28 July 2020 // Frances Ward

Mary Frances Ward (nee Fraser) (7 September 1926 – 19 January 2013) was a Nyikina woman from the Kimberley Region of Western Australia. Born at Beagle Bay, she was the third eldest of eight sisters and one brother.

In 1942, she left Beagle Bay Mission aged 16 and spent the next 4 years working on Kimberley stations with her parents and siblings. Witnessing at an early age the strength of her elder sibling Agnes, whose infamous tale of tipping a bowl of flour over the head of the Station owners wife in protest, became legendary – Frances too had the same fire against injustice. 

Proudly defiant, she stood her ground, refusing to obtain a certificate of exemption to no longer be considered Aboriginal. Her words were "This is my country, I don't need any document to tell me this." At the age of 19, Frances was sent to work in Boorloo (Perth) as a domestic for affluent families in the city. It was here that her political activism and community organising began to grow.  

She met her future husband Bill Ward in 1946 at a time when co-habitation laws prevented interracial marriage and segregation was in full effect. At this time Frances was one of the organisers of the Coolbaroo League supporting her cousin Helena Clarke and others. This was the only club where Blacks and Whites could come together socially at the time. Over the years she would attend with Bill and eldest daughter Phillipa hosting the likes of Nat King Cole, Harlem Blackbirds, Albert Namatjira and others.

Community minded, she became an outreach for Stolen Children and was a frequent visitor to Sister Kate's orphanage and Pallottine, where young people were sent to boarding school. The family cottage within Queens Gardens where Bill was Caretaker in East Perth, became a central hub and respite for many remote community families who had to travel to Boorloo for medical reasons or otherwise. She became everyone's Aunty and everyone's Nana Fran.

In 1967 Frances joined the NADOC Committee and helped organise the  first NADOC Ball at the Perth Trades Hall. In 1973, she was alongside a group of Aboriginal women who converted an old picture theatre into a Soup Kitchen for the homeless. Together, they would prepare three course meals using the fruits, vegetables grown from their gardens alongside donations.

Protesting for Land Rights, social Justice, the environment, womens rights and in later years, Elders rights saw her at countless rallies, community gatherings and historical markers in Western Australia. She was present at the Perth Aboriginal tent embassy, Swan Brewery protests, Aboriginal advancement Council, Perth Aboriginal Medical Service, Aboriginal voters rallies, Which Way 76, Allwah Grove Hostel, unveiling of the Yagan Statue at Matagarup and countless more. She also participated in anti-Vietnam rallies with her family in support of her son Stanley who, with other Aboriginal men, had been incarcerated for opposing conscription despite not being considered a citizen of Australia. Notably she was part of the sit-in of the womens and Elders group at the Noonkanbah Blockade.

Returning to the Kimberley in the 1980s, she was active locally, protesting developments in Cable Beach and advocating for greater support services for Aged care in Broome. Frances was responsible for the naming of the Bran Nue Dae Elders care facility in Broome, a place she often frequented in her later years. In 2009, Frances was named Aboriginal Elder of the year in the Kullari NAIDOC Awards in recognition of her lifelong achievements – nominated by noted artist Stephen "Baamba" Alberts, who alongside Jimmy Chi and the Pigram Brothers, were some of the young people she had cared for in Perth.

She died in Broome on the 19th January 2013 aged 86 after a stoic fight with cervical cancer, to which she bravely underwent a hysterectomy aged 84. Her funeral was attended by hundreds travelling from across Australia. Even in death, she continued organising, stipulating in her will a fundraiser for the St Johns Ambulance, whom she was a lifelong member – and setting a fashion trend at her funeral by requesting everyone wear the colours of her beloved Fremantle Dockers, taking the last laugh away from the one-eyed West Coast Eagles supporters in her family.

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