Margaret Somerville’s story is one of courage and human endurance — 44 days crossing Australia by foot, boat, truck and train to get to Sydney.
Many years ago Margaret Somerville wrote a letter to her parents.
It was written in pencil and travel stained when she sent it from the centre of Australia. By the time it reached Sydney her mother found it difficult to read. In 1970 it was published as a book.
When her book was republished in 2011 the sleeve contained a personal recommendation from Quentin Bryce, describing it as “one of the greatest of all Australian stories of love and compassion”.
The Governor-General might find her life inspiring but Margaret, a deeply modest and religious centenarian, does not understand what all the fuss is about.
“When you have a job to do you just have to do it,” she said.
“There were no heroics about it — we knew we had to do what had to be done.”
The thing that had to be done was to relocate 95 Indigenous children by crossing the centre of Australia to safety in Sydney.
It was 1942 and Darwin was under attack by Japan. In 1941 all white women and children were being evacuated from Darwin.
On Croker Island, 250 kilometres north-east, Margaret and two other “cottage mothers” waited for word that the Larrpan, a mission boat, would arrive to take the island’s population to the mainland.
They had earlier refused to be evacuated without the 95 children under their care.
With help and direction from the Government, drivers and a minister who aided on various legs of the trip, they spent 44 days travelling 5,000 miles by foot, by truck, by canoe and by train, until they eventually found a temporary home on the other side of Australia.
The journey was described in Margaret’s book They Crossed a Continent.
Around three years ago four people came to Margaret’s self-care unit, trained cameras on her while she told her story again. The resulting footage was woven into the documentary Croker Island Exodus, which became a finalist in the 2012 Sydney Film Festival.
It is scheduled to air on ABC television on November 20, 8.30 PM.
Margaret, a member of Rockdale Uniting Church, is dismissive of any notion that she is deserving of her new-found celebrity.
“No-one else wrote anything, apparently, and of course I am the only one who has lived long enough to reap the benefit of the book being written and the film,” she said.
“I’ve become famous and all I’ve done was nothing! I just happened to be in that place at that time.”
Though she shies from personal credit, Margaret’s arrival at Croker was no accident. It was the result of a strong calling.
At milestones like 100, citizens are asked to pass down some of the knowledge gathered or lessons learned over a long life. For Margaret, the most important thing people should remember is to set aside daily time for spiritual reflection and prayer.
The practice quite literally set the course of her life when she felt she was spoken to directly and asked to do something which, to her, seemed very unlikely.
When, during a prayer in support of missionaries, she heard God instruct her to become one herself, her first reaction was surprise and denial. As an untrained young woman who only spoke English, Margaret felt she would be laughed at.
But, not wanting to disobey, she arrived to apply with a sewing machine to offer in case her services were not enough and she was again surprised to find herself accepted for the yet-to-be-finished children’s home on Croker Island, where the Methodist Church was looking for women to teach children how to cook and sew.
The children of Croker Island were known as “part-Aboriginal” — children of mixed cultural decent from many parts of the Northern Territory.
“Through the years before 1941 they had almost all been placed in government institutions,” write historians Peter and Sheila Forrest in their introduction to Margaret’s book.
“Some had been abandoned by their parents, some had been voluntarily surrendered to one of the government institutions by one or both parents because they felt unable to care for the child.
“Some had been taken into care against the will of one or both parents.”
When the government decided to close its institutions the children were placed under church care. The Methodist settlement of Croker Island was to be intentionally different from missions and government institutions that housed Indigenous children.
“It wasn’t a mission station,” said Margaret.
“It was a children’s home. It was to be a cottage system with cottage mothers and around ten children per cottage.”
The aim was for Croker to become a place children could be raised in a system as close as possible to family life, become educated and equipped with skills and later marry and settle on the island. Historians describe it as a radically progressive and humane concept well ahead of other measures at the time.
“However, the Synod was keenly aware that the success of the new system would depend on the availability of suitable cottage mothers,” write Peter and Sheila Forrest.
“They would have to come from the ranks of totally committed lay members of the church.”
Margaret was one of three women working at Croker alongside a superintendent and his family. Croker Island homes were still incomplete when residents moved in. They had not been living there long before December 31, 1941, when the Commonwealth Government ordered that non-essential civilians be evacuated.
In February 1942 Croker Island residents were told to prepare to leave. While they were still on the island, attacks were already under way in northern Australia. On April 5 the Larrpan finally arrived for the children.
At some stage, most people conjure or cast an imaginary film about their life. Not many come face-to-screen with a finished product.
Margaret described watching Croker Island Exodus as a mixed experience. She liked the way Eden Thomsen gave an understated performance as a younger version of herself but, inevitably, parts of the recreation did not ring exactly true.
“There are pictures of the children just strolling along. We didn’t stroll! We were walking, always walking.”
Other parts she knows are real but are hard for her to comprehend; like arriving by boat at Barclay Bay at night. The following day Margaret’s group of older girls were met by a lorry and driven through Arnhem Land.
We travelled on at a great rate over a near invisible track — at least, invisible to all except two Aboriginal boys who stood on either running board and, by means of waving their arms, directed us whether to go right or left.
The children continued to contribute to the group’s survival, identifying bush tucker that supplemented stringent food reserves as they travelled 52 miles to Oenpelli, an Aboriginal Mission Station, getting out at every creek to allow passage over the water. The travellers endured engine trouble, tyre punctures and poor visibility during night travel.
At Oenpelli a four-year-old boy died as a result of an accident, significantly affecting group morale.
The Government lorries that were supposed to pick them up were kept 60 miles away by river crossings and the group was told to get to them the best they could. They went by foot alongside one utility vehicle carrying luggage and food, at one stage crossing a crocodile-infested river in canoe with one girl falling in — luckily, to no harm.
The children continued their barefoot walk toward the utility trucks, bathing with waterlilies, camping under the stars and combating mosquitoes.
With a whir of the engines we were off on the third stage of our journey. Picture in your imagination five vehicles, one after another, luggage underneath, children on top, trailing slowly across Australia, in and out of trees, up and down creeks, and you will see us.
They arrived at Pine Creek only to find their intended residence was needed by the military and traded dreams of beds and tables for a train that would take them to Birdum.
They occupied three clean cattle trucks stopping over in an ominous raided Katherine, where Japanese planes had flown over just the day before. They kept moving by train and lorry, through central Australia, Alice Springs, to Adelaide, Melbourne and finally Sydney, aided by the generosity of local churches and the Red Cross along the way.
It was our intention to put clean new clothes, which we had bought especially, on the children before arrival but to our dismay the box containing them could not be found so we arrived as we were.
Margaret remembers putting on lipstick and feeling quite groomed for her Sydney return but her attempts to fit in were misplaced. Her friends looked upon her with pity and her mother said she had never seen her “looking so dirty nor smelling so high”.
They found a temporary home in Otford where they stayed on Methodist land for the next four years.
Otford was a happy place where children went to school and some even found jobs and had city experiences they could not have up north. But in 1944 the first group of children returned to Croker Island — a decision that was easy for the children but difficult for the church.
“Within the Methodist Church there was division on the issue,” write the Forrests.
“The Inland Mission of the church argued that the children should go to a facility in central Australia, while the Overseas Mission argued for return to Croker. Some church people thought that the interests of the children as a whole would be best served by their remaining in Sydney.”
One of the girls, Betty Fisher, had even come to some fame as a division winner of the popular radio program Amateur Hour.
In the end the children happily returned with Margaret, who stayed on there herself until 1965. But times were changing and, in some ways, happy life at Croker was too good. It was not always successful at preparing children for the less protected realities of the outside world they were encouraged to move into when they reached 18.
Some found it hard to adjust to a complex and less supportive society.
In 1968, two years after Margaret finally returned to Sydney to care for her parents, the children’s home moved to Darwin where residents could be schooled and interact with the mainland. Its Darwin incarnation, which continues to care for those who have been dealt a difficult hand in life, was named Somerville Community Services in honour of Margaret’s long-term work.
Fit for life
Looking back, Margaret sees her life divided into three acts: Life pre-Coker, Croker and post-Croker. But when she left Croker Island it was not an absolute division.
She continued to care for two Croker children as a foster parent back in Sydney. Noreen (who can be seen reunited with Margaret in Croker Island Exodus) and her brother Tony were Margaret’s “pride and joy” for two-and-a-half years until their biological mother became unwell and they returned to her side.
“Noreen had been in my cottage — she came to me as a little girl of 2 or 3,” said Margaret.
“When I applied for welfare to bring her here as a foster child they suggested I bring her brother Tony too. He had been brought up in another cottage but I was only too happy to have Tony as well.”
After her parents passed away, Margaret sunk the energy she’d once used in caring for people into making hand crafts sold in fundraising. With others she began making cross-stitch aprons to raise money for the Bible Society.
Somebody gave her a pattern for making finger puppets, which were adapted and created for sale: farm animals, Australian natives and character sets for storytelling. A shop in Sydney took on her stock; four others helped with the knitting.
“That went on for 30 years. I kept a record from the beginning and by the time we’d made $200,000 I said that’s it — I officially stopped making them for the shop.”
But she continues to make nativity sets for Sunday schools and for use wherever they are wanted. And a colourful collection of wool sits next to her work station chair.
Margaret has not married or had biological children but her non-biological family is larger than most.
She estimates she’s had between 20 and 30 children under her care.
Sadly, she has outlived many. But those who are left still pop up in her life, sometimes visiting in person or making contact by phone or letter.
One boy recently tried to get in touch through Somerville Community Services. He is a tour guide now in Alice Springs and he tells people the story of life on Croker Island. Others have enjoyed careers as successful nurses and teachers.
Margaret is always pleased to hear them talk of Croker as home.
“I thought of them as my own children,” she said.
“We did everything we could to give them an upbringing that would make them fit for life.”