Thambirri is the Yindjibarndi name for Tambrey Station, one of the first stations established in the Tablelands district near Roebourne. The region extends to the Millstream area which is where the first sheep station was established in the state’s north-west.
Thambirri is located a short distance eastward from the old Buminyji ration camp along the Roebourne-Wittenoom road. The homestead is a rare and unique mudbrick structure that is more than 100 years old and is listed on the Register of the National Estate (WA). It is situated on the banks of Thunggawarna Creek, which flows into the Fortescue River. The river operated as a major pathway for Aboriginal people travelling through the country, and links Thambirri to Buminyji and Jirndawirrinha further on.
The station dates from the mid-1880s, but it was not until station manager William Cusack arrived in 1892 that construction commenced on the mudbrick homestead. His son, Thomas Cusack, took over the management around 1922 after his father died during World War I. Thomas lived in the homestead with his wife Olive ‘Dosh’ Cusack. In the years that followed the station became a busy place for social gatherings and tennis parties. The events drew in people and Aboriginal workers from around the district up until Thomas died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1936. His body was buried on the rise just north-east of the homestead. He was joined by his wife ‘Dosh’ fifty-one years later. Following Thomas’ death, the station fell to ruin and was completely abandoned by the time Les Parsons from Coolawanyah Station bought it in 1950. It was incorporated into the Coolawanyah lease in 1970 and remains part of that station today. Aboriginal workers and those living at Tambrey station during the late 30s and 40s moved on to other camps at Coolawanyah, Mt Florance, Hooley and Mulga Downs.
Thambirri Birthing Tree
A Birthing Tree located close to the homestead is a significant part of the Thambirri cultural landscape for the Yindjibarndi traditional custodians. While visiting the station, the Yindjibarndi traditional custodians shared their knowledge regarding cultural births. The midwife or birthing assistant, known as ooru, is usually an aunty or the mother of the pregnant woman. An older Law sister, known as thuru, could also take care of the birthing. The naming of the child following birth is often related to the place of birth, or the flora and fauna around that location of birth.
This tree holds an important story for the Yindjibarndi people about Guinness Gilby. Guinness was born to Topsy Malcolm underneath the Thambirri Birthing Tree. As a young boy, Guinness fell from a different tree (now named Guinness’s Tree) and broke his neck on the rocks. His spirit was then taken into a nearby rockshelter. However, the Elders and the people around the station couldn’t let his spirit leave. They brought it back from the rockshelter and put it in his body. Guinness then woke up, and he grew up healthily to later pass his stories and knowledge on to his grandchildren.
Near the homestead is an old garden where fruit and vegetables were grown, tended to by Aboriginal families that worked at Thambirri. During the station days the garden was tended to by dedicated Yindjibarndi man Harry Mills, brother of Yindjibarndi traditional custodian Jimmy Horace. They planted all sorts of produce here, including mangos. Today the Date Palms, originally from Afghanistan still grow along the entire creek.
Yindjibarndi people once lived in rockshelters near Thambirri and camped along Thunggawarna creek where stone tools, artefacts, grinding patches and old fireplaces have been identified.
The focus of the archaeological work at Thambirri was on the rockshelter located 500 m to the south-west of the homestead. There is a north-south running ironstone ridge that dominates the landscape to the west of the homestead.
Rodney Adams and archaeologist, Ben Curtis, investigated the rockshelter and the surrounding ridgeline. This ironstone outcrop contains not only a rockshelter, but an adjacent walled niche to the north and a flaked quartz outcrop to the south. The rockshelter is 3 m high, 10 m wide and 12 m deep, which is large enough to hold a small group of people. The floor has animal poo, including kangaroo, bats, birds and goannas; plus gravel, roof-fall and a fine clay that has blown into the rockshelter during hot, dry or windy conditions. There are bullet shell casings, broken glass, flaked stone tools, and a fireplace, which indicates that people have stayed here on many occasions. During the inspection the fireplace area includes ashes, a surround, spare firewood and a kitchen knife. There are also 3 kangaroo tailbones off to the side, with 2 placed neatly together, suggesting that people continue to visit this place.
The most recent activity seems to be by a goanna digging a burrow. Several star-crimped, .22 Hornet casings surround the burrow, which suggests a hunt.
Few stone artefacts were in the rockshelter, however there was a broad grey blade made of volcanic stone, which could be dolerite. When this is worked by a skilled craftsman, called a knapper, the stone produces a sharp edge that can be used like a modern kitchen knife. There was also a grey waste-flake made during the production of the blade and another flake made of black volcanic rock.
The rockshelter contains evidence of tool making, hunting, cooking and eating. It looks like a pretty good place for a feed and to enjoy the view.
To the south of the rockshelter a large ironstone boulder contains quartz, which was often used by Aboriginal people to manufacture flaked stone tools. The outcrop is large and located beneath the crest of the ridge. There are several marks, which archaeologists call flake scars, and these indicate that people were here to collect material for tools.
Around the corner from the main rockshelter there is a walled niche set in a small nook that is 2 m wide. The niche was used for trapping animals for food. When the hot winds blew in the right direction animals would come to the rockshelter looking for a place to lie down. By narrowing the entrance animals could only escape in one direction, enabling a group of hunters to corner their prey, forcing it to head uphill where men would lay waiting with their spears.
Wedged within the walling is a large, dolerite river cobble that has been ground and flaked. Flaking of stone is something people did to make tools; however grinding is something that has several uses such as sharpening tools, grinding seeds to make damper, or preparing ochre for ceremonies.
The Homestead and Graves
The homestead was built in 1893 and constructed with antbed mud bricks containing chopped up spinifex and dags from the woolshed which were mixed in to help it bind together. The construction was rushed due to the imminent arrival of Mrs Cusack’s son; thus the walls are only 8 feet high and the veranda has a low roof. There were no door or window frames and the openings are arched with 700 mm wide windowsills, which demonstrate unique workmanship and design for such a region in the 1890s.
Thomas Cusack was born in 1893, the same year his father William finished the homestead. Following his father’s death Thomas returned to the station with his wife ‘Dosh’ and co-managed the station with Charles ‘Bud’ Ferguson. Cusack was the Roebourne Roads Board Chairman and his wife was the secretary. They held many social events at the station, but this ended abruptly when Cusack died in 1936. Newspapers reported that it was by an accidental gunshot wound and Yindjibarndi people still remember their parents telling the story of his burial before they left the station.
Following the death of Thomas in 1936, Dosh remained at the station with Charles ‘Bud’ Ferguson. It is not clear when she left, but the station and homestead gradually fell to ruin and was completely abandoned by 1950. She eventually became the headmistress at Presbyterian Ladies College in Perth and when she died in 1985 her ashes were placed at the grave of her husband. The Cusack’s had 3 children and the gravesite was fenced by their descendants.
Join us on a tour of Thambirri and the old buildings of Tambrey Station where Yindjibarndi people used to work. Explore the rockshelter where people used to camp, inspect grinding stones and visit the gravesite of the station manager. This panoramic tour lets you see Thambirri from the perspective you would see it if you were there, with key features and media content embedded in the content of the place.