ALASDAIR BEER, JACOB HIGGINS, REBECCA KERR, GENEVIEVE LAMOND, BONITA MASON, SAFIAH RIND, TELISSA RYDER, LAURA THOMAS & CHRIS THOMSON
A stalled plan to co-badge a major Perth park with a name that recognises its Aboriginal heritage has been officially jump-started, with a new council committee set to consider it next month.
Weld Square is an 11,500 sqm reserve bounded by Beaufort Street, Newcastle Street, Stirling Street and Parry Street in inner-Perth.
The park is overlooked by the urbane Ellington Jazz Club, and a phalanx of high-priced apartments in what until a decade or so ago was an unfashionable part of town.
Weld Square and its surrounds have never been unfashionable with Perth’s Nyoongar people, however.
The reserve was once part of a wetland that drained into the Swan River, and has been a Nyoongar meeting place for thousands of years.
In the 1950s, the then Braille Hall, at the corner of Newcastle and Stirling streets, hosted Aboriginal-run Coolbaroo League Dance Club dances. The group behind the club, the Coolbaroo League, lobbied the State Government of the day to rescind the Prohibited Areas Policy that from 1927 to 1954 banned all Aboriginal people from the City of Perth unless they had a work permit, and those with a permit from being in the Western Australian capital after 6pm.
Fast forward to 2016 and, at the City of Vincent’s Annual General Meeting, former city councillor Dudley Maier moved that a dormant plan to co-badge the park with a Nyoongar name acceptable to Perth’s Aboriginal community be reactivated.
Ahead of the meeting, Mr Maier advised that the plan had never been referred to the community-led Aboriginal Liaison and Reconciliation Advisory Group as required by a council decision of July 12, 2012.
Council CEO Len Kosova has confirmed the plan was not referred to the advisory group.
“This should have occurred and there is no clear evidence available to ascertain why it did not happen,” Mr Kosova said.
“It should be noted that the Aboriginal Liaison and Reconciliation Advisory Group is a community-driven group operating in the City of Vincent which the city has actively engaged with from time to time.
“However, that group is not a formal City of Vincent advisory group established by council.”
On May 31 the city appointed a new Reconciliation Action Plan Working Group. Mr Kosova said the group would meet for the first time in July, subject to availability of its members. He said the plan to co-name the park would be considered at that meeting.
“It is likely that the Working Group will deal with this matter through a specific action within the [council’s] Reconciliation Action Plan,” Mr Kosova said.
Mr Maier said that after he was voted out in 2013, a plan to co-badge the reserve as Weld Square/Wongi Park went nowhere, probably due to lack of interest among the council and the Vincent community generally.
He said the recommendation to refer the matter to the advisory group never eventuated, as the group never met.
“It was established, and I was notionally on it, but the group actually never met,” Mr Maier said.
“Had the group had a scheduled meeting it might have been added to the agenda.
“And the name ‘Wongi’ – a few people in Vincent thought it wasn’t such a great name.
“I think maybe they were expecting a traditional name for the area, and there may not have been a traditional name.”
Mechelle Wilson, a presenter and producer at Noongar Radio, which sits across Beaufort Street from Weld Square, opposes any notion that the park be named ‘Wongi’, due to a lack of relevance to Nyoongar people.
“I know this because my grandfather is from Nyoongar country and my grandmother is from Yamatji country where ‘Wongi’ means ‘talk’, definitely,” Ms Wilson said.
“You’re using an Aboriginal name that has no relevance to this area whatsoever or the people – so if you’d [have] done that there would be a huge misunderstanding and it would also be great disrespect to use another First Nation’s language which also relates to another group of First Nation people.
“Wongi means ‘talk’ in Yamatji country which is Midwest area Aboriginal people, so there is no link towards this First Nation area here of Nyoongar people, and the word that we use on Nyoongar country for talk is ‘Wangkiny’ which is ‘talk’ and ‘Wangkininy’ which means talking.
“To look at the word ‘Wongi’, it also means ‘Wongi’, pronounced with a hard ‘i’, which are the Aboriginal people from The Goldfields like Kalgoorlie and that, so I’d say you got the wrong name and there’s no connection with that name to this area.
“It doesn’t belong.”
The council’s original idea to co-name the reserve ‘Wongi Park’ was meant to reflect the fact that Nyoongar people had met ‘to talk’ at the reserve for generations.
Another presenter and producer at Noongar Radio, Jodi Ryder, also a Nyoongar woman, said that giving the park a Nyoongar name would “be more inclusive for Aboriginal people”.
Named in 1873 after Western Australia’s eighth governor, Frederick Weld, a New Zealander, Weld Square is a State-listed Aboriginal heritage site. Governor Weld engaged town planner William Ernest Bold and architect Harold Boas to design the park, which was not landscaped until 1898.
Mr Maier said his favoured approach to recognising the park’s Nyoongar heritage was for a sign to acknowledge its significance, without necessarily changing the name.
He said that while the city’s Hyde and Robertson Parks have Nyoongar names discernible from colonial-era maps, no-one seemed able to provide an actual Nyoongar name for Weld Square.
“I suppose the idea we had was that Weld Square could be the first [in the city where Nyoongar heritage was recognised], and then you could have Hyde Park and Robertson Park, and things like that, where you could put some recognition, because Hyde Park and Robertson Park do have recognised Aboriginal Names; ‘Boodjamooling’ and ‘Boodjameelup’,” he said.
“So you don’t have to change the name of Hyde Park, just put a sign up saying: ‘This area has been used for tens of thousands of years; the Wadjuk name was ‘Boodjamooling”, or something like that.”
MR CORUNNA’S STORY
Nyoongar Elder Albert Corunna is the oldest surviving great great grandson of Midgegooroo who at the time of Perth’s colonisation was a highly prominent Nyoongar leader.
In 1833, Midgegooroo became the only person ever executed by firing squad in Australia, after being accused but never tried of a leading role in the killing of two colonists near Bull Creek, now a southern suburb of metropolitan Perth. Midgegooroo now has a bridge in eastern Perth, a street in Ellenbrook, an avenue in Cockburn Central, and a national park in the Perth Hills named after him.
“I am one of the people who can speak for the Country where Weld Square is,” Mr Corunna said.
“The first time I heard of the Coolbaroo Club was when I was about 13 and my cousins went to the dance.
“This was when Coolbaroo was in East Perth and my cousins caught the bus from Bassendean.”
Mr Corunna still has a photo of his parents at the Coolbaroo Club at East Perth in 1948.
“Before the Club started at Braille Hall on the corner of Stirling and Newcastle Streets there was a meeting at Eden Hill,” he said.
“I went to hear the old people talk when I was a teenager.
“I went to the first dance when the Coolbaroo Club re-opened in 1952.”
Mr Corunna said his brother and he caught the bus from Sixth Avenue in Bassendean, which is now called Lord Street.
“We had no idea where we were going, but Barney Parfitt was on the same bus and he showed us where to get off,” Mr Corunna said.
“At the dance there was a piano player and [Coolbaroo Club leader] Ronnie Kickett was on the drums.
“It was old time dances and the hall was pretty full, mostly Nyoongar people from Eden Hill and East Perth.”
Mr Corunna said the dance started about 8pm and finished about 11:30.
“My brother and I caught the bus back to Bassendean and walked through the sand to Lottie Grange’s place on what is now called Mary Crescent,” he said.
Mr Corunna recounted how on another night when he was about 17 and his brother about 19 they went into town to the pictures.
“My suggestion is that Weld Square be named after the Coolbaroo League to remember those times when it was against the law for Blackfella to be in Perth after 6.00pm.”
“At that time it was illegal for Aboriginal people to cross Newcastle Street without a pass,” he said.
“I suppose we could have been arrested if the police had stopped us.
“That night we missed the bus home so we slept the night in Weld Square.
“We probably slept there because it was just outside the racial Prohibited Area.”
Mr Corunna said lots of Nyoongar people still slept in Weld Square when they had nowhere else to go.
“It is still a meeting place for Aboriginal people,” he said.
“My suggestion is that Weld Square be named after the Coolbaroo League to remember those times when it was against the law for Blackfella to be in Perth after 6.00pm.
“When we came to dance right on the edge of the Prohibited Area, we made a political statement as well as having a good time.”
Curtin University academic Ted Wilkes, himself a Nyoongar Elder descended from Midgegooroo, said that Mr Corunna was a boss, or birdiya, Elder.
Associate Professor Wilkes said that if “Uncle Albert” suggested the park be named after the Coolbaroo League, then that was good enough for him.
“That’s where a lot of our social and cultural activities were generated from, that area,” he added.
LOCAL BUSINESS SUPPORT
Yen Tran, who co-owns the nearby Northbridge Pharmacy, said the plan to give Weld Square an Aboriginal name was a “great idea”.
“… it would be a good representation of what the park has meant to our Indigenous people,” Mr Tran said.
“And it would be really lovely to carry that on and let other people know that it is there for a reason, because, obviously, we have all of the buildings around us and you know that is the only original piece of land that is still kept as it is.”
Sam Rogers who owns Northbridge Dental, located not far from the park, was aware Weld Square had long been a meeting place for Aboriginal people.
“… and Weld, I don’t know who Weld is,” Mr Rogers said.
“I think he was a governor or something …”
Nyoongar woman Lynette Todd-Brophy, who was at the park when we dropped by, said she had always known it as ‘Beaufort Park’, not Weld Square.
Ms Todd-Brophy said the ‘Beaufort’ to whom she referred was Robert Beaufort Dinah (1898-1962), a boxer and Nyoongar leader. We can confirm this is not the same ‘Beaufort’ – Irish explorer and inventor Sir Francis Beaufort – from whom adjacent Beaufort Street took its name.
Another Nyoongar woman we spoke to at Weld Square, Pamela Morrison, said she would support an Aboriginal name for the park.
“And I didn’t even know it was called ‘Weld Square’, which means really nothing …,” said Ms Morrison whose views are featured in the following video alongside the opinions of other park-goers.
If a co-name were approved for the park, it would be the latest in a string of co-names around Australia, the best known one being Ayers Rock/Uluru which was co-badged in 1993. Most people now know the rock only by its traditional name of Uluru.
In recent years, many Perth places have been co-badged with a Nyoongar name, or given a Nyoongar name outright. The most prominent example is the mooted Yagan Square, to be named after the legendary Nyoongar freedom fighter, at the emerging Perth City Link project.
Yagan was Midgegooroo’s son.
South-western Australia, including Perth, has the highest proportion of Indigenous place names of anywhere in Australia – with more than 50 per cent being of Nyoongar origin.
The City of Vincent plans to celebrate NAIDOC Week on Saturday, July 9 at Weld Square from 12.30pm.
The celebration will recognise local Indigenous history, particularly the role of the Coolbaroo League.
“In recognition of the historical and cultural importance of Weld Square to our local Indigenous community, the NAIDOC Week event also includes the unveiling of a new public artwork by WA artists Sandra Hill and Jenny Dawson, which commemorates and will include personal stories about the Coolbaroo League,” Mr Kosova said.
“This artwork was commissioned through major contributions from the City of Vincent and the Metropolitan Redevelopment Authority.”
** The spelling of ‘Nyoongar’ used here is the spelling that Mr Corunna prefers. **