Neck chains were still being used on Aboriginal people in Western Australia in 1958. Witnesses at Halls Creek in the Kimberley reported seeing Aboriginal prisoners chained to a veranda post of the police station for weeks at a time.
It was a common and systematic, though largely informal, practice for horse-mounted police to capture and detain Aboriginal people, including women and children, and remove them from pastoral stations. Their presence threatened the expansion of the cattle industry. At peak periods, from the 1880s to the 1940s, hundreds of Aboriginal people were chained for alleged cattle theft, and marched out of their country, some for up to 400km. Each neck piece weighed 2.4kg. At times they were chained to a ring in the floor.
Neck chains were usually fastened with Yale or Hiatt padlocks. But prior to 1905, prisoners from Wyndham had their neck chains fastened with “iron split links” that were difficult to remove. The links were not police issue but purchased privately from an ironmonger in Perth. They could only be opened, according to police records, “with a hammer and a chisel with the prisoner’s head on a blacksmith’s anvil”. The process could take up to 10 minutes.
The reason for the use of neck chains was simple: financial expediency. There were so few police in such enormous areas of Western Australia – the largest police jurisdiction in the world – and early jails were so rundown that prisoners often escaped. There was periodic criticism of the practice of chaining when cases came to public light.
Kimberley locals complained that city Perth people 3,500km away had no idea of the conditions they worked in. Neck chaining was considered the “most effective and humane” way of restraining prisoners as it “left their hands free”. Police authorities supported their use and influential pastoralists endorsed their use to get Aboriginal people off their cattle stations.
However, in 1905, the infamous Dr Walter Roth’s royal commission on the condition of the natives exposed WA to worldwide criticism about the ill-treatment of Aboriginal people. While police regulations allowed ankle chains in jail, there were no such regulations regarding neck chains. These would remain on the prisoners for the period of their sentence despite there being no legal authority allowing the practice. This was, one senior government witness told Roth, an “informally accepted practice of the last 30 years”.
Following the Roth report, neck chains were banned. When the public furore had died down, expediency prevailed and they were reinstated – just one year later, in 1906.
But it was not only Aboriginal people on pastoral stations who were neck-chained. In the 1880s, men and women around Broome who were kidnapped, enslaved or “blackbirded” and forced to dive for pearl shells, were also chained. In the 1930s people around Wyndham suspected of suffering from leprosy (Hansen’s disease) – were chained and walked 500km to be incarcerated at Bungarun, the Derby Leprosarium.
The system of punitive control of Aboriginal people was ingrained and revealed in other episodes in 1953 and 1954. These accounts are taken from the State Records Office of WA.
In May 1953 at Moola Bulla station, a government-run pastoral station that included a school for Aboriginal children, an 11-year-old boy reported that schoolmaster Robert Johnson told the children they had been “playing around too much” so Johnson put them in neck chains in a standing position. These remained on for hours until one of the children’s fathers came along, went “wild” and demanded their removal. The witness revealed this was not an isolated event: he had seen three other boys, one nine years old and the other two only six, also neck chained. Johnson was subsequently sacked.
The intent of this barbaric punishment was clear: misbehave and you too, like your parents and grandparents, will end up on the chain. Neck chains were abolished in late 1958 following national and international condemnation, especially from the clergy and unions, and the advent of police vans with lockups. But for the small children at Moola Bulla this did not come quickly enough.
Dr Chris Owen from the University of Western Australia was a researcher on massacre sites in WA on behalf of the University of Newcastle’s Colonial Frontier Massacre Map Project and is the author of Every Mother’s Son Is Guilty: Policing the Kimberley Frontier of Western Australia 1882-1905
The Killing Times is based on data from the Colonial Frontier Massacre Digital Map Project led by Prof Lyndall Ryan at the University of Newcastle’s Centre for the 21st Century Humanities