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Neighbour – 1912

Updated: Sep 4, 2021

Albert Medal


Saved life of Mounted Constable Johns

From Citation - December 2005


Neighbour, being brought in for trial on a charge of raiding a fencer’s hut, and despite the wearing of a neck chain, saved the life of Mounted Constable Johns, in whose custody he was, by going to his rescue when the constable’s horse was swept away, injuring him in its struggles, as the party was crossing the flooded Wilton River. Constable Johns, later Commissioner of Police in Adelaide, kept in touch with Neighbour, who was employed as a stockman on Hodgson Downs and Nutwood Downs stations until his death on June 21st 1954. He described him as “…a fine specimen of Australian aboriginal, who spoke very little English, had plenty of courage, apart from the incident for which he received the Medal, a very happy disposition, and was regarded in his tribe as of the warrior type.” Neighbour served at times as a police tracker, and once more, in 1940, was instrumental in saving life on the flooded Roper River. He worked tirelessly on a launch with Constable J. Mahoney, ferrying rations and rescuing stranded natives, many of whom were in danger of drowning. He was survived by one daughter, Amy, living in 1956 at Nutwood Downs station, N.T.




 

The following material is from the draft manuscript -

"A Narrative of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islanders Service in the Northern Territory Police Force 1870-2009"

written and supplied by NT Police Superintendent Tony Fuller.

Feature being planned by NT Library in May 2011


Tracker Neighbour or Nipper as he was also later known is a classic case of a poacher turning gamekeeper as he wandered on both sides of the law. Neighbour first infamous brush with the law came in 1911 when Mounted Constable W.F. Johns arrested him for allegedly raiding a fencer's hut on Hodgson Downs. He was being escorted overland to Darwin by Mounted Constable Johns, then posted at Leichhardts Bar when the following incident recorded by W F Johns in his memoirs occurred:


Picture 2 - Tracker Neighbour - Photograph from Parliamentary Papers 1914 'On one occasion Jack McPhee reported that a native had robbed his camp. I arrested an aborigine named "Neighbour" about 20 miles distant, and on returning to my station had to cross the Wilton River, which was in flood. Half way across the river, my horse floundered, and I was swept away in the flood. Neighbour, who had reached the opposite bank, immediately re-entered the flooded river, and swam to my assistance. He took a tremendous risk in an attempt to rescue a drowning man, and also took the risk of being attacked by a crocodile.


It was reported that in fact Johns was crossing the river on his horse, holding the end of Neighbour's iron neck chains, when his horse turned over, kicking him in the face. With the chain released, Neighbour swam ashore, but, seeing the policeman clinging precariously to some pandanus palms in the middle of the fast-flowing water, he adjusted the heavy chains around his neck and swam back to his aid. As a result of his valour the charge against Neighbour was not laid, and a report was made to the Aborigines Department in Darwin, with the result that Neighbour received the Albert Medal for Bravery, presented by His Majesty King George V. This medal was established in 1866 by Queen Victoria and it was the highest civilian award for bravery, in many ways the civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross.On 19 December 1912 the Northern Territory Times reported that 'between 40 and 50 gentlemen, including all the heads and some of the subordinates in the various Government departments' witnessed the conferring of the medal on Neighbour by the Administrator, Dr J A Gilruth, in an investiture ceremony at Government House, Darwin.


Three years afterwards apparently Neighbour had another brush with the law after a tribal dispute. This time he was arrested by W F John's brother, John L Johns, then a young mounted constable posted to the Roper River area. In the book Patrolling the 'Big Up' , J L Johns describes this as 'one of the most distasteful jobs I had been called on to do in the Northern Territory'. 'It was this same Neighbour that I had to go and arrest for the murder of the unfortunate native that he threw into the river. It had to be done. Neighbour was arrested accordingly. He was committed for trial and the Chief Protector of Aboriginals at Darwin stood Neighbour up in the dock at the Darwin Supreme Court, wearing the Royal Albert Medal awarded by the King. A very eloquent appeal by the defending lawyer resulted in Neighbour being acquitted. He returned to the Roper and as far as I am aware did not err again. It was an extremely difficult matter for me. But after all Duty is Duty, and it had to be done. It showed me what a mass of contradictions Neighbour's make-up really was.' Subsequent accounts reveal that Neighbour went on to become a valued police tracker and, in 1940, saved another life in a flood on the Roper River. Some photographs, published in 1914, give his traditional name as 'Mallyalewga'. References in the mid-1950s say Neighbour had the Aboriginal name of 'Aya-i-ga' and spent the latter portion of his life at Nutwood Downs Station where his daughter Amy also resided.


 

The following article was later written and appeared in a Police Citation Magazine – December 2005.SOME HEROES FROM OUR PAST 1912 - WILTON RIVER - RESCUE - NEIGHBOUR - ALBERT MEDAL Neighbour, being brought in for trial on a charge of raiding a fencer’s hut, and despite the wearing of a neck chain, saved the life of Mounted Constable Johns, in whose custody he was, by going to his rescue when the constable’s horse was swept away, injuring him in its struggles, as the party was crossing the flooded Wilton River.

Constable Johns, later Commissioner of Police in Adelaide, kept in touch with Neighbour, who was employed as a stockman on Hodgson Downs and Nutwood Downs stations until his death on June 21st 1954. He described him as “…a fine specimen of Australian aboriginal, who spoke very little English, had plenty of courage, apart from the incident for which he received the Medal, a very happy disposition, and was regarded in his tribe as of the warrior type.” Neighbour served at times as a police tracker, and once more, in 1940, was instrumental in saving life on the flooded Roper River. He worked tirelessly on a launch with Constable J. Mahoney, ferrying rations and rescuing stranded natives, many of whom were in danger of drowning. He was survived by one daughter, Amy, living in 1956 at Nutwood Downs station, N.T.


 

Article compiled by local historian Don Christophersen

Text only included below - follow link to see images.


Remembering A Hero Called Neighbour

The iconic early stories retold from our history between the Northern Territory Police Force and the Territory Aboriginal people, often are the sensational newspaper accounts of Murder and Manhunts, Nemarluk, Dhakiyarr, Wonggu & Tommy Boy to name a few. This story however is very different; it is about an Australian and Territory hero, a hero to all people. Those who knew this brave man, called him Simply “Neighbour”. The story is also an incomplete one until now, one hundred years almost to the day. Apart from the people of the Roper River region, who hand this story on to each new generation by word of mouth, few Territorians could recount what happened on that day near the Roper River on the 1st February 1911.


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


In 1911 W. F. Johns (AKA Mulga Bill) was now 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 commenced in 1908. The story is best told by Johns himself through a Barrier Miner Reporter. Johns in 1932 was now an Inspector of Police at Port Pirie in South Australia.


Policeman, Trackers & Prisoners (image included on linked document)

Roper Bar Police Station 1908

Photo: Northern Territory Library


 

RESCUED FROM DROWNING 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 - Wed. September 21st 1932


The official notification from London to the Administrator of the Northern Territory of the award to Mr Neighbour came on the 7th May 1912. The award ceremony of the Albert medal to Mr Neighbour, who was now working as an Aboriginal tracker, with the Northern Territory Police Force, had taken place on the Monday 16th December 1912 at Government House in Darwin.



 

AN ABORIGINAL HERO, PRESENTED WITH ALBERT MEDAL


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 & the Albert Medal 2nd Class - (image included on linked document)


Neighbour is awarded the Albert Medal on the 16th December 1912 at Government House Darwin


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- (image included on linked document)


Photos: NLA


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 Albert medal 1st Class Gold, 2nd Class Bronze, was one of the highest awards in the British Empire a civilian could receive for gallantry. The medal was inaugurated by Queen Victoria in 1866 to honour her late husband Prince Albert. Only 27 Australians had received this award from 1866 – 1971, when the medal then became the George Cross. Mr Neighbour is the only Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and Territorian to receive such an award.


Policemen, Trackers & Domestics - (image included on linked document)


Government House Darwin 1912


Mr Neighbour is the Aboriginal man who is seated and next to him is Mounted Constable W. F. Johns


The Aboriginal Women and Men in white are the servants & domestic staff of Government House.


Photo N.T. Library


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, because three years later in 1915 he was arrested again at the Roper River. This time the arresting officer was also named Johns, this time it was 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 and the arresting officer, J. R. Johns said an in newspaper article from the day, 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 now a prisoner in chains once again to Port Darwin, this time to stand trial for murder.


At the trial Mr Neighbour stood in the dock, again wearing a new police tracker khaki uniform the Albert medal now pinned to the police tunic once again. He had not seen the medal since he was last in Port Darwin three years ago; although he was duly awarded the medal he was never 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, 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 ruled not guilty and 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 for 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 which would still be infringing on and controlling the lives of Aboriginal peoples of the Northern Territory, denying them their civil rights & equality.


Mr Neighbour was a member of the Alawa language group whose traditional land estate was now a 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. Basedow captured a photo of Neighbour at the Roper River in 1928 and his story of his bravery was then run by the Courier Mail that was 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. It is estimated that if Neighbour was around 25 in 1911 that would have him being born around 1895. Neighbour was in his late sixties when he was buried at Nutwood Downs Station on the 21st 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.


William F. Johns left the Northern Territory around 1915, his brother Jack decided to stay on a while longer with the N.T. police force. W. F. Johns then joins the Australian 9th Light Horse regiment in 1917 and is sent to Palestine. Returning to South Australia after the war in 1919 he rejoins the police force and works his way up the ranks, he is finally made Commissioner of the South Australian Police Force from 1944 – 1949. He one of the very few police officers who have started as a constable and made it all the way up to the top job of Police Commissioner. 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 N.T. 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 & Territory history. Spencer also makes mention in the report of Mr Neighbours bravery and tells of several other acts of heroism by a couple of other Indigenous Territorians. The story of Billie Sheppard who saved 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.


Alawa Man, Mr Neighbour Roper River 1928 - (image included on linked document)


1895 - 1954


Photo by Herbert Basedow NLA


S.A. Police Commissioner W. F. Johns CBE, OStJ Photo from Grandson, Greg Johns 1885-1973


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. 77 years have passed and Neighbour’s medal will finally be returned (on loan) to the Northern Territory on the 5th May 2011 by the National Library of Australia. The NLA have also sent to London, England to have two replicas made of the medal, one medal for the NLA, one for the Northern Territory Library and the or4ginal medal to be returned to the family of Neighbour. The ceremony for the return of the Medals will be held on Friday 6th May 2011 at the Northern Territory Library at 12:10.


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


Images, Text, Researched & Written by: Don Christophersen Darwin, Northern Territory N.T. Historical & Cultural Researcher, April 2011


Photo D. Christophersen 2011


Roper River Family of Mr Neighbour attend the Ceremony at the NT Reference Library - (image included on linked document) (image included on linked document)


Photo D. Christophersen 2011


The Albert Medal and the original Case (image included on linked document)


Further Information by Don Christophersen


Previously no other N.T. researcher or historian had bothered to follow up on the Albert Medal story; it was simply my interest to know more of a man who some had described as a convicted felon. Once I had found that the Medal was still at that National Library of Australia, I then went on to get NT Ministerial assistance to have the Medal returned to the family of Mr Neighbour.


• The Neighbour Story and the Albert Medal is now on permanent display and has now been repatriated back to the community of Minyerri (Hodgson Downs NT).


• The replica medals are also at both the National Library of Australia and the Northern Territory Reference Library.


• The story now has been told in full with all the missing pieces now in place. We are now able to write the true Aboriginal names and language group of Mr Neighbour and know about how he continued to work for the NT Police Force.


• ABC 7:30 Report ran the story nationally; the story was covered in the NT News, Land Rights News, Koorie Mail & National Indigenous Times.


• This event was crucial to the families of Mr Neighbour and Mr Johns to meet for the first time in one hundred years.


• The permanent display is used now by staff of the N.T. Reference Library as a learning activity for visiting school students on researching and how to use the library when searching for information.

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