The Stolen Generations

The Stolen Generations



Stolen Generations - the definition
Maps of places mentioned in text
Introduction – Overview
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
The ‘totalitarian’ regime of A. O. Neville PDF Print E-mail

The three simple interconnecting Edwardian offices are disarming in their stillness. It was from here that the individual lives of thousands of Abo­riginal people of Western Australia were managed in minute detail. It was from here that, from 1915 to 1940, Mr A. O. Neville was installed as Chief Protector of Aborigines. From the corner of the largest room in the complex, tucked against the back veranda of the Colonial Secretary’s Office, Neville oversaw the imposition of some of the most racist and damaging legislation ever inflicted upon a civilian population.

First Australians: An Illustrated History, companion book to the SBS Television series, 2008[1]


From 1925 to 1940, Western Australia’s Department of Aboriginal Affairs occupied two rooms and the back veranda in the Chief Secretary’s department in Murray Street, Perth. The author of the above passage from the book of the 2008 SBS Television series First Australians, should have given more thought to the size of the Chief Protector’s office accommodation. A department that could be housed in such little space was a most unlikely candidate to manage Aboriginal affairs in the detail or inflict the damage the book claimed.[2] The historian Alison Holland also portrayed this as a prodi­gious project:

In a massive exercise of social engineering, administrators orchestrated the assimilation of the ‘half-castes’ into the white population largely via sepa­ration from their people, training in institutions and marriage in the white community.[3]

In 1936, the administrators who purportedly did all this orchestrating consisted of seven people, the Chief Protector A. O. Neville, his long-time secretary Constance Stitfold, and five male clerks.[4] It was the smallest government department in Western Australia. In this, it was typical of the other Aboriginal affairs departments (where they existed) in other states. What made Western Australia particularly stand out was its miserly budget.

The Moseley Royal Commission in 1935 observed the ‘continuing unsatisfactory state of finance’ of the department and ‘the very meagre vote with which to carry on its affairs’. Moseley published a small table of annual comparisons showing how far behind other states Western Australia lagged. New South Wales spent £53,124 a year on its Aboriginal population of 9724, or £5 9s per head. South Australia spent £23,000 on 3407 people, or £6 15s per head. Queensland spent £41,128 on 16,957 people, or £2 8s per head. Western Aus­tralia spent £28,340 on 19,021 people, or £1 9s per head per year.[5]

There was a similar discrepancy in the funds Western Australia spent on the welfare of white people compared to black people. Neville told Moseley that the government station at Moore River, which provided food, clothing and accommodation for poor Abori­gines of all ages, spent £9 13s on each inmate per year, compared to state expenditure of £64 5s per inmate per year in Fremantle Gaol, and £48 11s per inmate per year at Pardelup Prison. At the Old Men’s Home in Perth, the state spent 13 shillings a week on the upkeep of each white inmate; at Moore River the weekly expendi­ture on each individual was 3 shillings and 6 pence.[6] Neville com­plained:

I have stated the strict truth that there is not enough money to feed and clothe the natives other than from a purely charitable point of view, and that has been the position for the last 15 years. During the whole of my experience there has been constant pressure to reduce expenditure, and that has been done of course at the expense of the natives.[7]

In practice, this meant that Neville did not have the staff or resources to implement a program for the removal of large numbers of half-caste children, nor for housing, clothing, feeding and educat­ing them while they trained to enter the white world. Whatever may have been his plans and ambitions, Neville lacked the money to do very much about them. On these grounds alone, the accusation by the Human Rights Commission that he embarked upon a program of child removal large enough to be labelled genocidal is completely unbelievable. Neither the Bringing Them Home report, the SBS Tele­vision series, nor any of the academic historians in this debate have ever discussed the actual number of children removed in Western Australia. Nor have they examined the adequacy of the resources available to do so. They all lead their readers to believe Neville had enough money to do what he liked.

The parsimony of government funding had been the case ever since 1898 when Western Australia, the last of the states to gain full self-government, was ceded control of Aboriginal affairs by the Brit­ish Colonial Office. The state created a sub-department of the Trea­sury, and allocated its Chief Protector of Aborigines a staff of only two clerks. The following year, this was reduced to one. Under the previous colonial regime, the Aborigines Protection Board had sev­eral office staff plus two travelling inspectors to distribute rations and oversee employment conditions on pastoral properties. In 1898, the government dismissed them and handed over the entire administra­tion of the state’s Aboriginal population to locals nominated as part-time protectors. Some of them were local magistrates and medical officers but most were country police officers who fulfilled the role unpaid, as part of their other responsibilities. They soon found the work ‘an irksome addition to their already manifold duties’ and, in practice, declined to cooperate.[8]

As a result, the following year the department again employed a travelling inspector, its sole officer in the field, to service an area larger than western Europe. Apart from travelling from place to place, his time was largely consumed supervising the distribution of rations to Aborigines. By 1903 the position of travelling inspector was abolished once more, only to be revived in 1907 when two men were appointed, one for the Kimberley district, the other for the North-West. One of these was retrenched in 1910, the other in 1913. No subsequent appointment of this kind was made until 1925 when Neville employed one man, Ernest Charles Mitchell, to travel the whole of the state. His duties were all-embracing and included:

· supervising the distribution of rations to about 1400 old, sick and impoverished Aborigines,

· ensuring that those who engaged the 4300 Aborigines in employment were all licensed to do so and that payments and working conditions met acceptable standards,

· inspecting the nine missions and four government settlements funded by the department in the south-west, the goldfields, the north-west and the Kimberley,

· arranging the hospitalisation of diseased and injured Aborigines, and

· checking the integrity of the state’s 16 Aboriginal reserves spread across 23 million acres.[9]

Like the Chief Protectors before him, Neville treated field staff as expendable. Within five years, he had retrenched Mitchell as an economy measure and left the position unfilled for another eight years.[10] In 1938, the new medical inspector travelled 9818 miles (15,800 kilometres) in twelve months, while the acting inspector, not surprisingly, ‘found the work rather too much for him’ and asked for other employment.[11]

The local police who were once more allocated the inspectors’ former duties remained focused primarily on law enforcement. The only effective task they performed as protectors was to distribute rations of food and clothing to indigent Aborigines. Apart from that, unless there was some obvious crisis, they put off or avoided anything to do with welfare or employment regulation. This meant the department was effectively devoid of an administrative structure to put into practice the various social policies the Chief Protectors talked about. In this, Neville was no different from those before him, Henry Prinsep (Chief Protector from 1898 to 1907) and Charles Gale (1907 to 1915). Each of them advanced proposals to protect the full-blood Aborigines from disease, alcohol, sexual abuse and labour exploita­tion, as well as to prepare the half-castes for employment in white society. But none had the money or the administrative infrastructure to do much about any of them.

Hence, rather than requiring its Chief Protector to manage ‘the individual lives of thousands of Aboriginal people’ in ‘minute detail’, the reality was that the government neglected them. Throughout Neville’s term of office, even though Aboriginal people constituted about 6 per cent of the total population, the state normally allocated only about 0.3 per cent of its annual budget for their provision and management.[12] In other words, it is very obvious that none of the governments of Western Australia in this period ever cared enough about the Aborigines to want to commit genocide on them.


The 1905 Act controlled virtually every aspect of Aboriginal lives — with whom they could associate, where they could live and work, and their earnings, personal property, family life, marriage, and sexual contacts — and allowed for their removal to institutions where they could be detained indefinitely. Fines and imprisonment awaited those who dared not to comply with its provisions. Such was the virtually totalitarian con­trol vested in the so-called Chief Protector of Aborigines.

— Anna Haebich, ‘Clearing the Wheat Belt’, 2004[13]

The notion that A. O. Neville was all-powerful within his domain bears little resemblance to reality. For a start, he was a government-employed public servant, answerable to his Minister and sworn to obey the laws and regulations of the parliament. Moreover, he had direct control over the lives of very few of the state’s Aborigines. Only a fraction of the population lived on the government stations run by his department. In the 1930s, there were at most 400 inhabi­tants of the Moore River settlement and another 400 living perma­nently on the three Kimberley stations of Moola Bulla, Violet Valley and Munja Station.[14] They constituted a mere 4 per cent of the 19,000 Aborigines living in the state’s settled districts.

In it true, however, that the 1905 Aborigines Act rele­gated people of Aboriginal descent to the status of second class citi­zens, with restrictions placed on their movement and where they could live. Section 12 of the 1905 Aborigines Act gave the Chief Protector the authority to remove people to an Aboriginal reserve and keep them there. He also had guardianship over children aged up to sixteen until 1936, and up to 21 years from 1936 to 1940. He could send them to the Moore River settlement, to any other station or to a mission, and compel them to remain there. If they ran away, he could demand the police pursue them and send them back. Under his regime, the police could not act on their own initiative. Even though a number of police officers throughout the state were appointed local protectors of Aborigines, they could only remove Aboriginal children if they had Neville’s permission. If they found children seriously neglected or malnourished, they had to write to Neville, the children’s legal guardian, for his authorization to deliver them to a mission or settlement where they might receive proper care.

None of the institutions in Western Australia resembled gulags or concentration camps. If adults could provide for themselves through employment, Neville did not hold them in an institution against their will. Between 1930 and 1934, for instance, the Moore River Settle­ment admitted 1067 people, but over the same period 1030 people left.[15] Neville presented these figures to the Moseley Royal Commis­sion as an answer to critics of his period, especially the Women’s Ser­vice Guild, who called his settlement a prison. Neville said:

A great deal has been said about the prison nature of Moore River Set­tlement. These figures absolutely give the lie to that. There are almost as many departures as arrivals, and there always have been. They are coming and going all the time, and it is nothing in the nature of a prison except in the case of those under warrant, 200 in the last three years, and those that may have been there before and the young children who are not allowed to go out while they are wards of the department.[16]

Neville’s limited budget gave him a compelling financial incentive to prevent his charges becoming complete dependents. In the south­ern districts he wanted them to gain outside employment in the agri­cultural economy.

It is not proposed that the settlements should be regarded as pris­ons; the natives come and go, the workers leave their families and their children remain at school. We are able to find work for those who want it and send them out to it.[17]

In the Kimberley, the three government cattle stations each had a small number of permanent Aboriginal dependents but a shifting population of several hundred more maintained a loose attachment, coming in occasionally for rations but living mainly in the bush. These stations had been established primarily to provide local Abori­gines with a regular supply of meat to prevent them randomly killing the sheep and cattle of local pastoralists. Neville told Moseley:

Those stations are sanctuaries to which all natives repair whenever they want to. They sit down for a few weeks, enjoy as much meat as they can eat, and then go off again.[18]

Table 8.1 summarizes how small was the empire he had accumu­lated by the 1930s, and how few were the number of children he brought under his control. Only two of these six institutions were exclusively for Aboriginal children: the Home for Girls at East Perth and Sister Kate’s home at Queen’s Park. The government settlements and stations accommodated Aborigines of all ages. Most children accommodated at these settlements were accompanied by their par­ents.

Unlike the genuinely totalitarian powers of the state under Nazi and Communist regimes, Western Australia’s Chief Protector inha­bited a democratic, pluralistic society where opposing interests com­peted for power and where the bureaucracy of the public service was often the weakest player. From the 1900s to the 1940s the three competitors in Aboriginal affairs were the pastoralists, the missionaries and Neville’s department, in that order of influence. The first two interest groups were usually able to marshal more political strength and bring pressure to bear on government decision-making far more effectively than the department.

Most missions were located in the northern half of the state and most of their Aboriginal inhabitants were beyond the control of the Chief Protector. While state law gave Neville the nominal authority to control Aboriginal family life and sexual relations, in practice the missions acted on their own principles in such matters. As Neville complained to his peers at the 1937 Canberra conference:

At the mission stations, the natives are encouraged to multiply by mar­riage, with a consequent increase of population. The missions are thus able to claim that they are doing valuable work for the natives. Undoubt­edly they are doing good work, but they keep an increasing number of natives on their properties, whereas the departmental institutions, whilst approving marriages, encourage the natives to mix with the general community and earn their own living ... Under this law [the 1936 Act] no half-caste need be allowed to marry a full-blooded aboriginal if it is possible to avoid it, but the missions do not always take steps to prevent this from occurring; they allow the half-castes under their control to marry anybody.[19]



Table 8.1: Aboriginal children at government settlements and children’s homes, Western Australia, 1932–34






Operated by


Approx. number of children





Moore River Settlement



Moola Bulla Station



Munja Station



Violet Valley Station



Home for Girls, East Perth



Sister Kate’s Queen’s Park














Sources: A. O. Neville, evidence to Moseley Royal Commission, 12 March 1934, transcript p 15, 14 March 1934, transcript p 133 and 3 May 1934, transcript p 626; Moseley, Report of the Royal Commissioner, p 13; return from Parkerville Children’s Home to Aborigines Department, 1932, cited by Vera Whittington, Sister Kate, p 276; Queen’s Park home’s enrolments from Whittington, Sister Kate, p 322.

* my estimate based on Moseley, Report of the Royal Commissioner, p 13, and Report of the Chief Protector for the Year Ending 30th June 1928, p 9



While some of the Catholic missions were run by Spanish, French and German orders whose ideals favoured closed religious communi­ties, others maintained good contacts with state politicians, the south­ern press, and the Perth professional and middle classes. They were especially influential with church-going middle-class women who, in the early 1930s, rallied to the public appeals of the Women’s Service Guild. By 1934 the Guild successfully pushed the state government into ordering, against Neville’s opposition, a Royal Commission into his administration.

During Neville’s regime, by far the most powerful interest group in Aboriginal affairs was not the Chief Protector’s department but the pastoralists. This was partly because pastoralists were directly responsi­ble for the well-being of many more Aborigines than department and missions together. They accommodated about 6500 of the state’s 19,000 Aborigines in the settled districts, employing them on their sheep and cattle stations as permanent, seasonal or casual labourers and domestic servants, and taking responsibility for the sustenance of their extended families.[20]

The pastoralists also had the most political clout. For most of the period under discussion, they managed to get com­pliant political representatives elected to the pastoral electorates of the north-west and the Kimberley. The most reliable historian of these affairs, Peter Biskup, has provided an account of state politics that shows the pastoralists’ politicians were usually able to serve their industry’s interests and preserve their employment arrangements no matter how much they conflicted with the Chief Protector’s own plans and projects.[21] Biskup described the political scene as Western Australia entered the 1930s:

The onset of the depression forced Neville to abandon all hopes of reform in the pastoral industry. Late in 1929 the Legislative Assembly threw out his bill to amend the 1905 Aborigines Act; in 1930 the Treasury cut his grant and he had to dismiss his only travelling inspector (appointed in 1925); the trade unions, with one out of every three white men jobless, were increasingly unhappy about ‘dis­crimination’ [against them] in the pastoral industry; the pastoralists with numerous problems of their own, were in no mood for dicta­tion from above.[22]

This is anything but the portrait of the Chief Protector as totalitarian dictator. Those who make this claim should not be taken seriously.

[1] Steve Keene, ‘Blood History’, in Rachel Perkins and Marcia Langton, eds, First Australians: An Illustrated History, Melbourne University Press, Mel­bourne, 2008, p 248

[2] Steve Keene actually exaggerates the little office space available. According to Neville’s biographer, Pat Jacobs, in 1926 he moved into ‘two small rooms and a back veranda’, not quite the three rooms Keene claims. Furnished with ‘shabby rejects of other departments’, the rooms were supposed to be only temporary quarters but Neville remained there until his retirement in 1940: Pat Jacobs, Mister Neville, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1990, p 127

[3] Alison Holland, ‘ “Whatever her Race, a Woman is not a Chattel” Mary Montgomery Bennett’, in Anna Cole, Victoria Haskins and Fiona Paisley, eds, Uncommon Ground: White Women in Aboriginal History, Aboriginal Stud­ies Press, Canberra, 2005, p 147

[4] Jacobs, Mister Neville, p 187; Peter Biskup, Not Slaves, Not Citizens: The Aboriginal Problems in Western Australia 1898–1954, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1973, p 75

[5] Henry Doyle Moseley, Report of the Royal Commissioner Appointed to Investi­gate, Report and Advise Upon Matters in Relation to the Condition and Treatment of Aborigines, Government Printer, Perth, 1935, p 23. Moseley put the Aboriginal population at 29,021 but included in this was an estimated 10,000 who remained out of any contact with white society so, for the above cal­culation, the total has been reduced by 10,000. On Moseley’s larger popula­tion, the annual expenditure would have been less than £1 per head per year.

[6] Neville, evidence to Moseley Royal Commission, 13 March 1934, tran­script p 90

[7] Neville, evidence to Moseley Royal Commission, 13 March 1934, tran­script p 91

[8] Biskup, Not Slaves, Not Citizens, pp 45–7

[9] The statistics for Mitchell’s years in the job come from Appendices IV, V, VI and VII in Biskup, Not Slaves, Not Citizens, pp 275–80

[10] Biskup, Not Slaves, Not Citizens, p 75

[11] Annual Report of the Commissioner of Native Affairs for the Year Ended 30th June 1938, Government Printer, Perth, 1939, p 7

[12] Appendices I and III in Biskup, Not Slaves, Not Citizens, pp 271, 273

[13] Anna Haebich, ‘ “Clearing the Wheat Belt”: Erasing the Indigenous Pres­ence in the Southwest of Western Australia’, in Dirk Moses, ed., Genocide and Settler Society, Berghan Books, New York, 2004, p 272

[14] Moseley, Report of the Royal Commissioner, p 13

[15] Neville, evidence to Moseley Royal Commission, 3 May 1934, transcript p 603

[16] Neville, evidence to Moseley Royal Commission, 3 May 1934, transcript p 604

[17] Neville, evidence to Moseley Royal Commission, 12 March 1934, tran­script p 25

[18] Neville, evidence to Moseley Royal Commission, 12 March 1934, tran­script p 27

[19] Address to conference, published in Aboriginal Welfare: Initial Conference of Commonwealth and State Aboriginal Authorities Held at Canberra, 21st to 23rd April 1937, Government Printer, Canberra, 1937, p 11

[20] Moseley, Report of the Royal Commissioner, pp 5–6

[21] Biskup, Not Slaves, Not Citizens, pp 96–111

[22] Biskup, Not Slaves, Not Citizens, p 110