Providing a helping hand

Helping others on an individual and social level has always been a significant aspect of life along the Williams River valley. At first such services were provided on an ad hoc basis with collections organised to provide money and support for widows and others affected by death or natural disaster. The first organised welfare was directed at the Gringai people with blanket distributions. Like much welfare in the 19th century, this was tinged judgments of virtue and reward. Over time a variety of organisations were founded to provide support on a more regular basis, particularly in the areas of health and unemployment support. In more recent years, government organised welfare has reached into more areas, an extension that has seen many community organizations dwindle and expire, along with much local control.

The first provision of what can be considered welfare was the distribution of blankets to the Gringai people in the 1830s. Magistrate Cook described these blankets as a ‘comfort of the naked, houseless Blacks’ ‘during the inclemency of winter’. From the Colonial Government’s perspective their purpose was explained by a circular:

… you will give the preference to such Individuals as may have distinguished themselves by any good Behaviour,–marking the Conduct of those who may have evinced a disposition to be troublesome, by omitting the bounty to them …

For the Europeans in the early days of their settlement, calling on the help of neighbours in time of need was the most common form of social service. Charles Boydell, with grants on the Allyn River, recorded in his journal many visits to neighbours and his lack of hesitation in sending for help when occasion arose, such as when he found a hut ransacked and his neighbour ‘Townsend heading a party came’ on being sent for. In another incident, when he cut himself with an axe, Boydell rode to Townsend’s for help, arriving just before fainting due to loss of blood.

Boydell was a member of the landowning class, as was Magistrate Cook who when faced the need of a landless Mrs Parkes wrote: ‘what is best to be done for a woman in her destitute situation?’ All he could do was send her and her two children to Newcastle gaol ‘to await His Excellency’s pleasure regarding them’. In other cases collections would be organised such as that in 1844 by a number of Ticket-of-Leave men for one of their own who had drowned in the Williams River. In 1846, there were collections for the Irish Relief fund and, a decade later, the Crimean War inspired a collection of subscriptions for widows and orphans, as did the Indian Mutiny Fund in 1858. When the U.S. Civil War devastated the Lancashire cotton mills, sympathy for the consequent unemployed led to further subscription appeals.

The first permanent organisation to provide social support locally appears to have been the Oddfellows. The Oddfellows were composed ‘chiefly of the poorer classes’ to amass a ‘real and substantial amount of solid money … for the noblest of all purposes – for the relief of suffering humanity’. Money collected was paid out to members in ‘sickness or distress’, for funeral expenses and as lump sums to widows of members. Paterson had an Oddfellows lodge in 1845 and in Dungog, a Good Samaritan Lodge opened in 1866, which did not thrive, then in 1874 the Star of the Williams Lodge was established. Gresford’s Oddfellows had their own hall by the late 1860s and Clarence Town also had a lodge well established by the 1880s.

For those lacking financial means in their old age government first began to be directly involved with the granting of an aged pension in 1901. Lacking the bureaucracy it has nowadays, a local committee at Dungog made up of the Police Magistrate, a doctor (also the Mayor) and a leading landowner, investigated the first applicants for an aged pension, whose names were then published in the Dungog Chronicle. After the Great War the plight of returned servicemen also attracted much support and a similar (though more private method), was also used to distribute Federal funds through a combination of the RSL and local committees. Much remained based on local fundraising rather than government money and, during the 1920s and 1930s, when many itinerant workers were ex-diggers, the Dungog RSL would raise money though its annual ‘Diggers’ Ball’ to enable regular handouts to be made.

However, when payments to unemployed or the dole began with the Great Depression, the use of local committees, as with the first aged pensions and the reparation funds, was not repeated. Instead the local police were relied upon to assess dole relief applications, including the organisation of ‘work for the dole’. Details of these schemes are sketchy but it is known that Dungog received £500 in Commonwealth money in 1932 for ‘the relief of unemployment’. When the NSW Premier visited Dungog during an election campaign three unemployed men in Dungog appealed directly to the NSW Premier against being denied dole funds by the local policeman due to their having frequented a pub for a drink. The Premier promised to look into the matter.

The provision of government funds to local communities was raised to a new level by the Whitlam Labor Government of 1972 to 1975. The many new programs this government funded also raised local awareness of community needs, particularly of the less well-off and the aged. In response to this the Dungog Shire Community Development Group was established in the 1970s and undertook an ambitious program of community based support for the aged of Dungog. The program for supporting the elderly of Dungog outlined by this group in 1975 included visiting and surveying 300 Dungog elderly, setting up a committee to undertake structural repairs of homes, using Lions and Apex to deliver free firewood, referring health problems to ‘visiting Nursing Sisters’, free shopping deliveries, provision of emergency numbers, providing emergency housing (this to non-aged in need also), a newsletter and a flashing light program.

However, the days of the community alone providing this level of support were ending and there is no evidence that this program was implemented to any great extent. Instead, in 1978 application began to be made to government to provide funding for aged care facilities. This was done with a great deal of community involvement and backing that raised much of the funding which after a decade or so of lobbying saw the establishment in 1989 of a Dungog nursing home. This was at the time an innovative mix of a 20 bed hostel and a 20 bed nursing home. Further beds have since been added, including a dementia wing in 2001, as well as more self-care units built separately. The 1990s also saw an expansion in Federal funding for aged care services that aimed at maintaining the aged in their homes for as long as possible. This resulted in the establishment of Dungog & District Neighbourcare which has provided many new services as well as taken over some older ones such as Meals-on-Wheels. While Dungog-based, all these aged services cater for the whole of Dungog Shire.

By the 1980s the first funded ‘community centres’ were established, along with paid community workers. Beginning in June 1982, the Dungog Information and Neighbourhood Centre (DINS) began in the Baby Health Centre with $100 from the Shire Council and $15,000 from YACS (Youth and Community Services). Mostly volunteer based, its aims were announced as: the dissemination of information, bringing those with similar needs together, filling gaps in services, acting as a meeting place, and as a location for visiting professionals. Early programs included: Dungog Adult Education, support for the unemployed (under the ‘wage-pause’, CEP and JET initiatives), advice and information, outreach at Clarence Town, Gresford and Paterson, and talks on drugs and mental health.

An early survey on the need for emergency accommodation illustrates the division between the self-help attitudes of much of the Dungog Shire district’s history, and the approach to community welfare the government funded community worker model represented. Attitudes expressed by this survey were that Dungog takes care of its own, and that as everybody is related to everybody else, outside help was unnecessary. The Dungog Chronicle letters to the editor produced sometimes heated debate on this issue.

By the 21st century programs such as Vacation Care and Youth Worker funding were a regular part of the welfare situation in Dungog district. Also a regular feature by this time was Emergency Relief funding, a Free Legal clinic, Tax Help (for those on low-incomes – $20,000 then $35,000, now $50,000), Family Counseling, the Internet and the hosting of a Centrelink Agency. All of these continue today as a major component of services in the renamed Dungog Shire Community Centre. Clarence Town also obtained a Centrelink agency in 2004.

The Churches and individuals have naturally played a larger role than this brief overview allows, but by their nature such efforts are less easy to record. Certainly the Dungog district continues to have welfare related activities independent of the government funded services; the Salvation Army, for example, ran an op-shop for a time, and the Anglican Church in Dungog established an op-shop in the 1990s and St Vincent De Paul another in 2011.

Many things have changed since the Gringai people were given blankets but the needs of some for help and the willingness of some to give that help has remained.