What Is The Stolen Generation?

First People Then And Now

What is the Stolen Generation?



Stolen Generation or Stolen Generations is the name given to those children of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who were taken away from their families and communities by Federal and State government officials, missionaries, and welfare bodies. 

These children were put into institutions or were fostered or adopted into non-Aboriginal families. They were raised away from their traditional culture and were denied any link or connection with their traditional influences and values.

The children had to adopt the white way of life and had to adopt the values of Anglo society.

To achieve this the children were isolated from their families and were educated in the European way.

This period in Australia’s history is now regarded as a dark and blemished chapter.



Children at risk


The children were found to be at risk from different kinds of abuse and many were never to see their parents, siblings or relatives again.

Under various Federal and State legislation government officials had the power to take charge of Indigenous children whom they

Indigenous domestic

In-service. Painting by Marji Hill

thought needed care, custody and education. At least this was their justification.

The laws that permitted this led to generations of children being removed from their families right up until the 1970s.

In 1997 a national enquiry into the story of the Stolen Generations was conducted. This resulted in the historic report called Bringing Them Home.

The Bringing Them Home report concluded that between one in three and one in ten Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities in the period from approximately 1910 until 1970.


Why did they take the children?


Under the Protection policy in the 1800s Aboriginal people started moving to missions that were being established. In the missions they were introduced to European beliefs  and values.

They had to adopt the Christian religion and they also became a source of cheap labour.

When it seemed that Aboriginal people were dying out the British decided “to protect” the surviving people.




Many Aboriginal people died as a result of violent conflict between Aboriginal people and the European invaders of their lands.

The first one hundred years from 1788 was marked by constant warfare. The heirs of the generations and generations of Aboriginal people who had occupied the continent for 60 000 years fought and died in defence of their lands. 

There were killings and massacres throughout Australia. Once the warfare began it was constant, the last recorded massacre being in 1928.

Loaded guns hung in every room of every station homestead in Queensland and the Northern Territory until the twentieth century.


Loaded guns hung in every room. Painting by Marji Hill

Initially the Indigenous Australians underestimated the power of the European firearms. Slowly and bloodily they learned by experience that the musket was more powerful than any weapon that they had ever devised.

In the 1840s in Victoria a group of Aboriginal warriors  attacked a party of armed and mounted men. The mounted force wiped them out.

In defence of their lands Aboriginal people turned to economic and guerrilla warfare and started destroying the property of the invaders. They destroyed sheep and cattle.

In retaliation the invaders poisoned waterholes.

European diseases took hold among Indigenous people. Many were forced to live on government rations and suffered malnutrition and terrible illnesses.


Protectionist legislation


Because colonial governments (Australia did not have aFederal government until 1901) thought Aboriginal people were on their way to becoming extinct they introduced protectionist legislation. 

This protectionist legislation was designed to control and segregate Aboriginal people from mainstream white society – deciding where and how they should live.

Various denominations of missionaries set up mission stations in different parts of the continent. The plan was to protect Aboriginal people and train them in Christian ideals. Around ten missions were set up in New South Wales alone.

1869 saw the establishment of the Victorian Board for the Protection of Aborigines. Children could be removed to a reformatory or industrial school or removed from station families to be housed in dormitories. 

The other colonies followed suit with New South Wales (1883), Queensland (1897), Western Australia (1905) and South Australia (1911).

Laws designed to protect Aboriginal people meant government authorities, like a Chief Protector or Protection Board, were given extensive powers to control Aboriginal people. 

In some States and the Northern Territory these authorities became the legal guardians of Aboriginal people. Parents lost all rights to their children.

These laws caused a further breakdown of traditional Aboriginal culture.

In 1883 when the Aborigines Protection Board in New South Wales had been set up to “care” for Aboriginal Australians, it had the power to remove children from their parents and families. It was also illegal for people of mixed descent to live on Aboriginal reserves.

In the early twentieth century under the assimilation policy white Australians thought the Aboriginal race would eventually die out. A systematic plan had been put into place to wipe out the Aboriginal race forever.

Within a few generations it was figured that Aboriginal genes would be ‘bred out’ when Aboriginal people had children with white people. 

If the Aboriginal race was eventually eliminated the so called “Aboriginal problem” would be removed. 


Taking on the values of white Australia


While the population of Aborigines of full descent declined, the population of mixed descent increased. 

Governments decided that people of mixed descent should be brought into the Australian work force so they didn’t have to depend on government rations and forced to take on the values of white Australia. 

The laws permitted governments to remove children of mixed descent from their families and place them with white families for whom they would work. 

Children could be removed from a very early age. They were made to live in dormitories until the age of 14. Then they were sent off to work on missions, in settlements, or with white families.

The policy of assimilation meant that in 1937 children of mixed descent had to be educated in the European system. If they were educated into adopting white values they would take their place in white society. 

By 1941 state government institutions and missions were given extra funding to remove even more children from their families. The reason was that they were “neglected” children. As the institutions became overcrowded more and more children were placed into white families. 

Even the identities of these children were denied. The children were given new names and all effort went into ensuring that these children never saw their parents again. 

If the children did have some contact their letters were censored. Often children were told that their parents had died or that their mothers did not want them any more.

Mothers were told similar lies about their own children. Often children were lost from their families forever.

Authorities wanted all traces of Indigenous cultural heritage removed so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children would eventually become assimilated into white society. 

A Wiradjuri story


Iris Clayton a Wiradjuri lady from Leeton, NSW was a member of the Stolen Generations. Wiradjuri lands took in much of south, central and western New South Wales.

Her family lived at Wattle Hill and the houses there were made of old kerosene tins found at the tip. The tins were flattened out and nailed to wooden posts to form walls of the house.

Iris was the eldest of 9 children. Officials from the Aboriginal Protection Board started coming around when Iris was 11 years old. Their father had left home. The officials advised her mother that   Iris and her siblings would be better off living in a home.

In the mid 1950s officials came to take the children away.

The children were taken to the train not even having enough time to say goodbyes to friends and relatives.

The children were taken to Cootamundra Girls’ Home. The girls were primarily trained to be housemaids. They had to clean the Home from top to bottom before breakfast. Then they had to go to school. After school it was back to work attending to domestic duties.

They were not allowed to speak their traditional language. Punishment was severe if you did.

Many of the girls at the Home didn’t know who their parents were or where they had come from as they had been taken away as babies.

For the majority of Aboriginal children, being taken away from their families and communities was not in their best interest. According to The Little Red Yellow Black book “The institutions and church missions where most children were placed suppressed their knowledge about their own families, language and culture. In some places discipline was enforced with heartless and brutal punishments.”1


The Apology


The Coalition Government (1996-2007) under Prime Minister John Howard did not respond formally to the Bringing Them Home Report until December 1997 which was seven months after it was released.

While Prime Minister Howard expressed his personal sorrow for the victims of past injustices he was opposed to his government saying “Sorry”.

There were three reasons for Howard taking this stand.

The first was that he was of the opinion that past government laws and policies were made in the best interests of Indigenous children. Secondly, Howard saw no reason why people of today should accept responsibility for decisions made in the past.

He didn’t feel that his government should apologise for the actions of past governments.

And finally, Howard thought there would be a rush of compensation claims should his government say sorry.

On Wednesday, 13 February 2008 the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd made his opening address to the newly elected Australian Parliament. In this landmark address Rudd apologised to all Indigenous Australians and to the Stolen Generations in particular for past laws and policies that had caused so much grief, suffering and loss.

Rudd’s Apology said “We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians…For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.”2  

Rudd’s Apology occurred ten years after the Bringing Them Home Report which was released on 26 May 1997.


Sorry Day


On the 26 May each year now there is an Australia wide observance of National Sorry Day. This day provides the opportunity for people to come together and share the process towards healing. This is healing for the Stolen Generations their families and communities.

It’s a day of remembrance for those members of the Stolen Generations and their families and their communities who were taken away from their families by force.

In 1998 on 26 May the first National Sorry Day was held. This was a year after the publication of the Bringing Them Home Report when all those Indigenous children who had been removed from their families and communities was acknowledged and publicised. Not only that but it was acknowledged that those responsible for this dark and blemished chapter of Australian history were the Australian governments, their officials, and the missionaries.





Barlow, Alex & Hill, Marji  The Macmillan Encyclopaedia of Australia’s Aboriginal Peoples. South Yarra, Vic, Macmillan, 2000.

Clayton, Iris & Barlow, Alex  Wiradjuri Of The Rivers and Plains. Port Melbourne, Vic, Heinemann, 1997.

Hill, Marji First People Then And Now: Introducing Indigenous Australians. Gold Coast, Qld, Prison Tree Press, 2017.

Hill, Marji  Saying Sorry To The Stolen Generations: The Apology. Melbourne, Pearson, 2009.

Hill, Marji & Grassby, Al   Six Australian Battlefields: The Black Resistance To Invasion And The Whie Struggle Against Colonial Oppression. North Ryde, NSW, Angus & Robertson, 1988.

1 Pascoe, Bruce  The Little Red Yellow Black Book: An Introduction To Indigenous Australia. 3rd ed. Canberra, Aboriginal Studies Press, 2012.


Online sources:







Marji Hill

Author: First People Then And Now: Introducing Indigenous Australians. Gold Coast, The Prison Tree Press, 2017.

First People Then And Now