The Guardian November 12, 2003

Tales from working life:
Stolen Wages, Stolen Generations, Stolen Lives (Part II)

The following is the second in a series of articles 
summarising the hard and eventful early years and working life of 
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 was interviewed on several occasions. Last week 
we looked at Des' recollections of the period of his young life 
dominated by the routine of a Salvation Army home in Brisbane, 
after being separated at birth from his Aboriginal mother. This 
week we trace his story during the remaining four years of his 
time as a ward of the State.

Most of us would probably not look back and feel that whole 
periods in our lives were defined entirely by government policy. 
Then again, most of have not been subjected to the sort of 
ruthless intervention that Des Donley experienced in his young 
life as a ward of the State in Queensland in the first half of 
the last century.

When he was born in 1914, the various State and Federal 
governments already had a policy of removing Aboriginal children, 
including "half caste" children from their parents and placing 
them with foster parents or in what was euphemistically called a 
"home". These children are now known as the stolen generations.

As a consequence, Des spent the first 14 years of his life in the 
care of foster parents and, for the greater part, the Salvation 
Army home at Indooroopilly. The Queensland Government had another 
policy that meant that, at age 14, wards of the state would end 
their schooling and be put to work. Girls were usually sent to 
work as domestic help in private homes while the boys laboured on 
farms across the State.

Not exactly the Hilton

Des has vivid memories of this transition:

"The State Department had me prepared for the job. They issued me 
with a tin trunk, which I still have today after 60 odd years. In 
the trunk was a couple of pairs of blucher boots with hob nails 
in the soles to make them last longer (when I put them on I 
looked like puss in boots), four pairs of working shorts, a good 
suit (which I never wore out), two felt hats, four flannel shirts 
for work and a gaberdine coat.

"The boss was anxious to see what was in the tin .

"His agreement with the State Department, as well as the two 
shillings and sixpence a week and keep, included keeping me in 
clothes. He could see a couple of years he wouldn't have to 
supply me with any clothes."

The boss in this instance was Thomas Bell  the owner of a 
family-run mixed farm and dairy on the outskirts of Ipswich. An 
officer from the State Department delivered Des to him at the 
Ipswich Railway Station. The young "state lad" was then 
introduced to the hard work and rudimentary accommodation that 
had been reserved for him. Des can still describe the six by ten 
foot space (approximately 2 by 3 metres) at the rear of a wooden 
garage that he calls his "refurbished flat":

"The furniture was of a modern nature: a kerosene box with a 
hurricane lamp on it, the wardrobe consisted of three-inch 
[7.5cm] nails nailed into the studs to hang my clothes on. The 
flat was air-conditioned all year round. It consisted of half-
inch gaps in the floor, the doors and shutters had gaps between 
them, and the locks were nails and a piece of wire.

"My mattress consisted of chaff bags filled with oaten hay and my 
pillow was a sugar bag stuffed with hay. No pillowslips, no 
sheets and my blankets were corn bags sewn together with a 
bagging needle.

"The hay used to poke through the hessian bags. I was rockin' 'n' 
rollin' long before Elvis Presley to stop the hay sticking into 
me hide. That would relieve it for the time being.

"To top this off, my mattress was put on an old wire framed 
bedstead that sagged in the middle so that you had to curl up 
like a black snake."

Other annoyances included the resident Red Back spiders and 
occasional visits from brown snakes! Des was bitten by red back 
once after it had crawled into a pair of pants that had fallen 
from his "wardrobe" onto the floor. He treated himself with 
iodine and sweated through the dangerous, uncomfortable episode.

Hard yakka

The day Des arrived he was put straight to work milking the cows 
and not given anything to eat until 9.30 that night.

He would have to become accustomed to this cycle of hard work and 
scant food. Occasionally he would try to steal some bread with 
jam or golden syrup from the downstairs kitchen before heading 
off to milk his share of the 60 cows on the property. Very 
occasionally, he got away with it.

On frosty mornings he would warm his chilblained feet on the 
patch of ground vacated by the reclining cows or even in a 
steaming cowpat! Des would be hard at work at 3.30 am while the 
household slept on.

The farmer's boys never faced the world without first having a 
cup of tea and something to eat. The younger son boarded at the 
Grammar School during the week. Both were bone lazy, which only 
aggravated the sense of injustice that Des felt even at the time.

After milking the cows and separating the skim milk from the 
butter, Des would scald all the dairy utensils and put them in 
the sun. Breakfast was cracked corn, some golden syrup or bread 
and dripping. Lunch was something similar washed down with billy 
tea. It was often taken in the hot fields where Des cemented 
reputation for being a hard worker:

"The boss got cunning when he could see I was doing well at 
ploughing. He would bring down a fresh pair of horses to plough 
with. They would go faster and more land was ploughed. I never 
thought at the time he had no consideration for me. I suppose he 
had the same idea as a general in the army: if they wipe out a 
thousand men, there are thousands to take their place.

"When I went to plough the only shade was fence posts. I had to 
sit in the open with my back against a post to eat lunch.

"Sometimes working in the paddocks, cutting thistles or digging 
lantana and you felt thirsty, you would drink anything, where the 
cows come to drink you would drink on the opposite side of the 
dam because they would shit and piss in it."

A day of ploughing, sowing, harvesting, weeding, scarifying or 
cutting oats, barley and wheat would be rounded off with the 
milking of the cows again. Work ended for the day at about 9 pm. 
This was the unbroken pattern of life every single day of the 

Des carried out the full range of duties on the farm and faced up 
to the full range of hazards.

Ignorant of hazards

"Through my ignorance and being young and inexperienced, I used 
to do work that was dangerous to my health. I used to use the 
most dangerous of poisons, arsenic pentoxide, for poisoning 
prickly pear and lantana, and killing trees after they had been 
ringbarked. We would mix it, pour it into old tins or kettles, 
which would make it easier to pour. We would get it on our hands, 
sit down and have our lunch out in the open."

Des accepted all of this and even came to enjoy most aspects of 
the physicality of the tough life on the farm. One day, however, 
the disregard of the farm boss became too outrageous. The family 
went to town one day shortly after Des' 18th birthday, leaving 
all the work in the fields and the dairy to the young farmhand.

When they returned after midnight, Des had fallen asleep against 
the side of a cow that he was milking. Nobody offered to prepare 
any food for Des and the farmer even saw fit to joke about Des' 

"I told the boss, in a good Australian term, he could stick his 
job up his arse." The next morning the farmer drove him to town 
to start out on a new life. Des was finally leaving behind the 
authority of the Queensland Government to tell him, as a ward of 
the state, where he must live and work.

There was never to be, however, a squaring of the accounts of 
what was owed to the young "state lad" for his four years of hard 

"I felt so vulnerable. I faced the world on my own. I was like a 
bird who'd been caged up all its life, some one opens the cage 
door and it doesn't know what to do, where to go."

It is only during the last few years that Des has been able to 
talk about this period.

When he was first placed with Thomas Bell to work on his farm, 
Des was told that his paltry wages were being put in a trust fund 
held by the Queensland Government until his 18th birthday at 
which time he could withdraw the entire amount owing to him.

This was meant to be at the rate of six shillings (6/-) a week 
during the first year on the farm, then an additional 2/- a week 
in the second and third years. In his final year, Des was to be 
paid a further 5/- a week on top of all that. (1/- became 10 
cents with the introduction of decimal currency  approximately 
14% of basic wage at the time.)

"I approached the head of the State Department to find out who my 
mother was and where she might be. I received no information from 
Mr Smith  the head  who refused to see I got my wages."

According to information later obtained from the government, 
"Each child is, according to age, paid a small sum as weekly 
pocket money. The balance of the money is paid to the Department 
and deposited in a trust account for each child. When the child 
is discharged at the age of eighteen years he is entitled to draw 
by instalments one-fourth of the money held by the Department, 
the balance being paid to him when he reaches the age of twenty-
one years."

(This also applied to girls, except that their wages were half 
that of boys at the age of 14, rising to two-thirds by the age of 

Wages denied

"I was so ashamed to tell anybody about my experience, thinking 
they might think I was an idiot. But I had no say in the matter, 
having no guidance, I had nobody to advise me, as I never came 
into contact with the outside world."

Other approaches in later years were almost as humiliating. Des 
was told that no wages were ever paid to the department or that 
the records of such payments had been destroyed during the floods 
that occurred in Brisbane many years later. All the time, the 
expectation from official quarters was that Des could and should 
forget the whole thing.

Today, as a result of persistent campaigning, there is 
recognition from the Queensland Government that there is an 
unresolved matter of these "stolen wages". In 2002 they offered 
$4000 to some former labourers and $2000 to others in a take it 
or leave it deal. This has been rejected by most of the people 
abused by the system and used as slave labour in those years.

Des was not amongst those offered even that paltry payment. The 
Government knocked back his claim on the basis that his money was 
not held in trust under Aboriginal "protection" Acts but under 
different child protection legislation which also included white 

The Government's offer only relates to those whose slavery and 
theft of wages was under Indigenous Acts  a matter of semantics 
as far as Des is concerned.

"I was a small baby when taken from my mother. I was taken 
because my mother was Aboriginal, but it's not like I had a 
choice which Act I was taken under."

After all a trust account is a trust account, regardless of which 
Act it was administered under.

The campaign continues while Des, on the verge of his 90th 
birthday, waits for sincere efforts on the part of the 
authorities to act with compassion and to close a disgraceful 
chapter in Australia's history.

Back to index page