Uncle Jack Charles is a Boon Wurrung and Wiradjuri actor, musician, activist and elder. Ahead of the release of his memoir Born-Again Blakfella, he opens his heart about being a member of the Stolen Generation, finding his mother and exploring his Aboriginal identity – as well as learning to love the stage.
I was the only Aboriginal kid among 200-odd kids at the Box Hill Boys’ Home. I was on stage when I was about nine. I was chosen for certain Christian events, like a big Salvation Army Congress at the Exhibition Building. I was their golden child. I must’ve been cute enough to be paired with this pretty girl my size from another home, and we were there to hand over some posies to those on stage. And I remember this little girl curtsied, and I curtsied too – and it caused a rumbling and a stir among the Salvationists. I truly enjoyed the event. It was followed by watching Bill Onus throw his boomerang around the chandeliers.
I was always told by the staff that I didn’t have any family. I just didn’t believe it. In the 50s, I was taken out on a special Sunday picnic by two people who said they were my Uncle and Aunty, Henry and Amy Charles. They came in a great big beautiful car, a Chevrolet I think it was. I was about nine or 10. That was my first sighting of other Aboriginal people. Then I knew that I had family. But they didn’t come back. I was very disappointed, very glum.
A bunch of Aboriginal kids came through the home. Among them was a young fella called Archie. His last name’s Charles. Even though I wasn’t allowed to speak to them, I did because it was my first sighting of other Aboriginal kids in that home. I said to him, this young fella, “We could be brothers couldn’t we?” And it turned out, he was my brother.
The white-washing at the Box Hill Boys’ Home had well and truly worked with me. Impressionable minds are easily white-washed into the blood of the lamb Jesus Christ. I was a devoted Christian when I left the home, even though I was raped by these Christians. We’re resilient, kids. And we try and put that kind of stuff behind us.
At 14 you had to leave the home. I went to Mrs Murphy’s up in Blackburn. And I loved it, really, experiencing what it’s like living as a family member. And going to work at the RMS Glass factory every day. I became a glass beveller. I loved being with Mrs Murphy, but I was always querying her as to my real mum. And she was always saying, along with the Aboriginal Welfare Board, “No Jack, you have no other relatives, and your mum is dead.” I didn’t really believe it.
I used to sneak out of my bedroom window on a Sunday night to go to the Methodist service. These people had made me very welcome. At one stage we went up to Winlaton girls’ home to put on a concert. I noticed these two small, waif-like Aboriginal children, and of course I just had to go up and ask them their names. The elder of the two responded, “I’m Esme and this is my sister Eva Jo.” “What are your last names, ladies?” I enquired. “Charles.” They were my sisters.
When I was hitting 17, the boys at work cajoled me into heading over to Collingwood-Fitzroy. “There are a lot of blakfellas over there Jack, and I bet you’ve got family amongst them.” So one Thursday night – with a full pay packet that I normally handed over to Mum, Mrs Murphy, when I got home, unopened – I decided to take the risk. When I jumped off the tram, I was accosted by this old fella, who yelled at me and accused me of being Blanchie Charles’ boy. He grabs me and he hugs me and he kisses me. He’s drunk, so I can smell his beery breath. And he ushers me into the Builders Arms Hotel. And, of course, I’m visiting another world. Every face in the place seemed to be blak. Many of these people came up to me and introduced themselves as an uncle, an aunty, all of them related, a cousin. I’m so overwhelmed by their beery hugs and kisses, I ripped open my pay packet, I shouted a few beers and I had a lemon squash myself. And one of the old ladies, cried to me: “Your mum’s living up in Swan Hill, young fella. You should go see her. I expect she’s been waiting on you a long time.” And I will, I tell her, the first chance I can get.
I get home late that night to Mrs Murphy’s, this has never happened before. And I scream: “Mum, I’ve just found Mum!” I did expect her to share my joy, but no such luck. She wrangles the story out of me, my night in a Fitzroy pub, being recognised as a Charles, but worst still my pay packet ripped open, and a third of it spent. This riled her no end. She comes at me: “Those people will tell you anything.”
“Yeah, well, I believe them,” I say, raising my hand. Oh, I see the fright in her eyes. “Get to bed,” she hisses before backing off. No sooner had I put on my pyjamas and settled down for the night, when she called me to the front door. There’s a police divvy wagon parked in the drive, and I’m driven over to Turana, a home for juvenile delinquents. I’m a ward of the state at the time, a child of the crown and would be until I turned 18. The woman I’d called Mum had deemed me apparently disobedient. It’s the first time locked alone in a cell, I remember crying myself to sleep. All my Christian sensibilities from that moment were somewhat dashed. And it became for me a series of incarcerations from there on after.
My boss Alfie Clarke bailed me out after a fortnight, and put me into a gentlemen’s residence in Glenferrie, walking distance of my work. I continued working and finishing off my apprenticeship. My boss liked me, and used to love bringing his mates around to meet the little Aboriginal kiddie he had working. At one stage he actually brought this man around, he said “I want you to meet a mate of mine. Don Bradman meet Jack Charles.” So, I shook the hands of Don Bradman. I didn’t know who he was, but the boys at work told me. Years later, my second gig with the ABC, I played Eddie Gilbert, the hotshot fast bowler who bowled Bradman out twice for a duck. How strange my life has been, that I’ve had these incredible moments of connections and coincidences.
I had an idea to write to the Swan Hill police to ask do they know of my mother, Blanchie Charles. The Swan Hill police sergeant wrote back. “Yes Jack, we know her, she’s living here.” My boss knew all of this, and he liked the idea of me reconnecting with my mum. So he paid for the flight up there and back in a DC-9 over the three-week Christmas break. And the sergeant was at the airport to pick me up, and he took me to the Federal Hotel on the other side of the Murray. Out the back of the hotel is a row of small black huts, a bit like a plantation over in America – these Indigenous people apparently were all related to me, and I didn’t know. I had to wait until this old couple agreed to drive me out to where my mum lived, on the banks of the Edwards River.
I met Mum. She was very standoffish. On reflection now, she was pleased to see me, because I was able to give her evidence that some of her children are around still. I told her I had met Artie, and Esme and Eva Jo. “Oh, good,” she says, “and you have a third sister, Zenip, language for ‘pretty butterfly’… You look out for them.” “I will,” I tell her, “first chance I get.” My sisters found Zenip on a tram over in Flemington, many years later.
All our mother’s children were taken away under the Assimilation Policy. I was born in 1943, she was 15 at the time. Years later I found out that my father comes from Leeton, NSW. I can now proudly say that I am Wiradjuri on my father’s side. My mum was a Boon Wurrung lady. I have since found the family tree in Koorie Heritage Trust, and there are six missing still, never accounted for, between myself and Esme.
I stayed longer at Mum’s place, I didn’t go back after the three-week break. I sent a telegram to Alf, “I’m not coming back for a while, I’m going to go for a wander up the Murray and see what it’s like working as a jackaroo.”
I was a happy, independent fellow, a loner. Back in Melbourne, I moved from rooming house to rooming house. A group from the New Theatre came up, commonly called the Pink Theatre because of their left-wing leanings, and they wanted a full Aboriginal cast for Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, an African-American playwright. I put my hand up for that, and I enjoyed being on stage. After that, I kept paying my five shillings a week to do acting classes, and doing comical and political revues of the day. I realised my potential as an actor, and I discovered I really liked acting.
I was busted for a series of burgs, after I’d done the The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith [in 1978], so I was in Pentridge. The headline news: Movie Star Turns to Burglary. I’d robbed over in Toorak and South Yarra, Brighton and all the wealthy areas, on my mum’s land – I hadn’t realised at the time – collecting rent. I have a bit of a giggle over that. I felt comfortable doing Brighton because it was on Boon Wurrung country. Esme came in and visited me at Pentridge. And, of course, when I got out, I rode around on my bike to check them out. And became an instant uncle, because both Esme and Eva Jo had children by then.
The Marumali program by Aunty Lorraine Peeters was the catalyst that awoke my Indigenity and relit the burning embers of my locked up, fucked up, drugged up, grogged up dreamings. Here I am, around 2000, in [prison], without sight of my family, denied my Aboriginal history. I came out of that Marumali experience pushing a little harder to be a key player in the humanities of my community.
In the struggle we still face nowadays with entrenched [discrimination]…we are the ones who determine what is racist and what is not, not Andrew Bolt or Eddie McGuire or Sam Newman or anybody like that. They’re the devil’s advocates, you need Indigenous people to put things into a proper perspective from our lived experiences. From my lived experiences, I am able to actually recall on this subject.
I inadvertently exposed myself to the wider world with this documentary, Bastardy. [Director] Amiel Courtin-Wilson knew me when he was nine [through Charles’ ex-partner Jack Houston], and heard the tales – there are many myths and stories and legends told about me. He followed me around for nearly eight years, including two one-year jail sentences. In the old days Amiel couldn’t get a shot out of me unless I’d con him out of $50 so I could go and get something to put up the “Warwick Farm”, arm, as I’d say. But Amiel stuck with me.
By the fourth year [of filming Bastardy], I got to realise, “no, we’re doing a good thing here. White Australia needs to see the story of even just one Stolen Person’s journey.” It just so happens that it was mine. I was comfortable being photographed and recorded doing things that no sane person in their right mind would allow themselves to be seen doing. But the point is, I felt really a necessity to educate the masses. Coming out of jail after the last time in 2006, it took another two years to finish off the documentary, and another two years jumping off the methadone.
My biggest success is being now a self-touted, definitive, walking talking role model, that’s accessible to all. Outing myself in Bastardy in so many ways, it affected so many different people. So I am accosted a lot, right around the country, you know, people have got the gumption to come up to me for advice, both black and white.
I’m proof positive [that housing ends homelessness]. Once I was housed in this place, before I turned 60, I stopped doing burgs. Of course, I started thinking about jumping off the heroin. Anybody with addictions, it’s very hard. I ask them, have you got a place? Invariably they’ll say no, so I tell them, “You’re couch surfing basically, aren’t you?” Humbugging we call it. “You need to go to a different housing services, you’ve got to keep on their tail.”
[Everyone] truly loves the story of a reformed rehabilitated old coot that they feel they know so well. They saw me often busking down in Spencer Street and Flinders Street, they saw me doing television shows, on stage… I was a known article, struggling against the odds with a raging “brer rabbit”, drug habit. They put up with me, because I was a friendly happy chappie, regardless. I always put on a smile even when I was miserable, most times. Even in jail, I had to be the man accessible to people who needed direction or some measure of protection. I was able to give it, advice in prison, and that’s an awesome responsibility.
I’d tell my young self, never let anything put you down or distract you from where you really want to be going in your life. You can’t be in charge of your own destiny if you are addicted to some substance or giggle juice even. We may believe we are in charge of ourselves, but we’re not totally. That’s why I call my book Born-Again Blakfella, because I am as passionate as a Born‑Again Christian about my newfound Aboriginality, my history, my heritage.
Discover the full extent of who you are. It means you’re connecting to community. At the same time, you get a better understanding of denied, lost, hidden history. Go for it and discover it yourself. Also, read a lot about Victorian Aboriginal [history], and connect with our services and even be a key player in the health and wellbeing of our people yourself. Are you up for it?
Interview by Amy Hetherington.
Amy Hetherington is the Editor of The Big Issue.
This article first appeared in edition #594.
Photo: Bindi Cole Chocka.