William Thomas was born in Westminster, England, to Welsh Parents in 1793. He had been a school principal in England when he was appointed Assistant Protector for the Western Port district of Port Phillip in 1838. The Port Phillip Aboriginal Protectorate, of which Thomas was a part, was newly created by the British Government in response to alarming stories of cruelty and barbarism in the treatment of Aboriginals.
Thomas arrived in Australia in 1839 and was settled at varying times near Dromana, then at Narre Warren, before building a hut at the junction of the Merri Creek and Yarra River. This site became his headquarters and an important site for the development of relations between white settlers and Aboriginals.
Thomas’ approached his tasks of introducing Aboriginals to Christianity and European culture and values, in a missionary style. He quickly adopted a policy that separating whites and Aboriginals would be the ideal situation, as disease and the enticements of white culture were damaging to the Aboriginal population. The nomadic lifestyle of the Aboriginals made it difficult to achieve his goal of establishing a permanent reservation for Aboriginals at Narre Warren, which was why he moved to the Merri Creek site, which was a traditional camping site for Aboriginal tribes in the area.
At the Merri Creek, Thomas established a strong relationship with Billibellary, the clan head of a group of the Wurundjeri-willam tribe. The Merri Creek Yarra River junction, and the land north as far as the source of the Merri belonged to Billibellary’s people. This relationship helped Thomas gain the trust of the Aboriginal people in the area that would become Darebin. Thomas was a fervent Methodist and his beliefs instilled in him strong values which helped maintain his enthusiasm for his work but his inherent ethnocentrism made it difficult for him to grasp the impact of white settlement on the Aboriginal way of life so he was inevitably frustrated when Aboriginal people would not settle and tie themselves to a site, as is European custom. Above all, William Thomas was an unusually patient and tolerant man, at a time and place where intolerance was the norm. He learnt Aboriginal dialects, which helped settle disputes between tribes and between whites and Aboriginals. He also counselled Aboriginals in jail, trying to help them adapt to life after prison.
While William Thomas developed as strong a relationship with Aboriginals as any white man in his position, he was often criticised by higher government officials, accused of being weak and indecisive. As a consequence he never enjoyed much support and the Merri Creek Station suffered somewhat as a result, compared to other similar stations around Victoria. Yet Aboriginal women trusted him to look after and educate their children when they were not present at the Merri Creek site in the 1840s and he was a well respected and oft used advisor and intermediary for Aboriginal people. He was often able to diffuse tensions that arose due to a lack of understanding of Aboriginal culture. The Wurundjeri-willam gave him the title “Marminata”, which means ‘the good father’.
The Protectorate system was disbanded in 1849, with nothing created to replace it. While Thomas was kept on in the new role of Protector of Aborigines for the Colony of Victoria, his proposals, including an ambitious one of a colony wide school system for Aboriginal children were dismissed as too expensive. Thomas also lobbied for a 5 acre site on the North Fitzroy side of Merri Creek to be set aside as a reserve for Aboriginals visiting Melbourne, but this was dismissed as the site was considered to be ‘too near the township’. He remained the chief advisor to government for Aboriginal welfare until his retirement. He died in 1867.
Clark, Ian D. & Heydon, Toby (2004). A bend in the Yarra: A history of the Merri Creek Protectorate Station and Merri Creek Aboriginal School 1841-1851. Canberra (A.C.T.): Aboriginal Studies Press.
Ellender, Isabel and Christiansen, Peter (2001). People of the Merri Merri: The Wurundjeri in Colonial Days, East Brunswick: Merri Creek Management Committee.
Lemon, Andrew (1983). The Northcote Side of the River. North Melbourne: Hargreen.