WILLIAM WIMMERA

WILLIAM WIMMERA, CHILD  OF  THE  WOTJOBALUK

 

Portrait of William Wimmera

Portrait of William Wimmera

The ruins of Ebenezer Aboriginal Mission are located near the tiny, West Wimmera  settlement of Antwerp, 22 kilometres north of Dimboola, in western Victoria.  Strangely enough, the history of the mission is entwined with  that of  a young Aboriginal boy, who died  on the opposite side of the world.

In 1846, following reports of sheep stealing, white settlers by the Wimmera River  launched an attack on the campsite of the local Wotjobaluk  people. During the conflict a woman was shot dead and her child,  a boy of about six , was later found huddled by her body.  Leading the attack was Horatio Ellerman, who owned a large station in the area. He  had named the property Antwerp, in memory of his Belgian birthplace. Rumour had it that Ellerman himself  had fired the fatal shot.  Instead of returning the child to his people, Ellerman took the little boy home and named him William Wimmera. William later referred to the squatter as ‘my master’ so presumably his position at Antwerp  was that of a servant.

Several years later the little  boy managed to escape, possibly  with the assistance of  passing wood cutters or wool carters. He made his way to Melbourne where he was befriended by a group of children who found  him wandering the city lost and in tears. The children took William along to St James Anglican school, where he came to the attention of  the  Rev. Septimus Lloyd Chase.   The Rev. Chase  was about to return to England, and  saw an  opportunity to extend God’s work. He felt that if William were to be completely separated from his people and given a religious education he could eventually be returned to his Aboriginal  community with the aim of  converting others.   In 1851  the minister left Australia with young William in tow. Prophetically,  their ship, Sacramento,   left Melbourne on April 1st – All Fools Day.

William, now aged about ten,  had the run of the ship. He thoroughly enjoyed  chattering to the sailors and clambering up and down the Sacramento’s  masts. Unfortunately, by the time they arrived in England it was  September, and the  days  were already closing in. There was little time for the boy to acclimatize before facing his first northern  winter.

The Rev. Chase took William back to his hometown of Reading, in Berkshire. According to  a pious Victorian tract  published anonymously some years later, his sister  assumed the role of  the boy’s teacher. Initially  Miss Chase was delighted with her pupil, who showed a natural  talent for art. He was keenly observant and could produce  drawings of fully rigged sailing ships as well as detailed pictures of Australian native birds and animals.  However, when William  rebelled against the discipline of the schoolroom    Miss Chase became less glowing in her reports;

‘There was but little evidence of a work of grace in his heart, and it was painful to see his want of gratitude, and frequent sullenness of temper.’

Two months later William was removed to the home of  one of Septimus Chase’s relatives, a schoolmaster who lived further down the Thames.  Lessons continued and the boy was also given instruction in various vocational skills such as shoe making and basket weaving. He returned to Reading in time for Christmas, though not to the  Chase family. Septimus’ sister had lost interest,  and Chase himself  was pre-occupied by matters of the heart;  he married Eleanor Purvis  on January 8 1851 at St Giles Church, Reading.    William was fostered out to a worthy couple who lived  nearby. When a marked change in the boy’s behaviour  took place, the Rev. Chase’s missionary zeal was revived. Apparently the child’s defiant attitude had completely disappeared;

He was  willing to give up his will to the will of others; was grateful for any kindness shewn to him;  in a word, he became a new creature.’

The  transformation was attributed to the power of God, though in retrospect  it was  due to a broken spirit, and  serious ill-health. The English winter  had a devastating effect on William’s lungs  and soon doctors were urging Chase to return his small charge to the drier climate of Australia.  Travel plans were made but by now the boy was fading fast and in March a baptism was hastily arranged . To the Rev. Chase, the most important issue was that William did not die ‘a heathen’. Sadly,  the stimulation of visitors  attending the ceremony worsened his condition;

Several of Mr Chase’s family were present; they described it as a solemn and interesting occasion…as it was, the excitement was too great for him  [William], and his pain returned with fearful violence.’

William survived the harshest months of  winter  but died on March 10th. 1852.  He was interred in Reading Cemetery. The vast  19th century cemetery is now completely marooned by traffic and is somewhat overgrown by ivy, blackberry and nettles.  Reading is located close to the Thames and in winter the gravestones are wreathed by the same damp river mists that must surely have contributed to William’s death from tuberculosis. His headstone is badly weathered but it is still possible to make out the inscription;

 Sacred

To the memory of

WILLIAM WIMMERA,

An Australian Boy,

Who died in Christ,

March 10th 1852

Aged 11 years.

 

William's lonely grave at Reading.

William’s lonely grave at Reading.

Following the funeral, Septimus Chase and his new bride returned to Melbourne, where Chase resumed  his ministry at St James church.

In 1859 a group of German based missionaries known as Moravians  arrived in West Wimmera. They were  intent on  bringing Christianity to Australia’s indigenous people by establishing a Mission, and chose an area well insulated from areas of ‘ungodly’ European influence. The availability of fresh water from the  Wimmera River must also have influenced their choice of site. Strangely enough it was William’s old master, Horatio Ellerman, who donated land at Antwerp  to the Moravians.. Ellerman was now a prominent member of the Presbyterian church and strongly supported the  idea of a mission. Initially  a simple  hut  was built. Perhaps by chance, though more likely by design,  it was located in the middle of the Wotjobaluk tribe’s corroboree ground. Not surprisingly, this caused a great  deal of cultural conflict.

Early in 1860 the missionaries were given a pamphlet telling the story of William Wimmera; of his mother’s death by a white man, his time with  Horatio Ellerman, and his eventual ‘conversion’  by the Rev. Chase at Reading. When it was read  to a group of  Wotjabaluk people  there was an immediate reaction.   At least one man  had been present when  William’s mother was shot, and he took the Moravian priests to visit her burial site nearby.

On     1860 The Melbourne Argus printed a letter from the mission leader  Fr. Aug. Hagenauer to the Reverend Chase. Clearly the  missionaries were still attempting to replace the Aborigines cultural heritage with Christianity;  Fr. Hagenauer wrote;

Late at night, when I was in bed, I heard in the distance the blacks singing a song of the corroberee, so I prayed and went to it. They made a corroberee. I went into the midst of them, ans said I was very sorry this and so on. One of them said, “Oh Sir, it is no harm in it, and the whites do just the same when they have a dance.” My hear was moved in compassion. We sat down and I spoke to them of the great love of Jesus Christ..

The missionary’s letter also proved that following the attack on the Wotjabaluk people in 1846,  Horatio Ellerman had removed William Wimmera  from close relatives;

His old grandmother is here and very sick. The poor woman is very much afraid for ganta-galla (hell) and cried one time fearfully. I spoke to her of Jesus Christ . Corny his brother goes on well. ‘

It seems that, as in his own case,  William’s grandmother was denied  a peaceful passing into spirit world of her people.

To the Moravians, the Christian conversion of  a Wotjabaluk child  had been   a sign they had miraculously chosen the perfect site for their mission. Full of   confidence in the future they erected a complex of buildings, and replaced their rough hut with a church. Present at its consecration was Squatter Ellerman, who had been responsible for the death of William’s mother. The  service  was led  by the Rev. Chase, the man indirectly responsible for the death of William.  And in final ironic twist, the boy’s  father was said to have been among the congregation.

In 1863 Septimus Chase presented a paper to the annual meeting of the Society for Promoting Moravian Missions to the Aborigines of Victoria. He spoke of the difficulties being encountered in the Lord’s work at Ebenezer.  It seems that, despite his own powerful testimony  regarding ‘little Wimmera’s’ conversion at Reading,  there had been  difficulties in turning others to God,

Certain young men had been candidates for baptism during the past year, but they did not give sufficient evidence of faith to justify the administration of that ordinance.

Ebenezer Mission closed in 1904. Over time its buildings  fell into ruin and a wall of the pale pink limestone church had to be supported by a large tree limb. In the year 2000, emergency repair work was completed, to preserve what are now Victoria’s oldest remaining Mission buildings. At the official opening following this work , the Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs spoke of Antwerp’s dark history, making specific reference to  the 1846 raid  on the Wotjabaluk people.

A more comprehensive  restoration project was completed in 2005, but the  tree limb was left in place against the church  for posterity.

The restored church at Ebenezer Mission

The restored church at Ebenezer Mission

Surrounding buildings include a detached kitchen, dormitory, and toilet block. Beside the church are the graves of early missionaries and of Philip Pepper, brother of Nathaniel, the Moravians’ first convert. However, as far as I am aware there is no memorial to William Wimmera. The restored buildings  are open to the public daily and are administered by the Goolum-Goolum Aboriginal Co-operative.

IF YOU ENJOYED THE ARTICLE, YOU MIGHT LIKE  TO READ A POIGNANT  AUSTRALIAN STORY FROM A LATER  ERA. CLICK HERE.

RESPONSES TO THIS BLOG ARE WELCOME. PLEASE DON’T FORGET TO COMPLETE THE ANTI-SPAM SUM BELOW THE COMMENT BOX BEFORE PRESSING ‘submit’.

10 Comments
  1. I really enjoyed this post, Pauline. When I was in school and had to study history, I did not like it at all. But over the many years since, I have learned to love history now I don’t have to write an exam about it. 🙂 I especially like to read about things like this that I have never heard about before.

    • Pauline

      Thanks Diane. It has always been the ‘human’ side of history that engages me. Started with my mother telling me the story of King Alfred burning the cakes, whenever she popped a tray of scones in the oven. On a more serious note, William’s story illustrates so much tragic ignorance and injustice.

  2. Pauline,
    thanks for the article above. I visited the grave of William Wimmera in 1986. I was intending at that stage to write a novel entitled An Australian Boy which never eventuated. Recently I have been downsizing and getting rid of boxes of notes and files when I came across my William Wimmera file. Amongst various bits of research I read Chase’s biography and photocopied the Sacramento log book. Since then my writing has been more or less straight history with an emphasis on Gippsland some of which you can access as pdfs on the publications page of my website

  3. Ellerman was partly responsible for the murder of Jim Crow who had saved the lives of my ggGrandfather Charles and gGrandfather Samuel who had taken Ellerman to the Wimmera.

    They should have left him in Port Phillip! Bloodthirsty Christianity!

    • Pauline

      Thanks for your message Ian. I’ve never heard that story. Could you tell me a bit more? My email address is [email protected]

      • Hi I am a descendent of horito ellermen growing up we where told of the story of billy, we where also told that the reason why Rev. Septimus Lloyd Chase took him back to England was because he was so well spoken in the queens language. Horitio taught him to read and to write and encouraged him to draw which he had a natural talent for. He didn’t run away as far as we knew he wanted to go with the other men to take stock to Melbourne, not sure if this was true or not. Also I was told that Horitio use to have nightmare of what he done and felt the mother around him, some say she is buried under the Moravians church and that’s why he gave that part of the land to the Moravians thinking she would then be buried on holy ground and leave him alone..These are most likely tales or yarns that where past down over the years.. very interesting if they where not it would actually make sense why billys was taken to england and why the church was built in the place where his mother was supposed to be buried or died.

        • Pauline

          Thanks so much for this information, Terrie. How interesting. I suspect that is it true about your ancestor teaching Billy to read and write. It was such a different world in those days, so I hope Horatio found the peace of mind he was searching for. Do you have a photo of him?

    • Hi Ian,

      I’ve quite a bit of information on pastoral families of nw Victoria including the Caters and would be interested in comparing notes at some stage.

      Ted Ryan

  4. Thanks for the great article. I visited the Mission around 1985 when it was still in ruins. Let’s make a movie.

Leave a Reply

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

Notification of new stories via Email

Enter your email address to receive notification of new stories on this website (your address will not be shown).

Search Pandora

Find us in Pandora the National Library of Australia's archive of Australian online publications in perpetuity.