Race-based curfew – exhibition reminds town of not-so-distant past



When ideas about curfew and other forms of discriminatory social control are bandied around, it’s worth reflecting on the lived experience of such measures of people in our town.

Between 1928 and 1964 effectively the whole of Alice Springs was a prohibited area for Aboriginal people between sunset and sunrise.

I’ve read about this before but its significance was driven home by some simple visual representations by Katy Moir, who describes herself as an artitect – trained as an architect, working mainly in the arts.

Her exhibition, A hypothetical Alice, has just concluded at Watch This Space. Maps of all sorts provided its foundation, with the most impactful for many being a series on prohibitions, both historic and speculative.

The first showed the extent of the boundaries defining the prohibited areas (below right). There were a number of iterations of the regulation (see the Central Land Council’s chronology here), including of its racially-defined basis – the ban initially extended to people of mixed descent, but their resistance led to their exemption from 1951.

The prohibitions finally ended with the repeal in 1964 of the Welfare Ordinance that had governed the lives of Aboriginal people of full descent – grown men and women, as well as children – as “wards” of the state.

This late date puts the experience into living memory of today’s seniors, my age peers – people like Geoff Shaw, for instance, who gives an account of living under curfew in Every Hill Got a Story* (pp 140-1): “All the growing up years I went to school with the mob that lived in town, but there was no going and staying with them on weekends or whatever.”

This obnoxious regime is part of the heritage of the whole town, but no doubt more keenly and painfully felt by those who lived under its control, their children and grandchildren.

Such detail wasn’t entered into by Moir; her point was more to get people living in the present town who may not have known this history or have forgotten or been only dimly aware of it, to see what such prohibition might look like in their own lives.

Two further maps in her series helped with this.

In one she drew an arbitrary boundary of 800m around a number of registered sacred sites in town – a list she sourced from a public document (an agreement between custodians and the Olive Pink Botanic Garden). 

In the next, she blanked out everything within those overlapping areas (see above left) that would have to be removed or demolished if such boundaries represented exclusion zones like those Aboriginal people were subject to (although significantly smaller). There was not a lot left.

Most visitors to the show found that map the most interesting, says Moir – they realised that their house would not exist anymore.

They were prompted to think about the town’s history but also about the sacred landscape as it exists today, ostensibly protected by legislation but constantly encroached upon by development.

A map of the area around Hele Crescent, adjacent to a sacred hill, showed how little “breathing space” is given to these places, with buildings packed tightly around the hill and the slopes at times cut into for concrete slabs and sheds.

A similar point is made in one of her postcards (above) about the small sacred hill opposite the hospital on the western side and bounded by South Terrace to the east, part of Ntyarlkarle Tyaneme (Caterpillar Dreaming). The block next door (location of the head offices of the two regional councils) is presently a construction site.

There’s plenty of parking along the street, Moir points out, but contractors don’t hesitate to park their utes right up to the fence-line of the clearly identified sacred site.

But it’s not all bad, she says.

Alice Springs has developed with a lot more respect for the natural form of land than Darwin has, which is where she lives.

“It’s the biggest immediately obvious difference between the two cities,” she says. 

“I don’t know how purposeful that was. Maybe it was because the ground was very hard and it would have taken a lot of effort to build on it.

“Also, there may not have been such a battle to get land. But maybe there was respect from some people.”

Whatever the case, she says it is great it has happened that way, it helps give the town its unique character.

Moir has lived in Darwin for the last six years and conducted a similar though longer and more in-depth project there earlier this year as an NT Creative in Residence, working with the Northern Territory Archives. 

Over the last two years she has stopped working formally as an architect, partly out of the conviction that Darwin doesn’t need any more buildings. She’s still really interested in the built environment, however, particularly public spaces and how people experience them.

A project like A hypothetical Alice allows people to explore the possibilities without the pressure of imminent change, driven by big budgets and predetermined outcomes.

But sometimes the change is frustratingly upon us.

In an astute visualisation (above) Moir compared the $400,000 pledged to a youth hub – which now looks uncertain – with the $20m allocated for CBD revitalisation (a long time coming).

“These projects should be talking to one another. I don’t know how you couldn’t justify a youth hub as part of a CBD revitalisation,” she says.

In another visualisation, she suggests that a government-driven “activation” of a CBD location may be a pretext. This site of a soon-to-be-built heavily engineered shade structure is already shaded by tall trees and well used by people. Particularly Aboriginal people.

Her concern is that the structures (there are more like it) may be mostly a cover for just how much CCTV is being put in around town, with no challenge to its effectiveness – it creates a perception that something is being done.

In Darwin, Moir concluded her project with 20 ideas for specific things that could create better ways for people to use and enjoy their city.

She avoided doing that in Alice, in part because the project had a much shorter time frame (she spent six weeks here) but also because she doesn’t have lived experience of the town.

The principles behind her ideas for Darwin though are worth thinking about in future conversations about Alice Springs. Most were about taking away things, or leaving things alone, or drawing attention to things already there, using them better.

This approach is not popular with governments who tend to want to build new things but the end result can be far from felicitous (everyone will have their pet example(s) here).

A city plan is about the place its residents live in, Moir says. The conversations about that place’s future need to be had with them, exploring the past and also imagining what lies ahead.

In an interesting activity she asked participants in her project to spend three minutes writing about a fictional day in their life in 2030.

It was sobering to read the selection she displayed in the exhibition, with dread significantly outweighing hope. The dread arose not from the “antisocial behaviour” that dominates the present civic debate, but rather from the spectre of the town becoming unliveable due to the climate crisis.

The slender hope was that a newfound pride and communal spirit would emerge in town as the results of efforts, both local and global, to mitigate the impact of warming and limit its extent.

Whether in the coming summer or the coming decade, we’ll need all the informed and creative thinking we can muster to come to the fore.


*Every hill got a story: We grew up in Country, Men and Women of Central Australia and the Central Land Council, complied and edited by Marg Bowman, Hardie Grant Books, 2015.

Stuart Traynor also writes about the prohibited areas in Alice Springs: From singing wire to iconic outback town, Wakefield Press, 2016. See especially p 342 for accounts of penalties Aboriginal people received for breaking curfew.


Last updated 4 November 2020, 9.35am


  1. I bet the crime rate was a lot lower between 1928 and 1964.
    A system that works. All this spending money on programs and ideas that don’t work.
    Bring back the old days, it worked, easy solution.

  2. A story about crime in Alice Springs during 1951 provides an interesting snapshot of that time (keeping in mind the town’s population was about 2000 residents), which I quote in part: “Statistics from the Alice Springs Police indicate that our very often understaffed force have been kept ‘flat out’ through the year.
    “During 1951, 571 cases were brought before the courts by the police.
    “The year started with a rush of work, there being 99 cases in the first 29 days of January.
    “During the last half of the year … the police waged a persistent battle against suppliers of liquor to aborigines [sic] and drunkeness [sic] and as statistics show they certainly made the going hard for offenders.
    “When it is borne in mind that this work is only part of the duties of NT police it can be seen that they have their work cut out to keep up with everything in this area.”
    All sounding very familiar so far!
    The story goes on: “It appears from the figures that over indulgence in alcohol is the thing that gives our police most trouble, and in many cases leads to other drunk charges.
    “During the period July 1 to December 31, the Alice police brought 230 cases before the Bench.
    “They were split up in this way:- Drunkenness (whites or exempted halfcastes) 80; aborigines or un-exempted halfcastes drinking liquor 37; assaults, resisting arrest and offensive behaviour charges 30; supplying liquor to aborigines 19; no visible means of support 12; aborigines or unexempted halfcastes being in a prohibited area 16; driving under the influence 7; other traffic offences or driving breaches 11; being illegally on premises 3; stealing ore 4; offences against firearms ordinance 2; obtaining money with bad cheques 2; trespassing on aboriginal reserves 3; living with an aborigine woman 1; murder charge (still to come before NT Supreme Court) 1; other cases 2” (“Alice police had a busy year”, Centralian Advocate, 11/1/52).
    The murder case arose from the death of a young “coloured woman”, Rita Walker, at the hands of Alexander Peppin, a “coloured man”, in the Todd riverbed “on or about November 18”.
    Alcohol was a factor in the case which caused uproar in Alice Springs as it was the first such incident in over three years.
    Although he had a white father, Peppin (“about 30”) had spent nearly all his life with his traditional Aboriginal family and relatives at Pine Hill and had virtually no experience of living in white society.
    He was represented by Phil Rice, a lawyer who had been raised in Alice Springs (a student of the old Hartley Street School), and the severity of the charge was reduced to manslaughter.
    (Rice represented Lindy and Michael Chamberlain in the 1982 NT Supreme Court case charged for the murder of Azaria Chamberlain; and eventually was himself appointed a justice of the Supreme Court).
    Peppin was found guilty by a jury in Alice Springs, and newly appointed Justice Martin Kriewaldt sentenced him to five years gaol.
    Later that same year, Justice Kriewaldt sentenced two European men in Darwin for murder, and they were the last to be executed in the Northern Territory.

  3. @Alex: It’s good that someone has this knowledge and is willing to share it, thank you.
    So alcohol seems to be have been the main culprit then and still is today. So the hard question is, will we attack the root cause or just keep dancing around and wasting enormous amounts of taxpayers money?

  4. The Aboriginals Ordinance 1918 (Act no. 9/1918) combined and replaced the Northern Territory Aboriginals Act of 1910 (SA) and the Commonwealth Aboriginals Ordinance of 1911.

    These carried over most of the provisions of the previous Ordinances, with the Aboriginals Ordinance 1918 amended 18 times over the following decades, until it was repealed by the Welfare Ordinance 1953.

    Such legislation/regulation enabled the Chief Protector to retain control over many aspects of Aboriginal lives and continued to be the legal guardian of every Aboriginal child.

    Tthe Constitutional Convention debates of the 1890s made clear the framers intended section 51(xxvi) to be a source of power for the enactment by the Commonwealth Parliament of racially discriminatory laws with respect to the people ‘of any race … for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws’.

    Major concerns were migration of British Commonwealth Citizens in particular those of ‘coloured races’ from India, Hong Kong, end elsewhere suddenly arriving whether by self-migration or as indentured labourers.

    Considerable concern existed on attempts to undercut rising Australian average incomes such as achieved by various Union movements.

    The Commonwealth took over the Northern Territory from South Australia, this until 1967 enables questioning whether s.51(xxvi) caused all Commonweatlh legislation and regulation which used term “Aborigine” may be “ultra vires”, without authority claimed to be within then Commonwealth’s legislative powers.


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