Director of Welfare, 1954-70

Creating Aboriginal jobs around the Northern Territory

As Harry Giese pointed out, the largest numbers of Indigenous people in Australia were seeking jobs in places with the least developed community infrastructure.¹  The Welfare Branch built up its own teams to construct houses, schools and clinics. A basic training program was developed for nurses, and farm and mill managers, mechanics and carpenters recruited from outside. They were told it was a priority for them to pass on their skills to Indigenous people. Funds were provided to build schools and infirmaries on pastoral properties, and employ teachers and nurses. In 15 years, the number of people living on government settlements doubled.

Giese saw settlements as centres where ‘in times of need…we could begin to tackle some of the major problems’, among them preventive health measures and education for the children. Initiatives which would allow Aboriginal communities to start to support their own people were also explored. Timber milling to provide the cut timber from which houses and other essential buildings were constructed was a number one priority. All the Catholic and most of the Methodist missions operated sawmills in which Aboriginal people worked. They also helped replant cypress pines, to re-forest the areas. Running cattle for beef to feed communities was tried in places such as Beswick. At Bagot outside Darwin, Bathurst Island, Port Keats, Milingimbi and Beswick (Bamyili), projects to produce pottery were developed. At Bagot, they made their own clay from earth collected from Gunn Point, processed and fired it. World-renowned potter Michael Cardew was brought in to train promising craftspeople in techniques. The fine results were exhibited and sold. The potential of areas such as Arnhem Land for controlled tourism, run by Aboriginal people, was explored, as were prospects for fishing industries.²  

¹Harry Giese, Interview, NTRS 226, TS 755, Tape 25, Side B, Northern Territory Archives Service
²Planning a Program for Aborigines in the 1950s, Northern Territory Library Service Occasional Paper 19, 1990,
pages 11-13

‘If we were to send teachers and other workers out to Aboriginal communities, we had to have reasonable accommodation available for them…This meant houses built to meet a wide range of climatic conditions, provided with water supply, electricity and sewerage. With the support of the Minister, we won a long bitter fight with the Commonwealth Department of Works and Housing and set up two work forces, one in the North and the other in the South which, in four years, built three complete settlements in Central Australia. These work forces as part of their role trained a number of Aborigines in a wide range of construction skills.

‘There was Charlie Lingiari, the best trowel hand in Central Australia, who laid the foundations for most of the buildings at Warrabri; Teddy Williams became Teddy Plumber when, like a lot of Anglo-Saxons before him, he took the name of his trade as his surname. Billy Foster became a painter. Engineer Jack did all sorts of jobs but, most importantly, as a Walibri elder, he was able to organise and supervise the young men into the work gangs. They thus obtained training and skills which served them well in their future employment both on and off the settlement. Billy Foster subsequently did some painting on pastoral properties around Central Australia, and Teddy Plumber did plumbing work in private houses in Tennant Creek.’

Harry Giese, Planning a Program for Aborigines in the 1950s, Northern Territory Library Service Occasional Paper 16, page 7

 See also H.C. (Harry Christian) Giese 1913-2000, Employment and Economic Advancement for Aboriginals in the Northern Territory, 1970, at

Employment opportunities

E.P. Milliken and P.L. Wilson, Employment Arrangements for Aboriginals in Government Departments and on Settlements, Information Paper No. 11, Welfare Branch of the Northern Territory Administration, 6 May 1966

reprinted by the Bennelong Society Historical Reprints, August 2008

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