The Retta Dixon Home’s Work of Love

This is the foreword to the new book Placed in Our Care by Douglas Brown. Nicholas Hasluck’s most recent book is the novel Che’s Last Embrace (reviewed in the September issue).

* * *

At the site of the former Retta Dixon Home on the outskirts of Darwin are two small plaques. One commemorates missionaries from the Aborigines Inland Mission and the children who lived on this site. It draws attention to the founder of the Mission and to the work of Amelia Shankelton who was a leading figure at the Home in the post-war era until its closure in 1980. Another plaque is “in recognition of children displaced from mother and country”. The wording of the two plaques points to a difference of opinion as to what happened on this site.

In the vicinity of the plaques are some concrete slabs, reminders that history, with its sensitivity to changing times, often leaves behind mere traces of structures and significant events. But even puzzling remnants, from myths to broken columns, or some concrete slabs, can be used to open up contrasting interpretations of the past. The language used to characterise a particular place may well affect what is said and done in times to come.

Language is generally used to reflect reality. In the current human rights era, however, language and the process of interpretation are sometimes used by activists with an axe to grind in the field of Aboriginal affairs not to reflect but to reconfigure reality. Complex patterns of behaviour are reduced to one-dimensional sketches of racial prejudice and wrongdoing. In looking at a scattering of concrete slabs, activists of this ilk might well be inclined to see only what they wish to see, traces of default, slabs that can be built upon in constructing arguments to advance their cause. This would leave little room for recognisable human figures who should be in the foreground: people like Amelia Shankelton who worked in a compassionate way to give children at the Retta Dixon Home a better chance in life.

Douglas Brown’s biography of Amelia Shankelton presents a balanced picture. It casts much-needed light upon contrasting versions of what happened at this site. It looks at the life and times of a dedicated missionary who sought to improve the prospects of the children in her care, a portrait of rigorous endeavour, but always, as appears in the way she attended to the challenges before her, an endeavour underpinned by decency and kindness.

In recent times, critics of the Retta Dixon Home and places like it are inclined to win support for their cause by using forensic methods, as if controversies about what happened in the past must always be debated with an eye to litigation and legal reasoning, the putting of a case without regard to the presence of persuasive views to the contrary. As it often is with lawyers, they read the past backwards from the present, focusing on facts that confirm the beliefs they have already formed, excluding matters that might damage their case, pointing to lists of human rights, using the abstract language so often found in rules of law.

There is, of course, another way of resolving contested issues: by weighing up both sides of the story, by taking care not to exaggerate errors supposedly made in earlier days when times were different, by determining the best way ahead in a spirit of give and take, with a view to arriving at workable arrangements.

In this well-researched book about Shankelton and those who toiled with her at the Retta Dixon Home, Douglas Brown explores every facet of the story. He looks closely at daily activities and at what was going on in the hearts and minds of those providing and receiving care. He sets out graphic details about the need for regularity and order, respect for Christian values, allowance for sport and recreational activities, excursions and birthday cele­brations. These particulars seem more persuasive than legalistic critiques. Brown’s appraisal of the Home and of the way it was affected by governmental policies at that time bear upon current issues.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart mentions truth-telling. If truth is a value, it is because it is true, not because it takes courage to say it aloud, although that is important, or because an assertion of what is said to be the truth is widely approved or never tested by frank discussion. This brings me to a court case at the centre of this book, a case revealing the way in which the Retta Dixon Home is now entangled in the complexities of changing times and truth-telling. Douglas Brown’s careful attention to the details of the case in question, the Cubillo/Gunner litigation, will leave fair-minded readers of goodwill with much to ponder.

On July 23, 1947, Amelia Shankelton, known as “Laelie” to many of the children in her care, flew from Darwin to Tennant Creek. A missionary colleague drove her to Phillip Creek Aboriginal Settlement at Manga Marda Waterhole, a place of destitution, according to a number of witnesses, with scarcely any facilities. There, as had previously been arranged with the Northern Territory administration, Shankelton collected sixteen part-Aboriginal children. Then, in a truck driven by a cadet patrol officer, Les Penhall, she took them to a hostel in Darwin run by the Aborigines Inland Mission. In those days, this was just a cluster of army huts, for that was the way things were in the aftermath of the war years and the bombing of Darwin.

One of the part-Aboriginal children in the group was Lorna Cubillo (nee Nelson), about nine years of age. She had been abandoned by her white father as a baby. When her mother died, an aunt on the maternal side had lent a helping hand, but she was now working at the Telegraph Station at Tennant Creek, leaving the young girl, essentially an orphan, at the Phillip Creek settlement.

Shankelton would never have guessed that forty-nine years later, in 1996, Lorna Cubillo, one of the children on the truck, would commence legal proceedings seeking compensation from the Commonwealth government on the basis that Shankelton had acted unlawfully and caused her life-long harm. But this is what Lorna Cubillo did, a woman whom Shankelton had loved and nurtured from the age of nine to the age of eighteen and beyond, a woman who only a few years before the legal proceedings were commenced had said a prayer at Shankelton’s funeral service. Lorna Cubillo’s claim was destined to become one of the most important cases ever decided by an Australian court—the Stolen Generations test case.

Douglas Brown’s biography traces the whole of Shankelton’s life, from her birth into a solid Anglican family in a Sydney suburb, through her fifty-seven years of service as a Christian missionary. His book places her in her own time and, in doing so, it provides a valuable account of her role as superintendent of the Retta Dixon Home and of the pliable nature of government policies and communal attitudes in the field of Aboriginal affairs.

For much of Shankelton’s life, the policy of assimilation was the operative point of reference. For some three decades—from 1939 to 1972—this policy, approved initially by the respected anthropologist A.P. Elkin and other professionals, was observed by both Liberal and Labor governments across Australia. Douglas Brown notes that in the 1930s the prominent Aboriginal leader William Cooper pressed the Commonwealth government to adopt the policy and, in the years that followed, his stance was accepted by other Aboriginal leaders.

My father, Paul Hasluck, was Minister for Territories in the Menzies government from 1951 to 1963. Soon after his appointment, he arranged a meeting with ministers and influential advisers from the various states with a view to achieving a clear expression of the policy and a co-ordinated approach that would move beyond the limitations of the earlier protection era. The objective was to improve the prospects of Aborigines throughout Australia.

While working as journalist before the war, Hasluck had travelled widely in the southern and north-west regions of Western Australia. This had led to articles about the parlous situation in various Aboriginal communities and to his book Black Australians. Now, upon his appointment as a federal minister, he travelled widely in the Northern Territory as one of the areas for which he was responsible. From time to time, his path crossed that of Amelia Shankelton and, in 1961, he opened a new and upgraded set of premises for the Retta Dixon Home, largely funded by the Commonwealth government. In the course of a speech at the opening, he described the Home as a place of transformation, providing enhanced prospects for youngsters capable of living useful and successful lives.

Shortly before Hasluck relinquished the Territories portfolio, he was able to inform the federal parliament that the assimilation policy had been unanimously endorsed by the various Australian governments. The expectation was that Aborigines and part-Aborigines would eventually attain the same manner of living as other Australians and live as members of a single Australian community, enjoying the same rights and privileges, accepting the same responsibilities, observing the same customs and influenced by the same beliefs, hopes and loyalties as other Australians.

The Labor member for the Northern Territory responded with approval, as did others on the Labor benches. Clearly, in the early 1960s, the government policy affecting daily activities at the Retta Dixon Home had widespread bipartisan support. This should be kept in mind in reviewing the actions of Amelia Shankelton and her staff. 

A few years later, reflecting international trends, there was a shift to what was described as a policy of self-determination, although it is still difficult to discern to what extent the new approach of encouraging Aboriginal communities to operate as if they were separate entities will be of any lasting value not only for people of Aboriginal descent but for the Australian nation as a whole.

Professor A.P. Elkin, who had been a strong supporter of assimilation in the pre-war period, began to favour the new approach. A prominent public servant, H.C. “Nugget” Coombs, became an influential supporter. He had no research or practical background in Aboriginal affairs and, curiously, when the war ended, in his advice to government at that time as Director of Post-War Reconstruction, he had made no mention of Aboriginal circumstances or remedial needs. Indifference of this kind was characterised in later years by Elkin’s colleague Professor W.E. Stanner as the “great Australian silence”, although, by then, Coombs had begun to take an interest in Aboriginal affairs and the radical spirit of the emerging era. He soon became a revered spokesman for the new self-determination policy espoused by Stanner and a younger generation of lawyers and academics. 

As a consequence of changing attitudes and other events, including the recognition of native title in the Mabo case, and allegations addressed in the Bringing Them Home report, it has now become an orthodoxy accepted by virtually all academics, and most politicians, to disparage the policy and practices of the earlier assimilation era. In doing so, they tend to look principally at what they think is best for remote communities. They are inclined to turn a blind or blinkered eye to the reality that large numbers of people of Aboriginal descent are living in the major cities, leading lives and aiming for advancement in much the same way as their fellow Australians. They are taking their rightful place in mainstream Australian life in the manner contemplated by the assimilation policy; that is, enjoying the same rights and privileges as other Australians.

In his book Shades of Darkness, published in 1988, Paul Hasluck closed his account of the earlier period, an era in which many citizens had experienced the deprivations of the depression and the war years, in this way:

Fifty years ago we saw the relationship of white and coloured as a social problem … An earnest effort was made to change Australian neglect and indifference towards Aborigines, to improve their conditions and to raise their hopes for the future. We strove for the full recognition of their entitlements—legally as citizens, socially as fellow Australians.

Amelia Shankelton was one of those who contributed to this “earnest effort”. At the Retta Dixon Home, as appears from the descriptions of her daily activities in the pages of this book, she was an unfailing source of love and support to those within her care. Her dedication was appreciated. She kept in touch with former residents of the Home, including Lorna Cubillo, who at one stage sought to have her own child placed in care at the Home.

A number of former residents wrote friendly letters to Shankelton as the years went by, including a close friend of Cubillo, who later gave evidence on Cubillo’s behalf at the trial of the action. In doing so, she changed her tune and criticised Shankelton severely. She then had to concede, under cross-examination, that a letter she had written to Amelia Shankelton closed with these words: “Hoping to hear from you soon. I remain with warmest love …”

The testimony of this witness, overall, and despite her criticisms, showed Shankelton to be a strict but caring superintendent of the Home, one who continued to take an interest in and assist the Retta Dixon children in their lives and careers. Justice O’Loughlin observed in the course of his judgment: “Mrs Cubillo has allowed herself over the years to develop bad memories about the Home.”

An affectionate note by a former resident was not the only indication that Lorna Cubillo’s case against the Commonwealth government was flawed. In conjunction with Shankelton’s funeral service in 1990, a group described as “the boys and girls of Retta Dixon Home” published a tribute in the Sunday Territorian addressed to Amelia Shankelton: “You loved the first to the last. You never forgot our birthday or Christmas gifts. But the greatest gift of all was the love you gave to each of us.” It will probably strike some readers of this book that if it comes to truth-telling, considerable weight should be given not only to what was said at Uluru but also to this small but equally memorable statement from the heart.

Shankelton and the staff of the Retta Dixon Home didn’t see themselves as providing care to Aboriginal children in order to coerce them into adopting an unwanted lifestyle. The assimilation policy, contrary to the orthodoxies of later years, allowed for the continuation of cultural practices. It opened up pathways to opportunities throughout Australian life. As Douglas Brown observes towards the end of his book, staff at the Home saw themselves as providing an essential service to children whose situation, for whatever reason, was bleak, or whose families saw better prospects for their offspring at the Home.

When Lorna Cubillo and the other children were removed from Phillip Creek, did Amelia Shankelton cause them harm, or rescue them? There is much to support a finding that she rescued them. She gave them a chance to enter into mainstream Australian society, as indicated by Lorna Cubillo’s employment in later life as a Co-ordinator of Community Development in Darwin. Others like her went on to careers in business, politics, the professions and the arts. They now include judges and ministers for Aboriginal affairs in the federal parliament.

With the passage of time, and the gradual reconfiguration of the value of Christian schools and institutions, and perhaps of Christianity itself, criticisms are now voiced in various quarters as to some of the precepts and restrictions underlying practices at the Home in Shankelton’s era. But care must be taken not to exaggerate the harm allegedly caused by these and other matters of contention. Hindsight is a form of vision that can be clouded by half-truths and communal myths. It should never be entirely trusted.

The Retta Dixon Home wasn’t heaven, but it certainly wasn’t hell. In many respects, in the way things were managed, it resembled what was being done in church-run boarding schools in the 1950s and 1960s, some of which are occasionally denounced by former students as having been overly religious or too regimented or now and again the setting for instances of misconduct by transient staff.

There is always room for argument about the appropriate response to issues of this kind. Douglas Brown, the author of Placed in Our Care, is constantly judicious in weighing up the pros and cons concerning these and other areas of controversy with a view to arriving at the best evaluation of the matter in question. The removal of Lorna Cubillo from the dilapidated settlement at Phillip Creek, and the dismissal of her claim for relief many years later, are matters the author deals with very carefully. In the end, what Lorna Cubillo’s lawyers put to the court was not enough to prove that she had been unlawfully removed from a loving family, or to win damages, or to establish a precedent for use against missionaries and public servants in other cases.

This biography of Amelia Shankelton is in many ways a profound exposition of her life and times. It is focused essentially upon her supervisory role at the Retta Dixon Home, rather than on the pattern of changing policies and attitudes accompanying her story, but inevitably it brings into play a range of important issues. It will serve as a valuable counterweight to so many preconceptions and orthodoxies tarnishing the quality of contemporary thought. It will help to restore a much-needed degree of clarity and balance to any discussion about Aboriginal affairs, both then and now.

2 thoughts on “The Retta Dixon Home’s Work of Love

  • call it out says:

    A link to buy the Douglas Brown book??

  • Max Chugg says:

    The “Bringing Them Home Report” was the subject of an article in the Launceston “Examiner” newspaper of December 21, 1995, page 9 where it is said that the inquiry that eventually produced the report “is not an inquiry at all. It’s a carefully planned guilt trip, a kind of Round-Australia Recrimination Rally.”
    “It starts from definite assumptions and has even, in part, already decided what it will conclude.
    “During the NIISOAATSIC’s first session, at Wybalenna on Flinders Island, it was extraordinary to hear the inquiry’s lawyer, David Allen, announce that a) there had been a policy of separation, b) its purpose (to remove children from their culture), and (c what one of the inquiry’s recommendations would be (to rebuild cultural Aboriginal ties).
    Obviously the inquiry also operated in ignorance of the fact that Aboriginal culture had been lost. Aboriginal culture was passed down orally from one generation to the next, but was not passed on to children of mixed race.
    In her book “My Past, Their Future – Stories From Cape Barren Island” (Blubber Head Press in association with Riawunna, Centre for Aboriginal Learning, Molly Mallett writes:
    “We knew we were different but they – our parents – never told us we were Aborigines. We knew we were a different colour when we moved to Lady Barron I had finished school. ‘What was in the past should be left in the past’ – this was the saying of the old people.” (Page 41)
    “Culture is taught but what has been written about us was mostly written by Europeans back in the 1880s. Our culture is an oral tradition passed on from one generation to another through story-telling, and watching and learning. There’s only shell-stringing, story-telling, and muttonbirding left, and that’s getting too commercial in today’s community. The other cultural things being taught are not Cape Barren Island traditions as I remember them. I can only speak as I remember.”
    The Tasmanian section of the “Bringing Them Home Report” mentions two Cape Barren Island Reserve Acts which, it is admitted, were ignored. In disapproving tones the BTHR comments:
    The government sought to control the lifestyle of the people on Cape Barren Island and force the island to become self-sufficient. The “Cape Barren Island Reserve Act 1912 provided that unless the residents of the Island constructed dwellings and fenced and cultivated land they would lose their right to occupy that land.” It failed to mention that The Act was an outcome of a visit by Police Commissioner J.E.C. Lord who reported on derelict, overcrowded houses with little to no sanitary facilities, health hazards such as to cause him to presciently warn of the possibility of epidemics.
    The Report also fails to mention that the government supplied the materials required to undertake the required work, the only input required was labour. In his 1929 follow-up visit from Lord,A.W. Burbury reported that “for a time an attempt appears to have been made” to undertake the required work. A 1921-22 report comments on “very unsatisfactory progress.” It also commented on the “absence of sanitary arrangements on the allotments and the standard of living generally shows no improvement and is altogether very discouraging.”
    There are admissions in the BTH Report that the government “did not adopt a formal policy of removing the children, but comments that “poverty, alcohol abuse and refusal of the islanders to observe their obligations under the CBI Reserve Act put the Indigenous families at risk of losing their children” – just as other children, under the same circumstances were equally at risk.
    A 1944 inquiry noted the health of the Islanders was deteriorating, particularly because they were dependent upon outside supplies for food. A new 1944 Act was designed to force the Islanders to become self-sufficient agriculturalists by 1950 and end their dependence upon social welfare.”
    The new Act was, like the one which preceded it, ignored with impunity.
    Molly Mallett explains why the legislation was ineffective:
    “The girls did everything around the house including chopping and splitting wood, carrying water, washing and cleaning, and cooking. The boys were not very productive or active, and often got in the way. The women have been, and I think, will always be the driving force in an Aboriginal community, not the men.”
    Molly could “never ever remember Grandfather Jimmy doing anything.”

Leave a Reply