New England's History

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

Monday, February 25, 2019

Creating the Freame legend




Osaka 1800s: This was the world in which Harry Freame grew up. This is the fifth in a new series on Australia's early intelligence activities, the first on the life of Harry Freame. 

In my last column, I spoke of Australia’s efforts towards the end of World War I to establish an intelligence service capable of spying on the Japanese Empire.

That effort failed because it became embroiled in political disputes that had little to do with the objectives, and much to do with the personality and power position of then Prime Minister William Morris Hughes.

However, it did (we think) introduce a New England character to the world of spies and spying.

I say think because that figure wrapped himself in so much myth and conflicting stories that none of us can be absolutely sure. Even his own family could not be sure.

Wykeham Henry (Harry) Freame was born in Osaka Japan about 1880 to William Henry Freame, an English sailor, and Kitagawa Sei, the daughter of Kitagawa Yasuaki, a local samurai from Shiga Prefecture.

According to John Fahey, the marriage was an historic event in its own right because it was the first in Japan where a Japanese head of family officially sought to instigate a marriage to a foreigner.

This was not welcome and it took time to arrange. Finally, approval was granted in June 1873 by the main office of the Great Council of State.

I doubt that the office would have adopted the same position if they had known that William was already married. He had, in fact, married Ellen Coker on June 20, 1867 in Melbourne and already had a son. 

Harry always lied about his age depending on purpose, creating confusion.

When he enlisted in the Australian Army in August 1914, he gave his age as 29, then lowered it later depending on the position he was seeking. However, we know that he was born before his father died at the end of 1881.

It appears that Harry was educated in Osaka until the age of 15 or 16, learning to speak fluent Japanese. He then left for England and entered the merchant marine.

"He (Harry) was clearly a better husband than his father for his wages were paid to his wife."


In England in 1906, Harry met and married Edith May Soppitt from Middlesbrough. He was clearly a better husband than his father for his wages were paid to his wife. Later, he would nurse her on the family farm at Kentucky until her death.

From this period in the merchant marine would come two stories that became part of the Freame legend.

The first is that in 1904 he served as part of an international band of mercenaries hired to help suppress a revolt in German East Africa, the second that he worked as an intelligence officer for President Porfirio Diaz during the Mexican Wars.

Looking at the dates, I have always thought that the first was unlikely, the second just possible. But whichever way, they would become part of the Freame legend.  

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 13 February 2019. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015,  here for 2016, here  2017here 2018, here 2019   

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Politics burns spy moves




Not happy: Australian Prime Minister William Morris Hughes dismantled Australia's first civilian intelligence branch focused on Asia and the Pacific. This is the fourth in a new series on Australia's early intelligence activities

The story of Australia’s first spies is a fascinating if sometimes ramshackle story in which progress was finally destroyed by political disputes. 

During the First World War, Japan was part of the Entente fighting the German led Central Powers. Japanese warships guarded the Australian troopships on the way to Europe. But it was clear from the beginning that Japan’s core objective was the establishment of its own Empire in China and the Pacific.

As War continued, British Naval intelligence began looking at ways of improving their Japanese intelligence gathering activities. Australian Naval Intelligence under Captain Walter Thring was also looking at ways of better collecting and interpreting Japanese intelligence. 

Both navies suffered from a similar problem. They did not have the Japanese language speakers to translate public material, let along the growing volume of radio and cable intercepts. 

In 1916, Edmund Piesse as head of Australia Military Intelligence and Thring agreed that something needed to be done. 

"Hughes was deeply resentful of Acting Prime Minister William Watt and was determined to re-assert his authority"

The subsequent process was complicated because of political tensions as well as the White Australia Policy which created certain recruitment difficulties. Nevertheless, in July 1916 James Murdoch was offered a three year contract to teach Japanese at the princely sum of £600 plus first class steamer tickets.

Murdoch, a friend of Piesse’s, was an interesting man. Born in Scotland and educated at the University of Aberdeen and Oxford, he had come to Australia as headmaster of the new Maryborough Grammar School in Queensland. There he fell under the influence of William Lane, later joining Lane's 'New Australia' commune in Paraguay.

Following Paraguay, Murdoch had moved to Japan where he had been living and teaching in for many years. He arrived in Sydney in February 1917, teaching Japanese at the University of Sydney and at the Duntroon Military College. From this position he recruited a cadre of Japanese teachers to build the language training effort.  

In May 1919, the Australian Cabinet agreed to the creation of a Pacific Branch in the Prime Minister’s Department headed by Piesse to oversight the collection of intelligence and information on the nations and relationships within the Far East. 

Australia now had both a developing Japanese language program and the first dedicated civilian unit focused on intelligence and analysis in the Asian region. From this point, things unravelled.

The Pacific Branch had been created while Prime Minister William Morris Hughes was overseas. Hughes was deeply resentful of Acting Prime Minister William Watt and was determined to re-assert his authority.

This might not have mattered if Edmund Piesse had played to Hughes’ deep distrust of the Japanese, but Piesse had formed the view that Australian policy towards Japan was wrong. Hughes promptly got rid of both Piesse and the Pacific Branch.

It would be almost two decades before Australia again took action to really study Japan and Japanese. But in the meantime, our New England spy had entered the scene.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 6 February 2019. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here  2017here 2018, here 2019   

Monday, February 18, 2019

Early Royal Australian Navy intelligence makes a difference



Captain Meyer and crew, SS Greifswald: The capture of the German maritime code books on the Greifswald were part of Australia's first and greatest intelligence success.This is the third in a new series on Australia's early intelligence activities. 

As the world headed into World War One, the British navy was arguably the best and most sophisticated international intelligence service in the world. In a way it had to be, for it was operating in a global environment and needed to know what was happening. 

From its ships and bases a constant stream of intelligence fed back to London. It was already an early expert in what we now call SIGINT, intelligence based on the interception of signals. 

When the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) was created, it became an integral element in this global network. It not only provided information, but had access to the global Royal Navy information flows. 

In December 1912, Lieutenant Commander Walter Thring from the Royal Navy was recruited to the RAN oversight, among other things, naval intelligence. 

An energetic man, Thring quickly had a major impact. Among other things, he created a War Book for the RAN based on the Royal Navy version. This set out the actions to be taken should War break out and played a major role in the RAN’s subsequent fast response. 

As the possibility of war became closer, the RN developed plans to attempt to seize German naval code books.


 As the possibility of war became closer, the RN developed plans to attempt to seize German naval code books. 

On 2 August 1914, two days before Britain’s formal declaration of war, the RAN received instructions to activate the Examination Service, the name used for search and seizure operations on vessels entering or leaving Australian ports. 





SS Greifswald Freemantle following seizure.

By 8 August, the RAN had identified seven German targets, By 10 August, a copy of the German maritime codes had been seized. This meant that the RAN and Admiralty were able to read German maritime traffic within a week of the war started. 

By 3 September, the RAN had captured multiple sets including the signal book of the German Imperial Navy. This effect was that the entire global German naval communications system had been compromised within a month of the war starting.

Initially, all the intercepted traffic was sent to the RAN station in Perth where the first code book had been captured. There Captain CJ Clare, the District Naval Officer, had commissioned George A Pfizer, the Senior Master of Modern Languages at Perth Modern School to translate and make copies of the captured books.

Working hard, Pfizer completed his task by 15 August 1914. On that day, copies were despatched to RAN HQ in Melbourne and to the Admiralty by ship. Until they arrived in London, the RAN remained the centre of the global British decryption effort. 

You would think that the German navy would have changed its codes after the early loss of ships. In fact, in an astonishing display of complacency, it did not do until early 1916. The early Australian naval intelligence triumph therefore had long term impact on the war. 

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 30 January 2019. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here  2017here 2018, here 2019  

Sunday, February 03, 2019

New evidence on the Neanderthal/Denisovan overlap

Summary timeline for the archaeology, hominin fossils and hominin DNA retrieved from the sediments at Denisova Cave. All age ranges are shown at the 95.4% confidence interval. Bert Roberts,
Interesting paper by Zenobia Jacobs, Bo Li, Kieran O'Gorman and Richard Roberts all from the University of Wollongong in The Conversation:  Fresh clues to the life and times of the Denisovans, a little-known ancient group of humans (31 January 2018) .

The Denisova site is interesting because it is the only known site so far for the Denisovan species of hominin, the only site where Denisovans and Neanderthals overlapped. The latest dating results are summarised this way.
 The new studies show that hominins have occupied the site almost continuously through relatively warm and cold periods over the past 300,000 years, leaving behind stone tools and other artefacts in the cave deposits. 
Fossils and DNA traces of Denisovans are found from at least 200,000 to 50,000 years ago, and those of Neanderthals from between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago. The girl with mixed ancestry reveals that the two groups of hominins met and interbred around 100,000 years ago.
Both the Aborigines and Papuans have significant traces of Denisovan DNA suggesting that their ancestors met and mixed with the Denisovans on their journey to Sahul. An alternative but still less likely explanation is that the Denisovans had already reached Sahul at least in small numbers and the admixture occurred here.

I say this only because there is now an apparent tension that I do not understand between the archaeological dates and those generated by DNA analysis. The first presently suggests earliest occupation of perhaps 62,000 years ago based on archaeological dating, while the second suggests an out of Africa date for the Aborigines and Papuans of perhaps 51-72,000 years based on DNA modelling. There is still an overlap, but it has become too small for my comfort. .

I think that what is clear is that the new evidence is progressively changing our understanding of the human pattern of settlement in Eurasia and that this will necessarily change our understanding of Sahul's history.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Australia ventures into intelligence


Led by flagship HMAS Australia, the Australian fleet enters Rabaul in 1914. While this was seen as a great triumph, Australian naval intelligence had already achieved a greater victory. This is the second in a new series on Australia's early intelligence activities. 

Reading John Faye’s 2018 book, Australia’s First Spies, I was struck by the relative sophistication of Australia’s early intelligence efforts. I was also struck by the way that bureaucratic and political infighting tarnished that early promise.  

Three intelligence networks were important in the first two decades after Federation.

The first and least important was military intelligence.

In November 1901, British Major General Edward Hutton was appointed as the first General Officer Commanding the newly formed Australian Military Forces. Hutton, an experienced soldier who understood the importance of intelligence and the need for armies to study other armies, began building military intelligence.

On 1 July 1909, Hutton was replaced by Australian born Major General John Hoad. Hoad was an ambitious man and an effective bureaucratic politician, but he had little knowledge of, or interest in, military intelligence, and the function decayed.

The second intelligence network was the civilian network established by Atlee Hunt.

A lawyer, Hunt had been Edmond Barton’s private secretary in the period leading up to Federation. In May 1901, Barton appointed Hunt as secretary and permanent head of the Department of External Affairs to which, until 1909, the Prime Minister's Office was also attached.

Hunt immediately began to build an intelligence network using, among others, the overseas trade representatives appointed by the Australian colonies, now states.
"The third and by far the most effective Australian intelligence network was that founded by the newly formed Royal Australian Navy"
It was Hunt who launched Australia’s first ever international spy mission in 1901 when Wilson Le Courtier was sent to the New Hebrides to spy on the competing French and British interests in that territory,

The third and by far the most effective Australian intelligence network was that founded by the newly formed Royal Australian Navy.

Today, we think of the successful invasion of German New Guinea in as the first successful action by the Royal Australian Navy.

That’s true at one level, but it’s not really correct. Arguably, the most important RAN success, one that had a significant effect on the outcome of the First World War, was the breaking of the German maritime ciphers.

I will tell you this story in my next column. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 23 January 2019. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here  2017here 2018, here 2019  

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Australia ventures into foreign policy - and spies


Raising the flag, Port Moresby 1883: This action by Queensland set the initial framework for both Australian foreign policy and its espionage activities. This is the first in a new series on Australia's early intelligence activities. 

In this new short series of columns I am going to take you into the world of Australia’s early spies, well before ASIO, ASIS and the alphabet soup of this country’s multifarious intelligence agencies.

In a way, Wednesday 4 April 1883 provides a useful entry point to our story. On that day, Henry Chester, the Police Magistrate on Thursday Island, raised the flag at Port Moresby to formally annex New Guinea and adjacent islands in the name of the British Empire.

Chester was acting on the instructions of the Queensland Premier, Sir Thomas McIlwraith.

The Australian colonies had been concerned for some time about the expansion of German power in the Pacific. They had asked the central Government to annex New Guinea, but also refused to pay any of the costs. In 1876, London declined.

Frustrated, McIlwraith. decide to act unilaterally.  

The British government repudiated the action. However, after the Australian colonies agreed to provide financial support, the British Government made the territory a British protectorate the following year.

Agreement was also reached between the Netherlands, Germany and Britain defining a key dividing boundary.

West Papua became a Dutch colony. The north eastern portion of the island became German New Guinea, the south eastern portion became British New Guinea, later Papua. Four years later, in 1888, Britain formally annexed the territory along with some adjacent islands.

In 1902, authority over Papua was effectively transferred to the new Australian Federation. With the passage of the Papua Act of 1905, the area was officially renamed the Territory of Papua, with Australia assuming formal control in 1906.

This simple tale provides the basis framework for understanding both Australian foreign policy and the emergence of Australia’s intelligence activities.

To the Imperial Government in London trying to balance costs and. imperial economic and political interests at time of growing competition between rising empires including that of the United States, the acquisition of new, distant and potentially costly territories was a low priority.

The self-governing Australian colonies and then the new Commonwealth of Australia were well aware of the imperial position, but took a different view.

While loyal to the Empire, they saw the South Pacific as their economic and political territory, wishing to establish a hegemony similar to that asserted by the Unites States over the Americas with the 1823 Munroe Doctrine. They were also concerned at the growing influence of other rival empires in the Pacific that threatened this dream. 

The end result was the early emergence of a quite distinct if parochial Australian foreign policy. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 16 January 2019. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here  2017here 2018, here 2019  

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Reflections of Christmas past and the season of homecoming


Stand and deliver: The Belshaw boys, Mann Street, Christmas 1951. Cowboys and Indians were all the rage.

Christmas is a very special time for all of us, marked by our own family rituals.

Growing up, Christmas began with a pine branch buried in a pot. Downtown, brother David and I visited Coles and Penneys with our money clutched in our hands to buy presents.

On Christmas Eve people came round to our house for drinks. We had to go to bed, but were allowed to stay up for a while to meet people.

Christmas Day dawns. On our bed is a Santa sack full of presents. We play with these waiting for our parents to wake up. They do, and we get our presents from them.

Mid morning and we go down to Fa and Gran’s, a block away in Mann Street. This was always open house for our grandparents’ friends and electorate workers. The Mackellars who managed Forglen, Fa’s property, were always there with eldest a little older than me. We talk to people and go outside to play.

Once people have gone, we get another set of presents from our grandparents and aunts. Then to Christmas lunch, always a roast chook. We kids sit in a little sun room off the main dining room.

After lunch we play, rolling down the grass slopes. Sometimes there are special events. I remember one Christmas a piper played, striding up and down the lawns at the back of the house.

Later we go up to the Halpins for late afternoon Christmas drinks.

Time passes. I am living in Canberra, part of the great New England Diaspora. By car, train and plane many of us try to come home, meeting family and old friends, revisiting old sites.

This pattern is replicated across the greater New England. Les Murray’s great poem The Bulahdelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle, vividly describes the return of the kids from the city.

The last time I saw Zeke was on the Christmas train. Zeke and I were in scouts together, 2nd Armidale Troop. We were friends.

I suppose that 2nd Armidale still has a bob a job week equivalent. That year Zivan and I decided to clean shoes in Beardy Street. We stood there, but no one came up to us.

Finally we overcame our shyness, started spruking and approaching people. The cash rolled in. I think that we both learned an important lesson, the way in which you have to stand outside yourself to be successful.

Those Christmases were very special times as those dispersed over tens of thousands of miles came back together. I hope that you and yours had a very Happy Christmas.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column, the first for 2019 in the Armidale Express Extra on 9 January 2019. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here  2017here 2018, here 2019  

Thursday, January 10, 2019

A new history year dawns in New England - Port Arthur, Isabel McBryde and the importance and difficulties of multidisciplinary studies

And so we come to the start of a new historical year, or should that be historiographic year since I am talking about writing history?  

To mark the start of the year, UNE scholars Richard Turfin and Martin Gibbs had an interesting piece in the ConversationWhy archaeology is so much more than just digging,. With their team, they are currently over a year into a research project, Landscapes of Production and Punishment, that uses evidence of the built and natural landscape to understand the experience of convict labour on the Tasman Peninsula, Tasmania between 1830 and 1877.

At its peak, nearly 4,000 convicts and free people lived on the penal peninsula. Their day-to-day activities left traces in today’s landscape that the teams looks to locate and analyse using historical research, remote sensing and archaeological field survey.

I am interested in their work in part because New England had two penal colonies, one at Newcastle, the other Port Maquarie.
Joseph Backler (1813-1895). Port Macquarie c1840. The penal settlement was established in 1821 and finally closed in 1830. 
Several things struck me reading the piece. One was simply the advances in technology over the years.

I became involved with Isabel McBryde's work in Australian archaeology as a first year student at the University of New England in (gulp) 1963. In 1967, I was a member of her first archaeology honours class, the first such class in Australia.

Isabel sought to use the latest science and technology, but it was just so limited. Radio carbon dating was in its infancy, while none of the passive ground sensing technology that we know today existing although simple metal detectors were already being used by some prospectors and treasure hunters. Aerial photography was the most advanced technology available to Isabel and that was quite expensive.

Like the current UNE team, Isabel attempted to combine survey work with historical and ethnographic records and later Aboriginal memory. She also involved other disciplines including botanists, zoologists, geologists and geographers to aid her in her work.  
UNE archaeological survey c 1963-64. Mick Moore left, Jim Belshaw right. Photo Isabel McBryde. 
Today, of course, we know so much more and have so much more more depth available to us. That's good, of course, but there was a certain enjoyment in our then innocence, the rush of the new.

At UNE I was involved in what we now call multidisciplinary studies. In fact, for most of my working life I have been involved in working with other fields, other disciplines, aided by broad based studies. In doing so, I became very aware of the way in which professional silos blind us, limit the questions we ask, limit our ability to develop new ideas.

This may be a prejudice, but I think that this problem has become worse as education has become more narrowly vocation, specialisation deeper. But if this is a prejudice,  I know with a much higher degree of certainty just how much of a challenge the spread of knowledge has become.

I am a general historian. Yes, I have a strong focus on a particular area, but within that area I try to understand and write on as many aspects of human life over 30,000 years as I can.. I am constantly reminded how little I know, aware of the possible things I don't know that I don't know!

It's not all bad, of course. The work I do is is a constant broad education. Mind you, I sometimes wonder just how I might have gone if I had put as much time and thought into my university studies?!    

Which brings me to my final point. Over this year I hope to continue to bring you new things, new ideas, new slants on New England history that may interest or at least inform broader thought.  

Monday, December 24, 2018

A happy Christmas to you all

This will be my last post for 2018. I am shutting down fully until the new year to recharge my batteries.

This has been a busy year on the New England history front. I have valued my readers and especially my regular commenters and emailers. I may sometimes be slow in responding, but I do read and value.

I know 2018 has been a sometimes difficult year for some of us. I think for my part it has reminded me of the importance of love and friendship.

For those who celebrate this festive season, may I wish you a very happy Christmas? For those who are alone, and that can be just so hard, tomorrow is a time to remember our blessings no matter how few they seem.

We will continue our discussions and sharing in the new year.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

New England folk takes its place on the stage


International renown: Work done by Chris Sullivan and others in recording 19th Century New England music means the Tablelands has its own place on the UNESCO global folk music site. This is the fifth and last in this short series on the New England folk tradition

In my last column I spoke of the work of Chris Sullivan, Barry McDonald, Mark Rummery and others in recording and documenting the folk music tradition in New England and beyond.

One result of their work is that the New England Tablelands has its own small section in Folkways, the UNESCO site on global traditional music. However, that’s only part of New England’s often unrecognized role in the preservation and promotion of the Australian and New England folk traditions.

Our story begins with the local newspapers who not only published local stories, writing and sometimes song, but from the 1890s began to promote local history. This was followed by the formation of local historical societies beginning with Clarence River Historical Society in 1931.

With time, this led to the creation of local museums including the Armidale Folk Museum in 1958. This replaced the Armidale Museum, originally formed in 1933 as the first municipal museum in NSW.

Staff from the Teachers’ College and University played important roles in these development.

We have already discussed the role played by Russel Ward in the promotion of interest in Australia folk songs, including his influence on students.

Armidale Teachers’ College lecturer Eric Dunlop played a key role in the formation of the Armidale Folk Museum and in the broader museum movement. He believed in museums as an education tool and had developed a particular interest in folk museums while in Europe in 1953.

Ward and Dunlop were joined by others, including John Ryan. John played a significant role in the promotion of Australian folklore, editing the journal Australian Folklore from 1992. He also began the process of documenting folk traditions across the broader New England with a special focus on the literary tradition.

Meanwhile, the music continued. Both Gary Shearston and Mike McLellan became prominent national folk music performers, refreshing old songs and writing new ones. Their songs added to the specific New England tradition.

Shearston’s “Shopping on a Saturday” and “Tenterfield” paint evocative pictures drawn from his early life in Tenterfield, contrasting with the sadness of Peter Allen’s “Tenterfield Saddler.”

While Shearston’s songs draw from his Tenterfield childhood, Mike McLellan’s songs are influenced by his time at the Armidale Teachers’ College. “Saturday Night Dance” and “There is a Place” remain Armidale favourites.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 19 December 2018. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here  2017here 2018 .