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Audio May O'Brien recalls school at the Mount Margaret Mission, 2008

TLF ID R10099

This is an edited sound recording of an interview with Western Australian Aboriginal educator and author May O'Brien. She gives an account of the police practice of removing Aboriginal children from their families in line with government policies of the time. She recalls being fearful as a child of being removed and taken to the Moore River Native Settlement north of Perth. She says that instead she was taken to the Mount Margaret Mission at Laverton. O'Brien describes her limited access to education and her love of learning. She says she was inspired by her uncle's desire for her to learn to read and understand 'what the white man is saying about us'. This recording was made in November 2008.

Educational details

Educational value
  • In the interview May O'Brien (1933-) gives an account of what it was like to be an Aboriginal child in a remote area of WA in the 1930s and 1940s. When she talks about police 'sneaking round our camps to try and catch me', she is talking about the late 1930s and the government policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families. She describes being sent to the Mount Margaret Mission and speaks favourably of her experience at the Mission school. She lived at the Mission and went to its school during the 1940s.
  • During O'Brien's early childhood, WA Government policy for some years had been to separate some Aboriginal children from their families and then to try to 'assimilate' people of part-Aboriginal descent into non-Aboriginal society. As the child of an Aboriginal mother and a European father, O'Brien could have been forced to go to the Moore River Native Settlement north of Perth, where other Aboriginal children were taken. Instead, she was sent to the Mount Margaret Mission.
  • O'Brien relates affectionate memories of the Mount Margaret Mission school. Located at Laverton, within the traditional lands of her Wongatha people, the Mission was established in 1921 by Australian Aborigines Mission. The founder, Rodolphe Schenk (1888-1969), aimed to evangelise by making the Mission an attractive environment. He regarded education as a means of giving the Wongatha people 'a voice in their own land'.
  • In this recording O'Brien outlines her great desire to learn to read and write once she had begun living at Mount Margaret Mission. She says her desire to learn was prompted in part by an uncle who was a traditional law man. He had urged her to learn to read so she could tell her people what was being written about them in English.
  • O'Brien, who was born in the eastern goldfields region of WA, began her formal education in 1940, when at the age of 7 she was taken from the bush to live at the Mount Margaret Mission. In 1949 she went to Perth Girls' High School, and in 1954 she became WA's first female Aboriginal teacher. She later held senior positions in the WA Department of Education and on national advisory bodies on Indigenous programs.
  • O'Brien's contribution to improving Indigenous education in WA and other parts of Australia has been recognised with a number of awards, including the British Empire Medal in 1977, the John Curtin Medal in 1998 and the Centenary Medal in 2001. In 1984 O'Brien was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to study Indigenous education programs in the USA and Canada, and she represented Australia at the Second World Conference on Women, convened by the UN and held in Denmark in 1980.

Other details

  • Publisher
  • Date of contribution: 20 Sep 2013
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia
  • Address: Melbourne VIC 3000 Australia
  • URL:
  • Copyright holder
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia
  • Address: Melbourne VIC 3000 Australia
  • URL:
  • Remarks: Copyright Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Content provider
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia
  • Address: Melbourne VIC 3000 Australia
  • URL:
  • Author
  • Date of contribution: 2008
  • Name: May O'Brien
  • Remarks: speaker
Access profile
  • Colour independence
  • Device independence
Learning resource type
  • Sound
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  • © Education Services Australia Ltd, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements.