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Living on Aboriginal reserves and stations

Wallaga Lake Aboriginal reserve, 1974. National Archives of Australia: A8739, A16/3/77/11

Wallaga Lake Aboriginal reserve, 1974. National Archives of Australia: A8739, A16/3/77/11

From the late 1700s, the spread of settlement across New South Wales by non-Indigenous people gradually pushed Aboriginal people off their land. NSW governments responded in many cases by setting aside parcels of land for the sole use of Aboriginal people. Across the state, Aboriginal reserves were created as a political response to the dispossession of Aboriginal people from their land. 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 some Aboriginal people had little choice but to live on the reserves, they often developed very deep attachments to them and to the areas adjacent to the reserves.

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

Aboriginal reserves: Aboriginal reserves were parcels of land set aside for Aboriginal people to live on; these were not managed by the government or its officials. From 1883 onwards, the Aboriginal people who were living on unmanaged reserves received rations and blankets from the Aborigines Protection Board (APB), but remained responsible for their own housing.1 Such reserves included Forster2 and Burnt Bridge.

Aboriginal missions: Aboriginal 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. 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.

Aboriginal stations: Aboriginal stations or ‘managed reserves’ were established by the APB from 1883 onwards, and were managed by officials appointed by that Board. Education (in the form of preparation for the workforce), rations and housing tended to be provided on these reserves,3 and station managers tightly controlled who could, and could not, live there. Many people were forcibly moved onto and off stations. Managed stations included Purfleet,4 Karuah and Murrin Bridge near Lake Cargellico.

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. There are many such places across the state that remain important to Aboriginal people.

History of Aboriginal stations and reserves

In the mid 1800s, the British government, which still controlled the Australian colonies, became concerned that the expansion of pastoralism across the landscape was having too large an impact on Aboriginal people’s access to their Country. In 1850, 35 small Aboriginal reserves were created in what was known as the ‘squatting districts’ of NSW (i.e. the areas used for pastoralism, which at that time covered most of NSW, except Sydney and part of the coastal district).5 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.6

Many more reserves were created from the 1870s onwards. Among the first reserves declared from this time were at Yass (1875); Bodalla (1877) and Picton (1878).7 These were joined by many more in the decades following the first appointment of a ‘Protector of Aborigines’ in 1881, who was replaced by the APB two years later. The APB was created 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, which historian Anna Doukakis has termed 'intervention'8. These reserves were created not so much as an acknowledgement of Aboriginal property rights, but to remove Aboriginal people from society and public view. Partly, 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.
New Housing at Erambie, Cowra, New South Wales, 1980. National Archives of Australia: A8598, AK28/2/80/52

New Housing at Erambie, Cowra, New South Wales, 1980. National Archives of Australia: A8598, AK28/2/80/52

Reserves created by the APB

Across NSW, the APB created new reserves and ‘stations’ – places that were managed by a government-appointed manager, and which often provided education/schooling and housing in addition to land on which Aboriginal people could live. Some of the first reserves created by the Board were at Bega (1883), Stewart’s Island (1883), and Grong Grong, near the Murrumbidgee River (1884).

Some reserves were created in response to complaints by white residents who objected to Aboriginal people living in towns or in fringe camps on the edges of towns.9 This was the case with Brungle Station, which was built between Tumut and Gundagai in 1887.10 Other reserves were established at the request of Aboriginal people themselves who were seeking land for agriculture, living and schooling purposes and these were created where Aboriginal people were already living.11 In 1911, at the height of the Aboriginal reserve system, 75 of the 115 reserves in NSW had been created at the request of Aboriginal people.12 These included Wingadee at Coonamble 13 and Burra Bee Dee. Like fringe camps, these places continue to hold significance for Aboriginal people as places where they chose to live when there were few places available.

The creation of reserves and stations from the 1880s onwards reflected government policies of protection and segregation. They were underpinned by a belief that the best way to protect Aboriginal people was by separating them from white society. Station managers were appointed to help control who lived on the stations, and to manage their behaviour and movements. However, the official identification of Aboriginal people was strictly defined by the colour of their skin – many people were deemed ‘too Aboriginal’ to live in towns, but not Aboriginal enough to live on reserves.

By 1915, there were reportedly 18 APB stations. These were located at Angledool, Clarence, Collarenabri, Gulargambone (near Gunnedah), Macquarie, Namoi, Nymboida, Pilliga Scrub, Pooncarie, Port Stephens, Warangesda, Wardell and Wellington.14 Over time, some unmanaged reserves attracted managers, while others, both managed and unmanaged, were closed. So the management status of individual reserves changed over time, as fluid as their changing boundaries and official reserve status. For example Terry Hie Hie and Cabbage Tree Island were both unmanaged reserves when they were gazetted in 1895 and 1893, but became managed stations from 1911.

Despite the attempts by the APB to move Aboriginal people onto reserves and stations, most Aboriginal people in NSW lived in places they selected for themselves, close to employment and schools, and on Country. In the late nineteenth century, less than 17% of known Aboriginal people lived on stations managed by the Board.15 In 1923, that figure was around 15%, and in 1936, following attempts by the Board to move more Aboriginal people onto stations, it was 33% - more people than ever before - but still just one third of the known Aboriginal population of NSW.15

Aboriginal reserve at Bowraville, 1974. National Archives of Australia: A8739, A23/4/74/28.

Aboriginal reserve at Bowraville, 1974. National Archives of Australia: A8739, A23/4/74/28.

Aborigines Protection Act 1909

Although the Aboriginal Protection Board existed from 1883, it was not until 1909 that its work was supported by legislation. The 1909 Aborigines Protection Act gave the APB 'the authority for the protection and care of Aborigines'.17 Station managers now tightly controlled reserves – and particularly, who entered and who left them. The Act vested all Aboriginal reserves in the APB, and made it illegal for any person other than station managers, those authorised by the Board or those people defined as Aboriginal to enter reserves for any purpose.18 It gave the Board the power to remove Aboriginal people from reserves, and from camping 'within or near any reserve, town or township'.19 Admission to the reserves was based on the appearance of Aboriginality.20

The Act's aim, according to historian Peter Read, was to 'drive as many Aborigines as possible into the white community'.21 But the white community continued to object to Aboriginal people living nearby.

Amendments to the Act in 1915 further strengthened the Board's powers.22

Closing the reserves

In the 1920s and '30s, and again in the 1950s and '60s, large numbers of reserves were closed or reduced in size by the APB and Aborigines Welfare Board (which replaced the APB). The occupants were moved onto a smaller number of large reserves and the land from the closed reserves was often sold. Between 1957 and 1964 there were 33 reserve revocations across the state.23 During the same period, many more smaller reserves were declared closer to towns, including at Coonabarabran, Bourke and Brewarrina. The Hollywood reserve at Yass was established in 1934 to rehouse the former residents of Edgerton.24 When Hollywood itself was revoked in 1963, its residents were moved to a small number of houses on the outskirts of Yass, to Erambie Station at Cowra, or camped along the Yass River.

In the 1920s and '30s reserves were closed so that Aboriginal communities could be concentrated in fewer reserves and Aboriginal people could be 'managed' more easily and affordably.25 Creating reserves that were closer to towns meant that people and businesses in those towns could access Aboriginal labour, while ensuring that Aboriginal people would continue to live outside of town. In the 1940s, '50s and '60s, under the Aborigines Welfare Board, the forced migration of Aboriginal people from unsupervised reserves onto stations closer to towns was part of the drive to assimilation, and was ultimately directed towards dispersing Aboriginal people into houses in country towns.26 At the same time it was about greater control over Aboriginal peoples' lives.27

Where possible, many Aboriginal people continued to live at sites after their reserve status had been revoked, such as at Oak Hill Reserve.28 Their resistance to being moved was an act of self-determination and indicated they had developed attachments to these places which had been their home for decades. At other places, such as Stuart Island near Nambucca Heads, members of the Aboriginal community who were forcibly moved to Bellwood Reserve returned to the Island to fish and teach younger generations about the place.29


Map of Bowraville. From Aboriginal Women’s Heritage: Nambucca (Department of Environment and Climate Change NSW: Sydney 2003).

Map of Bowraville. From Aboriginal Women’s Heritage: Nambucca (Department of Environment and Climate Change NSW: Sydney 2003).

Brief timeline


First Aboriginal reserves set aside

Non-managed reserves; police appointed as protectors


Protector of Aborigines appointed

First Protector was George Thornton, a politician. He was given a small budget to issue food to Aboriginal people and generally look after their 'welfare'.30


Aborigines Protection Board (APB) established

Instructed to make grants of suitable land for Aboriginal people in places where missions hadn't been set up.31 Financially supported existing missions.32

1880s and '90s

New wave of reserves established

Included managed and non-managed reserves; managers increasingly appointed to non-managed reserves, often in response to complaints by nearby residents


Control of some missions passed to APB

This included management and funding of Cumeroogunja, Warangesda and Brewarrina missions. The Aboriginal Protection Association, which had managed the missions, remained responsible for Aboriginal 'spiritual welfare'.33


Aborigines Protection Act passed

Legislated the powers of the Aborigines Protection Board to control where Aboriginal people lived.


Aborigines Protection Act amended


APB given new powers, including power to confine Aboriginal people against their will. Attempted to move all Aboriginal people from town camps, smaller reserves and stations to fewer, larger and more tightly controlled stations.34


APB re-formed as Aborigines Welfare Board

Under the Aborigines Protection (Amendment) Act 1940. Emphasis on assimilation and training for employment, but continued attempts to concentrate Aboriginal communities onto stations.35

1950s and '60s

Many reserves revoked

Replaced by smaller reserves on the edges of towns


First Aboriginal co-operative

Cabbage Tree Island leased from AWB


Aboriginal Land Rights Act

Remaining Aboriginal reserves handed back to local Aboriginal communities36

Further reading

Doukakis, Anna, Aboriginal People, Parliament and 'Protection' in New South Wales, 1856-1916, The Federation Press, Sydney, 2006.

Goodall, Heather, Invasion to Embassy: Land and Aboriginal Politics in New South Wales, 1770-1972, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1996 (reprinted by Sydney University Press 2008).

Read, Peter, A hundred years war: The Wiradjuri people and the state, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1994.

List of Aboriginal Reserves in NSW pp. 341-371


1 Department of Community Services, Connecting Kin: Guide to records, Department of Community Services, Sydney, 1998.

2 Denis Byrne & Maria Nugent, Mapping Attachment: A spatial approach to Aboriginal post-contact heritage, Part 2, Department of Environment and Conservation, Sydney, 2004, pp. 109-121.

3 Department of Community Services.

4 Byrne & Nugent, pp. 77-91.

5 Heather Goodall, Invasion to Embassy: Land and Aboriginal Politics in New South Wales, 1770-1972, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1996 (reprinted by Sydney University Press 2008) pp. 55-65.

6 Goodall, pp. 60-62.

7 Department of Community Services.

8 Anna Doukakis, Aboriginal People, Parliament and 'Protection' in New South Wales, 1856-1916, The Federation Press, Sydney, 2006, p. 34.

9 Byrne & Nugent, p. 79.

10 Peter Read, A hundred years war: The Wiradjuri people and the state, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1994, p. 36.

11 Read, pp. 35-6; Doukakis p. 10.

12 Goodall, p. 113.

13 Goodall, p. 111.

14 Doukakis, p. 178.

15 Doukakis, p. 52

16 David Morrissey, 'An overview of NSW government policies towards Aborigines from the first settlement to the current situation', Honours Thesis, Macquarie University, 1980, p. 31.

17 Aborigines Protection Act 1909: 4(2).

18 Aborigines Protection Act 1909: 8(1).

19 Aborigines Protection Act 1909: 14

20 Doukakis, p. 13

21 Read, p. 55.

22 Read, pp. 62-3.

23 Goodall, p. 336.

24 Read, p. 102.

25 Goodall, pp. 261-2.

26 Goodall, p. 332.

27 Goodall, pp. 331-3.

28 Kate Waters, 'Oak Hill (Aboriginal Place) Site', unpublished report for Department of Environment and Conservation NSW, 2005, p 147.

29 National Parks and Wildlife Service, Aboriginal Women's Heritage: Nambucca, National Parks and Wildlife Service, Sydney, 2003.

30 Doukakis, p. 40.

31 Morrissey, p. 22.

32 Doukakis, p. 9.

33 Doukakis, p. 84.

34 Goodall, pp. 230-2.

35 Goodall, p. 305.

36 Doukakis, p. 147.

Page last updated: 09 November 2012