A born entertainer who brought joy to countless lives. Aunty Alice Thomas was the most senior Gunai Elder in Victoria, who could bring a smile to the sternest face with her warmth, generosity and remarkable talent for playing the piano. A born entertainer and bona-fide legend, she lived every one of her 95 years to the fullest.
Aunty Alice was born on the Lake Tyers Mission Station in 1919, outside the church that her father and grandfather had helped to build. She was the only child of John 'Jack' Connolly and Alice (nee Thorpe). The policies of the Central Board for the Protection of Aborigines, which administered Lake Tyers, contributed to Aunty Alice's family leaving the mission when she was six years old.
They lived with Aunty Alice's maternal grandparents William and Sarah Thorpe on a farm near Lakes Entrance for many years before moving to Bairnsdale.
As a child Aunty Alice was headstrong and opinionated and mischievous. She attended the state school in Bairnsdale and loved physical sports like football. Aunty Alice also displayed a prodigious talent for music. By the age of five, she had taught herself to play the piano by observing her mother doing so. Though her parents paid for formal lessons, Aunty Alice never went to more than a handful, instead learning music by ear.
At 19 years of age, Aunty Alice married Nanson Young in Bairnsdale. The couple had three children before moving with Aunty Alice’s parents to Fitzroy during the Second World War. Their fourth child was born in Melbourne. The family's house in Gertrude Street was a hub for the local Aboriginal community as served as a boarding house for many new arrivals in the city. The newly ordained Pastor Doug Nicholls conducted services in their front room before establishing his church in Gore Street in 1945.
In addition to raising a family, Aunty Alice worked as a waitress on Smith Street; a social job that suited her outgoing personality. She took great pride in her appearance and was considered a fashion icon in the Community. However, it was for her spirited piano playing that Aunty Alice was best known.
She performed regularly at fundraising concerts, community functions, socials and the Aboriginal cabarets. Aunty Alice had people on their feet at Friday night dances and Sunday church services. She also formed an all-female band. Many likened Aunty Alice to the Trinidadian pianist Winifred Atwell, a popular performer in the 1950’s.
After her first marriage ended Aunty Alice met Frank Thomas. Franks' four children joined Aunty Alice's ever-growing family and the couple also had a son together. Several moves followed including a stint picking beans in Gippsland, before the family settled on Broadmeadows. However, Aunty Alice always remained connected to Fitzroy.
In her lifetime, she played at hundreds of Aboriginal funerals, many held at St Mark’s Church. Aunty Alice was 94 years old when she played her last funeral. Her music was always uplifting and it is a testament to her gift that she could raise people’s spirits on even the most sombre occasions.
Aunty Alice also had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy. In the late 1980’s, she won a variety show organised by the Victorian Aboriginal Community Services Association Limited after playing her piano for so long that her great granddaughter, who was the dancer in the double act, gave up exhausted.
She was never idle, nor was her home ever empty. She provided food and shelter to untold numbers of people over the years and her door was always open to those seeking care and advice. A confidante and a sage, Aunty Alice was entrusted with secrets, comforted the heartbroken and could diagnose someone by just looking at them. She was also the life of the party, and delighted family and friends with her naughty sense of humour. Aunty Alice did experience heartache in her life-she outlived three children and four grandchildren, all men lost too young - but she always carried on for the sake of those around her.
Her passion for Community
Above all Aunty Alice was passionate about her Community. Her pride was never more apparent than when Lake Tyers Reserve was handed back to her people in 1971.
Throughout her life, Aunty Alice participated in every community event, flag raising ceremony and NAIDOC Ball, she was invited to. Wherever she went, people flocked to her, and the reaction to her impromptu performances-all but guaranteed if there were a piano in the room-was nothing short of euphoric. It is no exaggeration to say that people were unanimous in their love and respect for Aunty Alice.
Aunty Alice is thought to have been Victoria's oldest living Aboriginal person. To her more than 266 descendants, she was the treasured family matriarch, who was still playing the piano from the confines of her bed until her final months.
In 2012, Aunty Alice received a regional NAIDOC award for Elder of the Year. The next year, a striking portrait of her, painted by her son Ray Thomas won the Victorian Indigenous Art Award.
Photo credit: Tim Wood
- Alice Thomas, Aboriginal Victoria