George Aiston

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George (Poddy) Aiston (1879–1943), was an Australian ethnographer and outback pioneer, who spent much of his life as policeman in the South Australian town of Mulka on the Birdsville Track.

Personal life

George Aiston was born on 11 October 1879 at Burnside, South Australia, the only son of blacksmith James Albert Aiston, and Rebecca née Perry. He married Mabel Agnes Maud Mary White on 12 April 1905 at Holy Trinity Church, Adelaide but had no children. He had hoped to retire from his outback lifestyle, but the prolonged drought prevented him from relocating. He died of cancer on 25 September 1943 at Broken Hill. His wife continued to run the Mulka store of several more years after his death.[1]


At the age of about 22, Aiston joined the South Australian Military Forces in 1897, and served as an orderly in the Chief Secretary's Office and at Government House. He enlisted in the South Australian First (Mounted Rifles) Contingent in 1899, and served in the South African War. On returning he joined the South Australian Mounted Police as a constable from April 1901 and worked at Yorketown, South Australia, Kooringa and Port Germein. It was at Port Germain, that he first encountered Aboriginal people on a regular basis.


Aiston was posted to the west coast in 1904 and spent five years at Tarcoola, South Australia and Tumby Bay, where he made contact with, and gained the respect of, Aboriginal people while patrolling the Nullarbor Plain and Gawler Ranges. He developed an interest in the culture of the Aborigines, collecting and documenting stone tools, which he sent to the South Australian Museum.[2]

From 1912 to 1923 he was based at Mungeranie on the Birdsville Track and was also appointed as sub-protector of Aborigines, distributing rations, levying bore fees, inspecting livestock, collecting dingo scalps, registering births, deaths and marriages, processing the mail and issuing licences. He also documented the customs, beliefs and technology of the local people. He became an authority on Central Australian Aborigines, in particularlar, the Wangkangurru people of eastern Lake Eyre, whom he photographed along with the Birdsville Track life and landscapes.

He was particularly concerned with the customs of Aboriginal people of the Dieri, Wonkonguru/Wangkangurru and Yaurorka tribes of the Lake Eyre]region of Central Australia and in 1920 he corresponded with the Melbourne art dealer and anthropologist William Henry Gill, through whom he contacted other amateur anthropologists and archaeologists, among them Dr George Horne, Alfred Kenyon, Stanley Mitchell and Thomas Campbell.[1] He also corresponded with Daisy Bates.[3]

Aiston wrote numerous newspaper articles and letters to amateur anthropologists and government officials, and promoted a view that Aboriginal stone tool-making technology was an indigenous development, rather than a branch of the European Palaeolithic. He collected many artefacts from Aboriginal people, taking care to respect tribal prohibitions on secret and sacred objects.

Many of the items in his collection of stone-tool series, fossils, tektites and natural history specimens were donated to individuals and museums. He also guided anthropological expeditions in the Lake Eyre region and in 1922 collaborated with George Horne and Dr Brooke-Nicholls on an early ethnographic film. His major published work, Savage Life in Central Australia was published with Horne in 1924. His widow donated further ethnographical items as well as his collection of arms and armour, to the South Australian Museum in 1953. Many of his photographs are also held by this museum.[4] His papers and correspondence are in the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, the Mitchell Library, Sydney, and the South Australian Museum.[5]

Aiston also obtained ethnographic items from overseas including Japanese armour, Indian swords, and a Persian helmet. In 1931 he prepared a catalogue of the Commonwealth's Horne-Bowie collection of Aboriginal implements. This laborious task which was facilitated by his phenomenal memory, and was published .[6]


Aiston resignied from the police force in 1923 and bought the Mulka store[7][8] and leased the government bore to sell water at a penny a drink. He had ridden with Aboriginal trackers throughout the State's north-east and buried over thirty 'perishers'. Despite his legendary hospitality, Aiston valued his solitude. He enjoyed meetings of the Anthropological Society of South Australia, and belonged to the Bread and Cheese, and Savage clubs in Melbourne, but preferred the company of bush travellers, drovers and Aborigines, supplemented by correspondence which was delivered by camel-train until the late 1920s.

Aiston purchased a Dodge buckboard in 1933 and he and Mabel operated a base for the National Aerial Medical Service of Australia. However, the severe drought in the late 1920s and the Depression saw many of the stationowners along the Birdsville Track give up, and so the business faltered.

Aiston visited Melbourne in 1929 for an exhibition of 'Primitive Art' and in 1934 for the Outback Australia Centenary Exhibition: on each occasion he escorted tribesmen from Mulka who demonstrated tool-making and performed ceremonies.

External sources

  • Aiston to W. H. Gill, correspondence, 1920–40 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Savage, Life in Central Australia ; compiled by George Aiston and George Horne, edited and published by David M. Welsh, London, Macmillan, 1924.
  • The Aboriginal narcotic pitcheri George Aiston. Sydney, Australian National Research Council, 1930
  • The Mulka Store ruins is listed on the South Australian state register of heritage places.[9]


  1. ^ a b Philip Jones, 'Aiston, George (Poddy) (1879–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 29 August 2013.
  2. ^ Papers relating to Australian Aboriginal ethnography SOUTH AUSTRALIAN MUSEUM ARCHIVES
  3. ^ Guide to the papers of William Henry Gill in the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW Sydney : Library Council of New South Wales, 1987
  4. ^ Revies: Images of the Interior Seven Central Australian Photographers, by Philip Jones Wakefield Press, 2011
  5. ^ Aiston Collection South Australian Museum
  6. ^ "ANTHROPOLOGY". The Mercury. Hobart, Tasmania. 12 March 1931. p. 5. Retrieved 5 September 2013 – via National Library of Australia.
  7. ^ The Loneliest Shop in the World, the Past Imperfect, Smithsonian blog 25 June 2012
  8. ^ Image of store on Panoramio
  9. ^ "Heritage of the Birdsville and Strzelecki Tracks" (PDF). Department for Environment and Heritage. Archived from the original (PDF) on 23 July 2008. Retrieved 28 June 2008.
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