Finding Walter Parker
Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people please be advised that the following article contains the names and images of deceased people.
For years, Private Walter Parker’s story remained a mystery.
It was thought he must have served during the First World War, alongside two of his half-brothers, but no records could be found.
Now, dedicated and tenacious research by family historians has revealed he served as part of the Western Australian colonial contribution to the war in South Africa. But Walter Parker never made it home.
One of 10 Indigenous men known to have served during the Boer War, Parker is the first known Indigenous soldier to die while serving overseas.
Michael Bell is the Indigenous Liaison Officer at the Australian War Memorial. He said Parker’s story had transformed our understanding and knowledge of Indigenous service during the Boer War.
“Parker’s story is incredibly important,” he said.
“Aboriginal enlistment and service in the Boer War has been the source of much speculation.
“But now the Memorial has now identified 10 Aboriginal men who served, nine of whom returned.
“We hope sharing Walter Parker’s story will shine a light on his service and encourage other families to come forward with their own stories.”
Walter Parker was born on 6 July 1874 in Gingin, Western Australia.
His father was a stockman, Joseph Mortimer, and his mother was a Noongar woman named Mary Elizabeth Benyup.
He was baptised Walter Joseph Mortimer Benyup on 24 November 1874, but adopted the name Parker after his mother married John Parker.
Little is known about Walter Parker’s early life, but records suggest he moved to in the mid-west region of Western Australia, where he worked as a labourer.
In October 1899, after a worsening political deadlock in southern Africa, Boer forces invaded the British colonies of Cape Colony and Natal.
Britain declared war on the two Boer republics: the Orange Free State and the South African Republic. In support of the British Empire, the Australian colonies committed troops to the conflict.
Parker volunteered for service in the first contingent of soldiers raised in Western Australia, but was rejected for reasons that remain unclear, even today.
While it is possible that he was rejected because he was Aboriginal, Bell said there were more volunteers than spaces available in each contingent.
Not to be deterred, Parker volunteered for service a second time, while working in the goldfields town of Coolgardie.
He joined the 5th Western Australian Mounted Infantry, and after training at Karrakatta, Parker and his unit departed from Fremantle on board the transport ship Devon in early March 1901.
When Parker arrived at the front, the war had entered its final stage, which would prove to be long and drawn out. In the previous year, British forces had captured the capital cities of both Boer republics, as well as many large towns and the railways. In the face of considerable losses, the Boer commanders had decided to continue their guerrilla war against the British.
By late 1901, British Commander-in-Chief Lord Kitchener had begun a scorched-earth campaign, interning Boer civilians in concentration camps, and sending columns of mounted infantry in drives across the veldt, hoping to capture or defeat his enemies.
Serving under British and Australian officers, the Western Australian Mounted Infantry took part in these operations in the eastern Transvaal.
The conditions were extremely trying. In order to counter the Boers’ main advantage of mobility, British mounted infantry had to travel light.
In September, the Western Australian troops were ordered to leave all tents and kit at camp before surrounding the town of Ermelo. After it was captured, the town was burnt to the ground. The troops then spent two weeks in incessant rain without shelter.
British logistics throughout the war were poor, and clean water was hard to come by. More than half of the Australian soldiers who died in South Africa died of illness.
Parker fell ill and was taken to a military hospital in the town of Standerton. He had contracted typhoid fever, commonly described in the records of the time as enteric fever. His condition worsened, and he died at Standerton on 22 January 1902, aged 27.
He is buried in Standerton Cemetery, and his name is listed on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, alongside the names of almost 600 Australians who died while serving in the Boer War.
Family historian Sue Mills uncovered his remarkable story while researching her first husband’s family tree. His grandfather, Harry Dickerson, was Walter’s half-brother.
“I've been doing my own family history for over 30 years, but I'd never really touched on my first husband's family history,” she said.
“Because it was my children’s history as well, I started delving into it and discovered there was Aboriginal heritage, which was quite a surprise to everybody because even my first husband wasn't aware of it.
“He had no idea he had Aboriginal ancestry and [when] I was having a chat with his uncle and asked if he knew, he said, ‘No, all our life we were told we had Spanish blood.’
“It was not a thing you advertised back then, but now they know the truth, which is great.
“We knew he existed from birth records, and then he just disappeared and we couldn't find what happened to him. There was no marriages, no deaths in Western Australia.
“And then on his mother's obituary, it stated that she had lost two sons in the war.
“We knew James Dickerson had died at Gallipoli, so everybody just assumed that Walter died in the First World War as well.
“But I went through all of the First World War records, and I couldn't find anything.
“Then it just occurred to me, ‘I wonder if he died during an earlier war?’ So I looked at the Boer War and straightaway I found him.
“He popped up, and I was just ecstatic.
“I went through so many records from the First World War trying to find him, but because he was illegitimate he wasn’t registered as a Dickerson.
“His birth was registered as a Mortimer, but then his mother married Mr Parker, and then Mr Parker died in an accident felling a tree, and she married a Dickerson, so we were looking for any of those names – Dickerson, Parker, Mortimer. He could have been under any of those names, and then there was variances of their names as well, but it turned out he'd taken on the name of Parker.
“It was so good to find out what happened to him. I’d been going through records at the library and found his birth records connecting him to his mother Mary so we knew he existed; we just didn't know what had happened to him.
“There were many trips into the library, looking through microfilm, until we found out the truth about him.
“We thought he must have been one of many Aboriginal men who died during the Boer War so to find out he was the first we were very surprised.
“In researching him, I felt this great connection to him. I felt he was screaming out to get his story told and he found me to help do that.
“It's been quite a journey with him.”
Matthew Grice’s great-great-grandmother, Annie Dickerson, was Walter’s half-sister. Working with Sue Mills, he was able to solve his own family mystery.
“The reason I got into the family history was because my Nana's Nana grew up in an orphanage,” he said.
“We knew she was born in around 1881 somewhere in WA, but we had no idea about her parents, so I took a DNA test and that showed that there was some Indigenous DNA.
“I knew straight away it was from that line because she had a few darker features and the family story said that her father might have been an Afghan camel trader…
“I’d heard the family stories, and it did sort of make sense because she was from the south-west and there was a few Afghan camel traders going through the area at the time, but that was just the family stories and as you know the family story is not always true.
“It was great when we found out the truth [about her Indigenous heritage] and then that connection led us to Walter.
“I’d started delving further into that and thanks to Sue, who had already done a mountain of research on the family, I found out that her parents were Mary Benyup and John Parker and that there were a few siblings as well …
“Walter was one of those, so then we started looking for Walter Parker … and just compiled as much as we could about him.
“It was a great feeling when we sat down and realised it was definitely him and that we'd finally found him after all this searching.
“It was just incredible…
“I had goosebumps for a bit, and I felt immensely proud that I was able to help in finding out that he was the first Indigenous soldier to have died [on active service]. .
“I think everyone likes a mystery, and when that mystery was solved, it was great sitting down with all the family … and telling them about it.
“We just knew nothing – absolutely nothing – about that line of the family and when I sat them down … and brought out my little folder and told them the story, they loved it.”
Private Walter Parker’s story will be told at a Last Post Ceremony commemorating his life a day after the 148th anniversary of his birth.
“I'm really glad that his story is going to be told and that people can now find out about his story,” Grice said.
“It is quite an interesting story, and to have him recognised in this way, it means a lot.“It feels great to know that his story is finally being told, as it should.”
Michael Bell is the Indigenous Liaison Officer at the Memorial. A proud Ngunnawal/Gomeroi man, he is working to identify and research the extent of the contribution and service of people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who have served, who are currently serving, or who have any military experience and/or have contributed to the war effort. He is interested in further details of the military history of all of these people and their families. He can be contacted via Michael.Bell@awm.gov.au