Queen Nellie Hamilton was born at Ginninderra. She was often called ‘Black Nellie’ but to most European settlers she was known as ‘Queen Nellie’.
There is little known about Nellie as a child, she is believed to have been mentioned in the 1841 Return of the Aborigines report. This report lists a young orphan girl called Nellie. There is a story told about Nellie, where as a child she went to the houses of European settlers, knocked on the door and when people answered, she claimed she was being chased by “scores of wild blacks”. This way, she got shelter and food.
According to several books, Nellie was married three times, but according to other books, she was married twice. Nellie had a number of children during her lifetime. Nellie’s son Eddy was born in 1856, about the time when Bobby was doing stock work (he was said to be very good at breaking horses) and also training for the Queanbeyan cricket team. Bobby achieved fame as a cricketer but was less successful in 1863 when, following the robbery of the Boro mail coach, he acted as a black tracker and was roundly blamed by Captain Battye for the escape of the robbers. Over the next few years one of Nelly’s children apparently died – as only two appear in the below photograph* which was probably taken in the mid to late 1860s by Frank Gale.
About 1871 Nelly’s children were sick with measles, her son Edward (Eddy) actually died on 11 September 1871 and the following year, her husband Bobby died of tuberculosis.
On 27 March 1873, no doubt still mourning the death of her husband and children, Nelly and her friend Nanny were sent to jail for seven days – and things apparently got even worse. During the May winter of 1873, Nelly, Nanny and “three or four half-caste children” accepted an invitation to viist the Ngarigu people. After being refused passage on the mailcoach, they walked all the way to Cooma on what must have been a desperate trek for help through the snow. Nanny never fully recovered from the ordeal, dying four months later, on 14 September from “congestion on the lungs”.
These events must have impressed on Nelly the need for transportation, because in June 1873, she had an 18 month old colt (that she bred and raised) tied up outside McIntosh’s pub where she “was sober, and was scrubbing” when John Breen and others conspired to steal it from her. On 25 March 1874, she took them all to court – her daughter Millie testifying “the colt is Ma’s, she got it from Mr Robertson”- obtaining the judgement that it was to be returned leaving the other parties concerned “to get satisfaction from one another if they felt so inclined”.
Later in life Nelly was better appreciated. In 1881 she jokingly told a tourist named Edward Bevan that she was “Queen of Queanbeyan” and indeed, in 1888 she was given a breastplate to that effect following representations to the Aboriginal Protection Board by the Queanbeyan Member of Parliament. Nelly seemed to have achieved celebrity status by the time she opened the Tharwa Bridge on 29 March 1895. She died on 1 January 1897 in the Queanbeyan Hospital.
Much has been written, in ignorance, about Aboriginal people in general and about the Queanbeyan Ngunawal people in particular. Every author writes with their own prejudices and cultural beliefs, and the assumption based on the cultural prejudices of the authors, that Bobby Hamilton was Queen Nellie’s "first husband" and that Nellie used his name is wrong. The fact is that Bobby Hamilton used Queen Nellie’s name and Bobby was not the "first" man that Queen Nellie bore children to. Wrong also is the claim that Queen Nellie was the last of the Ngunawal Aborigines.
Nellie had taken the name of Hamilton from white landowner Hamilton-Hume. Hamilton-Hume’s wife was childless and Nellie bore him a daughter called Lucy. Whilst this may not have been acknowledged at the time, by the Hamilton-Hume family, Jenny McDougal-Hume, the niece of Hamilton-Hume, acknowledges this fact in her book about her family called, Beyond the Borders.
Don Bell snr (deceased) traced his lines back through his father, James "Eppy" Carroll, to his grandmother, Lucy, then to his great-grandmother, Queen Nellie. Queen Nellie Hamilton was not the last of the Ngunawals. Don Bell, Ngunawal Elder, was the proud great-grandson of Queen Nellie Hamilton.
1893: Photo of Queen Nellie Hamilton
1888: Brass Plate for Queen Nellie Hamilton
There is no known photo of Queen Nellie Hamilton with her brass plate. Errol Lea-Scarlett, writes in his book, Queanbeyan District and People, that the brass plate "was presented to her by the Mayor of Queanbeyan, John Bull in 1888". Rex Cross writes in Bygone Queanbeyan Revised Edition, "…that the local member of Parliament helped Harold Mapletoft Davis get the brass plate…" and Lyall Gillespie writes in his book, Ginninderra Forerunner to Canberra, that "…at the instigation of Harold Mapletoft Davis, brother of William Davis junior of Ginninderra, an approach was made in 1888 to the Aborigines’ Protection Board for a brass plate to be presented to Nellie. The request was granted".
1897: Death of Queen Nellie Hamilton
Lyall Gillespie writes in his book, Ginninderra Forerunner to Canberra, that after her death, The Queanbeyan Observer and Mining Record 1897, newspaper wrote, "In the Queanbeyan Hospital where she had been a patient for some weeks past, on New Years day died poor old Nellie Hamilton, Queen of the Aborigines of Queanbeyan… she was about sixty years of age and saw her subjects one by one… pass away before her".
1895: Tharwa Bridge Opening
The official photos of the opening of the Tharwa Bridge.
Queen Nellie was an honoured guest at the opening of the Tharwa Bridge on Wednesday 27 March 1895 reported the Queanbeyan Observer and Mining Record Newspaper on 29 March 1895. "…after a photograph was taken of the group of distinguished person present, among whom was Nellie the Aboriginal Queen, the military formed a background…" and "before the public crossed the bridge following its opening, it was reported that Queen Nellie Hamilton, resplendent in her new silk gown acquired for the occasion, shook hands with all the children who had been lined up as part of the procession".
"Miss Kate Gallagher of Erindale, Tuggeranong, who was one of the children present at the ceremony, when referring to Queen Nellie in later years said, "I have never forgotten the velvety softness of her lovely hands". Rex Cross: Bygone Queanbeyan Revised Edition.
The official photo of the Tharwa Bridge opening, shows what a "grand" occasion this was and the importance of Queen Nellie Hamilton, to the community and within the community at that time, "It was a grand day… and a public holiday for all the district… Fifteen hundred dusty sightseers gathered to see a procession of carriages and horsemen follow the Queanbeyan Band and Mounted Rifle Contingent beneath a sign proclaiming ‘Welcome’". Errol Lea-Scarlett: Queanbeyan District and People.
1975: Recollections of Queen Nellie Hamilton
Miss May Walker wrote affectionately about Queen Nellie Hamilton in her recollections, Ninety years in Queanbeyan: The Recollections of Miss E.M.L Walker 1885-1975. Miss May Walker taught at the Queanbeyan Public School, Isabella Street for much of her life. Miss Walker was born in Queanbeyan in 1885 and would have been eleven years old when Queen Nellie died on 1 January 1897, old enough to form her own opinion and to also hear the opinions of the people in the town.
In her recollections, May Walker wrote that Queen Nellie, "… never went anywhere without her dog, Jerrabung, and her pipe… She was supplied with tobacco for it by the townspeople, among them being my dad. Everyone liked her because she was a good old soul who never did anyone any harm, even in thought".