Leeds-born Joan Cooper was a ‘£10 Pom’ when she emigrated in 1965, only to find a startling family connection years later. Interview by Neil Hudson
When Joan Cooper decided she and her young family would emigrate to Australia, she was a sprightly 23-years-old. She’s now 78 but has lost none of her energy and as we chat at her niece, Yvonne Grundy’s house, it’s hard to keep up with her.
Some of the things it deals with are shocking and terrible but they need to be addressed. These things happened.‘£10 Pom’ Joan Cooper
Joan grew up in Bramley and went to Northcote Private School at the same time as Barbara Taylor Bradford, with whom she is still in touch. After leaving school, she worked for a time as an ornamental sugar confectioner at a firm called DCL on Tong Road. She married and had two children.
Joan had a friend who had already succumbed to the lure of a more prosperous life Down Under and she and her husband at the time decided to take the plunge too.
She recalls: “When you’re young you make snap decisions like that. My thinking was, if we didn’t like it, we could come back home. It was always something I had an inkling about, because my mother always wanted to go to Australia. I remember telling them and she just backed me all the way. Sadly, she never got to realise her dream, she died about a year after I left.”
A three-day long flight with a stopover in Singapore followed, after which Joan began her new life in Perth, Western Australia. “I was a cleaner to start with and later worked in the fast food industry.”
Joan returned home roughly every ten years. She remembers the old Bramley (prior to the demolition of the old town and its replacement with the modern shopping centre) and wishes they had left it alone. She says she was horrified when she came home on a visit and saw what they had done, adding: “It was quaint and should never have been touched. I remember going every Saturday morning as a little girl with my father Harold Chantrey to the library to swap my books. I remember taking my own children to the babies welcome at town end for their weekly weigh in.”
She also remembers farmer Warrington with his cart of milk churns delivering the milk and taking a jug for it filling, playing down on the Ducky Fields and talking to the Italian prisoners of war, who sang to them as they worked on the railway lines.
But despite her love of home, Joan put down roots in her new country. After her first marriage fell apart, she found love once more and married Ian Cooper and now has a very large extended family, with grandchildren and great grandchildren.
In a way, it was her children who led her down an astonishing path.
“My daughter married an Aborigine, Russ, and that’s where it all started. They had two sons and I always felt the boys should know who Russ’s mother was. We knew she died when he was about five but we didn’t know the story.”
Russ is Joan’s son in law, while his great, great grandparents were Cob (an Aboriginal) and Ellen (who came from Hunslet, Leeds). It was the 1890s, Ellen was in the country with her parents, who ran a Christian mission. Cob, whose father was called Cabunya, a well known tracker who tracked down the notorious Ned Kelly, worked at the mission. The two formed a relationship which was initially thwarted but eventually endured.
The story turned out to be more explosive that she thought and is the subject of her first novel, Rainbow in a Bottle, which has won praise from Australian academics for its frank account of one of the darkest chapters in Australian history, as it deals with the often horrendous treatment which was given to Aborigines, which included murder and some even being given poisoned flour, while others were subjected to forced marriages and their families torn apart.
“All of this comes out in the book,” explains Joan, who is now something of an expert on that part of her adopted country’s history. “What we found out was that Russ’s mother, Coiny, died from a disease known as golden staph, a skin infection which ultimately leads to death. But we knew where she lived, Mount Isa, a big mining town, and so we went there looking for relatives.”
The relatives produced an album packed with biographical information, which shone a light on the particularly sad story of Cob and Ellen… but there was another twist in the tale which even Joan had not anticipated.
“This was the 1890s,” says Joan. “It was forbidden for a white woman to marry a black man but that’s what happened. All of this took place at a mission at a place called Fraser Island. But what really surprised me was when I learned that the family of missionaries came from Hunslet in Leeds. What it meant was that my grandchildren were three-quarter Yorkshire.”
It was only several years later Cob and Ellen were able to marry but even then their relationship was frowned upon. Joan’s story tells the tale of their forbidden love and the fruits it eventually bore. Joan has just finished writing the sequel to the book, The Price of the Rainbow, and which she hopes to have published soon.
So what does she think of returning to her home county?
“There are all sorts of differences but one of the biggest is the amount of traffic here.”
Over the years, Joan has lost most of her Yorkshire accent, although there are still signs of it, particularly in her ‘o’s and .she confesses that on occasion, she still manages to confound some of her fellow Australians.
Joan delved into the ancestry of her grandchildren as they knew where their mother Deborah came from and questioned their aboriginal background.
She adds: “I’m pleased I wrote the book as a novel, I think it appeals to more people like that, rather than in a historical account. Some of the things it deals with are shocking and terrible but they need to be addressed. These things happened. There is still racism and prejudice today but I think doing things like these books helps.”
After the Second World War, more than 1.5m took up the offer of emigrating to Australia for £10
After migrating in 1965, Joan Cooper lived in Perth and in 1978 completed a fine diploma in art
Rainbow in a Bottle can be ordered from any reputable book shop, including Waterston in Leeds, priced £10. It is also available online
Joan has written a third book, Marias Story, about domestic violence, a true story with a happy ending; she is wanting to make contact with a domestic violence group to discuss publishing it in England