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Charles Samuels (1864–1912)

by Genevieve Blades and Ken Edwards

This article was published:

Charles Samuels (c.1864–1912), Aboriginal athlete, was born at Jimbour station, southern Queensland, and named Sambo Combo, one of three children of Combo and Mary Ann, Kamilaroi people from north-western New South Wales. He later became known as Charles Samuels because his older brother George was also successfully involved in pedestrianism (professional running). Growing up with the local Bunyinni people (part of the Barunggam group) and close to the sons of (Sir) Joshua Bell, owner of Jimbour station, Charlie worked as a stockrider and general hand. His talent for running led to involvement in such local professional circuits as Toowoomba. In 1885, accompanied by his 'owner and trainer' William Robertson, he competed unsuccessfully in a handicap event at Botany, Sydney. He returned in August next year and easily won the Botany handicap at the Sir Joseph Banks Hotel grounds.

His achievements at Sydney venues in the next few years led to his being acclaimed as an Australian champion and among the best exponents of sprinting 'the world has ever seen' over distances up to 300 yards (274 m). Samuels was 5 ft 7 ins (170 cm) tall. To a Referee reporter, he seemed built for speed, light in the upper body but with 'tremendous hips and thighs, and a long tapering calf'; his 'beautiful action was . . . the secret of his pace, as he was a lovely balanced runner'. He was also praised for his courage and determination. His times were consistently 'inside even time' (better than ten yards per second) with his best performance recorded over 134 yards at '9 yards inside even time' (12.5 seconds) at Botany in 1888, which was dubbed as an Australian record. Timings were suspect, but he was reported to have run 100 yards in 9.1 seconds. Samuels also competed in four match races against Harry Hutchens, the English champion, winning three; although popular with the public, they led to allegations about 'gate money and betting considerations'.

Samuels was described as 'a splendid tempered man', who would give his last dollar away, and 'the last Australian champion'—many believing that as Aborigines were doomed his like would not be seen again. Rife with bribery and corruption, however, pedestrianism was barely surviving by 1892, as amateur athletics and other sports gained greater popularity. When not in training, Samuels fought occasionally at Larry Foley's White Horse Hotel. His success as a runner led to handicaps that restricted both his winnings and the financial rewards for his managers, who increasingly left him on his own. Tensions and frustrations emerged. Although he was associated with drinking, fighting and some 'stiff' (fixed) racing, he retained public admiration. He lived for a time at a camp at Centennial Park, then moved to La Perouse Aboriginal reserve at Botany. There he was reported in 1894 to have a grievance against the police regarding his rights. In 1896 he was admitted into the Hospital for the Insane, Callan Park, with a 'form of mental disorder (Melancholia)' caused by 'ill health & love affairs'.

In January next year, wasted, and viewed as a nuisance, Samuels was sent back to Queensland at the Aborigines Protection Board's expense. He returned to Jimbour station but, made unwelcome by the new owners, led a wandering life and was seen at some local running events. In 1905 he and his wife Maggie and two daughters were staying in Brisbane and Samuels was reported to be drinking and threatening relatives. On 17 May the family was transferred to Barambah Aboriginal reserve. Maggie died of consumption on 13 October in Maryborough hospital. Both children contracted the disease and died in January 1906. Samuels for the most part continued to live and work on the settlement. He had a second family but an infant child died in 1911. Predeceased a few days earlier by his wife Lizzie, Samuels died of pulmonary tuberculosis on 13 October 1912 at Barambah.

Select Bibliography

  • Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland (Brisb, 1904)
  • Queensland Chief Protector’s Report, 1904/05, p 18
  • Referee (Sydney), 5 Dec 1888, p 7, 21 Aug 1889, p 3, 28 May 1890, p 3, 1 Nov 1893, p 3, 2 May 1894, p 3, 6 Nov 1912, p 9
  • Sun (Sydney), 24 Nov 1981, p 42
  • G. C. Blades, Australian Aborigines, Cricket and Pedestrianism: Culture and Conflict, 1880-1910 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1985)
  • Callan Park, fol 95, no 3776 (State Records New South Wales)
  • A/58675, A/58676 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

Genevieve Blades and Ken Edwards, 'Samuels, Charles (1864–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Combo, Sambo

Dalby, Queensland, Australia


13 October, 1912 (aged ~ 48)
Barambah, Queensland, Australia

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