Awards branding with the words 2021 Victorian Senior of the Year Awards, and an image of Frances and her daughter smiling at the camera

Awarded the 2021 Ageing Well Award - Aunty Frances Gallagher

Nominated by: City of Darebin, and Trevor Gallagher 

Aunty Frances Gallagher is a respected Elder who was born in Bendigo in 1926 and embodies the principles of ageing well and living life to the full. Highly respected for her work as an Elder, in both supporting and mentoring young people, and in advocating and caring for Elders.

Nominated for her continual contribution to Aboriginal living culture and community over her immense 95 years, Sophie Kahl from Bundoora Homestead Ars Centre said ‘her vast life experience, unwavering sense of justice and wellspring of initiative as a remarkable example of the principles of ageing well’.

A dignified Gunditjimara woman who grew up on the Framlingham Mission in western Victoria, at a time when education opportunities for children were very limited, Aunty Frances moved to Hamilton at 16 and worked at a flax mill. From a difficult start her life has been an extraordinary journey, exemplified by her commitment to culture, social justice and life-long learning.

In the 1950s, Aunty Frances found seasonal work picking vegetables, as many did at that time, forming a community and going where the work was. Surviving the hard times with fortitude, as there were few supports for women, particularly Aboriginal women, around that time Aunty Frances developed her vision to make a difference to the lives of others in their time of need.

Widowed when her first husband was killed in a road accident, leaving her with eight children to raise, Aunty Frances moved to Fitzroy where there was a growing Aboriginal community and found work in a factory in Collingwood. Once again exposed to discriminatory and racist workplace practices, Aunty Frances was not deterred from standing up for what was right. Her strong commitment to social justice was woven into the fabric of her being through all of these experiences and it was through the 1970s that there was a growing momentum in Victoria to establish Aboriginal community run services to improve the health and welfare, and to advocate for the rights of the Aboriginal community. Aunty Frances was at the forefront at this time and worked in different areas of social justice – including working for some years at the Marg Tucker Hostel for young Aboriginal girls who were homeless and one step away from being in jail. And in the Elizabeth Hoffman House (now known as the Elizabeth Morgan House) working with young families escaping family violence, isolation and homelessness.

In the 1980s, Aunty Frances finally had the opportunity to start educating herself at the age of sixty when the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service opened the Koori College in Collingwood to train Aboriginal Community Health workers and she was one of the first to enrol. 

‘While the work was not always easy, Aunty Frances delighted in encouraging a sense of personal dignity and pride, while offering understanding and sympathy,’ Trevor Gallagher said in the nomination. One of the very first Elders to sit on the Koori Courts at Broadmeadows when it was established in 2004, justice was an area that interested her greatly and she found satisfaction in helping those young Aboriginal offenders who found themselves in the Justice system.

Aunty Frances also played a major role in the development of ACES (Aboriginal Community Elderly Services) residential nursing home, volunteering with their day care centre and also hosting Aboriginal Elders in her own home for a cup of tea and a yarn. In 2014, with the help of her grand-daughter Karen and others, they approached the CEO of the Whittlesea Council to help find a place for all the Elders to meet, and the rest was history from that a funded working group was formed and a program called Elder’s Making a Difference was born. Her aim has always been to make a difference for those that may not have families, or have no social interaction with other Elders, or they may have health issues that may prevent them from accessing some mainstream programs and avoid loneliness, and Aunty Frances was inducted into the Aboriginal Honour Roll in 2016. 

During the next thirty years, continuing her mature aged education, she attained her Diploma in the Arts at RMIT at the age of eighty-seven and received community awards in Aboriginal Reconciliation and was at the Ngarara William Centre at RMIT University, and recognised for her contribution to the Art Industry. 

In 2010 her work has been acquired by the City of Darebin, Gumbri White Dove Indigenous Art Awards, and in mid-2019 Bundoora Homestead Art Centre hosted a retrospective of her paintings created since taking up painting in her 80s. Her paintings share the connection to her ancestral memories combined with the significance of place, family connection, spirituality and social displacement. Curator Sharon West says ‘they express a strong love for ancestors and Country. Her art ‘Features large and colourful landscape narratives of Gunditjamara life, ranging from pre colonisation camp sites to the Framingham Mission, where she spent her early years, Aunty Frances is a passionate for the welfare of the land, and she continues to inspire people of all ages with her continuing evolution and zeal for life’.

Her son Trevor says she is inspirational to her family and her knowledge culminating in many years of wisdom has, and will continue to be passed down, as will her understanding of life’s challenges and the battles she has encountered on her journey of life, ‘every week we learn something new from her and she ensures that culture and family knowledge will continue to be remembered and retained by all of us in the family’.

Having 10 children, her family now includes grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren to whom she can pass on her compassionate heart, playful and nurturing spirit.

Read more about the Victorian Senior of the Year Awards.