Uncle Alf Turner – or Uncle Boydie to most – is a true gentleman, and believed to be the oldest living Yorta Yorta Elder in Victoria. In addition to making his own substantial contribution to his community, he is custodian of the legacy of his grandfather, the Aboriginal leader William Cooper.
He became acquainted with his grandfather's political activism
Born in Carlton in 1928, Boydie is the son of Amy Cooper and Alfred George Turner. He was a new born baby when one of his 2 elder sisters nicknamed him 'Boydie', and he has been called that name ever since. When Boydie's parents separated, his mother took him to Barmah. They lived on the banks of the Murray River with William Cooper and his wife Sarah (née McCrae), whom Boydie called his grandmother.
After his grandparents relocated to Melbourne in 1933, Boydie was sent to live with them in their house in Footscray. He attended school there and also became acquainted with his grandfather's political activism, watching him address crowds from a soapbox by the Yarra River on Sunday afternoons. The house was the venue for meetings of the Australian Aborigines League, attended by such Aboriginal leaders as Margaret Tucker and Bill Onus. Boydie came to greatly admire his grandfather who, despite his ailing health, cared for 3 other grandchildren to avoid them ending up in state-run homes.
In the late 1930s, Boydie rejoined his mother in Mooroopna. His grandfather spent his final months there before passing away in 1941. After leaving school, Boydie earned money by chopping wood in Barmah Forest and towards the end of World War II produced charcoal – sold as an alternative fuel when petrol rationing was introduced. As a teenager he ran competitively and played football, including as a member of the district's first all-Aboriginal football team formed in 1946. Boydie's primary mode of transport in those days was a well-worn bicycle.
Uncle Boydie focused his energy on Aboriginal affairs
At 23 years of age Boydie married Amy Briggs. They settled in Mooroopna and had 3 children, but sadly lost a daughter in infancy. Boydie continued to make a living from seasonal work, until becoming a plasterer with the help of his uncle Lynch Cooper, a noted athlete. Several years later he found a job at Shepparton Plaster Works and was employed there until his retirement. Between work, raising a family, and participating in the Yorta Yorta and Shepparton communities, Boydie found life highly satisfying.
After suffering the loss of his wife in 1995, Uncle Boydie focused his energy on Aboriginal affairs. He was the longest serving board member of the Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-operative, helping to develop its range of health, housing, and aged care services over 16 dedicated years. Uncle Boydie also supported the Yorta Yorta native title claim and worked closely with the Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation to broker land management agreements with state authorities. All the while, it was his grandfather's values that guided him.
Commemoration of one of the first international protests against Nazi persecution
For many years, Uncle Boydie has worked tirelessly to raise awareness of William Cooper and his achievements. He has brought to prominence 2 significant events that represented unfinished business for his grandfather. The first is the 1938 march that William Cooper led from his house in Footscray to the German consulate in Melbourne, where he attempted to deliver a letter condemning the treatment of Jewish people in Nazi Germany. In 2008, Uncle Boydie worked with members of the Australian Jewish community to organise a special event at Victoria's Parliament House to commemorate the 70th anniversary of what is seen as one of the first international protests against Nazi persecution.
It set in train events that took Uncle Boydie to Israel in 2009 and 2010 for the unveiling of 2 memorials to his grandfather – 70 trees planted in his honour at 2 sites and an Academic Chair in his name at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. Then in 2012, Uncle Boydie decided it was time for William Cooper's now famous letter to finally be delivered. On the 74th anniversary, he re-enacted the walk from Footscray to the site of the former German Consulate, accompanied by a group of supporters that included Holocaust survivors and their descendants. The German Consul General met Uncle Boydie and received a replica of William Cooper's letter, in an emotional moment for all present.
Uncle Boydie embarked on a symbolic campaign to deliver his grandfather's petition to Queen Elizabeth
William Cooper also initiated a petition intended for King George V in 1934, calling for Aboriginal representation in Parliament. He spent several years gathering signatures, but the government of the day refused to send the petition to the monarch. In 2012, Uncle Boydie embarked on a symbolic campaign to deliver his grandfather's petition to Queen Elizabeth. Over 18 months, he and others collected new signatures on a copy of the original document. Uncle Boydie even discussed the project with Prince William when the two met. In 2014, Uncle Boydie presented the replica petition to the Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove in Canberra, who in turn handed it to the Queen at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. After 80 years, Uncle Boydie had fulfilled his grandfather's wish.
That buildings and bridges are today named after William Cooper is due in no small part to the efforts of Uncle Boydie. A sought-after public speaker, he continues to share his grandfather's story in the hope of inspiring others. However, it is Uncle Boydie himself who is now an inspiration, teaching new generations – including his own grandchildren – to stand up for what they believe in.
Reviewed 29 September 2019