Tales from the working life of Des Donley
The following is the first of a series of articles summarising the hard and eventful early years and working life of Melrose Desmond (Des) Donley who is now retired and lives at Summerland Point in NSW. Des has kindly made his written recollections available to the Guardian and has been interviewed by on several occasions. This week we look at Des' recollections of the period of his young life dominated by the routine of a Salvation Army home in Brisbane. Stolen Wages, Stolen Generations, Stolen Lives Des Donley was born in a Salvation Army home in Breakfast Creek - - a suburb of Brisbane — in 1914. In many ways, Des' life has been typical of his generation. He was given only a rudimentary formal education. He worked at a series of hard and often tedious jobs on the farms and in the forests of Queensland before applying his carpentry skills on building sites, both big and small, in places as far away as Sydney and Darwin. His education and working life were characterised by neglect on the part of the authorities and the enforcement of codes of behaviour that permitted ruthless exploitation. Those years were also punctuated by efforts at resistance — spontaneous ones in the early days and, later, with conscious activity in his union and as a member of the Communist Party of Australia on building sites. However, in a number of significant ways Des is not typical. For a start he has made several written accounts of his experiences. He is also a survivor of the genocidal policies of various state and federal governments, carried on over decades, which were designed to "assimilate" Aboriginal people biologically into the broader population and to destroy them culturally. The victims of this shameful era are now known as the Stolen Generations. Des is one of the many carrying painful memories: "I didn't know anything about my parents. It's funny that it's only a few years ago I knew that I really had parents and whether my mother was still alive. But I didn't know anything about her or couldn't find out about her all through my life up to when I was about 70 years of age. "She was still alive but I didn't know anything about her. I got on the right path about her and found out where some of the relatives were and went down and they said she was in a nursing home in Taringa. I went to the nursing home but I didn't know she had married again and I didn't know her married name. "That put me off. So I had to go through the whole rigmarole again to find out. She passed away just a couple of weeks before I did find out. I didn't know anything about my father. It was only through Lionel Murphy — when he put that Freedom of Information Act in place — that I had a chance to find out about relatives... My father got killed in the Second World War over in Europe... "My background when you go back to it is Aboriginality. I wouldn't really know, perhaps my great-grandfather or grandmother would be three-quarter caste or full-blooded, I couldn't tell you. I was born quarter caste. That's why I was taken away..." Des' older brother had already been adopted out. That might have been a lucky break. Des has had to read between the official lines of departmental documents to piece together the story of his origins. At every turn, it is a tale of "special treatment" for the Aboriginal mother and her "illegitimate" children: "... the report about my mother was unwarranted. The authorities of those days were brutal in the way they handled your case and published it. This is what they said about my mother in distress, saying of my mother (whose name was Annie Georgina), 'she was a rather discontented kind of a girl in the home, ready to grumble at frivolous things'. Who wouldn't grumble if they had been treated like my mother?" Des was put in a state home in Wooloowin — another Brisbane suburb. For a time he lived with a number of foster parents. Even in those days, the state would subsidise the costs for the children fostered out. Des does not accuse any of the parents specifically of any ill treatment but he now feels exploited by the regime of chores they maintained. While in the care of Miss Machonie [from the age of six], one of these chores was to collect the "pot meat" for the chooks from the slaughterhouse in tins aboard his billycart: "The pot meat consisted of the beast that had been slaughtered from the knees down, the stomach, the head after the brains were taken out. These were placed in a huge cast iron boiler and boiled for a long time. Then the fat was syphoned off and put into huge steel vats, then put into huge wooden casks to be taken away and made into soap and candles, etc. The remaining pot meat from the boiler was fed to the pigs, mixed with bran and pollard." He remembers with bitter irony having sung Rule Britannia at school and, in particular, the verse that goes "Britons never, never, never shall be slaves". Instruction seemed limited to "learning how to add up, multiplication, divisions, and we learnt for history all about the kings and queens of various countries". First encounter with religion Of course, religion was a major influence on the lives of people. Des now feels that he and the other foster children were spruced up and sent to religious services and Sunday school as a public sign that they were being looked after. This was his first encounter with religious hypocrisy. At church Des and the girls of his foster family would put the coins they had been given on the collection plate, as expected of them, while the congregation sang "dropping, dropping, hear the pennies fall every one for Jesus, he shall have them all." "As kids we got curious. So we stayed back one day after church to see Jesus pick up the pennies — he didn't come, so the next Sunday we gammoned to put the pennies in the plate and went to the shops after." There the children spent the money on boiled lollies, ice cream or broken biscuits, instead. On one occasion, they bought cigarettes and went to the cinema. This relatively carefree period came to an end. Still a young boy, he was delivered into the care of the Salvation Army once more. The treatment of the "state boys" at the Salvation Army home at Indooroopilly was appalling. Their diet was mostly bread with jam or golden syrup ("cockies' joy") washed down with skim milk. Fatty mutton flaps and corned silverside, and bland tapioca and macaroni dishes also featured, as did a regular dosing with castor oil. The Officers, who ate at a table near the boys, would dine on far more appetising fare. The lads, some as young as seven or eight, slept in a dormitory that was too far away from the toilet, so a kerosene tin was placed at one end of the sleeping quarters. The boys were terrified that any mishaps using the tin (prayers and lights out were at 7.30pm) would be severely punished. They were monitored during the night and prevented from sleeping on their front — a puritanical precaution against "impure thoughts". Arbitrary rules and brutality While all the boys were caned for minor transgressions, Des still recalls the severity of the discipline meted out to one lad in particular: "There was an Aboriginal lad who came from the home. His name was Billy. They hated him at the home, teachers hated him at school, and he was continually being caned by the headmaster. You could hear him yelling at the top of his voice to Billy. He would have the door closed ... the next thing Billy would pick up the first thing and throw it at the teacher, then run away from school and the home. "The Headmaster would come into the classroom and ask us who were good runners. A lot of us would put up our hands, he would say you and you and you and we would take off after Billy. We had no intention of catching him, as soon as we got over the hill out of sight from the school, we would sit down and let Billy go his hardest. They would send the Police out after him and after a few days, they would return him to the home." Billy would then be locked up in the shower block for up to two weeks. Salvation Army Officers used barbed wire to stop up possible escape routes. One day, the campaign against the boy went too far. Billy had allegedly made remarks about two Officers making love. He was given a public flogging: "So Billy was told to take off his clothes and lay across the chair. Adjutant Rogan started to weigh into him with the cane, hitting him from the shoulders to the bum and we had to stand there amazed, say nothing or do nothing. We were told by the adjutant if any one of us made a similar remark, we would get the same treatment." The Adjutant and his wife were transferred to New Zealand after this incident but the atmosphere brought about by arbitrary rules and heavy punishment remained. None of the lads were shown affection or counselled about the many obstacles facing a ward of the state in those tough times. In fact, life at the home was highly militarised and clearly designed to prepare the boys for a lifetime of heavy, unquestioning toil. Groups of laughing children were broken up in case they were telling dirty jokes. An annual picnic — organised by the state automobile association — provided an infrequent break to the routine of chores and classes. One of Des' duties brought him into contact with an Aboriginal laundry maid, a woman who, for some reason, didn't have the status that other adults had: "The Aboriginal woman had perspiration simply running off her. Her dinner was brought into the laundry and she had to stand up and eat. She had no dinner break like the officers, who could sit around and have a chat. The Aboriginal woman wasn't allowed to sit at the table. "In the afternoon I would help to take the sheets and pillowslips off the line, fold them and put them through a big wooden mangle. It was my job to turn the mangle while the Aboriginal woman fed them through and when they came out the other side you would think they had been ironed. It was hard yakka for a kid." The exertion required by this task would pale beside some of the responsibilities soon to fall onto Des' shoulders. The state government had a policy of placing girls into households as domestics and boys onto farms.