1898 – 1988
Respected Aboriginal Midwife
“She was a selfless soul who would always go out of the way to help everyone. Mum felt proud and thankful that she was able to help so many mothers welcome their children into the world. Mum had a very important job to keep all the children and the mothers safe, rain hail or shine. I would go with her sometimes and help. I remember when I was 12 or 13 I think, and it was the middle of the night when we had to go across the river to Barmah. There was no Bridge back then, so we had to hop in the canoe and paddle across in pitch darkness and walk in to town” Except from interview with Lorna Walker Daughter of Nanny Nora Charles
Minnie Nora Charles was an esteemed Elder of the Yorta Yorta. She was affectionately known to many as Nanny Nora Charles.
Nanny Nora was a local leader who is well known for her role on Cummeragunja Mission and within her local Aboriginal Community as a midwife. She was a long term pioneer, fighting for the rights of Australia’s first people and also for the rights of children. Nanny Nora delivered babies at a time when Aboriginal people were not permitted to enter hospitals.
Nora was born ‘Minnie Norah Charles’ in 1898, at the Cummeragunja Mission, New South Wales, Australia.
She was a descendant of the Yorta Yorta, Baraparapa through her mother Florence Atkinson and Dja Dja Wurrung, Jupagalk, and Wergaia Nations through her father Herbert Nicholls.
Nora married William Charles in 1917 and gave birth to 6 children.
She became educated in traditional midwifery passed down by her mother, grandmother and great grandmother. She would also learn modern midwifery practices from the visiting midwife and doctor while at Cummeragunja.
Nanny Nora was renowned throughout the Shepparton region for traveling up and down the Murray to camps and missions to assist in the delivery of babies at a time when Aboriginal women were not permitted access to hospitals or medical professionals.
When Aboriginal Women were in labour, a hole in the ground would be dug and would be heated with fire and coals until the earth was warm. Then, kangaroo skins would be laid around the hole and mothers would give birth while in the hole.
In 1939 Nanny Nora participated in the Cummeragunja walk off – the first mass strike of Aboriginal people. This landmark protest drew attention to the harsh living conditions and authoritarian control of those living on the mission.
For Nanny Nora (and many others) following the protest Nora lived on ‘The Flats’ on the Goulburn River located between Mooroopna and Shepparton where she continued to deliver babies as a midwife. During the 2nd world war shortage of doctors and nurses in Australia, Nora’s skills were vital.
Eventually, Aboriginal people were permitted to enter hospitals however there was still a fear that they would be discriminated against and treated differently. This led to many Aboriginal Women putting their faith in the delicate hands of Nanny Nora who they trusted to care for them during the delivery of their babies.
Nanny Nora slowed down practicing Midwifery in her 60’s as Aboriginal women became more comfortable with giving birth at Public Hospitals
A room in the maternity ward at Goulburn Valley Health is called the Gunna Burri Birthing Room and was officially opened in 2006. Gunna Burii means ‘mothers and Babies in Yorta Yorta language. A photograph of Nanny Nora Charles sits above the birthing bed.
In 1988 Nanny Nora passed away in Mooroopna and is interred at Cummerangunja with her Clans.
Several of Nanny Nora’s kin have become Nurses.
This Biography has been written using primary sources provided by the Aboriginal Street Art Project and in consultation with the family of Nanny Nora Charles.
Memorial – ‘Dana Djirrungana Dunguludja Yenbena-I’
The Mural of Nanny Nora Charles and Aunty Marge Tucker (MBE) is part of the Aboriginal Street Art Project, named by locals as ‘Dana Djirrungana Dunguludja Yenbena-l’ which means ‘Proud, Strong, Aboriginal People’ in Yorta Yorta language. The Mural was painted by well known artist Adnate
Site: Greater Shepparton City Council’s Aboriginal Street Art project was a joint project with Goulburn Valley Water in collaboration with the families of Nanny Nora and Aunty Marge. This mural features on the wall of Goulburn Valley Water. We acknowledge the Yorta Yorta Peoples as the traditional owners of the land which now comprises Greater Shepparton. We pay respect to their tribal Elders, we celebrate their continuing culture and we acknowledge the memory of their ancestors.
Nanny Nora, G.V Health – Maternity Birthing Ward Hospital, Date and Photographer Unknown. Photograph supplied by family member Robert Nicholls.