Writing Never Arrives Naked: Early Aboriginal cultures of Writing in Australia (2006) by Penny van Toorn dispels the once popularly held belief that David Unaipon’s publication of Aboriginal legends in 1927 and 1929 were the first examples of Aboriginal writing. Van Toorn points out that Aboriginal people, first in the Sydney area and later in other parts of Australia, have been expressing themselves in writing for over two centuries.

She shows that although Aboriginal writing is couched in European forms and conventions, it can contain cultural references which have not been immediately obvious to western eyes. Amongst other things, she points out and deduces much from the fact that institutional control of Aboriginal people by missionaries and government in the 19th century was the agent for and a major source of Aboriginal writing.

The incorporation of Aboriginal people into another type of institution in the early 20th century – the Australian Army and within this the first AIF – was also a source of Aboriginal writing. This incorporation was voluntary and not associated with the coercion and domination which characterised the control of Aboriginal lives by government and missionary. In fact, Aboriginal men were excluded by the Defence Act from joining the AIF and their presence there was the result of less than rigorous interpretation of enlistment regulations. However despite this basic difference, the incorporation into the bureaucracy which was the Army, like that of mission and government stations, also created the circumstances which resulted in writing by Aboriginal people.

Although World War 1 service records did not form part of the spectrum of writings examined by van Toorn, the written interactions with the Army of Aboriginal servicemen and their relatives can also be interpreted. van Torn seeks and finds answers to the question  ‘How and why [an Aboriginal] individual at this point in their history acquired, conceptualised, organised and used their particular reading and writing practices in the manner they have’ [p. 11]. I seek to use Aboriginal writing in WW1 service records to locate personal details often lost or even unknown in the 21 st Century and as an unexpected source of both direct and indirect information about the writers and their families.

The writing in service records, like much of the writing from missions, was mostly directed to authorities asking for action or seeking information. It is generally formal and often deferential in character. Something which gives it additional value is that the letters and the notes with the attestation and official forms in a service record may be the only examples of writing by the serviceman or his relatives which survive – perhaps in some cases the only examples ever to exist.

Amongst documents in service records are letters from some well known Aboriginal men. Herbert Groves wrote about the disposal of the medals of his step brother, Ernest Williams and William Ferguson about one of his sons, Duncan. Another letter writer, James Bowen Budsworth, was the son of Kitty one of the first Aboriginal girls placed in Governor Macquarie’s Native Institution at Parramatta in 1814. It is possible to speculate that his strong writing skills stem directly from the training received by his mother. His many letters arise from the service in France of his son Roderick, who was first posted missing then recorded as killed in action. These letters mainly to AIF Base Records were written prior to and after the news of Roderick’s death – one even asking that thanks for a royal letter of sympathy be conveyed to the King. They are always formal and carefully courteous in expression but the content can be personal as in the physical description he provided to assist in his son’s identification and his reply to Base Records’ initial inquiry about his missing son:


The only information that I have received of my son Private R H Budsworth is herewith enclosed and which I trust you will return to me again when you have done with it.

My son never wrote to me since he sailed from Sydney. Excuse my carelessness in dropping ink on the paper

Yours faithfully

J B Budsworth  7 September 1917 

In addition linking the addresses in Roderick Budsworth’s service record with those in the WW1 records of other Budsworths, shows three generations of his family living together at the same location in Tamworth NSW.

Despite the formal nature of most letters, occasionally emotion breaks through. A number of letters were written to AIF Base Records and to the Minister for Defence by Mrs Darcy [Agnes] Webb, aunt of William Castles. She and her nephew were both descendants of Yarramundi, chief of the Boorooberongal clan of the Darug. One of these shows the grief and pain she was experiencing on learning of her nephew’s death after service in France:

I am writing to you in reference to my Poor Dear Nephew’s Death asking you if you could furnish me with the Particulars of his Death. The minister Mr. Johnson has brought me a Telegram today. My nephew W Castles No, 2507 54 Battalion Died at sea on the 23rd of last month … it left me hardly able to move with the shock I had received from the Rev Johnson. I would like you if you could to find out if my poor lad left me a Message or a Will  …  if the military would kindly forward the full particulars of his death and also his belongings as I would like to have them for a dear keep sake knowing my dear Nephew died through wounds fighting for his King and Country which he was eager to do. Trusting you will grant me this as I am his Aunt and Next of kin … for God’s Sake help me to get Something.

[undated letter to G Pearce Minister for Defence, received 13 Nov 1917]

Castles’ record also contains letters from his brothers Jack and Edward.

John Henry Alfred Coe’s service record contains a series of letters written by his widow and children about the disposal of his service medals, following his death in France in 1917. These letters reveal family relationships and the locations of family members in the post war period to the 1960s. Such information in letters is not uncommon in service records and of great value to later generations seeking to find out about their forbears. The value of letters like these in the service records of the Lock family is explored in The Lock Family in World War One: how service records contribute to Darug history.

A common source of correspondence was loss of a man’s discharge papers. The imperative to write was the fact that production of a discharge gave WW1 returned soldiers preference for employment. The information provided by men in the forms and letters often accompanying their requests for a replacement discharge also has something to say about the post war employment of Aboriginal men. A common reason for losing a discharge is that it was burnt in camp. This indicates occupation – itinerant work or droving – and often when compared with the place of birth or contact address in a service record, places an individual far from his own country. Born at Lake Condah, Victoria and enlisting at Healesville, David Mullett wrote letters from addresses at Bega and Bundure via Jerilderie in NSW in the 1920s and 30s and also indicated his attitude to his war service in his intention to take part in the Sydney Anzac day march of 1938. As well as movement, his letters show his circumstances and pension status.

While service records rarely include personal letters between individuals, one exception is the copy of a note to his friend in the 52nd Battalion, Dan (Denis Hampson) which accompanied the will of George Aitken. Aitken was killed six months later in Belgium on 19th October 1917. This shows the friendship between Aitken and his white mate and also gives an insight into the man himself and his resignation to the inevitability of death created by over a year’s service in France and Belgium.

2441 Pte. D T Hampson 5Reinforcements 52 Bn. On the date of February 10th 1917 From Jim

Just a little story of our friendship well Dan I can safely say that we are the only true mates there are in the world That’s a big word to say Well Dan if I gets nocked you can have anything you find on me that is any used to you and my allotted  money to be left to Mrs T Hampson. Show this to one of the heads don’t forget. only a pte. G. R. Aitken No 2367

Goodbye old man and good luck to you wishing you all sorts of luck to pull thorough this war we have been the very  best of mates and only one thing I wish that we could meet over other side of the world if there is any such place is that I don’t think I shall ever forget you Dan I will think of you when I am dead never used to say much to you when we used to nocked about together I was very funny like that anybody that I like never say much to Goodbye and old man good luck.

 The examples here are from only a few of the over 800 service records from WW1 so far identified as belonging to men of Indigenous heritage. Many of these records have yet to be investigated more closely. More letters and other communications in the records have the potential to yield valuable information about the men, their families and aspects of their Indigenous identity.

The service records of men of the first AIF have been digitised and can be read on the National Archives of Australia website.

Philippa Scarlett 6 February 2013

About Indigenous Histories

Author & Publisher of Australian history, art and culture.
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  1. Dear Indigenous Histories,

    I am researching Australian Great War poetry and need help. Do you know of any aboriginal poetry from the 1st World War? I am very interested in including any aboriginal contribution to poetry from this time. Indigenous poetry would be of tremendous value to my project.

    Dominic Sheridan

    • Dear Dominic
      I haven’t come across any WW1 poetry by Aboriginal soldiers – although some correspondence is known to exist but not much. I think there is likely to be more than we are currently aware of perhaps held by families or in communities. Attestations show that a proportion of Aboriginal men – as did some white men – simply signed with a cross or ‘his mark’. Educational opportunities were very limited for most Aboriginal men and this would have relevance to the existence of poems. Should I hear of any poetry I’ll be happy to let you know about it. I would be interested to learn more about your research and if it will be published.
      Philippa Scarlett

  2. Josie says:

    Hello! Really great article. Just wondering if you have ever come across any love letters or great love stories of Indigenous WWI soldiers? I’m especially interested in stories from Victoria. I know it’s a hard ask particularly because of all the harrows of war on top of the horrible way Indigenous people were treated at the time but I thought if anyone might be aware of some heartwarming stories it’d come from this blog!


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