Chapter 5: Education at Raukkan: The Taplin Inheritance 1879 - 1901 Economies in the Western world rapidly industrialised in the late nineteenth century, pulling along education systems with them. Although three or four years’ schooling, to the age of twelve or thirteen, was seen as sufficient at the time of their compulsory education legislation, by the turn of the century in most countries, pressure had mounted for a more extended curriculum, and for more focussed but still basic secondary education, at least for those who were considered to be able to benefit from it.
Debate then raged over whether working class children, and girls in particular, should have access to this extra education, since what would be the point of providing expensive, and probably irrelevant, education for children whose needs would never rise above those required for basic industrial or domestic work – and in any case, they would be out of school entirely in a year or so. A sort of historic compromise was eventually reached about 1913, under which working class children would receive a more practical curriculum in technical high schools, designed to be relevant for those who would never rise, or rise very far, above their class position.
In the 1880s, Roseworthy Agricultural College and the School of Mines and Industries were established, to provide the specialist agricultural and industrial skills for the elite and brighter middle class students. The University of Adelaide was, of course, more or less reserved for the male children of the most privileged families. Between the three institutions, education for the future leadership of South Australian society seemed assured.
Agricultural innovation in South Australia was well-known: the expense of labour impelled the development of labour-saving machinery and techniques: mullensing (the dragging of a heavy log over mallee country, rather than laboriously cutting it down, burning the felled scrub, and then planting crops around the stumps) and the stump-jump plough had been perfected by the 1860s and, along with the railways, opened up huge areas of marginal land, both developments combined having the effect of increasing the average size of farm blocks without increasing the need for more labour (Williams, 1969: 47).
The paddle steamers – up to ninety of them on the Murray by the 1880s – reached right up into northern New South Wales, as far as Bourke and Brewarrina, tapping the transport of wool for the river and lake ports, and even the transport of copper ore from the mines at Cobar, one hundred and fifty miles inland from Wilcannia on the Darling. However, river levels were often low, and in any case the development of a railway from Sydney to Bourke in 1885 brought this trade to an abrupt halt (Heathcote, 1965: 65, 126). Similarly, railways tapping southern New South Wales and northern Victoria killed off the Murrumbidgee and Murray trade for the South Australian steamers. The lower Murray towns went into a steeper decline than ever.
Simultaneously, mixed farming replaced the broad-acre cereal farming around Milang and the Strathalbyn plains: dairying, orchards and stud properties required even less unskilled labour than ever, although the skills required to operate such ventures were rapidly expanding. In the mid-1880s, the development of workingmen’s blocks, subdivisions of former pastoral leases, brought many more small farmers to most parts of Ngarrindjeri country, from the Inman Valley across to Milang and Cooke’s Plains and to Meningie, including the northern part of the Narrung Peninsula (Linn, 1988: 147).
Nor did the pace of development slow down, even with depressions and slumps in the 1880s. As Williams notes,
The decades of the 1880s and 1890s were another period of reassessment and experiment, with fertilisers, new wheat breeds, new legumes and dry farming techniques which proceeded the thrust into the mallee lands… This sequence of pause, reassessment and thrust is almost a recurrent pattern in the spread of settlement in South Australia. (1969: 47)
In a later work, Williams writes (1974: 16-17):
By the late nineteenth century, Christianising, civilizing and colonising lost much of their appeal: the aborigines had been swept under the carpet of the Reserves and were ‘protected’ from civilization, but in the rural areas something of the previous attitudes was preserved in the aims of ‘development’, ‘progress’ and the population of the Australian continent, all stimulated by the new concept of social Darwinism.
Towards the end of the century, many of these factors were coming together to transform the South Australian countryside, superficially along the lines of the originally-envisaged landscape of independent small farms, but using more intensive farming techniques, improved seed, fertilisers, the use of trace elements, dry farming, specialised technology and with access to easier credit. These developments were accelerated by the break-up of large freehold estates with Closer Settlement after 1895 (Williams, 1974: 56; Meinig, 1963: 121). However, in the drier country, as Meinig described in detail, :
… [the] pioneer on the wheat frontier in SA, as in all the “new” lands of the time, was working within an entirely different context [from the image of the small, freehold farm of a sturdy, independent yeoman]. He had no emotional ties to his land … it had been purchased  it was not a legacy but an investment. … He farmed not as a member of an intimate, stable, localised society, but as a member of a world-wide, dynamic, competitive society. … a generation of experience had proved that in these precarious sub-humid lands under intensive competitive conditions [crops] had to be grown on each farm by the hundreds instead of tens of acres. Labor, not land, was the scarce factor, and a whole array of new, enlarged, and efficient machinery now allowed a whole new scale of agriculture. … And the railroad, the great instrument of regional specialisation, was basic to it all. (Meinig, 1963: 120-121)
For the landless labourers, especially for the original owners of all the land, these developments spelled hard times ahead: unless they could gain access to a much broader range of skills, they would be condemned to a rapidly shrinking sector of the economy: that of farm labourer, shearer, seasonal worker and domestic servant. For white people in this situation, one option was available which was not open to Aboriginal people: to move to where both training and a greater variety of jobs were available, namely the city. But an tacit policy constrained Aboriginal people to the countryside, and therefore to the rural economy, on the grounds that cities would corrupt them, and in any case, their natural environment was the country, or the ‘bush’. Thank goodness people don’t think like this any more:
… these years in South Australia mark a distinctive phase: the days of heavy, slow hand labour and “peasant agriculture” were past, the days of science and power machinery lay just ahead.’ (Meinig, 1963: 210)
Point McLeay in the Aftermath of George Taplin
When Fred Taplin took over his father’s role as superintendent, minister, medical provider and relief-teacher, he was barely twenty five. His position as farm supervisor was taken by his brother-in-law Richard Blackwell, who was to succeed him as superintendent for a short time, until his own death. Fred took over a lease of 4,200 acres (1,750 hectares), a well-equipped village of one hundred and fifty to two hundred people, with its own boat, a store, school, wheat-fields, flocks of sheep and a herd of cattle, horses, sheds, and extensive plant. The mainly young men who did most of the work around the mission had experience across the board in rural labour, from horse-breaking to baking, and from operating the boat to wool-baling.
Inexorably, the community was shaping itself and changing the nature of Ngarrindjeri society in the process. As well, it was moving towards self-sufficiency, partly intended, partly as a necessary consequence of the contraction of outside opportunities. This turning inwards was eventually to have devastating consequences for the motivation and aspirations of generations of children.
Fred Taplin was dogged for the next ten years by accusations of improper conduct: such an accusation is rumoured to have caused his father’s early death, and another would follow him beyond the grave. In late 1879, a Meningie stockowner, Walter Richman, laid a complaint against Fred which kept him busy in court for a year. As well, another complaint, perhaps the one which had caused so much stress for George Taplin, was laid by John Wilson before the AFA, who dismissed it, and ordered John Wilson off the Mission: because of his removal, his children were not allowed to attend school at Point Mcleay for some time.
Amongst the children listed in 1879 was Pinkie Karpani, aged eight. Later that year, Ophel’s salary was raised to £ 100 per year, after an inspection by the Secretary of the AFA, Rev. Cox:
The Rev. F.W. Cox visited the mission station in August last, and reports that everything was in fair working order as he could see throughout the institution. In the school the order and intelligence of the children would be a matter of surprise to those who have formed a low opinion of the ability of the native race.
‘In some departments the work of the children would bear favourable comparison with that seen in the best schools in Adelaide, especially the writing in plain and ornamental hands.
‘The reading of the children in the ordinary school lesson books shewed an amount of knowledge on matters quite beyond their own experience that proved careful teaching on the one part, as well as ready minds on the other. (AFA Report, 1880).
In 1880, the unfortunate Fred was again accused of improper conduct, this time by a young mother named Esther Butler, who had known him rather well at Naracoorte a couple of years earlier (perhaps this is the complaint which brought down his father!). Fred demonstrated that he could not have been the father of her child and the charge was dismissed (AFA Minutes, 7.8.80, 6.9.80).
By this time, Point McLeay was valued at £ 3,554, or $ 1.5 million in today’s prices. The population seemed to have stabilised at about one hundred and forty. Rabbit plagues were spreading across the country, providing some employment for trappers: sixty thousand were caught in one year at Wellington Lodge (Linn, 1988: 125).
Report of Superintendent, Point McLeay: ‘Those of the natives who have been trained to habits of industry and usefulness at the institution, continue to obtain what employment they can amongst the squatters and farmers around us, the overseers at some of the shearing-sheds showing a marked preference for native shearers…’
‘The attendance of children at school has been rather above the average of former years, the natives generally exhibiting an increased desire to obtain for their children the advantages of the institution.’
‘The boys and girls are put to work, as they attain the age of fourteen or fifteen years, at whatever employment there is about the station suited to their ability, the boys showing more or less aptitude at learning farm or station work under the tuition of our overseer, and the girls domestic duties under the care of the schoolmistress.’
Protector’s Reports: SAGG, 12.2.1880, pp. 544
The new superintendent was markedly different from the old: from his letters, Fred appears to have been much less dedicated, more flighty – perhaps just younger – more interested in gadgets (photography, the newly invented telephone) and less in the Lord, more in the pleasures of youth and less in the burdens of responsibility: in July, 1880, he wrote to Mr Blackwell of Milang, ‘[I] long for the company of friends instead of gloomy Mr. O.’ And later he wrote to his wife in Adelaide: ‘Have sent cheque for £4 … Don’t elope with it and go on the spree.’ Not that he was unaware of his failings: a year later he wrote to Cox, that he
doubts with sorrow as to whether anything is gained by anxious care and tedious patience exercised in dealing with a stupid and ungrateful people. … I realise more and more what my father endured. I am young and inexperienced in human nature and therefore I suppose susceptible to depression in a greater degree … ‘ (PMLB, 14.5.1881)
Traditional crafts were by now falling into disuse. Fred Taplin replied to a request, that it was ‘Not possible to get [boomerangs and waddies] from Narrinyeri as they do not make them now.’
In mid-1881, Albert Karloan approached Fred about becoming a deacon of the church. This encouraged Fred to revive the regular Deacons’ Meetings, which had lapsed after the death of his father. Little seems to have been discussed at these meetings, apart from praying and singing: an opportunity to involve the most forward-thinking of the young men in the running of the mission was thus wasted. However, such meetings continued until the late 1890s.
Fred seemed to go through the motions of tending to the religious needs of the local people. He wrote to a friend,
Things are going well but we long for greater spiritual success. We have 27 Native communicants and a young man with profound faith will be received to full communion in a few weeks. The consistency of our natives would bear favourable comparison with a similar number of whites on the same class. In 22 years, 68 natives have embraced Christianity, of which 26 have died, 12 have gone back, 3 have lapsed because of distance, leaving 27 on Church Roll.
He was as desultory in discussing the school and the mission generally:
The school is still a success - benefit of secular instruction as well as spiritual is recognised more fully generally. We have 34 children in school, 17 men working on the farm, building, fencing, fishing, harvesting, wool-scouring, road-making and general station work, e.g. repairs to works and buildings, fences, etc., and wood carting. (PMLB, 12.12.1881)
Ophel and visitors to the Point McLeay School were still favorably impressed by the children’s work: in 1881, even though he had classes of over fifty children, Ophel claimed that there was: ‘no need for severe discipline. Their behaviour would compare favourably with that of any like number of school children in the colony.’ As a visitor noted, their ‘work done will bear favorable comparison with the results obtained in the State Schools.’
In 1881, the Government agreed to allocate a grant of £ 1,000 [$ 400,000] towards the Mission. Fred Taplin and the AFA were becoming concerned that there were many single young men on the Mission, with little to do:
18 single men at mission. The want of some means of affording these young men with evening pastimes, either by reading, or some other innocent recreation, is felt, and it has been thought that a building might be erected at comparatively small cost, that would serve the purpose of Reading Room and Institute.
Such facilities were eventually constructed, in the 1890s.