Australia

A Perth woman’s search for her mother’s true identity

Yellow wattle blossom colours the pindan verge as we head north of Broome along the recently sealed Cape Leveque Road, bound for the stunning blue bays fringing the Dampier Peninsular.

My travelling companion and guide is Jennifer Durrant, a friend since early childhood when we ran wild through the vineyards, creeks and bush, growing up in the Swan Valley.

Jennifer is making her fifth visit to this remote and beautiful part of the world since learning in 2018 that her late mother Marjorie was part of Australia’s Stolen Generation. At age 60, she met for the first time her Bardi-Jawi family in an emotional reunion culminating in a full return to a country burial service where Marjorie’s ashes were interred at Ardyaloon (One Arm Point). Her Mum’s final resting place overlooks pellucid turquoise water towards Iwanyi (Sunday Island), her childhood home. Jennifer returns each year to connect with the Saltwater People of the Kimberley coast, having had no idea of her First Nations heritage.

Now, Jennifer wants me to put faces to the names that helped her on her journey, to learn something of the culture that shaped Marjorie into the friend I once believed our family knew so well. Turns out, not one of her family and friends in our Swan Valley circle knew the half of her amazing story.

“Mum would never talk about her past and there were no photographs of her as a child. It was as though Mum didn’t exist until she met Dad,” Jennifer says.

Camera IconJennifer Durrant with a photograph of her mum, Marjorie King. Credit: Iain Gillespie/The West Australian

Her curiosity only deepened whenever she would look at a framed portrait of Marjorie as a young woman, stunningly beautiful and unmistakably Asian. But Chinese, or part-Chinese? Japanese, or part-Japanese? And what else?

These questions were all part of the conundrum surrounding Marjorie’s true identity in an off and on search that spanned 55 years.

“Who were Mum’s family? That’s all I ever really wanted to know,” says Jennifer. ‘They were my family, too. I needed to find out who Mum was, to know who I am.”

Marjorie and Henry York met soon after the Second World War, and married in 1948. Henry was a moulder’s assistant at Midland Railway Workshops and together while raising four children they farmed 10 acres (4.5 hectares) at West Swan.

Their self-sufficiency was supplemented by regular fishing trips to the coast, every second day in summer, when Henry took annual leave.

‘Mum was passionate about fishing. Dad would have the car packed up, ready for the drive home, and Mum would still have a line in her hand,’ Jennifer recalls. “She was always the last one out of the water.”

My late mother’s diary records a day in January, 1980, when the York family included me on one of those trips. Marjorie had reeled in a wobbegong and it broke loose in the shallows. I will never forget the intensity etched on Henry York’s face as he sprinted towards the water, like a man possessed.

Marjorie had been bitten by another shark (a blacktip reef shark, Jennifer has since learned) when she was a child. Raised, silver white scars encircled her left knee. That legacy would prove crucial in identifying Marjorie, when Jennifer’s often frustrating quest neared its conclusion.

Dorothy Davey and her relative Jennifer Durrant.
Camera IconDorothy Davey and her relative Jennifer Durrant. Credit: Supplied

A constant among the little information Marjorie reluctantly shared was her belief that her father was Kinverns ‘Lanky’ Quan Sing, a Carnarvon storekeeper who died in 1953. Carnarvon events, places and names featured prominently in the clues Jennifer noted.

But when contact was made with the Quan Sing family in the 1980’s and again in 2013, the result was the same. Jennifer’s notes were consistent with their knowledge of the family and Carnarvon, but no-one had heard of Marjorie King.

Another constant in Marjorie’s past was Una Florence Ulrich, a retired nurse who wrote regularly from her Queensland home.

By the time Jennifer’s search gained momentum, Mrs Ulrich and other potentially key witnesses had died. Marjorie too had died in 2007, along with her secrets.

As a long-time friend with an interest in research and genealogy, I was drawn into this mystery, thinking it would take six months to crack. That proved to be a wild underestimate.

Our lowest point was a hot, dusty autumn day at Karrakatta Cemetery, where Jennifer and I walked in circles for over an hour, searching for the headstone of one of ‘Lanky’ Quan Sing’s sisters. It was right next to a huge gum tree, we had been reliably informed.

Despite having the reference number for the gravesite, it was only when walking back to the car that Jennifer happened upon the headstone. The information it contained did nothing to move the search forward.

Jennifer admitted then that she had accepted she would never find out the truth she had been seeking for so long.

Then we looked for the ‘huge gum tree’ and noticed a big heap of sawdust. It felt as though fate had flipped us the bird.

That low point came soon after the discovery of an old Golden Wattle cookery book that showed Marjorie’s life had intersected with Una Ulrich’s tenure as a nurse working in Derby in 1940. The find triggered a new search of State Records.

Within days, the name Marjorie King was discovered, referenced in letters inside a bulky staff file for Una and husband Hubert Ulrich, matron and officer-in-charge at (what was then known as) Derby Native Hospital, from 1937 to 1941.

Further delving revealed the existence of a Marjorie King file, and Jennifer was able to apply.

Four days later, and completely unrelated to that application, an email lobbed in. It was from James Feehan, then a case worker with the Kimberley Stolen Generation Aboriginal Corporation, and it found its way to Jennifer thanks to a remarkable chain of communication in which the Quan Sing family played a pivotal role.

A family on the Dampier Peninsular was looking for their lost relative, Marjorie — who bore big silver white scars from a shark bite, on her left knee. For all the years and more that Jennifer had been searching, Marjorie’s birth family had been searching, too.

Jennifer has since learned that her mother was taken at the age of 13 from Sunday Island, to live, train and work with Matron Ulrich. She was given the surname King by chief protector of Aborigines, A.O. Neville, “for King Sound, from whence she came”. At age 21, she made the choice to live ‘as a white girl’, knowing her decision under the laws of the time would mean there would be no going back to her Bardi-Jawi family.

Yet she never forgot her mother and siblings. Marjorie’s niece Dorothy Davey has since told Jennifer that regular parcels would arrive on Sunday Island, with letters and gifts. They included boiled sweets, knitted jumpers, children’s clothes and toys.

“We had the best toys at Christmas. The girls had the best dolls on Sunday Island,” Dorothy revealed at her first meeting with Jennifer.

There was never a return address on the parcels, and the line of communication was lost when the Sunday Island Mission closed in 1962.

Jennifer can now put names to her Bardi-Jawi forebears, and knows her great-grandfather was notorious pearling master Antoine Julius ‘Frenchy’ D’Antoine. She is aware of the controversy of the name through its association with the practice of blackbirding, the human trafficking of Indigenous people into the pearling industry.

“I can’t undo history, but maybe by talking about it I can generate some conversation and awareness, because there are still many Australians today who are not familiar with the term ‘blackbirding’. Essentially it was slavery. It happened, it’s a fact, not that it was ever taught as part of Australian history,” Jennifer says.

She adds that the reconnection with Marjorie’s birth family has been a trigger for reconciliation and healing, on both sides.

Now, as our Toyota Fortuner swallows up the 200km between Broome and Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm, Jennifer is looking forward to hearing more of the stories that are helping her bridge the cultural gap.

Jennifer visits her mother Marjorie's final resting place, on a site looking out to Sunday Island.
Camera IconJennifer visits her mother Marjorie’s final resting place, on a site looking out to Sunday Island. Credit: Supplied

Our bolthole is Skipper’s Cottage, once a shack used by crews on the pearling luggers that would tie up at the stack sack jetty across the track on Diver’s Creek. It sits on a site where crews would camp during the pearling industry peak, when it was all about mother of pearl shell for the world button industry.

On a pearl farm tour with Bardi guide Terry Hunter, of Borrgoron Coast to Creek Tours, I learn that 400 luggers worked out of Broome at the industry peak around 1910.

It makes me wonder about Hubert Ulrich. One newspaper article described him as a master of pearling fleets from Broome around to Thursday Island. Could he have camped on the site where Skipper’s Cottage now stands?

Hunter is the fourth generation of the Hunter family to work for the Brown family on the lease that spans 16 square nautical miles. The tour kicks off in the former Cygnet Bay schoolroom which Terry and a dozen or so classmates, including best mate and current farm manager James Brown, attended in the 80s. In 2021, Brown was named Australian Farmer of the Year.

As we enter the farm shed, my attention is caught by an image so striking that for a moment I think it’s a work of art. It’s the view out through an open roller door, white sand merging with blue water and sky, caught in the frame.

Jennifer is out there somewhere, on her way to Sunday Island with Jawi tour operator Rosanna Angus, of Oolin Sunday Island Cultural Tours. Both have an ancestral connection with the island, and Rosanna is as keen to hear Jennifer’s story as is Jennifer to learn more about the place Marjorie once called home. Rosanna was in June named winner of the 2022 Individual Excellence in Aboriginal Tourism Award.

Jennifer is able to walk in her mum’s footsteps and hear her Jawi language, witnessing (Mudarn) red snapper, (Ngoolnga) clam shells, (umbool) baler shells, colourful corals, sea shells, sponges, sea slugs and an abundance of lively, juvenile blacktip sharks.

Next day we both sign up for a culture and history tour with Hunter, whose encyclopaedic knowledge is matched only by his enthusiasm for sharing it.

In an hour we hear how mother of pearl was traded for yellow and red ochre and hard stones to make flints and spearheads. We learn about the importance of the Riji, the sacred, carved, tear-shaped shell that tells each family story, often worn on a belt made of human hair. There are stories of romance and revenge, of science validating a Dreamtime story, of skin groups that help keep families strong.

The book Finding Marjorie King.
Camera IconThe book Finding Marjorie King. Credit: Supplied

That night we catch up with Dorothy Davey and partner Philip Hunter. Davey has had a full day mentoring young female rangers from Ardyaloon, sharing her knowledge of fishing. Her ranger daughter Vivienne, meanwhile was helping with seasonal cool burns around the peninsular to stimulate seed germination and plant regeneration.

The wattle blossom is starting to drop as we head home, a sign we know now thanks to Hunter that the season is about to change. From one of plump rock oysters, when the mullet, mangrove jack, trevally and stingray species run. Soon, the westerlies will rise to herald the inevitable turn towards The Wet.

“Each time I go back I learn a little bit more,” Jennifer says. ‘By talking to the family, and listening to people like Terry Hunter and Rosanna Angus, I can build a better picture of Mum’s life. I understand now why she was so passionate about fishing — she was a true Saltwater person of the Dampier Peninsular.”

‘Finding Marjorie King – a daughter’s journey to discover her mother’s identity’ by Jennifer Durrant and Cheryl Rogers (Big Sky Publishing) is available at bookstores and online.

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