Woman Clarke, Helena

Aboriginal rights activist
Alternative Names
  • Murphy, Helena

Written by Ann Standish, The University of Melbourne

Helena Clarke was born in Broome, north Western Australia in 1922, to Kathleen and Lawrence Clarke. The family moved to Port Hedland, six hundred kilometres south down the coast, some years later. Both her parents were politically aware and keen to fight the restrictions and inequities facing Aboriginal people. Helena's father, known as Pop Clarke, in 1934 founded a club for Aboriginal people of mixed descent in Port Hedland, called the Euralian Club. The club became something of a centre for Indigenous unity in the area:

as the younger ones came he started the club and the young ones were very keen because of the dancing, and this is what my dad did up in Port Hedland with his Euralian Club. No outside influence, no church creating - just us folks, the colour people themselves. (Kinnane, p. 336)

At the age of twenty, with other members of her family Helena hitchhiked the 1600 kilometres to Perth, where she lived with her sister whose husband was serving in the air force. Here, she became even more angry about discrimination against the local Indigenous peoples, the Noongars, and other Aborigines and became determined to do something about the situation. In the city, there was much more control and regulation of Indigenous movement than up north. Noongars had only restricted entry to the centre of the city and were refused access to many places. They were also required to carry identification, passes and permits to travel after 6 pm, and were often harassed by police. Helena managed to get jobs at a café and as a cleaner, but when she tried to join first the air force and then the land army, as an Aboriginal woman she was not accepted. These experiences, along with reading the incessant derogatory accounts of Aboriginal behaviour in the daily press, fired her own political activism.

In 1947, Helena, with Jack and Bill Poland and Geoff Harcus, founded the Coolbaroo League. Following the example of Clarke's father's Euralia Club, the League sought to bridge the barriers between Aboriginal and European communities by running dances and social activities for Aborigines. Europeans could attend, but they were prevented from holding any organisational role. This policy was central to the group's political aims. Alongside the dances it ran an Aboriginal youth group and a newspaper and established an Aboriginal art shop in the centre of Perth. The League was opposed to the ideology of assimilation, aiming rather to provide Noongars with safe, Aboriginal run-spaces they could freely access and call their own. Clarke was particularly concerned to ensure Aborigines of mixed descent were as comfortable as others in this environment. Many feel the activities of the Coolbaroo League helped loosen restrictions on Aboriginal movement and access to Perth, where the exclusion zone was removed in 1950.

Helena Clarke was a recognised leader of young aboriginal activism in Perth in the postwar years, legendary among the Noongar community for her energy and activism. In 1950, she married Cyril Murphy, who had been born at the Beagle Bay mission, near Port Hedland, and the couple left Perth. In 2010, she was living in Darwin, but travelled to Perth for the opening of an exhibition about the Coolbaroo League.

Published Resources


  • Haebich, Anna, Spinning the Dream: Assimilation in Australia 1950-1970, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, Western Australia, 2008. Details
  • Kinnane, Stephen, Shadow Lines, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, Western Australia, 2003. Details

Online Resources

See also