Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Robert Thomas Donaldson (1851–1936)

by Philip Felton

This article was published:

Robert Thomas Donaldson (1851-1936), politician and inspector of Aborigines, was born in January 1851 in County Westmeath, Ireland, son of Thomas Willett Donaldson, farmer, and his wife Barbara, née Shafgotch. Brought to Australia by his family about 1863, in the 1860s and 1870s he worked on stations, and prospected and explored in northern and central Queensland. He visited Britain in 1878 and on returning to Queensland became an inspector of railway construction. On 25 July 1882 at St Patrick's Catholic Church, Sydney, he married Edith Meek.

Moving to New South Wales, Donaldson became contractor's manager for McSharry & Co. for the construction of the Cootamundra-Gundagai railway line in 1883. He settled in Tumut where he bought a butcher's business. An alderman on the Tumut Municipal Council, he was mayor in 1897 and 1898.

As an independent, Donaldson was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Tumut in July 1898. Re-elected as a Progressive in 1901, he represented Wynyard from 1904, as an independent Liberal from 1907. He lost his seat in 1913 after a redistribution. In parliament Donaldson spoke on a narrow range of issues—railways, roads, sheep-stealing, travelling stock, country schools and land settlement. He often pressed country interests against the city, and opposed the enfranchisement of women. He also expressed racist views about Chinese and Indian itinerant hawkers and about Aboriginals. On several occasions he vigorously defended some person or official whom he felt had suffered an injustice: in September 1912 he introduced a controversial private member's bill to force the readmission of R. D. Meagher as a solicitor. He was a member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works and from 1906 a member of the Board of Fisheries.

Interested in Aboriginals from his Queensland experiences, Donaldson devoted much energy to the Board for the Protection of Aborigines, to which he had been appointed on 14 December 1904. He helped the board to draft a bill increasing its powers in the control of Aboriginals, which was finally enacted in 1909. In its reports the board expressed concern about the rapidly increasing numbers of part-Aboriginals living on its reserves, whom it described as idle and 'a positive menace to the State'. It aimed to remove young Aboriginals from their kin on reserves to be trained at special, segregated children's homes, and boarded out or placed in 'apprenticeships' as farm labourers or in domestic service.

Donaldson resigned from the board when he was appointed on 1 October 1915, in controversial circumstances, to its staff as one of the first inspectors of Aborigines. He travelled throughout the State, inspecting all Aboriginal stations and reserves; he reported on local management and attended to such technical and maintenance matters as windmills, engines and water supplies. Sincerely believing in the policy, he was responsible for implementing the programme of removing 'orphan and neglected' children from their Aboriginal families for training and apprenticeships. As the board's agent with absolute power to inspect Aboriginal homes and remove children, he was feared and hated by two generations of Aboriginals throughout New South Wales. In particular he was never forgiven for the raid on Cumeroogunga Aboriginal station in 1919. In his sixties he 'was a big man, powerfully built, six feet [183 cm] tall, with broad shoulders and barrel chest supporting his short thick neck, … and a large jaw, thick and round as a Soccer ball'.

Donaldson retired on 31 May 1929; he died at his home at Randwick, Sydney, on 5 August 1936 and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was survived by his wife, four sons and a daughter.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Horner, Vote Ferguson for Aboriginal Freedom (Syd, 1974)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Aug 1936.

Citation details

Philip Felton, 'Donaldson, Robert Thomas (1851–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


January, 1851
Westmeath, Ireland


5 August, 1936 (aged 85)
Randwick, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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