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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Melrose Desmond (Des) Donley (1914–2011)

by Malcolm Brown

Des Donley, a mixed-race Aboriginal taken from his mother in infancy and sent to foster families and ''homes'' in Queensland in the time of the disastrous ''stolen generation'' policy, spent much of his life hitting back. At 18, after enduring punishing working conditions – 16 hours a day, seven days a week for four years – he told an Ipswich dairy farmer what he could do with his job.

The moment was pivotal because the four years of wages kept in trust for him proved extraordinarily difficult to get. His fight for withheld wages was taken up on behalf of many and eventually the governments involved were obliged to pay out, however mean the payouts were.

Melrose Desmond Donley was born in a Salvation Army home in Breakfast Creek, in suburban Brisbane, on December 23, 1914. He was removed from his Aboriginal mother, Annie Donley, at six months and never saw her. He grew up not knowing he had any Aboriginal blood at all. It was only when he was 60 that he discovered the truth. He found out who his mother was but she died before he could see her again. His white father he never met. ''I'm a Koori man denied my heritage twice over,'' he once said.

For Donley, life as a foster child and inmate of Salvation Army homes was harsh. Under the prevailing policy, mixed-race children were to be given education until 14 and then put out to work. Assigned to the dairy farm outside Ipswich, Donley was told his pay would be deposited in a trust fund held by the Queensland government and he could access it at 21. He started on 6 shillings a week, increased to 8 shillings in his second and third years and in his final year it was 13 shillings a week. But it was still only a quarter of the basic wage. After breaking away at 18, he went to Brisbane and moved from job to job, scraping a living during the Depression. He was sacked a few times for asking for a pay rise or standing up for fellow workers. When he met a man who was both a trade unionist and a communist, he responded quickly. Never having had a family, he saw the Building Workers Industrial Union as one. Now a communist, he became a union delegate. ''I was a battler and I became a battler for the battlers,'' he said. ''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.''

During World War II, Donley was conscripted into the Civil Construction Corps. He married ''a woman called Marge'', according to his later family, and they had a son. The couple divorced. In 1949, Donley married Rita Samuel, an employee in the hotel industry, whom he met during a protest rally at the Sydney Domain. He stayed for the rest of his working life in the building industry in Queensland and NSW.

In later life, Donley took up the issue of the withheld wages. He was one of thousands of indigenous Australians who, historians said, had had their wages, social security benefits, soldiers' pay and other earnings controlled by governments but had never collected them. Donley estimated what he was owed was £82, 4 shillings, plus overtime, weekend penalties and decades of interest.

The government resisted. In 1992 it offered a one-off gratuity to claimants. But there was a cap of $4000 and those taking the money had to waive rights to further compensation. Donley rejected the offer. He noted that Federal MP Leo McLeay got $65,000 compensation for falling off a bike.

Approaches to the Queensland Department of Families, Youth and Community Care brought this response: ''Unfortunately, the file on Mr Donley is no longer in existence and the only surviving departmental information is from the index card system ... your request will be forwarded to the Queensland Treasury who hold the records of the unclaimed moneys.'' Queensland Treasury had records of unclaimed money going back just to 1940.

Last year, the Queensland government did give Donley a gratuity but bound him to a clause of confidentiality. Aboriginal activist Dennis O'Brien said Donley got $52,000.

Des Donley is survived by his sons Roger, Peter, Archie, Phillip and John, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. A memorial service will be held for him at Kurnell National Park at 10am tomorrow.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Donley, Melrose Desmond (Des) (1914–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


23 December, 1914
Breakfast Creek, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


4 February, 2011 (aged 96)
New South Wales, Australia

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