Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

History Revisited - Aboriginal nurse Emma Jane Callaghan: the lady who became an institution

HOME SWEET HOME: Emma Jane Callaghan was born at the La Perouse Aboriginal Reserve in 1884. This photo shows a a group at La Perouse from the 1890s. Emma would go on to build a career in nursing and in promoting Aboriginal health.
Emma Jane Callaghan (1884-1979) was a remarkable woman whose life was recorded by Shay Ann Kelly.

Born at the La Perouse Aboriginal Reserve in Sydney on 28 February 1884,
she was the younger twin of William Foot and Kathleen Sims. William was a fisherman, while Kathleen was a member of the Dharawal tribe.

Emma injured her head when she was four. She was looked after by Retta Dixon who would found the Aborigines' Inland Mission of Australia, establishing a relationship that would shape Emma’s life.

Although she had left school after third grade, Emma wanted to be a nurse. About 1903 Dixon took her to visit the Dunggutti (Dainggatti) people at the Nulla Nulla Aborigines' Reserve near Bellbrook in the Upper Macleay Valley.

Emma decided that she had a mission to help her people. Two years later she returned to Bellbrook. There she held religious services in the open air under trees or in the small tin church on the reserve, learning to play the organ. She also helped older Aboriginal women when they assisted in childbirth, earning their trust and respect.

Emma registered Aboriginal births. regularly searching the camps and humpies for sick people, crossing flooded creeks and riding through the bush to tend her patients: At the time, Aboriginal people were not admitted to Kempsey hospital and would not be until an annexe was built in the 1930s.. She also buried the dead with the police as witnesses.

At Bellbrook, Emma met and fell in love with a young Dunggutti labourer, Athol Callaghan. They married on 20 September 1909 at the Nulla Nulla Reserve. Athol was 22, three years younger than Emma. They would have eleven children.

Apart from her other skills, Emma was a competent needlewoman. She made her own hats and clothes as well as clothes for the community including wedding dresses and ball gowns. She also extended her knowledge of the local language, translating Bible stories into Dunggutti.

Athol developed tuberculosis. Around 1928, the family moved to Armidale to be closer to medical facilities. There Emma displayed again that energy that was such a trade mark feature.

Emma herself became highly respected and encountered no personal prejudice. However, that was not universally true for Armidale’s Aboriginal community who were living in appalling conditions on the fringes of the town.

Emma again practiced as midwife to her people, nursing them without charge She lobbied the mayor and the Anglican bishop until her family obtained a house.. This became an impromptu hospital and doctor’s surgery, with Dr Ellen Kent Hughes regularly visiting to see patients.

After seven years in Armidale, the family returned to La Perouse at Athol’s request. There Emma bought a block of land near the mission and built a timber and fibro house to plans provided by her friend Kent Hughes.

At La Perouse, Emma was just as active as she had been in the North. By the time she died in 1979, she had become an institution, “The Lady”. In recognition, the State government preserved her home in 1985.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 26 August 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.

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