The Story Visualised

Well I’ve certainly been busy over the last two weeks and it’s very exciting to see the story of Rodney Spencer come alive using the NT Archives photographs.

It’s a story I’ve been fascinated with ever since a friend pointed out the chapter called ‘Chokey’ in the wonderfully entertaining book by Ernestine Hill called The Territory (a must read for all you locals out there who want to know more about NT history and folklore).

I’ll give a very brief synopsis of the story below with some of my new images but for a full and fascinating version go into the Archives and read it for yourself in Ernestine Hill’s book.

The Crimes of Rodney Claude Spencer

Rodney Spencer’s first crime was leading a gang of disgruntled white men to slaughter 18 horses and 2 mules belonging to Chinese miners who were on their way to the gold fields. Most likely jealousy and hatred of the Chinese fuelled this heinous crime but sentiment against the Chinese in those days was strong so no jury would convict the white men and they walked free.

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Above: my artist’s impression of Rodney Spencer. Original background photo from NTRS3158 item 3

Horses were very precious in Palmerston (as Darwin was called in those days) so the townspeople despised the horse murderers and one by one they left town. Spencer pursued the life of a buffalo hunter out on Scotts Plains co-ercing Aboriginal tribes to work for him for tucker and tobacco.

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Above: my artist’s impression of Spencer ‘daylighting’ tribes to go buffalo hunting and skinning. 

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Above: The original photo NTRS 3420_P1 photo 46

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Screen Shot 2017-10-31 at 10.01.46 AMAbove: My artist’s impression of Spencer buffalo hunting. Original photograph NTRS 3154/P1 Herbert Postcards Item 230

In 1890 Spencer went to sell his hides to the customs agent E.O Robinson in Port Essington but Robinson was in China investigating the trepang business and so seeing no white man in charge, Spencer made himself at home.

It’s here that Spencer sees an aboriginal man, Mamialucum who he believes stole half a bag of rice from him the year before. He seeks revenge against Mamialucum and demands that his own workers Mamitpa and Narambil catch the man at the corroboree later that night.

When Mamialucum is caught, Spencer takes hold of him, puts the gun to his temple, and it’s reported he said “Goodbye, old man!” before shooting him through the temple. Spencer fired two more shots into the dead man’s back and apparently said “He’ll steal no more rice”.

When E.O Robinson returns from China he reports the crime to the police.

They send out the launch Victoria to Port Essington and return with a skull with a bullet hole through the temple.

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Above: My artist’s impression of the launch Victoria being sent out to find evidence of the murder at Port Essington.Screen Shot 2017-10-11 at 10.16.32 AM

Above: The original photo of the launch Victoria from NTRS 3420_P1_photo 12

Rodney Spencer is charged and thrown into Fannie Bay Gaol.

No white man at this time had ever been convicted of killing an Aboriginal person in the Northern Territory although evidence shows that many Aboriginal people had been killed by white settlers (see Tony Robert’s book Frontier Justice for harrowing accounts of the frontier wars in the north).

The townspeople were outraged that a white man would be hung for killing an aboriginal person and Rodney Spencer’s sentence was commuted to life in prison with hard labour. He was transferred to Yatala gaol in South Australia to serve out the rest of his term.

The people of Palmerston petitioned South Australia for ten years to have Rodney Spencer released (they collect over 1000 signatures) and in 1899 he returns to the NT a free man.

In 1905 it’s reported that Spencer was murdered in Arnhem Land by spears and a tomahawk through his face but Ernestine Hill’s version of the story reports that years after his reported death, a sighting of a white man with red whiskers is scene yabbering like a mad man with his tongue cut out and his nose cut off living in Arnhem Land.




In The Jungle

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Original image reference: NTRS 3173_photo no 36

Researching in the Archives can be a very distracting pastime! I’m always coming across wonderful little gems of Northern Territory history that distract me from my main task. The staff have been great at pointing out books and authors that relate to my research and one of the books that I love is called In Australian Tropics by Alfred Searcy.

I came across this passage which is actually Searcey quoting  Aeneas E. Gunn and I just absolutely have to share it. It also inspired me in the making of another image for my Rodney Spencer story shown above. Anyone who has spent time in the Top End bush will relate to the description of this romantic tropical gloom.

” …we followed the diverging footmarks through the dense, dark, eerie, smelling inferno, with the instinct of sleuth -hounds. Nothing will ever obliterate from my memory the impressions that hunt made on my mind. The place seemed to be the very heart of the huge solitude in which we were situated. Overhead there was a dark, closely knitted canopy of leaves. Only here and there a patch of ineffably blue sky, that appeared to be immeasurably distant, gleamed through rifts in the firmament of foliage. Throught the apertures the sun shot vertical shafts of golden light that counterfeited gilded pillars, except where their masses were broken by contact with the trunks and limbs of the trees. But the lights that stole through only made the gloom more ghostly and unreal by the contrast. It was like a weird, uncanny underworld, a vast shapeless vault, whose roof was supported by gnarled and knotted trunks carved with fantastic devices by the processes of Nature. ….It seemed to be peopled by unseen, silent, thinking, feeling beings, capable of action and the twisted and contorted boughs and branches stretching out hideous, mud-stained arms that appeared ever intent on catching and holding in their loathsome embraces, intensified the impression. The atmosphere was stifling, and permeated with a hot, miasmatic vapour. The silence was intense, and broken only by faint sounds of something moving forward, the gasping of shellfish that lay in the mud or clung to the roots and trunks of the mangroves. So still was it one could almost hear the moisture exuding from the ooze, or the sap coursing in the veins of the trees. But there was a track in the mud, a purpose in my heart, which did not become less insistent as every now and then on ahead I could hear a crack, the sound of a branch pushed aside, and its swishing back into place. Nothing was visible. there was no distance, no vista, no perspective only knotted and twisted trunks, a tangle of boughs and branches and roots, , above , a roof of leaden leaves; underfoot , a slushy noisome ooze of decaying leaves, roots, shells and mud”.

Now back to work!



Using the NT Archives Service

IMG_2269Behind the scenes at NTAS. Just think about all the surprises waiting inside those boxes!

Since starting the Creative in Residence, quite a few people have asked me how the NT Archive Service works. I’ll try and explain what I’ve learnt so far, but for a more thorough explanation the best thing is to book an appointment with the staff and go in and have a chat.

I’ll be honest, it was a little daunting when I first started, but luckily the staff are very approachable, helpful (and patient)! Once that first little cardboard box of mysteries arrived – I was hooked!

In a nutshell, the NT Archive Service are responsible for preserving and managing government and community archives. They have collections of oral histories, offical government documents, photographic collections, personal diaries, great books and so much more! Due to the large volume of archives, most things aren’t digitised so often there are multiple ways to search around a topic or person of interest.



NTAS have been collecting amazing Northern Territory stories for many years through audio recordings and these are called the Oral History Collection.

Now I’ve already mentioned that the Archives can get very addictive and the oral histories are definitely in this category! Reading an oral history transcript feels like sitting down with an old Northern Territory Nanna or Pop and hearing those golden stories of ‘the olden days’ – you just want to know more! The anecdotes, the different language and political/cultural views portrayed in the interviews are FASCINATING! For me, reading the oral histories have really helped take me back in time and gain a deeper understanding of what the NT used to be like.

Searching the oral history collection is probably the most straightforward of the archives searches.  There is an online search tool ( where you can search for a topic or name and then browse the index of the oral history transcript. If you find something that you’re interested in then you can order the transcript of the interview and you can even order the original recording itself.

I highly recommend going into NTAS, settling down with a good transcript and having a read. I guarantee you you’ll be back for more!



Being a visual person, (and also making an animated historical story), I am of course, keen to access the PHOTOGRAPHIC COLLECTIONS in the Archives.

Ordering a box of photographs is better than Christmas! You look at the box and sometimes you know what you’re getting, but more often than not, it’s a bit of a surprise. Hunting for what you’re looking for can be time consuming  but finding intriguing old gems is it’s own reward! It might just be me, but holding an original photograph in your hands that captures what the very first European settlement looked like or what Aboriginal body decoration looked like in the Top End in the 1800s is mind-blowing. I’ve been using the photographs to get a sense of what the town of Darwin (originally called Palmerston) looked like around the time of my character (1890). I want to know what the fashion looked like, the buildings, the landscape, the transport, the weapons etc. I could look at old photos all day, which is lucky because that’s what I’m doing!

Recognise Mitchell Street below?

NTRS 3420_P1_photo 24 Mitchell Street

From the Foelsche Collection NTRS 3420_P1_photo 24 Mitchell Street

Digging Deep – The Inwards Correspondence

If you’d told me a few months ago that I’d totally get a thrill from digging into old Government correspondence records, well I wouldn’t have believed you (!)…but… last week I learnt how to use microfilm at NTAS to search the original government Residents correspondence (also called The Inwards Correspondence) in search of some primary sources related to my first character – Rodney Spencer.

I wasn’t sure if I’d find anything but to my absolute delight I managed to dig up original documents relating to the Rodney Spencer “cigar scandal”. No, it’s not like Bill Clinton’s cigar scandal (!), I better take a moment to explain…

Rodney Spencer, as we’ve established was the first white man convicted for murdering an Aboriginal man in the Northern Territory (1889). This fact alone is quite shocking (as many Aboriginal people had been murdered by whites) but what I find rather incredulous is that when Rodney Spencer was in Fannie Bay Gaol, he was sent daily deliveries of Havana Cigars!

In searching the Inwards Correspondence I found a telegram from Adelaide (remember that the NT was under South Australian jurisdiction until 1911) questioning the rumours  that Spencer was receiving cigars in gaol. I also found the NT reply stating that Spencer had been issued cigars by the doctor and required them for his health and ‘to help him sleep’. Finding and holding these original documents was very exciting!




The original documents above are from NTRS 790 Box 38 Government Resident of the NT Inwards Correspondence 1870-1912


I’ve Begun! Creative in Residence – NTAS

So the good news is that I was successful in my application for the Arts NT Creative in Residence program at the Northern Territory Archives Service and I’ve now begun!

I’m loving the process so far! The NT Archives has such an amazing wealth of fascinating stories and it’s rather addictive once you start delving into them.

For those who may be interested in my process, I’ll use this blog to document my experience of using the Northern Territory Archive Service, as well as documenting my artistic process in the creation of my films.

To recap on my project, my aim is to tell three stories of real-life historical ‘characters’ who all spent time in Darwin’s Fannie Bay Gaol. I’ll be telling the stories in a visual installation/interactive video format using original archive material including audio recordings from the oral history collections, photographic collections, books, government records, newspaper articles and a healthy dose of imagination. The final results will be on exhibition next year but for sneak peaks, you can follow my process here.

Jumping Straight In!

Eager to get started, I have begun researching my first historical character  – Rodney Spencer. Spencer was the first European to be convicted of killing an Aboriginal person in the Northern Territory in 1889, despite evidence that shows Europeans had killed many Aboriginal people since ‘settlement’. Spencer was the first European case to go to trial and result in a conviction (but as you’ll discover, there is more to this story). His story is a shocking one but I believe it’s an important story to tell as it really shows the prevailing attitudes of the day. I’m a true believer that when it comes to gaining a critical understanding of the present, exploring our history is critical.

For Rodney Spencer’s story I am keen to research any possibilities of primary sources (most likely government records) as well as delve into the Archive’s photographic collections from the late 1800s.

So being a restless artist, I wanted to delve straight into experimenting with the sort of visual style that I’ll use. My aim is to keep the original integrity of the archival photographs from the time but also add my own creative spin on them.

Luckily for me, NTAS has an amazing collection of photographs taken by the NT’s first Chief Inspector of Police, Paul Henry Foeslche. Foelsche is a controversial character himself but luckily for the NT, he happened to be a keen photographer as well as a policeman. His photographs offer an invaluable insight into how things looked in the late 1800s in the Top End.

Below are some of my first visual experiments using Foelsche’s photographs.

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This image comes from the NTAS series 259 image 45 by Paul Foelsche. The caption on the original photo says ‘Native Corroboree, Port Essington November 1877’. Rodney Spencer murdered his victim at Port Essington on the night of a corroboree so this photograph was an amazing find.

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I’ve also been experimenting with this image above. It’s from a collection of Margaret Widdup photos NTRS 3158 item 3. There are no details of the location or the woman in the photo – one of the many mysteries you find in the Archives.

You can see I’m trying different colour palettes. Screen Shot 2017-10-03 at 9.06.14 AM

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I’ve also experimented with creating the character of Spencer, who apparently had red hair and a red beard which is rather unfortunate as my husband is a red head!

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I’ve also tried putting the image as the reflection inside a horses eye – Spencer’s first infamous crime was slaughtering 18 horses and 2 mules belonging to Chinese miners.

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