Former stockman and now Townsville resident Hans Pearson. Picture: Evan Morgan
Former stockman and now Townsville resident Hans Pearson. Picture: Evan Morgan

One man’s fight to win back $190m in stolen wages

After a tough life some of the fight might have gone out of Hans Pearson, but not the smile, nor the love of life.

Sixty six years after he lied about his age and joined a mustering camp at Starke Station in Queensland's far north, the affable 80-year-old is waiting patiently for his share of a $190 million payout to compensate him for being robbed of his wages by the state for the first decade of his working life.

Former stockman and now Townsville resident Hans Pearson. Picture: Evan Morgan
Former stockman and now Townsville resident Hans Pearson. Picture: Evan Morgan

The bulk of Mr Pearson's wages, like those of more than 10,000 other Indigenous people, vanished for decades during the mid 20th Century, and no one is entirely sure where they went.

But Mr Pearson, speaking from his housing commission home in suburban Townsville, has definitely had enough of chasing the lost cash.

"I think I am just gonna leave it at that,'' he said.

"The whole thing was really for the wife anyway, and she has died so I don't see the sense in going on with it.''

Mr Pearson will be one of around 10,000 recipients of the long-running stolen wages case which the State Government says will soon allow for $190 million to be distributed among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who lost their earnings between 1939 and 1972.

Mr Pearson, the lead applicant in the case, was age just 14 when he lied about his age, left Hopevale and went to Starke Station about 70 km away from his hometown.

"It was straight to the mustering camp for me,'' he recalls.

But he had plenty of good company.

Undated picture of Hans Pearson when he worked as a stockman.
Undated picture of Hans Pearson when he worked as a stockman.

Aboriginal men were the backbone of the cattle industry across northern Australia for much of the 19th and 20th centuries.

"Every station had 12 or even 14 Aboriginal stockman in those day I reckon, and they were good stockmen, classy stockmen, and they could work!''

He worked on various stations in the far north and was soon seconded by stations owners to take on the job of drover.

He and fellow stockman could take 1200 or 1300 head of cattle from the Gulf Country down to Mareeba, spending weeks at a time on the job, sleeping in a swag on the ground and working seven days a week.

"It was a hard life, no doubt about that, and you worked rain, hail or shine.''

Life wasn't merely hard as a stockman.

Mr Pearson was born into hardship.

His life began in Hopevale during World War 11 and shortly after his birth he and his family were forced to relocate to Woorabinda, an Indigenous community in central Queensland, because of fears of enemy invasion of the north.

Hans Pearson (far right) in 1965 with fellow workers at the Hope Vale saw mill in far north Queensland. Picture: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland
Hans Pearson (far right) in 1965 with fellow workers at the Hope Vale saw mill in far north Queensland. Picture: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

The Hopevale superintendent, German-born missionary Georg Heinrich Schwartz, who Mr Pearson remembers as being "idolised'' by some Hopevale residents, was interned in Brisbane for four months at age 74 even though he was a naturalised Australian and had cut all ties with Australia's then enemy, Germany.

"A lot of our people called him ""Moonie'' because Moonie means black in the Aboriginal language and Schwartz means black in the German language,'' he recalls.

"A lot of people like him.''

While a young kid in Woorabinda Mr Pearson also got to know the future Queensland Premier Sir John Bjelke Petersen who lived in Kingaroy but occasionally visited to teach him and other kids Sunday School.

"I liked him sell enough I suppose,'' he says.

"My parent certainly did - they were very religious people.''

Undated picture of Hans Pearson with his wife Anna on their wedding day.
Undated picture of Hans Pearson with his wife Anna on their wedding day.

After working for a decade from around 1953 Mr Pearson received an "exemption" certificate which effectively allowed him to more freely about the state and earn his own living.

He relocated with his wife Anna to Innisfail in the early 1960s and worked at night on the sanitary "night cart'' taking away human waste.

In the day he worked in the cattle sorting yards, and planned his future.

"You know, that was first time I saw money, the first time I was actually paid for the work I did,'' he says.

"I was a free man for the first time, you know, like the Negroes (African-American) slaves, I was a free man.''

He and Anna were eagerly anticipating picking up the cheque he believed he would receive for the decade of work with cattle.

He knew the local police officer in Innisfail because the two had known each other when the police officer worked in Cooktown.

The police officer told him the money was available one day in 1963 and actually drove him to the police station to collect the cheque which Anna had estimated at around 7000 pounds.

"You know 7000 pounds was big money in those days, you could buy a good house for less than 7000 pounds and me and the wife, we had picked out this house in Innisfail and we were going to buy it,'' he said.

Undated picture of Hans Pearson when he worked as a stockman
Undated picture of Hans Pearson when he worked as a stockman

And then the cop handed him a cheque for 28 pounds.

"I said, 'is that all I get?

"And he said, 'that's all you got.

"So I said, I've been workin' 10 even 11 years I think it was.

"And he said, "you're not going to argue are you?

"And I didn't argue.

"Those fellas, they could be pretty harsh in those days.''

In the early 2000s under a scheme organised by the Beattie Government Mr Pearson received $7000 in compensation for the lost money.

But in the 90s something strange occurred.

One of his sons was working on Palm Island of Townsville and one day was helping to burn thousands of documents related to the lives of Aboriginal people dating back across decades.

His son opened one of the boxes and saw his father's name.

"He bought them (the documents))home and we held onto them,'' Mr Pearson says.

He took the documents to Cairns lawyer John Bottoms but Mr Bottoms was already representing another Indigenous man and wasn't sure he could find the time to help Mr Pearson out, but offered to photocopy all the documents anyway.

Hans Pearson with his family. Picture supplied by Hans Pearson.
Hans Pearson with his family. Picture supplied by Hans Pearson.

When Anna passed away in 2009 Mr Pearson, now living in a Townsville Housing Commission home, said he had no more interest in the issue even though a class action was underway.

"About four years ago John said, 'hey Hans, do you still want to do that class action (on stolen wages).

"And I said, 'no, I am not in the slightest bit interested in it.

"I was doing it because of the wife and she was gone.''

But he did pursue it, and is lad he did primarily because it will help thousands of other Indigenous people recoup at least some money.

One of his daughters tried to determine how much the 7000 pounds might be worth today and came up with a figure of $235,000 (if calculated with interest) but it is impossible to properly quantify the purchasing power of the money lost.

Hans Pearson at his home in Hermit Park, Townsville. Picture: Ian Hitchcock
Hans Pearson at his home in Hermit Park, Townsville. Picture: Ian Hitchcock

What sum Mr Pearson will actually get out of the class action is yet to be determined in a process to be overseen by the Federal Court.

But, to him, it's all academic.

"Look, a young person spends the first ten years of their working life saving money for their house, that's how it works,'' Mr Pearson says, without bitterness.

"I lost that ten years, it's gone and it doesn't come back.''

The couple were in Townsville by 1968, and Mr Pearson remained busy, working in the meat works, on the roads, even helping build Clive Palmer's Yabulu Nickel plant.

But misfortune had not finished with him.

The January floods in Townsville wiped him out.

"I lost everything, furniture, clothes even my car, but my car was the only thing insured.''

Thankfully he has a large extended family to help him.

His sister's grandson is celebrated footballer Matt Bowen and Matt helped him extensively after the floods.

Now he's back home, the grandkids come around and visit him, and he still sees the good in the world.

My old work mates, they say - 'look at this bloke, he's gone through all these trials and tribulations, yet he can still smile.''

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