In 1941 a representative of the Aborigines Inland Mission (AIM) was invited to Bagot Road Aboriginal Reserve to take charge of a number of Aboriginal women and children referred to in documents of the time as 'part-coloured' or 'half-caste'. In 1942 the then superintendent, Miss Shankelton, accompanied 72 child evacuees to Balaklava in South Australia where they were to remain for the duration of World War II. Upon their return to Darwin in 1946, the AIM set up the Retta Dixon Home as an institution to provide care for these children.
Retta Dixon Home was located at the Bagot Road Aboriginal Reserve, in buildings furnished by the NT Administration. It was situated in the centre of the Bagot Compound between the hospital and the Bagot settlement and a fence was erected to separate the Home from the rest of the Bagot settlement. The institution was run by AIM as a home for Aboriginal children and mothers in conjunction with a Hostel for young Aboriginal women. The Commonwealth Government provided financial assistance. Original correspondence from AIM explains that:
'The aim of the Aborigines Inland Mission at Darwin is to care for their half-caste wards and train them to become worthy and responsible citizens. The Hostel is intended to be a congenial home for young women employed in Darwin where they will receive advice and guidance. At present there are 48 children, two mothers and six single women in the institution.'
At this time the oldest child in residence was 12 years of age.
While the Native Affairs Branch supplied all rations for the Home, the AIM provided clothing for the children except in cases where mothers were working and could afford to pay. Children of school age were transported to the Darwin Public School by 'Administration transport'. All medical and dental cases were taken to the Darwin Hospital.
In a letter to the Department of the Interior the Administrator of the NT described the way in which the AIM and the government worked together to run the Home.
' At present it is semi-official in operation in that supplies and a number of services are provided by the Native affairs Branch whilst the Aboriginal Inland Mission workers perform their duties in an honorary capacity. The number of wards has increased considerably in the last year because of the removal of half-caste children from Aboriginal camps in rural areas and the acceptance by half-castes in Darwin of the facilities provided. There is a pressing need for such an organisation in Darwin and Miss Shankelton, with her staff, has proved her ability to deal with the problem.'
In September 1947 six staff members worked in the Home under the direction of Miss Shankelton. By March 1949 the number of children at the Home had increased to 67.
A 1950 Review Report on the Retta Dixon Home said the average yearly number of children at the Home was 70 and that the average number of women receiving pre-natal and after care was eight. Children stayed at the Home until they were 18 years of age. They attended school from 5 to 16 years and after leaving were expected to do vocational training. They received 'instruction in religious doctrine' and attendance at spiritual worship was 'insisted on'.
In the report the buildings that made up Retta Dixon were listed as follows:
1 girls' dormitory - concrete
1 staff quarters - concrete
1 recreation - dining room with kitchen attached - concrete
1 store room - concrete
1 nursery - converted S.W. Type building
1 boys' dormitory - converted S.W. Type building
1 young women's quarters - converted S.W. Type building
1 garage and workshop - converted S.W. Type building
1 ablution block.
Several other buildings at present used as stores can be made available should the necessity arise.
An S.W. Building refers to a Sidney William hut, also known as a Comet Hut. It was a prefabricated corrugated iron building extensively used by the army throughout northern Australia during WWII.
The report also referred to the 'Recreation and Social Life' of the Home describing what activities were provided for children:
'Organised indoor games are held at least one evening each week. Socials, birthday parties etc. All of which the children help to arrange and prepare. Football, tennis, swimming, basketball and other outdoor sport is encouraged. Special instruction for older children in music, craftwork, domestic science and agriculture is provided through classes and individual teaching.
The society has two hutment type of buildings at Casuarina Beach. Children are taken here for periods of rest and change during holidays. '
The Home also provided a library for older children and adults, a piano and a 16mm film projector.
No traditional songs, dances or ceremonies were allowed, however, and all contact with the other residents of the Bagot Compound was strongly discouraged. Some former residents of the Children's Home have spoken of severe punishments meted out to children who broke the strict rules of the Home.
In 1951 the Retta Dixon Home cared for 70 children and up to 20 women in what was referred to at the time as "crowded" conditions. Unfortunately because the Home was situated between the Bagot Aboriginal Hospital and the Bagot Aboriginal Settlement, there was reportedly "no opportunity for expansion". In July 1951, a recommendation that a former RAAF stores depot site at Winnellie could make a suitable new site for the Retta Dixon Home was approved. However, financial concerns halted the move.
From mid 1952 the financial arrangements between the AIM and the government changed. While the government continued to pay a subsidy for each resident in the Home, it required the Home to take over paying for provisions, rather than receiving them free from the Native Affairs Branch. Over the years 1954 to 1957, however, the government assisted the AIM with some major purchases such as a Bedford Truck and later a VW Combi Van for transporting children, a refrigerator, the construction of a tennis court and poultry run and the provision of sixty individual bedside lockers.
In 1955 the Director of Welfare, Harry Giese, stated in a letter that because the majority of children at the Retta Dixon Home were wards of the state, he as Director, should have 'a strong say in what liberties should be granted to the children when they approach the age where they will (need) to undertake their own responsibilities.'
Giese's comment was made in response to the superintendent of Retta Dixon Home informing him that AIM was opposed to letting older children attend picture theatres and social events in Darwin without supervision. Giese also recommended that children from Retta Dixon be supported in becoming members of the Scouts, Girl Guides and the Girls' and Boys' Police clubs.
A memo from February 1956 shows that 47 girls and 34 boys were 'committed' to the Home and that a further 16 children between 1.5 and 13 years were also at the Home. Six adult women were also in residence. The continued high number of children in the Home led to the resurfacing of plans to move the Home to a new location. Although a section of the Bagot Reserve on McWilliam Road was earmarked for the new site, the move did not happen until the early 1960s. Therefore in 1959 the AIM requested funding to repair the existing buildings.
In 1961-62 the first buildings of the new Retta Dixon Home were officially opened at the North end of Bagot Reserve, approximately two kilometres from the original Home. The new larger site was set up as a system of eight, independently run, six bedroom cottage homes. These were erected in a U shape with the Superintendent's House in the centre. There was also a communal laundry, central food store, recreation hall, health clinic, two visitors cottages and a garage. In a 1992 article Louise Liddy-Corpus remembers the change:
' The institution in which I was raised was run initially along an age and gender dormitory system overseen by a kind, unmarried white woman, Miss Shankleton (Laelie). In the early 1960s the Home moved into a new compound which had a cottage system in which each individual cottage was run autonomously although coming under the general jurisdiction of the male (married) superintendent. '
The new cottage system was intended to bring a family style atmosphere to the Home. However, Barbara Cummings in her book 'Take this child' explains that:
' Inexperienced staff, a high rate of staff turnover, and frequent transfers of children from cottage to cottage without explanation prevented a family-style environment from developing.'
Additionally Barbara states that the bonding and sense of community that had developed in the old Home's dormitory system was largely lost at the new site.
In 1974 Retta Dixon Children's Home, along with much of Darwin, was devastated by Cyclone Tracy. Five of the eight cottages were left in ruins and some fifty children were temporarily sent interstate.
Changes in government policy in the late 1970s led to the decision to close the Retta Dixon Home. Although it was officially to close on the 30 June 1980, the Home continued to operate, with cottage parents taking in children by private arrangements, until 1982.
A memorial plaque now stands in Karu Park, where the former Retta Dixon Home once stood. It reads:
'This plaque is in recognition of Aboriginal children displaced from mother and country. Karu Park accommodated a children's institution named Retta Dixon Home. Similar institutions were established at Kahlin, Garden Point, Croker island and Groote Eylandt. This plaque is dedicated to the memory of those children and their mission workers.'
26 February 2018
Cite this: https://www.findandconnect.gov.au/guide/nt/YE00023
First published by the Find & Connect Web Resource Project for the Commonwealth of Australia, 2011
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