The Archbishop and Aboriginal people in the Swan Valley 1977

The Archbishop and Aboriginal people in the Swan Valley 1977


In the context of his 1975 Easter message, he wrote: ‘I find myself still supporting the present government it its opposition … to the apartheid policy of South Africa, adding a very clear reminder for us all that apartheid exists in Australia, Asia and other parts of Africa and the world. We are all racists.’

Unjust race relations came to the fore locally in the grounds of one of his parishes, St Matthew’s Guildford, in 1977.  For many years, homeless urban Aboriginal people, whose land was about the Swan River, had attempted to shelter in winter under the nearby bridges.  But in this year, these fringe-dwellers decided that enough was enough.  They set up their camp in a prominent park, at the centre of which was the parish church.  Some sympathetic parishioners, with the encouragement of their rector, the Reverend William Robotham, suggested to the Aboriginal leaders that it might be to their advantage socially and politically if they moved the camp just a few metres across the boundary culvert onto Church land.  This they did with alacrity.  A team of parishioners rostered themselves to ensure the campers were reasonably comfortable, with bedding, fuel, food and access to clean showers and toilets.  Certain members of the diocesan staff (including Dean Vernon Cornish and me) kept the Archbishop informed of developments.  He went along with this peaceful protest.  The neighbours did not complain; on the contrary, they assisted.  The police watched.  Officers of the local council were nonplussed; they did not have the authority to evict people from privately owned land.  In the end, the shire reluctantly served writs on the diocese for breaching town planning, building and health regulations.  On 18 August the Archbishop stood before the Midland Court of Petty Sessions as the representative of the diocese.  When charged, he immediately pleaded guilty but in mitigation stated quietly:

We broke the law to preserve the peace … when the notices were served we could have asked the police to eject the people but I believe that this could have been accompanied by violence. I hope the Church will be given credit for our decision though it was to break the law.

The diocese was fined $95.  The leader of the fringe-dwellers made the generous comment:’ Others were boundary riding around the paddock, (Sambell was) riding in the middle’.  The Archbishop’s appearance in court was featured in all the national media outlets.  As it so happened, an earthquake reverberated throughout Perth that morning, giving the cartoonists a field day and the Archbishop quiet enjoyment.


Sambell in his synod charge of 1978, informed his people of how the diocese had officially responded to the needs of the Fringe Dwellers of the Swan Valley, as they had named themselves, and commented on the challenge that was before all members of society.  During 1978 AHWS opened up a night shelter managed by Aboriginal staff.  This became a stimulus for additional services over time.  In conjunction with the Uniting Church, Sambell commissioned Margaret Bradley to explore how the social dynamics and cultural habits of Aboriginal people might influence the planning and delivery of the needed housing.  Her report, Making Room, was released in 1978, leading to a twelve year community development process whereby a Church-funded worker was deployed as a consultant to an Aboriginal group as they determined their objectives and ways of working with the white bureaucracies as well as themselves.  On the basis of his observations elsewhere, the astute Sambell continued:

May I say that the Church cannot avoid this responsibility – either because of its complexity or the risk of making mistakes.  In the end, the lot of all people, whether white or black, is caught up with one another and furthermore, the divine imperative that all should grow up in Christ leaves us no alternative butto love one another.’



From Sambell: A Man of the Word (page171f)

by Michael Challen (Melbourne University Press, 2008).

Used with permission

Stephen Hall
Stephen Hall
Lives in Perth, Western Australia.

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