Labour Australia

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Browse Lists:

Ross, Peter (1927–2011)

by Tom Stephens

This entry is from Obituaries Australia

Peter Ross, at an Aboriginal gravesite, 2000

Peter Ross, at an Aboriginal gravesite, 2000

photo privately sourced

“Peter Ross came from the Orphanages of Liverpool England; while at first without family, over time be became one with the people of the Fitzroy Valley, where nothing was more important than family. He was a larger than life character of the Kimberley. He was an extraordinary man, who enjoyed himself most when doing others a good turn. He had a strong sense of justice and fairness and would never take a backwards step in their pursuit. He was the roughest of diamonds with a heart set in gold.”

RAY Spirit Children 
From
Casey Ross (Nyawanday) R.I.P.

Ray garuwa-yuwa jurug'a
yaarri-ingga ngayi mila'yarra
biyirri-ingga-miya
mila'yanbirra
maaningga-ngana
muway-ngana baga'arranya
birayjga'wurranyayarrangi
maaningga yaarri-ingga baga'yarra
yajil'arri buga.

Ray are the spirit children.
They swim around in the water.
We can't see them, but they can see us.
At night, when we are asleep, they come
and visit us and make us dream about
children who are going to be born.

Peter Ross was born on 26/02/1927 in Bebington, just south of Liverpool in the UK,  a small town associated with the young years of British Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

A torn photograph is pretty well all we have from Peter’s childhood and it was taken at Clontarf in 1939 when Peter was 12 years of age. We know from Peter’s own telling of his story, as well as the work his son Joe has done looking into Peter’s life history, that when Peter was aged just three weeks, he was placed in the care of Catholic nuns and he was for many years with the Daughters of Charity at their Leyfield School, West Derby, in Liverpool.

Peter’s father was William Lynch, a sailor in the British Merchant Navy; Peter’s mother was Eleanor Ross, and Joe has a photo of the home where she lived when Peter was born in Bebington.

Peter retained life-long happy memories of his orphanage school at Leyfield. It was a time when he felt very much cared for by the nuns, and where he got the best of food and medical care, and from where he looked out on the people of Liverpool with genuine sympathy, as they went through the grinding poverty of the Depression years and beyond. In fact Peter felt very sorry for youngsters who were not raised in the care of the nuns in the orphanage!

At Leyfield School Peter loved everything he learned about the gardens & orchards & farm animals. He learned to milk the cows, look after the pigs & collect eggs from the hens in the chook yard. Peter also learned the prayers of the Mass and Rosary and he came to love the Church music played and the hymns that were sung, especially during Benediction; this was a love that lasted him through life.  It was here at Leyfield that Peter learned not to fear death, when he witnessed the peaceful death of one of the old nuns in the orphanage chapel; she had returned to her pew after Holy Communion and closed her eyes and never woke up again. The young orphans joined with the nuns in placing flowers and candles around the deceased nun and the memory remained with him as a beautiful memory of serenity, beauty and peace. The Leyfield school records indicate that on 2 July 1937 Peter was transferred to St Edmunds Children Home, Bebington, Wirral.  He was now 10 years of age.

Peter recalled being down in the school yard cleaning drinking water-fonts, when he was asked by the sister in charge would he like to go to Australia for a holiday. When Peter and three of his orphan mates (Ronnie Burns, Frank Coleman & Cam Duffy) showed positive interest, they were soon equipped with suitcases filled with new clothes & were off down to London by train, and onto the Tilbury Docks to board SS Otranto on 16th July 1938. Peter recalled, years later, waving from this ship to his father who had come down to the wharf to see him off on this exciting journey to Australia. It is possible that Peter’s father died just a couple of years later when, during WWII, there was some major loss of British Merchant Shipping in Norway, where a William Lynch was drowned. Leastways, Peter never again heard from his father.

Peter had a strong sense of gratitude and pride at being selected and sent out to Australia. He saw it as a once-in-a-life opportunity for his own betterment; and – in contrast to the parallel stories of other migrant orphans told in various books and films, including most recently the powerful film “Oranges and Sunshine” — Peter was able to find and nurture his inner strengths so that he never had any sense of regret.

On board the month long sea trip to Australia there were about 300 other child migrants, as well as refugees, from all over Europe, as increasing pre-War tensions and conflicts were playing themselves out. The Spanish Civil War was dragging to a bloody end; and agreement had been struck for foreign participants from around the world, including Australia, to leave Spain and some of these were on board this ship, which set sail just as Hitler’s first Austrian concentration camp for Jewish people was completed; and people, worried people, from across Europe, were on the move. This was just before Germany invaded the Sudetenland, in the last of Hitler’s aggressive acts tolerated by the international community before World War II was declared.

The ship Otranto took just four weeks to get to Fremantle, before sailing on to Melbourne and Sydney where the mail bags on board were all found to have been furtively slit open and the registered mail had lost all valuables but the culprits were never caught!

Meanwhile, the orphans, having arrived in Fremantle on 16th August 1938, were placed into the care of the Christian Brothers, and were taken first to Clontarf and soon after by train to Tardun, where Peter packed away his fine English clothes and settled into his first 2 years of tough manual labour, working alongside the Brothers.

Years late Peter would talk of the contrast between the maternal gentle care of the Sisters in the UK and the very strong, muscular approach of the Brothers, who seemed determined to develop self-reliance and resilience amongst their young charges. Peter learned new skills in farming as well as construction, before returning to Clontarf where he worked for another two years to help complete the College Chapel. With the Japanese War looking ever more serious, the RAAF soon took over Clontarf and the Brothers and boys moved up to what was to become Boys Town Bindoon; however, when Peter first arrived it was still just a farm. By war’s end, Peter and the boys and the Brothers had largely completed the impressive buildings that became the centrepiece of what is now Bindoon Christian Brothers College and Peter had acquired a broad range of building and farming skills that he put to good use for the rest of his days.

Peter recalled this period with the Christian Brothers as being a happy time, where he again felt sorry for the people who lived outside the orphanage! While others were struggling for food and various creature comforts, not widely on offer because of the war time shortages, Peter experienced the orphanage as a place of plenty; where, from the efforts of the residents, they were kept in supplies to meet their many needs. As well there was sport, including cricket and boxing. Peter said that he never had a day of unhappiness the whole time he was in the orphanage; he knew nothing of cruelness or brutality; he remembers only the experience of support and the warm praise that was heaped on him and his fellow orphans by the Brothers when the boys did a task well.

At War’s end, aged now just 18, Peter headed north, eagerly looking for work. He travelled up through the Wheatbelt towns & farms, taking work and lodgings wherever he could; from Morawa to Mullewa and then on to Tuckanarra, where he worked underground at Reedy’s gold mine, before heading up into his first station work out from Meekatharra, with the Bain family at Woodlands.

After about 12 months there, Peter felt the pull to go further north, and further out. He was soon on his way, first to Port Hedland, where he used his savings to buy a fine swag (“with a good swag you had the world at your feet”) and a strong bicycle; he pushed on up, along the coastal sandy track, passing from clay pan to clay pan, until he got to Derby, from where he took up his first Kimberley pastoral work, at Liveringa Station, working for the owner Kim Rose.

The years moved quickly now and Peter found himself moving around the station country of the Kimberley in a variety of roles, from droving work to windmill mechanic and much, much more in between. However, it was his skilled work on the station windmills for which Peter became most famed, and so well remembered. And that is why the family have chosen to mark Peter’s grave with a small miniature windmill that evokes the many memories, including the happy times around countless windmill camps, as well as the memory of his spectacular fall from the top of one windmill. But that comes later. In Peter’s station work, especially with his work on the droving teams of Ned Delower and others, Peter got to know people from one end of the northern rangelands to the other. However, he soon settled in to work on the Emanuel property of Christmas Creek, starting a 12 year stint that was to see Peter forever after linked with the Wangkatjungka Walmatjari peoples who came from south of the Fitzroy River.

Peter learned so much from the experienced Aboriginal stockmen, who taught him everything to be known about cattle work on the big station spreads of the Emanuel family. It was from this time on that Peter came to see himself as more of a Walmatjarri, than an English Pommy orphan! It was here at Christmas Creek that Peter was first welcomed into the law and initiation ceremonies, and from where he developed his understanding and respect for Aboriginal law and culture. It was here too that Peter realised that he loved the inland of Australia, much more than the coast, where he knew he could never be happy. Give him an inland river valley or some desert country and a good swag, and Peter would be completely happy. This is one of the reasons that Peter and Joe and the family and friends were so keen and insistent about getting Peter home to Fitzroy from Derby Hospital for his final months; and why we were all so pleased and appreciative when the hospital team in Fitzroy Crossing made the extra effort so that he could finally come home.

In 1950 the Lord Mayor of Liverpool received a letter from Australia, written by Peter Ross from Fitzroy Crossing, seeking help in trying to locate his mother. Peter’s letter was published in the Liverpool Echo newspaper and Peter’s mother, Eleanor Ross, was traced; she was working in the city as a clerk in a local hospital; she had been away in South America with her father for many years following Peter’s birth. There is nothing on file to indicate if this led to any contact between Peter and his mother; it would appear not.

However, it was in 1951, while Peter was living and working at Christmas Creek, that he teamed up with his late wife, Casey (Nyawanday). She was of course a Bunuba woman, but with links into the south as well. Peter and Casey set up their first home together in the camp at Christmas Creek; and it was to this home that family members, like Mary Aiken and others, came on their school holidays and from which they still hold so many happy memories of being in the care of Peter and Casey.

Peter became notorious in his time on the Emanuel properties for taking up the cause of the working men and women of the station; pressing the manager, Vic Jones, and the owners, the Emanuel family, for better conditions for the battlers who were working very hard for precious little or – as in the case of the aboriginal people – for nothing much more than clothes and some sugar, flour and tea. Peter’s urgings were often persuasive and improvements came quickly when Peter was on the case.

From these times at Christmas Creek, Peter and Casey formed many firm friendships, including with the Bridge family, who were then on the neighbouring Bohemia Downs. This friendship has lasted all the way through to today and has found many expressions, not only in the work that Peter did to secure the election and re-election of Ernie Bridge to the State Parliament, but also in Ernie’s own faithful presence here at today’s funeral.

Peter’s work on the stations meant he roamed across various stations from Springvale, Moola Bulla, Bohemia Downs, Cherrabun, & Go Go, before settling in to work with the Bell Family at Brooking Springs. During this time, having been married in a Catholic Church ceremony by Father Lorrenz, Peter & Casey acquired a large family; as well as their own son Joseph (born on 23rd July 1960), along came son Cameron and a large family of around 24 youngsters who Peter & Casey raised as their own.

After 10 years at Brooking Springs, living and working happily with the Bunuba people and with the Bells, on the beautiful lands of the Bunuba, Peter and Casey started to see dramatic changes in the Fitzroy Valley, as equal pay for Aboriginal station workers saw so many of the families turned off the stations and into town.

Peter and Casey came to town too; first to the old Mission that became the Junjuwah Reserve and then to run the school children’s hostel opposite the old school. It is from here that I have my earliest memories of Peter and Casey and their large family and the extended tribe of hostel youngsters, who seemed to fill every corner of what was not only a very large house, but a warm and welcoming home to youngsters and visitors alike. Peter’s dedication to his own family and these hostel children was, in his own words, motivated by his high regard for schooling and education and his deep regret that he had himself missed out.

Peter became even more active in politics at this time. All of us will have different memories of Peter, of when they first met or where they last spoke with him – he was one of those sorts of characters. But many of us will never forget the memory of Peter reliably out the front of the Fitzroy Crossing School, for each and every election, faithfully and persuasively handing out the Labor ‘how to vote’ card to every voter who came past, while barking out instructions, to all and sundry, to go and get various local voters who were yet to vote before the polling station would close. Peter had learned from the tough and tight election contests of the 1970s between Ernie Bridge and Alan Ridge that every vote counts! Peter had also watched with disgust the tricks that had then been pulled by the five Liberal party lawyers trying to stop Aboriginal people voting. So it was no surprise that local Liberal party activists were in turn made to feel somewhat intimidated by Peter; he had decided to match fire with fire. And, from thereon in after, he always managed to make the Liberals feel like they were doing something wrong in handing out a Liberal How To Vote card in Fitzroy Crossing! Most especially when he loudly growled at them! Peter took great delight in the distribution of Labor How to Vote cards, even going to the lengths of swimming across what he would graphically describe as the crocodile infested Fitzroy River to deliver How to Vote cards to places like GoGo before the Liberals got a chance to set up their booth. He also had no qualms about getting even with the Liberals for their past offences; one election he heard that the Liberals were flying How To Vote Cards and scrutineers out to Christmas Creek for polling day; Peter put the kybosh on that when he rang the civil aviation authority and stressed how much rain had fallen, ensuring the strip was closed for election day! Peter’s persuasive influence was long on display in the results that came in during the count of the vote from the Fitzroy Valley. 

Peter’s support and activism for the Australian Labor Party, and as a founder of the Fitzroy Crossing ALP Branch, ensured he became widely known as a one-eyed Labor supporter.  He was also an avid indigenous rights campaigner and a “True Believer” in the rights of battlers everywhere.  As further testimony to that work, we have received a message from one of Peter Ross’s old friends, the former State Labor Premier, the Hon Peter Dowding, whose message on his floral tribute for Peter’s funeral read: “WA has lost a great contributor, a character, a loving generous spirit.  My family & I send our sincerest condolences to all the Ross family for this loss. Signed: Peter Dowding”

Peter Ross served with distinction as the Fitzroy Crossing representative on the Shire of Derby/West Kimberley Council from 1985 to 1988, and then from 1989-1999; while on Council Peter made sure that the interests of the residents of the Fitzroy Valley were well and truly in front of the minds of his fellow Councillors. One of the staff recalls from Peter’s days on Council an exchange, somewhat typical of Peter’s style. When some Councillors were ordering food for their meals during one of their meetings that Peter thought a bit too posh and fancy, he grumbled loudly: “Why can’t we just have sausage rolls?”

As well as serving 13 years on Council, Peter served the local community of Fitzroy Valley as a long term local Justice of the Peace.

Nothing seemed to stop Peter; not even his fall from the windmill at 12 mile, back in 1980 – which would have killed most men – seemed to hold Peter up for long.

Peter and Casey moved on from their work at the children’s hostel, and went on to have busy, welcoming homes in the Fitzroy township, first in McLarty Street and then in Macdonald Way, before they moved down to the Old Fitzroy Crossing Post Office and established the Darlgunyah Backpapers and eventually a small community nearby.

Peter played many different roles & did many tasks, including the jobs others would not or could not do. For many years he worked tirelessly as the undertaker for the people of the Valley and far beyond, driving his old silver and black four-wheel-drive hearse hundreds of kilometres around the Kimberley region – to return people to their true homeland for burial. He knew how much the Aboriginal families valued having a person back in their country for burial and he went the extra mile to oblige.

While preparing this obituary I have heard from many of Peter’s friends. And I will quote just a few:

Susan Bradley emailed from Doongan Station: “I loved Peter. When I was at Fossil Downs in 1969 every second Tuesday I used to go in to collect the mail from the MMA Otter.  Vic Jones came in from Go Go, and he would meet Peter who was also waiting for the Otter, at the Crossing Inn pub (in Sandy Sandford's days).   Because the bar didn't open until midday, Vic and Peter would sit in the cool room where nobody could see them and have a drink — I was invited to join them before we all went out to the Airstrip together.  Peter would refuel the plane. They were so entertaining for a young city slicker new to the Kimberley. Vic, so far right – Peter, to the left - and they loved debating and taking the mickey out of each other. They were actually good friends. I remember Joe and Cam as little boys running around the mission where Peter and Casey lived. They were the first two real Kimberley characters I met. Peter was the first on the scene when Vic shot himself on the night of the Fitzroy Crossing Race Ball and he was really cut up. What a full life Peter led”.

Paul Lane told me that he saw Peter Ross to be completely unique, not least of all because of the way he always kept an eye out for others. On one occasion Paul remembers Peter telephoning the hotel in Halls Creek late at night to check that Paul had got through safely on the then treacherous old dirt track that was what passed for the road between Derby and Halls Creek. Paul remarked that Fitzroy Crossing has never been a simple place in which people live; it has been a place with a constantly changing set of challenges; but Peter had a consistent set of good values and fine fundamental beliefs. As well, he had resilience in the face of the many set-backs. He understood the value that local aboriginal people put on things of worth and learnt to do the same: being trusting and yet flexible, when things went wrong; things would work out. Old debits would be paid. Word given would be honoured. Paul also remembers Peter standing in the top store in Derby in 1970 complaining bitterly that the price that he was having to pay for a replacement stockman’s hat was not the same price he had paid for his last hat, in 1949, some 20 years before!

Peter treated all warmly. And people who got to see beyond his capacity for a gruff exchange found a heart of gold; generous beyond belief. He was intensely proud of his family; and loyal to his friends. I listened with great interest to Peter’s taped oral history in the Battye Library where the interviewer, Jim Anderson, then of Liveringa, asked Peter about his association with Steven Hawke; Even though they had often not seen eye to eye, Peter quickly made it clear that he would never allow a bad word to be said against Steve; at least, not by anyone other than himself in his own humour laden critique of an admired friend.

Steve commented that people tend not to remember how divided a town Fitzroy was in those days as everybody, black and white, struggled to come to terms with the changing times. Peter was the one man in town who straddled the divide. “He did things his own way, and we had our share of blues, but you couldn’t doubt his good heart, or his willingness to get down and dirty. Who could forget the sight of Peter, waist deep in the sewer, barking orders and cracking jokes, as he fixed the broken Junjuwa sewerage system yet again.”

Bishop Saunders, who is one of a long line of bishops, priests, brothers and nuns, with whom Peter has had long association and warm friendship, retells a story of Peter being furious that he could not get his assistant to help fix the Junjuwa sewers, yet again blocked, this time by an army great coat! Peter said “I’d even offered him a face mask! And he still would not go down into that sewer! What more did he want!” Peter had to dive into the sewer himself and extract the great coat and it was left to his lovingly patient Casey to hose him down afterwards before he was allowed to come into their home! Peter told the bishop that on another occasion he had removed a blockage from the sewerage, this time a huge ghetto-blaster, which Peter claimed was again simply hosed down and put to good use, but this time back in his own home! Giving new meaning to the concept of “hitting the high notes!"

Joel Smoker, son of local United Aborigines Missionaries Bruce and Pearl, writes that “Peter grew up in an era when the religion you claimed helped define who you were. Peter was Roman Catholic and my father, Bruce Smoker, was Protestant, and so they saw each other as being from different camps, at a time when there was often open hostility between the two groups. This did not stop them from being friends, however, and Peter and Casey were always welcome in the Smoker house, often stopping by for a cup of tea. Peter would invariably have some humorous comment about the Pope giving special dispensation for them to do so. Bruce and Pearl, my mother, were always welcome at Peter and Casey’s home and enjoyed their hospitality. The religious differences carried no weight with us kids and we were always happy to meet up and play with Jojo whenever the opportunity arose”. A particular memory of Peter, writes Joel, was from “one occasion when I drove out to Brooking Springs Station in the early evening with a friend, Kevin Ballantyne, when Peter was the manager there. We found him having dinner in the dining room at the long timber table which, legend had it, had been brought over from England. Peter was dining with the mechanic and they were both covered in grease and dust, but with hands clean of course. We joined them and Peter held forth on all manner of topics including religion and politics. It was a real performance from Peter that kept us talking about it all the way home”. On another occasion Joel stopped by Peter’s camp at a windmill he was repairing on Brooking Springs. “Peter was having lunch and we watched in amusement as he prepared his meal. We were all given a pannikin of tea and he then proceeded to break Milk Arrowroot biscuits in to his own big pannikin of tea. When the biscuits had dissolved he stirred them around in the mug and then ate the mush with a spoon. “I’ve got no teeth”, he said, by way of explanation, “and I can’t abide the false teeth, so this has to do”. Joel Smoker concludes: “Peter Ross is a legend. They don’t make them like that anymore. Please pass on our condolences to JoJo Ross and all the family”

Peter could laugh & would make sure others would laugh with him, especially in the face of adversity & troubles. He had a wonderful turn of phrase & would pepper his conversation with colourful language, always with a splendid sense for fun & mischief; he would also rush to apologise to priests or ladies present when his language turned blue, as it so often did.

Locally Peter was called “Mangkurla” – he shared that name with the tata lizard; a name Peter earned because of his own, ever-present friendly wave that reminded people of the waving lizard. The name has in turn been given to the road to the main cemetery for Fitzroy Crossing, where the approach road itself is named Mangkurla Road, in honour of Peter Ross who used that road so often.

For my part I well recall visiting Peter and Casey and listening to Peter tell a story and raise an issue, with his fingers tapping out a fast beat on his tobacco tin or on his huge pannikin. With his old sweat-stained and tattered hat, cocked confidently on his head at the most improbable of angles, Peter spelt out the latest complicated local story and he would be checking all along the way: “You follow what I mean? You get me? You know what I mean?” Peter’s stories were most often about tackling an injustice, or decrying a bully; about setting right a wrong. Peter did not dress like a man for the future; he never tried to present like a modern man. His battered sweaty hat, and his torn shorts and old shirts and singlets, they matched his language, which were all from a rapidly passing age, of a bygone era of the old pastoral industry of yesterday. But Peter’s values, his emphasis on justice, and fairness, and loyalty; on faith and family, and on friendship; his high regard for education and training; his devotion to politics; all these characteristics made Peter very much a man for our times and all times and for the future.

Peter leaves behind a personal family legacy of courage and confidence and leadership; perseverance against the odds; all of which are evident today in the work of so many local Fitzroy Crossing leaders, and most especially in the life and work of his son Mr Joe Ross and the extended family. As well Peter leaves a lasting legacy through the support he gave to all the young leaders of the Valley, whose own work today made him endlessly and justifiably proud. Peter was especially proud of the leadership of June and Emily and Maureen and Joe and all the others who ensured that the alcohol restrictions were put in place so that the people of the Valley could get a breather and have a second chance.

Peter’s memory as a great character will live on through the Kimberley community and like all of us I feel honoured to have known him and to have experienced his passion for the people of the Kimberley. Importantly Peter’s long and rich life has taught us all that we too, all of us, can have a happy and rewarding life by being focused on “giving” rather “receiving”.

Peter came north to the Kimberley alone; he had arrived as an orphan boy, without family; he linked himself to the people of the Fitzroy Valley for whom nothing was more important than family and community. With his personal gifts and generosity of character, Peter created around him a strong community of friends and a devoted loving family.

The Bishop of Broome, Christopher Saunders, sent the following message: “Peter was a man of joy, determination, simplicity; an authentic human being motivated by generosity and a compelling sense of justice. I shall remember him and the family at the altar of God today, in a different community, in a different place, but nonetheless joined in prayer in the promise of eternity. Eternal Rest Grant Unto Him O Lord – and Let Perpetual Light Shine Upon Him. May He Rest in Peace. Amen.”

For what Peter has generously given to so many, may he now in turn receive a hundredfold.

* an abridged form of this obituary appeared in the Kimberley Society Newsletter, October 2011 and Kimberley Profile, November 2011

Original Publication

  • Kimberley Society Newsletter, October 2011

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Tom Stephens, 'Ross, Peter (1927–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/ross-peter-16401/text28362, accessed 23 November 2017.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012