New England's History

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

History revisited – as society fragments, movements begin to form

My last column outlined some of the economic and political events leading into the Great Depression. In the economic and political turmoil of 1930 and 1932 the very fabric of NSW life began to collapse. Many blamed the existing politicians and political parties for the problems and condemned them, calling for new approaches.

New political movements now mushroomed on the right and left of politics. Formed in February 1931, the All for Australia League claimed a membership of 130,000 by the end of June. The Unemployed Workers Movement formed in April 1930 claimed a membership of 31,00o by the middle of 1931. A strong undercurrent of fear ran beneath this political activity.

As the fear of revolution spread, private citizens began to arm, forming unofficial paramilitary organisations. On 18 February 1931, just nine days after Lang announced the Lang Plan, a private meeting of eight men at the Imperial Services Club in Sydney decided to form the New Guard. In less than a year, the Guard had grown to 87,000 men.Eric Campbell New Guard The photo shows New Guard Leader Eric Campbell leading a fascist salute. 

The Guard courted publicity, and this has given it a faintly comic air. However, it was arguably very dangerous; its strident rhetoric was associated with a well organised military structure, largely in Sydney, that might have allowed it to seize power.

Less flamboyant than the New Guard was the shadowy organisation known as the “Movement” to its members. Formed in November 1930 the Movement, later derisively called the Old Guard by its New Guard rivals, aimed to build up a disciplined force of 9,000 men who would only be called out in the event of a situation beyond police control.

While the strength of para-military forces in the North is difficult to gauge, it is clear that units were formed. However, although there appear to have been small New Guard branches at Lismore and Newcastle, the great majority of Northern groups were almost certainly independent or associated in some way with the Old Guard rather than the more efficient and extreme New Guard.

It is also reasonably clear that the Northern separatist leadership had at least had some knowledge of, if not connections with, the Old Guard. This is hardly surprising, given the number of ex-military officers connected in some way with the Northern New State Movement, for these formed the core of the Old Guard.

Nevertheless, whatever the strength or indeed affiliations of Northern para-military groups, their very existence was an important influence in the increasingly confused political climate of 1931 and early 1932.

In these circumstances, Page’s 17 February 1931 Glenreagh speech calling on the North to secede was not just a dramatic gesture. It was very close to a formal call to arms, a call for revolution.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 12 November 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 whole series

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

History revisited – great depression brings divides on left and right

The fire ignited by Earle Page’s 17 February 1931 Glenreagh call for the people of the North to secede from New South Wales drew its strength in part from the now established desire for self-government for the North, more from the social and political tensions unleashed by the Great Depression.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, Australia’s population was just 4.9 million. During the war, 420,000 Australians enlisted, equivalent to 38.7 per cent of the male population. Some 60,000 died, others were wounded or became sick. Including deaths, wounded and sickness, the Australian casualty rate reached 64.8 per cent.

Many Australians returning from the front found readjustment to civilian life difficult. They provided a force for change that helped fuel many of the political movements including the rising Country Party and a resurgent Northern Separation Movement.

There were divisions on the right and left, fuelled in part by the rise of Bolshevism and the success of the Russian Revolution. The radicals looked to the possibility of change, the conservatives feared the overthrow of the existing order.

While the roaring twenties were nowhere near as prosperous as the label would suggest, economic growth was sufficient to contain the underlying divisions. However, that growth was patchy and built on unstable foundations.

Rising tariff protection encouraged expansion of manufacturing. In 1925-26 manufacturing employment exceed rural for the first time. Industrialisation was associated with and assisted by heavy expenditure on public works such as railways, electricity, roads and sewerage. The pattern of industrialisation and public works led to further growth in the metropolitan cities.

Metropolitan population growth became self-generating, for the need to house rising city populations added thousands more jobs in building and construction. Productivity growth in manufacturing was extremely low, import competition rising despite rising tariffs.

Industry responded by trying to control or even cut wages, which in turn led to continuing industrial trouble. Meantime, the rising drift of population to the city together with the cost squeeze placed upon primary export industries as a consequence of rising input costs began to fuel a new wave of country political agitation. the-great-depression-in-pictures6

In 1929, the economic house of cards collapsed. The previous year new overseas borrowings to fund Government public works programs had reached fifty-two million pounds, while interest payments on accumulated loans had reached 28 per cent of export income.

The perfect economic storm that now descended combined falling commodity prices with the closure of the London markets to new borrowings. Public works ground to a halt, while Governments were forced into a desperate search for solvency leading to Greek style expenditure cuts.

Unemployment rose and rose again, reaching 23.4 per cent by the end of 1930. As economic conditions worsened, previously submerged social and political tensions emerged. Australian society began to fragment.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 5 November 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 whole series

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Nathan Wise on the failure in soldier settlement after World War One

Short post to just to provide a link to a radio interview with UNE's Nathan Wise on the failure of soldier settlement after World War One.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

History revisited – battling for self-government in the North

“In a fiery speech, Earle Page calls on the people of the North to secede.”

Glenreagh, Tuesday 17 February 1931. In a fiery speech, Earle Page calls on the people of the North to secede. earle page 2

Eleven days earlier (6 February), the Premiers had met in Canberra to discuss a three year plan to rectify the economic situation. Federal Treasurer E G Theodore had suggested that a new and expansionary monetary policy should be adopted. NSW Premier Jack Lang, a bitter political rival, responded with his own plan, one that came as a surprise even to his own State party.

Under the Lang Plan, payment of interest to British bond-holders would cease pending re-negotiation of the loans on satisfactory terms; interest on all government borrowings would be reduced to 3 per cent; while the gold standard would be replaced by an undefined “goods standard.” What came to be known as the battle of the plans had begun.

Now in response, Page declared that the “people of the North seem to have no other course but to cut adrift from New South Wales. The people of Northern New South Wales refuse to have any part of or lot in this matter of default.” They would request recognition from the Federal Parliament as state that “would be organised under a Provisional Government pending adjustment of relationships and liabilities with New South Wales”.

This appeal, Page went on, would be “on all fours with the appeal of West Virginia” which was recognised by Abraham Lincoln as a separate state when it declared for the Federal Union.

Reaction to the Page speech was instantaneous, if mixed.

“Divorce is ever a tragedy and a confession of failure!”, wrote the newly arrived Anglican Bishop of Armidale John Stoward Moyes in an open letter to the Northern press. “I hope, gentlemen, that deep loyalty to the nation will forbid the people of the North to be beguiled by such sinister proposals”. Later Moyes, convinced at last that the existing system needed changing, would join the New State executive.

The Armidale Express, while sympathetic, warned that the proposed action was fraught with such grave consequences “that the irrevocable step must be taken only after the most thorough investigation”.

People at Murwillumbah had no such doubts. There the shops closed to allow attendance at a new state meeting which resolved that “we decline at all costs to continue to pay taxes and tribute to be spent by caucus-controlled Government.”

For his part, Lang immediately hinted at action for sedition, while the Empire Party, one of the new political groups that had sprung up in Sydney, also suggested that Page was guilty of sedition for promoting secession.

The stage was now set for the next dramatic phase in the North’s fight for self government. To understand this, we first need to look back at the economic, political and social stresses that developed with the Great Depression.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 29 October 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 whole series

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

History revisited – North’s fight rages on

“A number of Movement leaders and especially Drummond would give evidence, articulating constitutional issues”

My next columns return to the story of New England’s fight for self-government, this time looking at the sometimes tumultuous events of the Depression years. As happened during the 1920s, large scale separatist agitation developed. This led to another Royal Commission, the Nicholas Royal Commission. Then, again as happened in the 1920s, the New State Movement effectively collapsed, exhausted by its efforts.

In May 1927, Victor Thompson had convened a meeting of the Northern New State Executive. In a sombre report, Thompson outlined the Movement’s problems.

The new state issue, he told delegates, was confined almost wholly to the North. Even there, the people were too divided in their political allegiances to become solid on the issue. Neither the Labor nor National Parties had any policies towards the establishment of a larger measure of self-government in any part of NSW, while the Country Party could not stake its existence upon a new state for the North. In all, there was no chance of action at state level.

Accepting Thompson’s analysis, the Executive decided to concentrate on seeking amendment of the Federal Constitution. It also decided to convene another convention at Armidale to examine proposals for the extension of local government within the existing state in accordance with the recommendations of the Cohen Commission. Given the Movement’s previous opposition to such councils, this was an act of despair.

As planning got underway, the Movement achieved one of its long-sought breakthroughs with the appointment by the Bruce-Page Government in August 1927 of a Royal Commission (the Peden Commission) to inquire into the Australian constitution.

A number of Movement leaders and especially Drummond would give evidence, aBryan Paperticulating constitutional issues that would be of continuing importance. There is not room in this series to look at the detail of those issues. However, it is worth noting the role that Northern new state supporters have played in trying to force debate on constitutional issues from the 1920s to, most recently, the arguments of the late Bryan Pape (photo). 

It would be September 1929 before the Peden Commission reported. Meantime, the Movement went ahead with its plans for the third Armidale convention, although at first there was little enthusiasm. Despite this, the Movement planned the convention carefully.

A detailed plan for regional councils was prepared and widely circulated. The Northern press played its now usual role in publicising the issues. The end result was that the convention held over three days in April 1929 was well attended. There were thirteen parliamentarians present, while delegates came from sixty-eight towns.

In putting forward his regional council proposal, Victor Thompson was probably reflecting local opinion. Earle Page would have none of it. In a fiery speech he appealed to delegates not ‘to touch this unclean thing’ and won the day. The convention decided to continue the press towards self-government.

The convention had strengthened the Movement. Now events would bring the self-government cause back to centre stage.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 22 October 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 whole series

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

History revisited – past offers food for thought

Next week I will resume my story of New England’s fight for self government, looking at the tumultuous years of the Great Depression. Today a little on food.

Port Macquarie, Tuesday 20 August 1844. The wedding party gathered for the wedding lunch. The seventeen year old Annabella Boswell recorded the event in her journal.

“The table was literally covered”, she wrote. “I do not think that it would have held another glass, for in every crevice were placed custards, jellies and creams. At one end was the largest turkey I ever saw, well supported by hams, tongues, chickens, ducks, pies, tarts, puddings, blanc mange, and various fruits.”

In those simple words, you can see the loaded table. Makes me hungry just to think about it!

Now track forward. While I was a day boy, as a sub monitor or monitor I used to eat at TAS when I was on duty. Mutton stews and huge heavy puddings draped in (I think) Golden Syrup were standard fare. That’s a huge remove from that 1844 wedding feast. So what happened?Picnic

In his book One Continuous Picnic, Michael Symons attempts to trace the history of Australian food. Symons is biased, his views formed by living in Tuscany during the 1970s where he fell in love with Tuscan life as so many Australians have. He has a particular romantic view.

Accepting that, Symons argues that the creation of a unique Australian national cuisine was an opportunity missed. Between the late 1800s and early 20th century, before the processing and industrialisation of food took full hold, Australia had city farms and markets and a host of keen, cosmopolitan gourmets.

If you had lived in Armidale during the 1870s, you would have drunk the local beer or, perhaps, a wine from a local property. Your flour might have come from Kelly’s Plains and been locally milled. The milk and meat came from local animals. You grew your own vegetables, while your chooks provided eggs and meat.

Much of this vanished in a few decades as the railway brought cheaper products from other areas. There was no time for that trial and error using local ingredients that created the peasant cuisine of Tuscany. Food and drink was standardised, homogenised, although some local differences survived.

The world continues to change. A few weeks back, and by accident, a friend and I ended up at Cammeray Craft. There, distant from Armidale, I had a New England beer before lunch, followed by a rather fine New England wine, one of a number on the menu. I was very pleased, chatting to the owner about New England wine and food.

History begins in the present. It would be nice to think that in fifty years’ time the then history writer for the Express might be able to chart the rise of a New England cuisine!

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 15 October 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.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

History revisited – Belshaw’s brief history of measuring time

“I wonder how many people know that  ….. the tyranny of time we all suffer from is very recent?” Jim Belshaw

The old courthouse clock is a familiar sight (and sound) in Armidale. I wonder how many people know that that clock, your wrist watch or, indeed, the tyranny of time we all suffer from is very recent?

For most of our ancestors until quite recently, the day was measured by the sun. The earliest clock we know, a variant of the sundial, first appeared in Egypt around 3,500 BC.

This doesn’t mean that earlier people didn’t have an acute sense of time. They did. The Australian Aborigines were acutely aware of time in a general sense, a travel or hunting sense, but simply didn’t need time divided into units. There was no point.

Measurable or fixed time emerged because certain activities demanded it. Initially, people really worked from dawn to dusk. However, as the concept of a working day or shift began to emerge, as the idea of the appointment emerged, clocks were required.

Now we come back to the court house clock. The first spring driven clock emerged in Europe in the 15th century, laying the basis for the development of the watch. But in colonial Australia as late as the middle of the nineteenth century clocks were uncommon, watches rarer. Time was announced by signal gun, whistles or limited number of town clocks.

Time was not as we know it now, however. Because time was set by the sun, each place had its own time. Newcastle time was two minutes later than Sydney time.

This didn’t matter when transport was slow, but the railways changed things for the railways needed timetables; it was simply a dratted nuisance to have to express a timetable in multiple times. Each colony therefore standardised time, creating an artificial standard based on capital city time that broke the nexus with time measured by movements of the sun.

Times were still different between the colonies. An Armidale traveller returning home by rail from a trip to Queensland had to wind back his watch by a bit under eight minutes as he walked from the Queensland to NSW platforms at Wallangarra. At Albury, the adjustment from Victorian to NSW time was around twenty five minutes.

These adjustments are relatively small. At Broken Hill, the locals had three times; South Australian time set by the rail line from Adelaide; Post and Telegraph time set by head office in Sydney; and local standard time. All very confusing.

It wasn’t until 1895 that the eastern colonies combined to adopt the new Eastern Standard time. This helped standardisation, but it actually meant that local time no longer reflected the sun time on which the body clock worked.

Even by 1895, modern attitudes to time measurement and punctuality had yet to achieve that rigidity that we now know. But it was coming.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 8 October 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 for2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Nineteen Counties

Nineteen counties

On this day in 1829 Governor Darling proclaimed the 19 counties of NSW, redefining the area the Europeans could settle. Hat tip to State Records NSW.

This map shows the boundaries. The squatters quickly spread beyond these limits.

The counties themselves vanished from memory, but their imprint remains.     

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

History revisited – Armidale’s many connections

I can’t help being obsessive. It’s a problem.

People who live in Armidale now are absorbed by the rituals of daily life in that city as it is today. That’s understandable. But what about the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, who have connections with the city but who don’t live there? Where do they fit in?

At work a new staff member said “where do you come from Jim?” “Armidale.” “I wondered”, she said. You see, she used to work for the Business Enterprise Centre in the 1990s. Just across from my desk is a bloke whose family comes from Kelly’s Plains. “We are having a reunion”, he says. “I have never been there. I would like to go”.

Across the partition is a colleague who was born in Bundarra. He talks of the Bundarra Public School athletics team going to the big city (Armidale) for sporting events. “I didn’t have running shoes”, he says. “The Armidale boys did”. I have written several Bundarra columns just for him.

Nick sits just over my shoulder. He is married to a Greek girl from one of the former Greek café owning families in Armidale.

Four people, each with very different memories of and connections to Armidale and the North. The same pattern could be seen a week back at the launch of Came to New England. Published to mark last year’s 75th anniversary of the University College, the book’s thirty seven authors tell differing stories of connection with institution and place that span the decades since establishment.

I said that I was obsessive. Most local or regional historians are, for we are trying to capture and tell the stories that form our collective past. These form the things that bind.

In my columns on the history of the New England fight for self-government I traced the development of a sense of Northern identity, of connections that bind. By the end of the 1920s these were well established, providing a framework for local action. Then from the War came waves of economic and demographic change.

In 1950, every Northern newspaper or radio station was locally owned, as was TV when it arrived. This local ownership provided the base for Victor Thompson’s 1920 newspaper new state campaign. By 2000, most of the newspapers, all the radio station, all the TV stations were externally owned and controlled. The North had lost its voice.

From 1980, mass migration to the North Coast transformed the North’s population. In ten years, the population of the Tweed Valley grew by more than the total population of the Northern Tablelands.

This influx broke the previous balance between coast and inland, reducing the inland to a population rump. The old family connections and shared stories were broken, replaced by new connections and stories to places elsewhere.

In future columns I will return to the story of the Northern fight for self-government, now set in the context of the rise and fall of the sense of Northern identity.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 1 October 2014, the next in a series telling the story of the Northern or New England self-government moment. 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 for2009, 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 whole series

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

History revisited – threads in New England’s history

In my last column, I took the story of the North’s fight for self-government through to the end of the 1920s. Now we plunge into the tumultuous story of the Depression in which the North came within an inch of formal forced secession from New South Wales. This was also the time in which the term New England first started to be used to describe the broader North.

I suspect that some readers may be surprised at just how long it is taking to tell the story of the North’s fight for self-government. You shouldn’t be. This is a fight that has continued for over 150 years, one that is inextricably entwined with Northern history.

Still, to give you a break while also setting a context, I thought that I might stand back from the main story and talk about themes in New England history. You see, even now with all the changes, that’s what shapes us.

Geography shaped Aboriginal New England. Obviously, there was no such thing as Aboriginal New England. New England or the North is a European construct. But the core pattern of the Tablelands with its originating rivers still shaped Aboriginal life.

When the Europeans arrived, settlement came in two broad streams: an inland stream mainly from the Hunter north and then across to the coast; and then a coast stream by ship up the river valleys north and then across into the inland.

This pattern formed New England life, creating overlapping north-south and east-west axes. The north-south axis centered first on Morpeth-Maitland and then on Newcastle with the expansion of the Great Northern Railway; the east-west axis centered on the various river ports and especially Grafton.

Separatist support was strongest along the east-west axis, for that was the area that was most adversely affected by Sydney centralising policies that effectively impeded the development of east-west linkages and trade. However, separatist support also extended along the north-south axis as far south as Maitland, for that was the area most affected by Sydney centralisation policies that diverted trade to Sydney after the opening of the railway bridge over the Hawkesbury region.

In all his, the sense of Northern identity was lowest in Newcastle and the lower Hunter and from the Manning Valley south.

Newcastle did see itself in Northern terms, but this was muted by the rise of coal mining. The coal owners and the miners saw the world in very different terms from those living further north. On the coast, from the Manning Valley south the focus was on Sydney with few Northern linkages.

This pattern was reflected in the 1920s’ separatist campaigns. It was also reflected in the 1967 plebiscite vote on self-government.

Movement of people along both the north-south and east-west axis created linkages of kith and kin. Simply put, we all had relatives elsewhere in the North. The establishment of the Armidale Teachers’ College and New England University College reinforced this pattern, for it brought together kids from across the North. This further facilitated the growth of Northern identity,

Then from 1980 came fundamental demographic shifts, the rise of the coast, that would progressively erode that sense of Northerness. I will look at this in my next column.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 24 September 2014, the next in a series telling the story of the Northern or New England self-government moment. 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 for2009, 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 whole series