Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Bleakley, John William (1879–1957)

by Raymond Evans

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

John William Bleakley (1879-1957), protector of Aborigines, was born on 17 December 1879 at Manchester, England, during a visit by his parents, John Close Bleakley, boilermaker, of Ipswich, Queensland, and his wife Caroline, née Mason. His family returned home while he was an infant and he was educated at state primary and technical schools at Ipswich. He took the public service examination in December 1899 and next August became a clerk in the Home Secretary's Department. He was transferred in December 1902 to the government shipping office on Thursday Island.

From August 1905 to 1907 Bleakley was shipping master and inspector of pearl-shell and bêche-de-mer fisheries on the island, and was then appointed clerk to the chief protector of Aborigines in Brisbane. In May 1908 his experience on Thursday Island made him an important witness before a royal commission on the pearl-shell and bêche-de-mer industries. He was promoted to deputy chief protector of Aborigines in April 1911, becoming chief protector in February 1914. He filled this position until age and ill health forced his retirement in 1942; from 1939 he was known as director of native affairs, under an amending Act he had helped to draft.

By the late 1920s Bleakley was a well-known Australia-wide voice upon Aboriginal welfare. His influence was enhanced when the Bruce-Page government invited him in May 1928 to investigate the 'status and condition of aboriginals, including half-castes' in central and northern Australia. His characteristically clear, competent, conscientious report, presented the following January, trenchantly criticized existing race relations in the territories. Commonwealth conferences in Melbourne in April 1929 and at Darwin during 1930 considered reforms, but the onset of the Depression, a change of government and the powerful pastoral lobby minimized the result. The Bleakley report nevertheless helped to expedite the creation in 1931 of the Arnhem Land Reserve, a decision of lasting significance.

Bleakley's record in Queensland displays a similar combination of limitation and achievement. His professional knowledge was built on common sense, hard work and accumulated experience, not on a liberal education and training in social anthropology or native administration. Although he was affectionately remembered by both black and white for his compassion, his approach was nevertheless rigidly parochial and paternalistic. His fervent advocacy of segregation, his long-standing preoccupation with 'the half-caste problem'—summarized in his pamphlet The Half-Caste Aborigines of North and Central Australia: Suggestions Towards Solving the Problem—and his persistent theorizing on 'breed', 'blood' and 'race purity' show his acceptance of current racial ideas, since discredited. Yet by 1922 he had publicly questioned prevailing orthodoxy about the 'inevitability' of Aboriginal 'extinction', and in his 1935 paper, 'The Aborigines: past and present treatment by the state', published in J. S. Needham's White and Black in Australia (London, 1935), he faced racial injustice with a frankness and sensitivity uncommon at the time.

Bleakley's energetic administration encouraged greater expenditure on Aboriginal affairs in Queensland than elsewhere in Australia: the rigidly controlled wages were higher, and the inadequate housing better, than in other States. Bleakley was perhaps best known to the public for his active involvement in the careers of Aboriginal middle-weight boxers Jerry Jerome and Ron Richards, his encouragement of Aboriginal football competitions, and especially for his championing of fast bowler Eddie Gilbert during the highly publicized 'throwing' controversy of 1936.

While still at Thursday Island in 1905, Bleakley had married Catherine, daughter of Thomas Grisewood of Brisbane; by 1920 they had five children. He was a justice of the peace, a member of the Sherwood District Local Association and the Sherwood Boy Scouts' Committee, and treasurer at St David's Church of England, Chelmer. After retirement he condensed his ideas on Aboriginal questions into a major work, The Aborigines of Australia, published posthumously in 1961. Late in February 1957 he had suffered a stroke at his home at Virginia and died at Brisbane General Hospital on 4 March. He was buried in Toowong cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Foxcroft, Australian Native Policy (Melb, 1941)
  • G. Nettheim, Outlawed: Queensland's Aborigines and Islanders (Syd, 1973)
  • R. Evans et al, Exclusion, Exploitation and Extermination (Syd, 1975)
  • M. A. Franklin, Black and White Australians (Melb, 1976)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Queensland), 1908, 2, 305
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1929, 2, 1162.

Citation details

Raymond Evans, 'Bleakley, John William (1879–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bleakley-john-william-5272/text8887, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 30 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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