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Indigenous Australia

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Archer, Caroline Lillian (1922–1978)

by B. A. Ballard

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Caroline Lillian Archer (1922-1978), telephonist and Aboriginal publicist, was born on 22 February 1922 at Cherbourg Aboriginal Reserve, near Murgon, Queensland, daughter of a White father Norman Brown and an Aboriginal mother Lillian Masso, later Fogarty. Caroline was raised under the supervision of the Queensland Department of Native Affairs which segregated people of Aboriginal descent on reserves. Her grandmother had been gaoled and then sent with her family from the Charters Towers region to Cherbourg when she refused to allow its members to be separated and the boys assigned to cattle-stations. As a child, Caroline suffered from malnutrition which left her with a permanent limp and continuing poor health. She was educated at the reserve school to fourth grade, a level considered sufficient for an Aboriginal girl. At 14 she was employed in domestic work by the Kay family of Whetstone station, near Inglewood, who paid her the equivalent of a White worker's wage and encouraged her to further her career.

Caroline moved to Brisbane, working in the 1940s at the Canberra Hotel and gaining switchboard skills. By the force of her own efforts she was able to gain full citizen's rights by obtaining exemption from the Acts regulating Aborigines: official approval was usually based on an examination of the applicant's conduct and standard of living. In 1950 she became the first Aboriginal trunkline operator employed by the Postmaster-General's Department in Brisbane. On 29 December 1951 at the Baptist City Tabernacle she married Frederick Frank Archer, an English-born aircraftsman and photographer. Forthright and independent, Mrs Archer developed a special interest in increasing an appreciation of Aboriginal culture among both White Australians and younger Aboriginal people. To provide an incentive for the practice of crafts and a training ground in business skills for young Aborigines, she opened an artefact shop at Surfers Paradise: the shop was named Jedda after the heroine in Charles Chauvel's film of 1955. Caroline became an early champion of the need to patent Aboriginal arts, crafts and designs to avoid commercial imitations.

An active member of the One People of Australia League—a multi-racial organization founded 'To weld the Coloured and White Citizens of Australia into one People'—Archer was its first Aboriginal executive-officer (1974) and later State president. She took a particular interest in reviving the Miss OPAL Quest and conducted a deportment course for Aboriginal models. An unsuccessful candidate for the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee in 1973, she was consciously 'middle of the road' in her views; she had little regard for radical solutions to racial issues and referred to herself as an 'Australian first and then an Aborigine'. Her close friend and sometime president of OPAL, Senator Neville Bonner, described her as a serene, well-groomed lady, with a 'barely controlled trace of mischief' and the tenacity of a bulldog.

Archer's deep concern for improved race relations led her to work for the Queensland Department of Education and later for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, Canberra: she addressed schools and other groups on aspects of Aboriginal culture. In 1977 she was awarded the Queen's jubilee medal. Survived by her husband, son and two daughters, she died from injuries sustained in a motorcar accident on 8 December 1978 near Coonabarabran, New South Wales, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • J. P. M. Long, Aboriginal Settlements (Canb, 1970)
  • C. D. Rowley, Outcasts in White Australia (Canb, 1971)
  • H. Radi (ed), 200 Australian Women (Syd, 1988)
  • OPAL, Mar-Apr 1973, p 7
  • AIA News, 4, no 1, Jan-Feb 1978, p 2
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 13 Nov 1970, 16 Nov 1973
  • F. F. Archer, notes on his wife Caroline (typescript, copy held in ADB file)
  • N. T. Bonner, Memoir of Caroline Archer, 1991 (manuscript, copy held in ADB file).

Citation details

B. A. Ballard, 'Archer, Caroline Lillian (1922–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 November 2020.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012