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The Empress Hotel, Redfern

[media]The Empress Hotel, known to locals as the 'Big E', was located at 87 Regent Street, near Redfern Station. From the 1950s through to the 1970s it was one of the few pubs in Sydney where Aboriginal people were permitted to drink (others at this time were the Clifton on Botany Road and the Cricketer's Arms on the corner of Botany Road and Henderson Street). In the 1960s and early 1970s Aboriginal people from rural New South Wales were increasingly migrating to Sydney in search of work, better opportunities and reunions with family members. The Big E was the place to find out where relatives lived and what employment opportunities were available in Redfern. The Empress Hotel was both a central place to socialise and an important meeting place for the Aboriginal community of Redfern. Yet it was also the site of heavy-handed police action and the focus of arbitrary racial persecution. Because of this, the Empress would become the place from which the locals would eventually fight back. According to his nephew Adrian Atkins, Aboriginal Redfern activist and journalist John Newfong referred to the Empress Hotel as 'the cabinet room of the Aboriginal Movement'. [1]

The Empress Hotel…was definitely the meeting place at this time. For many years this place was not only a social venue but where many of the political decisions arose from. [2]

By 1971 there were an estimated 12,000 Aboriginal people living in Sydney. Redfern had become the heart of the indigenous community. Housing for many Aboriginal people in Redfern was poor and often overcrowded. Reports of racial discrimination against Aboriginal people in the housing and rental market were not unusual. [3]As a result, squatting in vacant and often near-derelict houses was common. According to one officer from the local South Sydney Community Aid organisation, most Aboriginal people were 'living in the worst housing conditions.' [4] In this context, the pub became a haven to escape to, as well as a place to socialise. It offered warmth, comfort, companionship and entertainment. In her memoirs Don't Take Your Love to Town, Ruby Langford recalled that the Empress was

…our 'home away from home'. We didn't know what to expect – in that place there was never a dull moment, us Kooris always found some way to break the monotony…it was a good place to be until a blue broke out, anyhow it was a meeting place for all us Kooris. [5]

Even after Langford moved her family out to Sadleir Green Valley with the lure of a Housing Commission house under the government's policy of 'assimilation by absorption', she would often return to Redfern at the weekends and 'went to the Empress to be amongst…friends.' [6]

Aboriginal people and the policing of alcohol

Before 1963 New South Wales Aboriginal people without a Certificate of Exemption from the provisions of the Aborigines Protection Act (known to Aboriginal people as a 'dog license') were not permitted to drink alcohol in public houses or in their own homes. [7] Any white person who was caught supplying alcohol to an Aboriginal person without this certificate faced six months imprisonment without the option of a fine. [8] Aboriginal people obtained the right to drink alcohol in New South Wales with the adoption of the Aborigines Protection (Amendment) Act in March 1963. [9] Despite this, many hotels and pubs continued to refuse to serve Aboriginal customers well into the following decade. [10] As Lester Bostock recalled, 'Some publicans would serve us at the back door but many wouldn't serve us at all and we were often just ignored in restaurants and cafes.' [11]

The Empress Hotel in Redfern, however, openly welcomed indigenous customers, drinkers and non-drinkers alike. Yet racial discrimination reared its ugly head in a different guise with the regular and arbitrary arrest of customers at the Empress. The use of the Summary Offences Act meant that it was easy for the police to arrest Aboriginal people in Redfern in the 1960s and 1970s. Often they were not arrested for being drunk but rather for 'the trifecta' of 'unseemly' words, 'resisting arrest' and (apparently) 'assaulting' police. As Chicka Dixson recalled:

'If you're black in Redfern, Alexandria, Waterloo or Newtown and you're on that street after ten o'clock, brother you're taking a chance. This is the procedure.

Along comes the 'hurry-upwagon'.

'Righto-o, Rastas, in the back.'

'But I'm not drunk.'

'What do you want: Drunk? Or Goods in Custody?'

'I'm drunk!' [12]

Throughout this period the police placed an unofficial Aboriginal curfew in Redfern and those who didn't observe it were subject to indiscriminate arrest and imprisonment. Bail was either denied or unaffordable for most. Many contemporaries saw this treatment by the police as random, racist and of very dubious legality. Yet it came to be a frequent event on Regent Street. Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, numerous police paddy wagons were lined up outside the Empress Hotel waiting to round up the Aboriginal people coming out. Father Ted Kennedy recalled 18 police vans lined up outside the Empress Hotel on a Thursday night in 1970. According to local activist Gary Foley, the Empress

…was like a taxi rank. [The police would] come in and beat the shit out of everyone inside, arbitrarily arrest anyone who objected, and when the wagons were full, they'd drive off and lock people up on trumped up charges. [13]

The locals fight back

Redfern was Sydney's hub for militant Aboriginal activists in the 1960s and 1970s. Many identified with the Black Power Movement, which had emerged out of the civil rights movement in America. [14] This educated and highly politicised group was made up of Aboriginal men and women – including Gary Foley, Paul Coe and Gary Williams – who were young, radical and ready for change. [15] They

did not see why Aboriginal people should continue to submit to a degree of police stereotyping and oppression which many older Aboriginal people had come to accept as part of being Aboriginal. [16]

They began meeting regularly in 1968 and they forged close links with other militant movements then emerging in Melbourne and Brisbane. [17] At its heart Black Power represented an overt rejection of the lack of power in Aboriginal lives. They believed in 'self-determination' without white interference and articulated a comprehensive political agenda of Aboriginal autonomy. In 1970 the group issued a manifesto demanding land, justice, housing, education and freedom from arbitrary arrest. In particular, they demanded:

We want an immediate end to police brutality, murder and rape of black people. We believe we can end police brutality in our black community from racist police oppression and brutality…When the Government becomes a law breaker the people must become the law-enforcers. [18]

By 1970 relations between the Redfern locals and the police were tense. By far the bulk of all charges laid against Aboriginal people were for being drunk or disorderly, vague offences open to police interpretation and victimisation. Moreover, the strict 10 pm curfew enforced on Aboriginal residents in Redfern led to even more arbitrary arrests and detentions. As Hal Wootten recalled:

Having had no experience of Aboriginal–police relations, I was initially bewildered when told of a police-imposed curfew, but was soon convinced when I visited Redfern and saw that any Aborigine on the streets of Redfern after 10.15 pm, even if quietly walking home, was bundled into a patrolling paddy wagon. The standard charge was public drunkenness, but naturally such treatment often led to reaction by an indignant Aborigine which escalated both to additional charges of resisting arrest and assault [sic] police, and to physical retaliation by police. In addition police regularly patrolled hotels frequented by Aboriginal people, particularly the Empress, and their heavy handed treatment and oppressive scrutiny…often led to violent incidents in and outside the hotel bars. [19]

According to Gary Foley, because of 'the degree of daily confrontation with police in Redfern…the young radicals came to decide that the issue of police harassment and intimidation should be tackled.' [20] They started in 1969 to undertake surveillance of the police. Armed only with pens and notebooks, Paul Coe, Gary Foley, Gary Williams and Billy Craigie began recording police activity and identification numbers in raids on the Empress and other local pubs in Redfern. [21] According to local activist Kaye Bellear, this action was known locally as 'the pig patrol'. [22] It was hoped that by monitoring and recording instances of local police harassment, discrimination and violent force, the law would start defending the Aboriginal community rather than actively assisting in their arbitrary oppression. [23] Within a few months the Redfern activists had collected extensive evidence of arbitrary arrests, beatings, trumped up charges and wrongful accusation. It was clear that the next step would be to fight for Aboriginal access to legal advice and aid.

It was at this time that the Redfern radicals began raising wider public awareness of Aboriginal treatment at the hands of the police. With the support of local university students, trade unionists and some members of the legal profession volunteering their time, a vacant shop in Regent Street became Australia's first Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS). It opened in 1970 and offered free legal aid for the local community. One of the early activities of the ALS was a regular weekend night roster of eminent legal and academic observers to join Aboriginal people at the Empress Hotel and other pubs and help with surveillance activities. [24] Moreover, as Hal Wootten explained:

The establishment of the Aboriginal Legal Services fundamentally altered relations with police, who could no longer assume that Aboriginal people would plead guilty to whatever they were charged with, or that complaints about police conduct would never be made or pressed…the establishment of the ALS began one of the great steps forward for Aboriginal people. [25]

The Aboriginal Medical Service (AMS) was established in Redfern soon after this. Both were attempts by the local community to build self-determination – to regain some control over their lives after years of oppression and disempowerment. Other Aboriginal initiatives and community support services that emerged out of the politics of the 1970s and the determination to address the plight of the community on their own terms included the Aboriginal Housing Company, the Black Theatre, and the preschool Murawina, which provided free breakfasts for children.

Other events at the Empress

Beyond the issue of Aboriginal–police relations in Redfern, local activists were increasingly campaigning for other Aboriginal people's rights elsewhere. As Heather Goodall has noted, 'a wave of solidarity and the growth of pan-Aboriginal sentiment was fostered strongly in this period.' [26] In 1966 the Gurindji people walked off Wave Hill Station and moved to tribal land at Wattie Creek as a protest against pastoralists who refused to pay indigenous stockmen award wages – it was also a land rights issue. [27] This protest by the Gurindji was taken up by the Redfern radicals. [28] They began to lead protests in Sydney against the Vestey Company who leased Wave Hill. In July 1970 Paul Coe and other activists led a series of protests calling for a boycott of goods produced by Vestey's. [29] Many of their marches were planned at the Big E, from where they would proceed down George Street to Imperial House – the offices of W Angliss & Co, a member of the Vestey's group. On 31 July 1970, 200 people supporting the Gurindji strikers staged a folk singing and poetry reading session in the middle of Sydney. The following day leaflets were distributed outside Grace Bros Bondi Junction store urging people not to buy Vestey's products. [30]

Change and closure

[media]The Big E was renamed the Regent Hotel by 1989 when it was photographed as part of a City of Sydney heritage study, later closing its doors for good. The building is still standing but has now been converted into apartments.

Legacies and memories

In 2009 Professor Peter Read lamented the lack of signage and plaques commemorating the important sites and places of the history of Aboriginal Sydney. He noted:

Nor does any signage mark the site of the 'Big E', the Empress Hotel close to Redfern Station, popular as a meeting place even for non-drinkers, nor the site nearby in Botany Road where the Aboriginal Legal Service held its first planned meetings to answer police persecution of patrons of the 'Big E' in the 1970s…Not a single plaque records any of the events, or any of the sites.' [31]

Beyond tangible commemorations, the memory and legacy of these buildings, services and initiatives, remain and endure. With regards to the Empress Hotel, walking tours of Redfern, produced by the City of Sydney, highlight the central importance of this pub to the history of the indigenous community of Redfern. Memories and stories from the Big E can be found in the proliferation of Aboriginal memoirs that have been written about this era of radical change. They have emerged in the shared oral histories of Redfern's residents, now documented by websites such as Redfern Oral History, The Koori History Website and The History of Aboriginal Sydney. Today, escapades at the Big E have become part of the oral folklore of Aboriginal Redfern. Oral folklore, which has sustained Aboriginal culture for thousands of years, is surely a fitting and appropriate memorial for the role the Big E played in the history of Aboriginal Sydney.

References

Foley, Gary. Aboriginal Medical Service, Redfern 19711991: Twenty Years of Community Service, Alexandria: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Commission, 1991.

Foley, Gary. 'Black Power in Redfern 1968–1972'. The Koori History Website, 2001, http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/essays/essay_1.html

Foley, Gary and Tim Anderson. 'Land Rights and Aboriginal Voices' Australian Journal of Human Rights, 12 (2006).

Goodall, Heather. Invasion to Embassy: Land in Aboriginal Politics in New South Wales, 17701972, Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2008.

Hinkson, Melinda and Alana Harris. Aboriginal Sydney: A Guide to Important Places of the Past and Present, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2001.

Irving, Terry and Rowan Cahill. 'Survival Day, 26 January 1988, Koori Redfern, the Empress Hotel, Regent Street' in Radical Sydney: Places, Portraits and Unruly Episodes, Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2010.

Langford, Ruby. Don't Take Your Love to Town, Victoria: Penguin Books, 1988

Read, Peter. '"The evidence of our own past has been torn asunder": Putting place back into urban Aboriginal history' in Exploring Urban Identities and Histories, ed. Christine Hansen and Kathleen Butler, Canberra: AIATSIS National Indigenous Studies Conference, 2009.

Wootten, Hal. 'Aboriginal Legal Services' in Aboriginal people, Human Rights and the Law, ed. Garth Nettheim, Sydney: Australian and New Zealand Book Company, 1974.

Wootten, Hal. 'Aboriginal people and Police', UNSW Law Journal, 16 (1993).

Notes

[1] Adrian Atkins, personal communication, October 2014

[2] Cathy Craigie, cited in Melinda Hinkson and Alana Harris, Aboriginal Sydney: A Guide to Important Places of the Past and Present, (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2001), 81

[3] Melinda Hinkson and Alana Harris, Aboriginal Sydney: A Guide to Important Places of the Past and Present, (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2001), 83

[4] Quoted in Kay Anderson, 'Savagery and Urbanity: Struggles over Aboriginal Housing, Redfern, 1970–73, in Settlement: A History of Australian Indigenous Housing, ed Peter Read (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2000), 136

[5] Ruby Langford, Don't Take Your Love to Town, (Victoria: Penguin Books, 1988), 151

[6] Ruby Langford, Don't Take Your Love to Town, (Victoria: Penguin Books, 1988), 177

[7] Hal Wootten, 'Aborigines and Police', UNSW Law Journal, 16:1 (1993): 267. See also Mitchell Rolls and Murray Johnson (eds), Historical Dictionary of Australian Aboriginal People, (Maryland USA: The Scarecrow Press, 2011), 64

[8] Ruby Langford, Don't Take Your Love to Town, (Victoria: Penguin Books, 1988), 48

[9] CD Rowley, Outcasts in White Australia: Aboriginal Policy and Practice, 2, (Canberra: ANU Press, 1971), 358

[10] Even some RSL clubs in New South Wales refused to serve Aboriginal ex-servicemen. The Whitlam Government passed a Racial Discrimination Act in 1975 to outlaw discrimination in public places, employment and the provision of goods and services. However some scholars have argued that this did very little as the Act did not involve criminal sanctions to properly uphold it. See Richard Broome, Aboriginal Australians: Black Responses to White Dominance 1788–2001, 3rd ed (New South Wales: Allen and Unwin, 2002), 186

[11] Quoted in Diana Plater, ed, Other Boundaries: Inner City Aboriginal Stories, (Sydney: Jumbunna Aboriginal Education Centre, UTS and Leichhardt Municipal Council, 1993), 135

[12] Colin Tatz, ed, Black Viewpoints: The Aboriginal Experience, (Sydney: Australian and New Zealand Book Co, 1975), 36

[13] Quoted in Terry Irving and Rowan Cahill, 'Survival Day, 26 January 1988, Koori Redfern, The Empress Hotel, Regent Street' in Radical Sydney: Places, Portraits and Unruly Episodes, edited by Terry Irving and Rowan Cahill, (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2010), 329

[14] Gary Foley, 'Black Power in Redfern 1968–1972', The Koori History Website, 2001, http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/essays/essay_1.html, viewed 7 December 2014; Hal Wootten, 'Aborigines and Police', UNSW Law Journal, 16:1 (1993): 267. For an earlier history of Aboriginal political activism from the late nineteenth to the mid twentieth century see Alison Soltar et al, 'Rising Consciousness – The Birth of Aboriginal Political Movements' in Other Boundaries: Inner City Aboriginal Stories, Diana Plater (ed) (Sydney: Jumbunna Aboriginal Education Centre, UTS and Leichhardt Municipal Council, 1993), 61–70

[15] Paul Coe and Gary Williams would be amongst the first intake of Aboriginal law students in 1971 under the University of New South Wales programme of special admission for Aboriginal people. Hal Wootten, 'Aborigines and Police', UNSW Law Journal, 16:1 (1993), 268

[16] Hal Wootten, 'Aborigines and Police', UNSW Law Journal, 16:1 (1993): 267

[17] See Bain Attwood, Rights for Aborigines, (New South Wales: Allen & Unwin, 2003), 340–41

[18] 'Black Panthers of Australia, Platform and Programme, 1970', in The Struggle for Aboriginal Rights: A Documentary History, edited by Bain Attwood and Andrew Markus (New South Wales: Allen & Unwin, 1999), 252–54

[19] Wootten was the first President of the first Aboriginal legal service in Australia between 1970 and 1973. Hal Wootten, 'Aborigines and Police', UNSW Law Journal, 16:1 (1993): 268

[20] Gary Foley, 'Black Power in Redfern 1968–1972', The Koori History Website, 2001, http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/essays/essay_1.html, viewed 7 December 2014

[21] Terry Irving and Rowan Cahill, 'Survival Day, 26 January 1988, Koori Redfern, The Empress Hotel, Regent Street' in Radical Sydney: Places, Portraits and Unruly Episodes, edited by Terry Irving and Rowan Cahill (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2010), 331; Gary Foley, 'Black Power in Redfern 1968–1972', The Koori History Website, 2001, http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/essays/essay_1.html, viewed 7 December 2014

[22] Kaye Bellear, 'Oral History Interviews about the Block', 2007, Redfern Oral History Website, http://redfernoralhistory.org/OralHistory/KayeBellear/tabid/165/Default.aspx, viewed 7 December 2014. In America the Black Panther Party had organised a 'pig patrol'; the idea to monitor police activity concerning harassment and intimidation was subsequently adopted in Redfern.

[23] Foley suggests that the activists' monitoring of the police merely resulted in increased attention from the police. After the notorious 21 Division of the New South Wales police moved into the Redfern area, police harassment levels also increased. See Gary Foley, 'Black Power in Redfern 1968–1972', The Koori History Website, 2001, http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/essays/essay_1.html, viewed 7 December 2014.

[24] Melinda Hinkson and Alana Harris, Aboriginal Sydney: A Guide to Important Places of the Past and Present, (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2001), 84

[25] Hal Wootten, 'Aborigines and Police', UNSW Law Journal, 16:1 (1993): 274

[26] Heather Goodall, Invasion to Embassy: Land in Aboriginal Politics in New South Wales, 1770–1972, (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2008), 384

[27] Lyn Riddett, 'The Strike That Became a Land Movement: A Southern "Do-Gooder" Reflects on Wattie Creek 1966–74', Labour History, 72 (1997): 50–67; Minoru Hokari, 'From Wattie Creek to Wattie Creek: An Oral History Approach to the Gurindji Walk Off', Aboriginal History, 24 (2000): 98–116

[28] Diana Plater, edited by Other Boundaries: Inner City Aboriginal Stories, (Sydney: Jumbunna Aboriginal Education Centre, UTS and Leichhardt Municipal Council, 1993), 134

[29] Heather Goodall, Invasion to Embassy: Land in Aboriginal Politics in New South Wales, 1770–1972, (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2008), 383–86

[30] Sydney Morning Herald, 31 July 1970, 6

[31] Peter Read, '"The evidence of our own past has been torn asunder": Putting place back into urban Aboriginal history' in Exploring Urban Identities and Histories, edited by Christine Hansen and Kathleen Butler, (Canberra: AIATSIS National Indigenous Studies Conference, 2009), 92

.