They were known as The Bungalow children. Alec Ross was one of them. Located on the grounds of the Overland Telegraph Station in Alice Springs, The Bungalow became home to part aboriginal children taken into state care. They were just some of those now known as The Stolen Generation.
But this story is not about that. This is a story of a most remarkable episode in the lives of these children. It began when WWll threatened Australian soil.
I was living at Neutral Junction with my mother when I was a baby and in those days they had a ruling that if you fathered a half-caste child, you weren’t allowed to be a father to it or stay with the child. My father was classed as a white man, he looked white but he wasn’t a white man. Then they took me away because my mother had me in the camp. The reason they gave my father for taking me away was that it was the law and that my father couldn’t do anything about it.
Because my father was classed as a white man, he couldn’t have an Aboriginal partner and so the child would therefore be taken away. They wanted us to grow up like a ‘normal’ white person I suppose and give us a better education and a better living.
Born in Barrow Creek, Sydney, in 1936, Alec was the child of an Aboriginal woman. His father was 3/4 Scottish. As a 3 year old toddler, Alec was moved to The Bungalow with a group of other children in similar circumstances to his own. In 1941 they were moved to a mission on Croker Island.
When the Japanese began bombing Darwin it was deemed unsafe for the children to continue living there.
I remember the Japs flying over us at Croker and before we had to leave and then when they bombed Darwin.
We had to walk practically all the way from a place called Barklay Bay on the Arnhem Land coast right over to Pine Creek through the bush. It would have been two or three hundred miles and there were about eighty kids and three or four missionaries. We had two old trucks, an old Chevrolet truck and a couple of horses and that’s how we travelled through crocodile infested waters.
Margaret Sommerville, a 28 year old missionary, led the children on what was to become a remarkable 5,000 kilometre trek.
I don’t know how we did it. It was just living one day at a time.
I loved the work with the children. That was my calling and I believe it was right and I enjoyed every minute of it.
You’ve just to keep cheerful and do the next thing that has to be done.
Escaping the island with borrowed fuel and the mission boat, the group’s first stop was the mainland, where they camped for the night, despite the threat of aggressive crocodiles. As their journey continued through Arnhem Land, starvation, dehydration, perilous water crossings and broken down trucks all threatened their survival, but it was the instincts and abilities of the children that ultimately saw them arrive at their destination in NSW.
Forty four days after setting out, they finally arrived in Sydney. In 1946 Margaret and 69 of the children boarded a navy vessel for a six week passage back to Croker Island.
Alec Ross went on to have a remarkable life, having lived and worked on Croker until it was deemed he was ready to leave and look after himself. Never did he feel life had dealt him a bad deck. Some of them did suffer more than I did because a lot of the older kids probably knew their parents better than me, I didn’t. Being so young, I was taken away and I hadn’t known my parents, so therefore it didn’t matter to me. All these kids who were running with me in the same age group would be like brothers and sisters.
He was seldom without work, ending up back at the Overland Telegraph Station as a tour guide in the latter part of his life, where he was highly regarded as its local living legend and historian.
He met his mother for the first time aged 42. The truth is that I only felt sad for my mother. There was no bond of any type there because we just didn’t know each other.
Awarded an Order of Australia in 2013, Alec died on 30 March 2017 and is buried at the Alice Springs Garden Cemetery. He is the subject of a book, Alec, A Living History of the Alice Springs Telegraph Station by Shirley Brown.