Duplicity and Cunning at Lake Moodemere: The Kitty Brangy photographs that did not exist.

Disowned Kitty1
Disowned. Thomas Cleary 1897 Kitty is said to be holding her son, William Abbott in this photo.

Wahgunyah is a town  on Waveroo Country, in North Eastern Victoria. The area is in the Rutherglen district : think colonial pioneers, gold rush and vineyards. The town is on the southern bank of the Murray River, opposite Corowa, New South Wales. Just south of Wahgunyah is a Nature Conservation Reserve called Lake Moodemere – a natural billabong where folk might like to spend their weekends fishing, swimming, bird watching and picnicking with their families under some of the ancient gums that encircle of the perimeter of the lake.

But before this place as dedicated to weekend rest and recreation, it was called Bulegeaba (meaning Black Swan)[1] : a corrobboree and camping ground for First Nations people where their neighbours would join them in ceremonies, rituals and bartering brides in the colder seasons.

Postcard of Lake Moodemere with a reclining Neddy Wheeler

Tommy McCrae, photographer unknown, Northern Territory Library


From around 1849 onward, Lake Moodemere in all its 21 hectares, became an ‘unofficial’ refuge for the remaining Waveroo, Wiradjuri and Pangerang tribespeople. In 1851 the total amount of First Nation peoples here numbered 200.[2] A decade later it was 30. Places like Lake Moodemere and Tangambalanga offered a less restrictive alternative to the oppressive yoke of the Missions that were closely monitored by the Aboriginal Protection Board. This environment gave a degree of autonomy to those who stayed here. The Lake also was a direct thoroughfare into New South Wales for a quick escape to Corowa, should a vulnerable family need to out manoeuvre the paternalistic urges of the Victorian Protection Board who has set their sights to remove their children to missions for social and cultural assimilation [3]

But refusing mission life also came at a cost; whilst rations were dispensed by the local police, shelter was an issue at Lake Moodemere, even in the 1890s. Thomas Bamfield, Taungurung clan head and a leading figure at Coranderrk Mission at Healesville, petitioned the Protection Board for housing for the inhabitants at lake Moodemere:

“Sir Mr Captain Page,

Went up for a visit up to Wahgunyah and seen a number of blacks all living out the lake is called Mathumber (sic) living without any shelter over them. Tommy McCrae wish me to help him and Old Michie and Bundoway Tommy to get a house for them or else tents are sent up there. We look to you as you are protection over all the aboriginals to help us .. These aboriginals belonging to Wahgunyah and Wangaratta only to be scattered about looking for shelter’[4]

The petition is signed by the inhabitants of Lake Moodemere at the time:

Tommy Smyth (nephew of Tommy Bamfield)

Tommy McRae & his wife and 2 childrens ( sic)

Bundoway Tommy (also known as Tommy Bond. Had a wife Jenny and two Daughters Violet and Victoria)

William McCrae and his wife

Neddy Wheela*

Old Michie

Old Wellington

Charlie Barber* (Kitty Brangy’s brother in law)

Paddy Swift (husband to Violet Bundoway/Bond)

Dicky Westol

Milly and Clarie

Billy Barber

Old Sally

Old Mary

Kate Brangy* ( niece of Tommy Bamfield )

Curry Tommy


the hunt kitty 2
The Hunt. Thomas Cleary 1897


The economic depression of the 1890s resulted in workers finding difficulty in obtaining employment: Aboriginal people at Lake Moodemere largely supported themselves by working for pastoralists and farmers or by selling fish, possum-skin rugs and Indigenous weapons. [5]  Tommy McCrae returned to sketching: although drawing since the 1860’s, by 1890’s he made more money from creative pursuits than he would being a stockman or drover. It was most likely McCrae’s creative bent combined with his business acumen, that served as the impetus to contract Waveroo woman Kitty Brangy, her husband John Friday and others from the camp as sitters in a major creative project for the ambulatory photographer Thomas Cleary, and a local patron by the name of Gourlay in 1897. It wasn’t the first time that Brangy and Friday had sat for Cleary: 2 years earlier they posed for him in Benalla.[6]

On May 12, Friday, Brangy, McCrae and his wife met Cleary just near Corowa Post Office. They came to an arrangement that Brangy, Friday and ten others would sit for Cleary for a series of twenty photographs- although this number was a contentious issue in the court case that was to follow- and once the photographs were complete, a cheque of 10 pounds would be received. When the deal was brokered, Cleary presented a letter that he said was from Her majesty the Queen and made them all kiss it.

The news of a cheque made the people at Lake Moodemere glad.[7] But the payment was never received. Subsequently, Brangy Friday and McCrae took Thomas Cleary to Court for unpaid dues – they were the First Aboriginal people in Victoria to do so.

after the ball
After The Ball. Thomas Cleary  1897

Cleary claimed that he had all the work had taken place in Victoria, so that the Claims Court in Corowa, NSW had no jurisdiction in this instance. The promise of the 10-pound payment was not made by him, but by a man called Gourlay when visiting his studio: but Cleary believed the promise of payment was a ‘Joke’. He also testified that attempted to take photographs but the Aboriginal People at Lake Moodemere were always intoxicated and that we had witnessed the evil effects of liquor upon them[8] Based on this, Cleary told the court that the photos had not turned out. The case was dismissed, despite Tommy McCrae possessing the reputation as being a well-known teetotaller.

Sentence of Death and Ask Mama. Thomas Cleary 1897

However, the photos did turn out- what was created was series of staged reprehensible vignettes of Kitty Brangy, John Friday and co. containing troubled, racist narratives of Aboriginal people. It makes for worrisome viewing; Aboriginal people soaping themselves white, the apparent incompatibility of an Aboriginal woman and child enjoying a bicycle, with some images of Kitty evoking voyeuristic pleasure at female nudity, presented as ethnographic realism at her expense: all intended for an unsupportive European audience.

What we can do as descendants of the people depicted is reclaim these images as ones that we may have never had the opportunity to possess.

Captured. Thomas Cleary 1897


[1] Big Camp Wahgunyah History of the Rutherglen District. Muriel McGiven

[2] The Aborigines of far Eastern Victoria and Far South Eastern New South Wales 1830-1910 A geographical History – Sue Wesson 2002


[4] Local Guardian Correspondence Wangaratta including Wahgunyah, National Australian Archives Series Number B313/42

*All direct ancestors of the author


[6] The Corowa Free Press, 2 June 1897, p2.

[7] The Corowa Free Press, 2 June 1897, p2.

[8] Mobile encounters: Bicycles, cars and Australian settler colonialism Georgine W. Clarsen


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4 thoughts on “Duplicity and Cunning at Lake Moodemere: The Kitty Brangy photographs that did not exist.

  1. That is a cracking piece of research. Once again, a disturbing insight into the treatment of Waveroo (and Taungurung) people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Jacqui.
      What really disappoints me is that its so hard to find solid info on Lake Moodemere and the people that were here, however, after digging about for this post, now I know the familial links of some of the names that are listed on that petition for shelter – and they match some of the names receiving rations from Wang 8 years before.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating research- thank you.


    1. Thanks for reading, Cathy. Lake Moodemere is such an interesting place with interesting people who had strong links with each other and the area. They were kinship ties that require some unraveling. Ive been really lucky to find some evidence in Diane Barwick’s notes and hope to write about it soon


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