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Stories of separation are laced with anguish, loss, determination and resilience. Through forced circumstances, or by choice, separation divides people from people, and people from land, into disconnected worlds. You can measure it in feelings. Abrupt and forced separation can tear you to pieces. With choice, it sets you adrift to go a different way. Even to rule victorious.

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Jean Cook
Jean Cook, 2009

Jean Cook — separation from her family due to Spanish influenza

Jean Cook (born 1915) was three years old when Spanish influenza claimed her mother's life and separated her family. Jean's mother was one of 12,000 Australians who died of Spanish influenza by the end of 1919.

Named for one of its earliest victims, the King of Spain, the highly infectious virus claimed the lives of more than 20 million people across the world, many more than the 15 million who died in the First World War. The virus spread with the mass mobilisation of troops in 1918 and the return of troops at the war's end is probably how the virus arrived in Australia.

From February to July 1919, life in Australia came to a relative standstill. Schools, libraries, hotels, race courses and cinemas were closed. Churches were shut for a brief period in New South Wales then re-opened, provided attendees wore face masks and sat apart from each other. It was compulsory to wear protective face masks in public. This was strictly enforced in NSW which had the highest death rate.

Jean Cook remembers: 'I was in hospital, I was three years old. My mother died three days before my fourth birthday. We were in Junee primary school because the hospital was full. Schools of course were closed. It was a terrible time.'

In an attempt to stop the flu spreading, borders were closed between the states and quarantine camps set up. Soldiers arriving home on ships were often forced to stay on board until the ship was declared disease free. There was widespread support for inoculation and evidence suggests that it was fairly effective in preventing the spread of the Spanish flu.

When a parent died of the flu or was hospitalised, children were often sent to live with relatives or friends. When Jean's mother died from flu in 1919 and her father was seriously ill, she and her three siblings were separated and sent to live with others. They never lived together as a family again.

A muslin face mask like those worn in 1919 and an influenza emergency worker badge were on display.

Jean Cook 03:35

Jessie Vasey —  separation of war widows

Jessie Vasey's (1897–1966) husband died in World War Two. In learning to cope with her grief and pain, she formed the War Widows Guild, to help other war widows who were struggling financially, and often emotionally too.

Many war widows only received a small pension and Jessie's initiatives emphasised self-help rather than reliance on handouts. It was Jessie's idea to train war widows in craft work, especially weaving, so they could earn money from home. Craftwork was financially rewarding and a way for grieving widows to keep going, one row at a time.

A weaving loom that belonged to the War Widows Guild was on display.

Louis St John Johnson — separation from his birth mother

Louis St John Johnson (1973–1992) was born Warren Braeden in Alice Springs in 1973. He was separated from his Aboriginal mother as a baby and adopted out to Bill and Pauline Johnson who were told he'd been abandoned. This was untrue.

Louis was brought up in Perth in the coastal suburb of North Beach and had a relatively happy childhood. As he grew older, however, he began to feel increasingly isolated and developed a longing to find his natural family and to meet his birth mother. With the support of his adopted parents, he returned to Alice Springs as a 14-year-old, but the authorities refused to give him any information about the identity of his mother or family.

In the early 1990s the Perth media began a campaign for tougher penalties for young offenders, focusing on car thieves who were usually portrayed as out of control Aboriginal youths. It was in this climate of hysteria that Louis was assaulted outside a city cafe while sitting and talking to a couple of white girls, his attackers taking offence at such behaviour.

Louis later told his dad 'it's just not safe to be out on the streets anymore.' This was Perth in 1991. A few weeks later Louis was walking home from a party on his 19th birthday when a car pulled up. In the early hours of Saturday 4 January, he was bashed and dragged was on to the road before being deliberately run over. When asked by police later why they did it, the driver replied 'because he was black' [1,2,3].

Although this brutal attack was committed by a group of youths, it was not given coverage by the local media as an example of youth crime [2,3]. It seems it did not fit the stereotype of young black criminals perpetrating crimes against innocent white victims [1].

A few hours later a passer-by came across Louis' body and called an ambulance, but when it arrived the ambulance attendants assumed Louis had been sniffing petrol and took him home to sleep rather than to hospital for the urgent medical attention he obviously required [1,3]. They made him walk up the stairs of his home with a shattered pelvis, perforated bowel, broken ribs and a punctured lung, put him on his bed, and told his sister he would sleep it off. Louis died a few hours later.

Following his death, Bill and Pauline Johnson took Louis' body back to Alice Springs and after threatening to call a press conference over his dead body, were finally given details of Louis' natural family. The funeral was attended by Louis' mother and grandfather as well as about 100 members of his extended family from the local community. When Louis' birth mother Dawna died in 2006, she was buried next to her son. In death, Louis was finally reunited with his birth mother and country.

Louis' first surf board, with his own 'saint' emblem painted was on display.

View a video about Louis St John Johnson (MPEG 10.9mb) duration 3:54


1. Haebich, A. (2000) Broken Circles: Fragmenting Indigenous Families 1800–2000. Fremantle Arts Centre Press: Fremantle.

2. Stockwell, C. (1993) The Role of the Media in the Juvenile Justice Debate in Western Australia. In Atkinson, L. & Gerull, S.-A. (eds.) National Conference on Juvenile Justice: Proceedings of a conference held 22-24 September 1992. Australian Institute of Criminology: Canberra, (pp. 279-290).

3. Mickler, S. (1992) Gambling on the First Race: a comment on racism and talkback radio. Louis St John Johnson Memorial Trust and Centre for Research in Culture and Communication, Murdoch University: Perth, Western Australia.

Archie Roach performs 'Lighthouse' 8:08

Liyarn Ngarn is a film which tells the story of Louis Johnson. Archie Roach performed this evocative and beautiful song prior to its screening at the National Museum of Australia on 22 January 2011.

Tim Sharp — separation of autism

Tim Sharp (born 1988) was diagnosed with autism when he was three years old. The condition means that Tim has difficulty communicating with others and expressing his feelings and opinions. When he was a child, Tim's mum Judy would use stick-figure drawings to explain everyday situations to him. Tim took to drawing and now uses it to express his quirky sense of humour. Through selling his drawings he has the chance to lead a fulfilling life, overcoming his feelings of separation from the outside world, and in the process bringing joy and laughter to others.

One of Tim's drawing's was on display. It was previously exhibited at the Very Special Arts Festival in Washington, DC, in 2004.

Prince Leonard — separation from the state

On 21 April 1970 Leonard George Casley (born 1925) served formal notice on the Premier and the Governor of Western Australia, the Acting Prime Minister, Sir John McEwen, and the Governor-General, Sir Paul Hasluck, that his land was to be the Hutt River Province and that he was to be its administrator. In a further application of bush law he changed the province to a principality and declared himself Prince Leonard and his wife Princess Shirley. He had successfully seceded from Australia.

Casley was reacting to what he regarded as an unfair wheat quota set by the Western Australian government. He turned his 18,500-acre property near Geraldton into a tourist mecca, printing his own stamps, passports and currency, and adopting all the trappings of a real principality.

A set of stamps from the Hutt River Province was on display.

Bob Balmain

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European dancer who fled Vienna in 1938, formed a new dance company in Sydney and toured outback Australia.

Joyce Doru

The Red Cross helped this Sudanese refugee to find her family after ten years of separation (1990s)

Isabella Lynott

Member of the stolen generation who devoted her life to supporting and caring for children (1940s)

Captain Moonlite

Separation from gang member Nesbitt who died in a shootout (1870s–80s)

Winnie O'Sullivan

Sweetheart of Australian boxing legend Les Darcy. The object on display was the mourning locket worn by Winnie OSullivan after Les' death. It contains a photo of Les and a lock of his hair.

Les Darcy locket ollection highlight

Peter Porter

Expatriate poet, talks about separation from Australia and his identity as an Australian (1930s–today)

Rose Sarah Rasey

Japanese prisoner of war nurse during the Second World War (1930s–1945)

Jane Walker

Convict in Ross female factory, Tasmania, separated from her family and her country (1840s–1850s)

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