Faith Thomas poses for a portrait
Daniel Clarke / © Cricket Australia/Getty Images

Encounter

Faith Thomas is the Aussie legend you haven't heard of

She was the first woman of Aboriginal descent to represent Australia in any sport, but that's just part of her story

Sidharth Monga  |  

Of all the names it had to be Wami Kata.

An old folks' home in Port Augusta, Wami Kata houses elderly Aborigine and Torres Street Islanders. Port Augusta is about 320km north of Adelaide, in a world removed from efficient public transport and Ubers. The home is far from the Australia of the tourism videos. In this unremarkable place, in a shared room with a shared bathroom, lives one of the most important figures in not just Australian sport but Australian life.

Faith Thomas (née Coulthard) was the first indigenous Australian woman to represent Australia in any international sport. She was the first indigenous person to play international cricket for Australia: one Test for Australia after setting local cricket in Adelaide alight in the 1950s.

Thomas was among the first batch of Aboriginal college graduates in Australia, and one of the first Aboriginal nurses. At her best, she was a one-person travelling hospital: driving all over the country, living out of her car, providing nursing care to the indigenous, who, on average, live 20 years less than the rest of Australia. After retiring as a nurse, she continued to fight for Aboriginal rights. She was recently awarded an Order of Australia for her trailblazing contributions.

Yet she lives in near anonymity in an old peoples' home that she helped build. A home whose gates with bars and electric fencing give it the feel of a prison.

"Of all the names, it is called Wami Kata," she says. "The snake's head.

"Joy Baluch, we could have named it. She was a mayor of Port Augusta. Very, very interesting person."

"You started this place, and it ended up being called snake's head?" a friend asks her.

"That's it. I have never been able to work it out."

"You weren't on the voting committee or anything?"

"No way."

"I'm the chosen one."
In his 436-page love letter to Australia, the book Down Under, Bill Bryson calls Aborigines "Australia's greatest social failing".

The goods: Thomas displays her baggy green and her Order of Australia medal

The goods: Thomas displays her baggy green and her Order of Australia medal © Tyson Baird

Thomas was a victim of the infamous Stolen Generations policy, a legally backed experiment in the first half of the 20th century under which indigenous children were taken away from their families and raised in white foster homes and missions so as to better prepare them for life in white Australia. The government actually believed it was doing the indigenous people, "incapable of human emotion", according to them, a favour of civilisation. The kids stayed on in the foster homes till they were 16 or 17 years old before they were given two choices: stay on in the racist cities or go back to the indigenous communities with whom they had lost all connections.

Thomas was taken away when three months old and brought to Colebrook Home in Quorn, about 40km north-east of Port Augusta

She was born in Nepabunna, a small community in the Flinders Range in South Australia. Her mother was Aboriginal, her father Polish. Her original name was Tinnipha. She had to be given an English name, as happened to all stolen Aboriginal kids.

Thomas loved it at Colebrook. She says this way she was taken away from a broken family. The two matrons in charge of the home, both from England, took a shine to her. "I was spoiled silly," she says. She calls herself "the chosen one". She would spend the days chucking rocks at galahs in the trees because there wasn't much else to do. "You had to throw that far in front, so they could fly into it."

Thomas then got a chance to study nursing at the Royal Adelaide Hospital in Adelaide, which is where she got into hockey and cricket. In Alice Springs, on nursing duty, she came back to hockey, filling in when her nursing home's team was one short once. She scored the only goal that day. Sport was time away from work, which was why she loved it.

Even when she was a little girl going after galahs in Quorn, Thomas was a feisty firebrand. She remembers how boys in the Colebrook Home would fabricate numbers of how many galahs they hit, just to stay one-up on her.

How did she come to play cricket?

"I remember getting hit by a cricket ball once. Crying me eyes out. That's when I thought you have got to bat to protect yourself. So that was it."

She has no qualms now in calling out Don Bradman and Lindsay Hassett for not letting women's cricket prosper. To those in the home, it was evident she was not going to let her race or her sex come in her way.

In bed in her room at Wami Kata

In bed in her room at Wami Kata Sidharth Monga / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

She didn't do much with the bat but went on to become the fastest female bowler of her time. Her arm was strong from striking down galahs already. She remembers taking six for none against Adelaide Teachers' College once. She remembers sending the middle stump of England captain Mary Duggan flying over their wicketkeeper's head in a warm-up game played at the Gabba before the Test she played, in 1958. "All [Duggan] did was sit on the pitch and laugh her head off," Thomas says. "She said, 'I've never seen that happen.' The wicketkeeper had caught the bail."

Thomas remembers she was selected for tours of England and New Zealand. "When I came to know I was going to be in a boat for five weeks, I pulled the pin on it," Faith says. "Just stood down there at the harbour, waved goodbye to the girls. 'Have fun.'"

I tell her New Zealand is a much shorter journey than England. "It was a rough trip," she says. "And I thought, 'No way.' So I waved goodbye to them too. Well, I'm an old desert person."

She remembers the time she broke her tooth on a hot day when she was dozy, fielding under trees, and heard, all of a sudden, "Catch it, Coulthard."

"I caught it all right, but in me gob."

She remembers the great lunches, the long train journeys, the "mates" from cricket, the men who just waited to pooh-pooh women's cricket.

Whispered mischief
That's all the cricket Thomas remembers, but there is much more to this eventful life. I met her last December at Wami Kata.

Her half of the room is the 85-year-old's world now. She carries her baggy green - No. 48 - about in her walking aid. There's also a file of her photos, and a Colebrook Home book that celebrates her, among other things. On a door are two other photos; in one she is placing a baggy green on the head of a young Aboriginal girl. Next to the photos are nursing instructions: diet normal, assistance required for mobility. It says to not administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation should her heart stop beating.

That final instruction is not unusual. Dying is the reality of old folks' homes, one that Thomas' sense of child-like mischief in her storytelling might belie. She breaks into whispers whenever she thinks she is telling me something naughty or secret: when talking about hitting galahs, or about her fear of the sea, of how she would take off and leave her partners because she, as a patrol nurse, never stayed in one place for too long. Of how her eventual husband, Bernard Thomas, had to follow her down to her home town to get her to commit.

"I remember getting hit by a cricket ball once. Crying me eyes out. That's when I thought: you have got to bat to protect yourself. So that was it" © Getty Images and Cricket Australia

Even when she is not whispering, Thomas has great stories to tell. She returned the favour to both her British matrons from Colebrook by looking after them in their old age. She even helped raise money when one of them wanted to go back home, near London. And then again when she wrote saying she wanted to come back.

On patrols, Thomas lived out of her car. "You drive along. 'Gee, I feel tired.' So you just chuck everything out of the car wherever you want."

There was never a dull moment for a patrol nurse because of all the medical problems among the indigenous people. She has stitched up "blackfellas", hunting dogs, and helped with so many deliveries that people began to name their girl children after her. "There were a lot of Faiths running round the joint."

She is understated about all this. The book she carries around quotes an SA Weekend magazine cover story in calling her the most important figure in Aboriginal sport. "But I never put any significance [to it]. I just got out there and did it."

It's when you see Thomas with people who know her that you get a sense of the awe she inspires. I was lucky that she had other visitors during my visit.

Tania Collins, a lawyer who works on Aboriginal rights, is on her way from Alice Springs to drop her daughter Emily off in Adelaide, where she is going to start her university education. They have driven all morning, and there is still a long way to go before they reach their overnight halt on this two-day drive, but there is no way they will go past without visiting Thomas.

She is "Nan" to Emily. To Collins, she is a friend, a colleague, and a "star". "She used to get in a lot of trouble with the law, and I used to represent her," Collins jokes. In fact, they used to work together on Aboriginal rights matters. Thomas used to be on the management committee of the Aboriginal Legal Service in Port Augusta, where Collins worked for seven years, the last of which was 11 years ago. They became "very good friends as a result".

Tales of Thomas' doings from newspaper and magazine articles

Tales of Thomas' doings from newspaper and magazine articles

I tell Collins of how Thomas let go of an international career in cricket because of what seemed to me an irrational fear of the sea. I ask Thomas again if her team-mates didn't try to convince her to go. "She is stubborn," Collins says. "If she is saying she is not going, she is not going. Stuff like that [attempts at changing her mind] is a waste of warm air."

Whispers about an incident where Thomas injured herself chasing a cigarette pack come up. Her inner child is well and truly out. She says she is going to quit. Collins asks why so late in the piece. Thomas says, "Well, I started only when I was 50. That too from rolling them for my old man [husband]."

Bernard Thomas was the son of a conductor in an orchestra. "That's when I learned how to appreciate good music," Thomas says. "That's when I realised I missed out on this for years. All that beautiful music."

More whispering. This time about how she tried to escape the home. Only when the doctor told her she would injure herself jumping the fence did she give up.

I ask Thomas to tell her visitors what she thought of Bradman. "They [men who didn't like women's cricket] were just scared of women," Faith says. "You look at cricket today. Australia [men's team] don't have any batsman [during the Steven Smith ban]. But women, they are just belting it all over the place."

We talk about a famous Aboriginal rights fighter who was a "whitefella in NSW and Canberra" but "became a blackfella" when money was to be made through a job in grants for Aboriginal rights in South Australia. Faith calls them "pop-up Blacks".

Megan Schutt receives a trophy from Thomas at a WBBL game in 2018.

Megan Schutt receives a trophy from Thomas at a WBBL game in 2018. "Women, they are just belting it all over the place," Thomas says © Getty Images

She tells us about the time she had to line up in front of the magistrate. Not because of the apartheid-like restrictions on Aborigines, which were still in place at the time, but because they were, she whispers, chopping trees.

It has been a fun afternoon for Thomas, but soon she will be alone again. She wishes her grandson could take her away from the home, but knows he is perhaps not in a position to provide her the care she needs. Her only other regret - apart from not having driven around the top end of Western Australia - is that she remembers too little of her life. "Dates and all that sort of things" are a "nuisance" to remember. "But I would love to remember more. To put down the story of my life."

The chronicler
That's where Tyson Baird, an occupational therapist working in the area of Aboriginal health, and a cricket nut, comes in. Baird lives in Adelaide but travels around South Australia for his work. He came across Thomas in Port Augusta three and a half years ago and asked her if they could chat cricket. Chats became coffee, coffee became yarns, and the yarns are in the process of becoming a book, and possibly a documentary.

I asked Baird how well known Thomas is in mainstream Australia. "I would say she's not known," he says. "Hardly at all. Unfortunately." He knew of her because he was both a big cricket fan and interested in Aboriginal affairs.

Thomas' memory is failing her, which means you have to catch her on a good day to start documenting her life. That's why Baird has made many visits to her. "She was just a trailblazer," he says. "She was a trailblazer for cricket, but then she was a trailblazer for nursing. It occurred to me that cricket is not necessarily what she's most proud of. It is something she is proud of, not necessarily what she's most proud of.

"She was close friends with very prominent Australians. The governor of South Australia, Sir Doug Nicholls, the first Aboriginal governor, was a close friend. She was close friends with Don Dunstan, who was the premier of South Australia. He was a very progressive leader in South Australia's and Australia's history for Aboriginal rights, gay rights, things like that.

Thomas with Tyson Baird outside Government House in Adelaide

Thomas with Tyson Baird outside Government House in Adelaide Daniel Clarke / © Ninti Media

"She was even friends with a man called David Unaipon, who's the man on the $50 note. From part of her nursing. He was down Raukkan, which is in the south-east of South Australia. He was an inventor.

"And she founded the Aboriginal Sports Hall of Fame Federation. The fact that she crammed so much of this stuff into her life - these are just stories that yet need to be told and acknowledged."

Baird confirmed what everybody thinks of Faith. "She's a feisty character," he said. "She knows what she wants to achieve. And she won't let too many people or obstacles get in the way of what she wants to do. And that's why she was so successful. To achieve what she did in that age and from that background is remarkable."

In a way, in how she looks past the hardships of her life, in how she is unassuming, in how it has never occurred to her she is someone special, Thomas represents the best of Australia. At the same time, her situation speaks of one of the biggest social challenges Australia faces: how it looks after the elderly, and the indigenous people so hopelessly disenfranchised by former policies. A challenge that is all the more apparent when you move into the interiors of the country.

A year on, Thomas still lives at Wami Kata, no doubt a handful for the caretakers but also lonely. If you are around the area and happen to care for cricket or indigenous people or yarns, just ring the home up and drive up to Port Augusta. Faith Thomas is a fair-dinkum Australian legend who is giving of her time and will like it if you cared.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

 

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