A short documentary history of the Block in Redfern
Material from the Gary Foley Collection

Redfern's black history goes back generations

Jopson, Debra
Sydney Morning Herald
10th July 2009

SYDNEY'S black urban heart has been in Redfern much longer than people think.

Before World War II, it was a bustling centre of Aboriginal life, where people from country NSW found jobs, bought houses and in the case of the family of Sylvia Scott, an elder, ran a fruit and vegetable shop.

"There was an abundance of employment and if they worked in a factory, they would get a bounty ... at Smith's Crisps, for instance, they could bring chips home," said Heidi Norman, an indigenous historian who spoke at a National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee Week history forum in Glebe yesterday. "It resembles bush living where shearers would come back from the shed and share a carcass with the extended family."

Many know that indigenous people flocked to Redfern in the 1970s, but Ms Norman dug further back after seeing an 1850 painting by John Rae at the State Library depicting Aborigines on what is now the Block watching the first sod turned for Redfern railway station.

One family, the Maddens, had a continuous connection since the British landed in 1788, said Ms Norman, a University of Technology, Sydney lecturer who won the NSW indigenous history fellowship three years ago. She has counted 158 factories in Redfern and Waterloo in 1945. Aborigines clustered in certain factories producing ice-creams, chocolates, cigarettes and bras. Employers considered them good workers, she has learnt through interviews and records.

"Whenever you work with another Koori, you feel more contented, rather than being the odd one out. It is better to see another black face than a sea of non-Aborigines," said Lesley Townsend, whose family has lived in Redfern for more than 50 years.

Her grandparents bought a Walker Street terrace 53 years ago when she was three. She lived there with about six other family members, including two uncles whose jobs helped support them.

"With all the Aboriginal families, extended family would come down [from the country], but they always managed to squeeze in," said Ms Townsend, now the Aboriginal liaison officer with Redfern police.

Her cousins own the house today and are renovating it around a pine their grandmother planted in the front garden in the 1950s.

Ms Townsend remembers the urgency of finding two shillings to restart a rental TV when it stopped mid-program. She recalls the puddings her grandmother made six weeks before Christmas, wrapped in muslin, cooked in the woodchip boiler, then garnished with threepences.

These unearthed memories are a counterpoint to many Sydneysiders' impressions of Redfern's riots, sagging houses and welfare dependency.

"It is a very domestic, homely life people were engaged in, very different to the images today," Ms Norman said.

When the factories closed from the 1980s on, the jobs went. Redfern changed because industry did, she says.