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 year. 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' predicament. "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 yakka. "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 17.) 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 children! 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.