Charles ‘Sammy’ Crabbe, Part 1

Department of Education School Inspector Charles 'Sammy' Crabbe with the Aboriginal children of Carrolup. Photograph: Noel White, probably taken in 1948. Noel & Lily White Collection.

Several weeks ago while I was sorting through Noelene White’s family memorabilia relating to Carrolup, I came across a photograph I’d only ever seen in an ABC film about Carrolup. I’d been trying to find a copy of this photograph for ages. The photograph is the one above, which shows Charles Crabbe, known as Sammy Crabbe to the White family, with the Aboriginal children of Carrolup. Who was Sammy Crabbe?

When Noel White arrived at Carrolup in May 1946 he was unable to communicate with the children as they remained silent and sullen in the classroom.

The first week at school with our new teacher we were all scared stiff. I think if it wasn’t for the ever present smile of Mr Whites we would have all stormed out of the school and ran for our lives.’ Revel Cooper

In an attempt to overcome the problem, Noel went to see the local Department of Education Inspector, Charles ‘Sammy’ Crabbe, whose kind understanding of Aboriginal children and their problems were well-known throughout the state. The two men, who had become close friends in the past, discussed a strategy for facilitating communication between teacher and pupils, as well as the best way forward for educating the children.

 They decided that Noel dispense with a formal school timetable for a period of time and focus on arts and activities that are connected with the corroboree (an important aspect of Aboriginal culture and life). He used singing and chanting, dancing, storytelling, drawing, dramatisation and miming, and group speech work to engage the children and help enhance their confidence. 

The strategy worked well and facilitated connection and communication with the children. As the children connected with Noel and gained confidence, they started to reveal their talents. One such talent was drawing, which while initially being a tool to facilitate communication between pupils and teacher, began to grow a life of its own. 

Noel was not an artist himself, but he created enthusiasm amongst the children for art, encouraged them to look carefully at what they saw on their bush rambles, and provided feedback about the children’s work. Noel wasn’t quite aware of how good the Carrolup children had become. It was Sammy Crabbe who realised that something important was happening at Carrolup. During one inspection visit, he said to Noel White: 

There’s something quite new and remarkable coming out here. Leave their style alone. Just go on encouraging their interest and observation.’ M D Miller and F Rutter, Child Artists of the Australian Bush, 1952, p. 43

Sammy Crabbe continued to play an important role in the story of the Aboriginal child artists of Carrolup, as I will reveal in future blogs. His 1951 letter to Dr Kenneth Stewart Cunningham, Director of the Australian Council of Educational Research, which described the early development of the children’s art, is of major historical importance. I will talk much more about this letter in my forthcoming book, written in association with John Stanton.

For now, I ask the families of the children of Carrolup whether they recognise any of the children in this lovely photograph? I believe I can see Barry Loo, Revel Cooper, Parnell Dempster and Reynold Hart. Drop us a line or leave a comment on The Carrolup Story Facebook page or our Facebook Private Group page if you wish.

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