• Leilla Wendburg (née Penrith) is a former Cootamundra Girls' Home resident worked in Bondi as a young adult, housekeeping for a wealthy Lebanese family. (Stuart Miller)Source: Stuart Miller
Thousands of Aboriginal girls were placed into domestic service under the Government's Aborigines Welfare Protection Act. Many were mistreated, disrespected and severely underpaid.
Sophie Verass

30 Nov 2016 - 12:40 PM  UPDATED 12 Feb 2019 - 10:36 AM

The aesthetic of preserved plantation houses in Southern America is increasingly unimpressive in modern times, knowing the racist system that its everyday domesticity ran on.

Something that can just as easily be experienced when admiring historic Gothic mansions in Sydney's North Shore suburbs or Victorian farmhouses in Australian heritage towns. For these are not just homes, but institutions where Aboriginal girls systematically spent their teenage years under a racist Government incentive, mopping floors, washing laundry and chopping firewood for others.

Domestic service in Australia operated in its own horribly unique course of action. From the early 1900s, Aboriginal girls as young as four-years-old were forcibly removed from their parents by the New South Wales under the NSW Aborigines Protection Act 1909-1969. They were placed in domestic training homes ran by the Aborigines Welfare Board.

Women of this harsh system recall having no toys, no books (with the exception of the Bible), in some cases, no shoes and heartbreakingly, completely no affection. They were trained in preparation to sent out as domestic servants from the age of 15. The weekly income of Aboriginal domestic servants was contracted at a mere sixpence, which had an approximate buying power at the time of ice-cream cone or two apples. Yet very few workers received this small wage, which was supposedly withheld in trusts by the Government. This system continued until the early 1970s.

This history does not only speak volumes about the country's racist attitudes, but also women's roles in Australian society.

These are some of the faces, the women, who did not receive income for their labour. They are all former residents of the Cootamundra Domestic Training Home for Aboriginal Girls in NSW, and have persevered through hardship and trauma. Many wear their Cootamundra Girls Aboriginal Corporation shirts with pride, having had to write this brutal discourse in Australian history with their stories.


Photography by Stuart Miller

Watch the 1983 groundbreaking documentary Lousy Little Sixpence which details the practice of forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families to be hired out as servants to white employers on SBS On Demand:

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