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Aboriginal Australian advocate, Des Donley (1914-2011), was in residential care, foster care, and a work placement as a child.

Melrose Desmond Donley was born to Annie Georgina Donley in a Salvation Army home in Breakfast Creek, an inner Brisbane suburb. A member of the Stolen Generations, Des was removed from his mother at the age of six months and made a ward of the (Queensland) state. He was first placed in the government run Diamantina Orphanage in Brisbane before going in and out of foster care where he was exploited:

…doing messages, getting pot meat from the local slaughter house, to feed the fowls, gather eggs, plus washing and drying dishes twice daily (Donley, 2006).

At the age of 10, Des was sent to a Salvation Army orphanage in Brisbane.All I got was a primary education. I couldn’t read or write when I left school,” Des told The Guardian, in an interview in 2003, when speaking about the importance of education. The Salvation Army home was an education – scrubbing floors on my knees, a slave to them” (Guardian, 2011).

At the age of fourteen, Des was sent out by the state to work on a farm in Ipswich, 47 km southwest of Brisbane.

On the farm, Des worked long hours without pay:

The hours I worked were from 03:30am till 09:00pm, or sometimes 10:00pm, 365 days a year, with no time off. I never saw an inspector the whole time I was under State care.

…During the day, between milking, I did a man’s job ploughing, and general work in the boiling sun…I had to hang my clothes on a nail, and sleep on an iron bedstead which sagged in the middle, with a chaff bag for a mattress and a sugar bag filled with saw material for a pillow (Donley, 2007).

Four years of wages (at a quarter of the basic wage) were supposed to be kept in trust for Des, but it was not until 1992, after advocacy by Des on behalf of himself and others, that he was offered a one-off payment of $4000, which he rejected. A sum of approximately $52,000 was offered by the Queensland Government and accepted by Des in 2010, along with which he was required to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

As a young man struggling through the Great Depression, Des joined the Building Workers Industrial Union and the Communist Party, organisations which became a family for him. He also became a union delegate.

I was a battler and I became a battler for the battlers. If it wasn’t for the unions, I would have finished up on the scrap heap, with no hope and no future. You could say, the trade union movement and the Communist Party helped me slip through the net (Brown).

During the Second World War, Des was conscripted into the Civil Constructional Corp (CCC) which had been set up in April 1942 to supply workers for infrastructure projects carried out by the Allied Works Council. He continued in the building industry in Queensland and NSW for the rest of his working life.

Des wasn’t aware of his Aboriginal heritage until he was in his sixties, and it then took until he was in his seventies before he established who his parents were. His mother had died just two weeks before he learned who and where she was. He never met his father, a white man.

On his death in 2011, Des Donley was survived by four sons, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.


Brown, Malcolm. “Donley, Melrose Desmond (Des) (1914-2011).” Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian Dictionary of Biography, 

“Desmond (Des) Melrose Donley.” Guardian. The Workers’ Weekly, no. 1488, (2011).

“Diamantina Orphanage (1865-1910).” Find and Connect, 2021. 

Donley, Melrose Desmond. “Submission into Inquiry into Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage.” Legislative Council, Standing Committee on Social Issues, Sydney: 2007. Available here.

“Donley, Melrose Desmond. Correspondence”. Senator Bartlett, Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee. Department of the Senate, Canberra: 2006.

Gibson, Joel. “Give us back our money.” Sydney Morning Herald, 15 December 2007.

“The Salvation Army Australia (Eastern Territory) (1885- ).” Find and Connect, 2021.