PEOPLE

PERCY HASLAM (d.1987)
by John Maynard

Percy Haslum's grandfather, Benjamin Haslam, came to Newcastle as a boy in 1852, where an uncle, Jos Hasslame (he misspelled his name to disguise his links with Chartists back in England) was at Derri-gaba (now Wickham) with Farnham's in the 1830s. Benjamin Haslam joined the railway c1870 and was the second night officer appointed to Newcastle Railway Station. He was later the first station master appointed at Glen Innes and died there as a young man.

Following in the footsteps of his mother's father, Thomas Denny, who had worked with the Newcastle Morning Herald for over 50 years from the 1880s, Percy Haslam joined the Newcastle Herald in 1933, writing a weekly column on friendly societies, featuring historical material. He became the Newcastle Herald's industrial and political roundsman and was later an associate editor. Haslam was also official historian for the now defunct Newcastle Friendly Societies Association, the only person to undertake friendly society research in the region, and was published extensively in lodge magazines.

Percy Haslam's association and interest with Aboriginal people, culture and history stretches back to the first decades of the twentieth century, on visits to Lake Macquarie, Toronto and Belmont. His "first teachers were people of tribal tradition" like Berntee, Gommera and Yee-oekarlah, whom he accompanied on bush trips south of Swansea, Cooranbong, Martinsville and Mandalong. He was taught the language, and claimed to have been put through Awabakal "ceremonies when he was about twelve years of age and given the name Pip-peeta (little Hawk)". The knowledge and bush hunting skills learned from his Aboriginal teachers proved invaluable during the years of the depression, when he supplemented his family's food supplies with "a lot of duck".

Percy's interest in Aboriginal culture and history never waned. He read and travelled widely throughout the district in search of stories and mementos, acknowledging the gifts of "people who were so kind and painstaking to teach… what they believed to be true from personal experience and oral tradition". In about 1960 he was approached by the late Mr. D. R. Blakemore, then President of the Lake Macquarie Historical Society, to assist him in a research project concerning the Awabakal tribe, using the writings of missionary Reverend L. E Threlkeld. Mr. Blakemore was the first principle of Booragul High School and was a scholar in languages. It was the intention that Blakemore would conduct the language research whilst Percy Haslam was to deal with the cultural and historical content of the study. They began by interviewing old residents aged 90 to 100, particularly in the Swansea, Martinsville and Cooranbong areas, where the last pockets of tribal Awabakal people had survived. They spoke to elderly people who as children either spoke Awabakal or heard it spoken. They ascertained that from the 1870s to 1880s Awabakal was freely spoken by white people as well in Swansea, Pelican and possibly Belmont South. They spent years checking and rechecking the language and traditional stories and other information handed down from generation to generation. Haslam continued the project after Blakemore's sudden death in the early 1970s. For the next seventeen years he continued his personal quest in search of knowledge of the local Awabakal people. On his retirement from the Newcastle Morning Herald in 1977 he was elected as Convocation Research Fellow at the University of Newcastle to study the local Awabakal language and culture. In 1981 he left Newcastle for a brief visit to the United Kingdom primarily to research manuscripts relating to primary settlement in the Hunter Valley and Port Stephens. He visited Cambridge University in the company of Professor R.G Tanner, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, University of Newcastle, who introduced him. Professor Tanner was a Fellow of St John's College, Cambridge. Haslam also visited London for further examination of archives particularly at London Museum and the Congregation World Church Council because of the records held there of early missionary efforts in New South Wales. He was particularly interested in discovering new material relating to the Lake Macquarie missionary, Reverend L.E Threlkeld, whose "work on language and culture in our region are as good as any ever recorded, having regard for the times in which he lived and limited facilities available to record history". On his return to Australia, the Institute of Aboriginal Development, headquartered in the Northern Territory, invited Haslum to join a steering committee to form the first Aboriginal Languages Association and to address a workshop at Alice Springs. He was appointed official historian for the Central Aboriginal Sites Committee covering the area from the Hawksbury to the upper Hunter and Taree.

In 1984 Percy Haslam received and honorary degree of Masters of Arts at the University of Newcastle. He was instrumental and a driving force behind an Awabakal language project, which began at Gateshead High School in 1986. The University of Newcastle supported the project, which sought to restore the Awabakal mother tongue to persons of Aboriginal descent residing in the Hunter. A link to this project was a weekly program of language lessons conducted by Percy Haslam on radio station 2NUR called 'Awabakal Voices'. Haslam said "It would be wonderful if by 1988 we could return to Aborigines something European society took away from them, this was a vital facet of their identity their mother tongue". Percy Haslam took his language and cultural teaching programs to Aboriginal inmates at Cessnock. One Aboriginal man at Cessnock related that it gave him a sense of pride and understanding he had not had before, "the things I am learning here will mean that I won't be back". As a result of the project at Cessnock he was approached by the Aborigines Prisoners Progressive Committee at Long Bay to visit them and conduct monthly visits to conduct Aboriginal history, language and cultural lectures. Percy Haslam died suddenly aged 75 in 1987 and remains as a great loss to the local Aboriginal community.