An Aboriginal family's struggle for survival

Media release: Wednesday, 22 May 2013

A request from Aboriginal serviceman Percy Pepper, to return to Australia from wartime Europe in 1918 to care for his ailing wife Lucy, is part of an exhibition on the Pepper family at the National Archives of Australia during National Reconciliation Week (27 May to 3 June).

The request reveals that Percy, aged 40, had sustained a head injury from a shell in 1917 while serving in France and was also suffering from chronic rheumatism. Private Pepper's discharge from the infantry was approved in May 1918.

The exhibition also features Percy's attestation paper which shows he joined the 21st battalion of the Australian Imperial Forces in August 1916. The documents form part of the National Archives' contribution to the travelling exhibition Footprints: the Journey of Lucy and Percy Pepper, developed by the Public Record Office Victoria.

'Percy Pepper was one of about 870 Indigenous men who volunteered for service in World War I,' said Rebecca Stubbs of the National Archives Indigenous Unit. 'The service records for these men, held in the National Archives, can provide valuable details of family history. Such information can sometimes be hard to find as births were often not recorded for Indigenous people.'

The exhibition follows Percy's journey, as he struggled to carve out a life in rural Victoria after World War I, as well as the trials faced by Lucy and their seven children, Sam, Gwendoline, Alice, Sarah, Phillip, Lena and Dora.

Footprints is based on a book of the same name by Simon Flagg and Sebastian Gurciullo, published jointly by the Public Record Office Victoria and the National Archives of Australia. Simon is a descendent of the Wemba Wemba people from the Swan Hill region and has worked for both archival institutions.

What started out as a routine investigation of records associated with the experiences of Aboriginal people, resulted in Simon unearthing the remarkable story of the Pepper family.

The exhibition reveals when Percy returned to Australia, he was granted a soldier settler block at Koo-Wee-Rup in Gippsland. The block was located on a swamp which often flooded.

The grandson of Lucy and Percy Pepper, Pastor Ossie Cruse, will give a public talk at the National Archives of Australia on Tuesday, 28 May at noon.  Footprints: the Journey of Lucy and Percy Pepper is open from 27 May to 3 June.

Contact information

  • Elizabeth Masters (Media Officer)
    t (02) 6212 3957 m 0417 247 157 e
  • Rebecca Stubbs (Project Officer - Indigenous Issues)
    t (02) 6212 3607 e
Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019