The Boys who made the Big Time

By ERWIN CHLANDA

 

A boy climbed onto the back of a ute on Huckitta cattle station, north-east of Alice Springs.

 

He remembers the driver was a man with a beard and the passenger was a woman with a red kerchief.

 

Behind them, in the homestead now disappearing in the dust, is the boy’s mother, Edith Espie, a part-Aboriginal woman working as a housemaid, and his five siblings, children to a white man who would soon leave The Centre and start a new – white – family “down south”.

 

The year is 1941 and the boy, aged six, is setting off on a trip that will change his life.

 

After schooling together with some of Central Australia’s greatest Indigenous achievers he would become the nation’s highest ranking Aboriginal police commissioned officer, as a Chief Inspector of the NSW police force, 3000 kilometres away.

 

The second anniversary on Sunday of Bill “Buckshot” Espie’s death is a good reason to remember his life, but perhaps even more so as Australia has a new government with fixing the entrenched failings of Aboriginal education near the top of its agenda.

 

The foundation of Bill Espie’s professional and social life started with what some would call “being taken away and being put into the care of a missionary”. He was the first to hotly deny that.

 

He wrote: “I was born in the ’30s to an Aboriginal mother who through no fault of her own could not have raised me in the way she would have wished, due mainly to economic and social barriers.

 

“Fancy phrases, of course, but simply meaning being poor and not being fully accepted in the community in which we lived.”

He writes his mother, Edith Espie, who grew up in the Bungalow, now known as the Old Telegraph Station, and had given birth to him in a tent outside the Alice hospital, had the choice of giving him “no more than a twenty per cent chance of being successful, or let me grow up under the watchful eye of Father [Percy] Smith, an Anglican Minister whose parish was Alice Springs. No doubt at great pain my loving mother chose the latter.”

 

The young Espie went to the Hartley Street School in Alice and boarded at a residence for Aboriginal boys founded by Father Smith and his wife. From there, at age about 12, he transferred to Saint Francis House in the Adelaide suburb of Semaphore, also founded by Father and Mrs Smith.

 

In today’s parlance the process would probably be called hothousing. Some would probably persist in decrying the boys’ removal from their culture. But the objective of Father Smith (“the term ‘Father’ I suspect arrived from affection rather than religious correctness,” writes Insp Espie) was resolute: pick the smartest and give them the opportunity of becoming high achievers.

 

They included Charlie Perkins (activist, entrepreneur, top public servant and sharp-tongued, intelligent, irrepressible wag); John Moriarty (artist, government advisor and former football player); Vince Copley (sporting identity) and Gordon Briscoe (professor, activist, organiser, researcher, writer, teacher and mentor).

 

Bill Espie’s partner, Maureen Ola, says his accounts of these days were low-key, speaking little about himself but lots about the group, the “boys” with whom he formed life-long friendships.

 

PHOTOS (from top):

• Some of The Boys who came from the bush and made their mark in the nation: Bill “Buckshot” Espie (back row, 2nd from left). Middle row: Vince Copley, Charlie Perkins, Ernie Perkins (the other two unidentified). Front row: Brian Butler, John Smith (unsure). Help us fill in the gaps! UPDATE: See comment below from Uncle Brian Butler who provided all the names.

• Father Percy Smith.

• Bill Espie.

• The four men: Laurie Bray (unsure), John Moriarty, Vince Copley, Bill Espie. NOW IDENTIFIED by Chippy Miller as follows: Desmond Price, John Moriarty, Vince Copley and Billy Espie.

• The building in the Adelaide suburb of Semaphore which was formerly Saint Francis House.

 

The teenage Espie clearly embraced the environment he lived in but not at the expense of making his point when necessary: when the successor of Percy Smith threatened the boys with communal punishment for stealing oranges, the young Espie said to him calmly: “We took them because we were hungry.”

 

The Smith philosophy clearly worked: Bill Espie – additional to his learning record – became a tennis player good enough to play with Ken Rosewall and Lew Hoad.

 

After completing his Intermediate Certificate he trained as a maintenance fitter, joined the army. In 1955 he became a sapper in the engineers and was appointed a field engineer.
 He served at Maralinga during the atomic testing.

 

He moved to Sydney and in 1961 married Irene Zachary. They had four children, all of whom are high achievers.

 

He entered the NSW police force at age 26  – not before eating two kilograms of bananas to reach the minimum weight.

 

He quickly rose through the ranks, no doubt in acknowledgement of his exceptional courage: he caught an armed prison escapee, and in the crash of two cars, both of which had exploded into flames, he single-handedly rescued the two drivers.

 

For this he received the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct in 1965 – the highest award of its kind, reported in the London Gazette. Among the many awards were the Peter Mitchell Award to “recognise his selfless and brave conduct” and the George Lewis Trophy for “the most courageous act” of a NSW police officer in 1965. And in 1980 he received the National Medal of Service, in 1988 the First Clasp to the National Medal and the Australian Medal three months after his death for his service in Maralinga during the nuclear testing.

 

With all that, “the red dirt, the smells, the feelings of the Red Centre were always in his blood,” recalls Ms Ola. And so were his humour and good nature, taken to deliver bush yarns to an audience standing on the counter of a police station.

 

“He had a block of land somewhere west of The Alice,” says Ms Ola. “Let’s live on it,” he would say. “We’ll have instant air-conditioning. I’ll bring the tin snips.” She declined.

 

Tragically, Insp Espie was struck down in the last few years of his life by a virulent form of Parkinson’s Disease. Ms Ola says he hated hospitals. When called to Adelaide to visit Mrs Smith on her deathbed, he could not conceal his impatience to leave after 10 minutes, which did not escape Mrs Smith’s attention. “Buchkshot, you are not going anywhere. Sit down,” she said. “Yes, Mrs Smith,” Bill Espie replied, and promptly sat.

 

On their trips to The Centre they had collected a bottle full of red sand and a few stones from around the country. This week Ms Ola returned them.

 

FOOTNOTE from Chippy Miller: Peter Tilmouth was my brother. He died in 1973 and was buried in the opal mining town of Andamooka, where he lived with his wife and two children. In 2009, myself, my brother Dave and a brother-in-law travelled to Andamooka to have his remains exhumed and we brought him back to Alice Springs where he was re-buried.

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9 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Michael Mihailovic
    Posted November 3, 2013 at 6:39 am

    I am saddened to hear of Bill Espie passing. Our family knew him well as an honest and totally dedicated police officer never willing to compromise himself or his dignity. He was not for sale and could not be bought as some of his colleagues sadly.
    Rest In Peace Bill.

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  2. Bob Durnan
    Posted October 1, 2013 at 10:19 am

    Good on you Eddie (Posted September 30, 2013 at 9:31 pm) for also speaking up about these wonderful people, who led varied and interesting lives in the face of huge adversities. Any plans to write the book?
    And what about the one you started with Jim Butler, Ian Rennie (Posted September 30, 2013 at 11:12 am)? Would be great to be able to read more of these stories.
    All you guys have plenty to say yet. Time to sharpen up those writing pencils. Your stories will be of huge importance in the schools of the future, providing material for teachers and their students to learn the real history of central Australia.

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  3. Eddie Taylor
    Posted September 30, 2013 at 9:31 pm

    My name is Edward Taylor the lady Bill says is his mother grew me up from the age of four weeks old until I left her care at the age of 12 to live in Darwin until I left school at 15 and returned to live in Alice with our family.
    I am proud of our mother who was the greatest mother anyone could ever have. I had to travel to NSW to Bill’s house to bring mum home with Irean. Bill’s wife’s mum was home for only a short time when we lost her.
    I was so proud when I was asked to go and bring her home. Bill would come to Alice every year with our beautiful sister Ellen. I was lucky to hear her and Bill tell me lots of stories about mum and how spoilt Mum made me.
    I always said I was the best kid but I have always loved my brothers and sisters. My life has been the chair of CAALAS, president for five years of NAAJAC, president three years, worked in the night patrol in Alice Springs and Barkly teams, helping to help women and children.
    All the work I have done has been mum and later Bill saying always support the underprivileged and never turn anyone away. Always share your love.

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  4. Ian Rennie
    Posted September 30, 2013 at 11:12 am

    The Brian Butler in the photo would I think be the son of the late James ‘Jim’ Henry Butler, (Butler Road, Alice Springs is named after Jim) who was raised and educated in Adelaide and moved to the Alice as a teenager after working on a sheep station at Beltana, SA.
    Jim, as he liked to be called, worked for his Uncle as a “butcher boy” and then went on to run goats on Billygoat Hill and he then among other things including driving trucks out bush, running a boarding house, did the “septic can service” for Alice and his son Brian, then a young man, worked with Jim as an assistant on this job.
    Brian was assured of an education by his father Jim and that would have been a school photo.
    I will stand corrected if wrong but I believe this Brian Butler did not as seems to be inferred, ‘come in from the bush’ as so many did.
    I started writing Jim’s Biography before he died, he gave me many old photos.
    I met his son Brian once at Jim’s house at Pt Augusta and I have yet to meet a man such a mirror image of his father.

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  5. Sandra Paul
    Posted September 23, 2013 at 9:23 pm

    I also have this photo. I am also one of Chippy’s and Peter Tilmouth’s sisters and totally agree with the names from Brian.

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  6. John Smith
    Posted September 19, 2013 at 9:10 pm

    Brian Butler has the names of the boys in the photo correct. My understanding is that the Australian Medal actually means The Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM).
    People might not know what the term the Australian Medal means. The OAM is probably the highest public honour Bill received. Bill Espie’s achievements are considerable.
    To some extent he has been overshadowed by the achievements of the other boys – not that that ever concerned him.
    A documentary about St Francis’ House would probably be timely. I am glad that you have thought this a worthwhile story to tell.
    In a recent statement Bishop David McCall described Father Smith as one of the great priests of the Australian Church.
    If you want to know more then you can read Father Smith’s biography, “The Flower in the Desert”, a copy of which is in the Alice Springs Town Library.

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  7. Maureen Ola
    Posted September 19, 2013 at 4:20 pm

    Thanks guys for helping me out. I didn’t know all the names.
    Was a great story.

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  8. Jean
    Posted September 18, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    From Uncle Brian Butler: Back – Charlie Kunoth, Billie Espie, Peter Tilmouth, John Palmer
    Middle – Laurie Bray, Charlie Perkins, Ernie Perkins, Malcolm Cooper, David Woodford
    Front – Brian Butler, Gordon Briscoe and Alice
    [ED – Many thanks!]

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  9. Chippy Miller
    Posted September 18, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    I have this picture with all the names except the two at the front … you could be right with Brian Butler. Vince Copley is not in this.

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