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Byron Shire
December 4, 2021

Recalling Bob Bellear, a man of firsts

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Australia’s first Indigenous judge to be appointed to the District Court of NSW grew up in Billinudgel. Image of Bob’s portrait by Leo Fuller Quin supplied.
Australia’s first Indigenous judge to be appointed to the District Court of NSW grew up in Billinudgel.
Image of Bob’s portrait by Leo Fuller Quin supplied.

Aslan Shand

With suggestions now being taken for renaming the North Ocean Shores sports field, The Echo profiles a Billinudgel lad who became Australia’s first Indigenous judge to be appointed to the District Court of NSW.

Robert ‘Bob’ Bellear was a keen sportsman, according to his friend Brian Walker.

Brian wrote an extensive application to Byron Shire Council outlining why the new sportsground should be named after Bellear. As a champion Rugby Union player, Brian says Bellear, ‘went on to represent the Navy against the Army and Air Force.’

Bob and Brian grew up in Billinudgel and New Brighton together, where they wore corn sacks as guernseys and bare feet for boots representing Billinudgel Public School in rugby league.

The submission reads: ‘During his time at New Brighton, he would swim in the local pool, the north arm of the Brunswick River, and kick a football in the open area across the road from the present New Brighton shop.’

‘He would collect pipis from New Brighton beach, which he used as bait to catch fish in the local area,’ says Brian.

Discrimination 

After leaving Mullumbimby High School, Bob found he was unable to get work but joined the navy, where he trained to be a stoker and studied mechanical engineering. Bellear was the first Indigenous person to attain the rank of Petty Officer.

Marrying Kaye in 1966, he left the navy in 1968 and both he and Kaye began working in Redfern. It was here that Bob and Kaye came into their stride.

Witnessing the frequent racial discrimination against Indigenous people, they founded the Aboriginal Housing Company in 1972 and in the same year decided Bob would become a lawyer.

As a mature-aged student, he completed his HSC at Sydney Technical College and then enrolled in law at the University of NSW, being admitted to the Bar in 1979 as the second Aboriginal barrister in NSW.

While studying he also continued his advocacy for Indigenous Australians as director of both the Aboriginal medical service and the Aboriginal legal service.

His commitment to working for those in need was a feature of Bob’s life. When his picture was unveiled and hung in the Moot Court of the UNSW faculty of law in 2010, Judge John Nicholson, SC told this story of Bob:

‘It was not unusual for public defenders to work back in chambers after 5 or 6pm. One winter’s Monday evening at around 6 o’clock or so, Peter Zahara was heading home. The light was on in Bellear’s chambers. Peter thought he would say goodnight to the man. As he entered, Bob was changing from his suit to jeans, casual shirt and runners. Bob Bellear was heading to the Matt Talbot Hostel, where he apparently spent each Monday night working among Sydney’s homeless. Here was a successful, well-respected criminal barrister who still remembered and, more importantly, was a a committed volunteer to working among the displaced and dispossessed.’

Brian says Bob continued to fight for justice throughout his life, and in 1987 he was the first Aboriginal appointed as counsel assisting a Royal Commissioner when he was appointed to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Public defender

He was a man of firsts, being the first Aboriginal public defender and first Aboriginal appointed a judge in the District Court of NSW.

Bob Bellear passed away on March 15, 2005 and was given a state funeral to honour the incredible work he did.

Another friend of Bob’s and fellow traveller Rhonda Ansiewicz told The Echo, ‘He treated people with dignity and respect.’

She helped Brian put together the proposal for naming the sportsfield after him.

Concerns were raised by some councillors at the last meeting that naming a sportsfield after Bob wasn’t enough. But as Rhonda pointed out, ‘It is a small step that may be the first of many. It is such an honour for us to have someone like this to come from our community.’


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7 COMMENTS

  1. I’m all for having such a wonderful man honoured in any way possible .. and maybe he’d even get a real kick out of having a local sports field carry his name. His story is something to inspire the kids too.

  2. A small step maybe but a bloody good one — Bellear was both a local and a national hero. Naming the grounds for him would be not only acknowledgement and celebration, but reconciliation in action. Let’s do it. Mungo

  3. What an amazing portrait. His Honours official photograph hangs in the foyer of Level 2 Downing Centre Sydney. It serves as a reminder to all the Police Prosecuters, DPP staff, Court Registry staff and District Court judges as they exit the lift each morning that a very great Aboriginal walked there before them.

  4. Bob was also named as the “Patron” of Mullumbimby High School in early 2000 and he took great pleasure in visiting the school and speaking with staff and students whenever he was in the area.
    He wasn’t just a high achiever, he was a lovely person

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