The Stolen Generation

‘It was like somebody came and stabbed me with a knife. I couldn’t communicate with my family because I had no way of communicating with them any longer. Once that language was taken away, we lost a part of that very soul. It meant our culture was gone, our family was gone, everything that was dear to us was gone’ (‘Fiona’s Story’, The Stolen Children, p97).

‘Fiona’ is one of the children, who in 1936 at age five, was taken from her mother at Ernabella in the Far North along with her two sisters and three cousins. She learned the first lessons of the civilising process at the United Aborigines Mission at Oodnadatta. She was then transferred to Quorn and finally to Colebrook in Eden Hills, south of Adelaide. Her education focused on a future of domestic service and childcare. She remained at Colebrook before being fostered out to a doctor’s family in 1946. When finally reunited with her mother in 1968, they could only communicate through an interpreter. ‘Fiona’ is not critical of the missionaries or even of the government, except for the radical estrangement from her culture primarily through loss of language.

There is no more tragic episode in the history of South Australian childhood than the story of the stolen generations and the history of assimilation practised by the state and the Christian churches. It began in the early years of the colony with the establishment of the Aborigines School in Adelaide in 1839 and the Native Training Institution at Poonindie, near Port Lincoln on Eyre Peninsula, in 1850. It culminated in the formal adoption of the policy of assimilation in 1951. The motif for the long history of this policy was expressed as early as 1842 by the Protector of Aborigines, Matthew Moorhouse: ‘the complete success as far as regards their education would be before us, if it were possible to remove them from the influence of their parents’ (A Brief History of the Laws, p2).

Yet the aim of severing relations with parents was not confined to Aboriginal children. The Destitute Board, established in 1849, and the State Children’s Council, established in 1886, both energetically sought to sweep up the children of the ‘undeserving poor’ and place them in reformatories or industrial schools where they would be trained for apprenticeships in approved households, most often away from the temptation of the city and their parents. In the case of Aboriginal children, these institutions were often run by the churches. If the child’s religion was not known, the administrators of the State Children’s Act 1895 had ‘a rule that every seventh child who comes . . . without any religion is a Roman Catholic; the rest are Protestants. We make one-seventh of them Catholics because that is the proportion of Catholics to Protestants in the community’ (A Brief History of the Laws, p10).

Nineteenth Century

Of course, the vast majority of South Australia’s children were not subjected to such radical remedies from the state, the churches and other voluntary agencies. Except for the tiny minority of children of wealthy parents who were sent to boarding school from the mid nineteenth century, children have spent ever-increasing periods of time living with their families in the last 165 years. This does not mean that they escaped the regimen of extra-familial environments supervised and regulated by adults. From the 1850s, the burgeoning army of state-funded or sponsored professionals increasingly intervened in family life to transform the culture and experience of growing up.

In the late nineteenth century, concerns about the very high infant mortality rate saw the increasing medicalisation of childbirth with doctors replacing midwives and, in the twentieth century, removing expectant mothers from their homes to hospitals to give birth. At the same time the Mothers’ and Babies’ Health Association was established to offer expert advice on the care of children in their early years. The likelihood that children would survive to adulthood also increased dramatically as a better understanding of germ theory, improved sanitation and the advent of vaccination brought under control the epidemics of diphtheria, scarlet fever, measles, whooping cough and typhoid which ravaged nineteenth-century South Australia.

Coincidentally, the reduction in infant and child mortality rates was accompanied by an equally dramatic decline in the birth-rate from the 1860s to the 1930s. This meant that average family size dropped from over seven to about two children. These changes to mortality and birth-rates occurred differentially, impacting much later on poor families. They were also influenced by the other great transformation of childhood experience, the introduction of compulsory schooling.


Beginning with the Education Act 1875, schooling was made compulsory for all children in South Australia, albeit only on a part-time basis. The Education Act 1915 made full-time attendance a requirement for all children between the ages of six and 14. These acts, driven by the same reforming logic as those responsible for the removal of Aboriginal children and children of the ‘undeserving poor’, interposed the state and professional teachers between parents and their children. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they reinforced gender differences at the heart of South Australian childhood by introducing curricula that focused on vocational education for boys and domestic education for girls. In the second half of the twentieth century, with the introduction of mass secondary education and, more recently, the opportunity of mass tertiary education, the focus has been increasingly on equality of opportunity, regardless of students’ class, racial background or gender.

Twentieth Century

Despite 150 years of state intervention, class, gender and racial differences persist. In fact, in recent years they may be widening with the re-emergence of early nineteenth century philosophies emphasising ‘parental choice’ and private schooling, and concomitant refocusing of the child saving role of the state on the children of the poor. In the late twentieth century there has even been an upsurge in the number of young teenagers entering the casual workforce in ways reminiscent of nineteenth century children. Nevertheless, over the last 100 years childhood changed forever. The state prescribed years of compulsory attendance at school increased from the ages of 7-12 to 5 -16, while the age of puberty has declined from about 16 to 12. The vast majority of nineteenth century children were pre-pubescent when they entered the workforce. The vast majority of children in the late twentieth century reach puberty well before they leave school. It is the contradiction between biological adulthood and cultural childhood that defines this new stage in the lifecycle, modern adolescence.

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Bird, C, (ed.), The Stolen Children (Sydney: Random House Australia, 1998) 

Davey, I, ‘Growing Up’ in E. Richards (ed.), The Flinders History of South Australia: Social History (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 1986)

Hall, A, A Brief History of the Laws, Policies and Practices in South Australia which led to the Removal of Many Aboriginal Children (Adelaide: Department for Family and Community Services, 1997)

Kociumbas, J, Australian Childhood (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1997)