"Black Nellie"

by Sara Shand (Appeared in the Nepean times - July 18,1914.)

In January, 1886, I first saw "Black Nellie", having arrived from England a few days previously. I was very much interested, and curious also, when a smiling black face made its appearance round the corner of the verandah. I coaxed her to come inside the house, and soon persuaded her to allow me to make a pencil sketch of her head. When we parted I gave her a shilling and a loaf of bread. From that time we became firm friends. She visited me at intervals, but was always unwilling to remain the night, until, on one of these occasions, she came with a good looking half-caste native,called Angelina.

As the rain was pouring heavily when they came and continued to do so - they were obliged to remain all night. Next day and the next the rain continued until Castlereagh and Penrith were in flood. Her visit lasted for six weeks and would have been a happy one, but for Angelina's lapses of conduct, which caused Nellie great unrest.Continually she would say,"What dat girl, Angelina, she no good 't'all." For Angelina, in spite of flood and storm, would disappear for days together. But on return of the lustrous-eyed maid who gave no account of her absence, Nellie would grin and welcome her delightedly.

During this enforced visit I painted a little picture of Nellie, and had many long talks with her. She told me her real name was "Nah Doongh," that she was born in Penrith,that the real name of Penrith was "morroo Morrrack." That is how it sounded, and said it many times. I asked how many houses were in Penrith when she was born, and she answered most firmly - "No houses 'tall; I member first white come here - all blacks den, no houses, all gunyans-ev'body fightin, black gins cry, black men shout an' git boomerangs an ' tings, like for big corroboree. Oh, lor'..I frightened - get in bush next memurrer." Then I asked her how old she was at the time, and she answered - "Waal,missis, I carn (can't) tell ye, 'cos blacks carn count no more than five," "Were you as old as Angelina," I asked. Angelina was about twelve. "No," she answered, "I just little 'un standin' close to me murrer; anorrer little bruder stand dare too, 'an 'annorrer little 'un on her back."

I judged from what she said that she might be six or seven when white men first came to Penrith, and that she was over eighty when she came to live with me.But, really, one can only surmise, because very, very old people have told me she was old when they were young.

Now judging from what explorers and men of research have said about the inferiority of the N. S.W. Aboriginal, I should imagine Nellie stood strongly out as superior to the rest of her people, because she had so many admirable qualities. She was generous, kind to animals and most devoted to young children,keen sympathetic to those in trouble, and most anxious to clean in her habits. I can prove that she could regulate her thoughts (although Flanagan, the historian, would disagree with me),for during her visit that flood time, I asked her to tell me the Aboriginal terms for several things. She said - "All right, missis; I'll begin and tell you the body begin at the head and go down to the feet" - she did most methodically. I should not have been surprised if she has first mentioned a toe and then her dress; but, no, Nellie had a desire to be orderly and correct always, if possible. She had also an innate modesty which could not fail to be observed.

When my mother died far away in England, naturally I was very sad, and received much conventional sympathy from my friends, many expressions of condolence; but when I went into the kitchen where Nellie sat on the broad hearth she said, looking up anxiously, "You bin wery sorry dis morning,Missus." I said "yes, Nellie, my mother is dead." Then the big tears rolled down her black cheeks - she wept with me. "'Cos,y'know, Missus, I lost good murrer, too." A big warm heart had Nellie.

It was during this flood that Nellie decided she would like to live with me altogether, but before deciding she pulled up a few weeds out of our garden to see if they were easier to get out than those in the garden of Mrs. Cork. Owing to the recent rains I suppose they were, for she decided in our favour and informed me she was coming for good. I said politely,"I shall be delighted." Really, I never thought she would leave Mrs. Cork, who was always very kind to her, but to my surprise some time afterwards there arrived in our yard a cart laden with blankets, small bundles of clothes, coffee-pots, and billy cans, and perched on top was Nellie, with a wide grin saying "I'se come, Missus." What could I do but welcome her.

She remained with me for years,and never showed a sign of bad temper to us. Whenever she returned home from a journey, short or long, Nellie was always there to welcome us. As we drove in she would say, smiling, "Wa'al,missus, I'se glad you're back an' Master, too." I often told her of sick, suffering people and she would grow sad and say "Poor tings, I is sorry for 'em too."

There are many humorous sides to Nellie's visit to me. For instance, she received a real proposal of marriage from "Black Jack," of Springwood, but it would take too much space to tell.

Now there are some people who might describe Nellie other than I have done, and might think because of my deep affection for her, that I have painted her in glowing colours because they may have seen her in a drunken condition, but it was never Nellie's wish to be drunken, and the shame of it is on those people who through mistaken kindness or a wish to excite her and induce her to sing, gave her strong drink.

About once a moth, she would dress herself in her best clothes and leave my house and tidy with admonitions from me, and good resolutions on her part not to touch intoxicating drink, and alas; she often (not always) returned drunken and dirty, It was only in this condition she sang. First she mumbled a sort of aboriginal incarnation, then the chorus was this -

All the land belong to Mr. Mc Carthy - One finger.
All the land belong to Mr. Mc Carthy - Two finger.
All the land belong to Mr. Mc Carthy - Three finger.

That was the chorus, and as she said it she counted four fingers; then began the aboriginal incarnation again,etc. I don't know what I meant.

She told me that the devil caused the windy days - ("buoy,buoy" she called him), and she said a good devil made the sun shine. I could never persuade her to go to Katoomba with me, she said "I not go, Missus;strange blacks might a 'kill me." She told me" Katoomba" meant "big,big mountains and falling water." Also that Kanimla meant " fallen water".

She said when the white man first came her home was on the place where now stands the farm, once owned by Mr. Merz, afterwards by Dr. Shand, and lately by Mr Burke, and as if to corroborate her statement, we found several stone axes, showing there must have been a large camp there.

The large picture in Mr Judges' window is of interest because the shawl was sent out from England for the first Mac Arthur's wife. It was of lovely texture and design, but age, wear and exposure to the weather toned it down to the respectable fadiness which exactly suited Nellie's colouring.

While painting her, we frequently said, "You are a handsome gin, Nellie," and she always replied, laconically, "Wa'al, Missus,carn help dat, lots o' people tells me dat."

Sometimes I spoke to her of a future state and the uncertainty of life, and asked what should I do with her possessions when she died. "Ugh,"she said,"I not goin' to die, out never mind - lady round corner, she says, when you die, Nellie, I'll giver yer a long box for to put yer in,but I not agoin' into any box." (The "lady round the corner" was Mrs.Price, who was always kind to everybody).