The Aboriginal School at Purfleet, 1903-1965: A Case Study of the Segregation of Aboriginal Children in New South Wales, Australia (1)

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By 1901 in New South Wales, the blueprint for the relationship between Aborigines and Europeans had been established: Aborigines were 'in a far better condition when living in small communities comparatively isolated and removed from intimate contact with Europeans'. (2) The policies of Protectionism and Segregation were accepted in state government unopposed. Aborigines from 'black camps' of the Manning were relocated onto a government reserve at Purfleet. For thirty years the Protection Board assigned the management to the United Aboriginal Mission.

The richly resourced Manning River Valley region is found on the mid-northern coast of New South Wales, Australia and north of Newcastle and the Hunter Valley. Taree, its largest town, was incorporated in 1885 and has remained its dominant centre ever since. (3) The Biripi Aboriginal people were the original inhabitants of much of the region and remain a strong community there. (4) The Aboriginal people of the southern part of the region are Worimi.

The situation in 1965

Taree, with a population of at least 10,050 (5) by 1965, had spread along the northern bank of the river and was the 'centre of one of the richest dairy districts'. On the other side, two miles directly south stood the Purfleet Aboriginal Station with a population of 225 Aborigines housed in 'comfortable modern cottages' nestling in 'a beautiful bush setting', or so claimed the journalist for Dawn, published by the New South Wales Aboriginal Welfare Board--its public propaganda arm. (6) The community of the Taree district was proud of 'its Aboriginal content'. Local sporting bodies welcomed teams of Aboriginal players into their competition and Aboriginal sportspersons were chosen in representative teams. (7) All this was true as the Aboriginal people had a long tradition of prowess in sports where assimilation seemed an easier process than in other aspects of social life.

The Indigenous population of Purfleet Aboriginal Station consisted of Biripi people, who came mainly from their tribal territory on the northern side of the Manning River, and Worimi people, whose traditional territory was from the southern side of the same river to Port Stephens in the south. Other Indigenous people were removed from Karuah in the 1930s to Purfleet, helping to maintain the population there.

Between the 1950s and the mid 1960s, there were other signs of assimilation in terms of integrating the social life of Indigenous and white communities. Taree churches were showing interest in local Aborigines. Ministers of religion had begun to visit Purfleet Station and its Aboriginal school. The Taree Boy Scouts had taken Aboriginal boys into the Cub Pack. A Progress Association, a sign of self-determination, had been formed by Purfleet residents. It administered a School Fund that provided educational assistance, and there was a Scout Fund to provide for the requirements of the Station's own Boy Scout Troop, and later, for the formation of a Girl Guides Association. The Station had a 'thriving' Rugby (League) Football Club backed with 'substantial funds' to meet the needs of the forthcoming season. (8) Rugby League had long been an important part of the Station's culture. Nevertheless, elements of racism were still serious problems in the Manning Valley. (9)

In his sociological study in 1964-65, J.P.M. Long noted that of all the New South Wales Aboriginal Stations Purfleet looked the least like an Aboriginal reserve:

   Instead of being tucked away out of sight somewhere beyond the
   end of a sealed road, it was built on either side of the Pacific
   Highway, near a group of service stations and motels.... The newly
   painted cottages, neatly fenced and bristling with television
   aerials, might have been taken for an ordinary part of town. (10)

It was still a place apart, but a new era of schooling for the Station's children was culminated when nineteen pupils of the Aboriginal School were enrolled on the other side of the river divide at Taree Public School and a further six at Taree High School. …