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Aiston, George (Poddy) (1879–1943)

by Philip Jones

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

George (Poddy) Aiston (1879-1943), policeman and ethnographer, was born on 11 October 1879 at Burnside, South Australia, only son of native-born parents James Albert Aiston, blacksmith, and his wife Rebecca, née Perry. George's mother died in his infancy and his stepmother Amelia treated him coldly. He left school at 11, but read keenly and widely. In 1897 he joined the South Australian Military Forces, becoming an orderly in the Chief Secretary's Office and at Government House. Enlisting in the South Australian First (Mounted Rifles) Contingent in 1899, he served in the South African War. As a constable (from April 1901) in the South Australian Mounted Police, in 1901-03 he worked at Yorketown, Kooringa and Port Germein where he first encountered Aborigines. On 12 April 1905 at Holy Trinity Church, Adelaide, he married Mabel Agnes Maud Mary White; they were to remain childless.

In 1904 Aiston had been posted to the west coast and was to spend five years at Tarcoola and Tumby Bay. He had an imposing physical presence. While patrolling the Nullarbor Plain and Gawler Ranges, he developed an interest in the culture of the Aborigines, earned their respect and friendship by enforcing the law without a gun, and sent documented stone tools to the South Australian Museum. From 1912 to 1923 he was based at the Birdsville Track outpost of Mungeranie and was also a sub-protector of Aborigines. He distributed rations, levied bore fees, inspected stock, collected dingo scalps, registered births, deaths and marriages, processed mail and issued licences. In addition, he studied the customs, beliefs and technology of the local people, and was assigned the Red Ochre mura (Dreaming). An authority on Central Australian Aborigines, particularly the Wangkangurru of eastern Lake Eyre, he photographed secular and ceremonial activities, as well as Birdsville Track life and landscapes.

In 1920 he wrote to the Melbourne art dealer W. H. Gill, through whom he contacted amateur anthroplogists and archaeologists, among them Dr George Horne, Alfred Kenyon, Stanley Mitchell and Thomas Campbell. Aiston's extensive newspaper articles and correspondence encouraged the view that Aboriginal stone-tool technology was an entirely indigenous development. He supplied individuals and museums with his stone-tool series, fossils, tektites and natural history specimens, and guided expeditions through the Lake Eyre region. In 1922 he collaborated with Horne and Dr Brooke-Nicholls on an early ethnographic film, and with Horne on Savage Life in Central Australia (London, 1924): Aiston contributed most of the text and all the photographs. He published papers and contributed to the work of other researchers.

Resigning from the police force in 1923, 'Poddy' Aiston bought the Mulka store and leased the government bore to sell water at a penny a drink. He had ridden with Aboriginal trackers throughout the State's north-east and buried over thirty 'perishers'. Despite his legendary hospitality, Aiston valued his solitude. He enjoyed meetings of the Anthropological Society of South Australia, and belonged to the Bread and Cheese, and Savage clubs in Melbourne, but preferred the company of bush travellers, drovers and Aborigines, supplemented by correspondence which was delivered by camel-train until the late 1920s. His mail also brought Indian swords, Japanese armour and a Persian helmet. In 1931 in Canberra Aiston catalogued the Commonwealth's Horne-Bowie collection of Aboriginal implements, a laborious task which was alleviated by his phenomenal memory.

George and Mabel saw the remoteness of the Birdsville Track diminished by the aeroplane, the motorcar and the pedal wireless. He bought a Dodge buckboard in 1933 and they also began operating a base for the National Aerial Medical Service of Australia. Drought in the late 1920s and the Depression of the 1930s affected business, but he continued to sell everything from petrol to his hand-made spurs. Aiston had visited Melbourne in 1929 for an exhibition of 'Primitive Art' and in 1934 for the Outback Australia Centenary Exhibition: on each occasion he escorted tribesmen from Mulka who demonstrated tool-making and performed ceremonies.

He belonged to a generation of scientists and self-taught natural historians who gathered material objects for data. His ethnographic collection and knowledge increased as the local Aboriginal population dwindled; he retained the Aborigines' trust and fought for their interests. While coveting their sacred objects, he bought only what they offered.

Aiston died of cancer on 25 September 1943 at Broken Hill and was buried with Anglican rites in the local cemetery. In 1953 his widow donated his ethnographica and his collection of arms and armour to the South Australian Museum which later acquired many of his photographs. His papers and correspondence are in the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, the Mitchell Library, Sydney, and the South Australian Museum.

Select Bibliography

  • Willochran, 1 Jan 1944
  • Wild Life, Feb 1944
  • South Australian Police Department records (State Records of South Australia)
  • Aiston papers (South Australian Museum Archives)
  • Aiston to W. H. Gill, correspondence, 1920-40 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Philip Jones, 'Aiston, George (Poddy) (1879–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/aiston-george-poddy-9320/text16359, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 29 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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