I visited the Moore River Settlement several times. The setting was a poor one with no advantage for anyone except isolation. The facilities were limited and some of them were makeshift. The staff were inadequate both in numbers and qualification. The inmates disliked the place. It held no promise of a future for any of them and they had little or no satisfaction in the present. It was a dump.
— Paul Hasluck on Moore River Settlement
The Moore River Settlement was established on a reserve of 11,600 acres, of which about 400 acres was cleared land. Accommodation was divided into two main areas, known as ‘the camp’ and ‘the compound’. The camp housed about 150 people of all ages, described in the Moseley Report as ‘indigent natives and their families’. The compound was about 300 metres distant. It contained separate male and female dormitories for school-age children. All up, at any one time the compound accommodated between 100 and 200 young people. Most of them were children of school age whose parents lived in the camp, plus a small number of orphans, neglected and other half-caste children sent there to be educated and trained for the workforce. Neville described this arrangement as a happy one for children whose parents lived at the camp but not so for those ‘forcibly’ removed.
Where you can have the mothers and the children, as at our settlement, the children at school but visiting the mothers in the camp, although not allowed to live in the camp but living in the dormitories, everybody is happy. But where the children are forcibly taken away from their mothers, it seems cruel … But we must think of the future of the child. In many instances the mothers are utterly unfit to care for the child. Where there is no question of unfitness the mother should be allowed to accompany the child.
The camp was largely populated by Aborigines dependent on welfare. Neville described them as people ‘removed from towns on account of their bad behaviour, women who were incorrigible prostitutes, the men drunkards and even murderers’. Paul Hasluck described the settlement as ‘a general dumping ground’ for every difficult welfare case in both the north and south of the state.
The aged and indigent who had nowhere else to go were sent there. The discharged prisoner who was far from home, the juvenile delinquent, the ‘problem’ Aborigines who had been ordered out of town for drinking, misbehaving or showing some similar need of ‘protective custody’, the orphan, the neglected child and the unemployed were all likely to end up at Moore River.
The Moseley Report was even more critical of the quality of the camp’s population and recommended the people be removed to some other location immediately because of the clash between its example of welfare dependency and the ostensible goals of the compound of training the children for the workforce.
The inmates of the compound are admitted for protection and education and I found them living within a few hundred yards of a collection of useless, loafing natives, content to do nothing and always ready to entice the compound girls to the camp. It would be better that the grown-up people should be sent away and the children taken from their parents and put in the compound than that the inmates of the compound should be under such a contaminating influence. It is, in my opinion, and in the opinion of the staff at Moore River, a menace to the settlement.
Moseley observed, however, that the Chief Protector had no plans in train to resolve this problem and, indeed, was in the process of erecting new camp accommodation, even at the same time as he advised otherwise.
The compound was supposed to be an institution for both education and training of young people, but the paucity of resources and facilities made the latter impossible. While there was a school that taught basic literacy and numeracy, there was no vocational training for those nearing working age except a sewing room where 25 girls from the compound manufactured clothing by machine and by hand. They produced about 3500 garments a year, which the department handed out to Aborigines at its various ration depots. The girls received no wages for their work. ‘This represents a considerable saving to the department,’ Neville told Moseley. ‘The work was previously done by contract and now the cost represents the expense of the material only.’ Moseley questioned Neville further:
Apart from elementary education, are facilities provided for vocational training? — No such facilities are provided except the sewing room.
What vocational training is provided for the boys? — They do a little farm work, but the country is such that there is little scope for them. There is no workshop.
Are there any means to teach them carpentering and blacksmithing for instance? — There is a small blacksmith’s shop designed to do the work required on the place, but there is no carpenter’s shop and no vocational training provided beyond clearing scrub, making roads, quarrying and a few odd jobs of that kind, apart of course from doing the work about the place.
After his inspection of Moore River, Moseley’s report was scathing about the absence of any semblance of training:
With the exception of the work done in the sewing room, in which I am informed clothing is made for all indigent natives throughout the State, and a small amount of sand brick making, nothing is being done in the way of vocational training, because no equipment is provided. Even starting in a small way with a few blacksmith’s tools and a carpenter’s shop, a great deal could be done. The Superintendent, I understand, is capable of giving instruction.
The head teacher of the school asks for certain apparatus to enable her to train the elder girls in household duties. At the present little can be attempted, although, of course, practical experience of a kind is gained by some of the girls in the dormitories, dining room, and kitchen.
The equipment in the dining room is deficient, and, with few exceptions, the children had no implements of any kind to aid them in eating. Judging by their dexterity in the use of their fingers, I am afraid they have little knowledge of any other method, though I did not experiment with a child and one of the few spoons available. I am told that there had been a sudden disappearance of spoons, and that more had been ordered.
Moseley despaired of the living conditions in the compound: ‘The dormitories are vermin ridden to an extent which I suspect makes eradication impossible.’ He also condemned the notorious shed in which escapees were confined as punishment. Known as ‘the boob’, Moseley’s description confirmed the historical accuracy of at least one of the sets in the film Rabbit-Proof Fence:
I disliked its appearance very much. A small detached ‘room’ made of posts driven into the ground, floor of white sand, scarcely a gleam of light, and little ventilation, and I was told that inmates have been incarcerated in this place for as long as 14 days. It is barbarous treatment and the place should be pulled down.
The Moseley Report provided sufficient grounds for his minister to dismiss Neville for failing to fulfil his department’s major objectives. Unfortunately, nothing of the kind occurred. Neville continued to blame his problems on the lack of money provided by the government, while the government itself seemed so little concerned about Aboriginal welfare it continued to employ him, even as he ignored those of Moseley’s criticisms that would have involved little or no expense, such as ridding the dormitories of vermin (lice and bed bugs) and closing down the barbaric ‘boob’. For his part, Neville publicly rejected most of Moseley’s criticisms. He mounted a spirited defence of his administration in the press, using his long-standing rhetorical strategy of saying any problems identified had already been or were soon to be fixed. The West Australian reported:
He felt sure that if the Royal Commissioner on Aborigines (Mr H. D. Moseley) visited the settlement now he would be the first to agree that the expression ‘woeful spectacle’ could no longer apply to it, repairs and additions having been made.
Neville held his position until 1940, giving it up only because he reached the public service compulsory retiring age of 65. Although I defended him in the previous chapter from the charge of genocide, it is impossible to defend the man’s record as an administrator. He was an uninspiring time server, more talk than action. Even his own pet project to breed out the colour produced no outcome to speak of, except a loathsome reputation. It is an indictment of Western Australian governments of all political persuasions that they kept him in his position for as long as they did. In doing so, they confirmed the assessment I made earlier: the Aborigines were the lowest of all their priorities and had the least call on either their funding or their concern.