Did the board fulfil its stated objectives, that is, was its apprenticeship policy effective? One measure of this is the job retention rate of youth it placed with employers. If an apprentice remained on the job long enough to gain a track record and to pick up some employment-related skills then the placement could be judged a success. Of those Aboriginal youth for whom there is a record of these matters, no less than 82 per cent remained with the same employer for five months or more. Some 5 per cent went into an institution (either a hospital, mental institution, prison, convent or a welfare home), while 13 per cent absconded from their employers or never had a job with one employer that lasted for five months. An 82 per cent rate of stable employment for youth from such disadvantaged backgrounds is, on any reasonable reckoning, an unequivocal success. It compares well with the outcomes of apprenticeship schemes for disadvantaged white youth in the late nineteenth century. Of the 223 boys sent out as apprentices from the Sydney training ship Vernon, a total of 31 absconded or had their indentures cancelled. This was a failure rate of 14 per cent from an institution personally founded by Henry Parkes and regarded as a showpiece of welfare reform of the period.
These outcomes are also consistent with a study of the same Aborigines Protection Board Ward Registers by Inara Walden, who looked at those girls who had been employed as domestic servants. She found that 14 per cent of girls absconded from their employers. Strangely, Walden thinks this absconding rate demonstrates how strongly these girls ‘resisted their employers through defiant behaviour’. Anyone familiar with the long history of similar programs for destitute white children would regard the fact that 86 per cent of these Aboriginal girls did not abscond, but stayed with their employers, a remarkably positive result.
What happened to those who did abscond? Heather Goodall has scripted a Hollywood-inspired scene of fugitives guided by an underground Aboriginal network to a safe house provided by Aboriginal activists in Sydney in the 1920s. However, this network, as Goodall admits, is entirely hypothetical and there is no evidence it ever existed. Under the Apprentices Act, 1901, if they were found, absconders could be arrested by the police and returned to their employers. But just about the last thing any employer wanted on the premises was a defiant teenager who didn’t want to work. In theory, a persistent absconder could be imprisoned. In reality, the Ward Registers show that most absconders were simply sent back to their parents or to the reserve or station they had come from, courtesy of a rail ticket paid for by the Aborigines Protection Board. In some cases, the Ward Registers record that the Aboriginal station manager came to collect them and take them back home.
The final but by no means the least telling feature of the board’s apprenticeship policy was the proportion of Aboriginal children it sent out to employers. They constituted but a small fraction of the population. From the time the board became serious about implementing this policy in 1912, until it lost its authority to do so in 1940, it made wards of some 1600 children and temporarily separated them from their communities. More than 90 per cent of them started work as apprentices. As Chapter Two recorded, between 1912 and 1928 the average of 48 new separations a year amounted to about 1.8 per cent of the state’s approximately 2700 Aboriginal children in the 1910s and 1920s. From 1929 to 1940, the average of 75 new separations a year amounted to about 1.9 per cent of the state’s average of 4000 Aboriginal children in the 1930s. But by 1940, when the population of apprentices totalled only 50 youths, they amounted to 1.1 per cent of the state’s 4734 Aboriginal children. Whichever period you look at, the board’s objective in the 1910s for all Aboriginal children to eventually undertake an apprenticeship was never even close to being realized. Given the board’s early enthusiasm for the scheme, this outcome fell far short of its hopes. The board was never able to meet its own targets, let alone to conduct some secret agenda to put an end to the Aboriginal race.
By 1940, the apprenticeship system for Aborigines was in terminal decline. From a total of 10 boys and 40 girls in 1940, the number fell to 12 boys and 14 girls in 1948. In the 1950s, the average number of new apprentices added each year was only 10. This occurred largely because, when the Aborigines Protection Board was reconstituted as the Aborigines Welfare Board, its new 1940 Act reverted to the position that prevailed before 1915 when a court hearing, and not simply the decision of an officer of the board, was required to make an Aboriginal child a ward. This shifted the emphasis from employment and training to welfare criteria. Only children found by a court hearing to be neglected, destitute or orphans, or children placed at the request of their parents or guardians, subsequently became wards.
Hence a much smaller number of youth than in the previous two decades became the board’s responsibility. The Kinchela and Cootamundra homes continued to operate with an average of around 50 children each, but the major decline was in teenage apprenticeships. Even though both Commonwealth and state governments from this point onwards publicly declared assimilation to be their primary goal, they gave up their most effective means of achieving this when in the post-war period they all but discarded apprenticeship from their range of policy options.