The ‘dogger’, the dingo and a little bit of know-how … the story of George Saunders

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers should be warned that the following story contains images names of people who have passed away.

By Judith Hickson, Curator, Social History, Queensland Museum

In 2017, Mrs Gladys Waters donated two dingo traps to the Queensland Museum’s social history collection.  Handmade from discarded pieces of railway iron, the traps had belonged to Gladys’ father, George Maurice Saunders, who for many years had earned a living as a dingo scalper, or ‘dogger’, in the central-western districts of outback Queensland during the early to mid-1900s. In an Australian museum context, the traps are considered extremely rare, if not unique, not just in the manner of their making but in their documented provenance to their Aboriginal owner.

GMSDINGO
George Saunders with pet white dingo
Image: Courtesy of Gladys Waters

The boy from the Barwon

Swagman, ‘dogger’, drover and stockman, George Maurice Saunders was born on 17 March 1897 on the bank of the Barwon River near the Queensland-New South Wales border town of Mungindi. In the Yuwaalaraay language of the Kamilaroi peoples, traditional owners of the region, the word mungindi refers to a place ‘where sweet water might be found by digging’. [1]

View of the Barwon River and bridge at Mungindi 1909
Bridge over the Barwon River, Mungindi, c 1909.  Source: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

By the time George was born, years of conflict and retaliation by squatters and police had reduced the Kamilaroi to a mere handful of people eking out an existence on the fringes of town or subsumed into the pastoral industry as stockmen, drovers, station hands or domestic workers (either unpaid or underpaid).

In the same year, the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 (Qld) was passed by Queensland Parliament, granting power to the ‘Protector of Aboriginals’ to remove Aboriginal people to reserves at various locations throughout the state. Like many others,   conditions on the Mungindi Aboriginal Reserve were poor and food was often scarce.

Drover
Unidentified drover or stockman with his dog and horse, c1910.
Source: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

In 1903, the Brisbane Courier reported that ‘on account of the scarcity of cattle, and partly by reason of the absence, of native food on account of the drought, [A]boriginals have been reduced to a low ebb.’[2] An attempt by authorities in 1908 to include Aboriginal children at the local school was aborted when all the ‘White Australia’ [sic] pupils went on strike, refusing to return until the reserve children were returned ‘to their proper place – the camp’.[3]

Despite an impoverished childhood and lack of schooling, George, grew up to be a resourceful and clever young man, able to turn his hand to whatever work came his way. By the 1920s he had joined the many itinerant ‘swaggies’, moving from place to place wherever he could find work.  During this period his chief livelihood came from shooting kangaroos and trapping dingos for station owners and shire councils. [4]

IMG_20180427_110421197

About 1928, George met his future wife, Gladys McEwan. For fifteen year-old Gladys, the eldest of five siblings born and raised in Oakey, George emitted ‘a special spark’ and offered a new life and the opportunity ‘to see the world outside our small community.’[5]

Gladys gave birth to their first child, a daughter, also Gladys, in 1928, at Crown Street Women’s Hospital, Surry Hills, Sydney. By 1932, George and Gladys had moved back to Roma and then to Charleville where their second baby was born later that year. Their life for many years was one of constantly moving from house to house, with George working away and Gladys staying home to keep house, raise the children and to work in the local hotel and cafe.

During the depression years of the 1930s, under the looming prospect of another world war, George worked as a drover, professional fisherman and ‘roo shooter, but mainly as a dogger, helping to control the dingo populations in the Charleville, Blackall, Longreach and Winton areas. During this time, and in subsequent years, he was able to put his many skills to work, repairing, building, designing and constructing various pieces of equipment for his family and for use at work.

In the context of a life of forced resettlement, displacement from country and the consequent undermining of men’s traditional roles and authority, George, like many Aboriginal men, often drank ‘a fair bit of his pay’ and wasn’t the easiest of men to live with when he’d had a bit to drink. Yet Gladys also remembered his many talents, his sense of humour and his innate ability to entertain family and friends with his button accordion and spoons playing, singing and storytelling and with recitations of Banjo Patterson’s and Henry Lawson’s poetry which he had learned by heart.[6] [7]

Dingo dreamings 

After their arrival in Australia between 3-4000 years ago, dingoes colonised the country and, most likely because of their previous association with humans, quickly forged close relationships with Aboriginal peoples. In doing so, dingoes became incorporated into the social structure and environment of Aboriginal society, eventually becoming intertwined with every aspect of peoples’ lives, culture and spiritual beliefs.[8] In many regions of Australia, particularly the Western Desert of Western Australia, the dingo took on the status of a ‘dreaming Ancestor’, creating both people and other dingos. [9]

dingo
Image: Queensland Museum

Over time, the dingo also came to play an important role in the Australian ecosystem. As apex predators, dingos helped shape the Australian landscape and have traditionally kept pest and other predatory species in check.[10] This fragile relationship faltered after white settlement, when the dingo became considered to be a serious pest to sheep farmers, especially during lambing season. Driven by ideas of control and exploitation, widespread antagonism from farmers towards dingos eventually led to protests which in turn sparked major attempts to control dingo populations.

Fences and Scalps

Dogfence
A section of the dingo fence near Coober Pedy. Source: G Schulz 2006

Among these regulatory measures was the construction of the world’s longest fence – the Dingo Fence – stretching 5,531 kilometres from near Dalby in south-east Queensland to the Great Australian Bight near Nundroo in South Australia.[11]  Originally built in the 1880s as a rabbit-proof fence, the structure was converted to a dog barrier in 1948 to protect the sheep flocks of southern Australia from dingoes in the north.[12] Although considered a success in reducing sheep losses, the relative absence of dingoes today has led to increased numbers of other species, including rabbits, kangaroos and emus while feral dogs are increasingly replacing the dingo as a major cause of sheep number reduction.[13]

Another important means of controlling wild dog populations was dingo scalping or ‘dogging’. Throughout much of the 1900s, many men (and some women) made a reasonable living as doggers, employed mainly by Shire Councils and, occasionally, by private landowners.

Images depicting dingo hunters near Perthton 1940 and dingo trapper with pelt c1935. Source: John Oxley Librar, State Library of Queensland

Because trapping and shooting were opportunistic and could be hard work, baiting with strychnine was favoured by white doggers; however, many of the earlier and more disreputable European doggers found that the most lucrative way of acquiring scalps was by trading with Aboriginal people, especially from camps in the remote Aboriginal Reserve areas where the doggers set up seasonal camps during pupping season, trading scalps by the hundred for tobacco, tea and sugar and metal implements.[14] Relabelling dingos as pests by colonists led to fundamental changes in the lives of Aboriginal people who harvested scalps for the doggers.  Viewing dingos essentially as commodities to be traded led to a complex refiguring of their relationship and attitude towards the animals.[15]

A dogger’s life

With a reputation as a highly-effective dogger, George Saunders’ services were much sought-after and he was able to strike profitable agreements with his employers.  Often accompanied by his wife Gladys, George owed much of his success to his ability to track dingos by following their pads – a traditional skill learned during his childhood years in the bush. His daughter Gladys remembers her mother telling her that when George was close to a dingo’s den, George would climb a tree in the vicinity and wait patiently for the animal to return before shooting and scalping it.

GMSCOCKY
George Saunders with pet cockatoo.
Image: Courtesy of Gladys Saunders

Though George spent many years of his life trapping and killing dingoes, he had a great affection for animals and for many years travelled around with two much-loved pets, a white cockatoo nicknamed ‘Georgy Boy’ and a white dingo.  Family lore has it that when George ordered a drink for himself at a hotel, he would buy one for his dingo and cockatoo to share as well.[16]

Unfortunately for both George and his pet, the Stock Routes and Rural Lands Protection Fund in Quilpie ruled it ‘contrary to law to keep a dingo in captivity. In August 1950, faced with an order that his dingo be destroyed, George resigned his position as dogger in protest.

Elusive prey – essential predator

SMH 1November1954.p8

Despite all efforts to exterminate the dingo, the Sydney Morning Herald reported in November 1954 that the eradication of this elusive animal presented an extreme, perhaps, impossible challenge with the its reporter, Alf Richmond, declaring,  ‘Of the native wild life of Australia, all except the dingo has been brought under control. Shot at, trapped, and poisoned for more than a century, the dingo not only remains unconquered, but has now become a serious national menace”. It was further reported that many doggers claimed that, ‘next to man, the dingo in all probability is entitled to rank as the most intelligent of living creatures’. [17]

In the wake of devastating bushfires that have claimed the lives of over a billion native animals, public criticism and anger has been directed towards governments and councils which still offer bounties for dingo scalps. Concerns have been raised and calls made to recognise the dingo’s unique place as an apex predator in a complex ecological system and for society to learn to coexist with species that are key to keeping invasive species in check and preventing overgrazing. Predators all over the world face similar challenges as their habitat is destroyed.

IMG_20180712_125217698
Dingo traps, photographs and dingo skin on display in Queensland Museum’s Discovery Centre, NAIDOC Week 2018.
Image: Judith Hickson

When the Waters family donated the traps to Queensland Museum, it was on the proviso that the traps would never be used to trap or kill an animal again.  Like most museum objects, the dingo traps are not just material objects to be preserved, but are also a gateway to understanding a complex and still unfolding story.

In National Reconciliation Week 2020, as we celebrate the achievements and success of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the traps offer us an opportunity to examine the ground on which these hard-won successes have been founded.  Their presence in our collection has also opened a window for us to explore cultural and environmental stories and information surrounding the introduction and incorporation of the dingo into Aboriginal life, culture and spirituality and, later, its ongoing attempted eradication under white settler culture.


[1] Mungindi History. http://www.mungindi.com.au/local-history.html

[2] ‘Starving Aboriginals’, Brisbane Courier, Wednesday 10 June 1903, p. 5.

[3] ‘Black Monday: strike at Mungindi’, Sydney Stock and Station Journal, Friday 6 November 1908, p. 2.

[4] Waters, G 2019, A bagful of stories, pp. 5-10.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Pers. Comm. Gladys Waters, 2017.

[7] Waters, G 2017, A bagful of stories, pp. 5-10.

[8] Smith, P & Litchfield, C, 2009, ‘A review of the relationship between Indigenous Australians, dingoes (Canis dingo) and domestic dogs (Canis familiaris)’, Athrozoos, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 111-128.

[9] Parker, M 6006, Bringing the dingo home: discursive representations of the dingo by Aboriginal, colonial and contemporary Australians, thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for Doctor of Philosophy, University of Tasmania.

[10] Stier, A C et al. 2016, ‘Ecosystem context and historical contingency in apex predator recoveries’, Science Advances, vol. 2, no. 5. URL: https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/2/5/e1501769

[11] Newsome, T, Dickman, C & Ritchie, E, ‘Let’s move the world’s longest fence to settle the dingo debate’, The Conversation, February 17, 2015. URL: https://theconversation.com/lets-move-the-worlds-longest-fence-to-settle-the-dingo-debate-37155

[12] Department of Natural Resources and Mines, Fact Sheet: ‘History of barrier fences in Queensland’.

[13] Pople, A, Grigg, G, Cairns, S, Beard, L & Alexander, P, 2000, ‘Trends in the numbers of red kangaroos and emus on either side of the South Australian dingo fence: evidence for predator regulation?’, Wildlife Research, vol. 27, no.3, pp. 269 – 276.

[14] Young, D 2010, ‘Dingo scalping and the frontier economy in the north-west of South Australia’, in I Keen (ed.), Indigenous participation in Australian Economies: historical and anthropological perspectives, ANU e Press, Australian National University, Canberra.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Pers. Comm. Interview, Gladys Waters, 2017.

[17] Richmond A, The dingo is still unconquered, Sydney Morning Herald, 1 November 1954, p.8

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