Wednesday, August 24, 2011



The island I live on, like Australia itself, is as old as time. It’s unwritten history stretches back way before the days of Captain Cook and Matthew Flinders.  The island’s real name is Minjerribah and its people from those long ago days were known to other tribes on the mainland as the Quandamooka.

Today, though the island  is listed on maps as North Stradbroke Island,  its traditional owners, the native people, are still known as the Quandamooka.  Throughout Australia, to all inhabitants older Aboriginals are referred to as Elders, the title is a courtesy one of respect used universally throughout Australia for the older members in our Aboriginal communities.

And in Dunwich one of these Elders is our own Aunty Margaret Iselin.
Dunwich now
                        The Town  of Dunwich is small, you can walk its streets in a matter of minutes.  Down the road from the Post Office and the Museum is the school, and across from the school is the simple building that houses the Minjerribah/Moorgumpin Council of Elders headquarters. 

Inside I find Aunty Margaret busy at her desk writing letters in support of a variety of applicants, both black and white.  Some will be character references for young people seeking employment on the mainland or selection to study at colleges and universities, others will be in support of parolees, ex prisoners seeking to better their lives, correct past mistakes.

I’m actually gathering notes about Margaret and her husband Pat Iselin, putting together a family history, ensuring their incredible lives live on in printed form.  But then I consider my series on Women of Straddie that began with Romane Cristescu, the Koala researcher, and I know my next subject can be no other than the lady I consider the Queen Bee of the Island, my friend Margaret Iselin.

When Margaret was a little girl, no more than five or six, she attended the Mission School at Myora, a few miles north of Dunwich. The white teacher at the school taught her the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic, all subjects that would help her in later life.  But at the same time the little girl’s mind was accumulating far more important knowledge.  And these lessons were being taught to her by the old Grannies who lived alongside her and her family on the Mission.

Myora Mission in the 1800's
Grannies and children from much older days...
 ‘They were wonderful old ladies,’ she tells me. ‘Black as can be, and so gentle and kind.  They would take us little kids into the bush and teach us the names of the wild flowers and the bush tucker food.  The meaning of words in the Aboriginal language, our language.’

Then a new headmaster arrived at the Mission and suddenly the Aboriginal language was forbidden. Under threat of being sent off the Island to a harsh inland Mission the Grannies pretend to obey, but secretly continue the lessons, the children responding in whispers.

Margaret remembers those days.

Today, some seventy odd years later, that little girl has become the guiding light and co-author of several books on the native flora and bush tucker of the Island, and of another extremely ambitious project, only just completed and yet to be published, a Dictionary of the Aboriginal Language spoken on Minjerribah. 

Margaret is justifiably proud of these books, and so is the entire community.

Just round the corner from the Minjerribah Moorgumpin Elders Centre is Pat and Margaret’s home, the house they built themselves some fifty years ago and sitting in the garden, snoozing in the winter sun I find Pat Iselin.

I’ve been popping in at odd times with pencil and pad ready to jot down Pat’s memories of his boyhood, growing up on the Island, courting Margaret, chasing the wild brumbies through the bush, working as part of the engineering crew at the local sand mine company and proudly helping to rear their five children.

Both husband and wife are keen fishermen, though Pat prefers to laud Margaret’s prowess with a fishing rod.

He brings out the photos, a beaming Margaret in their kitchen with the giant cod she caught that morning, the pair of them on the beach with the morning’s catch.

Then he goes on to talk about her cooking, but it takes their daughter Christine to tell me about the day Margaret was busy in the kitchen cooking up a storm  for the local school fete.  Fifteen dozen scones, a dozen sponge cakes, jam rolls,  ‘She never does anything by halves’, Chris tells me.

‘But I bet Dad never told you how he used to help her by beating the butter and sugar.’

No he hadn’t told me that.

‘This was in the days before the island had power,  Mum had an old wood stove, the first of many; she kept wearing them out.’ Chris grins. 

‘Anyway,’ she continues, ‘Dad always did the hard beating, the creaming part, but Mum cooked the sponges individually, one at a time, and the beating was a full on business for Dad.’

‘She had the biggest, thickest china mixing bowl I’ve ever seen.  It was a beauty, and I think they were down to the last cake. Mum took it off Dad to add the flour and stuff, and as she lifted it off the table the whole bottom came away.’

‘Dad had beaten the mixture so hard and for so long, the bowl just fell apart.  The look on Mum’s face was priceless.’


The stories roll on,  Pat always makes Margaret the focus.  Their wedding day when he confided he was so broke he considered making the wedding ring himself out of some old copper. (Margaret smiles at him and unconsciously twists the gold ring on her finger.)

The time as kids, this time at the Dunwich school when the teacher wrote a stage revue roughly based on Robin Hood, and their cousin Barney Delaney played the title role...’..and Margaret was up there on the stage, dancing with the other girls’, he tells me.

What part did you play, I ask Pat?  Oh, I was one of the guards or something, he tells me.

He proudly tells me about the year Aboriginal children were finally allowed to sit for the State Scholarship exam and he passed with entry to a mainland college, a few years later becoming an apprentice boilermaker at the Evans Deakin construction yards in Brisbane.  Another first for an Aboriginal lad.

Again and again Pat turns the conversation back to Margaret;  the hard life she had as a child, the eldest of nine, her father ill for much of the time, and Margaret taking on many of the home jobs while her mother worked to bring in some money.

‘She was a mother to her brothers and sisters,’ Pat tells me, ‘it’s no wonder she was such a wonderful mother to our kids.’

Fishing, camping on the beach and the family’s dinghy figured prominently in their five children’s memories of ‘Life with Mum and Dad’. 

They remembered being bundled into the dinghy, pram, baby, toddlers, the amount of food taken on board, presumably to keep ‘ little kids quiet and still, because once the food was eaten and there was no more we all started getting restless and wanted to go home.’

Brian remembers being in the little dinghy, ‘it was no more than 12 or 15 feet long, and when the great big Hayles launch, the Mirana flew past we were left wallowing in the 3 feet waves.   It was scary stuff.’

Did Dad tell you about Mum collecting the oysters and quampies?’ 

No, he hadn’t.  

‘When the fishing finished Mum always wanted to collect some oysters and quampies off the leases while Dad took the dinghy to check on the crab pots.  That was the time for us kids to get out and run around.

‘Trouble is, Mum nearly always cut herself on the shells and then there’d be a panic and I’d have to race along the sand bank yelling out to Dad to bring the boat back, Mum’s cut herself again...’


Margaret’s other keen interest are orchids and the native wild flowers of Straddie, and her love of golf.  Again it’s Pat who tells me, very proudly, that his wife was the first golfer to achieve a hole in one on the new Dunwich Golf course that the community itself built.  And he had the newspaper clipping to prove it.

The Iselins, Margaret and Pat, have been together at the forefront of the many changes that have taken place on Stradbroke.

This remarkable woman, a native of North Stradbroke Island, or Minjerribah to use its original name, has never been content to limit her horizons to family and self.  Instead she has pushed herself and the Island’s Elders Council into the affairs of local community, State and Commonwealth, delivering a powerful yet gentle message of unity to Australians of all colours and creed.

Margaret’s role in the greater community has seen her become a household name.  Few would not be unaware of Aunty Margaret Iselin’s part in educating the youngsters of today about the Indigenous past and culture of their homeland. 

These days it’s not easy for Margaret to move around, she relies on her trusty walking stick, but  in any given week, on at least two or three occasions, you will see her boarding the water ferry to make the 20 minute commute to the mainland to either attend meetings of government or to give talks to schools and colleges. 
The walls of her office in the Minjerribah Moorgumpin Elders office in Dunwich are dotted with framed placards and awards acknowledging her work in the greater community, her appointment book stretches into 2012.  She refuses no one.

Margaret’s tireless efforts with the Elders Council of the Minjerribah Moorgumpin, lobbying Government, and insuring her Island’s claims remained to the forefront of public opinion, played a significant and important part in the realisation and final granting of Native Title over Stradbroke... Margaret and Pat, their children and their friends had waited a long time to hear the words that would realise a long time dream.

In a formal sitting in the Community Hall at Dunwich on 4 July 2011 the Federal Court of Australia made two native title consent determinations recognizing the Quandamooka People’s native title rights and interests over land and waters on and surrounding North Stradbroke Island, and some islands in Moreton Bay.


Born in 1930, Margaret’s life has spanned eighty eventful years,  She and Pat have filled their life with a dedicated sense of purpose, together they have seen great changes. Without doubt there is a great deal more to come.

And all of it was achieved by the great influence of the Grannies of the past, the ones from yesteryear and the ones of today.  Elders who through the ages taught by example, ensuring their wisdom was handed down, never lost.

Aunty Margaret Iselin is yet another inspiring link in this unbroken chain stretching back beyond written history, and hopefully ahead into the future.


Robyn Mortimer ©2011

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I was wondering if you know an Errol Madden who died in 1995 and is buried on Stradbroke Isalnd. Originally from Kingaroy. His wife Judy still lives there today?
    Thanks so much,


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