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What did it mean to be identified as a 'half-caste' Aboriginal?

Diane Gardiner
Sebastian Gurciullo

The Public Record Office Victoria and the National Archives of Australia have recently published Footprints: The Journey of Lucy and Percy Pepper, a valuable resource on Indigenous people relevant to senior secondary History and other disciplines. The Public Record Office Victoria has produced a range of publications and online resources of interest to educators, and a number of these are suitable for introducing students to issues related to Indigenous studies.


Footprints: The Journey of Lucy and Percy Pepper follows the lives of one Aboriginal 'half-caste' family and provides an insight into their daily struggles. Their story is presented largely through transcripts of personal letters written by Percy and Lucy themselves in their own handwriting, as well as official letters written by public servants and other government documents. The original records can all be found in the archives of the Public Records Office Victoria, an astounding resource about the past history of Aboriginal Australians and their interactions with government and with the wider Australian community.

Imagine what your life would be like if government officials kept track of your every move and action, and could tell you where you had to live and work. Consider how you would manage to live an independent life if every time you negotiated a contract or made arrangements for work you had to gain the permission of a public servant. And in what way would your sense of identity and family be affected by a government body defining whether you were an Aboriginal, or a 'half-caste' who was no longer eligible to reside with your Aboriginal kin on an Aboriginal reserve? Many Aboriginal people in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Victoria had to negotiate these very situations.

Many Australians have now heard about the policies of child removal that resulted in the Stolen Generations, particularly following the recent apology by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on behalf of the Australian Parliament. What is not generally well known is the broader system of control and regulation and its impact on the daily lives of ordinary Aboriginal people.

Some of these policies were also responsible for separating families. Lucy and Percy Pepper and their children, for instance, did not fit the criteria to be considered 'Aboriginal' under the terms of the Aborigines Act 1915. Because this law defined them as 'half-caste', they could no longer reside at Lake Tyers Aboriginal Station with their extended family, and were expected to live and work in the mainstream community. The problem was that many Australians still saw 'half-castes' as being Aboriginal, and for this reason they were exposed to many of the same prejudices and discrimination that so-called 'full-blood' Aboriginal people experienced.

The story can provide a knowledge and understanding of Indigenous issues for students. In the Victorian context, Footprints contributes to VELS Discipline-Based Learning – History, Indigenous History, Interdisciplinary Learning – Communication, and Physical, Personal and Social Learning – Civics and Citizenship, Health and Physical Education. Students can investigate the various Acts that governed the lives of Aboriginal people in Victoria and elsewhere and their effects on Aboriginal civil rights. The book graphically illustrates the day-to-day impact on the lives of those people who were required to live on the missions. It demonstrates the effects that these various regulations still had on Aboriginal people in Australia in the 1930s.

The letters and other documents in the book also give us an insight into Lucy Pepper's long battle with tuberculosis, a disease of the lungs that was very common in the early twentieth century, particularly among the poor and underprivileged. Lucy's efforts to secure proper treatment and better living conditions for her health are scattered throughout the book, right up to her final months, many of which were spent tending her dying father at Lake Tyers Aboriginal mission station.

To visit her mother and father at Lake Tyers, Lucy Pepper had to apply to the government for permission. When her father, William Thorpe, was dying, Lucy was granted permission to stay at Lake Tyers with her family and help her mother look after him. After her father's death in 1923, Lucy's own condition worsened. Lucy was allowed to stay because of the severity of her tuberculosis, but the rest of her family was not permitted to remain on the station and were asked to leave. People who breached these rules could be severely punished, for instance by having visiting rights or rations curtailed.

These letters illustrate the many issues that Aboriginal families faced in early twentieth-century Victoria. The records will help students to understand the many ways in which various State laws affected the daily lives and civil rights of Aboriginal people. Students need to critically examine the official records. Who was writing the report? What was the source of an account? Were they carrying out government policies? Why were there so many letters between government officials and the Aboriginal mission stations across the State? How do records demonstrate Indigenous people were not ‘voiceless’ in their acceptance of what was happening on the mission stations? Why were there so many health issues facing these mission families?

Like many other Aboriginal men of his generation, Percy Pepper volunteered himself for service during World War I. His service record, which has been reproduced in colour in Footprints, tells us many details about his enlistment, training, active service and subsequent discharge. Despite making this sacrifice for his country, Percy Pepper returned to Australia to find that he and other returned Aboriginal servicemen still did not have the full set of rights enjoyed by ordinary Australian citizens.

The book also contains many family photographs, kindly provided by Lucy and Percy Pepper's descendant Auntie Rita Watkins. These photographs provide further insights into the Peppers' lives. For instance, a photograph taken around 1920 of Percy and his son Phillip seated on a racing bike reveals their mutual interest in cycling. As we discovered while writing the book, Percy actually ran a bicycle agency at a store in Tynong, not far from the Koo-Wee-Rup soldier settlement block that Percy farmed during the early 1920s. The family also supplied us with a photograph of this store.

There has been an overwhelming demand from the Aboriginal community to know more about their records and other information that is available to them. Footprints adds to a range of resources about government records held by PROV and NAA. These resources include publications such as Finding Your Story, My Heart Is Breaking and the Bringing Them Home Name Index (the KIN project, planned to be published online in late 2008). The PROV online exhibition Tracking the Native Police consists of four episodes about the Port Phillip Native Police Corp from 1837–1853. It tells the story of a group of Aboriginal men recruited from the area around Melbourne who were employed to police the surrounding countryside on horseback. All these resources help Aboriginal people retrace family and community connections and history. They also provide students with a poignant insight into Aboriginal history and how they were denied their civic rights.

Archives are becoming an important resource for tracing Indigenous histories and exploring the individual lives of those who lived on the missions. Hopefully through reading and considering the original records held in archives students will gain a greater understanding of Aboriginal communities of the past. They will learn how they have participated in and contributed to the Victorian – and Australian – identity.

An order form to purchase Footprints can be downloaded from the following URL:



For your interest: newspaper articles about the book

Shauna Mallia, 'Book documents history of half-castes: Harsh reality of a life in limbo', Latrobe Valley Express, 19 May 2008, p 2.

'Footprints of another time', Koori Mail, 18 June 2008, p 50.

Key Learning Areas

Studies of Society and Environment

Subject Headings

Aboriginal peoples
Social justice
Social life and customs