My PhD: From Protection to Welfare

Post date: 
Monday, 31 July 2017

In late 2016, I was fortunate enough to be awarded the NIRAKN Yumalundi Fellowship to conduct research for my PhD at AIATSIS. My PhD project looks at the history of the NSW Aborigines Protection Board's transition to 'Welfare Board' in 1939-40 and is a part of a larger ARC funded project that looks at the entire history of the Board from 1883-1969.

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Immersed in the AIATSIS Collection.

This overarching project team boasts an Aboriginal researcher majority and represents the University of Newcastle, the University of New England and the University of Sydney.

I was eager to explore what AIATSIS could offer to my section of the project and in June this year I set off for Canberra.

Lunch stop on the way to Canberra.

As an off-campus student at Newcastle University, I packed up my car, drove up from Melbourne and had a week to get stuck into some serious materials.

I always prefer to drive so that I spend time in the area that I am researching as I believe that having a sense of place is incredibly important. Driving also means I can bring my research assistant Hesta.

My research assistant Hesta.

One of the aims of my project is to amplify the Aboriginal voice and experience within the 1930s era of intense legislative control in NSW. The historical nature of the project and the limited amount of  Aboriginal voices due to the suppression or destruction of archival records, such as letters to the Board from Aboriginal people, has proven a challenge.

The resources that I studied while at AIATSIS, are a beginning to uncovering what is available from the Aboriginal perspective, and the visit has proved fruitful in providing foundational resources that can be used to jump into the remaining pool of research set out for this project.

Chatting with the librarians and archivists before my visit made it possible to generate a systematic review of material that dealt with the subject and time period of my research.

Particularly useful was the great detail provided by Honours, Masters and PhD theses that were available within the collections. These grey documents provided greater detail of local experiences throughout the 1930s and 1940s and led to further research leads.

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Stanner Reading Room at AIATSIS.

Spending time each day at the institute provided the space to conduct constructive research and a welcome and enjoyable environment in which to setup my laptop each day. The resources within the collections offered me a unique opportunity to span an extensive range of materials from a variety of agents within one location.

As a part of the Fellowship I will be returning to Canberra later this year to continue benefiting from the valuable resources provided by AIATSIS.


Hi Ashlen, This sounds like a fascinating project of a poorly understood, under researched topic. My indigenous communities have long been aware of how colonial assimilation policies still continue, under different names. I'm a Noongar Yamatji (WA) Aboriginal descendant whose Mum was caught up in the Protection system over there. I found lots of information, when researching Mum's complex history of being moved from institution to institution, and then farm to farm as a domestic servant,, in the digitised newspapers of the National Library of Australia's Trove Collection. Much of this info was found by searching the names of the institutions, and the court records / judgements. Churches also hold many records in their archives, and are reluctant to allow access, but an authorised researcher like yourself could probably get access to these collections. Another strategy you might consider is broadening your searches to include other states' protection and welfare systems. As far as I can make out, there was substantial national integration of these policies, although each State had its own legislation. This integration enabled children to be moved large distances away from country, under pretence of "benevolent care", but with the ulterior motive if providing cheap or free domestic and farm labour. Good luck with your project!
Hi there, Thank you for your feedback and ideas to take the research further. My sincere apologies for only getting back to you now, I just became aware of your comment! All the best in your research as well and thank you again!
Last reviewed: 4 Aug 2017