The Guardian November 5, 2003

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 

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 

"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 

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 

"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.

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