A lasting legacy

Heather Bonner was a truly remarkable Ipswich woman who worked tirelessly for her family, her community and the causes in which she believed.

Her strength of character and her dedication brought indigenous and non-indigenous Australians together through her outstanding contribution to OPAL, the One People of Australia League.

She remains an inspiration to women in Ipswich and across the nation. This is her story, assembled using information and photographs supplied by her loving family. 

Heather's early life

Heather Ray Bonner was born into a political family on the 3rd of September 1923 in Granny Johnson’s Nursing Home at Ipswich, the third child of Lucinda and Richard Trotter. Her mother Lucinda, was one of ten children of Mary and Hugh Sinclair and Grandfather Hugh was widely known in Ipswich. He was the Member for Moreton in the House of Representatives from 1906 until his retirement in 1919 and had been the founding manager of the Queensland Farmers’ Co-operative Association factory at Jacaranda Street, Booval.

Following her schooling at Silkstone State School and Ipswich Girls’ Grammar School, Heather went to work as a book-keeper in the Brisbane Markets in Roma Street, Brisbane. During this time, she was the first female Cub Master in the Ipswich Scouting movement.

The war years

In 1942 as the Pacific War raged, Heather joined the Australian Women’s Army in only the second intake of women. With the rank of Corporal, she became Confidential Secretary to General Durrant at Brisbane’s Victoria Barracks. Being a striking young woman, her picture was chosen to advertise jobs in the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS).

General Durrant was once hosting a meeting with other high ranked officers, including US General Douglas Macarthur. She unfortunately spilled the tea that she was serving and General Blamey, of Singapore fame, "dressed her down." Heather's mother Lucinda had grown up with the Blamey family and on being told of the dressing down, she caught the train down to Brisbane and “tore strips off him.”

In 1944, following the Battle of the Coral Sea, Heather married Robert Harrison, a Petty Officer in the US Navy and Heather sailed as a war bride to America after conflict had ceased. Their daughter Robyn was born in Glendale, California.

Turbulent times

The small family lived happily in several naval bases, eventually settling in Key West, Florida but it was here that tragedy struck and Robert was killed in a car accident. Heather was left in a naval port, an Australian “alien” with a small daughter to support and knowing absolutely nobody. She worked as a waitress for several years in Florida and as a result of these bleak years, her family remembers that for the rest of her life, even after indifferent service for a cup of coffee and a sandwich, she would always leave a tip. 

In time, Heather married another Navy man from Florida, David Ryan, and the family moved to Shelton, Washington State following his discharge from the Navy.  David joined the police force while Heather worked as an accountant and it was in Shelton, that daughter Shay and son Rory were born. Sadly, the marriage became increasingly turbulent and Heather’s physical and emotional health suffered under the strain of it. Returning to Australia was the only real solution.

With the support of two dear friends, the assistance of her father in Ipswich and the welcome haven of her paternal aunt’s home in Vancouver Canada, she survived. Heather and her three children finally made it safely home to Australia on the S.S. Orsova. In the middle of a heatwave in November 1957 they arrived in Green Street, Ipswich to live with her newly-retired father and his huge borzoi dog in a house chock full of porcelain and antiques.

OPAL (One People of Australia League)

As her life settled down, Heather became actively involved with two organizations, the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade and OPAL. For the former, she became part of the lecture circuit, warning of the perils of “reds under the beds” as espoused by Dr Fred Schwartz in his book You Can Trust the Communists (to be Communists).

OPAL was formed to promote co-operation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and to provide welfare and political weight to Indigenous issues. OPAL’s aim was to weld the citizens of Australia into one people. There were as many as sixteen active branches across Queensland in such places as Mt Isa, Cloncurry and Cairns as well as an OPAL Centre in Brisbane and OPAL’s children’s facility, the Joyce Wilding Home at Mt Gravatt.

OPAL Annual reports include sections on housing, welfare, education, holiday camps and social events such as the Miss OPAL competition. Jagera Elder, Neville Bonner, was the president of OPAL from 1968 – 1975.

Heather was Secretary of the Ipswich Branch and was also a member of the State Board of Directors. Her involvement with OPAL stemmed from a personal pact she had made after receiving help from a dear friend, a first-nation American and descendant of Chief Seattle, during the family’s escape from America. Heather’s home on Denmark Hill became an OPAL office, meeting place and crisis centre. Every day was full of visitors from Murri and non-Murri members of the organisation - phone calls, cups of tea and cigarettes, tears, stories and laughter - lots of laughter.

Heather’s daughter Shay Ryan remembers:

It was hands on, grass roots, 24-hour social welfare work…. Dinner was always on the table for whoever was present. She could make a pound of mince or a few mutton chops go a long way. Sometimes she would read her favourite poems, especially ballads: C. J Dennis’s The Play, The Geebung Polo Club by Banjo Patterson, Whittier’s Barbara Freitchie, “Who touches a hair on yon gray head dies like a dog...” Her childhood elocution lessons combined with years of smoking created a deep, rich, beautifully-articulated voice.


A great political partnership

It was at this time that Heather and other members of the Ryan family became firm friends with Neville and Mona  Bonner through OPAL.  Several years after the passing of Mona Bonner, Heather and Neville fell in love and married in 1972, the year after Neville became a Senator for Queensland,  Australia’s first Aboriginal federal parliamentarian. She became “mother” to his sons Patrick, Tom, Ken, Alfred and Peter and his step-daughters Ruth and Irene. In Shay’s words:

This was the start of a great love story and a great political partnership.

In April 2012, ABC Radio National's Hindsight told the story of Neville Bonner's political life in an episode titled

Compromise and Confrontation: Neville Bonner.  

(Listeners are advised that the recording features the voices of Aboriginal people who have died.)

The program tells of the turbulent 1970s, a time in Australian politics when the struggle for indigenous rights gained momentum.  The first Indigenous person to sit in Federal Parliament came from the ranks of the Liberal Party rather than the radical urban Aboriginal activist movement and the Bonners became a focus of social and political change.

24 minutes into the recording, the ABC presents a sound grab from the TV Program This is your Life when Heather speaks of her first meeting with the man she then called "Mr Bonner". 

At home in Ipswich

The couple settled in Short Street, Ipswich where they hosted fund-raising garden parties for Neville’s campaigns and the Bremer Branch of the Liberal Party. They could be described as "a group of truck-drivers, trades people and small business owners as different from the stereotypical image of their political party as the Geebung Polo Club was from the Cuff and Collar Team".

Shay describes her mother as ….an incredibly astute political strategist. She could read the sweep of the tally board on election nights with precision. On her death bed on election night in 2004, Shay remembers that her mother was anxious for a result in the new seat of Bonner. A call from the Liberal Party’s Dr Brendan Nelson to her hospital room reassured her that it had been won by the Liberal candidate.

Her family remembers:

Balancing this partisan urge was a complete tolerance of different religious and political points of view, including among the extended family. It did not matter which religion as long as they had one – it did not matter what politics, as long as they had some. Although she remained a Presbyterian, she enjoyed her membership of the Salvation Army Home League.

She loved travelling, accompanying Neville to Commonwealth Parliamentary Conferences in Canada and the United Kingdom and also to Asia when he was patron of World Vision. After he ran unsuccessfully as an independent senate candidate in 1983, she supported him as he worked on a variety of committee such as the ABC.

The late 90’s were a time of great loss; first an infant great-grandson, then tragically Patrick Bonner, who had come to help her nurse his father through the final stages of cancer. With Neville’s death in 1999, she lost her great love, her best friend and her life’s work. She continued to involve herself with her church, some charities and Neville Bonner Memorial Scholarships, Legacies and Dedications. Around her cluttered kitchen table she provided counsel to many old friends about Indigenous working parties and Jagera land claims. Of Heather’s final years, Shay says:

She took delight in visits and phone calls from a growing number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren and her kitchen was festooned with their photos and small gifts. But her lungs became increasingly more fragile ... and in October 2004, they finally let her down. In her last night of speech, she kept repeating, “We have to find a concept for the great divide”.

A link to UQ Ipswich

In 2006, the Ipswich Women’s Development Network established the Heather Bonner Memorial Scholarship in honour of Ipswich woman Heather Bonner.

The scholarship was awarded annually to an Ipswich woman to study at the University of Queensland Ipswich Campus in memory of this wonderful lady who was an activist for Aboriginal rights and wife of Australia’s first Aboriginal Senator. The scholarship ceased in 2015 with the transfer of the campus to the University of Southern Queensland.

Heather's story is one of love, compassion and determination that is an inspiration to all.

Wedding photoCopyright held by the Herald & Weekly Times Limited. Reproduced with permission.
Other photosReproduced with kind permission from the Ryan and Bonner families.