If the coloured people of this country are to be absorbed into the general community they must be thoroughly fit and educated at least to the extent of the three R’s. If they can read, write and count, and know what wages they should get, and how to enter into an agreement with an employer, that is all that should be necessary. Once that is accomplished there is no reason in the world why these coloured people should not be absorbed into the community. To achieve this end, however, we must have charge of the children at the age of six years; it is useless to wait until they are twelve or thirteen years of age.
— A. O. Neville, Canberra, 21 April 1937
There is no doubt that Neville wanted Aboriginal people of half or less descent (which is what he meant here by ‘coloured people’) to find employment and assimilate into the white community. He also thought that by giving Aboriginal children an education in the three R’s plus some vocational training, he could go a long way towards accomplishing this. He told the 1937 Canberra conference he wanted their education to begin at six years of age. He had the authority to compel this by removing children from their families wherever necessary: ‘In Western Australia we have the power under the act to take any child from its mother at any stage of its life, no matter whether the mother be legally married or not.’ But he was also forced to admit that his ambitions amounted to nothing more than an ‘intention’ to do something in the future, rather than a program that could be practically achieved in the present. ‘It is, however, our intention to establish sufficient settlements to undertake the training and education of these children so that they may become absorbed into the general community.’ In 1937, Neville was, as usual, talking big but doing little.
The idea of preparing half castes to enter mainstream white society through education and training long predated Neville’s appointment as Chief Protector. It originated long before he or anyone else developed the notion of breeding out the colour. It went back to the nineteenth century when the state government took over Aboriginal affairs. The first Chief Protector, Henry Charles Prinsep, proposed that he should become the legal guardian of all Aboriginal children until they turned sixteen. He believed it was ‘our duty to make good citizens of them by every means in our power’, but he despaired of the prevailing ethos in the camps and communities in which they grew up:
unfortunately they are more often found in communities whose influence is towards laziness and vice; and I think it is our duty not to allow these children, whose blood is half British, to grow up as vagrants and outcasts, as their mothers now are.
With the enactment of the 1905 Aborigines Act, Prinsep gained the guardianship of children under sixteen that he wanted. He could remove children from their mothers any time he chose. But he had nowhere to put them and no money to provide any of the education and training he thought they needed. He could rely upon some of the missions to take a few needy children as welfare cases but had no institutional structure to do this himself.
Indeed, under this and subsequent administrations, Aboriginal education and training went steeply backwards. In 1901, 31 per cent of part-Aborigines over the age of five could read and write and about the same proportion were being educated, largely at state and mission schools. Twenty years later, Peter Biskup records, these statistics had fallen so low it was thought prudent not to record them. This outcome was a direct result of the transfer of responsibility for the schooling of Aboriginal children away from the state Education Department and into the hands of the Aborigines Department.
The 1871 Elementary Education Act made school attendance compulsory for every child living with three miles of a state school. However, an 1897 amendment to the Aborigines Protection Act made the Aborigines Department responsible for the education of both full-blood and half-caste Aborigines. Just like every other case in Australian history where a government has abandoned universal education principles in favour of separate education for Aboriginal children, this one failed too. The transfer of responsibility was not accompanied by a corresponding transfer of money from the Treasury.
For several years this did not matter much because half-caste children still attended state schools. But by 1912, the increasing numbers of half-caste schoolchildren led parents of white children at some state schools at Katanning and adjacent towns in the Great Southern district to protest about their presence. They objected to the standards of hygiene and morality and the incidence of disease of children from Aboriginal families, most of whom lived in makeshift accommodation in fringe camps on reserves that lacked water supplies and sanitation. During the subsequent conflict between white parents and the education authorities, Prinsep’s successor, Charles Gale, drew up a proposal to construct and employ teachers for thirteen schools to educate Aboriginal children separately. Two schools at Katanning and Beverley subsequently became ‘native schools’ operated by the Chief Protector but otherwise none of these plans were fulfilled.
In 1915, the state government established for the southern Aborigines a new settlement at Carrolup for both adults and children. It was designed to solve the twin problems of where to house the growing numbers of fringe-dwelling half-caste families and how to provide separate education for their children. The two native schools were closed and Carrolup became a government station which provided housing and distributed rations to about 150 local Aborigines, and conducted a school for their children. Its first buildings were impressive, with dormitories and schoolhouse ‘most elaborate in structure’ and built of stone. Soon after Carrolup was established, Neville became Chief Protector and drew up ambitious plans to provide it with a hospital and a farm to make residents self-sufficient and train Aboriginal youth in agricultural pursuits. He also began the establishment of a second government station with similar aims at Mogumber, north of Perth on the Moore River. By 1922, however, the state government had decided the two settlements cost too much money. Carrolup was closed, its usable land and buildings leased to local farmers. Its former inhabitants were put aboard a train bound for Moore River, now the government’s sole Aboriginal settlement in the entire southern half of the state.