Who was that masked man? By Robert Hefner

The Canberra Times

13 December 1987

"Just as undeveloped Canberra has been planned for the future does Australia look ahead to a time when the territory will be populated by whites carefully selected from Empire migrants, who will no doubt become Australians in sentiment." Daily Chronicle, London, May 9, 1927.

The only thing whiter than the crowd of about 40,000 people gathered in Canberra on May 9, 1927, was the new Parliament House that was about to be officially opened by the Duke and Duchess of York.

According to Manning Clark, in A Short History of Australia, "A solitary Aborigine demanded to see the 'whole plurry show', but as he was deemed to be inadequately clad for the occasion, a policeman led him away".

Who was that Aborigine? Was he the only one present?

There is a photograph in the National Library which shows an Aboriginal man sitting on the grass near Parliament House, three dogs sprawled around him. The man is identified as King Billy, at the opening of Parliament House, 1927.

There is another photograph, in the Mindenhall Collection at the Australian Archives at Mitchell, which shows an Aboriginal man standing on the steps of Parliament House. It is captioned, "Aboriginal on steps of Parliament House".

Are they the same person? The Aboriginal in the former photograph has on a hat which practically obscures his face. The Aboriginal in the latter photograph is holding a hat which could be the same one worn by the man in the first picture, and his long scraggly beard resembles that of the man in the first photograph.

H. J. Gibbney, of O'Connor, author of a history of Canberra from 1913 to 1953 which will be coming out on Canberra Day next year, has seen both photographs and is not convinced that they are the same man.

In Mr. Gibbney's research, he came across an item in The Sydney Morning Herald of May 11, 1927, reporting on the parade of citizens past the front of Parliament House on May 10, 1927, the day after the opening. It referred to an "Aboriginal called Marvellous, barefoot with a sugar bag and a small Australian flag".

Careful examination of the photograph of the seated Aboriginal reveals that he is holding what appears to be cloth in his hands. But it is not clear what the cloth item is, although a star is quite visible in one corner. If it is indeed a flag, it would lend credence to the view that Marvellous was present, if not on the day of the opening itself, at least the day after.

Mr. Gibbney also discovered an interesting reference in the Labor Daily of May 9, 1927, which described "Marbly, an 80-year-old Aboriginal who came to see the Duke to ask him for a home".

Although Mr. Gibbney points out that the Labor Daily was "likely to get it wrong", there is further evidence that an Aboriginal named Marvellous lived in the area at the time and could, therefore, have been the man in question.

Lyall Gillespie, of Campbell, the author of Aborigines of the Canberra Region (1984), has researched the history of the Canberra region for the past 20 years. He discovered the following reference to Marvellous in the March 3, 1928, issue of The Queanbeyan Age.

"A message from Junee states that 'Marvellous', an old Aborigine who is well-known throughout the Riverina and was in Queanbeyan for several months last year, was found in a serious condition by the Bethungra police and taken to hospital. 'Marvellous' was presented to the Duke and Duchess of York on the opening of Parliament at Canberra."

Mr. Gillespie believes that there were actually two Aborigines present at the opening of Parliament. In his research he came across two letters written to The Sydney Morning Herald which refer to King Billy.

The first, dated September 12, 1927, was from Sydney R. Oakley of Queanbeyan. It reads, in part: "I would like to mention ... the passing away of one, if not the last remaining Aboriginal chieftains," Mr. Oakley wrote. "He may be called 'Old King Billy' and his death occurred here in Queanbeyan a few weeks ago. The removal of this well-known black has left another big gap in all that remains distinctively Australian in character. He was one of the last remaining tribes of the Monaro District, and one of the most fascinating personalities throughout the Commonwealth.

"I had had the privilege of an interview with him a short while ago, and from his old camping ground I am now writing this note. It has brought to my knowledge a part of a generous history that he lived through 80 years all told.

"He was on many occasions sought by artists for his splendid physique and personality as a model, and many journeys he has had to make to Sydney on that account. A more striking and pronounced type could not be found... "I think his last important appearance in public was at the Commonwealth celebrations at Canberra, to which territory he be longed ..."He was a nephew of old Queen Nelly of the district, a very intelli gent fellow, responding readily to kindness and common sense..."

That letter inspired a response from Mrs. V. Filewood, on September 16, 1927. She wrote: "I can recall many amusing and interesting incidents in connection with King Billy, and also his aunt, old Queen Nelly, who at one time, when a brother of mine was bitten by - as we surmised - a centipede, went into our garden and gathered different vegetables, brewed a compound, and poulticed the wound, and brought out the poison.

"The tribe had a camp on the Dog Trap Road, Queanbeyan - or Weetangera - and my mother and friends often visited them... "As Mr Oakley suggests, I think it would be a very fine thing if a statue of King Billy were to be erected in a prominent position in Canberra. We are too prone to forget the original owners of our country and I think that such a fine type as King Billy was known to be should have a place of honour along with those such as Sir Henry Parkes, etc, who have done so much to 'Advance Australia Fair'..."

An item in the August 8, 1927, issue of The Queanbeyan Age tells of the death of King Billy:  "The death occurred on Sunday night of an aged Aborigine, locally known as 'King Billy'. He was found at his camp on Moores' subdivision, Queanbeyan, in a sick condition, and died while being conveyed by the police in a car to the local hospital. Death was probably due to old age, combined with the cold weather. It is about five months since he came to Queanbeyan and he gave his name as Jack Clements, stating that he came from the Mount Hope ranges and was 80 years of age. He was a familiar figure around town and made frequent appeals for charity, never failing to gather a good crowd round him."

The following report appeared on the Register of Deaths in the Registrars' office, Queanbeyan: "James Clements, known as King Billy, aged 80, born Brungle, Tumut, no other details known, died 28.8.1927. Buried Queanbeyan C of E Cemetery. Rev. J. West officiating."

Another reference to an Aborigine comes from the May 13, 1927, issue of The Canberra Times: ... towards the end of the procession, a full-blooded Aboriginal, bareheaded and barefooted, and carrying an old swag on his back, made a picturesque figure as he several times saluted the royal couple, his old eyes beaming inexpressible delight."

That description would seem to fit the Aboriginal in the photographs, if indeed they are one and   the same. But it refers to a procession on Thursday, May 12, and not to the opening on May 10.  

Whether there were one or two Aborigines present at the opening of Parliament, or during the following days, will probably never be known for sure. Nor is there any conclusive evidence that King Billy and Marvellous were separate people.  

However, all accounts except that given by Professor Clark indicate that the Aborigine or Aborigines present for the festivities seemed to be having a grand time. "[The Aborigine] occurs in some descriptions by the Press, but not in others," Professor Clark said last week. "I'd be careful of using the name King Billy. It was a name given out by Europeans, anyway."