Birthing on country: Indigenous midwifery and the Mt Margaret Mission

Giving birth was strictly women’s business in Indigenous communities – in some areas the woman in labour would lean against a ‘birthing tree’, in other places she would squat over a hollow in the earth lined with soft grass. Other women in attendance assisted with such pain relief as they are able, such as pouring cold water on the abdomen. When the child was born, the cord was cut with a sharp stone and the placenta buried.


Women’s Ceremony. Colleen Wallace, Eastern Arrennte. Image via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
European women in the early colony were often attended by a man – the ship’s surgeon, or, as the colony grew, a male doctor. As the population spread inland, many of the white settlers including Dame Mary Gilmore recognised the expertise of Aboriginal midwives in managing childbirth. This continued even when Aboriginal people were moved onto missions and reserves. In almost every culture, it was the women who knew about childbirth. In the past few centuries however, the profession became more regulated and came under the control of obstetricians and regular nurses. Hospital births became the norm. In the 1950s, a woman going into labour would go to hospital, be given a shave and an enema, and have her feet put up into the stirrups. For many women in Australia during the 20th century, this was both the beginning of motherhood and the end. Not only were Indigenous maternal and perinatal mortality rates very high (and still are) but thousands of children were forcibly removed from their parents and sent to a mission or orphanage. Thousands more were adopted out. Many adoptees have only been able to find out about their biological parents during the past few years. Mission homes and hospitals are now notorious for colluding in the stolen generations and trying to assimilate indigenous tribes through interbreeding. Until the 1960s, Aboriginal people were not even citizens and considered by most white people to be inferior. However, generalisations are dangerous and, without diminishing the appalling abuse and dehumanization suffered by indigenous people, it must be acknowledged that many missionaries did a great deal of good.

Enter Heather

Heather Ingamells was born in 1929, one month after her parents’ wedding in Melbourne’s St Paul’s Cathedral. Her father Robert served in the Army during the First World War, but spent most of the war in hospital with influenza and other illnesses. Heather was bright and a high achiever, earning a scholarship to attend the prestigious Methodist Ladies’ College in Kew, and becoming dux of her pre-nursing course in 1945. When she was only 8 years old, she encountered the catalyst for her life’s work – hearing two Aboriginal girls sing at a concert, she was inspired to go and work among Aboriginal people. In 1947, she enrolled in the nursing course at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. It was a highly regulated environment with strict social as well as medical rules. Even entering and exiting the hospital elevator must be done in order of seniority. When Heather was in her third year, she encountered an acquaintance in the group of new first years. Starting up a friendly chat with this girl earned Heather a stern reprimand from Matron.
Heather spent nearly ten years preparing for medical mission work – after nursing training at the RMH, she studied midwifery at the Queen Victoria Hospital and Infant Welfare at the Presbyterian Babies’ Home. From 1955-56 she worked as a nurse and house mother at Bomaderry Children’s Home near Nowra, NSW. This home is now notoriously referred to as the birthplace of the Stolen Generation, but this is mainly because it was the first home for Indigenous children, established in 1908 by the United Aborigines Mission. This same mission also ran the Mt Margaret Mission near Laverton, Western Australia where Heather went in October 1956 to take up the post of hospital matron.

Life on the mission

Mount Margaret was initially established as a gold mining community in the 1890s. When most of the gold had dried up, the industry moved elsewhere, but instead of becoming a ghost town, it was taken over in 1921 by United Aborigines Mission, led by charismatic mission pioneer Rod Schenk. It was the first mission in the Western Desert, and medical care was begun the following year in 1922. Unlike other missions such as the notorious Moore River Settlement near Perth, the aim of Mt Margaret was to allow indigenous people to remain together on the land. It was deliberately away from towns like nearby Leonora, however, at the request of residents who didn’t want ‘natives’ living too close to them. Many of the mission residents in the 1920s had been forcibly removed to Moore River, but had escaped and made their way to Mt Margaret.
Another story of escape from Moore River was made famous by the 2002 film Rabbit Proof Fence.

Mothers took their children to Mt Margaret in the hope that they could live there together and not have them stolen. The mission’s philosophy was providing work so that both men and women could earn their own living, in contrast to the neighbouring squatters and pastoralists who didn’t believe that Aboriginal men were worth paying, even when they were expert stockmen. At this point, Aboriginal people were not even considered citizens and were under the legal guardianship of the Chief Protector of Aborigines, A.O. Neville, who acted in loco parentis even for indigenous adults. Only amendments to the Native Welfare Act in 1963 abolished his powers to remove children from their parents, although the practice continued until the 1970s.


Mt Margaret Mission, 1953. Schenk family. Source: State Library of Western Australia

The Mt Margaret mission encouraged women to remain with their children during early childhood, instead of leaving them to go on walkabout. Despite the prevalence of paternalistic attitudes among the missionaries and the association of Christianity with western culture, the mission hospital provided essential medical and midwifery care to the residents. Aboriginal people were turned away from white hospitals and so came to the mission for help.
Mt Margaret mission is an assortment of buildings in the middle of dry arid plains. Receiving only 150mm of rainfall annually, the residents were plagued by flies and dry winds. Heather became very frustrated with the requirement for nurses to wear a veil, as it became difficult to keep it pinned to her hair. The matron’s house had no sink, bathroom or separate toilet. During an influenza epidemic in 1957, the nurses were trying to care for 55 patients in an 8 bed hospital. They also introduced a treatment program for trachoma and polio, and used a mobile chest x-ray unit to test for tuberculosis.


Houses built by Aboriginal families at Mt Margaret Mission. Schenk family. Source: State Library of Western Australia
On the evening of 29th March 1957, one of the maternity patients went into labour. The baby girl was born at 2am in the morning, and was named Heather Brenda. Later that same morning, Matron Heather got married, but stayed in the hospital to change her namesake’s nappy half an hour before the wedding ceremony.
Sometime later, another woman in labour was being driven to the hospital by Heather’s husband Sam, with Heather in attendance. Emergency cases were taken to Leonora or Kalgoorlie hospitals. Not arriving at hospital in time, the child was delivered on the side of the road by Heather, who borrowed Sam’s pocket knife to cut the cord.

Birthing on country: indigenous midwifery today

Although the Mt Margaret hospital provided essential care for indigenous women that they could not find anywhere else at the time, the midwifery profession has in recent times been making considerable efforts to make maternal health care more culturally sensitive. The fear of having your baby stolen from you has not entirely subsided. The first indigenous professional nurse was May Yarrowick who did her training in 1902, and there are now over 2,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nurses and midwives practising across the country. Unfortunately indigenous babies still have higher neo- and postnatal mortality rates than the rest of the population. Their mothers are more likely to smoke and keep smoking during pregnancy which does not improve the situation. However having more indigenous nurses and midwives has resulted in higher rates of attendance at antenatal classes and clinics. Health professionals are also introducing culturally sensitive information resources and attempting to re-establish trust between Aboriginal mothers and health care services. One significant aspect of this new approach is trying to ensure that, whenever possible, indigenous children are born on their country, the land of their people, and that this information is entered on their birth certificates. This means that the strong connection between indigenous people and their land is not severed as it has been too often in the past.


Heather Mollenhauer, Warburton Mission, 1958-1961. Photographer: Mervyn Young. Source: State Library of Western Australia

What Heather did next

Heather may have imagined spending many years at Mt Margaret, but this wasn’t the case. In 1964 she and Sam were transferred to the Warburton Ranges and then to the Cosmo Newbery mission the following year. Situated about 100 kilometres north east of Laverton, WA, the mission was operated by UAM from 1953 until 1973. While living at Cosmo Newbery, Heather helped to collect data for the 1966 census, and recorded information about family skin groups, a complex kinship system within Aboriginal culture. Her nursing career ended in the 1970s when she and Sam relocated to the Blue Mountains in NSW to work at UAM’s publishing arm, Mission Publications Australia. After her retirement in 1989, she took on a host of new interests, including bushwalking, native botany, gardening and the history of the township of Lawson.
This history of Lawson only records the activities of white settlers – it does not acknowledge the Darug and Gundungurra people as the traditional owners of the land.
The Blue Mountains City Council consulted her with regards to road naming and the widening of the Great Western Highway, and she was named Senior Australian of the Year in 2000. Heather died in 2010 of a heart attack following bowel surgery complications, and was survived by her husband Sam (now deceased), five children and twenty grandchildren.
The Mt Margaret Mission hospital is now a heritage listed building. The community continues as an indigenous township under the auspices of the Aboriginal Movement for Outback Survival, with many former mission residents still living there. One girl who lived at the mission in the 1950s, May O’Brien, later became the first Aboriginal woman to gain a tertiary qualification in Western Australia and to become a registered teacher.



Mollenhauer, Heather and Kabaila, Peter. Bomaderry Aboriginal Children’s Home audio material. 2009. Held by Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

Mollenhauer, Sam. The fragrant life of Heather Mollenhauer. Lawson, NSW: the author, 2011.

Morgan, Margaret. A drop in a bucket: The Mount Margaret story. Box Hill, Vic.: United Aborigines Mission, 1985.

2 thoughts on “Birthing on country: Indigenous midwifery and the Mt Margaret Mission

  1. Erin, a wonderful overview of Heather Mollenhauer’s life at Mt. Margaret mission. I wish it had appeared on the internet earlier when I was searching for Wendy Ingamells, Heather’s sister. It would have answered so many questions for me. You no doubt would know the story of Julie, Wendy’s daughter by now. It was Heather’s missionary service that led me to discover that she had married Sam Mollenhauer that led me to on Facebook, etc. etc. – You are an excellent writer and I will read more of your blogs. Many thanks. Gabrielle.


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