For the past 25 years, academic historians have subjected the officials of the Aborigines Protection Board to a ferocious barrage of criticism. Unfortunately, the latter are all long dead and unable to respond. In order to address their critics, and do some justice to their reputations, let me elaborate some of the reasons they gave and the cases they responded to. What follows are a number of individual examples from the most commonly given reasons for the separation of Aboriginal children from their families from 1907 to 1932. They flesh out the meaning behind the categories used in Tables 2.5 and 2.6
Neglected: In some cases, the local representatives of the board, such as a station manager, policeman or reserve matron, made a decision that a child was neglected. The file of a 15-year-old girl, whose mother died and whose father’s whereabouts were unknown, simply recorded:
Mother died, father neglected the children.
In 1920, a 12-year old girl whose mother was dead and who was living with a female relative at Walcha was sent to the Bomaderry Home by the superintendent of the Walcha Reserve because she was:
Living under conditions likely to result in minimal life.
Another girl was removed from the Angledool Aboriginal Station in 1921:
Owing to neglect of mother to provide any food.
The file of an 8-year-old boy, whose father was dead and whose mother had taken up with another man and had left him for three years with an unrelated couple, said he was:
Neglected by his mother and not properly controlled and often cruelly treated by the old couple who had the care of him.
Many cases of neglect, however, were decided at a Children’s Court. Contrary to Read’s claim that, after an amendment to the Act in 1915, magistrates were excluded from the Aboriginal removal process, serious cases of neglect were still commonly put before them throughout the 1910s and 1920s, especially when the children concerned were very young. The Ward Register files record such reasons for separation as:
Brought before Wollongong Bench, 11th December 1917, charged with being neglected child, committed to Cootamundra House by A. O. Edwards SM
Neglected, brought before court and committed to Cootamundra Home, wandering streets and living on wild figs, no proper food whatever.
In one especially disheartening case, a woman whose husband was dead had her five children, aged from five to fourteen, taken from her at the same time. All five files bore the same entry:
Order of Children’s Court (Neglected and Uncontrollable Child) held at Blayney 4th June 1928.
There were no other details recorded why this occurred but the fact that the case went before a district court judge or magistrate sitting as a children’s court, and was not simply decided by a local board official, indicates there was probably enough credible evidence of parental neglect to support the decision. However, as noted earlier, Peter Read has claimed the decisions made by judges and magistrates were always culturally insensitive and often racist. If he wants to call them by these names, however, he needs to provide sufficient evidence. This he has never done. If the only evidence available is a children’s court finding of neglect, historians have no good reason to assume racial or ethnic bias was present unless they can show us the counter evidence and make a case. Read gave one example of a La Perouse woman whose children were removed because she left them with others while she went shopping. On the face of it, this would seem to be one such case but, as I noted above, a check of the available records failed to find any confirmation that this example actually occurred. Even if it did, Read’s wider argument of systematic racial bias amongst judges and magistrates would only be credible if he could demonstrate not just one but a series of such cases. He has done no more than assert they were racists and has never proven it in even one credible case.
Orphans: Children whose parents are dead or unknown, whatever their race, have an obvious need for welfare intervention unless they have kin prepared to care for them. As I noted earlier, the great majority of orphans in the Ward Registers had no known relatives. Even when relatives could be found, however, many were not able or willing to assume the responsibility, especially when the child was older and could enter the workforce.
One girl whose mother was dead and father unknown had been brought up on the Goondabluie Aboriginal station by her grandmother until she was fifteen years old. When the grandmother died in 1916, and although her grandfather was still alive, the girl became a ward of the board and went to the Cootamundra home where she trained for three months. She was then employed in domestic service at Mosman, an occupation she followed for many years after, interspersed with regular short returns to Cootamundra for holidays.
A boy whose parents were both dead had been brought up by his grandmother on the reserve at Collarenebri. In January 1921, when he was fourteen, the board assumed control because:
His parents are deceased and he had no relatives able and willing to care and maintain him.
His grandmother was apparently no longer prepared to look after him at this age. He was never institutionalized. The board found him a job as an apprentice on a local pastoral station.
From Read’s perspective, the girl and boy described here simply count as stolen children but, given their situation as orphans, the board fulfilled its responsibility to assist them as it did.
Two boys who had been admitted when they were one and four years old to the Waterfall Sanatorium, an institution south of Sydney for the isolation of tuberculosis sufferers, came to the attention of the Aborigines Protection Board in April 1925. Dr H. T. Palmer, the medical superintendent of the sanatorium, wrote the following letter:
I have two little aboriginal boys both aged 8 years who have been fit for discharge for a long while having had no disease for several years. Their names are R… G… admitted from Condobolin 20-11-18 and W… S… admitted from Condobolin 7-1-20.
Both these children are quite free from disease and I have only kept them so long to give them a better chance, but the demand for beds is so great that I must discharge them. Both are orphans. I would be much obliged if you will arrange to take charge of them during the next week.
The board’s secretary, Arthur Pettit, arranged places for them at Kinchela Boys’ Home. He asked one of the board’s home-finders, Emmeline Rutter, to go to Waterfall to collect them from the sanatorium and bring them by train to Sydney, and he asked one of the board’s inspectors, Robert Donaldson, to accompany the boys on the overnight train journey from Sydney to Kempsey. The board’s chairman also wrote to the senior police officer at Condobolin requesting him ‘to secure as many particulars as possible regarding them’. Police Sergeant Patrick Purtell replied on 11 June 1925:
I beg to report that I have made careful inquiries regarding the two boys R… G… and W… S…, but very little information can be obtained about them. There are no Aborigines on the reserve here who appear to know anything about the boy G…, his parents are dead and he has no relatives, and no information can be obtained from the local Registrar of Births or Deaths. The boy S…’s father is working for Mr Gavel near Condobolin, he cannot give the boy’s age, only that he was four when he was sent to Waterfall, the mother is dead, and the child was born on the Reserve at Condobolin, but the birth has not been registered at Condobolin. All papers returned attached hereto.
The discovery that W.S. was not actually an orphan did not change his status and he remained a ward of the board. His father either would not or could not take him into his own care. He was possibly too ill, since two years later the board’s file recorded the father had died.
This sad tale had no happy ending. Both boys remained at Kinchela until they were aged about fifteen. R.G. was subsequently sent to two positions with rural employers, while W.S. left Kinchela to live on the Aboriginal station at Toomelah in northern New South Wales. In 1935, aged eighteen, R.G. died at Tamworth Hospital from tuberculosis. In 1937, aged twenty, W.S. died at Prince Henry Hospital, Sydney, probably from the same disease.
However tragic the story of these brief lives, it does not resemble the yarn spun by Peter Read. None of the government instrumentalities responsible for these boys, the Waterfall Sanatorium, the Aborigines Protection Board or the Condobolin police, acted as if they had the agenda Read prescribed for them. The boys were not removed in order to deny them their Aboriginal culture, but to save their lives from a fatal disease. The sanatorium provided the boys with generous treatment for their disease. When it learned about them, the board took them into its care and immediately tried to find any relatives they might have. The police conducted a proper investigation and succeeded in finding one of the boys’ fathers. After about seven years at Kinchela, the board organized employment for one boy and sent the other one back to an Aboriginal community. Under the circumstances, all these institutions did their duty.
Without proper parental care and control: Many of those made wards for this reason were in much the same situation as orphans. The board assumed control of a 6-year-old boy in 1926 because:
Mother dead, and father wandering about and not taking care of the child.
This boy had been living with its mother at Goodooga until she died, while his father was a stockman on a nearby pastoral station. The file remarked: ‘No other relatives known.’ A 5-year-old girl became a ward and was sent to the Bomaderry home in 1927 for the reason:
Relatives unable to care for her.
Her file shows that her mother was dead, her father unknown and she had been brought up by her grandmother at Sevington, near Glen Innes. A 13-year-old boy in the same position was made a ward in 1927 because he was:
Not under proper control, and not attending school.
His mother was dead, his father unknown, and he had grown up in his grandmother’s care at Burnt Bridge, northern New South Wales. In this case, the board clearly wanted to remove him from the influences where he grew up because it decided not to send him to Kinchela ‘which was considered too near Burnt Bridge’. While the file did not spell out what this meant, the objective could not have been to remove him entirely from Aboriginal culture since the first place the board sent him to was Brungle Aboriginal Station, followed in 1929 by Quirindi Aboriginal Station.
In moral danger: This term was used only for girls. It was often accompanied by comments that condemned a girl not so much for sexual promiscuity as for her prospect of descending into prostitution. The forms indicated the difference by the terms ‘career of vice’ and ‘life of immorality’. In an era when sexually transmitted diseases were often incurable, when gonorrhoea rendered women infertile and long-term syphilis could be fatal, what weighed equally with sexual morality on the minds of officials was public health. Moreover, this policy was applied just as severely to white girls in inner city slums as to Aboriginal girls in outback camps and reserves. As late as the 1950s, teenage white girls caught selling sexual favours, or even those strongly suspected by social workers of doing so, could be arrested and charged with being in moral danger. Engaging in or being suspected of prostitution also breached court-ordered probation and good behaviour bonds and could earn a white girl a term in a correctional institution. Examples of this terminology applied to Aboriginal girls were:
A 16-year-old girl from Pelican Island removed in 1921 because:
Not under proper care and control, wandering about at night and not following any regular occupation. Likely to relapse into a career of vice.
A 12-year-old girl living with her single mother at a camp near Coonabarabran removed in 1922 for the reason:
That the existing conditions under which she was living would lead to a life of immorality.
A 14-year-old girl, who lived with her father and adult brother at Burnt Bridge until her father died in 1927, was removed because:
Both parents are deceased, she was neglected and living under conditions that would lead to a career of vice and crime.
There were also cases in this category where a girl’s mother had moved in with a new man who the local official believed was a sexual predator of the daughter. At Terry Hie Hie Station in 1924, the manager sent a 15-year-old girl to a job in Sydney primarily:
To remove from the immoral influence of her stepfather.
Mother leading an immoral life: At the time, child welfare authorities routinely removed children from mothers who were prostitutes, whether they were black or white. In today’s climate of permissive sexual morality this might seem unjust but until the 1960s there was a social consensus that a woman in that occupation was unfit to rear children.
In the Ward Registers, examples include the following removals of Aboriginal children. A 15-year-old girl was sent to Cootamundra in 1916 because:
Mother living an immoral life at Mineral Hill. Child absolutely neglected.
A 13-year-old girl from Queensland, described as ‘roaming about in mothers care’ and often travelling with her mother from Moree to outlying districts, was made a ward in 1922 on the grounds:
Mother an alleged prostitute, father an unknown white man.
In 1927, two brothers aged nine and eleven years whose father was dead were sent to Kinchela for the following reason:
Neglected. Mother drinking and living with four different men.
Uncontrollable: Read wrote in The Stolen Generations that ‘uncontrollable’ was a term brought into use in 1939 after the Act changed and magistrates were again introduced to determine whether children could be removed. However, the Ward Registers have at least 26 examples of this reason being given between 1907 and 1932. It was usually used when a child was found breaking the law. In some cases it was applied to girls engaged in prostitution. Removal by the board was seen as a preventative measure to stop a child from entering a life of crime and vice, such as in the case of a 16-year-old boy from Collarenebri, who accompanied his itinerant father working on various pastoral stations in that district. The reason for his removal in 1922 was:
Out of control of his father, exhibiting criminal tendencies.
Similarly, a 13-year-old boy from Pelican Island was made a ward in 1921 for:
Not being under proper control being a suspected thief, and likely to lapse into a career of vice and crime.
In other cases, persistent truancy from school was seen in the same light and the board was seen as the remedy. In 1928, a 13-year-old girl was made a ward for this reason:
Committed by the Magistrate Children’s Court Uralla to Cootamundra House, being uncontrollable, refusing to attend school when sent by Guardian, Mrs M…’.
In light of the misconceptions spread by Read, it should be recorded that this girl’s guardian was not a board official or a white foster parent but her own grandmother. The girls’ parents had abandoned her. Her file recorded her father was ‘said to be living with another Aborigine, address unknown, supposed Woolbrook’, while her mother was recorded: ‘address unknown, disappeared with another man’.
In some cases, ‘uncontrollable’ referred to children suffering from some apparent psychological disturbance. In 1921, a 9 year old girl from Delegate, whose mother was dead and who was in her father’s care, became a ward:
At the request of father of child on grounds that the child was in a measure uncontrollable and likely to come to some harm. Step mother having no sympathy or love for the child.
The girl went to the Cootamundra home and from there into service. When her first employer declared her unsatisfactory, the board sought to return her to her father. Her file recorded:
Father asked to take charge but refused to have anything more to do with her.
In another case, a mother originally from the Warangesda Aboriginal Station who moved to the Sydney suburb of Dulwich Hill, had placed her infant daughter with a Mrs Finn of Cabramatta, Sydney. In August 1928, when the girl was fourteen, she became a ward of the board and was sent to the Cootamundra home:
Handed over by mother as becoming uncontrollable and subject to outbursts of temper.
In January 1929 the board returned the girl to Mrs Finn to become an apprenticed employee. This obviously did not work because in May that year the mother organized for her daughter to enter a Catholic convent. The file recorded:
Mother wished her to go there as she could not be controlled and feared for her future.
Attached to the file is a letter to the board from the mother confirming the new arrangement:
I hereby of my own freewill and accord agree to my daughter E… W… being removed from the employ of Mrs Finn of ‘Bonnie Rigg’, Post Office, via Liverpool, and I desire that she be admitted to the Convent of the Good Shepherd, Victoria Street, Ashfield, where she will be under proper regular supervision and receive religious instruction.
Upon discharge from the Convent at the end of two years I would like her to re-enter the employ of Mrs Finn, if same could then be arranged.
Owing to my daughter having become uncontrollable I think it in her best interests that she be transferred to the institution above mentioned.
Poor or undesirable surroundings: In the 1920s, the majority of the more than 3000 Aboriginal children in New South Wales were living in tents and shanties, that is, in surroundings that white officials could well have designated ‘undesirable’ if they really had the agenda Read has given them. But that description appears to have been reserved for cases where the physical surroundings were likely to promote a child’s propensity for criminal or sexual misbehaviour. It was also a category more often mentioned as a secondary reason than the main one, such as the 17-year-old girl, whose father was unknown, removed from Pelican Island in 1917 because:
Her mother paid no attention to her, and her associates were sure to lead her into trouble.
Similarly, a 14-year-old boy was removed in 1924:
In order that his training may be completed, and that he be kept away from undesirable companions.
In 1925, a 16-year-old girl who had left her family at Wallaga Lake to go to Bega in search of work was located with another family and removed by the board:
To better condition of living; Found to be living in a one roomed hut at Bega, occupied also by an Aboriginal named Dan and his wife and three boys ages 14 to 19 years. Hut without furniture of any description, occupants all sleeping on floor. Girl had not done any work since going to Bega two months before.
Destitute: This term was usually reserved for children in especially dire circumstances. For example, two girls aged ten and fourteen were made wards of the board in 1916. The board’s files gave their reason for removal simply as:
However, their case history recorded on the files and attachments revealed their plight. Their father was dead and their mother was admitted to the Waterfall Sanatorium for tuberculosis sufferers in 1915. Apart from two brothers, aged fifteen and five, they had no known relatives. The four children were sent to cottage homes of the State Children’s Relief Board at Mittagong and Parramatta from 1914 to 1916. The Aborigines Protection Board made wards of the girls in 1916 and sent them to Cootamundra. The older girl went into service in 1918 when she was sixteen years old. The younger girl returned to State Children’s Relief Board care, and was recorded as employed in 1925. It would be very difficult for anyone to claim these were stolen children. Their situation was desperate and both the government boards established for the care of children like them were simply fulfilling responsibilities they had whether the children were white or black.
The files of other children in this position tell a similar story. The board’s reason for making a ward of a fourteen-year-old girl from Coraki in 1916 was as follows:
Father a white man, known as Pieman Henry, was deceased. Mother full blood Aborigine died at Grafton Hospital. Child left destitute, so board assumed control.
A 14-year-old girl, one of six children of a couple from Walcha, was placed in the Aborigines Inland Mission home at Singleton in 1910 because:
Parents unable to support, being destitute. Police asked for her to be taken into the Home at Singleton.
In 1922, the board made a ward of a 17-year-old girl from Walgett whose mother had died and whose father was working at Lightning Ridge. She was described as:
In destitute circumstances and requiring assistance.
The board placed her as an apprentice on a pastoral station and by the time she was twenty she had permanent employment on another property and was receiving her own wages.
Parents incapable of caring for child: A common reason why parents were deemed incapable of caring for a child occurred when a mother died, her child was placed temporarily in a relative’s care but the father proved either unable or unwilling to care for the child himself. For instance, in 1921 a 15-year-old girl from Roseby Park Station, who had been in the care of her grandmother since her mother’s death, was sent to Cootamundra because:
Father not maintaining the child.
In 1921, a girl who had been cared for by her grandmother on Sevington reserve was sent to Bomaderry house because:
Mother died, father unable to provide care.
In 1923, a 6-year-old girl from the Griffith district went to Cootamundra because she:
Had no mother, in a camp with her father who was not looking after her properly.
A further type of case was that of a mother, separated from her husband, who placed her child in care because she held a full-time job. In 1910, a girl from Walcha became a ward when she was four years old because:
Mother left her husband and went to service, and J… admitted Singleton Home to be cared for.
For being Aboriginal: In the only three cases which bear some resemblance to Peter Read’s case that children were removed ‘for being Aboriginal’, the children concerned were not sent to institutions. They were among the many for whom the board acted as an employment agency. One was a 14-year-old boy from Pilliga Aboriginal Station whose father was a station hand, whose mother was dead, and for whom the board arranged an apprenticeship on a pastoral station in 1925. The other two were of 14- and 15-year-old girls from Euraba Aboriginal Station whose parents were alive and known to the board. It placed them in 1925 and 1926, respectively, into jobs in rural households.
Anyone who closely examines these three forms in the Ward Registers will find the first two of them, which give the reason for removal simply as ‘Aboriginal’, are unsigned and they look more like incomplete clerical entries than evidence of an ‘obvious enough’ racial objective. The third form, for the 15-year-old girl from Euraba Station, was signed by P. Nowland, manager of that station, indicating that he wrote the phrase ‘Being an Aboriginal’. Nowland signed several other forms of this kind but never used that phrase again. In New South Wales, this sole form is the only piece of genuinely direct evidence of the purported official policy to steal children because they were Aboriginal. In this case, however, the girl concerned was not ‘stolen’ for very long. She was apprenticed to a white family in Moree, the nearest large town to the Euraba station, and she worked for them for three years until she turned eighteen in 1929. Her file records that on 6 June that year she attended the Church of England at Moree where she married an Aboriginal man. The notion that her brief career as a ward of the board was part of a plot to erase her Aboriginal identity defies credibility. Hence, even the solitary individual removed for ‘being an Aboriginal’ cannot seriously be claimed to have been a stolen child.
Apprenticeship or employment: As recorded earlier, the biggest single group of children made wards were aged thirteen, fourteen and fifteen years, and they were sent immediately into employment, usually as apprentices. Most in this category had two parents alive and known to the board. Nonetheless, there was also a sizeable group of children of single parents, who had at least one parent either dead or whereabouts unknown. Reading the Ward Registers, the reasons why these children were sent to employment seem, on the face of it, obvious enough and perfectly reasonable. Many were simply old enough to join the workforce and the officials who filled out their forms clearly thought this was sufficient explanation:
Being over the age of fourteen years.
The girl having attained the age of earning her own living.
Of an age to go to service and a very big girl.
She is over school age and the matron recommended that she should obtain a situation.
Another common reason was that there were no jobs available in the local district and the board could arrange work further afield:
This girl could not get a position locally, and she was anxious to get a position. She has no real home.
Could not get employment in Belbrook district.
In a number of cases, employment was seen as preferable to the alternative prospects of remaining unemployed on the Aboriginal station or reserve:
On attaining 14 years was apprenticed for his benefit and remove him from idle life on reserve.
To take her from surroundings of Aboriginal Station and fit her for service.
She being of an age when in her interest it was better for her to be apprenticed than remain on Aboriginal station.
Better conditions of living: Apprenticeship and employment were seen by the officials who administered the program as a positive good. Employment and ‘bettering’ a child’s ‘condition of living’ were seen to go hand in hand and many of the reasons given for removal linked the two:
Having attained the age of 14 yrs and it is desired that the child be apprenticed for her own interests.
To send to service and thus better condition of living.
Education or training: Giving children the opportunity to better themselves was also the principal objective of them to be educated and trained. The typical reasons for sending girls to the Cootamundra home emphasised this positive outcome.
To better condition of living and train for service.
To better her condition and send to situation under Board.
To better condition of living by undergoing course of domestic training.
In a small number of other cases, this reason was linked to a negative view of Aboriginal camp life:
To have advantage of proper training and be protected against the risk of going to the bad, which existed while she remained with her parents on the Reserve.
Parents’ own request: The board acted in loco parentis for those it apprenticed. It approved their employers, arranged their accommodation, received and banked their wages, and generally took on the role of guardian. Hence, many Aboriginal parents were grateful to have this kind of supervision of children aged from thirteen to fifteen when they left home for the first time. In other words, rather than an agency that stole their children, many parents saw the board as their absent children’s protector in an unfamiliar world. In the categories above where removal was for employment or education, a number of examples indicated parental attitudes of that kind. When a 14-year-old girl from Brungle station was offered a position in Sydney in 1928 her file simply recorded,
Desired to enter employment under Board.
Later that year, the reason the board made a ward of a 15-year-old girl from the same station was:
Mother desired her daughter to be properly trained and apprenticed by the A. P. Board.
However, there were other issues related more to child welfare, which also led parents to request the board’s intervention. The death of a mother was a reason why some fathers requested the board to assume control of their children, even though other family members had previously been involved in their upbringing. In 1927, a 7-year-old girl whose mother was dead and who had been living with her uncle while her father worked as a miner in Queensland, was sent to the Bomaderry Home for the reason:
Death of mother. On application of father on authority of A. P. Board.
In 1927, a girl who had been brought up throughout her school years by her grandparents in camps around Emmaville and Inverell became a ward and was apprenticed out by the board because:
Girl had no mother and was placed under control of the Board by request from her father.
The illness of a parent sometimes produced the same request. A 4-year-old girl from Walhalla was sent to Cootamundra in 1917 because her father was dead and her mother had been admitted, paralysed, to Newington Hospital, Sydney. In 1923, a brother and sister from Collarenebri, aged six and eight years, were sent to Cootamundra because:
Mother in hospital, father asked for [him, her] to be taken charge of by the board.
In 1928, a 2-year-old boy from La Perouse was sent to the Bomaderry Home:
At request of parents. Mother ill in Coast Hospital and unable to arrange care.
The Coast Hospital was the old name for Prince Henry Hospital, an institution at Little Bay, Sydney, caring largely for patients with tuberculosis and other diseases requiring isolation on public health grounds.
In other cases, parents requested the board take care of a child who was disabled, in poor health or with behavioural and psychological problems. In 1921, an Aboriginal police tracker approached the board to assume control of his 12 year old daughter whose mother was dead. The board took control:
At request of father of child, on grounds that the child was in a measure uncontrollable and likely to come to some harm.
In this case, the father accompanied the girl to the Cootamundra Home. Four years later, she returned to his care.
Prejudices and good intentions
If Peter Read is right then all of the above reasons are spurious. They were all invented by their individual authors as part of an underlying policy to eradicate Aboriginality. In arguing that this is self-evidently untrue, I am not claiming that every reason given above was entirely selfless and charitable. There were some officials who were clearly prejudiced against particular Aboriginal parents and allowed this to colour their judgement. There were others who clearly had a low opinion of Aborigines as a race of people.
This is more evident, and probably more understandable, in the cases of police stationed near some reserves whose most common contact with Aborigines was when they broke the law. Charles Rowley’s observation in the 1960s when he was researching his book Outcasts in White Australia (1971) was no doubt true of some officials in the early twentieth century also:
I have myself known Aboriginal parents who believed that some officers have used the threat to ‘take’ children as a disciplinary measure; in fact, I have been mistaken for an officer of a State administration on the execution of such a mission, and treated accordingly.
Some of these prejudices came across in the correspondence between officials and the board. For instance, in 1925 a girl from Walgett was placed in the foster care of a schoolteacher and his wife. The girl was attending the state school near Stanthorpe on the Queensland border. The girl’s mother wrote to the teacher asking that she be returned to her when she had finished her schooling. The teacher asked the board to clarify the position and the board made enquiries to the police about the fitness of the mother to take the girl back. A constable from Lightning Ridge wrote the following character reference:
I beg to report that E… L… FB Aborigine, the mother of the child J… M… mentioned in these papers is at present residing at Walgett. The mother of the child J… M… is a low caste type of Aboriginal and is regarded as a common gin in the camps of this district. On this account it would be a menace to the childs future welfare, to be sent back to the Mother E… L…, on the completion of her apprenticeship. Papers forwarded to Walgett Police for the completion of the attached form.
The sergeant of police at Walgett forwarded the above note to the board and added his own endorsement:
On no consideration should this girl be allowed to return to her mother at the present time.
It is not clear just what the constable meant by ‘common gin’. He might have been employing a euphemism for prostitute but it fairly clearly represented a racial and moral prejudice on his part. The same was probably true of the comments made by another police constable stationed at Moree in 1925 who had a 15-year-old boy sent into the care of the manager at the Brewarrina Aboriginal Station. He did this even though the boy came from a large and well-established local extended family and had a recent history of casual employment as a drover and burr cutter. The constable’s reasons were:
He was not under proper control of his parents. Was allowed to wander in the street at night and would chase and catch hold of girls, a practice he probably picked up from attending picture shows.
If the boy had been seriously assaulting these girls, he should have been charged with that offence, but the misbehaviour described here clearly did not warrant removing him from his family. (Note also, however, that in this case the boy was not sent to an institution but to another Aboriginal community.)
Some of the board’s own officials acted at times as if they were taking advantage of their authority to get back at parents who had defied them. Just three months after the death of a woman in 1928, the matron of the reserve at Condobolin sent the woman’s 15-year-old daughter to the Cootamundra home, remarking:
No mother and a very bad girl. No one to control her, would not keep position. Mother when living and father refused to have her apprenticed.
There is little doubt that responses like this would have given the board a bad name in some Aboriginal communities, but anyone who reads the Ward Registers in their entirety will find that what stands out is their rarity. Indeed, I went looking for examples like those above, but the three here were the worst I could find. Moreover, the handful of overtly prejudiced officials in the Ward Registers were more than matched by those exhibiting the opposite characteristics who went out of their way to provide good services for their charges.
In making this case, I am not arguing that the officials simply acted with ‘good intentions’. I accept the argument that people can act with what they thought were good intentions but still have bad consequences for others, and that it is still open to us today to form moral judgements about their behaviour. Good intentions are not good enough. Instead, I am saying that there is sufficient evidence in the Ward Registers to conclude that the Aborigines Protection Board acted, on the whole, to genuinely improve the lives of a great many of the children who came into its care. In some cases, this improvement may not have been great but was nonetheless identifiable. In other cases, it was conspicuous. There is not enough data to quantify this, and the only good evidence remains anecdotal, but it is no less convincing for that. I have already given a number of examples of public officials performing their duty in a positive way, but I will finish this chapter with two more.
The first case comes from correspondence about a 16-year-old girl who was hospitalized in July 1930. Walgett District Hospital wrote to the Aborigines Protection Board requesting payment for the girl’s surgery and accommodation for a period of six months. The board asked for more information and the sergeant at Walgett Police Station, Peter Grimes, replied in January 1931:
I beg to report that the half-caste aboriginal girl B… N… above referred to is 16 years of age and is the daughter of J… N… now employed as a police tracker at Walgett. Her mother died when the girl was very young and she has since been cared for by her grandmother L… N… mother of tracker J… N…
The girl since her birth has been delicate and subject to fits regularly. On the night of 8th July last whilst in a fit she fell into an open fire at her grandmother’s camp and was severely burnt on the arms and legs and was taken to the Walgett District Hospital the following day. After being at the hospital for some time it was found necessary to amputate her right arm near the shoulder owing to the injury from burns. She is still an inmate of the hospital takes fits occasionally and it is not known when she can be discharged therefrom. Apart from being delicate she is mentally deranged, and in my opinion would be better away in some home if a suitable place could be found for her.
Her father tracker N… has married again and has a wife and three children to support. He had one son in the Walgett hospital for a number of weeks and died there a few months ago. This lad cost the father a good deal of money and he is not now in a position to pay anything towards the maintenance of his daughter in the hospital. The girl’s grandmother and grandfather and other relatives are in very poor circumstances and camped in the Aborigines camp near Walgett. They do not receive assistance from the Board in the way of food or otherwise. The grandfather receives an old age pension of £1 per week, but it is not sufficient to support his wife and three children and the tracker gives them whatever assistance he can.
Anyone reading this will obviously find the daughter’s fate distressing, but the story does reveal some positive qualities. Sergeant Grimes sympathized with this family’s plight and went out of his way to make a strong case for them. These are not the words of a police officer who, in Read’s words, had abandoned his ‘common humanity’, let alone was ‘resorting to force’. His recommendation that the girl be removed to a suitable home was clearly made in both her and her family’s interests. It is also noteworthy in light of accusations by historians of widespread discrimination and exclusion of camp Aborigines from schools and hospitals in New South Wales country towns, that the Walgett District Hospital treated the members of this family as generously as any of its white patients, accommodating the son for weeks and the daughter for months. It, too, plainly recognized their common humanity.
Acting on the sergeant’s advice, the board arranged for the girl to be admitted to Newington Hospital, Sydney, in February 1931. A month later she was admitted to Rydalmere mental hospital. The few subsequent notes on her file indicated she would be institutionalized permanently. This was, of course, a fate she probably would have shared with a white person at the time suffering from the same condition.
The second case is of a 9-year-old boy who with his 11-year-old brother was removed from his mother’s care in 1927 and sent to Kinchela Boys’ Home. The boys were removed because they were neglected, their father was dead and their mother was an alcoholic living with four different men. In May 1936, when he was eighteen years old, the manager of the Aboriginal Station at Kyogle, J. P. Howard, wrote to the board about the younger boy:
J… B…, Ex-apprentice.
It will be remembered that this lad was formerly apprenticed to Mr Watkins of Cedar Pt. and later returned here for misbehaviour and dishonesty, being sentenced to a term of probation by the Court on charges of stealing.
After a course of training here I asked my son to take B… to the farm he was managing and finish his training by teaching him to use disc plough and harrow, mower and all machinery as well as general dairy work, also as a test of his behaviour when away from station discipline, explaining to B… that he was being given a chance to restore his good name and fit himself for re-engagement as an experienced farm hand. He responded well, so that I was eventually able to recommend him for a good position. He is too old for apprenticeship now. I saw his employer a few days ago, who spoke very highly of the youth’s conduct and ability, and wise use of his wages, which so far have been used to procure his own horse, a hat, shoes and working clothes. He does not go to town only when the family goes. J… asked me if he could have a good suit and sundries for the Show from his Trust a/c, and voucher for S. Michael covering same is submitted under separate cover. He also very much wanted a riding saddle and had the offer of a good one which cost £10 only a short time ago, from a man who is leaving the district. He asked £6 for same; I saw the man and offered him £4 cash, and he took £4-5-0 which I paid. Approval to submit claim for refund from B…‘s T. a/c is requested, please.
While this letter is ostensibly about the progress of the youth concerned, its sub-text is a none-too-subtle attempt to advertise to the board what a great job its author, Mr Howard, had done for him. Nonetheless, it still provides an idea of this administration’s prevailing values since the station manager was clearly reporting outcomes he was confident the board would approve. Even though many historians and political activists want Aborigines to believe that assimilation is against their interests, the story told here is of a youth avoiding a descent into crime and instead gaining the skills and behaviour required to make his way to manhood in the modern world. Indeed, his acquisition of these skills, together with his ownership of a horse and saddle, would have given him — or indeed any 18-year-old country youth at the time — a confidence in his own abilities and a sense of achievement. On any scale of decent human values, such an outcome was a positive good.