IN arguing that the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Board removed children from their parents in order to eradicate their Aboriginality, the most relevant records Peter Read relied upon were the board’s Ward Registers 1916–1928. These registers contain individual files on each of 800 children made wards of the board. A ward was a child under eighteen years who had been admitted to the control of the board or to one of its institutions. Although the title of the registers indicates they cover the period 1916 to 1928, also included in the 800 files are 117 about children removed to the institutions at Bomaderry, Singleton and Cootamundra from 1907 to 1915. In addition, there are files on eight children who became wards between 1929 and 1932.
Read singled out the importance of this source for his thesis: ‘Today it is in the State Archives, and in it, even the casual reader may catch a glimpse of the enormous tragedy of what happened to the first eight hundred children removed under the 1915 Amendment.’ Read urged his readers to look up the registers and even gave the address of the archives office in The Rocks, Sydney, where they could find them.
It is certainly true that the information recorded in the registers about each child is invaluable for understanding the nature of Aboriginal removals in New South Wales. These forms record their names, their age and religion, the reserves and stations they came from, the names and addresses of their parents, siblings and other relatives, the reasons why they were removed, the institutions or employers they were sent to, and their subsequent history of institutional residence, location and employment.
Indeed, this is the most important surviving collection on this subject in New South Wales. It describes just over half the children separated from their families and communities by the Aborigines Protection Board up to 1938. As well as this, the New South Wales State Archives holds an index which includes the names of children made wards of the board from 1916 to 1938. The index records the names of children but not the details of their removal. This index, which includes the names of the 800 children discussed above, records a total of 1454 children. There are another 128 names of children who were ‘unattached’, that is, not apprenticed and not living in one of the board’s institutions, and who the board recorded in a separate index that covered the period 1919 to 1938. After 1940, the number of Aboriginal children separated declined sharply because the board’s pre-war apprenticeship system largely fell into disuse, as Chapter Three records. So the 800 files that are available for inspection by researchers represent a very large sample — more than 50 per cent — from the main period of child removal in the state.
Although these files formed the basis of Read’s accusation against the board, he actually presented very little analysis of the information they contained. He offered no summary of all the reasons given for removal, no tallies of even the age or sex of the children, let alone whether their parents were alive, or who had previously cared for them. All of this information is on the board’s forms but Read did not provide any of it for his readers. Nor has he done so at any time in the subsequent 25 years when he has been regarded as the principal authority on this topic. Given there are 800 files comprising about 1200 pages of information, he would have found the task of compiling this data time-consuming, but hardly onerous. In a project like this, it is what a historian is supposed to do.
In 2007, I read this entire source and tallied all its information. Accessing the records is not as easy as Read originally indicated. Researchers have first to apply for permission to the New South Wales Department of Aboriginal Affairs and undertake they will not reveal the names of individual children, some of whom are still alive. Apart from that, however, there were no restrictions on my access. What follows is an analysis of the data provided by the Ward Registers to see what they reveal about the major claims made about the Stolen Generations.