Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Vale Jeremy Beckett

Recent stories

Sadly anthropologist Jeremy Beckett passed away in the last months of 2022. A Celebration of his Life was held on 19 February 2023 at Chai Chak Wing Museum, Sydney University. About 100 people attended in person with at least 60 people participating online. Although I was unable to attend this poignant event I had the privilege of access to a video recording of the Celebration.

However, here, I would like to share memories of my association with Jeremy when I worked at Wilcannia River Radio in 2012-13. Many of Jeremy’s friends from Wilcannia and Far Western NSW, including Mutawintji traditional owners travelled to Sydney. Many remembered Jeremy during his anthropological work in Murrin Bridge and Wilcannia in the mid-1950s for his Master’s degree. Working in regional Australia with First Nations people in the mid-1950s was unusual at that time, as most anthropologists were still focused on remote Aboriginal groups in Central and Northern Australia.

After leaving Wilcannia, Jeremy spent time in the Torres Straits conducting PhD field work and his knowledge was later instrumental in assisting the positive outcome leading to the Mabo decision and the anthropological underpinning to the concept of native title in that landmark case. Jeremy’s professional interests were wide-ranging taking him in the 1970s to the Southern Philippines and later to America.

During 2012-13 when I managed Wilcannia River Radio I had thought it would be wonderful to reprint Jeremy’s photos from his stay in the mid-1950s.They are such a fabulous collection capturing the inventiveness of local Aboriginal people and documenting their lives. I felt it would be a positive contribution for local families to see their ‘old people’ and how resourceful they were in making ‘do’ in difficult circumstances and to show something of their lives as pastoral workers. The photographs were taken by Jeremy when living in Wilcannia in the 1955-56. Permission to display these photos were sought from the families whose family members were displayed. Unfailingly, all agreed to the display; many already had the same photos in their possession sent to them by Jeremy.

I organised for the reproduction of his photos, framing them for a shared public display located in Miss Barrett’s Café and the Courthouse Café. During the printing process Jeremy and I corresponded by email about the identity of many of the people and scenes capturing life in Wilcannia and on the ‘mission” 50 years (plus) ago.

The exhibition was advertised locally in the Wilcannia News. Notice of the event was seen by Jeremy’s daughter, Sophia, who rang me at the radio station to say Jeremy and family would like to attend. This was a wonderful surprise and a bonus to the exhibition!

The cost of reproducing the photos and framing them was carried by Wilcannia River Radio funded, at that time, by Murdi Paaki Regional Enterprise Corporation (MPREC). The photos were later given to the Wilcannia Central School for the language room and are a valuable record of the older generations of many families in Wilcannia today.

I also had a couple of the photos of Aboriginal pastoral workers from Wilcannia blown up and attached to public buildings (the Wilcannia Court House and the Shire Office).

Jeremy, in the company of his children Simeon and Sophia and grandchildren, visited Wilcannia during the weekend of the opening of the exhibition. They drove the two hours out from Broken Hill and enjoyed refreshments at Miss Barrett’s café. A number of local people attended; Slim Evans bought his photo album to reminisce about old times, places and people, and Jeremy was especially pleased to once again meet and talk with George Dutton’s daughter, Norma. As one participant said, it was ‘a very happy occasion’ and one where both Indigenous and non-Indigenous remembered aspects of the ‘old days’.

What impressed me on that day was the high regard locally for Jeremy. An Aboriginal man drove the 2 hours (a 4 hour round trip) from Broken Hill to Wilcannia just to meet Jeremy. He told me he did not know Jeremy personally, but was familiar with Jeremy’s writings about Wilcannia, and wanted to meet him given the respect he had for him.

Many older Wilcannia folk are well acquainted with Dougie Young’s songs. They were popular when we played them on air at Wilcannia River Radio. Jeremy ‘s role in recording and preserving these songs was crucial. Just as importantly, by recording them he made Dougie’s music and lyrics available to a wider Australian audience as the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) in Canberra published them. At the Celebration of his Life, one of Jeremy’s friends, Eric Wilson, spoke of Jeremy’s interest in Dougie’s music, and later sang the well-known song “The Land Where the Crow Flies Backwards”. It reminded me too that Dr Toby Martin brought a band out to Wilcannia in 2012-13 fronted by Dougie’s grandson and they sang a number of Young’s original songs before an appreciative local audience on a Sunday afternoon. Jeremy’s foresight in collecting and recording these local songs has been of benefit to many and has preserved a unique aspect of the Indigenous local cultural heritage.

Jeremy’s association with Wilcannia Aboriginal families and the Far West continued even after his professional interests focused on Torres Strait. He assisted other researchers working in the Far West such as those from NTSCorp (the NSW native title representative body), and including local Indigenous researcher Brad Steadman from Brewarrina. No doubt there are many others unknown to me. I too had the privilege of talking with him about his work in the Far West in the 1950s. He was always generous with his time and his views.

Wilcannia News April 2023

This article appeared in the Wilcannia News, April 2023.


Sign up to the Australian Rural & Regional News newsletters

Manage your subscription

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.