Tuesday, 3 December 2013

West End III - "Cranbrook" Aboriginal Girls Home

This is the story of making the invisible become visible.

On the bend of the Brisbane River where the St Lucia Reach and Milton Reach meet, a set of stone steps leads from the river bank to a vacant piece of land high above the river.

This was once the site of "Cranbrook", a large Queensland colonial home built in 1885. Waterfront property in the Hill End area of South Brisbane was prime real estate in the late 19th Century. The 1893 flood washed many of the riverfront properties away but Cranbrook survived. It was high enough to escape the worst of the raging torrent.

Perhaps the stock market crash of  the1890s played a part in the next phase of its life for, in 1899, it was purchased by the Qld State Government and converted into an Aboriginal Girls Home where it received girls from across the southern part of the state. These young girls would, for the most part, become domestics in well to do homes of Brisbane's white families. The demand for these girls was high.

The first matron of the home was Frances Meston. She was also Queensland's first Protector of Aboriginal Girls, a position established by the state government when it legislated the "Protection of Aboriginals and Control of the Supply of Opium Act" in 1897. (Full title: An Act to make Provision for the Better Protection and Care of the Aboriginal and Half-Caste Inhabitants of the Colony, and to make more Effectual Provision for Restricting the Sale and Distribution of Opium)

Frances' husband, Archibald Meston, who had advised on the drafting of the Act, was appointed the first Protector of Aboriginals in South Queensland. Popular history has been inclined to deal harshly with Archibald and also Frances, but research reveals that this might not be wholly warranted in that they were well intentioned rather than malicious. Interestingly Frances was in her position for only one year and Archibald for five years.

The matron who succeeded Frances was not at all well intentioned, as the home was shut down in 1906 after numerous complaints regarding its management. "The Act", as it was referred to, resettled large numbers of Aboriginal families on reserves where a permit system operated restricting movement into and out of these reserves. Initially this was used as a way of separating unproductive, ill and 'problematic' Aboriginal people from those working in European industries. Later it was used to create labour pools for white industry and to make those regarded as half-caste, wards of the state to limit the reproduction of part-Aboriginal offspring – the so-called 'half-caste menace' – seen at the time as a threat to an ideal 'White Australia'. The Aboriginal people were under the total control of government officers, missionaries and police.

To my surprise I discovered that this knoll, on the bend in the Brisbane River, in the midst of the Hill End community, was designated a "Reserve" under "The Act" from 1904-1906 to allow the home to operate and the permit system to be enforced.

"The Act" was amended multiple times and additional acts passed varying this regime but it was not until the Commonwealth stepped in and passed the "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (Queensland Reserves and Communities Self-Management) Act" in 1978 that the reserve system came to an end.