State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 85 May 2010


Richard Broome
At the Grass Roots of White Support: Victorian Aboriginal Advancement League Branches 1957-1972

THE EUROPEAN OCCUPATION of Australia has been an uneasy victory. Doubts remained amongst some settler Australians that historian Henry Reynolds recognised as 'this whispering in our hearts'.1 A humanitarian strain over the decades contested the general claims to ownership, control and superiority. Those refusing to accept the mantle of colonisers expressed themselves in individual and group protests, beginning with the Aboriginal Protection Association, which emerged in response to the Myall Creek massacre of 1838. Numerous white-Australian lobby groups operated from the 1920s to advocate for Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people protested on their own behalf to the government since the 1860s, which found formal political expression from the 1920s.
In the 1950s a new approach emerged on the model of the Aborigines Advancement League of South Australia formed by Charles Duguid in 1938. A number of new organisations surfaced in each state that represented a coalition of white and black Australians for Aboriginal advancement. The Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines, FCAA (later FCAATSI), expressed this coalition at the federal level.2 The most notable state advancement body, and the only one to survive to this day, was the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League formed in early 1957. Its cofounders were Aboriginal leader Doug (later Sir Doug) Nicholls, together with Gordon Bryant MHR, feminist and peace activist Doris Blackburn, and Church of Christ pastor Stan Davey. The League is now the oldest Aboriginal organisation in the country. For its first fifteen years it expressed Nicholls' philosophy, that like the keys of a piano, black and white needed to work together to create racial harmony.
In December 2008, after two years of negotiation, the League's voluminous and endangered records amounting to 328 boxes came to the State Library of Victoria under a long-term loan agreement, whereby the Library takes full care, and the League retains full ownership and control of their papers. With its blessing I have commenced to write the League's history. This article is the first fruit of a relationship that fulfills Doug Nicholls' philosophy of black and white together. It examines the dozens of local branches of the League that for over a decade provided its financial and organisational strength. It reveals that the branches were driven by white volunteers, who provided remarkable goodwill, service and support for the Aboriginal cause. It argues these volunteers helped prepare the Australian public for the moment of Aboriginal autonomy in the 1970s, but ironically, many branch members found that moment very difficult.

The Formation of the League and its Branches

The League emerged in early 1957 from a 'Save the Aborigines' committee in Melbourne. This in turn developed in response to the crisis in living conditions of the Warburton Range people. These conditions was exposed by a Federal Government select committee headed by Western Australian Senator Bill Grayden. Doug Nicholls went to Warburton at Grayden's invitation where Grayden made a film. Nicholls brought back copies and screened it at public meetings, including one attended by the well-known visiting baritone Paul Robeson, who wept at its power.3 From public outrage emerged the decision to form the League in February 1957. Doug Nicholls took leave from his job with the Northcote Council and showed the film at thirty public meetings in Melbourne and country Victoria, Tasmania and Sydney.4 He raised £800 in six weeks. In July he began full time work with the League.5
Stan Davey retired as Church of Christ Minister at the Ivanhoe church in 1957 to also pursue full-time work for the League and Aboriginal people. Davey conceived the structure of the League as a steering committee to overseer and fund Doug Nicholls' work and the operation of the small office. It was to be funded by public support and 'affiliated groups'. These emerged into branches, most likely based on the autonomous congregational structure of his Church.6 Jan Richardson, later Stan Davey's wife, commented of these affiliated branches: Stan told me that 'the people who are there on the ground represent themselves, and agree, voluntarily, to commit to the same set of principles as headquarters. They report back constantly to HQ and have frequent interaction but are actually autonomous'.7
By August 1957 branches were formed at Murtoa, Neerim, and Geelong. Within a year there were branches at Brunswick-Coburg, Noble Park, Greensborough, Brighton and Carlton. In August 1958 Nicholls toured the Wimmera to form branches.8 By April 1960 there were nineteen branches in Victoria and five in Tasmania.9 The League's first office was a room at 46 Russell Street in the city, and then two rooms at 336 Victoria Street, Richmond, with a typist to handle correspondence.
Within a few years the League emerged as an impressive body driven by Doug Nicholls, Stan Davey and a host of volunteers. Nicholls was the League's field officer from 1957 and the League's front-of-house inspiration for its first decade, before being joined by Alick Jackomos as a second field officer in 1965. Stan Davey was the administrative powerhouse of the League being honorary secretary until 1960 and Director from 1966–68. He was supported by a succession of honorary secretaries in the 1960s, most of them women, while he retreated to school teaching for financial reasons. The League lobbied governments across Australia, helped drive the Referendum of 1967 in Victoria, peppered the Aborigines Welfare Board, and provided welfare services for Aboriginal Victorians. It published an impressive quarterly magazine Smoke Signals (195772) edited by Eric Wicks of the Truth newspaper. Barry Christophers, a white
medico and activist for Aboriginal rights, recalled that 'it gave coherence to the work of the League, by putting people in touch, connecting the branches to the League and coordinating the organisation, which provided contact with its many supporters, members and branches'.10
The League's membership numbered 2,000 by 1965 and rose to almost 3,000, although branch records are patchy. The number of branches peaked in the late 1960s at forty-five in metropolitan and country Victoria, with several branches also in Tasmania. Almost all members were white Australians. The Referendum created a spike in interest. Doreen Ross, honorary secretary of the Mornington Inter-Church Council, asked for information about the League. While she did not promise a branch would be formed in Mornington, members of the Council 'feel that some form of 'follow up' to the referendum is necessary'.11 Three school branches were formed in 1967 at Boronia, Beaufort and Castlemaine High Schools. In 1968 Vic Parsons of the Sunshine branch became the League's branch convener. This position of branch convener was deemed necessary 'due to the current increase in membership and branches within the League, I feel it necessary to form a committee to control the starting of new branches, and the passing of information and projects to existing branches'. This committee met quarterly. The branch newsletter was to be revamped, procedures for branch elections, reporting and budgeting were to be standardized, and training offered to secretaries in running meetings and book keeping for treasurers to prepare for audits by the Hospital and Charities Commission.12
The distribution of branches across Melbourne and Victoria can be seen in Table 1. It is clear that country and Tasmanian branches almost matched the number in the city; being in the ratio 19 to 26. Most country branches were in the central and northwestern areas.
Table 1: The Regional Distribution of Branches of the AAL 1957-1972
Eastern Blackburn, Diamond Valley/Research, Eltham, Greensborough, Kew, Noble Park, Knoxfield, Nunawading 8
South- Eastern Suburbs Beaumaris, Brighton, Chelsea, Frankston, Glen Iris, Glen Waverley, Kilsyth, Mordialloc, Mornington, Parkdale, 10
Northern Brunswick/Coburg, Carlton, Northcote 3
North-western suburbs Footscray, Glenroy, Laverton, St Albans, Sunshine 5
Western and Northern Victoria Country Alexandra, Ballarat, Benalla, Charlton, Echuca, Goulburn Valley/Shepparton, Geelong, Horsham, Kaniva, Minyip 13
Eastern Victoria Moe, Morwell, Murtoa, Ocean Grove, Rupanyup, SaleMoe, Morwell, Sale 3
Tasmania Devonport, Launceston, Sheffield 3

Joining the League

Why did people support and join the League's branches and what did the branches do and how did they operate? The League enlisted financial supporters called 'Friends of the League' who after 1965 paid $3 per annum to aid the League's work, and received a badge and four issues of Smoke Signals per year in return. 'Friends' were usually interested people who sought more information on Aboriginal people and were willing to part with $3 – the price of a hard back book – for what they considered a good cause. For an extra dollar, 'Friends' received the informal monthly newsletter aimed at branch members. 'Friends' were in reality donors. As noted above, the Referendum's results led to a surge of interest, several dozen letters flowing in during July 1967. Mrs Selma Millar and family inquired about the League and Aboriginal people, and offered 'moral support and practical support where possible to your League'.13 Sally Segal wrote: 'I feel ashamed at the way the Aboriginals are being treated, and my husband and I would like to help all we can'.14 Val Purcell, a mothercraft nurse who had worked in Queensland, offered moral support and help next year 'not for sentimental or mawkish reasons, as I have a deep regard and love for this race of people, its language and culture'.15 Diane Dingley wrote: 'I don't think they are getting a very good chance'.16
Why did people pay five shillings, and later $3, to join a branch and volunteer to help the League? And what did that mean? Anyone who has experienced a not-for-profit or activist organisation knows that not all members share the same measure of commitment financially or in terms of effort. Many members also paid a donation as 'Friends' or subscribed to the newsletter. However, when the latter was raised to $1 per year, the number of subscribers in the Parkdale branch declined from ten to four.17 Thus some members expressed ambivalent enthusiasm and cannot be classed strictly as 'volunteers'. All branches had an active core and others who joined to 'feel good' and who came less frequently and generally dodged the committee work.
There is considerable literature on volunteering. 'Volunteers' have been defined as, those members whose efforts in an organisation reflects a cost-benefit ratio, in which the costs in time, energy and money, far outweigh the benefits gained. Marc Musick and John Wilson have recently written: 'purity of motivation becomes the template against which individual acts are compared and volunteer status is denied to those motivated primarily by self-interest'.18 However, Jone L Pearce who surveyed the literature on volunteer motivation in the early 1990s, found diverse findings about the importance of altruism in volunteering. He preferred to use the term 'prosocial', to describe service to others, which could include pay-offs to those serving.19
Clearly, there are mixed motives behind acts of volunteering. Pearce argues that volunteers serve for altruistic or prosocial reasons, as a social act, and also to further an organisation's goals or mission.20 Volunteers have often been distinguished from activists who seek change, not to serve. However, Musick and Wilson claim that volunteers can
also be activists; for seeking to serve and seeking to change, often become blurred in practice. 'For many people their volunteering is a political act'.21 Many members in the League were motivated by a vision of change as well as helping out. The League declared in each issue of Smoke Signals, that it aimed to 'help create mutual understanding and acceptance between dark and white Australians' and 'to provide facilities to enable Aboriginal people to share in all the benefits of the Australian way of life'. Peta Heywood (formerly Newing), recalled her conservative husband at the time was shocked at her involvement, because in 1965 it was 'a radically political act' to get involved in Aboriginal causes.22
But what triggers a person to become active in an organisation? The social and personality profile of volunteers has been considerably researched by psychologists. Pearce's literature survey identified 'confidence and gregariousness' as key traits.23 Musick and Wilson's research emphasised that volunteers are more extroverted, conscientious, agreeable, and open to new experiences than non-volunteers. They are empathetic to other people and have the confidence to believe they can make a difference by their actions. Musick and Wilson added: 'efficacy and mastery help move empathy and responsibility to action'.24 Scholars have discussed at length the values that might distinguish volunteers from non-volunteers, but Musick and Wilson in their exhaustive survey and study of the subjective disposition of volunteers, urged caution, saying: 'volunteering is over-determined'.25 Regarding the social profile of volunteers, Pearce found those of higher social-economic status and education were more likely to volunteer, and that interpersonal connections were key as 'most volunteers are recruited by their friends, relatives and associates'.26 The survey by Musick and Wilson concluded volunteering is not occupationally random and 'remains a largely middle class pursuit, if middle class is measured by belonging to the professional and managerial ranks'.27
The middle class characteristic is borne out by the distribution of the League's suburban branches. To this must be added whiteness, as less than a handful of Aboriginal people belonged to the branches, Lynch Cooper in the Shepparton branch being one. The class nature of country branches is less obvious. Their members may have been drawn from the white middle class country town elite, but only a detailed analysis of electoral rolls would throw light on that. However, in 1965, a survey of the League's 2,000-strong membership was conducted by social investigator and League member, Lorna Lippmann. She found that eighty-eight percent of those surveyed were professional or white-collar workers. Protestants and Jewish people were also overrepresented.28 However, a minority of dedicated League members were in skilled bluecollar trades. Murray Hooper, an electrician, was an office bearer in the Geelong branch from about 1960 to 1972. He was also an active member on the central Management Committee from 1971–72. The ascription of occupational categories also does not aptly describe the many women members who were not in the workforce at all. Rosemary Hooper, Murray's wife, was also a branch member and did office work at the League
while Murray attended the Management Committee. They were both members of the Hostel Management Committee.29
Women formed the majority of branch members and their officers bearers. Gwlad McLachlan joined the Geelong branch in 1962 after answering a call for hosts for an Aboriginal child holiday program (the same manner in which the Hoopers became involved). Gwlad became a key branch member until 1972 and was particularly involved in the holiday program. She was the daughter of Edgar Beard, a dairy-farmer from Wonthaggi who owned butcher shops and 'was elected Mayor of Wonthaggi three times ... and that was probably pretty unusual because Wonthaggi was a very industrial, strong Communist town'. Her mother, Elizabeth Evans, at the age of seventeen assisted her uncle to run the Beard Bros. butcher shops, while Edgar and Fred Beard were fighting in France. Elizabeth married Edgar Beard in 1923. They were a conservative couple but 'prosocial', being heavily involved in the town's civic life. Gwlad imbibed some of this social commitment, recalling: 'I used to love to go to the miners' dances you'd be at a dance in Wonthaggi, and then they'd stop for a big [political] speech'. She boarded at Fintona Girls' School in Melbourne, whose principal was Miss Cunningham, an independent thinker. One of Gwlad's teachers was Yvonne Nicholls who wrote a pamphlet for the Council of Civil Liberties, Not Slaves, Not Citizens (1952), on Aboriginal injustice in the Northern Territory. Gwlad recalled 'we had a subject called 'discussion', and we'd talk about everything, and at the time there was all the trouble in Indonesia'. Her family were rather dismayed by her reports of these conversations. Her husband Colin joined the League too, but was less active due to his work. He served in Borneo during the War and later with the Occupation Force in Japan and was also openminded culturally.30
Val Tarrant coincidentally went to Fintona, where the same discussion group was operated by Yvonne Nicholls. Another group at the school invited the writer Alan Marshall, who spoke of Aboriginal people he had met in the Northern Territory. She also studied Eleanor Dark's The Timeless Land (1941), which 'presented the Aboriginal people as absolutely human, the same as everybody else'. After studying Arts and teaching at the University of Melbourne, Val was given an Australian history matriculation class at Mentone Girls' Grammar School. Wanting to know more about Aboriginal people she attended the Parkdale branch of the League run by a fellow teacher Elsie Robinson, who was then aged in her fifties. Robinson, who later visited Russia in her retirement, and had tried to march in the May Day procession in Moscow, 'had been a card-carrying communist in her day, and possibly still was'. Val, with about twenty other people of the 'middle' sort, heard Harry Penrith (Moodge) speak at Robinson's that night. She and Penrith (who later took the name Burnum Burnum), became friends, fuelled by a common interest in indigenous plants. He visited her home many times and spoke to her students. Val Tarrant did not maintain a close association with the League, but attended information days, including one at Melbourne High in
1968, at which Stan Davey, the academic Colin Tatz, Doug Nicholls and Lorna Lippmann, all spoke. I formed 'the impression of a very lively, positive, energetic group'.31
Peta Heywood, formerly Peta Newing, was a young mother of two when she joined the Blackburn branch in 1965. She had attended Melbourne Church of England Girls' Grammar School under the principalship of Dorothy Ross, where she gained an education tinged by social justice, which gave her 'an interest in equity and being appalled at how humans can treat each other'. Peta's early interest in Aboriginal people was kindled by reading Ion Idriess' books on the Kimberley. She also recalled a debate at her school among the student council on whether they should fund a scholarship for an Aboriginal girl. This debate, which finally resolved that such a scholarship was not the best way to support Aboriginal people, was the catalyst for her long-standing concern about justice for Aboriginal people. These memories prompted her acceptance of an invitation to attend the Blackburn branch: 'We sat in someone's lounge and we talked about the League and its purposes, it's just a vague impression of sitting in people's lounges, and of course we're all white middle class people'. Newing heard of the plight of the Dareton community and visited the Laconia blanket factory requesting a donation and was given just two blankets. She delivered them to League headquarters, met Stan Davey (her future brother-in-law), and soon abandoned the branch for volunteer office work and other projects at headquarters. These projects included designing a tribal map to raise funds and educate school children. She also ran an Exhibition with Aboriginal activist Bruce McGuinness called 'Koori Boogaja', held at the Melbourne Town Hall in April 1967 to advertise the work of the League. She made school visits with Doug Nicholls and wrote the League's branch newsletter, all without the active support or approval of her husband.32
There has to be an understanding of a problem and a way of solving it for people to be mobilised into voluntary work. The 1950s and 1960s was alive to Aboriginal disadvantage which was aired in the press. Aboriginal encampments on riverbanks and vacant lands across the country were highlighted in government assimilation propaganda, which offered a path to a better future. Organisations such as the 'Save the Children Fund', which ran programs at Orbost, Shepparton and Dimboola, filed reports of Aboriginal housing, which paralleled Third World conditions. The film on the shocking conditions of the Aboriginal people in the Warburton Ranges in Western Australia that had been the catalyst for the formation of the League was also shown on television sparking further public discussion. Advocates in the Aboriginal cause argued for change from the 1950s and reform seemed possible. Discriminatory Aboriginal legislation began to erode in the early 1960s, and the fight for Lake Tyers from 1963, and the Freedom Riders in New South Wales in 1965, all highlighted the possibilities of measured change.

The Life and Maintenance of Branches

Once branches were formed their purpose was twofold. They were to raise money (and material donations) to support the League's welfare work and its advocacy for change. They were also free to fight for Aboriginal advancement at the local level and pursue their own projects.
Fundraising was done by enlisting 'Friends', selling buttons, Christmas cards, holding slide nights and a host of other means. The Kew and Devonport branches sent out thousands of invitations to become 'Friends of the League'. The annual Button Day was also a significant money earner for the League and involved the general public and hundreds of volunteer collectors. The price of a button was two shillings and fundraisers collected the money in cylindrical metal tins with side handles. Some of them still sit silently in the League's offices with a white paper band with red lettering 'Aborigines Advancement League' around their waist. The Devonport branch in 1964 argued that two shillings was too much for a button, as they usually sold them for half that price. Local autonomy prevailed as the League's honorary secretary, Elizabeth Cafarella, asked them to use their 'discretion'. However, no sales occurred there in 1965, as Tasmania was in button frenzy as charities competed for donations. The Minister of Transport for Tasmania, H. T. McLoughlin, refused the League's request for an allocated day in 1965: claiming 'the button list is becoming quite a formidable one, so much so that on many occasions two or more organisations are required to share a day'.33
Button selling could become controversial. In 1968 Stan Davey, now Director of the League, wrote to the only Aboriginal branch of the League, and directed that commissions paid to Aboriginal people be revised in line with the general practice of appeal groups. It seems some people, who collected for free, resented others who received commissions. The management committee decided commissions should be capped at ten per cent now that Aboriginal families were better off than a decade earlier. And commissions were to be 'offered to all people who wished to apply for it, whether Aboriginal or European'.34 Some found Button Day demeaning. In 1970 the Glenroy branch unanimously decided that the day should be phased out as 'the rattling of tins with the sale of buttons, in no wise enhances the image of Australian Aborigines'. Bruce McGuinness, the League's first Aboriginal Director, agreed it was 'degrading', but as the League faced financial problems at that time, he added that 'on the 10th July I will probably be in the city shaking tins'.35
Street stalls also raised funds. The Devonport branch held refreshment stalls at local agricultural shows and regattas for a decade. In 1961, its members made 900 toffee apples and 432 bottles of cordial, which returned a profit of £40. However, in 1962 'too many other stalls had gone into making toffee apples so we did not do so well' only clearing £11 from toffee apples, down from £28 the year before. Other groups held slide nights with mixed success. The Devonport branch did so in 1962 but attendances were
down as 'TV is just beginning to have its effect on entertainment of all kinds here'.36
What factors influence the retention of members and branches of a voluntary organisation with few resources? Cohn, Barkan and Halteman used a case study of 'Bread for the World', which had 42,000 members in 300 chapters across the USA in the 1980s, to analyse how 'social movement organisations' (SMO) sustained themselves. A survey of over a thousand members of 'Bread for the World' revealed four requirements for continued participation in a social movement organisation, namely: 'the members' ideological beliefs, social and organizational ties, perceptions about their SMO, and communication with SMO officials'.37 Historians cannot apply surveys to the past, but they can be guided in their analysis by variables that social scientists have identified. These four factors may prove useful as guiding principles for analysing the League's branches. I will explore them, but not in the order stated.
The first factor concerned members' perceptions of their organisation. This can be best approached historically by evaluating the public and members' perceptions of the League's leaders, Doug Nicholls and Stan Davey. There is no doubt these two men were widely admired and respected. Doug Nicholls was the most well-known and liked Indigenous figure of his day, with perhaps the exception of Albert Namatjira. He had been a popular Melbourne footballer of the 1930s playing for Fitzroy and representing Victoria, and was respected for his work at the Gore Street Church in Fitzroy from the 1940s. Nicholls had the ear of government and could call in favours from the business community for good causes. He was a Church of Christ pastor and his reputation was never tarnished. Nicholls was awarded the MBE in 1957; became Victorian 'Father of the Year' in 1962; was the first Aboriginal JP in 1963; and was elevated to OBE in 1968. He was given a knighthood in 1972, 'for services to the advancement of Aboriginal people'.38 Stan Davey was also widely respected and a hard worker, a clear thinker, strategist, and a man of integrity who was passionate about making a difference in Aboriginal affairs. When he was farewelled from the League on 27 September 1968 to become the League's roving field officer in the Kimberley, he was widely honoured. Gordon Bryant MHR recalled that night of the League: 'the driving force was Stan Davey, the spearhead was Doug Nicholls, and the national runner – [was] me'.39
Both men were sought after by the branches for their meetings. Branch secretaries made constant request for one or other to visit in the hope that it would enlarge or revitalise the branch. Doug Nicholls did tours through areas speaking to branches or trying to create new ones. He also spoke at churches, service clubs like Rotary, CWA branches, high schools, anywhere to anyone who would listen. His visit to Moe in June 1960 where he spoke and showed the 'Warburton Range' film, caused the Moe Ministers Fraternal to write to their local member The Hon. A. Buchanan: 'our concern for the welfare of Aboriginal people has been sharpened by a visit from pastor Douglas Nicholls MBE...We are appalled by the conditions under which our displaced fellow men are forced to live'.40 In June 1965 he travelled through Minyip, Murtoa, Rupanyup, Kaniva
and Dimboola. In October he travelled from Benalla to Mooroopna and Myrtleford to Yarrawonga over five days. Davey also made many speaking trips, as he too tried to win hearts and minds. They both visited Geelong, Tasmania and went regularly to suburban branches. Nicholls threw boomerangs when at schools and probably played the gum leaf. Gwlad McLachlan recalled of Stan Davey, 'he was an inspiration for us'.41
Yet neither of them or prominent Aboriginal men, Bill, Eric and Lin Onus, Stewart Murray, Bruce McGuinness and others from HQ for that matter, who addressed branch meetings, could work miracles. The Charlton branch formed in July 1960 was soon in trouble. The honorary secretary a year later thought 'the lack of interest is partly due to members not being sent copies of Smoke Signals and a badge (some of our very active members have apparently missed out on them!)'.42 Their commitment seemed shallow if they were pining for a badge. The following year the honorary secretary desperately requested guest speakers as 'previous speakers and films provided by the League aroused great interest and support initially and provided a foundation membership of 117 in 1960'. The secretary added that the apathy was due to the fact that 'as a member of a branch they can do little to help the plight of our Aboriginies [sic]'.43 One wonders if Charlton was looking for entertainment, as much as a social cause, for other branches found plenty to do.
The second factor in the 'Bread for the World' study was the social and organisational ties within the branches. Most branches were small in membership, rarely exceeding fifty on paper, with an active membership that was often ten to twenty. This enabled face-to-face relations to develop. Some branches took on special projects that provided more cohesion. Many of these projects have a significant history that cannot be dealt with here, beyond a bare listing, which indicated the important work in which many branches were involved. The Kew branch organised the manual posting of several thousands of copies of Smoke Signals, quarterly. Several branches in turn organised the selection and printing of League Christmas cards for all branches to sell. Some took responsibility for sponsoring the maintenance costs of the Nathalia and Cunningham Street hostels and most branches contributed to the League's scholarship programs for their boarders and other Aboriginal school children. Ocean Grove branch managed and maintained the 'Tanderra' holiday flats, owned by the League at Queenscliff. The Kew branch focused on the attempt to revive the Cummeragunja settlement as a farming cooperative. Branches in the Wimmera visited and worked with families in Dimboola, those in the Mallee worked with the Dareton community and others worked with Gippsland people. The Sunshine and Footscray branches proposed to build a hostel in their region for Aboriginal youths coming to work in Melbourne. The Geelong, Ballarat, Blackburn, Frankston, Footscray, Glenroy, Ocean Grove and other branches, all operated a holiday scheme, which was regularised by the League in 1968. Individual branches addressed the particular problems of certain families, and visited those incarcerated in
gaol. The strongest branches were Blackburn and Geelong, both surviving from 1957 to 1972.
The third factor identified by Cohn, Barkan and Halteman in maintaining voluntary membership in a social movement organisation, was the standard of communication between headquarters and branches. This was difficult, as headquarters' staff were mostly honorary, and branch numbers peaked at forty-five. Stan Davey, who resigned from the ministry, did teacher training and then teaching, was an invaluable and hard-working secretary. However, in February 1961 he was transferred to a more distant school and relinquished his role as the League's secretary. He remained involved from a distance. His role was taken up by a succession of five honorary secretaries in as many years who did not match his massive commitment. The League's operation and fundraising involved the honorary secretaries in constant communication with over forty branch secretaries over fees, supplies, purchase of books, visits, receipts and paperwork, and requests for information.
A typical communication was that between the League and Robert Dunlop of Rupanyup branch in July 1968. Dunlop wrote: 'We are holding our annual street stall on the 9th August and we would like another 150 buttons and 50 editions of the newsletter for August plus some spare ones of the July edition with Pastor D and [Lionel] Rose on the cover. Congrats on the newsletter as it is short, clear and very readable. Our members feel it would be preferred to Smoke Signals for Friends of the League'. Mrs Edith Bacon the League's honorary secretary, replied eleven days later: 'we are forwarding, by rail today, 12 tins, baskets, 150 buttons and a few posters. I will post 50 newsletters this week. No July ed. copies left – if receive any returns will forward'.44 The Parkdale branch ordered twenty copies each of the newsletter and Smoke Signals, and five copies of eight different pamphlets, with titles such as 'The Struggle for Dignity' and 'Human Rights for Aborigines'. Money was sent and receipts usually returned, although there were complaints at times of unreturned receipts and wrong addresses, as the voluntary office staff became overwhelmed and paperwork systems failed or were absent. The League also had half a dozen films it loaned to branches for their members' nights – 'Tumani's People', 'Life of Namatjira', Lockhart's Story', and the 'Warburton Ranges' among them. This letter writing, parcelling up and posting, all took time.
The collection, sending and receiving of second-hand clothing for the League's Opportunity Shop run by a team headed by Gladys Nicholls, Doug's wife, also took enormous effort. The Geelong branch sent masses of clothing, despatching 150 cartons one year. Many branches did this work. The Devonport branch sent boxes over free to the mainland on the Princess of Tasmania, which was arranged by a waterside worker named Jack Keating, secretary of the Waterside Workers' Federation, and first president of the Devonport's League branch. However, communication often broke down. In 1962 and again in 1965 Arthur Brotheridge, Devonport's secretary, asked whether the
clothing had arrived, as 'we have not had an acknowledgement for years'. Elizabeth Cafarella, the League's administrator assured him they were collected, but it would be best if he alerted Doug Nicholls as to their despatch, otherwise they might sit on the docks for months.45
Sometimes branch secretaries despaired of the infrequent communication. Arthur Brotheridge was one who demanded attention, sending many letters about activities, donations, clothing and button appeals, and requests for overdue receipts, newsletters and copies of Smoke Signals. A very busy Stan Davey wrote back in October 1960: 'Horrified to realise how much I have kept you people in the dark re latest news. There will be another branch newsletter out next week (all being well)'. With the hard working Davey gone to school teaching in early 1961 things did not improve. In July 1962 Brotheridge was again impatient asking for overdue Smoke Signals and other materials as 'today is Aborigines Sunday and we received no information or posters. How come?' He wrote again two months later: 'I am rather perturbed over the fact that we have not yet received Smoke Signals lately. In July I spoke to the Soroptimists and got 8 new F. of L. and one of the things we can offer people to keep them interested is a supply of SS ... Now nearly two months have gone, and I think they feel that they have been let down'. He no doubt did as well. In November 1962 he again wrote to say he had received no Smoke Signals for eight months. Brotheridge became resigned to these delays, for he remained as branch secretary for another five years, but others may have been turned off by such neglect.46 Other members had similar problems. Leslie R. Coats of Rupanyup wrote that though he had paid both his subscription and a fee as a 'Friend', and for his wife and daughter as well; 'I have never received Smoke Signals regularly and for the last 2 to 3 years, never see a copy unless it is handed on by some-one else'. He also complained about wrong addresses, including that of his brother, who had left the branch five years before, but was still listed.47
The fourth factor in the 'Bread for the World' study was the ideological beliefs of the members. In April 1960 the League articulated five principles for Aboriginal people: equal citizenship rights; all to have an adequate standard of living to provide food, clothing, health care the same as other Australians; equal pay for equal work and the same industrial protection; education for detribalised Aboriginal people to be free and equal; and all remaining reserves be retained for individual or communal ownership.48 This policy was printed in each issue of Smoke Signals. The League's central committee in October 1959 also declared itself opposed to the government's assimilation policy with a statement supporting integration which read:
For integration to take place Aboriginal groups must have the opportunity to establish themselves wherever practicable as socially and economically independent and self-reliant people. On the other hand where individuals and families desire to be totally identified with the white community, they too should be assisted to that end.49
It is difficult to gauge the ideological resonances of these policies in the branches, as much of the branches' paper record was devoted to administrative matters. The Greensborough's annual report of 1961 was unusual in reporting: 'the growing awareness in the world of the problems of colonial people', and its references to liberation struggles in Goa, Algeria, Angola and the struggle for voting and drinking rights in Australia.50 Some members were social activists. Stewart Kerr of the Dandenong branch reported to the League's management committee in 1964 of the plan of the Drouin Council to demolish the huts and tents of five adults and eleven children outside Drouin. The League lobbied the Aborigines Welfare Board and gained press coverage. The Blackburn branch lobbied about the inadequate nature of the Board's own housing. However, little survives in the branch records of an explicit policy nature, except the branches' fundraising for education and farming cooperatives, which fitted with Aboriginal advancement. No doubt some policy discussions did take place. The Geelong branch was notable for this, but even then Gwlad McLachlan recalled that 'some people were more interested in that political side than others and I suppose I was in that political side'.51
Members believed in the advancement of Aboriginal people, part of the very name of their organisation, and no doubt most desired Aboriginal equality with other Australians. But how much structural change they were prepared to accept is moot. Their social profile of being predominantly white middle class Australians would suggest many were conservative people in a conservative society of the Menzies years. Most would baulk at structural changes necessary to shift power in Aboriginal-settler Australian relations. This is particularly the case given the large number of county branches, which formed about forty percent of the total. Harold Newell, branch secretary of Murtoa, wrote to Stan Davey in July 1968 on the origin of a petition on land rights: 'Is it a League petition? My idea of getting justice is not at all in line with the University students'.52 Most members joined out of empathy for Aboriginal disadvantage – the message of the Warburton Ranges film shown by Doug Nicholls. While the management committee rejected assimilation for integration, many ordinary branch members would have been slower to do so. Even Stan Davey had to adjust as his wife Jan Richardson recalled of the 1950s. 'Assimilation meant equality, at that time, the word assimilation didn't have a pejorative sense, it meant equality...Once Aboriginal people were able to vocalise that it meant becoming the same as, then he dropped the word assimilation and used integration'.53 Many members were there to help end Aboriginal disadvantage and to donate, collect clothing, and serve admirably in other ways to do so. They were not generally interested in social action and radical change.

Demise of the Branches

In the 1960s Aboriginal desires to control Aboriginal affairs increased. William Cooper's Australian Aborigines' League, formed in 1934 and active until the 1940s, was revived by
Doug Nicholls and Bill Onus in the early 1960s. It held annual two-day Aboriginal Congresses from 19641966. These meetings usually called for more Aboriginal voices on the Aborigines Welfare Board. The First Congress also agreed that the Australian Aborigines' League would act as the Aboriginal branch of the Aborigines Advancement League. This has led to confusion ever since, some believing erroneously that Cooper's Australian Aborigines' League became Nicholls' Aborigines Advancement League. The Aboriginal branch of the League was reconstituted in January 1968 and again pressed the government for elected Aboriginal voices on the government's Aboriginal Advisory Committee. The Aboriginal branch held another Aboriginal Congress in 1968.54 Therefore, when Bruce McGuinness invited the black Caribbean activist, Dr Roosevelt Brown, to come to Melbourne in August 1969 to speak, this was not an isolated incident, but the expression of a long term Indigenous-inspired aspiration for control of their own affairs – including the League. However, this aspiration was obscure to many branch members who still believed in Nicholls' black-and-white together policy.
Roosevelt Brown's public clash with Doug Nicholls over black power, and the subsequent newspaper sensationalism, made this obvious to all and split the League – but not simply along racial lines. Doug Nicholls offered his resignation as Co-Director, distressed that his black-and-white-together concept was in tatters. In a series of management committee meetings, amidst dramatic press reports, Aboriginal control emerged. The white dominated management committee voted itself out of office on 3 October 1969, but refused to accept Nicholls' resignation. The press continued to highlight black power all through October. The League repudiated violence but claimed 'Black Power was the empowerment of black people to make their own decision'.55 The state and federal government exacerbated matters for the League by withholding a recently promised $40,000 federal grant, because of divisions within the League. Eric Onus argued black power was not about violence but 'Aboriginal autonomy'.56 Bruce Silverwood stepped down as Co-Director in November to be replaced by Bruce McGuinness.57
Many in the branches were alarmed by events that they understood mainly through the press, although some news eventually filtered out from headquarters. Sylvia Pridie for the Noble Park branch felt for Pastor Nicholls' 'obvious embarrassment', and wondered if the League was 'changing its policy to the policies of Black Power as dictated by Mr Roosevelt Brown'.58 The Altona/Laverton branch immediately disbanded, resolving: 'the League is misguided and wrong to believe Black Power can exist without violence'. The letter of closure also recounted a member's telephone conversation with Bruce McGuinness, which 'distressed' her, as he 'was most vehement and abusive against the white people'.59 Wilma and David Evans from this branch wrote separately to Bruce Silverwood: 'while we were members we felt we were trying to help Aboriginies (sic) become equal to us. Now we see a few headstrong Aboriginies [sic] spoiling things and
demanding what we felt would eventually come about but we object to their way of doing this'.60
Some branches were more supportive. Ocean Grove wrote in 'support for the action and stand taken by League headquarters on 'Black Power'', but as the League was then divided it was an ambiguous response.61 The Parkdale branch resolved that it 'seemed wrong to divide into different coloured groups with any one colour playing a dominant role. We believe in democratic equality in which we all unite for the equal good of all'. It hoped the new management committee would be constituted on 'competence... not colour'.62 The Murtoa branch realised it was the victim of press representations, and adopted a 'wait and see' attitude.63 Doreen Whitten of the Blackburn branch pleaded with Bruce Silverwood to use another name than 'Black Power', 'as the public is very apprehensive about the name and all the talking in the world about non-violence makes no difference'.64
Once Bruce McGuinness became Director, members' doubts continued. In April 1970 Murray Hooper wrote on behalf of the Geelong branch asking what was the League's attitude 'to speakers (Europeans) speaking on behalf of the League'. McGuinness replied all could speak 'whether black, blue, white or brindle'.65 Matters settled for a while. A new branch began at Alexandra, but others were struggling or closing. The Button Day appeal in 1970 – usually a big earner – failed, as less branches were collecting from a less responsive public, due to the bad publicity over black power six months earlier.66 In 1971 the League's finances crashed, leaving it unable to pay staff wages. Small government grants gained in the late 1960s were cut in December 1971, pending an audit. The combative McGuinness agreed to an audit, but only if the League could choose the accountant. The government refused. With the League now penniless, McGuinness resigned in January 1972.67 Some of the League's strongest branches – Kew and Blackburn – along with others – finally closed.
Geelong was the last to close and did so with a heavy heart. At a meeting in February 1972 several conversations of members with Reg Worthy, head of the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs, were recounted. Worthy alleged there was malpractice and dishonesty amongst some Aboriginal administrators of the League. However, the Geelong branch decided to stand firm with the League and even voted $20 to the Aboriginal tent embassy then in operation in Canberra. Stewart Murray the League's new Aboriginal Director was at Geelong's next meeting and spoke optimistically of the League's future and its willingness to work with the government. All else indicated business as usual at the branch. At the April meeting, planning for the Christmas card drive, money for new crockery for the hostel, and help for an Aboriginal family was discussed. Planning continued for a forum in Geelong on Aboriginal affairs later in the year. In May routine business was discussed until a report was given by Gwlad McLachlan on a further meeting with Reg Worthy. He had advised the branch 'not to spend a penny of League money' and hinted at likely prosecutions for 'criminal
negligence' following an audit. After discussion the branch resolved to disassociate from the League due to lack of information coming from headquarters. But the branch affirmed that 'aboriginal personnel should now control the league' and that it should be free of the controlling influence of government funding. The social activist members of the branch – Gwlad McLachlan, Murray Hooper and others – immediately created an Aboriginal Affairs Association, a discussion group that lasted until 1974, and included Aboriginal members.68


The branches of the League worked voluntarily for fifteen years for Aboriginal advancement as they understood it. Their financial support kept the League at the forefront of Australia-wide advocacy for Aboriginal rights. The branches funded the League's office; two field officers and other workers; four hostels for Aboriginal youth; Aboriginal scholarships; helped many individual families with material aid; and offered holidays in the city and country to hundreds of children. In the press, at suburban meetings, through film nights, and on the street at Button Day, they kept Aboriginal issues and the Advancement League before the public. The League was a key body among other efforts that changed the agenda in the 1960s, as Australians accepted the move to equality and civil rights by Aboriginal people.
The emergence of Aboriginal autonomy, however, came too quickly and too controversially for many conservative-minded League branches and their members. Others accepted this was the moment for which they had been working. However, black power seemed something foreign, too radical, too dismissive of their efforts, and potentially too violent for white middle-class Australians in the era of Menzies to contemplate. The prospect of litigation also worried some. The ideological nexus with headquarters was severed, and the retention of branches and their members, became impossible. Doug Nicholls' message of working together was something they understood and one that gave them a place. Black power left them with no role. The branches folded, but in essence they had done their work. The moment of black and white together had passed. It was up to Aboriginal people to carry the League forward in their own way.


Henry Reynolds, A Whispering in our Hearts, St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1998.


Sue Taffe, Black and White Together. FCAATSI: The Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 2005.


M. B. Duberman, Paul Robeson, London: Bodley Head, 1989, p. 490.


Smoke Signals, May 1957.


Smoke Signals, July 1957.


One page of notes by Davey in Gordon Bryant Papers, National Library of Australia, courtesy of Sue Taffe.


Interview with Jan Richardson, Mount Eliza, 19 September 2008.


Sun (Melbourne), 25 August 1958.


Smoke Signals, April 1960.


Interview with Barry Christophers, Malvern East, 21 May 2008.


Doreen Ross to AAL, 31 July 1967, Aborigines' Advancement League papers, Australian Manuscript Collection, State Library of Victoria (hereafter AAL), box 74.


Vic Parson to all branch secretaries, 10 May 1968, AAL box 69.


Selma Millar to AAL, 21 August 1967, AAL box 75.


Sally Segal to AAL, 31 July 1967, AAL box 74.


Val Purchell to AAL, 11 August and 5 September 1967, AAL box 74.


Diana Dingley to AAL, 17 August 1968, box 74.


Barbara Gloe to AAL, 16 May 1968, AAL box 75.


Marc A. Musick and John Wilson, Volunteers: a social profile, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2008, p. 17.


Jone L Pearce, Volunteers: the organizational behaviour of unpaid workers, London: Routledge, 1993, p. 77.


Ibid, pp. 76-81.


Musick and Wilson, p. 22.


Interview with Peta Heywood, La Trobe University, 29 September 2008.


Pearce, pp. 69-70.


Musick and Wilson, p. 47.


Ibid, p. 109.


Pearce, p. 67.


Musick and Wilson, p. 147.


Lorna Lippmann, 'Who Belongs to the AAL?', Smoke Signals, December 1965.


Interview with Murray and Rosemary Hooper, Leopold, 29 November 2008.


Interview with Gwlad McLachlan, Belmont, 14 November 2008.


Interview with Val Tarrant, Black Rock, 24 October 2008.


Interview with Peta Heywood., La Trobe University, 29 November 2008.


Arthur Brotheridge to AAL, 7 October 1964; E. Cafarella to Brotheridge 15 October 1964; H. J. McLoughlin to E. Cafarella 19 November 1964, AAL box 69.


Stan Davey to Daphne Charles, secretary Aboriginal branch, 14 May 1968. AAL box 74.


P. Barker to AAL, 22 May 1970 and Bruce McGuinness to Mrs P. Barker 5 June 1970, AAL box 69.


Arthur Brotheridge to AAL 15 July 1962, AAL box 69.


Steven S. Cohn, Steven E. Barkan, and William A. Halteman, 'Dimensions of Participation in a Professional Social-Movement Organisation', Sociological Inquiry, vol. 73, no. 3, August 2003, pp. 311-337.


R. Broome, 'Doug Nicholls', entry in Australian Dictionary of Biography, forthcoming.


Smoke Signals, October 1968.


Copy of Rev. E. Vandermark to A. Buchanan 8 June 1960, AAL box 69.


Interview with Gwlad McLachlan, Belmont, 14 November 2008.


William Ralph to AAL, 8 August 1961, AAL box 69.


J. F. Allinson to S. D. Keer AAL, 25 June 1962, AAL box 69.


Robert Dunlop 18 July 1968 to Edith Bacon, and Bacon reply 29 July 1868, AAL box 74.


Arthur Brotheridge to AAL undated; Elizabeth Cafarella to Brotheridge, 19 July 1965, AAL box 69.


Arthur Brotheridge 15 July, 16 September and 9 November 1962, AAL box 69.


Leslie Coats to AAL, 25 February 1966, AAL box 75.


Smoke Signals, April 1960.


Smoke Signals, October 1959.


Greensborough branch fifth annual report June 1962, AAL box 69.


Interview with Gwlad McLachlan, Belmont, 14 November 2008.


Harold Newell to Stan Davey, 28 July 1968, AAL box 75.


Interview Jan Richardson, Mount Martha, 18 November 2008.


R. Broome and C. Manning, A Man of All Tribes: the life of Alick Jackomos, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2006, pp. 124-128; Aboriginal branch meeting minutes 21 January, 1 February 1968, AAL box 74.


Age, 3 October 1969.


Age, 22 October 1969.


Anonymous, Victims or Victors: the story of the Aborigines Advancement League, Melbourne: Hyland House, 1985, chap. 7; Richard Broome, Aboriginal Victorians: a history since 1800, St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2005, pp. 336-37; Kathy Lothian, 'Seizing the Time: Australian Aborigines and the Influence of the Black Panther Party, 1969-1972', Journal of Black Studies, vol. 35, no. 4, 2005, pp. 179-200.


Sylvia Pridie to AAL, 23 September 1969, AAL, box 75.


Altona/Laverton branch to AAL, 12 September 1969, AAL box 75.


Wilma and David Evans to B. Silverwood, 6 October 1969, AAL box 75.


Dudley Wilson to AAL, November 1969, AAL box 75.


B. Glee to AAL, 4 November 1969, AAL box 75.


V. E. Maddern to AAL, 10 December 1969, AAL box 69.


Doreen Whitten to Bruce Silverwood, 23 October 1969, AAL box 69.


Murray Hooper to Bruce McGuinness no date, McGuinness reply, 24 April 1970, AAL box 69.


Victims or Victors?, p. 97.


Ibid, p. 99.


Geelong branch minute book meetings for 1972, in possession Gwlad McLachlan to be donated to the SLV collection. Interview with Gwlad McLachlan, Belmont, 14 November 2008.