An ap­pren­tice­ship fused in time

Dubbo Photo News - - Dubbo Weekender - By YVETTE AUBUSSON-FO­LEY

HOLD­ING William Nolan’s 1951 “Cer­tifi­cate of Ex­emp­tion” is a trou­bling feel­ing; you are hold­ing an arte­fact from a time when in­equal­ity was in­sti­tu­tion­alised and deemed to be just, be­hind the guise of gov­ern­ment con­trols not usu­ally linked to lucky coun­tries.

A pass­port-sized black and white photo of William ap­pears in the bot­tom right hand corner, po­si­tioned be­neath the of­fi­cial ref­er­ence to the Abo­rig­ines Pro­tec­tion Act and specif­i­cally to Reg­u­la­tion 56 from which the cer­tifi­cate guar­an­tees im­mu­nity.

He had to carry it at all times. On pa­per, it meant the holder was no longer el­i­gi­ble to re­ceive any ben­e­fit, as­sis­tance or re­lief from the Abo­rig­ines Wel­fare Board and had to pro­vide a home for him or her­self, which William did.

Off pa­per, it meant he was an honorary white per­son which came with un­spo­ken con­di­tions.

“Even though they gave him that lit­tle bit of right of way, there’s still things he had to give up,” William’s son John Nolan told

“The ex­emp­tion meant he had priv­i­leges white men had, but he had to give up any­thing Aboriginal. His chil­dren could go to a pub­lic school but it meant they were not go to a mis­sion or a re­serve. Some of his fam­ily lived out on the Tal­bra­gar mis­sion and he wasn’t al­lowed out there,” John Nolan said.

“The cer­tifi­cate ex­empted Aboriginal peo­ple from be­ing un­der the con­trol of the Aboriginal Pro­tec­tion Act be­cause if you weren’t un­der that, the gov­ern­ment could send you any­where, plus you could be re­fused ser­vice at a shop in town. Dad used to al­ways tell me he was re­fused ser­vice here in Dubbo at the shops."

The ex­emp­tion cer­tifi­cate is a sur­real re­minder of just how suf­fo­cat­ing past poli­cies have been.

“Be­fore the 1960s, even though my Dad worked on the rail­ways, he wasn’t al­lowed into a ho­tel and have a beer with his mates, and he was the ganger!

“It’s a valu­able as­set to me and is just a re­minder to what things were like,” Mr Nolan said.

Not that his own ex­pe­ri­ence isn’t a re­minder of how ‘things’ used to be, and his weld­ing ap­pren­tice­ship – which was unique enough in it­self – also strad­dled an his­toric rite of pas­sage for Aboriginal peo­ple.

When he started his ap­pren­tice­ship in 1963 he was not el­i­gi­ble to be counted as an Aus­tralian ci­ti­zen in a na­tional cen­sus. By the time he fin­ished in 1967, much had changed.

“When I came to the end of my ap­pren­tice­ship I was a recog­nised ci­ti­zen of Aus­tralia. Be­fore 1967, I wasn’t. It’s 51 years ago this year,” Mr Nolan said.

“In a lot of cases in my work­ing years I was re­fused to go into peo­ple’s houses and sit at their ta­ble on big ma­jor prop­er­ties.

“We weren’t treated like peo­ple. They didn’t have the right to do it, it was just some­thing that was writ­ten into the gov­ern­ment pol­icy of this na­tion. We have come a long way since those days. We’ve still got a fair way to go, with con­sti­tu­tional recog­ni­tion. It’s a bat­tle but there’s a lot of sup­port around this coun­try for the Aboriginal cause.”

John’s first steps to­ward a weld­ing trade started as a labourer with Bax­ter’s En­gi­neer­ing on Boothenba Road.

“When I left school I had a cou­ple of jobs and then I was un­em­ployed for about three months. I was up in North Dubbo with my mates and we were play­ing a bil­liard game and hav­ing fun. Dad came up and said, 'I’ve got a tele­gram here from the em­ploy­ment peo­ple in Dubbo to go over to Bax­ter’s En­gi­neer­ing for an in­ter­view.' I wasn’t happy about that be­cause I was en­joy­ing my­self do­ing noth­ing.

"But I have no re­grets what­so­ever. I car­ried that trade and still have that trade.”

Within 12 months of join­ing Bax­ter’s, the boss, Joe “Old Jack” Bax­ter, asked John if wanted to be an ap­pren­tice in a trade.

“When he first started, John used to up­set Dad a bit ‘be­cause he’d go walk­a­bout',” Joe Bax­ter’s son Jack said.

“Old Jack was a tremen­dous old man. Go­ing through my trade, there were a lot of times I wouldn’t turn up for work,” John re­called.

“I’d be down the South Coast bean pick­ing or potato pick­ing or some­where else,” John said. “I never used to tell Jack where I was go­ing un­til I turned back up for work. There was one time there where Jack had to write a let­ter to the ap­pren­tice­ship board, giv­ing good rea­son why my ap­pren­tice­ship should not be ter­mi­nated. He must have writ­ten a good let­ter to con­tinue me on,” John laughed. “They were good times.”

Dur­ing John’s ap­pren­tice­ship he worked on some of Dubbo’s ma­jor steel struc­tured build­ings in­clud­ing the Dubbo RSL Club, the old Dubbo Po­lice Sta­tion and the Dubbo Con­ven­tion Cen­tre (for­merly the Dubbo Civic Cen­tre).

“I know in the past there’s been a lot of meet­ings in the Civic Cen­tre there, where peo­ple have got to­gether (to talk) about how the Aboriginal peo­ple are go­ing in Dubbo, to dis­cuss things like all the ri­ots over in West Dubbo and how things were not too good, and I was think­ing then, had they only known the per­son who had done a lot of that steel­work in the Civic Cen­tre was an Aboriginal bloke,” John said.

While proud of con­tribut­ing to the city’s land­marks, one of his favourite projects was work­ing on Bourke High School.

“I had to go out there and do all the on-sight weld­ing, put all the beams and struc­tures to­gether,” Mr Nolan ex­plained. “It was a trade I re­ally liked. It meant us­ing your head a lot and us­ing your skills when you were weld­ing. Back in the day we only used the rods and a metal­lic arc, there was no Mig weld­ing back then.”

Af­ter fin­ish­ing his ap­pren­tice­ship at Bax­ter’s, Mr Nolan tried his hand at a va­ri­ety of work be­fore re­turn­ing to Dubbo to join Dave Pankhurst at All­bulk, build­ing farm equip­ment.

“When he came to work with us he never told me he’d topped the state in Boiler Mak­ing, which is a high stan­dard of the weld­ing trades,” Mr Pankhurst said.

“When John was out there at the (All­bulk) fac­tory in the mid­dle ‘70s, we started to move ahead. A lot of the equip­ment we started to make right from scratch. We made our own tanks out of fi­bre­glass, and got more into heavy duty equip­ment.

“We bought a sheet metal fold­ing press and a guil­lo­tine, and a five-tonne press, con­structed ex­tra bays and then ex­tended to 12 bays.

“We were num­ber three in prof­itabil­ity and earn­ings in the Dal­gety Net­work in Aus­tralia. They paid for me to go to London and talk to their board. It’s be­cause of the con­tri­bu­tion of fel­lows like John who helped put things to­gether. You don’t do th­ese things on your own,” Mr Pankhurst said.

John’s former boss had much praise for his early em­ployee.

“You can al­ways tell who a weld has been done by. John was with us when we built a 50-foot feed tower. It was im­mac­u­late. When you’re weld­ing ver­ti­cally, as op­posed to weld­ing flat, the re­sult can be at­trib­uted to the qual­ity of men like this,” Mr Pankhurst said.

“I learnt more from him, than him from me. I was not a welder,” he said.

Af­ter mov­ing on from Dubbo and work­ing in po­si­tions with the NSW Aboriginal Lands Trust and Aboriginal Development Com­mis­sion and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Is­lan­der Com­mis­sion, John found him­self pur­su­ing teach­ing and took work in Alice Springs and Yuen­dumu in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory.

“I was work­ing as a sec­ondary school teacher. I was pri­mary teacher trained, but when I went to Yuen­dumu I was put into the sec­ondary or mid­dle school as they call it. I was there for a cou­ple of years teach­ing the Walpi peo­ple.

“The Bush Me­chan­ics were also there. They were fa­mous blokes who could do any­thing with a car, but they could not weld. So I used to do all their patch up weld­ing and the stuff they couldn’t han­dle.

“Be­fore I left there, my class was a Year 7/8 class and we de­signed and built a big school sign, and in the mid­dle we built a big honey ant which is their dream­ing. It’s still there to­day. That was a great project,” Mr Nolan said. ■

Dubbo’s first Aboriginal ap­pren­tice John Nolan, cen­tre, with Dave Pankhurst, left, and Jack Bax­ter who were John’s first bosses when he started his weld­ing ap­pren­tice­ship in Dubbo in the 1960s. Be­low, in 1951, John’s father William was is­sued a cer­tifi­cate of ex­emp­tion, mak­ing him an “honorary white man”, but the con­trol came with con­di­tions. MAIN PHOTO: DUBBO PHOTO NEWS

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