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C.W. Peck's Australian Legends


The first substantial published work which concerned itself solely with Aboriginal folklore (dreaming stories) of eastern New South Wales was C.W. Peck's little known and strangely titled Australian Legends. Tales Handed Down from the Remotest Times by the Autocthonous Inhabitants of Our Land, published in Sydney during 1925. This may seem surprising, considering the fact that this was the first area of Australia to be settled by Europeans, back in 1788, and in light of the substantial body of published material prior to that date which deals with this topic (refer Australian Aboriginal Dreaming Stories Bibliography). Furthermore, if not for the sub-title 'Aboriginal Folklore' located beneath a drawing of two waratahs on the book's dust jacket, any reader of the time interested in Aboriginal culture may have been forgiven for passing this item by.

As the first major work to present to the public site-specific Aboriginal dreaming stories from the environs of Sydney (mostly from areas to the south and south-west), Australian Legends was a significant publication. Yet for various reasons it has largely remained ignored and unknown to a wider audience. In the absence of any more worthy book of a similar nature, its value as an historical - as opposed to literary - document lies in its use in rediscovering a portion of the lost story-telling tradition of the Aboriginal people of eastern New South Wales. The Peck stories represent an important resource for Aboriginal Studies of an area of Australia where tribal and cultural links have long been affected by the influences of European civilisation.

It was during the compilation of Illawarra and South Coast Aborigines 1770 - 1850, that this author came across Peck, whilst carrying out a search for any published or manuscript dreaming stories relating to the Illawarra region. Some items were found in local newspapers and collectioned works such as those by Ridley (1875 & 1878), Mackenzie (1878), and Mathews (1899 & 1904). Roland Robinson had also collected and published a number of stories from Wallaga Lake during the 1950s, however this was apparently the sum total of all that had survived in print. Fortunately, by far the richest source of such stories was Peck's little-known publications issued in book and magazine form between 1925 and 1933.

Not much is known of the author and compiler Charles William Peck. He was born at Woonona, on the New South Wales south coast, in 1875, and raised in the nearby suburb of Thirroul, an area subsequently famous as the residence of D.H. Lawrence for six weeks during the early 1920s whilst writing Kangaroo.

In 1891 Peck was taken on as a student teacher at Thirroul, and in 1896 witnessed the 'coronation' of the local Aboriginal elder Mickey Johnson as 'King of Illawarra' at the Wollongong Show, during the Illawarra region's centennial celebrations. During the latter stages of World War I Peck served with the AIF in Egypt and Palestine. He had signed on in South Australia, where he had been working as a school teacher. Peck eventually attained the rank of 2nd lieutenant in the Education Service.

He was eventually decommissioned in September 1919 and returned to New South Wales, where he set up residence with his family at Bondi. During 1925 the first edition of his collection of Aboriginal dreaming stories appeared as Australian Legends. It was followed by a series of similar stories published in the magazine the Sydney Mail during 1928-29. A second, expanded and varied edition of Australian Legends appeared in 1933. Peck also published an account of the 'Last Man-Making Ceremony In Coastal Queensland' in the Sydney Mail on 16 May 1928. A list of his various known published dreaming stories is included below.

Apart from his work as a teacher and compiler of Aboriginal material, during the late 1920s Peck was also secretary of the Waratah League, an organisation whose primary aim was to have the waratah declared Australia's national flower. As a result of this interest, Australian Legends contains many dreaming stories relating to the waratah.

In the 1930s Peck gave a number of lectures on Sydney radio regarding poetry, verse, and his experiences whilst in the AIF. In 1936 he wrote a series of articles for the Sydney Sun newspaper on local Aboriginal rock carvings. His few personal papers in the Mitchell Library contain some of his published Aboriginal stories, along with two books of unpublished poetry, including one example which was a lament for the fate of Australia's Aboriginal people. Peck was also the author of some short stories, published in the Bulletin and Sydney Mail, and a novel Sins of the Fathers (Sydney, 1934).

Throughout the thirties and early forties he continued to teach and write poetry, however no new Aboriginal dreaming stories appeared after the publicaton of Australian Legends in 1933. One of the reasons may have been that his main source for the second edition of Australian Legends, Aboriginal elder Ellen Anderson of Illawarra, had died in 1934, and no new storyteller appeared in her stead.

Peck died in 1945 at his Bondi residence, aged seventy, following a brief illness. His work in compiling and publishing Aboriginal stories from south eastern Australian merits recognition, despite the fact that many of the stories were "anglicised" and apparently stripped of much of their original spiritual and cultural context.

Peck's Australian Legends

The 1925 edition of Australian Legends contained twenty five Aboriginal dreaming stories, many apparently having originally been collected in the Burragorang Valley during the 1860s. It was graced with line drawings by Peck. Nineteen additional stories appeared in the Sydney Mail between 4 January 1928 and 23 January 1929, under the more precise banner 'Aboriginal Legends'. A second, slightly expanded version of Australian Legends was published in Melbourne during 1933, with line drawings by George Pownell and the number of Aboriginal stories increased to thirty four. This edition also featured an Introduction which referred to one of Peck's sources, who we know to be Ellen Anderson, born at Wollongong in 1847. This latter edition included eighteen 'legends' which had appeared in the first edition, along with eight from the Sydney Mail series and another eight new stories, mostly relating to the Illawarra and Shoalhaven regions of New South Wales. All told, between 1925 and 1933 Peck published some fifty two individual Aboriginal 'legends' that we know of, or variations thereof. A title listing is reproduced below.

C.W. Peck's Aboriginal Legends

{Titles as given by Peck. Localities are within New South Wales unless otherwise stated}

Title / Location

(Australian Legends, 1925)

1. The First Waratah / Burragorang Valley

2. The First Gymea or Gigantic Lily / Campbelltown area

3. How the Waratah got its Honey / Burragorang Valley

4. How the White Waratah became Red / Sherbrooke

5. How the Sky was Lifted Up / Murrumbidgee River

6. The First Kangaroo / South-east Australia

7. The Struggle for Supremacy between Birds and Animals / Megalong Valley

8. How the Pistels of the Waratah became Firm / Burragorang Valley

9. Why the Waratah is Firm / George's River

10. The First Bush Fire / Hunter River

11. The First Kangaroo / Yerranderie

12. The Bubbling Springs / South Australia

13. The Salt Lakes / Burragorang Valley

14. Shooting Stars / `Basalt country'

15. Why the Petiole of the Waratah grew Long / Mount Wilson

16. The First Crayfish / Shoalhaven

17. The Clinging Koala (and Bunyip) / Wollondilly River

18. The White Man's BootsNattai / Wollondilly

19. The Hand that tried to drawa Waratah / Burragorang Valley

20. Why Trees Have Bark / Eastern Australia

21. The Legend of the Pheasant and the Jackass / Illawarra

22. The Blood of the Bloodwood tree... / Burragorang Valley

23. The Blowing Down of the Mountains to the West / Eastern Australia

24. The Fight of the Ants for a Waratah / Australia

25. When the Tables were Turned / Lachlan River

(Sydney Mail 1928-9)

26. The Dianella Berry / East Coast

27. The Smilax / Tuggerah Lakes

28. The Story of the Pichi / Darling River

29. The Epacris / Australia

30. Star Legend / North Coast

31. Bird Legend / Illawarra

32. The Erring Maidens / Lake Illawarra

33. Waratah Legend / Burragorang Valley

34. Waratah Legend / Western Australia

35. Mist and a Fringed Flower / Appin

36. Stone Throwers / Georges River

37. Sanctuary Legend / Australia

38. What the Moon is / Murray River

39. Umbels and Stamens of the Eucalyptus Blossom / Australia

40. Vicious Birds / Shoalhaven River

41. The Tail-less Tortoise / Illawarra

42. Legend of Mists / Murray River

43. The Legend of the Shadow / South Australia

44. Winged Lomatia Seeds / Nepean River

(Australian Legends, 1933)

45. The Flood / South-east Australia

46. Why the Sun Sets / Murrumbidgee River

47. What Makes the Waves / Coalcliff - Stanwell Park

48. Why Leaves Fall / Riverina

49. At Low Tide (The Coming of White Man) / South Coast / Bellambi

50. Another Legend / Burragorang - Illawarra

51. Mulgani / Twofold Bay & Illawarra

52. The Black Satin / South Coast

As can be seen from the above, the majority of the stories are from the Illawarra and Burragorang Valley regions, to the south and south-west of Sydney, with most location specific. Whilst the Peck stories have been greatly anglicised, their many references to totems and specific sites makes them of special usefulness, as opposed to many other collections of Aboriginal stories which, in the process of transfer from story teller to print, loose much of their context and true meaning.

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Site last updated: 19 June 2014. Return to Michael Organ's Home Page. Any comments, corrections, or additions to this site are most welcome.