Lousy Little Sixpence: 'Pretty frocks'

Lousy Little Sixpence: 'Pretty frocks'
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
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Flo Caldwell, born 1910, from Ulgundarhi Reserve and Violet Shea, born 1912, talk of their experience of schooling on the reserve and being selected by the Protection Board inspector for cheap labour. Summary by Romaine Moreton.

Lousy Little Sixpence has an historical place in Indigenous film as an educational piece that preserves the life stories of many Indigenous people – now elders – who were procured by the missions to enter the workforce and become servants to wealthy white families.

The issue of stolen wages is ongoing – the withheld wages earned by those indentured Indigenous workers, who contributed to the Australian economy without any financial reward, remains unaddressed to this day. So this is an important film that offers a background to the present struggle for the very generations depicted in this film to receive the wages that were supposedly held in trust for them. In December 2006, a Senate Committee inquiry recommended that 'Indigenous claimants are fully compensated for monies withheld from them’. It further noted, 'The committee is concerned that establishing a national inquiry or a Royal Commission into stolen wages will not directly resolve the stolen wages issue and will only delay actions taken by state and territory governments to address these issues. The advanced age and ill-health of many potential claimants means that the expeditious resolution of claims must be a priority. It is time to resolve this issue’.

It is quite incredible to listen to the testimonies of Indigenous elders born in the early 1900s – their reflections and personal accounts of what it meant to be administered by the Aborigines Protection Board, removed from their families and sent to work in cities. The work of Jack Patten is documented in this film, and his participation in the establishment of the Australian Aborigines Progressive Association (APA), which was invested in dismantling the Aborigines Protection Board, as well as fighting for and attaining citizen’s rights for all Indigenous peoples.

Lousy Little Sixpence is an influential film in highlighting the injustice of withheld wages, and the fight for the rightful payment to be made to Indigenous peoples of that generation or their families.


Lousy Little Sixpence synopsis

A documentary using historical footage and interviews with Indigenous people who belonged to the generation that were forced into unpaid servitude by the Australian government. The title refers to the amount of pocket money the indentured workers were supposed to be given – but never received – while their wages were managed by their 'employers’, on behalf of the Aborigines Protection Board.

Notes by Romaine Moreton


Education notes

This clip shows Flo Caldwell, Violet Shea and Bill Reid telling of their experiences of schooling on Aboriginal reserves in New South Wales and of the removal of children at age 13. Caldwell and Shea from Ulgundahi Island Reserve on the Clarence River describe their lack of education and both Caldwell and Reid from the Pilliga Reserve in north-west NSW recall an inspector coming to identify who was to be removed. Caldwell tells of how the reserve manager tried to dupe her into agreeing to go. The clip includes newsreel footage, photographs, narration and music.

Educational value points

  • Indigenous children on reserves were not permitted to attend the NSW public schools open to non-Indigenous children; instead they attended poorly equipped reserve schools staffed by inexperienced or poorly qualified teachers. The children were educated to no more than grade three level as white society believed the only work they were capable of doing was as domestic servants or labourers. Reid received two years of schooling, Caldwell and Shea next to nothing.
  • Under the Neglected Children and Juvenile Offenders Act of 1905, the NSW Aborigines Protection Board (APB) had the power to remove Indigenous children from reserves without parental consent or a court order and to assign them to white employers as servants or labourers under an 'apprenticeship’ scheme that operated until 1969. Caldwell and Shea worked as domestic servants and Reid worked as a labourer, ringbarking trees and cutting burrs.
  • Fundamental to the operation of the scheme were the annual visits of Board inspectors to all NSW reserves to identify which children would be taken to be ‘apprenticed’. Parents would hide their children or advise them not to volunteer any information. The contemptuous attitude of one inspector towards the children is implied by Reid’s account of his scattering boiled lollies on the ground as if the children were chickens to be fed. Boiled lollies at that time were not wrapped.
  • As Caldwell recalls, APB officials would try to persuade parents to allow their children to be removed, but if that failed the police were at hand to physically remove the children. Parents could appeal the decision to remove their children in court but most Indigenous people did not have access to the necessary legal representation.
  • Essentially, the ‘apprenticeship’ scheme was designed to benefit white employers as the children were paid the paltry wage of one shilling and sixpence a week, sixpence of which they were allowed to keep – the 'lousy little sixpence’ of the documentary’s title. The APB claimed that the children’s welfare was best served by assimilation into white society and that it was protecting the girls especially from non-Indigenous men who preyed on women on the reserves.
  • Until recently the experiences of Indigenous Australians have largely been left out of the history books, so oral accounts, historical footage and photographs such as these fill gaps in the historical record. The film combines these elements to depict life on reserves and the treatment of Indigenous people on them in the early part of the 20th century.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia


Production company:
Sixpence Productions
Alec Morgan, Gerry Bostock
Alec Morgan
Music director:
Ralph Schneider

This clip starts approximately 10 minutes into the documentary.

We see old footage of children in an Aboriginal reserve. Flo Caldwell and Violet Shea are being interviewed.
Flo Caldwell It was one-road little place and they done out a desk, four on each side, you know four on this side and four on that side and we didn’t have an education because most of the time the teacher would be at his place having a cup of tea or he would be sleeping out on the front verandah.
Violet Shea And asking you to take over.
Flo He used to ask me to teach the children and I knew nothing and I’d be walking around in front of the class with a cane and they’d say to me ‘oh, you think you’re somebody great’ and I’d give them a whack with the cane if they were giving me cheek, because I was the teacher and ah, so anyhow, I’m really self-taught.
Violet We both are. We just taught ourselves.
Flo Self-taught. I never really learnt anything at school.

We see an old photograph of one of the Protection Board Inspectors.
Narrator Protection Board Inspectors travelled to reserves throughout the State to pick out children who had reached the age of 13 and have them sent into the control of white employers.
Bill Reid Yes, Mr Donaldson we used to call him was the — we used to call him ‘superintendant’ — he was an inspector. He used to come once a year to the mission and the parents didn’t want him to know a lot of things and we’d be warned to be pretty careful of the many questions that he asked us and how we’d answer. I remember he used to come out with a great bag full of boiled lollies and after he’d finished speaking to us in the classroom, he’d walk to the door, get us all out into the yard and throw the lollies out onto the ground, as if we were fowls, feeding fowls.

We see old footage of the visits. A title card reads ‘The children enjoy the visit of the Minister and his … gifts of lollies, toys, etc.’
Flo We used to hide in the sugar cane when he came. While we were in the sugar cane we had a feed of sugar cane because we had strong teeth then but he picked the girls that he wanted sent away. Then one day he came on, it was just after that when Mr Howard brought the police over one Saturday and they asked my mother would she agree to send me down to Sydney. He told me that I’d have pretty frocks and I would be going to parties, and all that kind of thing, and I knew he was telling lies, even at that age I wasn’t stupid.