As the ferry passes the entrance to Double Bay I peer in to see Seven Shillings Beach, a little beach I had read about then visited some time ago.
In her 1949 publication, Some Houses and People of New South Wales, G Nesta Griffiths describes how the beach below Redleafcame to be named Seven Shillings Beach, citing information from Miss Dora Busby, granddaughter of the Mr and Mrs Busby mentioned:
The aboriginal owner of the fishing rights was Gurrah, whose lubra, Nancy, was a sister of Sophie, who lived near the spring at Vaucluse. When Mr Busby bought Redleaf, Gurrah lived just outside their fence, and they had continual trouble with members of the tribe. Mrs Busby tried to buy their fishing rights, and offered them blankets, clothes and flour. At last Gurrah said he would sell for seven shillings. Mrs Busby was afraid this would only be spent on rum, and tried to persuade Gurrah to take more useful goods. At last so many fowls and eggs were stolen that she gave Gurrah the money, and the tribe moved up to what is now the Ronagarden, on Victoria Road.[i]
I find a typed correction inside the back cover of the edition of Nesta Griffiths’ book held in the Mitchell Library. Written by Miss Dora Busby, it notes that she was told by her grandmother that Gurrah’s ‘lubra’ was Emma, not Nancy; that ‘When Mr Walker built Redleaf, Gurrah lived just outside the fence in a ti-tree lean-to’; and that ‘Both from him [Gurrah] and from members of the tribe which lived in the camp where Ronanow stands, the Walkers suffered a good deal of trouble one way and another.’ It was Mrs Walker who offered to buy Gurrah’s ‘fishing rights off the beach’ and that, ‘He and his Emma joined her sister Sophie at ‘Sophie’s camp’ at Vaucluse, and when Emma died he buried her in Double Bay.’
What is fascinating about this passage for me is what it hints at: Gurrah and a ‘tribe’ – or even two ‘tribes’ – lived on Sydney Harbour in the 1870s. They were living enough of a traditional life to be regarded as ‘owning the fishing rights’. A tradition of use and habitation was acknowledged, even if it wasn’t respected. Another Aboriginal woman, Sophie, lived nearby. Where did the second ‘tribe’ move to after being dispossessed when Ronawas built in 1883?
After reading about this transaction I wanted to see the location for myself so, on a mid-winter’s day, I headed to Seven Shillings Beach (or ‘Seven Bob Beach’ as my mother-in-law told me it was called by the locals). Frustrated in my attempts to reach it by road, every possible access point blocked by gates and driveways and security-fenced houses, I parked in the Woollahra Council carpark and walked down. The council building is the old Redleafhouse, and I can see why the lady of the house wanted those pesky Aborigines out of the way – they would definitely have interrupted her view of sun-tipped waves and crisp white sand when she walked between the columns of her verandah. However, to suggest that she had ‘suffered’ in any way at the hands of the Aboriginal people is astonishing, colonial hyperbole.