Ellen Giles – From wilderness to mission to community

A marvellous traveller, Ellen was born to Billy and Biddy Giles, Indigenous people who were local to the Georges River in the 1860s. Their married life – and, apparently, enjoyed easy interaction with white settlers. This positive contact seemed to have cascaded down to Ellen in the way she lived her life and started new communities in NSW. Her parents’ life is described by Goodall and Cadzow:

After Biddy married Billy Giles in the 1860s, they lived on the western bank of Mill Creek, close to its junction with the Georges River, in a farmhouse built earlier by Dr Alexander Cuthill.” By the middle years of the decade, Bi lly and Biddy had become well known for offering hospitallty and local knowledge to white travellers and adventurers on what was then the undeveloped southern side of the river. It is through the reminiscences of those travellers, written many years afterwards, that a rare window is opened on a world of interaction between white and black in Syd ney’s river bordedands. However imperfectly, they show how Aboriginal people lived on and moved frequently across their country, by river and by land. They mixed with an extraordinarily varied network of Europeans who went llving outside the conventional social bounda ries of the small colonial world of Sydney.

Ellen was born and raised in her father’s country around the Five Islands by Wollongong. But she moved to the the Georges River – her mother’s country – with her parents as an adolescent. An adventurer herself, she seemed to move freely up to La Perouse and all the way to the Victorian border at Maloga. There she met Hugh Anderson, a Goulburn River man, who had joined the Christian mission started by Daniel and Janet Matthews. They were married in 1882. But a year or two later, they were moved to Cummeragunja, a station owned by the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board. However, the Andersons were not convinced this move to government control was anything like progress. He wrote to the Riverine Herald in 1889:

When we lived at Maloga we were better cared for … Mrs Matthews did her best for the sick but it is not so here on this station … We have been treated very badly … there is no nourishing food for t he sick, only bread, meat, tea and dirty black sugar. All hands have stopped working at the station, for we cannot work any longer on a place where we are not treated right…

To the minds of Goodall and Cadzow, the Anderson’s had the same “link between Christianity and assertive, practical egalitarianism” as the schoolteacher at Cummeragunja, Thomas James.

Never deterred by setbacks, Ellen and Hugh kept moving around her country. To Kangaroo Valley in 1890, to the Shoalhaven in later years, and even to Minnamurra in 1896, from where Ellen saw her brother in law, Mickey Johnson, named King of the Illawarra at the Wollongong Show.

Frequently, the family used their network of Christian communities. Either independent missions, such as Maloga, but also AIM missions such as the one at La Perouse.

But, at last, their travels took them and the children back to the Georges River. Here, she gave leadership to the community as they established themselves at Salt Pan Creek. They were also happy to receive frequent visits and practical help from AIM missionaries. Here they were joined by William Rowley and his wife. This proved to be a very productive partnership. In fishing, oyster farming and wildflower gathering – of waratahs, boronias and Christmas bush. These were sold by their sons in Sydney markets.

The community thrived. And many joined. Tom Williams came down from Coonable and married the Anderson’s daughter, Dolly.

Ellen and Hugh Anderson’s home was a spiritual centre for the community on the edge of Peakhurst. From their home, missionaries came to visit and conduct services. It was a group that was providing for themselves, running their own church, own business, and own land. Ellen Anderson would later her father saying many times that he would not live on a Protection Board mission station like La Perouse under any circumstances. He would rather live in a bag hut than have a Manager standing over them. 1

Salt Pan Creek became a centre to preserve Aboriginal identity, to form an economic base of fishing and agriculture, but also to live in Christian community:

…traditional knowledge was only one part of their lives : Christianity formed another, although related, part. Ellen and Hugh in particular kept in close contact with the elements of Christian missions which had fostered militancy and activism. In this the AIM was in close accord with the trad it ions of Thomas James and Daniel Matthews. So it was to be both the tradi tional and the contemporary connections which were important in the next episode of their lives. 2


  1. Goodall and Cadzow, Rivers and Resilience, p 125.
  2. Heather Goodall, Allison Cadzow, Rivers and resilience : Aboriginal people on Sydney’s Georges River, Sydney : UNSW Press, 2009. p.116

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One Response to “Ellen Giles – From wilderness to mission to community”

  1. Jen Saunders December 26, 2015 at 2:19 am #

    Thanks for the information. I work at Meroogal House Museum in Nowra and transcribed the diaries of former resident Tottie Thorburn. In December 1889 she refers to hearing a Hugh Anderson speak at her church and about taking a collection for ‘the blacks’. I wanted to find out a bit more about the Meroogal interaction with local Indigenous communities and your work here on Ellen and Hugh has provided some really interesting leads. Thanks again. Jen Saunders

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