Warra, Warrah Warrah or William Warrell
(c1794-11 June 1863)
Keith Vincent Smith
Images and objects made by European artists – and many eyewitness accounts – guide us through the twists and turns in the life of an Aboriginal man well know in nineteenth century Sydney.
Very few people knew his real name. They called him ‘Ricketty Dick’ (sometimes with one ‘r’), a reference to the fact that both his legs were paralysed. After Bungaree, he is the most sketched or painted Aboriginal personality of early Sydney.
For many years Ricketty Dick camped in his gunyah (gonye) or bark hut by the paling fence of a grand house by the swampy shores at Rose Bay on the South Head Road, asking passers-by to pay a ‘toll’ of sixpence, one shilling or some tobacco. The house called ‘The Cottage’, was owned by Daniel Cooper, the richest man in Sydney.
Before it had the meaning of shaky or unstable – like a rickety bridge or staircase – ‘rickety’ meant ‘affected with rickets’ or ‘feeble in the joints’. ‘Ricketty Dick’ was also English rhyming slang for a stick or walking stick, like the staff he holds in this portrait.
The image is credited to Charles Meryon, a French artist who twice visited Sydney between 1842 and 1846 as a junior officer on the 22-gun man-of-war Le Rhin, sent to guard the French settlement at Akaroa in New Zealand. Meryon, who was colour blind, later became famous as an engraver of black and white architectural scenes of Paris, particularly around Notre Dame.
When Meyron’s portrait was shown in Eora: Mapping Aboriginal Sydney, an exhibition curated by Anthony Bourke and myself at the State Library of New South Wales in 2006, Sydney historian Shirley Fitzgerald in Phanfare (No 219, 2006) noted ‘the haunted eyes of Rickety Dick’.
The crude figure of the ‘Papuan’ by Meryon, who described his subject as a ‘cannibal’, is now in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and is obviously the original sketch for the finished portrait.
‘This Aboriginal, who was once a Chief of the Rose Bay tribe’, wrote the amateur anthropologist Bernard Hornshaw in Mankind (vol 1 no 7, 1933) ‘liked to be called ‘King’. As he grew old he became paralysed; the boys then named him ‘Ricketty Dick;’ which name he bore until his death in 1863’.
The artist Charles Rodius, born in Cologne (now Koln in Germany), stole a lady’s reticule (handbag) at the opera in London and was sentenced to seven years transportation to New South Wales. He arrived in Sydney in December 1829 and in 1831 began to issue lithographic portraits of Aboriginal ‘chiefs’ and their ‘queens’, based on his pencil or pastel sketches.
Rodius drew an original crayon portrait of ‘Riggedidick, Broken bay Tribe’, now in the National Library of Australia (nla.pic-an6428975) in 1834 and about 1844 a full profile pencil portrait of ‘Ricketty Dick’ (PXA 1005, Mitchell Library, Sydney).
Ricketty Dick was described as ‘King of the Wooloomooloo tribe’ on a plaster bust now in the Mitchell Library, Sydney. Hornshaw said he was known as ‘King Dick of the Rose Bay tribe’, while Charles Rodius believed Ricketty Dick came from Broken Bay. He was often in company with Bowen Bungaree and Cora Gooseberry, widow of Bowen’s father, the Broken Bay leader Bungaree, who died in 1830. It’s possible that Ricketty Dick was related to Cora Gooseberry, the daughter of Moorooboora, clan leader at Long Bay and Maroubra, through his mother from Botany Bay, whose name is not known.
The man sitting outside the gunyah, pictured by Eugène Delessert with Cora Gooseberry Bungaree, is probably ‘Ricketty Dick’. The French artist spent eight months in Sydney in 1845 and reported that he had questioned ‘an elderly native … an extremely gentle man who had nothing ferocious about him’ who said ‘he had eaten human flesh when a child’. This might explain why Delessert’s countryman Charles Meyron thought Ricketty Dick was a cannibal.
The Austrian scientist Dr. Karl Scherzer saw Ricketty Dick on 15 November 1858 and wrote in his journal that he was:
… huddled by the road, wrapped in a wretched woollen blanket, the last of his tribe, the one time lord of the soil … He is dressed entirely in European fashion, in a black top hat, threadbare old clothes etc. Sir Daniel provides him with all the necessities and looks after him well.
A grimacing Ricketty Dick sits in front of the paling fence at Rose Bay. The woodcut was so badly printed in the Illustrated Sydney News in February 1854 that it cannot be copied. This version is from The Australasian Picture Book published by J.G. Clarke, Sydney, 1857. The 1854 text reads:
Poor old Dick! The last of his tribe, will be recognised by the accompanying sketch. For many years past Dick has been a denizen of Sydney, and of late he has had his ‘Gunyah’ at Rose Bay, where the old man may be daily seen by the visitors to South Head. He is quite a cripple from paralysis, and many a sixpence falls to his lot from the pleasure seekers and wayfarers on the road.
The missionary and linguist Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld , always sympathetic to Indigenous Australians and a collector of their languages, wrote to Sir George Grey on 10 April 1857 with a despairing description of Ricketty Dick, including the common assertion that he was the ‘last of his tribe’.
The Aborigines of this colony are fast passing away from this stage of existence. It is not many months since I wrote to the Ethnological Society London, and forwarded me a diploma appointing me a corresponding member of the Institution, and stated to them an instance of me seeing the last Aborigine of the last tribe of the Blacks in this District Sydney, sitting by the road side at the very gate of the Honourable the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, where the Paralytic sits, a living picture of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. I do not wish it to be understood in a reflective sense on the Honourable Daniel Cooper in any possible way, because the Black chooses his station, and prefers his bark-hut to the Benevolent Asylum where he would be received and cared for if he wished. But, every passer by on the South-head road throws him a sixpence or so from from their carriages and thus he is bountifully provided for in his native and beloved state of freedom.
This pathetic illustration shows Ricketty Dick rugged up for winter. He wears a blanket and a knitted cap and sits beside his plate and bowl. You can see his gunyah behind Cooper’s paling fence.
Captain W.A.B. Greaves, a government surveyor, wrote his ‘Recollections of Old Sydney in 1852 and since’ in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society (vol. 8, 1916). He wrote:
One Sydney native, known as “Ricketty Dick,” was a familiar figure on the New South Head-road, which he found to be a profitable stand for his noble profession of begging.
A curious incident occurred at Ricketty Dick’s camp in 1852. Under the heading ‘A Slight Mistake’, the Colonial Times, Hobart (17 August 1852) reported in a despatch from Sydney dated 7 August that William Charles Wentworth had sent a note to the coroner Mr. Brenan saying a man was lying dead on the South Head Road. The Coroner called in Mr. Hill, an undertaker, who sent a van with a coffin. The Sydney correspondent continued his story:
… on arriving at the spot, they saw an old black-fellow, known as “Ricketty Dick,” sitting by the roadside swaddled in blankets. They asked Dick to inform them whereabout the dead body was lying. Dick replied, “The man no dead now. Him berry drunk dead little while ago, but him jump up by and by and gone away.”
The van returned to town with an empty coffin.
This was Daniel Cooper’s ‘Rose Bay Cottage’, also called ‘Rose Bay Lodge’, designed by the architect John Verge, where Ricketty Dick sat at the side of what is now New South Head Road, photographed in 1855. In 1857, the year he was knighted, Cooper moved to Woollahra House at Point Piper, built for £50,000 but later returned to England to live.
Arthur Dowling described Rose Bay in the 1850s in his ‘Some Recollections of the New South Head Road and Woollahra’ (JRAHS vol. 10 1924).
From the centre of Rose Bay … The land from there, to the east end of the bay was a vacant swamp, or marsh, covered with bush extending past where “Ricketty Dick” had his camp … A notably crippled and irritable old aboriginal, “Ricketty Dick” — a terror to the children in the neighbourhood and others — had his permanent camp on a dry patch of land at the northern end of this morass, close to the main road, and opposite the Georgian dwelling-house, overlooking the bay, owned by a Mr. Prevost [near Lyne Park, west side].
In the first paragraph of this article I mentioned that ‘objects’ as well as art works represented Ricketty Dick. These artefacts are usually called ‘realia’ in museum and library collections.
Ricketty Dick was aged about sixty and still living in his gunyah at Rose Bay when a silver and gold statuette modelled on his image as a much younger man was exhibited at the Paris Universelle Exposition in 1855. The statuette was created and cast by Julius Hogarth, a silversmith and jeweller born in Denmark in 1821, whose premises were in Hunter Street, Sydney. It is now one of the treasures at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum.
The Sydney Morning Herald (18 April 1856) noted:
In the collection of specimens for the Paris exhibition of the works of all nations, Mr. Hogarth had two small statuettes in gold, illustrative of the pursuits and habits of the gold diggers in New South Wales; and also a statuette, in oxidised silver, of an aboriginal native of the colony.
In Paris, Hogarth was awarded a bronze medal in the section titled ‘Goldsmiths’ work, jewellery, and bronzes’ for his entries. It is unlikely that Ricketty Dick was aware of his international fame.
On the morning of 11 June 1863, Ricketty Dick’s body was found outside his gunyah by George Rawlinson or Rawlingson, a Ranger who was employed by William Charles Wentworth of Vaucluse House to supply him with food. He was about 68 years old. The City Coroner concluded that his death was caused by paralysis, accelerated by exposure to the cold. Rawlinson said Ricketty Dick had been ill since Easter that year after being given a quantity of rum. He found him afterwards lying nearly naked in the rain and since then he had complained of pains in his insides. George Hill, whose daughter married Daniel Cooper, supplied Ricketty Dick with blankets.
Ricketty Dick’s real name was revealed in newspaper reports as William Warrah, Warral, Warrell, Worrall or Wurrah and Bill or Billy Warrell. The colonial press agreed that ‘his mother was a native of Botany and his father a native of the Five Islands’ – the Illawarra or Wollongong area of the south coast of New South Wales.
William Henry Fernyhough, an artist, architect and assistant to Surveyor General Sir Thomas Mitchell, identified the man with the walking stick in this silhouette portrait as Bill Worrall and his ‘tribe’ as the Five Islands, the Illawarra area whose Indigenous people spoke the Dharawal language. Fernyhough, who arrived in Australia in 1836, had obviously asked ‘Ricketty Dick’ his real name and where he came from.
Sydneysiders knew Ricketty Dick by his nickname through the years. In December 1840, under the English name he had first chosen, Billy Warrell (or Worrall), he appeared drunk at the Police Court Office in Sydney and was discharged. He said he had been given drink by people at Cockle Bay (Darling Harbour-Barangaroo). ‘This unfortunate being is a cripple from paralysis and day after day is a victim of drunkenness’, said a report in The Colonist (22 December 1840).
In May 1850 three members of the ‘Sydney Tribe: Gooseberry, Bowen and Billy Warrell’ were present when the annual blanket distribution was made (SMH 27 May 1850). None of the three were originally from the ‘Sydney Tribe’. In 1858 George Thornton wrote to the Colonial Secretary: ‘I can assure you that the number of blacks now belonging to the Sydney district are reduced to two – vis “Wingle” and “Bill Worrell.” Wingle, from Port Stephens, died at Botany in 1868.
Three years after the death of William Warrell / Ricketty Dick, an ebony gentleman’s cane or walking stick (the proverbial ‘Ricketty Dick’) with the silver and gold head of Ricketty Dick as its handle was exhibited at the Indian Exhibition in London. This bust, stamped ‘J.HOGARTH’, resembled Billy Warrell in his last years.
The cane was passed in at auction in Sydney in 2015. A plaster cast of this head in the Mitchell Library, Sydney is captioned:
‘Head of Ricketty Dick, King of the Woolloomooloo tribe made from a plaster cast of the original which was carved out of a solid piece of Broken Hill silver by a man named Quist.’
Quist, or rather Christian Ludwig Qwist, was a jeweller employed by Evan Jones jewellers in Hunter Street, Sydney. The original is said to have been presented to Prince George, later the British King George V, when he was in Australia as a midshipman on H.M.S. Bacchante in 1881.
The third, and best known, object, which reveals the face of Ricketty Dick / William Warrell in right profile, is the brass medal, shaped like a coin, struck at the Mint of the Metropolitan Intercolonial Exhibition in Prince Alfred Park, Surry Hills, Sydney, in 1873 – 10 years after his death. The medal was first cut by Julius Hogarth for Stokes and Martin in Melbourne.
This is one of two examples of the medal displayed in the Eora: Mapping Aboriginal Sydney 1770-1850 exhibition at the Mitchell Galleries of the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney in 2006. It is often seen as a tribute to Ricketty Dick, but the identical image was first used on coins as ‘Billi’ in the Victorian Exhibition of 1872 and later as ‘Sandy’ in Queensland in 1879.
Prince Alfred Park, facing Cleveland Street, Surry Hills, then called the Cleveland or Government Paddocks, had been an Aboriginal camping ground before it was acquired by the Agricultural Society of New South Wales and drained of its creek about 1863. The Royal Easter Show was held there until 1881.
Searching for possible origins, I soon found the Aboriginal guides Myles or Miles and Warrell who accompanied the explorer John Howe from the Cowpastures (Camden) to Bathurst in 1819. They also gave evidence in the trial of Samuel Gardiner and others for stealing maize from John Dight at Richmond.
Then, in the ‘Return of Aboriginal Natives’ blanket lists at State Records New South Wales, I found an Aboriginal man named variously as Bill Wary, Warrie or Bilwarri, aged from 40 to 47 years, living at Jineroo from 1833 to 1841. His birth date would fit that of Bill Warrell or Ricketty Dick.
These records are a kind of census of Indigenous people, stating their English name, ‘Native’ or Aboriginal name, age, ‘Tribe’, district of resort, the place where they obtained blankets and the year. This Bill Wary picked up blankets every year at Mt. Elrington, a property of 2560 acres owned by Major William Sandys Elrington, a settler who gave his name to Majors Creek, a tributary of the Shoalhaven River near Araluen and about 16 kilometres from Braidwood, NSW. There was a gold rush with 200 miners at Majors Creek in 1851.
In 1839, when ‘Bill Wary’ is recorded at Jinero, a man simply named Wary, with no given age or ‘English name’, whose ‘district’ is given as Bega on the NSW south coast, received blankets atTwofold Bay
Could Warra, Wary or Warrah-Warrah be the same person as Bill Warry and the later William Warrell or ‘Ricketty Dick’? There is no absolute proof, but If not, this portrait represents a young Aboriginal man with a similar name and background. The handwritten caption reads:
Done for a Five Island black – Warra
who had just lost his tooth – and wore
different skins on his arms – indicative
of being in a marriageable state.—
Lieutenant Edward Charles Close, born in Bengal, India in 1790, arrived in Sydney on the barque Matilda in 1817 with 200 troops of the 48th Regiment of Foot. Close painted watercolours including the figures of Aboriginal people in scenes of the ‘Five Islands’, which previously were attributed to Sophia Campbell. He later settled at Morpeth, New South Wales.
Lieutenant Close’s young ‘Five Island black’ might be Warrah Warrah or William Warrell – well before he was so incapacitated that he needed to walk with a stick. ‘Warra’ here wears the outward symbols of initiation: head and arm bands, cicatrices (ceremonial cuts) on the arms and chest and a missing upper right tooth that has been knocked out. Now he can marry and kill dingoes and kangaroos.
I wondered what possible explanation there could be for Warra or Warrah or William Warrell to lose the use of his legs and gain the nickname Ricketty Dick. Searching my memory I recalled an incident that seemed to fit. On 29 February 1824 the Broken Bay leader Bungaree, well established in Sydney, invited the French voyager Jules Dumont d’Urville to a ritual revenge combat, which he described in Two voyages to the South Seas, published in Paris in 1826.
This battle at the Sydney Race Ground (Hyde Park) was to punish a young Aboriginal man from the Five Islands (Wollongong area) who was blamed for the death of Bennelong’s son one year earlier. Dumont d’Urville wrote:
Spears were flying in almost equal numbers from all sides … I noticed a young man from the Five Islands against whom all the shafts from the opposing side seemed to be concentrated … Bidgi-Bidgi [Bidgee Bidgee], the chief from Kissing Point seemed particularly set against him and urged his warriors to vengeance.
I came nearer and saw that turning aside to avoid a shaft had caused him to be struck in the lumbar region where the spear had penetrated quite deeply.
One of his friends was supporting him in his arms; the spear had been withdrawn and the blood had been sucked from the wound, after which it had been bandaged. The poor fellow, however, although pale and weak from loss of blood made no sound and even attempted to walk by leaning on his spear.
The Reverend William Walker, who had converted Bennelong’s son and baptised him Thomas Walker Coke, also witnessed this ‘terrible conflict’. Walker wrote about the Five Islands youth in the Methodist Magazine in 1825:
A spear penetrated his body a little above the hip, but it was extracted without having greatly endangered the life of the youth.
Another missionary who saw the battle was the Reverend Samuel Leigh, who wrote in his journal, published in Remarkable Incidents in the Life of the Rev. Samuel Leigh by the Rev. Alexander Strachan (London, 1855, page 223):
In the case of Coke’s death, his aunt dreamed, twelve months after the event, that he was speared by his companion, who was ordered to stand punishment …
In 1816 Bidgee Bidgee succeeded Bennelong as the headman of the Kissing Point (Putney) Aboriginal people. He was the brother of Boorong, Bennelong’s last wife, and uncle of the dead boy Coke.
Portraits and artefacts – a statuette, a walking stick and a medal with his image – ensure the story of Ricketty Dick lives for us today. He adapted to his severe disabilities to become a survivor and a Sydney identity of his age.
Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2020