Bedford J series, NT reg 29-776 hard at work. Photo: Brian Manning collection
Bedford J series NT Reg 29-776 hard at work. Photo: Brian Manning collection.

This is the story of one of the unsung heroes of the Land Rights movement and the long-overdue recognition of its role in that – and other – struggles.

Last month Dr. Brian Reid, Chairman of the Northern Territory Heritage Advisory Council, forwarded a recommendation to Karl Hampton MLA, the NT Heritage Minister. That recommendation reads in part:

The Heritage Advisory Council recommends that the 1960’s ‘J’ Series Bedford Truck be declared a heritage object pursuant to section 26(1) of the Heritage Conservation Act.

Statement of Heritage Value:

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial and get Crikey straight to your inbox

By submitting this form you are agreeing to Crikey's Terms and Conditions.

The Heritage Advisory Council provides the following statement of heritage value for the 1960’s ‘J’ Series Bedford Truck.

The Wave Hill Walk Off led by Vincent Lingiari with his Gurindji people and other Aboriginal groups in August 1966 was a significant act by those involved…Brian Manning, who is an Aboriginal rights campaigner and was one of the first to assist the Gurindji people, used his Bedford truck to regularly deliver supplies and correspondence to the strikers. Brian Manning’s support helped the Gurindji face their hardships and strengthen the resolve of the protesting Aboriginals.

Forty-five years ago a small group of stockmen at a remote Northern Territory cattle station made a decision that changed the industrial, political and social landscape of the NT forever. You can read more about those events at the Wave Hill cattle station here and an interview with Billy Bunter and Jimmy Wave Hill – key participants in what is popularly known as the Wave Hill walk-off – here.

Camping on the bed of the Victoria River, 1966. Photo: Brian Manning Collection
Camping on the bed of the Victoria River, 1966. Photo: Brian Manning Collection

The National Archives has a number of key documents available online, including this summary of events at Wave Hill:

Wave Hill Station is located approximately 600 km south of Darwin in the Northern Territory. From the late nineteenth century it was run by the British pastoral company, Vesteys. Vesteys employed the local Indigenous people, the Gurindji, to work on Wave Hill. But working conditions were intolerable and wages were inadequate when compared to those of non-Indigenous employees.

In 1966, Vincent Lingiari, a member of the Gurindji who had worked at Wave Hill, and recently returned from a period of hospitalisation in Darwin, led a walk-off of Indigenous employees of Wave Hill as a protest against the work and pay conditions.

While there had been complaints from Indigenous employees about conditions on Wave Hill over many years, including an inquiry during the 1930s that was critical of Vesteys employment practices, the walk-off had a focus that was aimed at a wider target than Vesteys. Before 1968 it was illegal to pay an Indigenous worker more than a specified amount in goods and money. In many cases, the government benefits for which Indigenous employees were eligible were paid into pastoral companies’ accounts, rather than to the individuals. The protesters established the Wattie Creek Camp and demanded the return of some of their traditional lands. So began the seven-year fight by the Gurindji people to obtain title to their land. The protest eventually led to the Commonwealth Land Rights Act (Northern Territory) 1976. This Act gave Indigenous Australians freehold title to traditional lands in the Northern Territory and, significantly, the power of veto over mining and development on those lands.

The significance of the Wave Hill walk off has been recognised in many ways over the years.

Vincent Lingiari, one of the leaders of the walk-off was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in 1977 and thirty years later the Wave Hill walk-off route was included on the National Heritage list. Each year the walk-off is commemorated by an annual celebration at the Dagaragu and Kalkaringi communities.

Wave Hill walk off route
Wave Hill walk off route

One key element to the success of the walk-off was the ‘friends in the south‘ that Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody recognised in their song From Little Things Big Things Grow.

“ Then Vincent Lingiari boarded an aeroplane

Landed in Sydney, big city of lights

And daily he went round softly speaking his story

To all kinds of men from all walks of life

Then Vincent Lingiarri returned in an aeroplane

Back to his country once more to sit down

And he told his people let the stars keep on turning

We have friends in the south, in the cities and towns

Vincent Lingiari and his comrades had important friends in the north as well.

One of those was Brian Manning, a Darwin waterfront worker and fervent unionist who organised a strike fund with fellow unionists and Aboriginal actor Robert Tudawali and Roper River man and Union organiser Dexter Daniels. Manning loaded his truck with supplies and made the first of up to fifteen 1600 kilometre round-trips from Darwin to Wave Hill.

In 2006 Manning told the ABC’s Landline program that:

“It was a great honour to have been involved in this historic occasion. So I loaded up this little Bedford with about 3 tonne of stuff. God, it took nearly two days. I think we had to camp halfway. The roads were shocking – there were no bitumen roads, there were diversions around the place. They were making the roads, you see, so it was terribly corrugated. We managed to get there the second night about 9.30 and drove down into the bed of the river where they were all camped, you know. And there was great exhilaration by these people that finally help had arrived in respect of food.”

In August 2002 Brian Manning delivered the 6th Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture at the Northern Territory University in Darwin. During that talk he had a bit to say about his old truck and the first of his many trips in support of the Wave Hill strikers:

However, at that time I was between jobs, waiting to pick up a casual job on the Darwin Waterfront and I had a small truck. Paddy and I had a reasonable working relationship so he agreed that I should go with Dexter , the official Union Organiser. A Tiwi Man, Robert Tudawali, a former football great and out of work Aboriginal film star from Chauvel’s film “Jedda”…wanted to become involved in the struggle.

As soon as Paddy gave the go ahead we moved to purchase stores and fuel enough for the return trip. Three 44gallon drums of fuel took up half the load capacity of my 30cwt Bedford truck. We set out early the following morning and managed to get south of the Willeroo turnoff where we camped for the night. The road from Willeroo to Wave Hill was in the process of being rebuilt with a major upgrade under the Federal Government’s National Beef Road development scheme. It was a horror stretch consisting of a series of temporary, heavily corrugated diversions which could not be driven at great speed with my overloaded small truck. We crawled along most of the way between 15 and 20 m.p.h.

Robert Tudawali & Dexter Daniels en route to Wave Hill 1966. Photo: Brian Manning collection.

After an eventful few days at the Walk-off camp, Manning and his partners returned to Darwin:

We then headed back to Darwin, the truck, with no load shuddering over the corrugations handling the rough road no better. With another dozen or so trips before some of the new road was opened up, the timber tray on the truck literally shook to pieces.

I spoke to Brian Manning a few weeks ago from his home in Darwin. Here is some of what he told me about his life with the workers of Darwin, his 30 cwt Bedford truck NT 29-776, the workers at Wave Hill station and their struggle. He told me how he came to own the the jolly green Bedford:

Brian Manning: It was first owned by the Darwin Workers Club by the manager prior to me. We didn’t need a bloody truck so the committee decided to sell it. All our brewery supplies were delivered anyway. We put it up for tender and didn’t get a bloody bite on it and it had only done less than 3,000 miles so we decided to auction it and we didn’t get up to the reserve price.

I’d only just purchased a brand new bloody Valiant Safari and I decided that I prefer to have a truck than a Safari because the coppers were giving me a bad time at the club. A Detective, who later became an Inspector, told me straight out “We aren’t gonna tolerate having a Communist running a place like this. We’ll have you out of here in 12 months.” The writing was on the wall so I swapped over and I bought the Bedford for the reserve price and I’ve had it ever since.

And NT registration 29-776 wasn’t just used to support the Wave Hill strikers and had a part to play in struggles beyond Australian shores:

BM: I had it off the road for a few years and then managed to afford to put a steel tray on it. We used the truck with the Labor Council. I rigged it for sound myself installing a 12 Volt Amplifier and mounted speakers on the backing board. I used it when I was Secretary of the TLC at rallies when required. I have a photo of it being used in the “rest and recreation” strikes after Cyclone Tracy – the blue collar workers didn’t get “R & R” airfares out and there was a strike – a fairly vicious attitude by the government that the blue collar workers didn’t deserve a break – while the white collar workers did!

I also used it in the early days of radio contact with East Timor. I used to drive Tony Belo around with a radio. He used to do it on his own until he lost the bloody radio because he didn’t do what he was told. I had another transmitter so I used to pick him up and go out to various different places – a different place each time and we managed to maintain that until we set up another underground operation.

The Northern Myth: At that time – and now – Darwin had all sorts of listening posts – the British, American the Australians were all listening to all of the radio traffic in Indonesia and beyond from listening posts at bases around Darwin…

BM: Oh yeah…and they were listening to us too. I know that they at one stage – this is quite funny – I think one of the reasons why they took so long to get to us was not because they couldn’t find our transmitter but because they wanted to listen in.

We were generating activity from Fretilin and I think that they appreciated the information they were getting, you know. I really think that was one of the reasons why we didn’t lose the transmitter (laughs).

The truck was also used after Cyclone Tracy. The Federal police commandeered it. I was overseas on holiday and it was at a mate’s service station in Smith Street and the Police commandeered the garage and the truck. They took the truck and used it to collect dead bodies after the cyclone. That was yet another use for it. When my mate finally recovered from the police compound they’d wrecked it my mate got it back on the road but they’d caused some major damage to it. We tried to hit them up for money to fix it but they denied everything.

But back to the Gurindji, the struggle for their land and the role of NT reg 29-776:

TNM: You did 15 or so trips from Darwin down to Kalkaringi, Dagaragu and beyond. Are their any high – or low – lights from those trips?

BM: Aww, fucking blowouts. Blowouts are fucking hairy. And getting pushed off the road almost into a bloody table drain by a bloody road-train. They were some pretty hairy experiences. There was the odd occasion where a bloody bullock would jump out onto the road in the dark. Fortunately I had a good bull-bar and good brakes and wasn’t travelling all that fast and those really, really terrible diversions whilst they were building the new road (the Buntine Highway).

That is what did all the damage to the truck was the chattering over all of these corrugated diversions. It had a wooden tray and not long after that the bloody tray fell off. In the wet and dry conditions and shaking up and down on those roads the bloody heads of the bolts pulled right through.

Robert Tudawali. Photo: Brian Manning collection.

Brian Manning has some wonderful observations about the role of two of his comrades during those years of struggle. Firstly the actor Robert Tudalwali and his involvement:

BM: There are a few more photos of him that I took on the way down. He was such an iconic figure – and he knew it. He also had an eye for the camera, most likely because of his experience in front of the camera. I never knew what profile of his was was best. I was a good friend of his and I was proud to be a pall-bearer at his funeral. We were close friends.

He had a down period after a few films and he hit the piss. During that wages struggle he became the Vice-President of the Rights Council and he wanted to be intimately involved in the struggle. It was intended that he would go down with Dexter Daniels to raise funds. His expenses were being picked up by Actors Equity. Frank Hardy had organized that. They snatched him up here because he tested positive for Tuberculosis and they put him in isolation. Anyway he was quite keen to be involved and he went down on that first trip and he was a very solid supporter of the Gurindji.

And the mercurial Dexter Daniels from the Roper River district in the Northern Territory:

BM: Oh, Dexter Daniels. Now his is a very tragic story. He died down at Kalano (community) at Katherine. He was absolutely bloody dejected. He got into a bit of strife and he and I had some arguments after Sydney. I was at a Communist Party congress and Dexter was invited to speak. He raised the issues about land rights for the Roper River people and the Party donated $200 to start off a Roper River Land Claim fund.

Anyway Dexter went off to Roper River and about two weeks later he was arrested for being a shit-stirrer. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this but he was urging the people down there to support him and walk off the Mission station. He’d left the Union – or rather Paddy had put him off and he’d asked for jobs down there because they saw him as a stirrer.

Somewhere along the line I believe that he was arrested by the cops. I didn’t know about all the business down at Roper River but I did know that the manager of the Don Hotel in Darwin had pressed charges because Dexter had bounced some cheques.

Dexter died unrecognized and unsung. I learnt that he died on Christmas day the year before. I went down to a Freedom Day at Dagaragu and I wrote out an obituary at that was published in the Land Council’s paper – the Land Rights News. I was pissed off that they had put in a double-page spread for Charlie Perkins and they never said a fucking word about Dexter. In terms of achievement I reckon that Dexter Daniels achieved a good sight more than Charlie Perkins.