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.

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.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

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, 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.