‘To be Seen and Not Heard’: Children and the NMP

By Lynley Wallis and Heather Burke

Given the work with which they were routinely engaged, it is hard to reconcile the idea of a Native Mounted Police camp replete with happy children scampering through the bush, bursting with laughter. But in many cases this must have been a relatively common occurrence since, as we noted in an earlier post, Aboriginal women—and sometimes European women as well—were regular residents of NMP camps and it is clear that many of these women had children with them.

Although the vast majority of documents never allude to their existence, occasional sources, such as the ration book for the Cooktown NMP (seen in Figure 1), provide the names of some children. Listed as part of the cohort of the camp who were issued with rations, this particular document records that Jemima and Lucy, presumably both the wives of troopers, had children named Hector and Willie. Given that this is the only known ration book that survives, this is a very rare document.

Figure 1 Image from the Cooktown ration book listing the names of two children living with the NMP (photo by Heather Burke).

Children are known from other sources, but rarely by name. They can occasionally be glimpsed in the photographs that exist of NMP camps,  perhaps suggesting that they were indeed more commonplace residents than we imagine. For instance, a careful look at the seated trooper on the left of Figure 2 reveals a small child nestled on his lap.

Figure 2 Native Police with quarters [Boralga NMP camp, Laura] (Qld State Library Negative Number 57330; Accession Number D6-10-86). Note the child seated in the lap of the man seated on the far left.

A photograph of the Native Police at Coen, published in 1938, showed the white officers, troopers and Aboriginal women, but also at least one child (Figure 3).

Figure 3 Coen Native Police published in Cummins and Campbell Monthly Magazine July 1938. The individual seated at the far right is a child, as are possibly some of the other people seated nearby.

Similarly, peeking out from amongst the skirts of the fourth woman from the left in the image below is another small child (Figure 4).

Figure 4 A portion of an image taken from A.L. Hayden (1911) The Trooper Police of Australia, labelled “In the ‘gunyah’ lines”. The image is quite reminiscent of another taken at the Lower Herbert River NMP camp on Waterview Station, however the roof lines of the gunyahs look different. Note the small child peaking out from behind the skirt of the fourth woman from the  left.

Like women, children’s voices are rarely heard in historical sources — their age counts against their producing written records of their own — and rarely did men (the most common diarists and producers of documentary sources in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) bother to mention what life was like, even for their own children. But as Kathryn Kamp (2001) argued, understanding children and their role in society is important because:

… childhood is the training ground, the time when skills and belief systems are learned, personality formed, and attitudes and values inculcated … children provide considerable amounts of labor and are thus integral to subsistence strategies  … an understanding of children’s economic role, attitudes toward children, the health of infants and children, and other aspects of childhood will improve not only our basic descriptions of a culture, but also our analyses of broader issues.

Understanding what childhood comprises is complicated. Like other forms of socialised behavior it is a cultural construct that changes with time and place. Thus, what it meant to be a child in nineteenth century colonial Qld is likely something very different to what it is in the modern world. And the age at which we stop thinking of someone as a child and begin to consider them an adult varies markedly. Certainly, in the nineteenth century a person aged 14 might well be considered an adult, or at least expected to do the work of one. Indeed, as we have discussed in another post, even many of the troopers might “more rightly [be] described as boys” rather than men when they joined the Force. However, some elements of childhood transcend these differences.

In recent years archaeologists have begun turning their attention to whether (and how) the presence of children might be more easily identified in material culture assemblages (see also this article by Michelle Langley on this matter).

One treasure created by a child who had first hand experience of the NMP was a book of pencil sketches created by an Aboriginal boy known as Oscar.  Oscar was handed over by the police (the details of how this situation came to pass is not known, but it is not a stretch to imagine that he may have been taken after a dispersal or massacre event) to Rocklands station (near Camooweal) when he was likely about 10 years of age. In 1899 Augustus Henry Glissan, the manager of Rocklands, sent a sketchbook filled with 40 drawings by Oscar to a friend in Melbourne; the sketchbook was discovered in the early 1990s by staff of the National Museum of Australia.

In the book Oscar sketched scenes of life in colonial Qld, from Cooktown to Rocklands, including aspects of the lives of Chinese, European and Aboriginal people engaged in various activities and social scenes. Drawing is a creative activity that children today are all encouraged to try, and in some ways this notebook might be viewed as similar to many others which parents stash away as a keepsake of their childrens’ younger days. But, if we think for a moment about the kind of ‘childhood’ Oscar had, this precious document suggests something far more revealing. Taken by the police, raised by non-Aboriginal people, Oscar’s ‘childhood’ was likely not an especially positive one (though by no means unique) — and the scenes he sketched of the NMP going about their business of ‘dispersing’ Aboriginal people suggests a familiarity with brutality and violence that today we would not countenance children being exposed to (Figure 5).

Figure 5 Sketch numbered 32 in Oscar’s notebook, titled ‘Murderer hobbled to tree Troopers dispatching’.

The children of white officers are more frequently mentioned in written sources. The writer Henry Lamond, for instance, was the son of James Lamond (who served in the Force from 1875 until it was disbanded). When writing in 1949 for Walkabout Magazine, Lamond claimed that he was:

… born and reared among the N.M.P. My father was a sub-inspector in that corps … I was born in a police camp at Carl Creek, where the present homestead of Riversleigh Station now stands. I know of other sons and daughters of sub-inspectors of the N.M.P. The camp-sergeant, the only other white man in the camp, was frequently a married man. I distinctly remember the son of Camp-Sergeant Smith, at Battle Camp, on the Laura, in from Cooktown, N.Q.  My memory extends to the day that youngster put a spoon of caustic soda in his mouth, and my envious admiration of the bubbles he blew. The boys [i.e. troopers] were almost invariably married—or what passes for marriage with aboriginals. There is nothing cynical about that definition. They were devoted to their children, to any other children; but there are few dialects in the whole of N.Q. in which the word ”love” can be translated.

Henry was born on 13 June 1885 and educated at state schools, but must have spent his earliest days, and presumably at least some of his holidays, in NMP camps with his father. It was certainly whilst growing up in NMP camps and associating with NMP and other police officers that Henry learned to ride. In his own words:

… I’d broken a collarbone from a fall from a pony at Nigger Creek Police Station, now called Wingella [actually it’s Wondecla], out from Herberton, when I was seven years of age (Longreach Leader 29 October 1954, p24).

A more sobering, account comes from William Armit, Sub-Inspector at several camps in the far north of Queensland, including Dunrobin, Carl Creek, Bellenden Plains and Waterview. Health standards in any camp were questionable, especially when water supplies were running low, but the far north was particularly subject to fever-based illnesses associated with mosquito-borne viruses. In explaining his straightened financial circumstances, Armit told his superior officers that:

I have been very unlucky, having at different times buried four of my little children in the North, and I now ask you for this sum to enable me to meet my engagements as I have never had even a chance since 1875 of saving ever so little (QSA847000 1879 Letter from William Armit to Colonial Secretary 14 February, In letter 79/443, Mfilm 94583).

Other traces of children are to be found through excavation, although these material remains are equally silent on the specifics of who these children were. Excavations of a rubbish pit near the troopers’ huts at the Lower Laura (Boralga) camp recovered numerous toys, including a miniature cup and saucer from a doll’s tea set (Figure 6). Other artefacts from the Lower Laura camp included glass marbles, a toy pop gun and a porcelain doll’s head (Figure 7) and leg.

These objects sit somewhat uncomfortably beside and amongst the Snider bullets, alcohol bottle fragments, clay tobacco pipes and other detritus of adult NMP life, reminding us of the humanity and family life that was also a part of this deadly force.

Figure 6 Pieces of a children’s porcelain tea set recovered from excavations at the Lower Laura (Boralga) NMP camp, Cape York Peninsula (photographs by Leanne Bateman).
Figure 7 A porcelain doll’s head recovered from excavations at the Boralga NMP camp (photo by Lynley Wallis).


Kamp, K.A. 2001 Where have all the children gone? The archaeology of childhoodJournal of Archaeological Method and Theory 8(1):1–34.

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