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Remembering a hero called “Neighbour”

Posted: Fri, May 06, 2011

Mr Neighbour was awarded the Royal Albert Medal for saving a police officer from drowning in 1911.

Many of the iconic stories of relationships between police and Aboriginal Territorians can be found in sensational newspaper accounts of murders and manhunts. The names of Nemarluk, Dhakiyarr, Wonggu and Larry Boy echo through these stories of the old days. This story however is very different. It is about an Australian and Territory hero, a hero for all our people. Those who knew this brave man called him Neighbour. Apart from the people of the Roper River region, who hand this story on to each new generation by word of mouth, few Territorians know what happened on that day near the Roper River on 1 February 1911. It is a story that has been incomplete until now, one hundred years later. It has been pieced together by Darwin Aboriginal historian, Don Christopherson.

Mounted constable William F. Johns joined the South Australian Police force with his younger brother Jack in 1906. The pair then decided to transfer to work for the police in the Northern Territory of South Australia in 1909. The administration of the vast and remote Territory was about to change from South Australia to the Commonwealth.

By the time of the transfer to the Commonwealth in 1911, ”Mulga Bill” Johns was based at the Roper Bar Police Station. His patrol included all the cattle stations of the Roper region and the new Mission of Roper River (Ngukurr) which had been established in 1908.

The story is best told by Johns himself through a Barrier Miner reporter in 1932. By then, he was an Inspector of Police at Port Pirie in South Australia.

Aboriginal Saved Policeman

Police Inspector Johns, of Port Pirie, is living today because of the fact that Neighbour, a full blooded Aboriginal, dragged him in a semi-conscious condition from the Wilton River, Northern Territory, which both were crossing, the black under arrest.

For the rescue the Aboriginal, was awarded the Royal Albert Medal. That was over 20 years ago, and the two are still firm friends although many miles of trackless country separates them.

Inspector Johns, who was in Broken Hill yesterday, related the story to a "Barrier Miner" reporter, and he was loud in his praise of the bravery and devotion of his then black prisoner. In 1911 Neighbour was arrested on a charge of larceny at Hodgson River in the Northern Territory.

He was being escorted by Mr. Johns, who was then a mounted constable, to the Roper River Police Station. They came to the Wilton River, which they set out to swim.

The constable led his horse into the stream and they set out. Mr, Johns swam with his left hand, his right hand resting on the saddle on the horse.

Neighbour, with a chain round his neck which had been allowed to hang loose while the crossing was made, swam on the opposite side, his left hand resting on the saddle.

In midstream the animal sank, and in going down kicked the police officer on the head, knocking him semi-conscious.

The prisoner did not hesitate.

He went to his captor's assistance, and soon got him to safety.

The march to the police station continued, and as a matter of form Neighbour was presented in court. "What could I do?" said Inspector Johns.

"I simply said, 'There is the prisoner; I have no evidence to offer!' Neighbour was discharged."

The story went far afield, and Bishop Lefroy, of Melbourne, interested himself in the native.

He referred the matter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and His Majesty the King (George V) awarded Neighbour the Royal Albert Medal for bravery. Inspector Johns thinks that Neighbour is the only black to hold such an honour.

"What has become of Neighbour?" Inspector Johns was asked.

"He is now at the Roper River Mission," the Inspector replied.

"I have never forgotten him. He is a man 50 years of age now. I write letters to him. Of course he cannot read or write, but the mission people convey to him what I say, and they in return write to me telling me all about Neighbour. I often send him a parcel."

Barrier Miner - Broken Hill - 21 September 1932

The official notification from London to the Administrator of the Northern Territory of the award to Mr Neighbour came on 7 May 1912, a little after a year after his heroic action on that lonely stretch of the Roper. 

The award ceremony of the Albert medal to Mr Neighbour, who was now working as an Aboriginal tracker with the Northern Territory Police Force, took place on  Monday 16 December 1912 at Government House in Darwin.

The Albert medal was the highest award in the British Empire that a civilian could receive for gallantry and was inaugurated by Queen Victoria in 1866 to honour her late husband Prince Albert. Only 27 Australians received this award from 1866 – 1971, when the medal then became the George Cross. Mr Neighbour was the only Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander—let alone Territorian—to receive such the award.

A reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald was there.


1912 Port Darwin Monday 16th December

About 50 people assembled at Government House at 11 this morning, by invitation, to witness the presentation to an aboriginal named Neighbour, by his Excellency, of the Albert Medal, for gallantry in saving life.

Speeches were delivered by Professor Spencer, Judge Bevan, Bishop White, and the Administrator, Each speaker made a point of the fact that this was the first time in which the heroism of an aboriginal had been thus publicly recognised, arguing that the story would circulate among the tribes, and that an ideal thus created would have good effect.

Neighbour is a typical aboriginal, about 5 feet 10 inches in height straight, and muscular, with an open, trunk face, broad and strongly defined brows, full dark eyes, and about 25 years old. He appeared at the ceremony attired in clean khaki police uniform.

The medal is of oval shape about 1 Inch long, by 1 Inch broad, with an inscription in gold lettering let into bronze on one side.

The inscription reads "Presented in the name of His Majesty King George V to Neighbour an aboriginal native of the Roper River, for gallantry in saving life on February 1st 1911".

On the reverse side appears the monogram  AV on a dark-red enamel ground, surmounted by a crown, with in encircling inscription reading. "For gallantry in saving life on land".

Sydney Morning Herald - Wednesday 18th December 1912

The story of Mr Neighbour did not end with him accepting the award and returning to work as an Aboriginal tracker at the Roper River Police Station.

In 1915 he was arrested again at the Roper River.

This time the arresting officer was also named Johns: Jack Johns, the younger brother of William.

This time the charge was murder.

A local Aboriginal man was missing, presumed dead and washed away in the Roper River and Mr Neighbour was now living with the missing man’s wife.

All of the evidence against Neighbour was circumstantial at best, but the arresting officer was quoted in a newspaper article of the day that it was his duty to arrest the man who had saved his brother’s life.

He said it was a terrible job to arrest and explain to Neighbour the charges now being brought against him.

Mounted Constable Jack Johns travelled overland with Neighbour, once again a prisoner in chains, to Port Darwin, this time to stand trial on a most serious charge.

At the trial Mr Neighbour stood in the dock, again wearing a new police tracker khaki uniform, the Albert medal once again pinned to the police tunic.

He had not seen the medal since he was last in Port Darwin three years before. Although he had been awarded the medal, he had never been allowed to take possession of it.

He was told by Baldwin Spencer, the Chief Protector of Aborigines of the Northern Territory 1911–1913, that unscrupulous people may make him part with the medal. Spencer left the medal in the care of the Administrator of the Northern Territory to be worn by Neighbour on official occasions.

Neighbour was now facing a murder charge, an official occasion if ever there was one. If found guilty he could have been either hanged or spend many years of hard labour at Fannie Bay Gaol.

The trail was short and swift: every government official and police officer who knew Neighbour spoke on his behalf, the Johns brothers included. The Judge delivered a verdict of not guilty: he was acquitted, free to return to the Roper River and his job as a police tracker.

Although twice arrested Mr Neighbour was never found guilty of any offence. For any Aboriginal person living in the Northern Territory during this period and the decades that followed, it was very easy to break the laws which related only to Aboriginal people, the Aboriginal Ordinance of 1910.

Over time these policies would slowly change to be replaced by new policies, many of which would still be infringing on and controlling the lives of Aboriginal peoples of the Northern Territory, denying them their civil rights and equality.

Mr Neighbour was a member of the Alawa language group whose traditional land estate became part of Nutwood Downs cattle station.

He worked not only as a police tracker at Roper Bar Police Station but also as stockman at Nutwood Downs and Hodgson Downs stations.

His story again would be told by the famed ethnographer Herbert Basedow, who captured a photo of Neighbour at the Roper River in 1928 and his story of his bravery was then run by the Courier Mail—probably the last time story was covered in full.

In 1940 Neighbour was again credited with saving the lives of several other Aboriginal people on the flooded Roper River.

He worked tirelessly on a river launch with Constable J. Mahoney ferrying rations and supplies across the Roper River to the Mission during the wet seasons.

Neighbour was thought to be around 25 in 1911, so was born around 1895. So he was about 60 when he was buried at Nutwood Downs Station on 21 June 1954 by his nephews and other countrymen of the Alawa and Ngalakan language groups. His extended families now reside at the communities of Minyerri (Hodgson Downs) and Urapunga.

While brother Jack decided to stay on with the Northern Territory Police Force, William left the Northern Territory around 1915, and then joined the Australian 9th Light Horse regiment in 1917 on its way to Palestine.

  He returned to South Australia after the war in 1919 and rejoined the police force. He worked his way up the ranks until his final promotion to Commissioner of the South Australian Police Force from 1944 – 1949.

It would seem that when W. F. Johns was asked to attend functions and to give speeches he would also be asked by listeners to tell the tale of how an Aboriginal prisoner saved his life at the Wilton River that day in the Northern Territory in 1911.

Professor Baldwin Spencer wrote in his 1913 report on the new Aboriginal Ordinance Policies for the Commonwealth, that every cattle station in the NT depended on cheap and local Aboriginal labour to remain a viable business.

This fact of Indigenous contribution very rarely rates a mention in the many books which tell of our Australian and Territory history.

Spencer also makes mention in the report of Mr Neighbour’s bravery and tells of several other acts of heroism by a couple of other Indigenous Territorians.

The story of Billie Shepard who saved both Gilruth’s life out near Darwin in 1912 and the story of the 13 year old Darwin domestic girl Cissy McLeod who in 1913 saved the life of her Mistress, Mrs Mugg, who fell from the Darwin wharf.

These are the stories and historical accounts that now need to be brought back to life and retold in full and to take their rightful place in the historical timeline of the Northern Territory.

The medal belonging to Mr Neighbour would remain at Government House in Darwin until 1934 when a visiting Commonwealth Minister of the Interior obtained the medal on loan, (to be returned when a museum is built in the Northern Territory) for the National Gallery in Canberra. After 77 years, Neighbour’s medal was finally returned—on loan—to the Northern Territory on 5 May 2011 by the National Library of Australia.

The National Library also sent to London to have two replicas made of the medal, one medal for the National Library of Australia and one for the Northern Territory Library. The ceremony for the return of the Medals was held on Friday 6 May 2011 at the Northern Territory Library.

Images & text researched by Don Christophersen
Darwin, Northern Territory
N.T. Historical and Cultural Researcher, April 2011

Information & image sources:
National Library of Australia - Newspapers Collection & Digital Image Collection
Families of Mr Neighbour & W.F. Johns
Northern Territory Library - Digital Images Collection