Walking around Sydney’s wealthy suburbs it is easy to be seduced by beautiful heritage houses with their immaculate shingled gables, filigreed iron lace work balconies and stain glass windows. But behind closed doors some these grand houses hide a grim history. Between 1910 to the late 1920s, many Aboriginal girls from the Stolen Generations were put to work in these homes as indentured live-in maids.
‘I cannot forget the detail of that moment. It stands out as if it were yesterday. It broke our hearts — tearing us apart — by taking us away to learn domestic work.’ (1) – Margaret Tucker
The NSW Aborigines Protection Board removed many Aboriginal children from their families from the 1880s to 1969. Incomplete records make it hard to know exactly how many Aboriginal girls and women were ‘apprenticed’ into domestic labour during this time. But between 1910s -1930s, it is recorded that over 500 girls were placed in white homes across Sydney and NSW. This included homes in regional NSW as well as fashionable middle-class suburbs like Strathfield, Killara, Vaucluse and Neutral Bay. Mosman alone had 61 households with Aboriginal girls working as ‘domestics.’(2)
After being removed from their families and communities the girls were first taken to Cootamundra Domestic Training Home where they taught domestic skills. The scheme meant once girls were allocated to a home they were legally bound to their employers for as long as four years. Nominal wages were set by the Protection Board and paid into a trust account, but few girls ever received the money for their work.
Margaret Tucker was just 12 when she and her sister were taken from their mother at Darlington Point in the Riverina in 1917. She trained for 3 years at Cootamundra Girls Home and carried scars on her body for life inflicted by what she described as the ‘beltings’ she received.(3) At 16 she was placed in a grazier’s family in Neutral Bay but ran away to Walgett before being caught again by the Protection Board, ultimately working until 1925 as a servant in private homes.
In her adult years, Margaret lived in Victoria where she transformed the injustices of her early life into a tireless campaign for the rights of Indigenous Australians. She was one of Australia’s earliest and most well-known activists, and was one of the organisers of the 1938 Day of Mourning protest in Sydney during the 150th anniversary of the invasion of Australia.
Today repayment and acknowledgement of stolen wages is still being fought for. In 2004, the NSW Government established the Aboriginal Trust Fund Repayment Scheme (ATFRS) to assess claims and pay Aboriginal people and their descendants the money owed to them. Recently just over the border a landmark class action lodged on behalf of 10,000 Indigenous people has settled with the Queensland government to repay $190M in stolen wages from 1939 to 1972.
Margaret Tucker, If Everyone Cared: Autobiography of Margaret Tucker, Sydney: Ure Smith,1977
Inara Walden ‘To send her to service’: Aboriginal domestic servants [online],Aboriginal Law Bulletin, Vol. 3, No. 76, Oct 1995: 12-14, https://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=960303153;res=IELAPA viewed 17 July 2019
Margaret Tucker MBE(C), 1904-1996 A leading figure of the 20th century, Aboriginal Victoria website, https://w.www.vic.gov.au/aboriginalvictoria/community-engagement/leadership-programs/aboriginal-honour-roll/2013-victorian-aboriginal-honour-roll/margaret-tucker-mbe-c.html viewed 17 July 2019
(1) Farquharson, John ‘Tucker, Margaret Elizabeth (Auntie Marge) (1904–1996)’, Obituaries Australia website, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/tucker-margaret-elizabeth-auntie-marge-1556/text1618, accessed 17 July 2019.
(2) Walden, Inara. ‘To send her to service’: Aboriginal domestic servants [online], Aboriginal Law Bulletin, Vol. 3, No. 76, Oct 1995: 12-14 ,https://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=960303153;res=IELAPA, viewed 17 July 2019
(3) Margaret Tucker in Lousy Little Sixpence, A film by Alec Morgan and Gerry Bostock, Ronin Films, 1983