Sunday, April 28, 2013

A fight to the death at the Queanbeyan Showground

This is a repost from Dave Wheeler's blog and once again requesting any local knowledge of the points raised...

It was sometime in the 1960’s my grandmother, the late Vera Guard, told me about a fight to the death between two Aboriginal warriors during the 19th century in an area of land which eventually became the Queanbeyan showground.

I had forgotten about it, but was inspired to get as much information as possible on the subject after visiting Dave Reid’s blog, in which he has collected a large amount of literature and references to literature regarding Canberra’s early indigenous post contact history, including a reference to the duel I have referred to.

Pictured above is my long departed grandmother, the late Vera Guard, in 1975. She was born in 1895 and lived in Queanbeyan from the early 1920’s to 1939, prior to moving to Ainslie. She was a great talker with a keen interest in history who would readily chat to anyone. When she was a young and newly married Queanbeyan resident she got to know many of the old time Queanbeyan residents, including John Gale, and in doing so acquired much historical knowledge regarding the district’s early days. I wish I had taken in more information from her than I did when I was younger.

As Dave’s blog has collected many documents and links associated with Canberra’s indigenous past it makes it easier to overview much of the recorded history. It also highlights what is in real need of clarification; not only in relation to the duel in Queanbeyan, but other possible duels between indigenous Canberrans of the time.

How some of those people died and where they are buried also needs further confirmation and/or clarification, and it is not my intention to provide my opinion on the matters. What I hope to do in this essay however, is refer to particular records and newer literature on the subjects which provide particular viewpoints, and while doing so I will point out exactly where clarification or further information is required.

In doing the latter I will concentrate on the task relating to alleged one-on-one battles and a leadership issue. I will not attempt to provide an historical timeline in regard to what happened to indigenous Canberrans from European contact onwards. I can however, assist readers who do not have a good broad knowledge of recorded and contested post contact history of ACT Aboriginals by giving appropriate links in the next paragraph.

Other than reading the relevant material on Dave Reid’s site,, in order for the reader to get a good broad overview of post-contact ACT Aboriginal history, both contested and not contested, I recommend you view the site , in which you can read Steven Avery’s thesis entitled “Aboriginal and European Encounter in the Canberra Region- A question of change and the archaeological record.” Further reading is “Moth Hunters” by Josephine Flood and the Ngambri website  as well as the Ngarigu website .There are other sources which I will refer to as we progress.

The main subjects of this discussion are Onyong aka as Hong Kong or  Hongjong and Noolup aka Jemmy or Jimmy the Rover, who have been recorded as leaders of two separate groups which ultimately amalgamated into one group.

According to the Ngambri website Canberra Aboriginals had two groups, one being the Ngambri, which was led by Onyong, and the other being their neighbouring kin group, the Ngurmal, which was led by Noolup. The site says they combined into one group in the 1830’s but it does not say whether or not one of the men took control of the combined group.

These groups prior to their amalgamation have also been named by various sources as the Hagan-Hope and Nammitch groups, with Onyong leading the Hagan-Hope group and Noolup leading the Nammitch group. Shumack refers to the combined group as the County Murray or Canberra tribe.

Common sense and most anthropologists will tell you that Australian Aboriginals, or just about any hunter gatherer society for that matter, did not have chiefs or kings in the European sense of the word. For a start, they could not be waited on by others as occurs with European and Asian royalty, as in hunter gatherer societies everyone had to pull their weight.

Although initiated males who had proven leadership qualities would have been listened to and obeyed on many matters, an outsider could erroneously believe that this meant that such a person was a chief with absolute power.

It seems to me it would have been a case of the tribe listening to and following whoever had superior knowledge and skill in given activities. If a tribal member had a proven ability as a hunter or tracker which was superior to that of other tribal members, but also had poor leadership skills, he would still be listened to and obeyed if he suggested a certain strategy related to the matter of hunting or tracking, as the tribe’s survival would be dependent on it. For further reading visit:

Before discussing Onyong and his relationship with Noolup I will address the matter of the duel on the site of the Queanbeyan Showground. Other than my grandmother’s story about it occurring based on 1920’s Queanbeyan folklore, it is addressed in an article which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on the 11/6/27, written by Samuel Shumack, entitled “Canberra Blacks."
See this part of Dave Reid’s blog:

Shumack tells of how he arrived in Canberra in 1856 and became acquainted with the local blacks as well as the whites who had arrived in the 1820’s.  He describes how in 1862 his father resided at Emu Bank, Ginninderra, and that the remnant of the County Murray or Canberra tribe, who were reduced to 64 members, were camped about a quarter of a mile away.  He said Jimmy the Rover (Noolup) was the chief of the tribe at the time as a result of the former chief Hong Kong (Onyong) having died, although he does not say how Onyong died.

He does however, also say that Noolup had fought another black whose name he had forgotten for the leadership of the tribe, and that Noolup had killed the man on the site of the Queanbeyan showground. He said that when he left Canberra in 1915 there were two living witnesses of the fight, although he did not name them. He was obviously not referring to Onyong being killed by Noolup, which some people believe occurred, as he had remembered Onyong’s name given that he had said that he had died.

He also said it would take too much space to describe the combat, which is a pity. I would like to have known if they fought with traditional or more modern weapons. And if they did use traditional weapons was it at close quarters or was it from a distance using a woomera and spear?

He went on to say that a few years  later Babby,” an Aboriginal who became famous for his cricketing ability, defeated Jimmy (Noolup) at Ginninderra, but he does not give the cause of the fight or say whether or not it resulted in Noolup’s death.

For all we know he may have been referring to them taking off their possum skins and going outside for a sporting knuckle, although they were probably already outside when the dispute arose.

Where the mystery deepens is with Steven Avery’s thesis Avery states in part:
   “During the 1840s it appears Hongyong's band maintained a close relationship with the Wright family at Lanyon, and after 1847, Cuppacumbalong. Meredith (1844: 100-101) recorded that there had always been rivalry between Hongyong and Jemmy the Rover over tribal leadership issues.

Hongyong was later killed by Jemmy the Rover, as while the latter was away Hongyong had usurped his position as chief (Shumack 1977: 148-149), suggesting that the Nammitch and Hagen-Hope 'tribes' had united. This is also supported by the 1841 blanket issue at Queanbeyan, where Jemmy the Rover and Hongyong are listed as belonging to the same group (AONSW Blankets to Aborigines 4/1133.3).

Hongyong died sometime between 1847 and 1852 and was buried at Cuppacumbalong on a rocky hill near the Tharwa bridge (Wright 1927: 56).”

Stating that Honyong (Onyong) was killed by Jemmy the Rover contrasts with the Ngambri website to the extent that the latter says nothing about Onyong having died at the hands of Noolup, which makes me presume that today’s Ngambri do not believe this occurred. They will need to clarify this.

Their site however, mentions Onyong having died in 1852 and being buried on a hill that bears his name in the Tharwa region and Noolup dying in a cave at Booroomba Rocks in 1860. They are therefore in general agreement with Avery in relation to where Onyong was buried.

In John Gale’s 1927 book” Canberra History and Legends,” he quotes a long passage mainly from the diary of Samuel Shumack in which Shumack tells of how Jimmy the Rover (Noolup), after travelling north, procured a white wife and had to fight for his claim on her, which resulted in him killing his rival. (Pages 81 and 82). Shumack says he was very kind to her and that they were very fond of each other. This obviously has nothing to do with any duel/s he may have fought in Canberra.

In regard to the alleged fight between Onyong and Noolup, there also seems to be agreement with today's Ngambri in the book "Moth Hunters" by Josephine Flood, as she says nothing about Onyong killing Noolup, and when describing how Onyong's skull was stolen after he was buried she states that Newlop (Noolup) swore revenge. She, like today's Ngambri, also maintains Jimmy The Rover (Noolup) died at Booroomba and was buried in traditional manner with all his possessions.

Flood gives references in the back of her book but does not directly refer to particular references when she makes particular statements within her book.

To get a good overview of Onyong's life and a description of his burial by James Wright, the then owner of Lanyon, visit this part of Dave Reid's blog:


I thought I should include the question of Aboriginal burial grounds in this essay, as some believe that Noolup’s remains are in Evatt, and probably lying beneath a house in Sharwood Cresent. Others maintain the belief that he was buried at Booroomba as described by Flood and today’s Ngambri.

If you visit the National Trust of Australia (ACT) site by clicking here and read:

“Historic Cemeteries and Rural Graves in the    ACT” by Anne Claoué-Long, she, when discussing burial sites around Canberra, states in part:

“In 1864, Jimmy the Rover, (Noolup) a local Aboriginal chief, was buried by white settlers in accordance to ancient Aboriginal rites in the absence of others of his tribe to undertake the burial. Later in time, the records tell of the burials of Aboriginal people just outside the boundaries of general cemeteries and then, towards the end of the period of study, within them.”

Unfortunately Claoué-Long gives no references for her sources of information nor does she say where Noolup was buried. The references may be elsewhere on the site but I could not find them.

Some believe that if he lived his last years in Ginninderra, as Wright seems to suggest he did, when he died there is a good chance he was buried in Evatt, which is where the Anglican Church at The Glebe once stood. They argue that he was probably buried there because it is relatively close to the village of Ginninderra and the cemetery is known to contain Aboriginal graves.

Then again, he may have died at Booroomba as Flood and the Ngambri site say, and even if he was living in Ginninderra when he died the local palefaces may have taken him to Booroomba for his burial.
Were there Aboriginal burials at the cemetery in Evatt?

Without giving further discussion on where Noolup was buried, I will discuss the said cemetery in relation to whether or not there are any Aboriginals buried there at all.

Unfortunately the cemetery has suffered by way of development and no longer has any visible gravesites or tombstones. I am surprised the desecration of the cemetery was allowed, because although some of the graves are in open space I am led to believe many of them are beneath houses and roads.

I will quote additional parts of Claoué-Long’s previously discussed article on the National Trust (ACT) link.

1/ “The historic record also mentions traditional Aboriginal burials, such as that of Onyong at Tharwa and an Aboriginal burial ground in the vicinity of Ginninderra and Charnwood, which was still used after white settlement.

In 1864, Jimmy the Rover, a local Aboriginal chief, was buried by white settlers in accordance to ancient Aboriginal rites in the absence of others of his tribe to undertake the burial. Later in time, the records tell of the burials of Aboriginal people just outside the boundaries of general cemeteries and then, towards the end of the period of study, within them."

2/ "As the population grew, with the development of Ginninderra village to the north of the Limestone Plains, another Anglican church, St Pauls, was established with a graveyard, in 1861. Today, nothing can be seen of either church or cemetery, with at least eighteen burials, located now in an urban open space surrounded by the suburb of Evatt."

3/ "Resulting lack of knowledge and appreciation of these historic heritage sites has resulted in at least three old cemeteries being compromised by modern road developments in Evatt, Ginninderra and Tuggeranong, and one being submerged under the waters of Lake Burley Griffin."

In regard to the cemetery at Evatt and the questions relating where the graves are and whether or not the cemetery contained any Aboriginal graves at all, I have a connection to the extent I personally knew the late Tom Gribble, a former neighbour of my sister, who was born in 1911 and raised at The Glebe, which contained the remains of the said church and the cemetery.

The Glebe was originally run by Tom's grandparents and at a later stage, Tom's parents. Tom's grandfather, also Thomas Gribble, arrived in Canberra in the 1860's and would have seen Aboriginal burials, and I have no doubt much of what he saw as well as the information he received directly from the first whites who arrived in Canberra would have been passed onto his grandson, the Tom I knew.

Why this is relevant is because the younger Tom told my sister and me that the cemetery definitely contained Aboriginal graves, and it would seem another ex neighbour of Tom's, Tony O'Shea, must have been told the same thing by Tom, because I have a copy of the eulogy he composed for Tom's funeral, which I will quote in part:

Tom knew his land would one day be resumed but he was bitter about the subsequent destruction of his heritage. The Ginninderra woolshed in Giralang, rebuilt in 1905, was demolished in the 70’s. All that remains of the Glebe pise homestead are the Elms in Goosens Place behind Copeland College. Even the graveyard of St Paul’s Anglican Church at The Glebe was desecrated for housing.

Out of all this Tom had one little victory. Driving down Sharwood Cresent, Evatt he saw a man watering his garden wearing, in Tom’s words, “a dog collar.” Tom stopped for a chat and when he confirmed he was a vicar, pounced, “ How long have you been here? Have you seen the ghosts yet? Your house is built over the graves of pioneers and Aborigines.”

When the lady next door joined the discussion Tom told her “You wouldn't be able to sleep at night because of all the creaking floorboards.” When he next went past Tom related, with great glee that the house had a For Sale sign up.

In summary, there are many questions that remain unanswered regarding early post-contact indigenous Canberra history, but in relation to what I have been discussing the most obvious questions are:

1/ Did Noolup kill Onyong, and if so how, when, where and why?

2/ If Noolup did not kill Onyong how did Onyong die?

3/ If a duel between Noolup and another Aboriginal occurred on the site of the Queanbeyan showground, who was the other man , what weapons did they use and how in the fight did the other man meet his end? Maybe there are some descendants of witnesses who could answer those questions.

4/ Was Noolup killed by Babby, and if not how did Noolup die?

Dave Wheeler 24/4/13.

For more Canberra-based yarns scroll down or download free of charge "Tales of a Canberra Boy"


  1. Dave, any idea on the date of that hunting image?
    Regards, Keith.

    1. I'll ask Dave for you mate.

  • As an update to this yarn last year I spoke with Ngambri member, Paul House, on the questions I have raised and I was told certain things. As expected, Paul, who is a very nice bloke, has a thorough knowledge of what happened to his ancestors post-invasion in the Canberra area, and I would rather let him tell the story. I do not claim to be an expert on the subject and just raised these questions because I could not find answers. I am grateful to Dave Reid for putting together so much information on indigenous ACT and surroundings. When I think of the history I was taught in school back in the 60's, which involved mainly what happened in other countries, I can't understand why we were taught so very little of our own post invasion history, particularly in regarding to our local area. It was probably a case of deliberate censorship by omission.


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