The Gadigal (or Cadigal) people lived in the area of Newtown long before it was known by that name. A well-known route to Botany Bay passed through the area and Wollongong –Sydney connections appear to have been strong, even after the havoc of invasion. Archaeological evidence and early accounts of travellers also note the Gadigal people’s presence. Camperdown cemetery’s memorials record many others who were buried at Newtown.
Aboriginal people have survived and continued to live in Newtown, contributing to the area in the arenas of sport and activism and arts especially. Renowned activists Pearl Gibbs and Bill Onus lived there in the late 1930s, and many others followed them. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were a key part of boxing, a popular sport in Newtown around WW1 and later as part of the rugby teams the Newtown Jets and Koorie United. People often came from country areas and from Queensland seeking opportunities in the city, while others moved between the city and country according to the availability of seasonal work like fruit picking.
From the 1890s Newtown was close to the city, yet had low rents and was close to work and contacts for Aboriginal people. If relatives were there it became easier to move there and find work. Aboriginal people have also been residents, workers, reared families and sent their children to local schools in Newtown. There was a major, visible shift to inner city after WW2 as with nearby Redfern, Waterloo and Alexandria to take up work opportunities and escape country town racism.
The activism of the 1970s, so closely linked to Redfern, also has strong connections with Newtown. People like Mum Shirl and Dulcie Flower living and working in the area, for better conditions for their people as well as the author Ruby Langford Ginibi. The 1970-1990s was a time when gay and lesbian identities emerged powerfully and Aboriginal people held events at iconic places like the Imperial Hotel in Erskineville. Musicians have immortalised their knowledge of the place in song and numerous artists, singers and performers live in the area too.
This work, based on written records, is preliminary. Oral history would provide a much richer picture of Aboriginal peoples lives, efforts and perceptions of Newtown and give a vivid sense of just how much Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have contributed to making Newtown the diverse, lively and culturally rich place that it is today.
Please contribute your memories and stories – however short or detailed they may be.