An apprenticeship fused in time
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