May 2021


Sole of a nation

By Walter Marsh
Image of “Man working” (Rufus Wilton), Nepabunna, circa 1930

“Man working” (Rufus Wilton), Nepabunna, circa 1930. © South Australian Museum

The untold Aboriginal history of the R.M. Williams boot

The young man looks straight ahead, both eyes fixed on the camera even as his hands feed a piece of leather through the sewing machine. Daylight streams in between gaps in the corrugated iron and pinned animal skins around him, and at the front of his workbench sits a pair of elastic-sided leather boots.

It’s a recognisable style that’s come to evoke the Australian outback, pastoralism and one name in particular: R.M. Williams. But the photograph isn’t of Reginald Murray Williams – it’s of an Adnyamathanha man of the northern Flinders Ranges named Rufus Wilton.

Rebecca Richards was handed an A4 photocopy of Wilton’s portrait while undertaking fieldwork in 2016. For Richards, an Adnyamathanha and Barngarla academic and Australia’s first Indigenous Rhodes Scholar, it conjured up stories she’d heard as a kid, of how her people had collaborated with R.M. Williams in his original workshop outside Nepabunna mission. “It was just the idea of Adnyamathanha being synonymous with that station worker, this Australian cowboy aesthetic,” she explains. “I always knew that there was something special about it – Adnyamathanha weren’t just following it, they were creating it.”

Richards had the image of Wilton, but little clue as to its provenance. “That was literally all I had, just a photocopy,” she says. “And I was walking around to different archives saying, ‘Do you have this?’” Her “aha moment” came three years later, unexpectedly in the archives of the South Australian Museum, where the original photograph had been moved in a reshuffle of government-held material.

Dated to the 1930s and titled simply “Man working”, the portrait of Wilton – who later became a key source on Adnyamathanha culture for anthropologist Charles P. Mountford and historian Peggy Brock – was filed alongside photographs of other young men toiling away, as well as images of finished leather products gleaming against a brush-shed backdrop.

The origin story of R.M. Williams’ first boots, as told across a variety of autobiography, memoir, company history and museum signage, shares a common narrative: during the Great Depression, a young Reg Williams was living and working on Adnyamathanha country in the Flinders Ranges, when into his camp rode a travelling stockman by the name of Michael George Smith, more often known as “Dollar Mick”.

Williams had been camped at Italowie Gorge, a site just outside the newly established Nepabunna mission, where he had been hired to sink wells in the early 1930s. The mission had been carved out of a neighbouring station in a joint effort by Adnyamathanha people – who refer to themselves as Yura – and the United Aborigines Mission (UAM), an interdenominational Christian group that Williams had joined as a missionary in 1927. At Italowie, Smith shared his knowledge of leatherwork, and through trial and error the pair developed the “one piece of leather” design – a variation on the Chelsea boot – that would become the foundation of Williams’ bush-outfitting empire. Williams, who died in 2003, was open about Smith’s singular role in its creation, stating in his 1984 autobiography that the basic ideas the pair conceived at Italowie “never changed”. “My success began the night Dollar came in his mule buggy and asked to stay,” he wrote.

But while “Dollar” is readily acknowledged in the company’s story, little is written about the man himself – the fact that he was an Aboriginal man, who married an Adnyamathanha woman, is a detail that slips on and off the record. And one thing common to most accounts is the impression that “Dollar Mick” Smith and R.M. Williams had essentially worked alone. The photographs tell a different story.

For many Yura today, their place in R.M. Williams’ story – or perhaps, his brief cameo in theirs – has never been in question, and has been recounted by family members who knew and worked alongside him.

“[ Williams] decided to set up a leather workshop and asked the people to help him to cut out the leather, and get leather for him,” says Kelvin Johnson, a former station worker and nephew of Rufus Wilton. “He also had some old women and men, and an old bloke that he mentioned in his book – old Dollar Mick, [who] came from ’round Lyndhurst. They were helping get the skin that R.M. Williams wanted, to cut out the shape of the boots, and the whips and the leather bags that he was making. When we saw some of the stories that R.M. Williams put up – he missed out a lot of people that gave him a hand.”

“[‘Dollar Mick’ Smith] was married to my great aunty Lorna,” says Geraldine Anderson, who was born at Nepabunna and knew Smith when she was growing up. “It must have clicked to R.M. Williams. He went back to Nepabunna and started working with people like my uncles and aunties, just for rations really.”

“We say it all the time to young people,” Johnson says. “The clothes that you’re wearing, and the boots that you’re wearing, they’re made on our property, right on our doorstep. They say, ‘How come?’, and we tell ’em, R.M. Williams started at our place, nowhere else – started right there.”

The oral accounts shared across generations of Yura set out a story that is corroborated by contemporaneous sources. The UAM’s monthly newsletter, The United Aborigines’ Messenger, published regular reports from around the country that present a month-by-month timeline of how the “model boot factory” grew between 1932 and 1934. Often, these entries were written by Williams or his wife, Thelma, and feature details that never made it to his later accounts.

“Some of the boys are very keen to make their own boots, and the boots we have turned out have sold quite readily, although at cost price, as there is much to learn,” Williams wrote in the edition of December 1932, the foundation year the company still prints on its T-shirts and shoeboxes today. “I am convinced that we can profitably employ boys in this way.” By the new year, the boots were causing “quite a stir” in the neighbouring town of Copley, with those working in the brush workshop having made a “number of pairs” as orders began to arrive. In May 1933, the Messenger wrote with amazement of the “elastic-sided boots” produced in the workshop, and by November the “boys were going on with the boot orders” themselves while Williams tended to building work elsewhere on the mission. Within a year the workshop’s output had grown to include a range of riding boots, waterbags and whips that were embraced by local station workers. Williams details how younger boys were paid “by results”, with each component of a boot – soles, stiffeners, insoles – netting a penny each. Older men, he wrote, received “fifteen shillings and their meals per week, Sunday meals included, also boots and clothing provided”.

The Williams’ work had an evangelical edge. “The old men have tried to persuade the boys to go through the tribal rules, but their respect for Mr. Williams’ guardianship has safeguarded them,” Thelma wrote in the March 1934 Messenger. “Happily, we see the purpose of upholding Christian teaching growing stronger in the boys as they enter into conflict with Satan.”

In a letter to the chief protector of Aborigines in December 1933, Williams said that the workshop now supported 11 people, including himself and Thelma, with a recent order including 30 pairs of boots. In March 1934, shortly before his departure from the mission, the earliest known “R. Williams” newspaper advertisement listed Nepabunna (misspelt as “Nepalunna”) as its location, as it beckoned stockmen to “have your elastic-side boots made to fit you, with selected soles and uppers” for 20 shillings by mail order.

“Those employed in the Nepabunna industry are more prosperous than those working around on the stations,” Williams reflected in his final Messenger report at the end of 1933, “and there is no difficulty in teaching or keeping them at work.”

Of course, by the 1930s Yura were no strangers to industry or work. Since the arrival of pastoralists on their country in the mid 19th century, they had already spent years navigating different systems of colonial control, labour and assimilation, whether in the form of pastoralists seeking profit or missionaries preaching salvation.

As squatters began to stake out sheep and cattle runs further into South Australia’s northern reaches in the 1840s, their grazing livestock upturned the long-established water and food sources upon which Yura relied. Among the undulating sprawl of the Flinders Ranges, acts of resistance were met with often-violent suppression by settlers – some of whom were later celebrated as “great pioneers of our pastoral industry”. As the colonial government established police stations and ration depots to rein in conflict and assert control over Yura, many worked with the pastoralists – even with men who had led “hunts” against them – as a pathway to survival and to preserve a degree of agency.

With pastoralists often unable to attract white workers to such remote and seasonal work, Yura played an essential role in the “opening up” of the continent’s interior. Like countless First Nations stockmen and station workers across central and northern Australia, their often-underpaid labour underpinned the pastoral industry’s growth and prosperity. But it was also a means of staying on country; living and working within the new paradigms of a settler society, while ensuring the continuation of their language, law and collective identity.

“Because a lot of Adnyamathanha land – well, most of the land around the Flinders Ranges area – was pastoralised,” Rebecca Richards explains, “it was a primary way to maintain that connection to country, even though it often wasn’t [under] very good conditions. And there was also a lot of pride in working in the pastoral industry, particularly in the early days, as a way of being independent from the missions and the control that they had to endure in those days.”

Knowledge that was essential to pre-colonial life was redeployed in this new context, as skills such as horse riding, mustering and fence building were integrated alongside old ways of working on country: reading and following animal tracks, interpreting weather patterns and navigating unmapped expanses of land. It also meant they could continue to care for the land, and mediate some of the impact of pastoralists – such as by building fences along lines that sidestepped certain significant places. And there is evidence that Yura were making animal-skin waterbags (yakutha) and clothing (valdha) using bone needles (vaya) and kangaroo-sinew string (ildya) long before “Dollar Mick” Smith arrived to teach Williams the finer points of leatherwork.

Eventually, the convergence of drought, disease and the same Depression that sent an unemployed Reg Williams out bush in the late 1920s disrupted many of these labour arrangements. With money and resources now scarce, Yura’s presence on their own land was no longer tolerated by many white landholders. To help create a permanent home, Adnyamathanha elders tentatively sought out another great colonial institution, one they had until then largely avoided: Christian missionaries.

At Nepabunna they negotiated a 20 square mile site where Yura could live permanently. But there was a catch: the newly allocated land had to be administered by the UAM – and run by missionaries such as Reg and Thelma Williams.

So why did Williams’ leather workshop abruptly stop in 1934? Several factors frustrated his plans, from health problems (Thelma and the children returned to Adelaide in March that year as their infant son Ian faced blindness from trachoma) to the mission’s evangelism. Williams rejoined his family in April, as soon as another missionary had arrived to relieve him of his post. In a posthumously published 2017 memoir, Williams spoke of his dismay at “the people who were responsible for the Aboriginal mission [who] for some reason believed that a stricter religious education of the Aboriginals should be conducted” – minimising the religious and assimilationist context of his own work.

But a broader, ongoing source of tension was economic: in his later years, Rufus Wilton himself told Peggy Brock and anthropologist Robert Ellis that conflict had arisen between Williams and the UAM over proceeds from the workshop. Some Yura today recall that at one point these disagreements prompted the workshop’s relocation from Nepabunna itself to Italowie Gorge. “I did hear one thing about why he left Nepabunna, and [went] to Italowie,” Adnyamathanha elder Roy Coulthard tells me. “[Williams] was making money out of these things, [but] he wasn’t giving anything back to the mission. They thought, Why should we keep him here when he’s making money for himself, and not giving nothing back to the mission?

The UAM was dependent on private philanthropy and limited government support, which meant both its missionaries and administration were often poorly resourced. In his December 1933 letter to the chief protector, Williams asked the government to provide assistance to his fledgling industry, complaining that his ability to match orders was hobbled by the mission’s limited infrastructure. “There’s a lot of debate about why R.M. Williams left, and why the workshop at Nepabunna was closed,” Rebecca Richards says. She cites one leading theory: “Williams was wanting to pay Adnyamathanha people wages for their work on the workshop, but the missionaries wanted R.M. Williams to pay the mission who would then distribute the money. So, there was a bit of a power struggle, and that’s why R.M. Williams left.”

“At the time we made goods for sale purely for survival – we needed money,” Williams recalled in 1984. “But it is quite evident now that had we been allowed to remain and develop the ideas which later were the foundation of our large industry, that alone could have transformed the lives of the people economically.” It was a curious comment, given Williams had long since stopped talking about the Adnyamathanha labourers that had been the foundation of his company.

Whatever the full circumstances of his departure in April 1934, Williams’ next move is better known. Having road- and market-tested his Yura-made products among the stockmen of the Flinders Ranges and beyond, he restarted the workshop from his father’s shed in the Adelaide suburb of Prospect. It became the base for a nationally renowned outfitting brand, with a reputation for quality and an image of authenticity both steeped in the founder’s experience out bush. While the company today is unaware of any financial arrangement with “Dollar Mick” Smith before his death in 1969, Williams did pay for the headstone that marks his one-time co-founder’s grave – a token of appreciation for a lucrative friendship.

Roy Coulthard recalls the last time he saw Smith, in the late 1950s. “His wife died in Nepabunna, and then he moved over towards Marree way, a place called Lyndhurst. He built a tin shack there, then he gathered up old cars that had broken down. He’d take ’em back to his shack there, put ’em in his yard and strip ’em down to nothing. If I can remember rightly, I bought one belt off him – and actually that’s the last time I saw the old fulla.”

Today, the stories of the workshop provoke a bittersweet combination of pride and frustration among Yura. Geraldine Anderson recalls her parents and uncle travelling down to Williams’ Adelaide factory in the 1950s. “I remember it so clearly,” she says. “They were so proud to go down and see, because they’d heard all about him making all these boots. So they all got dressed up, [the men had] Californian poppy in their hair – used to smell ’em for miles.” They returned crestfallen. “Everyone was saying, ‘What’s the matter?’ ‘Oh, old Reg didn’t want to know us – we didn’t even see his wife.’ They were so disappointed… they were like strangers. Even Uncle Fred said, ‘How can he say that? We’re not strangers. He was with us, we grew up with him.’ ” All the same, they proudly wore R.M. Williams products. “Although he’d done wrong by them, they’ve always looked up at him.”

“Even today, if you’re talking about R.M. Williams, they always say that R.M. Williams didn’t acknowledge our people who were giving [a hand] to him,” Kelvin Johnson says, recalling a chance meeting with Williams himself in the late 1990s. “He said, ‘I’m thinking about writing to the council and putting up a monument just here – right here, that’s where my workshop used to be.’ I said to him, ‘In those stories that you wrote, you hardly mention any members of the community that helped you with the leatherwork.’” The old man had “a lot of reasons” for the omission, he told Johnson, who didn’t press the subject – perhaps the complete truth is a bush story too complicated to be shared between strangers on a back road.

In October 2020, mining magnate Andrew Forrest and his wife Nicola’s investment firm Tattarang purchased the R.M. Williams company from an offshore private equity firm for an estimated $190 million. News of the buyout prompted fresh discussion of the company’s Adnyamathanha roots in some corners of social media; for some, Forrest’s oft-contentious standing with First Nations peoples – from his inheritance of a pastoral dynasty built on the site of an 1869 massacre to recent land-rights battles with the Yindjibarndi – represented a colonial legacy that uncomfortably parallels their own experiences.

When the Forrests announced their takeover, they spoke of a “quintessential Aussie brand with a long and proud history of high-quality Australian craftsmanship”. It’s true, the R.M. Williams boot has become a potent 20th century symbol, evoking a romanticised outback of pioneers and bushmen even as it becomes a more common sight among well-heeled city lawyers or federal politicians than today’s rural workforce. It is central to the image Australia projects to itself and the world, evident in the successive prime ministers who have gifted pairs of “R.M.s” to their overseas counterparts, from Barack Obama and Shinzō Abe to Donald Trump.

Just shy of the company’s 90th birthday, it’s impossible to know now what might have come had Williams been able to continue scaling up the model boot shop and its Adnyamathanha workforce. But one thing is clear: the R.M. Williams company today would almost certainly not exist without Nepabunna, “Dollar Mick” and Yura such as Rufus Wilton. And these omissions, however small, speak to the broader erasures at the heart of our history: that this is a nation built on the country, knowledge and often unrecognised labour of First Nations people. Perhaps the boot is the quintessential Aussie brand after all.

For Rebecca Richards, these photos of Rufus Wilton and other workers are bigger than one bootmaker. “It is trying to tap into an idea of the ‘intrepid’ white man going out into the bush and kind of conquering it,” she says of the brand’s continued influence. “But when you actually look at the history of this boot, and how it was made, it was definitely a negotiation between Aboriginal people and white people. It doesn’t just include men, it includes a lot of women, and it’s a negotiation between the environment and the person, rather than a conquering of. You know, where your feet fall, it’s all about the environment – it’s about how your foot is on the ground.”

Walter Marsh

Walter Marsh is a journalist based on Kaurna country who writes about history and culture.

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