Life story retold by Mary Chambers
William (Willie) was born around 1840 in the Wimmera area of Victoria, Australia. He belonged to the Wotjobaluk, an Aboriginal Australian people. His real name isn’t known. His mother was shot by a white settler in a punitive raid around 1846. In 1850 he went to Melbourne with some men to sell wool, and was found lost in the streets by the Rev Lloyd Chase, a former curate of St John’s Church, Reading. Chase was about to return to Reading to get married, and was struck by the idea that “could this child be separated from old associations, and brought to England to receive a Christian education, he might, by God’s blessing, hereafter return to Australia and teach his poor benighted people.” He and Willie sailed for England on April 1st 1851.
Arriving in Reading in September 1851, Willie lived with the Chase family in Wellington Place, King’s Road. He was taught by Chase’s sister, Henrietta, and particularly liked writing and drawing, although he was less keen on reading. During this time he was invited with the family to dinner at Watlington House, the home of Captain Purvis, a captain in the local militia and Lloyd Chase’s future father-in-law. “All who were present remarked that he conducted himself far better than many a gentleman’s son would have done”.
Willie lived with the Chase family in Wellington Place, King’s Road. He dined with Captain Purvis and family at Watlington House.
In November, Willie was sent to a classical school in Iver run by Lloyd Chase’s brother James. Most of the boys were gentlemen’s sons bound for Eton and Harrow, but Willie had lessons in trades such as straw plaiting and making shoes. While there, he was very ill with “congestion of the lungs” (probably tuberculosis). The doctor warned that the English climate would be fatal to him and advised taking him straight back to Australia, but Chase, with his wedding imminent, was not ready to leave. Willie returned to Reading to be cared for by Mrs Mary Ann Sayer, the wife of a Huntley & Palmer’s employee in Orts Road. He declined rapidly and died on March 10th 1852. Having been baptised shortly before his death, he was buried in the consecrated (Church of England) part of the cemetery.
Lloyd Chase’s aunt, Harriet Scholefield, wrote a short memoir of Willie’s life and conversion. This book came into the hands of missionaries, who later shared the story with some aboriginal boys at Ebenezer Mission in the Wimmera. The boys recognised Willie as their lost cousin and brother; they told the missionaries that his father was still living in the local camp and his mother was buried nearby. The land on which she was buried had been given to the mission by Horatio Ellerman, the very same squatter responsible for shooting her, who subsequently became a dedicated supporter of missions to the aborigines. This land was handed back to its traditional owners in 2013 and is now administered by the Barengi Gadjin Land Council.
The church at Ebenezer Mission. The Wimmera River
Willie Wimmera was by no means the first Aboriginal child to be brought to England. Another boy with a similar story was Warrulan, later known as Edward. He was the son of a chief, Tenberry, in the Murray River area. He was brought to England by the explorer Edward Eyre in 1844 and educated at an agricultural school in Oxfordshire. The Illustrated London News of 14 February 1846 reports that Warrulan and another South Australian boy, Pangkerin, were presented to Queen Victoria. Warrulan
later took up employment as a leather worker in Birmingham, but in 1855 he contracted pneumonia.
Warrulan died aged around 19 and is buried in an unmarked grave in Birmingham. Like Willie, he died before he could fulfil his wish to go home to see his family. Like Lloyd Chase, Eyre had acted on the belief that Aborigines were capable of learning and “improvement”, arguing that they were “as apt and quick” as Europeans and hoping that Warrulan’s presence in England, like Willie’s, would somehow lead “towards inducing better-directed, and more effectual, attempts to mitigate the evils which our occupation and possession of their country necessarily inflict upon them.” Sadly, for both Warrulan and Willie, these good intentions led to tragic outcomes.
The following drawing is from The Illustrated London News (February 6, 1846, page 108) but it is not a portrait of William.
Connolly, Pauline. 2014. William Wimmera, child of the Wotjobaluk. https://paulineconolly.com/2014/william-wimmera/
Kenny, Robert. 2007. The Lamb Enters The Dreaming. Melbourne: Scribe.
Scholefield, Harriet. 1853. A Short Memoir of William Wimmera.
Buried in Section 44, Row A, Plot 10