Ella Simon

Ella Simon (1902-1981), justice of the peace, was born on the edge of town, Taree, New South Wales, in 1902. Her mother was Aboriginal and her father was white; they were not married and her mother's parents Susan and George Russell reared her as their own child. Ella went to school on Purfleet Aboriginal reserve in the school which her grandfather had helped build and which doubled as a church on Sundays. Ella only went to school until she was twelve years old. She left school in 1914 because her grandmother could not afford to keep her as her grandfather had died. In 1912 she was told her father was white and the identity of her real mother, who had died of typhoid in 1909.

Ella was sent to Gloucester to work with her great uncle. She worked in a number of homes in the area and in 1928-32 in Mosman, Sydney. Then her grandmother got sick and she went home to look after her. At Purfleet, the Aborigines Protection Board intended installing a manager. When the man from the Board barged into her Gran's two-room tiny shack, Ella was just about to get the axe from under the bed and the door just missed hitting her head. She told him in no uncertain terms just who did he think he was, no knocking and no permission. He gave Ella 24 hours to get off the place. The new manager said she could stay if she apologised and she got someone to write the letter of apology.

Ella stood up to all the managers. She believed in her rights, and for her people. She was a very caring person. After her grandmother died she nursed anyone or everyone who was sick or having a baby. In the mid 1930s she married Joe Simon. When the war came, he tried to enlist but was rejected on medical grounds.

Joe and Ella got a contract growing vegetables at Avoca during the war. In 1945 they returned to Purfleet and went then to Gerard, South Australia, as members of the United Aborigines Mission, and travelled around New South Wales. They spent some time on the Galargambone reserve, and helped by getting a community hall where Aborigines could meet and the young people could be taught and shown how it was possible to insist on a better way of living for Aborigines than had been forced on Aborigines.

Ella had to go to Sydney for an operation and afterwards went to Kempsey, Burnt Bridge, and Forster helping people.

In 1957 she was granted her 'certificate of exemption' from the restrictions imposed by the Aborigines Welfare Board. 'I had to have this Certificate of Exemption', she wrote. 'I had to be recommended to have it. I had to have it to go to any place from which an Aboriginal was banned, to take government jobs, and to leave the reserve. I could never work this out, in spite of my fight for rights. I had to have this piece of paper, like a passport, to give me rights in my own land; to be a citizen of Australia - my own country.' In 1960 she formed a branch of the Country Women's Association on Purfleet reserve and became president. She opened the Gillawarra gift shop selling Aboriginal artefacts. Through the CWA she was able to get new stoves for the houses on Purfleet, and also electricity. The gift shop had one particular scheme started by Ella and a local schoolteacher in which Aboriginal children went away to stay with families in Newcastle. Ella always made sure the children had the right clothes. If the children rang and were really unhappy, she usually arranged for them to stay somewhere else preferably where another child from the reserve was staying.

Ella took in kids who wanted an education, where their parents couldn't afford to send them to school or they lived too far away from a high school. She helped other kids through the shop. There wasn't a medical service at Purfleet then and she used to take some kids down to the city for treatment. Through the shop she was able to help mothers, if they hadn't any money left from their pension. Tourist buses called in to the shop all the time. Ella talked to the tourists about Purfleet and about conditions Aborigines had been forced to live in. She wanted to get through to them exactly what being an Aboriginal meant and what being an Aboriginal felt like. In 1962 Ella was named Lady of Distinction by Quota and appointed a justice of the peace.

In 1973 after her husband died she moved into a housing commission house but kept working at Gillawarra gift shop until 1974. She dictated her life story for the book Through my Eyes during 1976-78 and she died in hospital on 13 February 1981. Before she died she arranged for her own funeral. Her ashes were scattered over old Aboriginal graves.

Ella had a basic philosophy on life and her attitude was her Christian faith. She gained a deep aversion to the 'colour bar'. She was a light skinned woman and had felt rejected at times by both races. Her methods of gentle agitation for improved conditions for her people were not those of a younger generation of militants. She was a caring person, remembered with great affection, and especially by those who as children took their problems to her.

Veronica Davison

Ella Simon Through my Eyes 1978.