Sunday, February 03, 2008

Report of the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board, year ended 30 June 1940

I had not intended to do another post, I am meant to be having a break on this blog, but in my searching I came across the report of the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board for the year ended 30 June 1940. I thought that some readers at least might find an overview of the report interesting. You can find the full report here.


At the time of this report, the United Australia Party/Country Party Coalition Government that had been in power since 1932 was coming to the end, going down to electoral disaster on 10 May 1941 . Watched in glum silence by the Country Party, the UAP (the then Liberal equivalent) had been tearing itself apart through infighting and leadership rivalries.

Over the previous eight years, NSW had gone from depression through recovery to war. Constrained at the beginning and end of its term through external events, the Government had still overseen considerable change in NSW.

This was also a period in which attitudes towards the Aborigines began to shift, partially through the influence of Professor A P Elkin.

Formation of the Aboriginal Welfare Board

In 1937 a Parliamentary Select Committee had been formed to inquire into the administation of the former Aborigines Protection Board. While it did hold hearings, the Committee apparently lapsed (I have not checked the reasons) early in 1938. In its place, the Public Service Board was asked to carry out a detailed investigation.

Following a detailed investigation of the Board's activities both as regards Head Office Administration and the conduct of its Stations, Reserves and Homes, the Public Service Board recommended changes including:

(1) Amendment of the Aboriginal Protection Act to provide for reconstitution of the Board and the appointment of a Superintendent who would be Senior Officer of the Board's staff and an executive member of the Board.

(2) Reorganisation of staffing arrangements, including the separation of the duties of Manager and Teacher on the larger stations and the appointment, as far as possible, of fully qualified teachers. Board staff should be subject to the provisions of the Public Service Act.

(3) The development of the Stations to their fullest extent for the production of crops and foodstuffs as a means of augmenting the diet of the aborigines and training them in rural pursuits.

(4) The provision of additional funds over a period of years to enable the organisation of a planned building campaign, with a view to improving the housing conditions and the provision of other necessary building.

(5) The incorporation of a policy which would result in the gradual assimilation of aborigines into the general and social life of the general community, special attention being given to each individual aboriginal familty and their suitability for assimilation by virtue of education, training and personal qualities.

Other recommendations covered such matters as health and hygiene, education and training, issue of food and clothing and the administration of family endowment.

Some recommendations were implemented immediately, but it was not until 14 June 1940 following passage of legislation in May that the Aboriginal Protection Board was abolished and replaced by the new Aboriginal Welfare Board. Professor Elkin was one of its members.

At the time of this report, the Board had been in existence only a few weeks and had yet to define its policy; the report "is confined to matters of a general and statistical nature."

Those "matters of a general nature" will seem very familiar to a modern reader.

NSW's Aboriginal Population

According to a census conducted by the Government Statistician on 30 June 1940, the number of Aborigines in NSW was 10,861, up from 9,831 in 1931. Of this group, 690 were full blood.

In all, 3,068 Aborigines resided on stations, 2,121 on reserves, with 5,569 living privately, residing in camps or pursuing a nomadic existence.


The Board notes that for 'many years past, the provision of housing accommodation for aborigines, both on and off the Reserves, had been regarded as one of the most urgently important of the Board's administration." Pointing to past inadequate funds for housing purposes, the Board expresses the hope that adequate funding will be made available.

Health and Hygiene

The Board notes that in recent years increasing attention has been paid to the necessity of safeguarding the health of aborigines throughout the state. "Aborigines, as citizens of the State, are entitled to receive the same medical attention in public hospitals as any other member of the community."

In a rather startling comment, the Board reports that medical officers from the Health Department had made a survey of of the general state of health of most Stations. While "many important recommendations were made concerning housing, sanitation and other important matters, it was interesting to note that the health of of the aborigines generally compares very favourably with that of the white community."

Mind you, this was not necessarily the case in town camps. Still, it is startling.

The Board was concerned with the high incidence of dental caries. A small grant had been obtained during year to allow dental work to be carried out on stations and some reserves. Aborigines living in or near Sydney could access free dental care from the United Dental Hospital.

Children's Homes and Apprenticeships

"The care of aboriginal children committed to the Board's care because of cruely, neglect or loss of parents, is still regarded by the Board as one of the very important features of its administration."

"All children received into the Homes are admitted either by the consent of the parents or next of kin, or by committal by a duly constituted Children's Court, after the circumstances have been investigated."

As at 30 June 1940, there were 2,312 Aboriginal children in NSW of which 98 were classified as full blood.

At 30 June 1940, there were 40 girls at the Cootamundra Girls' Training Home, of which 7 were under school age, 26 of school age, 7 over school age. During the year there were 3 admissions and 2 departures.

As at 30 June 1940, there were 43 boys at the Kinchella Boys' Training Home near Kempsey. Of these, 40 were of school age, 3 over school age. During the year there was 1 admission, 1 departure.

As of 30 June 1940, there were 21 children ranging from babies up to 10 years (13 boys, 8 girls) at the Bombaderry Children's Home run by the United Aborigines Mission.

Under the Act and Regulations, the Board "may by indenture apprentice an Aboriginal child to an approved master. Every child so apprenticed is under the supervision of the Board." This is the type of apprenticeship I described in my post on the NSW child welfare system.

The Report notes that in recent years most of those who have become apprenticed to employment have been sent out from Cootamundra or Kinchella after having reached the age of 14 and a half to 15.

As at 30 June 1940, there were 10 male and 40 female apprentices. During the year 19 people were apprenticed, nine terminated their apprenticeship. The report noted that the "Board intends to revise the arrangements for apprenticeships, so that the conditions will be similar to those laid down by the Child Welfare Department for white children."

I should note that there is no reference in the Board's report to foster care. I have not checked Child Welfare records, so I do not know the incidence here (if any) under the ordinary child welfare system.


I plan to do a fuller post on education. For the moment, I would just note that the new Act transferred the responsibility for the education of aboriginal children from the Board to the State Education Department.

Stations, Reserves and Camps

As at 30 June 1940, the Board had 19 Aboriginal Stations under its control spread across the State, varying in area from 50 to 4,500 acres with aboriginal populations ranging from 60 to 300.

The report records the Board's reluctance to establish new Aboriginal stations -

"the Board is well aware of the desirability for restricting the expansion of its aboriginal settlement and prefers to see a decrease in the aboriginal population under its control, rather than the reverse, provided of course that such families who leave the Board's control establish themselves under satisfactory conditions in the general community."

During the year, stations at Kyogle and Ulgundahi Island (Clarence River) were closed because a drop in numbers below 60 meant that it was no longer economic to maintain resident oversight.

At Menindee, unsaitsfactory conditions led to the decision to build a new station. The site was chosen taking into account 'the wishes of the people, fertility of the area, proximity to employment and economy in administration."

A new station was opened at Boggabilla with 31 homes, some four roomed, some three, together with an up to date school, officers' residence, store and other offices. Funding was obtained to create a new station at Walgett.

As at 30 June 1940, there were fifty Reserves throughout the State. "In general, these reserves carry aboriginal families who prefer to live their own lives away from the control of Station Management."

It is clear from the wording that the Board had in mind a process in which people would move from Stations into the broader community with the reserves as a possible intermediate step.

This left the problem of the town camps. The report describes them this way:

On the outskirts of certain country towns throughout the State, aborigines exist in camps under unsatisfactory conditions, their dwellings usually being shacks of flattened kerosene tins and bagging, similar to many of the habitations constructed by unemployed whites in similar locations. These aborigines always constitute a difficult problem for the Board for generally they resent any attempt to place them under control on Stations, and prefer to live under sordid conditions, whilst enjoying the proximity to the town and its amenities.

Councils placed pressure on the Board to act to shift the people. The Board was clearly very reluctant ineed to take any action, although in cases brought to its notice it would try tp persuade people to consider removal to an Aboriginal Station.

The report finishes on a plaintive note:

The task of caring for the aborigines of this State is no easy one; indeed, it may be regarded as one of the most difficult to adminster of all the Social services. A considerable amount of publicity and criticism has been hurled at the Board in past years, but it is pointed out that the Board is doing its utmost with the funds at its disposal for the good of people placed under its care. Whilst criticism of a constructive nature is welcomed, the co-operation of the general public must be regarded as essential to the successful execution of the Board's responsibilities.


Please do not construe this post as a contribution to the sorry discussion. I have said all along that one needed to look at the variety of the Australian Aboriginal experience.

What the post does do is to present a snapshot of the official position at a point in time, an important point, but still a point. There are issues raised by the Board's report that interest me and which warrant further investigation. At this point, I would only say that it is a helpful caution about some of the more sweeping universalist views.


Lexcen said...

An extremely interesting record of our history Jim.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Lexcen.

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