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Auber Octavius Neville (1875–1954)

by A. Haebich and R. H. W. Reece

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Auber Octavius Neville (1875-1954), public servant, was born on 20 October 1875 at Ford, Northumberland, England, son of Rev. Hastings Mackelean Neville, Anglican clergyman, and his wife Elizabeth Sophia, née Cotton. Neville seemed destined for a career in banking. After ten years in Victoria, in 1897 he went to Western Australia where his brother was practising law and soon joined the public service as a records clerk in the Department of Works. Quickly achieving a reputation for efficiency, he was appointed registrar of a sub-department of the Premier's Office in 1900, and in 1902 was promoted to registrar of the Colonial Secretary's Department.

In 1906 he became an immigration officer and was appointed head of the new sub-department of tourism and immigration in 1910. He was thus closely involved in the selecting and processing of some 40,000 British immigrants to Western Australia in 1910-14. On 1 June 1910 in London he married Maryan Florence Low; they had three daughters and two sons. In 1914 Neville became secretary of the Patriotic Relief Fund and continued as chairman of its permanent relief committee.

It was as chief protector of Aborigines that he came to the public eye. He shaped official policy towards Aborigines during much of the period from 1915 until his retirement in 1940. Appointed secretary of the Department of the North-West in 1920, he remained chief protector of Aborigines until 1926 when the department was abolished and Aboriginal affairs were again placed under the control of the Aborigines Department. As chief protector (1915-36) and commissioner for native affairs (1936-40), his strategy was to extend the department's legal authority, particularly over people of part descent, his main interest. At his instigation, regulations were issued under the 1905 Aborigines Act, and the Act itself was amended, to give the department more power, particularly over children. Amending legislation in 1936, following the Moseley report, owed much to Neville.

The ostensible purpose was to bring about permanent segregation of Aborigines of full descent, who were believed to be near extinction; and temporary segregation and training of those of part descent who would re-enter society as domestics and farm-workers, eventually blending with the white population through intermarriage. To this end Neville energetically pursued the plan of his predecessor Charles F. Gale to establish settlements in the State's south-west. Carrolup (1915) and Moore River (1918) were intended as training institutions and centres for the provision of education, health services and rations. However, because of increasingly severe governmental economies, Carrolup closed in 1922 and Moore River became a repository for juvenile and adult offenders, unmarried mothers, children, and the elderly and indigent. Health and housing conditions at Moore River deteriorated rapidly, particularly during the Depression, when most Aborigines in the south-west became dependent on rations and white rural communities strove to remove them.

Neville took a close interest in administration, as witnessed by his careful system of records and frequent inspection tours. While some Aborigines appreciated his concern, others referred to 'Mister Neville' in tones suggesting awe and even fear. His unwilling but unavoidable reliance on police as local 'protectors' contributed to a tradition of Aboriginal hostility towards police and 'the welfare'. Educated Aborigines from the south-west, whose legal and social status plummeted as a result of his measures, saw Neville as their main adversary. William Harris described the protector as one of the Aborigines' 'worst enemies'. The irony of Neville's administration was that in aggregating the power to assimilate Aborigines of part descent through economic and social (genetic) absorption, he accelerated the pauperization and segregation evident since the 1900s. Closer settlement in the south-west, competition from white workers, and the racial prejudice of rural communities worried by increase in the Aboriginal population, all helped to produce the 'Aboriginal problem' that Neville wished to solve. Neville's most notable clashes were with Mrs Mary Bennett whose trenchant criticisms of Aboriginal affairs in Western Australia received international as well as interstate publicity in the early 1930s.

He gave evidence before the royal commission on the Constitution (1927-28), and was a key figure at the first Commonwealth conference on Aboriginal administration in Canberra in 1937. He also contributed numerous articles to journals and newspapers, acting as local correspondent for the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland and member of the anthropological committee of the National Research Council. He was largely responsible for the organization and conservation of the records of the Colonial Secretary's Department.

In retirement Neville wrote Australia's Coloured Minority (1947) in which he set out his long standing belief in the need to breed out the coloured population. He continued to write and lecture, and his last initiative was the establishment in Melbourne of the National Association for the Advancement of the Native Race.

In private life he was an Anglican lay-reader and chorister, and a golfer. His photographs of Aborigines now form an important part of the Battye Library collection. Survived by his wife and two children, Neville died in Perth on 18 April 1954 and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Biskup, Not Slaves Not Citizens (Brisb, 1973)
  • P. Hasluck, Mucking About (Melb, 1977)
  • A. Haebich, ‘On the inside: Moore River native settlement in the 1930's’, in B. Gammage and A. Markus (eds), All That Dirt (Canb, 1982)
  • West Australian, 6 Feb 1940, 20 Apr 1954, 3 June 1955
  • Western Australia Aborigines Department, Department of Native Affairs records (State Records Office of Western Australia)
  • Chief Secretary's Dept records (State Records Office of Western Australia).

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Citation details

A. Haebich and R. H. W. Reece, 'Neville, Auber Octavius (1875–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


20 October, 1875
Ford, Northumberland, England


18 April, 1954 (aged 78)
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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