Please note: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website may contain images, voices or names of deceased persons in photographs, film, audio recordings or printed material.

Some material may contain terms that reflect authors’ views, or those of the period in which the item was written or recorded, but may not be considered appropriate today. These views are not necessarily the views of AIATSIS. While the information may not reflect current understanding, it is provided in an historical context.


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Remembering the Mission Days

Stories from the Aborigines' Inland Missions

The Remembering the Mission Days: Stories from the Aborigines’ Inland Mission exhibition concentrates on the Aborigines’ Inland Mission and its influence over Aboriginal people from 1905 to 1966, as well as the government regulations controlling Indigenous Australians during that period.


This exhibition is dedicated to the memory of Shirley Ann (Knight) Williams 12.5.1947 – 28.10.2010. Shirley was a much loved AIATSIS staff member who contributed to the digitisation of the Mission journals and to AIATSIS in many other ways.

The Our Aim and Evangel newsletters are written from the point of view of Evangelical missionaries. The experiences written in these newsletters are from an Evangelical missionary perspective and, at times the writing questions or dispels some of the rudimentary understandings and viewpoints by others on the capacity of the ‘Aborigine’.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this exhibition contains images, voices and names of deceased persons in photographs, film, audio recordings and printed material. Where possible, names of Aboriginal people have been removed throughout the exhibition however they are still a part of the Our AIM and Australian Evangel newsletters.

Some material contains terms that reflect the authors’ views, or those of the period in which the item was written, and are not considered appropriate today. These views are not the views of AIATSIS. While the information may not reflect current understanding, it is provided in an historical context.

The newsletters published by the Aborigines’ Inland Mission, AIM and Evangel, are just one example of the propaganda created to control mainly Aboriginal people when they were either forced or moved to live on missions and reserves. Publications of this type were not limited to evangelical or even to religious organisations, they were also widespread through all levels of governments as well as at a community level.

The readership between the AIM and Evangel newsletters differed greatly. AIM was targeted towards evangelical Europeans living in Australia, promoting the Aborigines’ Inland Mission’s work within mainly Aboriginal communities. Evangel was written directly to mainly Aboriginal people to promote the benefits of an evangelical Christian belief system. 

Protection laws: the beginning

The history of Australia’s various state protection laws, and the history of the Aborigines’ Inland Mission, begins in London in 1837, when a Parliamentary Select Committee presented a Report on Aboriginal Tribes to the House of Commons, Parliament.

The Report on Aboriginal Tribes presented findings on the wellbeing of all Indigenous peoples in British colonies, and included chapters on New Holland (Australia) and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). The Suggestions chapter recommended that:

  • the protection of Aborigines should be considered as a duty belonging to the executive government
  • religious instruction and education be provided to Aborigines
  • missionaries be encouraged to work with Aborigines.

As well as the beginning of Australia’s state protection laws, the Report on Aboriginal Tribes marked the beginning of the involvement of Christian churches in missionary work to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. 

"It appears that not a single native now remains on Van Diemen’s Land. Thus nearly, has the event been accomplished which was thus predicted and deprecated by Sir G. Murray “The great decrease which has of late years taken place in the amount of the Aboriginal population, render it not unreasonable to apprehend that the whole race of these people may, at no distant period, become extinct. But with whatever feelings such an event may be looked forward to by those of the settlers who have been suffered by the collisions which have taken place, it is impossible not to contemplate such a result of our occupation of the island as one very difficult to be reconciled with feelings of humanity, or even with principles of justice and sound policy; and with the adoption of any line of conduct, having for its avowed, or for its secret object, the extinction of the Native race, could not fail to leave an indelible stain upon the character of the British Government.”
– Van Diemen’s Land, Report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Aboriginal Tribes, House of Commons, Parliament, Great Britan, 1837

Protection laws: State by State

Not long after the British began establishing colonies in Australia, there were growing concerns in some parts of the community about the fate of Aboriginal people who, it was assumed, were dying out. From the late 1700s, Aboriginal reserves were created as a political response to the dispossession of Aboriginal people from their land.

The first attempt to control the ‘dying’ population came with the creation of the Aboriginal Protectorate under George Augustus Robinson on Bruny Island in Tasmania in 1829. This scheme inspired Aboriginal protectors in different regions to liaise between the settlers and the Aboriginal population.

The Aborigines Protection Act (Vic) 1869 established an Aborigines Protection Board in Victoria to manage the interests of Aborigines. The governor could order the removal of any child from their family to a reformatory or industrial school.

The NSW Aboriginal Protection Board was created in 1883 to look after the welfare of Aboriginal people and provide grants of land for them to live on. This represented a new phase of control over Aboriginal people’s lives in NSW. The appointment of the protector and his recommendations for reserves were influenced by the high visibility of Aboriginal people living and camping at Circular Quay and La Perouse, close to Sydney.

The Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act (Qld) 1897 allowed the Chief Protector to remove local Aboriginal people onto and between reserves and hold children in dormitories. The Director of Native Welfare was the legal guardian of all ‘aboriginal’ children until 1965 whether their parents were living or not.

On 1 January 1901, the Australian Constitution came into effect, establishing the Commonwealth of Australia. There were two references to Aboriginal people contained in the Australian Constitution of 1901. Firstly, section 51 of the Constitution outlined the law-making powers of the Commonwealth of Australia. Section 51 (xxvi) gave the Commonwealth power to make laws with respect to ‘people of any race, other than the Aboriginal race in any state, for whom it was deemed necessary to make special laws.’ Secondly, section 127 of the Constitution provided that ‘in reckoning the numbers of people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted’. The colonies (States and Territories) remained responsible for the welfare of Aboriginal people.

The Aborigines Act (WA) 1905 is passed. Under this law, the Chief Protector is made the legal guardian of every Aboriginal and ‘half-caste’ child under sixteen years old.

Although the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board existed from 1883, it was not until 1909 that its work was supported by legislation. The Aborigines Protection Act 1909 (the Act) gave the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board 'the authority for the protection and care of Aborigines' and to assume full control and custody of the child of any Aboriginal people if a court found the child to be neglected under the Neglected Children and Juvenile Offenders Act (NSW) 1905. The Aborigines Protection Amending Act (NSW) 1915 gave power to the Aboriginal Protection Board to separate Aboriginal children from their families without having to establish in court that they were neglected.

Station managers now tightly controlled reserves and particularly, who entered and who left them. The Act vested all Aboriginal reserves to the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board, and made it illegal for any person other than station managers, those authorised by the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board, or those people defined as Aboriginal, to enter reserves for any purpose. 

The Act also gave the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board the power to remove Aboriginal people from reserves, and from camping 'within or near any reserve, town or township'. Admission to the reserves was based on the appearance of Aboriginality.

Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory came under Commonwealth jurisdiction after the administration of the Northern Territory was transferred from South Australia to the Australian Government by the Northern Territory Acceptance Act 1910 and Northern Territory (Administration) Act 1910.

The Aboriginals Ordinance 1911 placed Aborigines in the Northern Territory under the direction of a Protector who under section 3 (1) of the Act was given power to ‘undertake the care, custody, or control of any aboriginal or half-caste’, and, the Aborigines Act (SA) 1911 similarly provided for the ‘protection’ of Aboriginal people.

"The Census and Statistics Act 1905 established the Australian Government Bureau of Census and Statistics. The act made no reference to Aboriginal people, but the bureau needed to define ‘aboriginal natives’ when census taking. The Attorney-General gave the opinion that ‘half-castes are not Aboriginal within the meaning of section 127 of the Australian Constitution, and should therefore be included’. For the first Australian Government census held in 1911, the interpretation of ‘shall not be counted’ as well as the decision as to who was a ‘half-caste’ was left to the bureau."

– Census and Statistics Act 1905

Missions, reserves and stations

Broadly speaking, there were three types of spaces formally set aside by the government specifically for Aboriginal people to live on:

  • Missions were created by churches or religious individuals to house Aboriginal people and train them in Christian ideals and to also prepare them for work. Most of the missions were developed on land granted by the government for this purpose. Christian missions frequently offered greater physical protection from the extremes of violence experienced by Aboriginal people at the hands of pastoralists and others. Around ten missions were established in NSW between 1824 and 1923, although missionaries also visited some managed stations. Many Aboriginal people have adopted the term ‘mission’ or ‘mish’ to refer to reserve settlements and fringe camps generally.
  • Reserves were parcels of land set aside for Aboriginal people to live on and were not managed by the government or its officials.  The first reserves appeared in 1850, when thirty-five small Aboriginal reserves were created in what was known as the ‘squatting districts’ of NSW.  These were areas used for pastoralism, which at that time covered most of NSW, except Sydney and part of the coastal district. An effort was made to select sites which Aboriginal people already used, or which were favoured by them, such as major existing camp sites, and the Brewarrina fishtraps. Aboriginal people living on unmanaged reserves from 1883 onwards received rations and blankets from the Aborigines Protection Board (APB), but remained responsible for their own housing.
  • Stations or ‘managed reserves’ were established by the APB from 1883 onwards, and were managed by officials appointed by the APB. Schooling (in the form of preparation for the workforce), rations and housing tended to be provided on these reserves, and station managers tightly controlled who could, and could not, live there. Many people were forcibly moved onto and off stations. The state-run Aboriginal reserves were publicised as safe havens which defended Aboriginal peoples from encroachments by settlers. In reality this meant total control of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives including legal guardianship of their children.

The Aborigines’ Inland Mission

The Aborigines’ Inland Mission (AIM) was an evangelical Christian mission which began in 1905. AIM’s first location was in Singleton, New South Wales (NSW), but missionaries quickly established locations close to many Aboriginal reserves across Australia.

AIM avoided involvement in institutions that took children from their parents. AIM's sole concern was salvation, and helping those 'eager to read God's word' to learn to read – not to 'civilize the native'.

AIM’s action in NSW was distinctive because its missionaries were mostly female. AIM’s missionaries were sent to live by themselves among people who had settled in reserves and maintained as much as possible a sense of community.

Why were Aboriginal people moved into reserves or missions?

The lives of Aboriginal people have been the most tightly regulated in Australia. From the time Captain Cook landed on Sydney Cove in 1788, they were subject to rules and regulations aimed at controlling every aspect of their lives.

Over time, the creation of reserves or similar parcels of land were driven by different philosophies and initiated by different groups – churches, government, non-Aboriginal residents of towns or Aboriginal people themselves.

Though many Aboriginal people had little choice but to live on the reserves or in missions, they often developed very deep attachments to them and to the areas adjacent to the reserves.

Many other Aboriginal people did not live on Aboriginal missions, reserves or stations, but in towns, or in fringe camps on private property or on the outskirts of towns, on beaches and riverbanks mostly in extreme poor living conditions. Over time, many of these places across Australia became important to Aboriginal people.

The “Remembering Mission Days” online exhibition is dedicated to the memory of SHIRLEY ANN (KNIGHT) WILLIAMS 12.5.1947 – 28.10.2010
Passed away peacefully, and missed by all.

Shirley was a much loved AIATSIS staff member who contributed to the digitisation of the Mission journals and to AIATSIS in many other ways.

Shirley Williams returned to the Willow Bend Mission at Condobolin in 2010 to remember and write her own story of Mission Days. Some of her story is below.

Mum’s story

Shirley Ann Williams
Shirley Ann Williams

Mum came back home last school holidays, we had planned to do a story about mission life as part of her work with AIATSIS and to tell her story.

She travelled up with her son Darren and young grandson and nephew to visit her family in Condobolin particularly her 3 grandchildren Jerome, Kaine and Lowanna. Mum didn’t look to well and I questioned that she shouldn’t have travelled up if she wasn’t right, and I copped the old stare and “she be right son it’s just a sore neck it will be gone in a few days”. We sat around for the next few days and caught up with gossip up and enjoyed the company of our children. It was a good opportunity for her to unwind and have her arvo naps, watch her favourite soapies.

She even got the opportunity to get around to see some old and dear friends and one of those friends who she regarded as a sister was Nanny Goolagong. When they finally met up and I left them both alone and said “I’ll pick ya up in an hour or so”. The two of them sitting on the porch catching up like old times and I reflected on them both, look at them two old girls, “ thinking gee look how much they have aged gracefully but still enjoying the company of each other”.

She even managed to go the pub where she pulled out a few hundred and knowing mum, that’s what she loved to do even though it was a dislike and a habit that I discouraged, but for some reason, I looked at her and thought its ok mum, your shout for dinner aye. She had a few beers that day and smiled and blinked at me and said “LUV YA”.

The next few days we ended up at the cemetery to show my young nephews around to where their mob where buried. We caught up with Nan, Pop, Aunty Brenda and even uncle Maco Wighton for Deeky. We then made our way down to David, her son, my brother where mum glowed and spoke of him with gentle ease and as she reflected on him, I think deep down mum was not only saying good bye, but she was saying David my son we will be together soon. Although she never told me, I could feel she was at ease with what she was doing. We said our last good byes and Deeky and Connor where full of questions and excited at what they got to see and most of all hear some stories from ole Nan about her family.

When we did get to do the story on her life, we started to drive and I had the video camera out, and straight away she started telling her story, and before long she started remembering her life, 60 odd years of it. We started at the old entrance and made our way down by the river, where she reminisced and laughed and even cried about was she was opening up to me. We tried to find the old house and for a glimpse her memory let her down. I asked her how long it has been since you have walked these tracks again, head bowed and thinking she said left here when I was 16-17 around the mid 60’s maybe. Then it occurred to me that it has been over 40 years since she has been back to these areas. Sure she has come and gone from here before, but retracing these steps was a big effort and no wonder she couldn’t pin point where she had actually lived.

So with the help from Uncle Peter we found our location and set up camp, where I would capture mum’s past in the next couple of hours. As we started out recording mum broke down again, but composed herself enough to get through it. The next hour or so, or what seemed like an eternity, mum spoke about her life on the mission and Condobolin, and moving to Queanbeyan to start her new life. She spoke of the missionaries, the church, the bush dancing, Uncle Peter nearly drowning in the river, the rations, the gathering of mushrooms when it rained, and fishing down the river to catch dinner.

One dear memory she spoke about was the time when Pop Monte bought her a bike and she thought she was a princess riding it around the mission, but only to have it taken off here because pop couldn’t make the payments.  She stated that it broke her heart and she never did forgive Dad for that. These where the many things we spoke about on that day, the good the bad and most of all she spoke of a life blessed with beautiful brothers and sisters and the Love of her life time and the five children they had together.

There was a reason she came back and they believe in Aborginal culture that one person knows when their time is up and I feel deep down mum knew that, and was I in denial, yes. But mum wasn’t she knew exactly what she was doing to make things right. She retraced her steps and now her story now lives with us, and now it will be there for the future generation to share together forever.

Love u mum.

Darren, David, Leon, Otis and PJ.

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AIATSIS acknowledges the traditional owners of country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, culture and community.

We pay our respects to elders past and present.