 (October 1978): 6
  • Connolly, Paul. ‘The Forgotten Story of … Frank Fisher.’ Guardian, 19 September 2013. Accessed 1 December 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2013/sep/19/forgotton-story-frank-fisher. Copy held on ADB file
  • Higgins, Geoff, and Keith Painter. Chinney: The Two Lives of Jack O'Chin. Sydney: Aborigines Inland Mission of Australia, 1987
  • Shaw, E. A. ‘Aboriginal Backs are Spectacular.’ Telegraph (Brisbane), 12 August 1937, 8
  • South Burnett Times. ‘Frank Fischer the Greatest Ever.’ 8 August 2008, 25
  • Queensland State Archives. Item ID ITM645229
  • Whitton, Evan. ‘An Exquisite Revenge.’ National Times, 19–24 September 1977, 16–21

Additional Resources

Citation details

Gary Osmond, 'O'Chin, Andrew (Jack) (1917–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ochin-andrew-jack-31529/text38985, published online 2022, accessed online 4 December 2022.

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