New England's History

Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Growing up in New England – four stories

Some years ago now, Neil Whitfield commented that he and I seem to have grown up in different Australia's. The trigger for the comment lay in an exchange of experiences relating (among other things) to first exposure to things Asia. He was right, of course.

I was reminded of this by four books that I have been re-reading. The books are all set on the Northern or New England Tablelands. Each is a story of childhood or young adulthood in a country setting. Spanning many years, they tell stories of change set against a backdrop of major historical change.

The period from the early eighteenth century to the start of the Second World War saw a period of economic expansion followed by consolidation. There were major shocks: the depression of the 1840s, that of the 1890s and the 1930s; there was war. During those periods, many lost their properties, some their lives, yet the social system they established seemed solid. Decline followed in the great remaking of Australian society from World War Two through to the end of the twentieth century. By the end of the twentieth century, their society that had seemed so secure had been largely relegated to history.

Writer and film maker Maslyn Williams was born in England in 1911. In the 1920s he came to Australia to work as a jackeroo on a large station near Tenterfield. His Mother's Country[1] is an almost lyrical account of his experiences there. His account shows life on the station but also in the nearby town from the perspective of someone who could mix across social divides. In Maslyn’s case, his experiences created a love of Australia that would keep him there for the rest of his life.

Poet and writer Judith Wright was born in 1915, a member of the Wright family who had major pastoral interests in the Falls country to the east of Armidale and in Queensland. Her half a lifetime[2] is a very different book. Written towards the end of her life, it is a partial account of that life up to the death of husband Jack in 1966 covering childhood, school, her experiences at Sydney University and then in Queensland.

The historical span of half a lifetime is greater than the other books, stretching over 140 years from the arrival of George and Margaret Wyndham in the Hunter Valley in the late 1820s. It is a more acerbic and reflective book than the others, written by a woman looking back and reflecting in part on the formation of her own views.

Binks Turnbull Dowling was born in Papua in 1923. In 1928, her parents sent her to stay at Kotupna, the Turnbull family property also in the Falls country east of Armidale not far from the Wright properties. Bink’s autobiographical memoir For crying out loud![3] starts in Papua, covers her childhood and early life up to her marriage. Full of detail, the book centres on life on Kotupna and the interactions among the extended Turnbull family.

Judith Wallace was born in 1932 and grew up on Ilparren, a sheep and cattle property just to the west of Glen Innes. Her family was part of the Ogilvie family, a family described a little earlier in George Farwell's book Squatter's Castle: The saga of a pastoral dynasty.[4].

Judith Wallace's Memories of a Country Childhood[5].centres on Ilparren, recording the now vanished life style and the changes that were forced on it from external events. He book ends:

The new owners (Ilparran had been sold) never homesteaded on Ilparran and the great house, still standing in spite of the sunken foundations, stares with blind eyes over the ravaged garden.

Three of the four books are marked by this sense of impermanence. In Judith Wright’s case, The Wyndham branch of the family lost much of their assets in the great crash of the 1890s, while the Wrights’ themselves would lose Judith’s beloved Wallamumbi the year following publication of half a lifetime. In Bink’s case, the book is in part about the decline and loss of Kotupna.

As personal stories, the books are interesting in their own right. Together, they also represent social history of particular life in an area over time.

I referred at the start to Neil Whitfield’s comment that he and I seem to have grown up in different Australia's.

The overlapping worlds of all four writers are familiar to me. I am very much younger, but aspects of their life and the people they write about are also part of my own life. I see things a little differently, in part because of age, in part because I came from another if again overlapping part of New England life, more because my experience and research means that I see them contextually, as part of a broader pattern.

It’s complicated to explain. Some aspects, my personal reactions, are better dealt with via autobiographical memoir where I can observe from my own perspective. But as historical documents, the four books are intensely interesting because I can put them into context as part of an interlinked story.


[1] Maslyn Williams, His Mother’s Country, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1988

[2] Judith Wright edited by Patricia Clarke, half a lifetime, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1999

[3] Binks Turnbull Dowling, For crying out loud!, published by the author, Glen Fernaigh via Dorrigo, 1997

[4] George Farwell, Squatter's Castle: The saga of a pastoral dynasty, Lansdowne Press, 1973.

[5] Judith Wallace, Memories of a Country Childhood,. University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1977.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

History revisited - a bit about bread

Apparently, the first bread slicing machine was invented by Frederick Rohwedder. Rohwedder started work on the machine in 1912, but bakeries were reluctant to use it for fear that the bread would go stale. Then in 1928 Rohwedder invented a machine that would slice and wrap bread. The modern mass produced sliced loaf was born.

It took some time for this new trend to reach Australia. Here mass production of sliced and packaged bread had to wait until the rise of the supermarket. Tip Top, the first national bread brand, was launched in 1958.

Prior to the rise of the supermarket, bread was produced, distributed and sold by small, independent family-owned bakeries. The bread, unwrapped and unsliced, was mostly white and was often delivered to homes by horse-drawn cart or, later, vans.

The mass produced sliced loaf may have been slow to reach Australia, but it quickly wiped out the old bakeries, a process aided by selective purchase and closure. Then came new bread making technology that allowed the proliferation of the bread shops along side the supermarkets. Still, the bread they make does generally taste different from the old loaves.

Older Armidale residents will remember those old loaves. As kids, we used the break them open and pull out the soft bread from the centre. They tasted different in part because the bread was fresher, in part because of the absence of chemicals added now to extend shelf life. They also provided the raw material for bread pellets that could be thrown at other kids!

Bread is one of the oldest human foodstuffs, with a history extending back at least 30,000 years.

In Aboriginal Australia, bush bread or seedcakes formed part of the staple diet across the slopes and plains of inland Australia. The seeds used varied depending on the time of the year and area.

Women harvested the dry seeds, winnowing the grain sometimes several times. The grain was then ground using a millstone to create flour. This was mixed with water to create a dough that could then be baked in the ashes, providing a bread that was high in protein and carbohydrate.

We know about these bread making techniques in part from the observations of early explorers and settlers, in part from the presence of millstones and plant residues found at Aboriginal sites.

While exact dates are uncertain, it seems likely that Aboriginal bread making is one of the oldest examples in the world, pre-dating the rise of agriculture that would make bread a basic ingredient supporting the growth of urban populations.

The existence of Aboriginal bread making in fact challenges one of the continuing assumptions about the evolution of settled society, that hunter-gatherer communities did not have access to technologies that would come with farming.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 28 January 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.


Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Volume three of Alan Atkinson's The Europeans in Australia wins the Victorian literary prize

Monday's post on my personal blog, Monday Forum - the historianswas triggered by Alan Atkinson's success in winning the Victorian prize for literature for volume three (the final volume) of  The Europeans in Australia. I was pleased. It also gave me the Monday Forum topic. Here I wrote:
All this brings me to the topic of today's Monday Forum, a break from Australian politics.
What historian do you especially like or dislike? Why are they good or bad? Do you actually read history? 
Don't limit yourself to my questions or, indeed, Australian historians. Go in whatever way you like. Tangents are welcome. I'm just interested in what you think.
Do feel free to join in.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

History revisited - changing roles of food

THINGS OF THE PAST: kitchen gardens were once a common sight in Australian back yards, but Jim Belshaw explains they are becoming rarer as the years pass.
A week back, I was wandering around a Sydney suburb looking at the architecture and the pattern of life. The thing I most noticed was the absence of kitchen gardens.

Growing up in Armidale, the garden was part of our life. It had apple, apricot and plum trees. There were raspberries, gooseberries, red and black currents. And there were lots of vegetables.

In the mornings sometimes I would go outside and pick raspberries to bring back and crush with cream and sugar. Alternatively, I would pick a jar of preserves of the shelf made with the Fowlers Vacola outfit. This was stored in the garage for use during the flush times for various local fruits.

Suffering from an acute feeling of nostalgia, I thought that over the next few columns I might share with you a little on our changing habits in food. To understand this, there are just a few facts that you need to fix in your minds.

The first is the decline in the calories required to support daily activities. At the end of the nineteenth century, men humped weights as a matter of course that would now be illegal outside gyms. On the female side, too, the eighty per cent of women without servants engaged in the sheer physical drudgery of maintaining households without those labour saving devices we now take for granted. Both men and women walked long distances as a matter of course.

As life became more sedentary, the required daily calorie intake dropped. My best guess, and it is only a guess, is that it may well have halved over the twentieth century. This led to changes in food tastes.

At the start of the twentieth century, cook books were full of cake and biscuit recipes. They ran for pages. There were hundreds of local variations. Cakes were eaten at meals, served to visitors, taken in packed lunches.

By the end of the twentieth century, the cake was largely vanquished. This was partly due to greater choice in sweet things including ice cream, more to the decline in calorie requirements.

The second important fact to remember is the continuous improvements in the production, preservation, transportation and distribution of food stuffs. We know this, of course, but do we always understand just how it has affected the look, feel and taste of the food we eat?

Take a simple thing like bread. Today we think of bread largely in terms of bread types. Given the type, we expect taste to be common, although we do consider that some bread makers are better than others. It is hard for us to recognise that bread in one locality might have tasted different from the same loaf in another place depending on the wheat, wood and method of cooking.

Finally, we need to recognise the importance of changing fads and fancies, including the deeply held and strongly argued views of members of the medical profession.


In my next column, I will look at the changing roles of bread and meat.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 21 January 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

History revisited - early architects form Australia's cities

Have you ever wondered why Australia’s capital cities look so different outside the uniformity provided by modern buildings? Yes, part is due to climate, part to variations in available building material. However, beyond this lies a more unseen influence, the impact of early architects. 

Each of the new Australian settlements from NSW in 1788 (Francis Greenway or John Verge) to South Australia in 1836 (Sir George Strickland) to Canberra in 1913 (Walter Burley Griffin) had an early dominant architect or architects who placed their long term mark on the built environment.

The very early architects such as Francis Greenway had limited formal training yet could still design attractive buildings. They brought with them their knowledge of English building and architecture at the time they left for the colonies, but they also brought or had access to architectural pattern books, essentially architectural manuals, as did some of their customers. 

Governor Lachlan Macquarie and his second wife Elizabeth are examples of the second. Both were very interested in architecture, with Elizabeth bringing several pattern books with her to NSW in 1809, books that provided the basic designs for early construction.

Macquarie himself was very much the builder whose grand ideas could outrun both practicality and indeed the financial patience of the Government in Westminster. In addition to the Sydney works he commissioned, he became dissatisfied with the ramshackle layout of Hobart and had new town plans drawn, creating the layout that exists today. By the time he resigned as Governor in 1821, he had left an indelible imprint on the still young colony.

But what of architects with Northern or New England connections? Arguably, the one who had the greatest impact on the built environment as we know it today was James Barnet (1827-1904)

Barnet was the NSW Colonial Architect from 1862 until 1890. During the first expansive period of his career, he used growing Government revenues to build significant public buildings. Northern examples include the Newcastle customs house, post offices in places such as Tamworth, Kempsey and Grafton and the Inverell court house.

His post offices came in a variety of shapes and sizes, but always had an open loggia which provided a meeting place and shelter for the post boxes and a large clock. His court houses usually assumed a monumental and classical form designed to enforce the majesty of the law.

So far as Armidale is concerned, the city is something of an architectural gem because of the varying styles concentrated in such a compact area. However, it is the work of Canadian born architect John Horbury Hunt (1928-1904) with buildings such as Booloominbah or St Peter’s Cathedral that give the city its most prominent place in the architectural history books.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 14 January 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.



Wednesday, January 14, 2015

History revisited – the kitchen becomes the heart of the household

I am not sure how old we were. We must have been young, for we travelled in the Morris Minor that was Gran’s car, although it always seemed to be driven by my aunts who were then living at home. In this case, Aunt Kay was going to see Great Aunt Sarah and brought us along for the ride.

I do not know how old Sarah was, although cousin Arnold might be able to tell me. Certainly she seemed very old to us. The house had a slab kitchen separated from the main house as many kitchens once were. While I can no longer remember all the details, I do remember how quaint and old fashioned it seemed.

Geoffrey Blainey in his fascinating study of early Australian domestic life, Black Kettle and Full Moon, notes that as late as 1850, less than half the dwellings in Australia had a kitchen. People cooked out doors or, if they had a sizeable hut, on open fires at one end of the room. Many huts had huge fireplaces running almost the width of the building. Cooking took place in pots or billies placed on or just above the open fire.

Camp Oven Powerhouse museum By 1850, the camp oven (image, Powerhouse Museum) was already a popular way of cooking. Essentially a small cast-iron box with a lid on top and often set on three legs, the camp oven could be placed in the open fireplace and ashes heaped over it, allowing for a more even distribution of heat. Bread could be cooked, puddings made or meat roasted.

As kitchens spread, they were (as in Sarah’s case) built separate from the house at the back, often linked by a covered pathway. They sometimes included the laundry, a store room and, in wealthier households, a servant’s room just off the kitchen, creating a back wing. You can still see signs of this configuration in some older houses.

This layout reduced the risk of fire, an ever present problem in colonial New England. It kept food smells away from the main house and, in hot areas, the heat of the constantly burning kitchen fire. In colder areas such as the high Tableland, it also made the servant’s room the warmest room in the house.

From the 1880s, houses even in the bush began to include an interior kitchen. The reasons for this shift are unclear.

Blainey surmises that it may have been due to acclimatisation. People were more willing to accept kitchen heat in summer, less willing to accept winter cold. My own feeling is that the shift was simply practical, it was easier to get hot food to the table.

The shift to an inside kitchen combined with another change from the 1860s, the introduction of the kitchen stove in place of open fire and camp oven. This greatly aided cooking while reducing the risk of fire.

The new kitchen and especially the kitchen table had become the heart of the household, a central workplace and point of family gathering.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 7 January 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

History revisited - the Premier greenlight's self-government referendum; the movement squibs

GAINING GROUND: NSW Premier Bertram Stevens (photo) tells Michael Bruxner he could have his referendum on self-government, but with decreasing support and continuing disputes over boundaries, Bruxner feared to put the matter to the test, a decision he would come to regret.  
In October 1931, the dream of self government for New England seemed within reach. The various new state movements had combined to form the United Country Movement with the United Country Party as its political wing, while all the non-Labor groups had agreed that new states should be a key plank in their combined platform.

David Drummond, the member for Armidale, had played a deciding role in those complex negotiations.

Unlike Page, Hardy or (to a lesser extent) Bruxner, Drummond was not a mass agitator. He had deliberately turned himself into a good stump speaker, perhaps better than Page or Bruxner in terms of delivery and clarity, but he lacked the emotional spark that allowed the others to sweep a crowd before them. He was too concerned to explain, to appeal to the intellect rather than the emotions of his audience. In a very real sense he wanted to teach his audience just as he had so painstakingly taught himself. 

These weaknesses were offset by a very major strength, his ability to give form and coherence to ideas and organisations. He was also trusted. In the chaotic conditions of the time, it was these strengths that were most needed. Drummond had played a key role in creating unity among the country movements. Now he would try to steer the cause through the next stages.

The December 1931 Federal elections saw the first setback. The unity that had been established among the non-Labor forces was swept aside in sometimes bitter campaigning, with Joseph Lyons able to establish a majority United Australia Party government in January 1932 excluding Page and the Country Party.

In NSW, the Governor Sir Philip Game dismissed Jack Lang on 13 May 1932. Early in 1931, the New England and Riverina Movement had been prepared to secede. Later, in changing circumstances, the decision had been reached that they would act if Premier Lang again breached the constitution.

Page saw Lyons in Melbourne. Lyons told Page quite bluntly that if New England did secede, he might be forced to call in the army. The movement temporized. There was still willingness to act, but only in the right circumstances. Game’s dismissal of Lang ended that option. They had waited too long, something many would regret. 

The NSW state elections of June 1932 saw Labor swept from power. On 23 August 1933, Justice H.S. Nicholas was appointed to determine the areas of NSW suitable for self-government.

After his earlier experience with his successful move to create the disastrous Cohen Royal Commission, Drummond was taking no chances. Not only was Nicholas carefully selected, but Drummond demanded answers in writing from Nicholas over his scope and role. The question of suitability was out. The only issue was definition of boundaries.

The first hearings were held on 18 October 1933, with Drummond organising the various movement responses. The fervour that had marked 1931 and 1932 was gone. Opposition emerged, with the position of the powerful Norco dairy cooperative particularly problematic for it feared the loss of the Sydney milk market.

Nicholas reported in 1935. He found that two areas would be suitable for self-government as States within the Commonwealth of Australia, a northern region, and a central, western and southern region, with descriptions of the boundaries of each region listed.

NSW Premier Bertam Stevens told Bruxner that he could have his referendum on self-government. With enthusiasm down as well as continuing disputes over boundaries, Bruxner feared to put the matter to the test.

Bruxner would come to deeply regret this decision. But, for the present, the cause had ended. It would be ten years before agitation re-surfaced.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 17 December 2014. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014.

If you want to follow the story of the Northern or New England self-government movement, this is the entry post for the series.



Working Post - the counter culture movement in Australia's New England 1 - Introduction

In 1972, scouts from the Australian Union of Students came to the village and persuaded the Nimbin Progress Association to allow a festival to be held there. The result in 1973 was a ten day festival – the Aquarius Festival, a celebration of the dawning of the `Consciousness' and `Protest' movements in the heady days of the Vietnam war, free love and marijuana - a festival of discovery. TheNimbin domes73[5] photo shows domes at the  Festival.

Nimbin entered Australian popular culture as a potent symbolic marker. However, it was more than that. From a New England historical perspective, it was a major marker that, in combination with other changes, shifted the local historical narrative. From an Australian perspective, it was the local manifestation of a global change process.

This post is the first part of a series tracing these changes. It will evolve over the next week or so as I sketch out patterns. As I add posts in the series, I will reference them here so that you can follow the story through. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

History revisited - Lyons splits the ALP: deal seems to place New England self-government within reach

1931 was a remarkably complicated year. My focus is on the fight for New England self-government, but that fight was taking place against a backdrop of economic and political turmoil that would reshape the Australian political landscape.

From 15 March 1931, NSW began to systematically default on interest payments, forcing the Commonwealth to make the payments instead. By the end of June, the net total paid out by the Commonwealth had reached nearly four million pounds. In June, Premier Lang accepted the Premiers’ economic reconstruction plan but still had no intention of resuming interest payments.

By the end of June, the State’s financial position had deteriorated to the point where, even after non-payment of interest, public service salaries could not be met from mid July. In response, the Lang Government introduced emergency legislation increasing income taxes by between 60 and 75 per cent. 

The defeat of this legislation forced NSW to go cap in hand to the Loan Council seeking financial support. The price was resumption of interest payments, together with Lang’s implementation of the Premiers Plan.

Under pressure, the Australian Labor Party splintered into Lang and anti-Lang factions, while Joseph Lyons (photo) led a group out of the Party to form a new party, the All for Australia League. In May 1931, the Lyons block merged with the Nationalist Party to form the United Australia Party (UAP) with Lyons as leader.

Hurt by internal dissent and facing a hostile Senate, the Scullin Labor Government became increasingly helpless. Late in 1931, the Lang supporters in the Federal Parliament combined with the UAP to defeat the Government and force an early election.

At local level, the New England leadership in April 1931 faced four related problems.

They had first to consolidate support for the separatist cause in the North. Secondly, they had to reach some measure of agreement with the other country movements as to organization, objectives and method or risk destruction by country in-fighting. Thirdly, the future relationship (if any) between the Country Party and country movements had to be defined. Finally, there was the continuing problem, how to push the separatist cause to a successful conclusion.

There is only space here to sketch key features. On 28 April at a first unity conference, the four new state movements agreed a common platform, although differences remained. This was followed by a second unity conference on 18 June that resolved remaining differences and created a central council. Then on 14 and 15 August complex and sometimes difficult negotiations saw the creation of a United Country Movement with the Country Party as its political wing.

In October, a unity meeting between all the main non-Labor forces led to the creation of a coalition agreement in which all parties including the United Australia Party adopted the Country Party platform including new states.

Action to achieve self-government for New England appeared within reach. It was not to be quite as easy as that.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 10 December 2014. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014,. 
If you want to follow the story of the Northern or New England self-government movement, this is the entry post for the series.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

History revisited - NSW to be torn apart by five state solution

New Englanders know this place, the NSW Parliament, as their present parliament. It might not have been been, may not be in future.

The tumultuous early months of 1931 had seen the emergence of four self government movements – New England, Riverina, Monaro-South Coast and Western. This implied a five state solution, with NSW reduced to Sydney, the Central Coast and Blue Mountains with still to be defined northern and southern boundaries.

The relative size and economic power of the five areas varied, but the structure did make basic sense in geographic terms. You can see this clearly if you map the various administrative boundaries used by Sydney over time to govern a large and disparate state. Boundaries vary, but they all generally link to this five-fold division.

The evolving structure may have made sense in geographic terms, but there were considerable differences between and as well as divisions within the various movements. This was especially true for the newly re-emerged Riverina and long established New England movements.

The idea of provincial councils had become well established. During the decentralization movements of the 1880s, the idea of creating provinces within NSW had been put forward as an alternative to new colonies. Then in 1925 the Cohen Commission had concluded that the creation of provincial councils within NSW would address country grievances.

The provincial council idea was further extended by those who supported the abolition of the states and their replacement by provinces with delegated powers, a position adopted by the Federal Labor Party.

There had always been considerable support within the Riverina for the provincial councils’ model. Now in reaction to the Lang Plan, many representative argued that the only solution to the problem of a renegade state was the replacement of states by provinces.

The Northern position, carefully articulated by David Drummond in the aftermath of the Cohen Commission, was different. Provincial councils with delegated powers could not work, Drummond argued, because the central government would always override them as its political imperatives demanded. The only solution was to give the states (or provinces) their own powers.

In addition to differences on constitutional issues, the Riverina Movement was strongly influenced by anti-party, anti-political populist ideas that had flowered under the impact of Depression, leading it to adopt radical positions. These ideas were present within New England populism as well, but there they were tempered by and fitted within an articulated institutional and constitutional position

Personalities compounded the differences. Riverina leader Charles Hardy was younger, less experienced, brash. His offer to Page to campaign in New England ‘to stir up the people’ was greeted with indignation, compounding the personal tensions between Page, Bruxner and Hardy.

The political outlook seemed clouded in the extreme. It was left to David Drummond to find a way through the maze.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 3 December 2014. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014,. 
If you want to follow the story of the Northern or New England self-government movement, this is the entry post for the