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Perkins, Charles Nelson (Charlie) (1936–2000)

Charles Perkins, 1974

Charles Perkins, 1974

National Archives of Australia,

PUBLICATION: Charles Perkins, A Bastard Like Me, Ure Smith, 1975, Sydney

SEX: Male

BIRTH DATE: C.1936-7

BIRTH PLACE: Alice Springs

FIRST LANGUAGE: English

SIGNIFICANT LOCALITIES:

  • Alice Springs: Charles was born on a table in the Alice Spring’s Telegraph Station (when it was the Half-caste Institution’. (p.7) The residents of the reserve were not allowed to enter Alice Springs at night, except to go to the movies on Saturdays. (p.8)
  • He lived in a mud hut in Alice Springs with his mother until they were forced to relocate to Rainbow Town, because it was illegal for Aboriginal people to live in Alice Springs at that time. (p.17) The Perkins then lived an old hut in Bath Street, Alice Springs during World War 2. (p.22)
  • When the Anglican Father Smith set up St. Francis hostel for Aboriginal boys in Adelaide, Charles was glad to be taken there because he felt that in Alice Springs ‘we were not doing too well’ (p.23), and he longed to see the ocean. (p.23)
  • Charles never returned to live in Alice Spring, but he paid frequent visits. On these trips, he was filled with conflicting emotions: a sense of belonging, as well as distance from, and anger at, the current social situation. (pp.26-27)
  • Rainbow Town: a settlement built for Aboriginal people outside of Alice Springs. Rainbow Town took its name from the different coloured people who lived there. (p.17)
  • Adelaide: Charles moved to the Adelaide suburb of Semaphore to live at the boys hostel (St. Francis) run by Father Percy Smith. (p.23)
  • Sydney: Charles moved to Sydney with Eileen after they married in 1961. (p.65)
  • Walgett: A town in Central New South Wales with a large Aboriginal population. Charles protested outside the Walgett RSL during the Freedom Rides, because it only accepted Aboriginal people on Anzac day. (p.76)
  • Moree: A country town in Northern New South Wales. (p.87) Charles and the other Freedom Ride activists blocked the entrance to the Moree swimming pool in 1965, in protest against their racist entrance policies: Aboriginal adults were banned from the pool, and their children were only allowed swim at certain times of the week. (p.88) Angry white residents attacked the activists, and the police tried to remove them from the entrance. Eventually, however, the protesters succeeded, and Aboriginal residents were allowed to use the pool. (p.89)
  • Canberra: Charles moved to Canberra in 1969 to work at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. (p.158)

INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL:

  • England: Charles travelled to England on an Italian liner when he was in his early twenties, to visit his friend Bob Orr. (p.41) He lived in Liverpool and Manchester long enough to pick up the local accent. (p.47)
  • Charles returned to England with his wife years later, and visited his old places of work. (p.128)
  • Hawaii: while working for the Foundation, Charles attended a conference in Hawaii on the topic of urban development. (p.111) He thought it a beautiful country, only slightly spoilt by American tourists. (p.112)
  • New Zealand: Charles travelled to New Zealand with his wife after resigning for the Foundation. (p.110) They lunched with the Australian High Commissioner and spent time visiting Maori townships. (p.112)
  • America: Charles and his wife travelled to a number of American cities, including New York, Chicago and Washington. They also travelled to New Mexico, and stayed in the Pueblo Indian town of Albuquerque. (p.113)
  • Charles liked the climate in New Mexico, which was similar to Alice Springs, but found it depressing to see American Indians suffering from alcoholism. (p.114) Regardless, he preferred visiting Indians reserves than American cities, because of his deep reservations about American culture and people. (p.118)
  • Switzerland: Charles attended a conference in Geneva about international development, and then toured Europe. (p.111)
  • Spain: Charles and his wife visited Spain with the intention of watching a bullfight. (p.132) They found the spectacle disturbing, and saw it as a poor reflection on the Spanish character. (p.132)
  • Germany: Charles and Eileen found Germany to be the most welcoming and clean country of those they visited in Europe. (p.134)
  • Italy: While in Rome Charles and Eileen visited many important historical and religious sites. He thought them physically beautiful, but a poor representation of Christian faith. (p.137)
  • India: Charles and Eileen flew from Europe to New Delhi. Charles had little respect for Indian people, and believes that too many are allowed to migrate to Australia. (p.139)

EXPERIENCES OF EDUCATION:

  • Charles first attended a segregated school on the [Telegraph Station] reserve. Schooling was optional for Aboriginal children, and the classroom environment was very poor. (p.17)
  • Charles was attending school in Alice Spring when he met Father Smith: an Anglican Priest with an interest in Aboriginal education. (p.22) Father Smith offered Charles a position at his hostel for mixed-race boys in Adelaide.
  • Charles was one of the first eight boys in the hostel. They attended a mainstream school in the Adelaide Hills, and found it difficult to fit in because of their circumstances and ethnicity. (p.29)
  • Charles’ only consolation was the company of his peers and the opportunities to play sport. (p.30) He boxed and played soccer, Rugby Union, Rugby League, Aussie Rules and cricket. (p.39)
  • Charles went on to study at Le Fevre Boys’ Technical School. He had little interest in school, and was asked to leave after failing every subject. (p.29)
  • Charles was restless at Marryatville, particularly after Father Smith left. (p.36) He was glad to leave the hostel and begin work at the age of fifteen. (p.36)
  • Charles was compelled to return to High School as an adult, because of his burgeoning interest in Indigenous affairs. He completed his matriculation in Sydney while playing soccer for the Pan Hellenic. (p.66)
  • After matriculating Charles enrolled in Sydney University. (p.71) He initially struggled to keep up with his classes, but worked tirelessly to become the first Aboriginal person in Australia to graduate from University. (p.74)

EXPERIENCES OF EMPLOYMENT:

  • As a child living in Alice Springs, Charles made pocket money by collecting coins dropped by American Servicemen outside the theatre. (p.22) He also helped his busy mother around the home, by scrubbing floors and peeling potatoes. (p.22)
  • At the age of fifteen Charles moved out of the hostel in Marryatville and began an apprenticeship as a fitter and turner. (p.36) He was paid three pounds a week. A large portion of this wage went to the boarding house he lived in, which provided him measly meals and was full of alcoholics. (p.36)
  • Charles had discovered soccer when he was about fourteen. He played for Budapest, the best team in South Australia, while working as a fitter and turner. (p.40)
  • By the age of 21, Charles was one of the highest-paid soccer players in Adelaide. (p.41) He earned eight pounds a week, and for the first time in his life he could afford proper meals and social outings. (p.41)
  • Charles left Adelaide to pursue his soccer career in England. In London he started training with Everton Club. (p.43) Everton was a professional team with high fitness standards, and it took Charles six months to catch up to the rest of the team. (p.43)
  • Charles wasn’t happy with the way Everton Club trained or played. He left the team, and got a job as a fitter in the shipyards at Mersey River in Liverpool. (p.44) He worked alongside rough and racist Irish immigrants. (p.45) Charles recalls that they tried to drop a red-hot rod on him because he stood up to their taunts. (p.46)
  • Charles left Liverpool and found a job at a coalmine in Manchester. (p.46) He continued to play soccer in the Lancashire competition (p.46)
  • Charles was then conscripted to the Bishop Auckland, the top amateur team in England and the world. (p.49)
  • In 1960, Charles was offer a return ticket and position in the Croatia team in South Australia. He soon became captain of the team, and earned a reputation as a local sports hero. (p.53 ) While paying for the Croatia team Charles continued to work as a fitter and turner on the railways. (p.53)
  • Charles later became the vice-captain of the South Australian soccer team that toured Western Australia and Victoria. (p.59) He earned a good wage, but because of his poor budgeting skilled he was still unable to pay the doctor when he suffered from a kidney infection. (p.62)
  • While living in Adelaide, Charles organised a meeting with the local Member of Parliament to discuss Aboriginal rights. He found it difficult to comprehend the politician (Don Dunstan), and did not feel confident addressing an audience. This compelled Charles to continue his education. (p.67)
  • In 1961, Charles travelled to Sydney in the hope of studying for his matriculation. To support himself, he tried out for professional soccer clubs (p.64) He trained for one week with the Bankstown Club, but was rejected from the team. (p.65) He then started playing for the Pan Hellenic Soccer club and scored three goals in his first match. (p.66) Within three months Charles was the captain of the Pan Hellenic team, and within six months he was the coach. (p.66) He was paid well for this work and also supported unofficially by the wealthy members of the Greek community. (p.68)
  • Playing for the Pan Hellenic team enabled Charles to support his family while studying. (p.66) After graduating from high school he enrolled at the University of Sydney. While at university Charles was supported by his wife Eileen, and also worked as a council cleaner and store stacker during summer breaks. (p.72)
  • Charles graduated from the University of Sydney with the determination to use his education for the betterment of Aboriginal people. (p.72)
  • Charles’ political career took off when he participated in the Australian Freedom Rides: when a group of university students toured rural New South Wales, to expose and condemn racial discrimination. (pp.75-90) Charles was almost arrested for blocking the swimming pool in Moree, and the protests attracted significant media attention.
  • Charles participated in other protests against racism: including the kidnapping a young Indian girl who they believed was being deported because of her colour. (p.92) The protesters took the girl on route to the airport, and returned her to her parents. (p.96)
  • Charles also helped establish the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs in Sydney with Ted Noffs. He became a fulltime employee of the Foundation when he graduated. (p.99)
  • Working for the Foundation was very stressful for Charles. He worked ten hours days, travelled widely, and was poorly paid. (p.101)
  • Charles also disagreed with many of the white executives at the Foundation. He believed they were motivated by personal gain, and were unable to comprehend the Indigenous situation. (p.100)
  • In turn, the executive accused Charles of being too emotional, and sometimes ordered him out of meetings or told him to sit down if he rose to speak. (p.105)
  • Charles applied for the position of liaison officer at the Office of Aboriginal Affairs. His application was rejected, but he was offered the position of research officer instead. (p.101) Charles feared the government would limit the scope of his research, but decided to take the job in the hope of having greater influence in Aboriginal affairs. (p.109)
  • Charles took up the research officer position in Canberra in 1969. His first experiences in the Office were not positive. (p.109) He had difficultly with the other bureaucrats and was overwhelmed by paperwork. (p.158)
  • Charles had to stop working when his kidney collapsed and he was put on dialysis. (p.156) He was transferred to the Office of Aboriginal Affairs in Adelaide to be closer to Alice Springs and his family. (p.153) The Office allowed Charles to keep flexible hours until he recovered fully from his kidney transplant. (p.156)
  • Charles continued to question the value of his work in the public service, and the government’s engagement with Aboriginal people. (p.158)
  • Charles returned to Canberra in 1972 at the suggestion of Dr Coombs. (p.170) Dr Coombs sat alongside Barrie Dexter and Professor Stanner on the Council for Aboriginal Affairs that oversaw the workings of the Office of Aboriginal Affairs. Charles had concerns about their handling of Indigenous affairs, particularly their exclusion of Aboriginal people from decision-making. (p.172)
  • Charles voiced these opinions loudly and publicly, and this often brought him into conflict with the Council of Aboriginal Affairs and with the bureaucracy. (p.173)
  • Charles stayed with the Office of Aboriginal Affairs in the hope that he could encourage Indigenous leadership within the organisation. (p.174) He saw the beginnings of this change in the election of forty-one National Aboriginal Consultative Committee members in the mid 1970s. (p.174)
  • When the Labor Government came into power in 1972, the Council of Aboriginal Affairs informed Charles that he was to be promoted to the position of Assistant Secretary. He was initially told that the promotion would be gradual, as many of his colleagues would be opposed. (p.174) After putting up a protest, however, the Council agreed to promote Charles more promptly. (p.175)
  • Charles was relieved to be in a position of some power, and hoped to use his new influence to change Indigenous living conditions. (p.175) He travelled widely for speaking engagements, before deciding that efforts to use mass media to educate non-Aboriginal peoples were in vain. (p.183)
  • In 1974 Charles was suspended from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs temporarily for criticising the Country Party. (p.196) Efforts were also made to reduce his influence, by preventing him from travelling to Aboriginal communities. (p.197)
  • Charles ends his book by outlining the six goals he would pursue as Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. First, he would promote unity among Aboriginal people. Secondly, he would remind Aboriginal people that morality and pride are the most important qualities. (p.191) Third, he would undertake programmes to improve housing, education and health in Aboriginal communities. (p.192) Fourth, he would involve more Aboriginal people in decision making at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. Fifth, he would stop Asian immigration to Australia, because he feared they would exploit Aboriginal people. (p.193) Finally, he would reconstruct the Department of Aboriginal Affairs to make it a statutory body. (p.194)

EXPERIENCES OF RELIGION:

  • Charles believes that many church organisations have a patronising and self-righteous attitude towards Aboriginal people and their religious views. (p.185)
  • He was also shocked by the religious images he saw in Europe, particular St Peter’s Basilica, which he viewed as false idols. (p. 137)

IMPORTANT INSTITUTIONS:

  • Wayside Chapel: a ministry established by Charles’ mentor, Reverend Ted Noffs. The Wayside Chapel co-ordinated the Freedom Rides in 1965. (p.75)
  • Sydney Hospital: Charles was sent to the Sydney Hospital when his kidney collapsed. (pp.143-145)

SALIENT LAWS AND POLICIES:

  • Soon after Charles was born, he and his mother were expelled from Alice Springs to Rainbow Town: an Aboriginal settlement outside of the town. He points out that this was part of the Northern Territory’s policy of segregation. (p.17)
  • At this time, Charles notes that it was common practice in the Northern Territory to take mixed-raced children away from their Aboriginal mothers. (p.13)
  • Charles points out that there were rules in place that prevented tribal Aboriginal people from fraternising with their mixed-race descendants. He remembers that, as a child, he was encouraged to think of the tribal people living outside of the reserves as his inferiors. (p.15)
  • Charles believes that this policy of Aboriginal separation was still being implemented in the 1970s. (p.16)
  • While living as a sportsman in Adelaide, Charles was unable to enter bars with his teammates without a permit. (p.55)

PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH:

  • Charles was diagnosed with a kidney disease, nephritis, when he was living in Adelaide. (p.60) Initially his case mild, but he did not heed the doctor’s advice, and his condition worsened when he left hospital early to get married. (p.61)
  • Charles suffered from kidney problems again when he returned from his travels in America and Europe. (p.141) He was taken to the Intensive Care Unit of the Sydney Hospital, and told that his kidney has collapsed. (p.143) Charles thought he was going to die, leaving his three children and wife behind, and became severely depressed. (p.143) He had his stomach pumped and was put on dialysis. (pp.146-148)
  • Just when Charles’ kidney condition became almost unbearable, the hospital found a transplant donor. (p.154)
  • The kidney transplant was a success, and gave Charles a new attitude and lease on life. (p.156)

RELATIONSHIP WITH PARENTS:

  • Hetty Perkins: Charles’ mother was born on the station owned by his grandfather, Harry Perkins. When Harry died, Hetty moved around with mother and the Arunta people. (p.8) When she was young, Hetty witnessed a stockman murder an Aboriginal girl for sport. (p.19)
  • Hetty worked in the stockyards alongside men from the age of fourteen. (p.25) She had eleven children with three different fathers. Hetty helped her last partner, Jim Turner, to build a successful cattle business. (p.9) Jim went against the practice of the times by staying with Hetty, even after he became a wealthy station owner. (p.10)
  • Charles believes that Jim’s brothers, who now owned the property, should have recognised his mother’s contribution. (p.11)
  • By the time Charles was born his mother lived on the reserve outside of Alice Springs. He remembers her as a dominant member of the Aboriginal community. (p.7)
  • Charles believes that his mother adopted and upheld the rules of the reserve, to oblige the white authorities. (p.15)
  • When Charles was a young boy Hetty moved the family into Alice Springs. She worked long hours in a café, and often the children were left to fend for themselves. (p.22) Charles was separated from his mother when Hetty accepted Reverend Percy Smith’s offer to educate her son in Adelaide.
  • Four of Hetty’s eleven children died early in life: two committed suicide, one died in a motorbike accident, and one got lost in the desert while inebriated (pp.12-13) These tragedies drove her to self harm on a number of occasions. (p. 13)
  • Charles notes that his mother didn’t make a fuss when he graduated from University, because she didn’t understand the significance of tertiary studies and had a mellow personality. (p.25) Hetty was also nonchalant when Charles brought high-ranking bureaucrats to her house in Alice Springs. (p.25)
  • At the time of writing his autobiography, Charles’ mother was still living in Alice Springs.
  • Connelly: Charles’ father was an Aboriginal man from Mount Isa, whose last name was Connelly. He was the son of a Kalkadoon woman and an Irish man.(p.9) Charles father and Hetty were never married, but they had a number of children together.
  • Charles met his father only once, but learnt about him from relatives and people in Mount Isa. (p.11)

RELATIONSHIP WITH PARTNERS:

  • Charles’ first girlfriend was a Scottish woman who he met through playing soccer. (p.41)
  • Relations with women came more easily to Charles in England. He had a number of different girlfriends while he was living in Wigan, which cost his most of his wages. (p.50)
  • Charles’ low opinion of Australia women remained with him when he returned to Adelaide, and mostly he dated Dutch, Irish, Scottish, Danish, Swedish and German girls. (p.55)
  • Charles met his wife Eileen at a soccer dance in Adelaide. He initially paired up with her, even though she was short and overweight, because Eileen’s friend was with his cousin. (p.58)
  • Eileen’s family readily accepted Charles, and this softened his attitude to white Australians somewhat. (p.59) They married in Malvern Lutheran Church in 1961 and moved to Sydney together. (p.53) Eileen helped support Charles while he completed his education. (p.72)
  • After travelling around Europe together, Charles’ kidney collapsed. (p.144) He and Eileen had had three children together by this time, and he worried that she would be left to care for them alone, but his wife’s resilience was consoling. (p.144)
  • When Charles was put on a kidney machine, Eileen had to inject the needles and control the process. (p.151)

RELATIONSHIP WITH CHILDREN:

  • Charles had two daughters with Eileen, named Hetty and Rachel, and a son, Adam.

IMPORTANT/INFLUENTIAL FIGURES:

  • Harry Perkins: Charles’ grandfather came from Broken Hill to the Northern Territory, and established two cattle stations. There he married a full-blooded Arunta woman named Nellie, and together they had three children. (p.8). Later in life Harry left the station unannounced, and apparently died in Broken Hill. (p.9)
  • Nellie Perkins: Charles’ grandmother was an Arunta woman. Nellie had three mixed-raced children with Harry Perkins, and two children with Arunta men. (p.8) When Harry left the station, she moved away and it was taken over by settlers. (p.9)
  • Because of the reserve rules that separated tribal Aboriginals from their descendants, Charles only once spoke to Nellie through the fence. (p.15)
  • Father Percy Smith: An Anglican Priest who worked in Alice Springs during the Second World War.
  • Father Smith was concerned about Aboriginal living conditions, and so established a hostel for mixed-race boys in Marryatville, Adelaide. (p.22) Charles was amongst the first residents of the hostel.
  • Charles believes that Father Smith had good intentions, but that he did not foresee the difficulties he would encounter in Adelaide. (p.29)
  • Bob Orr: Charles’ first white friend, who he met while living in Adelaide as an adolescent. Bob was of Scottish descent, and Charles believed this helped him to empathise with Aborigines. (p.38)
  • Bob encouraged Charles to travel overseas, and they reunited when he arrived in England. (p.41)
  • Charles was distraught when Bob died soon after moving back to Scotland. (p.38)
  • Mr and Mrs Tilley: The parents of Charles’ teammate, Gordon. (p.46) Charles lived with Mr and Mrs Tilley in Manchester while Gordon was away on National Service. (p.46)
  • Len: One of Charles’ workmates on the railways in South Australia. (p.52)
  • Gordon Briscoe: Charles’ cousin, who was also lived at the hostel and was involved in Aboriginal affairs. (p.58)
  • Reverend Ted Noffs: A Methodist minister who founded the Wayside Chapel. Reverend Noffs sought Charles out when he was a football player in Sydney, and encouraged him to become more active in the political arena. (p.68)
  • Myrtle Cox: A Sydney-based woman, who helped establish the Foundation of Aboriginal Affairs. (p.102) Charles describes Myrtle as one of the few decent white people involved in Aboriginal affairs. (p.102)
  • Mervyn Williams (Booma): Charles’ friend from Sydney, who often helped him with his work for the Foundation. Booma was an alcoholic, didn’t bath often, only had only one tooth, and was often getting in trouble. While many dismissed him, Charles thought very highly of Booma. (p.108)
  • Booma’s death in a car accident prompted Charles to leave Sydney for Canberra. (p.109)
  • Sir Paul Hasluck: the Minister of the Territories until 1963, and later Governor-General. Charles knew Sir Paul from a young age, and had a good relationship with the Liberal Party member. (p.161)
  • Gough Whitlam: Prime Minister of Australia from 1972 to 1975. (p.160) Gough often asked Charles for advice about Aboriginal affairs, and he thought him a brilliant and ethical leader. (p.161)
  • Harold Holt: The Prime Minister of Australia in 1966. Charles and his wife met Prime Minister Holt in New York, and thought very highly of him. Harold encouraged Charles to formalise his concerns about Aboriginal affairs on paper. (p.166)
  • Dr (Nugget) Coombs: A high-level bureaucrat and economist who sat on the Council for Aboriginal Affairs, which oversaw the work of the Office of Aboriginal Affairs (p.165) Charles respected Dr Coombs because he campaigned for Aboriginal people and supported self-determination behind the scenes. (p.165)
  • At the same time, Charles was critical of Coombs, for introducing policies without seeking Aboriginal advice. (p.172) When Coombs did consult Aboriginal people; Charles claimed that he preferred to speak with those from more classically - oriented, remote communities, rather than those who were urban and educated. (p.177)
  • Charles tried to abolish the Council of Aboriginal Affairs, but was unsuccessful by the time of writing his book in 1975. (p.172)
  • Joh Bjelke-Petersen: The conservative premier of Queensland at the time Charles wrote his autobiography. (p.168) Charles viewed Bjelke-Petersen’s paternalistic approach to government as a perverse influence in Aboriginal affairs. (p.168)

PREOCCUPATIONS: 

  • Colonial history: Perkins writes of the abuses suffered by Aboriginal people at the hands of white settlers in the Northern Territory. He claims that policemen in the early 19th century took Aboriginal women as sex slaves. (pp.20-21)
  • Racial Discrimination: Charles first experienced racism when he moved to live to Adelaide as a child. (p.28) He and the other mixed-race boys went to the non-segregated school, but there was still a deep division between the black and white students. (p.28)
  • This was made worse by the fact that the boy from the hostel wore matching clothing, and never had personal pocket money. (p.29)
  • Charles first non-Aboriginal friends were migrants, who me met while playing soccer for the Budapest team in Adelaide. (p.41)
  • Belonging: Charles recalls the difficulties he has encountered because of his mixed parentage. He claims his mother’s people, the Arunta clan, were not an exclusive people. (p.11)
  • Charles was never accepted into the Arunta clan, however, because of government policies that prevented mixed-race people from associating with their tribal relatives.
  • This separation left Charles in limbo, with no sense of belonging to a social group.

MODE OF LITERARY PRODUCTION: A Bastard Like Me was written by Charles Perkins.

Additional Resources

Source Project

This biographical entry was contributed by Australian Indigenous Autobiography Archive

Citation details

'Perkins, Charles Nelson (Charlie) (1936–2000)', Indigenous Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/perkins-charles-nelson-charlie-810/text29406, accessed 24 November 2017.

© Copyright Indigenous Australia, 2012