Indigenous Literacy history found in the Fryer manuscript collection

“I really would rather have colour unmentioned!” – Geraldine MacKenzie, Frances Derham, Fred Schonell and the "First Australians" Books.

To mark Indigenous Literacy Day (5 September), we are excited to share a story from the Fryer Library. We have discovered unpublished letters in our Sir Fred Schonell Collection (UQFL197) that highlight the collaborative role of UQ researchers in the development of literacy initiatives for indigenous children in the 1950s.

Find out more about Indigenous Literacy Day and consider making a donation to support equal access to literacy resources in remote communities at the Indigenous Literacy Foundation website.

School primers for indigenous children

Letters discovered in this collection provide an interesting insight into the creation of a set of reading primers for Aboriginal children in Aurukun (then Aurukun Mission) by Geraldine MacKenzie. She wrote to Schonell, Professor of Education at UQ.

MacKenzie was developing a small set of books for publication that taught spelling and reading that were useful and specific to Aboriginal children. This meant using words and objects found in everyday life in Aurukun, rather than the unfamiliar words and stories from Western culture traditionally used in the school system.

About Geraldine MacKenzie

Geraldine MacKenzie was a volunteer educator and the wife of Bill MacKenzie, superintendent of the mission. She lived in Aurukun for over 40 years and was dedicated to the community, working with the sick, assisting with child and infant health care and introducing health and educational initiatives. She was head teacher and honorary superintendent of the school in Aurukun.

In her letters to Schonell, the first dated 2 May 1950, MacKenzie asked for Schonell’s advice on the first draft and the illustrations, noting that:

“the extreme simplicity of the first book… some people find hard to understand. I made it like that after experience… The first book, therefore, as you can see, could take the place of flash cards.”

Schonell provided positive feedback on the material. He later agreed to write a foreword for the books. In a letter dated 14 March 1951, MacKenzie expresses her appreciation of the foreword, and notes that she hopes:

“that the ideas expressed in it will bear fruit in more than the teaching of reading for aboriginal children. I mean in particular working the education of the children into their own background of experience and activity, which has hardly been attempted at all.”

Geraldine MacKenzie  Fred Schonell 

Images left to right: Geraldine MacKenzie on the job at Aurukun Mission, 1936, from the Norman F Nelson Collection, UQFL57, Fryer Library, University of Queensland Library; Sir Fred Schonell, c.1955, Courtesy of the University of Queensland Archives.

‘Continuous assistance, encouragement and criticism’ of the project

Other letters to Schonell in this collection are by Frances Derham, who had worked closely with MacKenzie on developing these books and finding illustrators.

About Frances Derham

Frances "Frankie" Derham was a Melbourne-based educator and teacher trainer, notable for her progressive views on the role of culture in educating children. She visited Aurukun and other mission settlements in the 1930s and 1940s, to study the art of Aboriginal children and how it reflected their culture.

MacKenzie’s and Derham’s vision for the books was to have them made available to schools everywhere in Australia and Derham commented that she had “been so long annoyed by the fact that Australian children know lots about Red Indians, and nothing about aboriginals”. Derham suggests that the books may also be used “as an ancillary set in our ordinary schools” for “all children who seek to know something of the aborigine and his way of life”.

Frances Derham writes to Schonell

In her first letter to Schonell she describes herself as the ‘godmother to and spokesman for the project’.

Derham had met MacKenzie at a meeting of the so-called Victorian Aboriginal Group in Melbourne in 1942. As Derham recounts, when MacKenzie appealed to the group "for someone to write a primer for Aboriginals, I asked her why she didn’t do it herself, and then followed nearly a year’s work…"

‘Little first Australians’ Derham suggests changes to terminology

Schonell completed his foreword in early 1951 and sent copies to MacKenzie, the Presbyterian Board of Missions, the publishing firm F. W. Cheshire, and to Frances Derham. In a letter dated 7 March 1951 Derham writes to Schonell with suggested changes to his foreword.

In the foreword, Schonell had written that he was sure the books would be a “great success amongst the dark-haired little pupils from the bush”.

Derham comments “‘Dark’ perhaps – but their hair is no darker than ours – and I really would rather have colour unmentioned! Could it be ‘little first Australians?’”

The changes suggested here by Derham were adopted for the printed books, which were greatly successful and ran to six different volumes for different reading levels. Anecdotal evidence suggests they were used in Mission Schools across Northern Australia and Papua New Guinea and in mainstream Queensland schools right through to the 1960s.

Derham‘s "continuous assistance, encouragement and criticism" with the books is acknowledged on the back of each of the title pages and her correspondence with Schonell clearly demonstrates this support. Writing on 23 February 1951, she reveals to Schonell that the books are to be titled The first Australians books. This was a very early use of the term First Australian.

Schonell Foreword with corrections
An excerpt from Schonell's foreword, marked with Frances Derham's corrections. From the Sir Fred Joyce Schonell Collection, UQFL197, Fryer Library, University of Queensland Library.
Derham Letter Excerpt
An excerpt from Derham's letter to Schonell explaining her suggestions for more appropriate wording. From the Sir Fred Joyce Schonell Collection, UQFL197, Fryer Library, University of Queensland Library.

The provenance of these items and how they were discovered

The Sir Fred Joyce Schonell Collection (UQFL197) was donated to the Fryer Library over several years by UQ's School of Education after his death in 1969, with these particular letters coming to the library in 1998. The collection, ranging in date from 1941 to 1968, includes original letters, typescripts, unpublished notes and much more. Fred Schonell was founding Professor of Education at UQ, with a deep interest in the teaching of primary school reading. Later in his career, Schonell was the University’s Vice-Chancellor from 1960 to 1969, and brought in significant reforms to grow the student body at UQ and improve the educational experience. For his services to education, he was knighted in 1962.

Copies of the "First Australians" books are also held in the Fryer Library - these were donated by Reverend Professor Roland Busch, previous principal of UQ's Emmanuel College. Busch was a senior educational administrator within the Presbyterian and Uniting Church during the 1970s and worked closely with the Aurukun and Mornington Island Aboriginal communities.

These materials have been made more accessible to UQ Researchers, Students and the community through a Library project to increase the information available about our collections in UQ Library Search and in related finding aids.

We hope that by improving the accessibility of these collections Fryer Library contributes towards the discovery of and research into the rich historical, cultural and artistic stories in the University’s collections.


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  • Angus A. Edmonds, 'Busch, Rolland Arthur (Rollie) (1920–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 4 September 2018
  • John Elkins, 'Schonell, Sir Fred Joyce (1900–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 4 September 2018.
  • Patricia Grimshaw, ‘MacKenzie, Geraldine (1900 - 1980)’, Encyclopedia of Women & Leadership in Twentieth-Century Australia, Australian Women's Archives Project, University of Melbourne,, published 2014, accessed online 4 September 2018.
  • Margaret H. White, 'Derham, Frances Alexandra (Frankie) (1894–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 4 September 2018.
  • Geraldine MacKenzie, The First Australians First Book, illustrated by Roma Thompson, Melbourne: F.W. Cheshire, 1951
  • Letters from Geraldine MacKenzie and Frances Derham to Professor Fred Schonell, 1950-1952, Sir Fred Joyce Schonell Papers UQFL197 Box 67, Fryer Library, University of Queensland Library
  • Norman Francis Nelson, ‘Record of visit to mission stations, 1936’, UQFL57 Parcel 1, Fryer Library, University of Queensland Library
Last updated:
6 August 2019