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50 Treasures: Fragments: stories and recollections by Gerty Page with etchings by Rochelle Knarston

Our twenty-ninth treasure provides a window into the every-day life of an Indigenous domestic worker on a pastoral station near Winton in north Queensland. From the Rare Book Collection comes Fragments: stories and recollections by Gerty Page.

John Page and Susan Page answer the question "why is this significant?"

On June 14th 1936, Gertrude (Gerty) Page was engaged by H. P. Veness & Co, Stock and Station Agents in Winton, as a domestic for Karoola Station. The daughter of an Aboriginal mother and an Irish father, she was 18 when she went to Karoola. At the time, Aboriginal peoples’ lives were heavily controlled under Queensland’s 1897 Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act (and its 1934 Amendment). This gave the Government-appointed Chief Protector the authority to ‘cause any aboriginal or half-caste… to be removed to any reserve, institution, or district and kept there’.

Fragments: stories and recollections by Gerty Page with etchings by Rochelle Knarston. Photograph by Michael Marzik.
Domestic labour in the pastoral industry was not uncommon work for Aboriginal women and men in 19th and 20th century Australia. Gerty was sent to Karoola by the stock and station agent, much as herd animals or seed would be. She was terrified of what lay ahead, having left behind in Winton a small baby, her family and friends. This was her second station job and, although she had no inkling then, Karoola would be her home and her place of work for the next forty years.

This artist’s book, constructed around fragments of broken crockery collected from Karoola Station, articulates a cultural interface between the non-Indigenous upper class and their domestic staff, through the voice of the Indigenous domestic worker. It follows a series of first-hand recollections of our grandmother as she examines these fractured shards, tracing her life from her arrival at Karoola in 1936 to her departure almost forty years later. Each story delicately and respectfully breathes new life into these broken and discarded objects, revealing surprising layers of complexity.

Old Karoola homestead, date unknown. Photograph supplied by the Page family.
This account of life on Karoola, in Gerty’s own words, recounts the minutiae of everyday life, shedding light on the commonplace experiences of domestic service sometimes lost in the overarching historical view. Gerty doesn’t shy away from her initial loneliness or the sheer hard work of wash day or water hauling. Yet she also captures the comraderie of bush life, the relationship with the Scot Skirving family – who, although her employers, over time also became her friends, and who, over the years, were increasingly reliant on Gerty. Her sanguine outlook and steadfastness shine through each story. This book also shines a light on the fascinating connection between the north Queensland community and the family of Australia’s first Prime Minister – Mrs Scot Skirving was Stephanie Barton, Sir Edmund Barton’s daughter.

Gerty Page and Auntie Bannie at Karoola, 1997. Photograph by John Page.
Beyond the broader context, the stories in the book have deep significance for our family. The inspiration for the book is a story in itself. We collected the crockery from the rubbish dump adjacent to the burnt-out original homestead on a visit to Karoola while attending a family reunion in Winton. The Karoola homestead at the heart of the recollections was originally situated in Charters Towers, and was dismantled, removed and reconstructed at Karoola before the 1920s. Something broken remade anew. Gerty lived for many years in the separate kitchen block. Walking over the rubbish dump, we would pick up pieces of crockery and Gerty would recount a tale of the night it was broken, or the number of times she had washed it up, or how the station owner had thrown it against the wall late one Sunday evening. The book breathes life into the precious memories, bringing a sustained second life to our dear departed father Jeffrey, who learned to ride on one of the goats in the stories, and our grandmother Gerty, whose hands held this crockery, and whose recollections breathe life back into them.

Gerty Page, Tate Adams and Ron McBurnie in the James Cook University Lyrebird Press Room, 1997. Photograph by John Page.
The torn nature of Rochelle Knarston’s delicate, hand-painted etchings brings a tactile depth to these discarded crockery pieces, mirroring their broken state. The words on the page are fashioned from pieces of lead type, painstakingly recovered by Ron McBurnie and Tate Adams at Lyrebird Press from small, disestablished printeries across the north and west of Queensland. There is a synergy between Gerty’s original handling of the crockery, the hand-made nature of the books, the hand-set lead type, the hands scoring zinc plates, and the hands turning the presses. Images and words, fragments reproduced anew resuscitating and rejuvenating the mundane as remarkable.

Gerty Page with the Fragments, 1998.  Photograph by Ron McBurnie.
This delightful artist’s book was launched at an intimate gathering of contributors, friends and family at Perc Tucker Gallery in 1999. The event was hosted by north Queensland academic and historian Noel Loos, who as it turns out, taught alongside Gerty’s son Jeff in western Queensland early in both of their careers. Gerty remained quite surprised that anyone would be interested in her stories, commenting that ‘if I’d known people were going to be so interested in the crockery, I’d have taken more care with them.’

Perhaps there’s a lesson for us all in the new life that a sharp mind and clear memory can breathe into broken and discarded things.

Authors Susan and John Page at Karoola, 1969. Photograph by Jeffrey Page, supplied by the Page family.
Over the course of 2020, JCU Library's Special Collections will be unveiling 50 Treasures from the collections to celebrate 50 years of James Cook University.

Author Biographies
John Page is an Aboriginal educationalist who is a practiced leader, educator, change manager and researcher with extensive experience in the higher education, government and community sectors. He completed his Bachelor of Science majoring in Archaeology at James Cook University and early in his career, worked in James Cook's Centre for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Participation, Research and Development. John is currently the Manager, Indigenous Education at Monash University's William Cooper Institute.

Susan Page is an Aboriginal academic whose research focuses on Indigenous Australians' experience of learning and academic work in higher education and student learning in Indigenous Studies. Susan originally trained as a nurse at the Townsville General Hospital before moving to Sydney. She has worked in hospitals and health services in Sydney, Central Australia and Western Australia before becoming an academic. During her academic career Susan has received university and national awards for excellence in university teaching.

Comments

I was fascinated by this account on many levels. Firstly, Indigenous people, like women, are often peripheral in the predominantly male written records of frontier Australia. In my current research I am uncovering a wealth of records written, not about, but actually BY Indigenous people. It is a record, we hear so little about it, but it is rich and provides the 'voice' of eye witnesses of the process of colonization.
Secondly, I live in a farm house on a river bank where formerly householders would dump their rubbish. One of my daughters, when little, would go over the bank pretending to be an archaeologist and dig up all the porcelain shards. Years latter, I fashioned those into mosaic pieces - a vase, a chess table etc. As I glued each piece I held a long lost story in my hand - a piece of a baby cup, from a serving dish, the handles of tea cups etc.
Thirdly, as for the type set. My step-grandfather was a metallurgist and owned a commercial tn smelter. He would would get those rejected pieces of type to melt down to extract the tin. Thank you Special Collections for both preserving and bringing to light this precious artifact, and to John and Susan Page for this beautifully written piece.

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