One of the great deficiencies of the historians of Aboriginal Australia is that the only history most of them know is Aboriginal history. They venture out onto unfamiliar terrain rarely, and then only to filch a few scraps of information before scurrying back to the burrow of their sub-discipline. As a result, they think that everything done to Aboriginal children had motives peculiar to Aboriginal history. The possibility that policies for Aboriginal children might have been nothing but extensions of policies already being applied to white children has not occurred to them. Moreover, the thought that these policies might not even have originated in Australia but somewhere else entirely, has never entered their heads.
Yet, if any of them had made even a cursory investigation of the history of child welfare in Australia and Britain, they would have found examples of similar proposals, much the same legislation, and almost identical terminology. If they had looked further afield they would have found parallels and precursors among policies applied to white children in both the United States and Europe. This is something these historians have never wanted to contemplate. If policies for Aboriginal children were also applied to white children both here and abroad, then their story is on different ground altogether. Let me demonstrate this with a brief historical account the two child welfare policies on which the weight of the Stolen Generations thesis in New South Wales lies: apprenticeship and boarding out.
Apprenticeship is a very old way of introducing children to the workforce. It can be traced back to at least the thirteenth century when it was used to train youth in the technical skills of a particular trade and to inculcate the work ethic required of a tradesman. An apprenticeship was then a contract for up to seven years during which an apprentice lived in the house of his master. Parents purchased apprenticeships for their children or paid the tradesman an ongoing fee both to train a youth and provide his board and keep.
The apprenticeship system has continued to this day. It has proved a remarkably enduring institution. Apprenticeship has remained the principal means of introducing young people to the skilled trades in most of Europe and the English-speaking countries. Most people who have completed their indenture to become tradesmen wear the qualification as a badge of pride. It has always been a guarantee of status, employment and income.
Since the reign of Henry VIII in the sixteenth century, the English Poor Laws also used apprenticeship as a means of ameliorating the condition of poor children. Neglected and destitute children rescued both from the streets and from charitable institutions and workhouses have long been bound to masters in trades. Over the centuries, a variety of religious and charitable impulses have inspired these efforts but most have used some version of the notion of breaking the cycle of poverty. By training poor boys and girls in specific skills and in general habits of industry, apprenticeship was not only a means of increasing the supply of skilled labour but also of rescuing children from dissolute parents and criminal subcultures. Hence, as well as its traditional role of reproducing qualified tradesmen, apprenticeship has functioned for several centuries as a means of rescuing the children of the lower orders.
In New South Wales from 1800 until the 1880s, the standard policy response to destitute white children was institutional care combined with apprenticeship. The Female Orphan School (1800) and the Female School of Industry, Sydney (1826) took in orphaned and destitute girls and the daughters of single parents, taught them elementary literacy and numeracy, plus sewing and housekeeping in preparation for initial careers as domestic servants, and eventually for marriage and motherhood. The Male Orphan School (1819) took boys of similar background, taught them literacy and numeracy, plus some of the skills needed for agricultural employment.
That a colonial orphanage for girls preceded that for boys derived from the greater concern of the authorities about girls’ moral behaviour. The founders of these institutions were evangelically minded Christians who, like Sydney’s Anglican Archdeacon Thomas Scott in 1826, deplored the dearth of moral standards in the colonial environment: ‘so inveterate are the vicious habits of the parents, and so pernicious are the horrid examples constantly before the eyes of the child.’ They felt that the moral education for the rising generation was the colony’s only hope, and that girls were their most important targets because they would set the example for their own children. Girls were also more sexually vulnerable to both seduction and prostitution. This was especially so in an economy where women had few employment opportunities outside domestic service and prostitution was an enticing occupational option for poor teenage girls. The Female School of Industry targeted the ‘urgent and extreme cases’ of destitution, which could lead girls to ‘suffer from evil, which, in a Colony constituted as this is, cannot but assail them’.
John Ramsland’s history of child welfare in nineteenth-century New South Wales confirms this picture. Of the Female Orphan School he wrote: ‘The purpose of this school was to protect young orphan or destitute girls from sexual exploitation and a potential life of prostitution in the turbulent and unsettled times of the early colony.’ These assumptions and the welfare policies that derived from them remained intact for the next 120 years. As recently as the 1950s, white teenage girls caught selling sexual favours, or even those strongly suspected by social workers of doing so, could be arrested and institutionalized for being in moral danger.
By the mid-nineteenth century the three main child welfare institutions in New South Wales were the Protestant Orphan School, the Catholic Orphan School and the Asylum for Destitute Children at Randwick. From the 1850s to the 1870s, these institutions sent 41 per cent of their inmates out to apprenticeship. Some 64 per cent went to domestic service, 27 per cent to agriculture and 9 per cent into the skilled trades.
Children at the two Orphan Schools and the Randwick Asylum were usually apprenticed at age twelve for seven years, and at the Female School of Industry at age fourteen for four years. The legal framework for this was provided by the Apprentices Act of 1828 and the Orphan Apprentices Act of 1834. The former said all the laws of England governing masters and apprentices applied in New South Wales. The latter said if a child was confined to an institution, the directors of the institution had the power to send the child to apprenticeship. The child’s parent or parents had a right of appeal against the terms of employment and to object to the employer chosen by the institution but, since most parents were from the poor and lower orders, they could exercise that right only with great difficulty.
Once free and compulsory public education was introduced into New South Wales by the Public Instruction Act of 1880 it was no longer possible to apprentice 12-year-olds, since they were required to be at school. Hence apprenticeship commonly became a four-year contract that began at the school leaving age of fourteen years. This practice was fixed in law by the Apprentices Act of 1901. Employers paid apprentices’ wages into a trust fund which provided a lump sum payment when the apprentice’s term was complete. In the meantime, the apprentice received only pocket money as payment. This was sixpence a week in first year, the same as for Aboriginal apprentices. By 1940, both the wages of white apprentices at their various ages and the pocket money they were given each week had increased substantially but nonetheless remained comparable to those paid to Aboriginal apprentices at the same time.
In short, all the major features of Aboriginal apprenticeship in the early twentieth century — the kind of jobs provided for boys and girls, the age at commencement, the period of employment, the legal enforcement of contracts, the rate of payment, the pocket money system — had been all put in place for white children long before. The most contentious feature of Aboriginal apprenticeship in the eyes of orthodox historians — the Aborigines Protection Amending Act, 1915, which gave the authorities to right to act in loco parentis in determining the children to be apprenticed and the selection of their employer — had been in force for institutionalized white children under the same terms since 1834. From this perspective, the real effect of the 1915 amendment was to give Aboriginal stations and reserves the same standing as white welfare institutions and to treat their residents as dependent inmates. This can hardly be deemed racist because it reduced these Aborigines to a status to which destitute white children had long been subjected. Because most people living on Aboriginal stations and reserves were either entirely or largely dependent on government handouts, these places had always been, in effect, welfare institutions anyway. The main difference between them and institutions for white children was that their Aboriginal inmates were free to leave them whenever they chose.
The informed opinion of the period plus more recent assessments made with historical hindsight both indicate that nineteenth-century institutionalized white youth who were apprenticed to even the most indifferent masters fared better both physically and psychologically than poor youth left to their own devices. The evidence to the New South Wales Select Committee on the Condition of the Working Classes of the Metropolis in 1859 suggested this and historian Brian Gandevia confirmed it in 1978 in his classic study of Australian child welfare. Hence in colonial Australia, apprenticeship retained its traditional appeal as a device through which welfare reformers could rescue the children of the poor.
The high point of the institutionalization of white children was the three decades from 1850 to 1880. Since the eighteenth century, institutions had been designed as places that would remove children from their previous environment of poverty, alcoholism, criminality and immorality. Instead of narrow back lanes, negligent parents and poor diet, the authorities imagined that if they placed children in grand buildings with pleasing gardens, provided them with professional staff, good food and clothing, and gave them religious instruction and vocational skills, the new environment would produce a new type of person.
During these same decades, however, a movement emerged to make a profound critique of institutional care. Inspired by the portrait of children’s institutions in the writings of Charles Dickens and by the visiting English critics Rosamond and Florence Hill, welfare reformers used the Sydney press to campaign against the ‘barracks system’ of orphanages (so named because some had been established in former military barracks). Critics charged that confining large numbers of children in dormitories allowed easy spread of infection. In 1867, one epidemic of whooping cough alone had claimed the lives of 77 children at the Randwick Asylum. In 1873, the Royal Commission into Public Charities condemned that institution’s lack of individual attention to its charges. The commission was shocked to find the 800 children at Randwick were addressed by numbers because the superintendent and matron could not remember their names. It recommended children be removed from institutions and boarded-out with selected families who would receive a maintenance payment. Reporting these findings, the Sydney press launched a campaign to ‘empty the barracks’ and to replace them with the system of ‘boarding out’.
The New South Wales government responded by enacting the State Children’s Relief Act in 1881 and creating the State Children’s Relief Board. Premier Sir Henry Parkes was an enthusiast for boarding out and appointed a man of like mind, Dr Arthur Renwick, as president of the new organization. Boarding out was a welfare program that began in Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century. By the 1850s, half the pauper children in major German cities were boarded out. The system was also established in France, Russia and the United States in the 1850s. In England, Charles Dickens lent his reputation as a social critic to support the scheme.
In New South Wales, the 1881 Act allowed the State Children Relief Board to become the guardian of children currently in institutions and to place them with families either as boarders, adopted children or apprentices. The board’s officers found appropriate homes, and inspected them and the children regularly. Parkes argued that by experiencing family life, the children would form family ties and develop their moral character. He supported the scheme on egalitarian grounds, saying it would reduce the ranks of the pauper class. It would also prevent boys from joining the criminal subculture and would reduce the chance of girls descending into promiscuity and prostitution. Many of his constituents agreed. ‘Boarding out’ became a popular movement. The State Children’s Relief Board soon found itself with more demand from would-be foster families than it had children to supply them. Boarding out quickly replaced institutional care. In 1885, the government ceased funding the Protestant and Catholic Orphan Schools and they closed down. The privately funded Randwick Asylum closed in 1916.
By 1909, of the state’s nearly 4000 destitute white children, some 57 per cent of had been placed with foster parents as boarders with maintenance, while 41 per cent were boarding with families as apprentices. The occupations to which these white children were apprenticed were almost identical to those provided for Aborigines. One State Children’s Relief Board report described the destinations of 103 of its girls and 128 of its boys:
All the girls were apprenticed to domestic service, and the majority of the boys have been apprenticed to the dairy farmers, with whom they had been boarded. The following are the details:— Boys indentured to farmers, 103; gardeners, 5; hairdressers, 2; grocers, 3; saddler, 1; bakers, 3; tailor, 1; painters, 2; butcher, 1; undertaker, 1; carpenter, 1; provision merchant, 1; storekeeper, 1; chemists, 3; total, 128.
The most reliable historian of the boarding out system for poor white children, John Ramsland, has given the following assessment:
No longer were destitute and homeless children held by legal restraints, locked away and out of sight except on formal occasions … The growth of the New South Wales boarding-out scheme ended the period of dominance of the large-scale Victorian asylum for dependent children and ushered in the modern approaches based on individualization of care and treatment as well as a significant concern for the confidentiality of the individual child’s circumstances. State dependent children were to be no longer paraded before the community in a public way to be pitied and patronized. Individual growth and development and the child’s right to privacy became the central doctrines of advanced thinking in child social welfare in the late nineteenth century.
It was these new ideas, and these positive outcomes for white children, that galvanized those responsible for Aboriginal child welfare from the 1880s until well into the twentieth century. Before 1940, the Aborigines Protection Board did not attempt to incorporate this whole package into its policies but it did select those aspects that it felt would work best for its charges. It made no attempt to board out Aboriginal children of school age into white families, and it still preserved a limited number of places in institutions for younger orphans and neglected children. But it copied the boarding-out system of apprenticeship almost exactly. It appointed home-finders to provide positions for Aboriginal youth, and inspectors to ensure the system remained on track. Indeed, the board duplicated the apprenticeship system for white children right down to training Aboriginal youth for identical occupations. It was only after 1943 that boarding out to foster families became the preferredempty the barracks welfare option, and then primarily to Aboriginal families.
Moreover, these developments fulfilled the very founding ambitions of welfare for Aborigines. When Inspector-General Edmund Fosbery and Phillip Gidley King MLC visited the Warengesda and Maloga missions in 1882 as their prelude to joining the Aborigines Protection Board, they looked at the two institutions through the lens of the prevailing ideas about best practice in welfare for white children. This was why Fosbery and King said, as I noted earlier, they could not see ‘any future advantages to be derived by the children by retaining them in an aboriginal asylum’. This was why they thought that if Aboriginal children were to gain employment, that outcome ‘we conceive, would be best attained by “boarding out” the young of both sexes.’
They — and virtually everyone who followed them for the next 80 years — wanted Aboriginal children to have the same chance in life as white children of the working classes. In advocating and eventually establishing their own boarding out system for Aboriginal apprentices, these officials were applying what were at the time the best and brightest ideas for child welfare. How astonished they would have been to learn that one day their own society would condemn all their thoughts and deeds as an attempt to commit genocide, and that the parliament of a federated Australia would publicly apologize for their actions.