New England's History

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

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

History Revisited - Thea Proctor: from NEGS to the art world of Edwardian London

SCHOOL GROUNDS: Renowned artist Thea Proctor lived in Armidale for a brief period before returning to study at the New England Girls School. Proctor would go on to study art in the vibrant world of Edwardian London.
For most, to be born or educated in Armidale is to leave the city. Their journeys have taken them all over the world and into every aspect of life.

Artist Alethea Mary (Thea) Proctor was born in Armidale on 2 October 1879, the oldest child of William Consett Proctor and his Queensland born wife Kathleen Janet Louisa, née Roberts.

Thea’s father had come to Armidale as a solicitor. He became involved in local government and was Mayor of the City in 1877. In December 1880, he was elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly as Member for New England, a position he was to hold until January 1887.

Some time after his election, the family moved to Sydney, living comfortably at Hunters  Hill. Then in 1889, Thea was sent back to Armidale to board at NEGS. Her parents’ marriage had become troubled. They separated in 1892, divorcing in 1897. On 24 August 1903 William Proctor again married. His new wife was Julia Cusack. They would have one son and three daughters.

It is not clear what contact Thea retained with her father or, later, with her half brothers and sisters. Following the separation, she went to live at Bowral with her maternal grandparents. They encouraged her interest in art. artistic pursuits. In 1894, while attending Lynthorpe Ladies' College, Thea won a prize at the Bowral Amateur Art Society's exhibition. Because of this connection, Bowral claims Thea as its own.

In 1896, Thea enrolled at Julian Ashton's art school. The school emphasized drawing and the latest decorative ideas in composition.

This was an exciting time in Australian art. Thea became fully absorbed in a world in which art and personal relations were closely interlinked. Her fellow students included Elioth Gruner, George Lambert and Sydney Long. She became briefly engaged to Long in 1899, but it was with Lambert she formed the closest relationship.

In 1899, she worked with with Lambert, Long, and others on the short-lived Australian Magazine.. Then in 1903, Thea followed the now established art trail to London where she studied at St John's Wood Art Schools and with Lambert. She was described at this time as 'beautiful, tall, dark-haired, languorous and dignified'.

Years later, she retained this beauty. “Miss Proctor received us in something between a tea gown and a peignoir”, Barry Humphries would write. :”She was tall and still very beautiful, with her long hair caught back in a bun. One recognised without difficulty the striking young woman who appears in more than one of George Lambert’s most celebrated paintings.”

The exact relationship between Proctor and Lambert remains uncertain. She posed for him and frequented his household. She found him intellectually stimulating, became 'doggedly devoted' to him, establishing a life long friendship. It was clearly a friendship that had multiple levels.

It may seem a long way from Armidale and the NEGS dormitories of the 1880s to the vibrant intellectual life of London and Paris at the start of the twentieth century, but that (in a way) is the Armidale story. Our tentacles reach across time and space in often unseen ways.

I will complete Thea’s story in my next column.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 2 September 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, September 02, 2015

History Revisited - Aboriginal nurse Emma Jane Callaghan: the lady who became an institution

HOME SWEET HOME: Emma Jane Callaghan was born at the La Perouse Aboriginal Reserve in 1884. This photo shows a a group at La Perouse from the 1890s. Emma would go on to build a career in nursing and in promoting Aboriginal health.
Emma Jane Callaghan (1884-1979) was a remarkable woman whose life was recorded by Shay Ann Kelly.

Born at the La Perouse Aboriginal Reserve in Sydney on 28 February 1884,
she was the younger twin of William Foot and Kathleen Sims. William was a fisherman, while Kathleen was a member of the Dharawal tribe.

Emma injured her head when she was four. She was looked after by Retta Dixon who would found the Aborigines' Inland Mission of Australia, establishing a relationship that would shape Emma’s life.

Although she had left school after third grade, Emma wanted to be a nurse. About 1903 Dixon took her to visit the Dunggutti (Dainggatti) people at the Nulla Nulla Aborigines' Reserve near Bellbrook in the Upper Macleay Valley.

Emma decided that she had a mission to help her people. Two years later she returned to Bellbrook. There she held religious services in the open air under trees or in the small tin church on the reserve, learning to play the organ. She also helped older Aboriginal women when they assisted in childbirth, earning their trust and respect.

Emma registered Aboriginal births. regularly searching the camps and humpies for sick people, crossing flooded creeks and riding through the bush to tend her patients: At the time, Aboriginal people were not admitted to Kempsey hospital and would not be until an annexe was built in the 1930s.. She also buried the dead with the police as witnesses.

At Bellbrook, Emma met and fell in love with a young Dunggutti labourer, Athol Callaghan. They married on 20 September 1909 at the Nulla Nulla Reserve. Athol was 22, three years younger than Emma. They would have eleven children.

Apart from her other skills, Emma was a competent needlewoman. She made her own hats and clothes as well as clothes for the community including wedding dresses and ball gowns. She also extended her knowledge of the local language, translating Bible stories into Dunggutti.

Athol developed tuberculosis. Around 1928, the family moved to Armidale to be closer to medical facilities. There Emma displayed again that energy that was such a trade mark feature.

Emma herself became highly respected and encountered no personal prejudice. However, that was not universally true for Armidale’s Aboriginal community who were living in appalling conditions on the fringes of the town.

Emma again practiced as midwife to her people, nursing them without charge She lobbied the mayor and the Anglican bishop until her family obtained a house.. This became an impromptu hospital and doctor’s surgery, with Dr Ellen Kent Hughes regularly visiting to see patients.

After seven years in Armidale, the family returned to La Perouse at Athol’s request. There Emma bought a block of land near the mission and built a timber and fibro house to plans provided by her friend Kent Hughes.

At La Perouse, Emma was just as active as she had been in the North. By the time she died in 1979, she had become an institution, “The Lady”. In recognition, the State government preserved her home in 1985.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 26 August 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, August 26, 2015

History Revisited - Dymphna Cusack: writing her own story

RENOWNED PLAYWRIGHT: Armidale educated Dymphna Cusack travelled the World during her writing career
From time to time in this column I have commented on the many writers with New England connections. Dymphna Cusack (1902-1981) is another such writer.

Dymphna Cusack was born in 11 September 1902 at Wyalong, the third of six surviving children of Beatrice and James Cusack. The combination of straightened family circumstances with the girl’s ill-health led to her being brought up by her childless aunt and uncle, Nell and Tom Leahy at Guyra.

Dymphna was very much alone during those bush years apart from her Aunt and Uncle and her cat, William Adolphus. However she loved animals, fishing and time spent outdoors. Her uncle was a keen fisherman, and they often went fishing together. Later, she would live in many great cities across the world, but she remained a bush girl at heart.

The child read omnivorously. She also discovered a love of teaching when the headmaster at Guyra Primary (“what a man! what a teacher!) let her take over lower classes when their teachers were away.

In 1917, Dymphna was sent to board at St Ursula’s in Armidale. I have commented before on the contribution that St Ursula’s made to New England’s cultural life. Founded by German nuns in 1882, the school still (in Dymphna’s words) “bore their imprint in its reverence for learning for learning’s sake, and in its rigid discipline.”

Importantly, the school trained girls for University entrance. As a consequence, in 1920 Dymphna won an exhibition and Teachers’ College scholarship to study at the University of Sydney, taking her place in 1922. Upon graduation, she embarked on a teaching career while also writing.

Dymphna wrote her first play while at University, followed by three more that were all well received. In 1936 came her first published novel, Jungfrau, a tale of personal relationships and moral conflicts based on her University experiences.

By the time of her death, she had published twelve novels (two of which were collaborations), seven plays, three travel books, two children's books and one non-fiction book. She also helped Catherine Edmonds write Caddie. Caddie, Red Sky at Morning, and Come in Spinner (written with Florence James) all became Australian films or television shows. Another . book, Heatwave in Berlin, was staged and televised across the Soviet Union as part of the 1965 celebrations of the twentieth anniversary of victory over fascism.

The themes in Dymphna’s work reflected her changing life experiences, taking her far from that early New England life. Yet her love of the county remained and was reflected in some of the descriptions and memories contained in her writing.

In 1961 she returned to her earlier memories in Picnic Races. The setting is the imaginary gold mining town of Gubba, one that combines echoes of Bathurst and Goulburn as well as her beloved New England.

Her husband, Norman Freehill, described the book as a deceptively light-hearted yet profoundly critical study of rural Australia against a pioneering background which was her own.

The sometimes malicious anecdotes and passing descriptions in the book would be instantly recognisable even today, a trait that she shares with other New England writers.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 19 August 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, August 25, 2015

Janine Rizzetti's review of Klaus Neumann's Across the Seas: Australia’s Response to Refugees. A History

Janine Rizzetti's The Resident Judge of Port Phillip remains one of my favourite history blogs. I mention this now because she has written a number of very good posts, most recently a book review,
‘Across the Seas: Australia’s Response to Refugees. A History’ by Klaus Neumann.

From Janine's summary, I suspect that this is a book I should read for both personal and professional reasons. I also hadn't realised  until I read the post that former Fraser Government Immigration Minister Michael MacKellar had died. Janine has a link to his obituary in the Age. . 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

History Revisited - Mallaby shared his soap with the world

AUSTRALIAN INFLUENCE: Armidale's renowned soap maker travelled to Paris for the World Exhibition in 1900 
In an earlier column on Armidale industry, I referred to Mallaby’s Soap. Its golden bar soap was perfect for toilets or washing laces, silks and woollens, while scrubbing the table, floors, pots and pans with Mallaby’s pumice stone soap made them much cleaner.

I don’t remember Mallaby’s Soap, production finished by early 1942, but I certainly remember those scrubbed tables that you used to find in country kitchens.

In 1900, George Mallaby attended the World Exhibition in Paris. Held in pavilions stretching from the Eiffel Tower, the Exhibition was not just a display of the miracles of the new, but also a celebration of the wonderful Art Nouveau style, bringing that into public prominence.

The old European order that would be swept away by the Great War was its peak, and countries vied with each other for the grandeur of their exhibits, joined by chambers showcasing science and industry. If you google the Exhibition, you will find early colour photos of the whole show. It was quite something.

It is not clear what Armidale’s George Mallaby made of the whole thing, although I’m sure that he found it interesting. His purpose was more pragmatic, to exhibit his soap for which he apparently won a gold medal. He also took the opportunity, and this was probably the primary purpose of the trip, to visit England after a very long break. His parents had died and he wanted to visit their grave and pay for the cemetery plot. 

We know from John Harvey’s story of his grandfather (New England Lives II) that George Mallaby was born on 13 December 1860 at Osset, West Riding, Yorkshire. On 21 May 1882, George married the twenty year old Faith Furness. Both had been working in the mills.

In August the following year, the young couple set sail for Australia. After a relatively brief stay in Dubbo, the family moved to Armidale around early 1885 to escape the Western Plains heat. There George began making soap in a copper in the backyard.

By the time of George’s visit to England in 1900, he had established a successful business and had also acquired considerable real estate. Just as well, for there were now seven children!

I have written before about the way the new Great Northern Railway reduced many local activities because of the competition from imported goods. In the Mallaby case, George was able to use the railway to gain business, shipping soap south to Werris Creek, north to the Queensland border, thus consolidating his business. Nearby Hillgrove with its gold mines was also a profitable market.

Many of the patterns of life in Armidale and the North more broadly were linked to varying forms of religious observance. The Mallabies were strict Methodists, although Faith and George appear to have mellowed somewhat in later years.

Saturdays were preparation for Sundays, with the boys filling the wood box and polishing shoes. On Sunday, oldest daughter Emma stayed home to prepare the roast while the rest of the family went to church. No embroidering or reading for pleasure was allowed, while music was limited to hymns.

George Mallaby died in 1926, Faith died less than a year later. By then, the young couple from working class England had been able to provide for their now large family, giving them the opportunities they had lacked. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 12 August 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, August 12, 2015

History Revisited - how one TAS Old Boy took to the skies

P G Taylor and Charles Kingsford Smith welcomed in Hawaii on the first Australia-US plane flight
“Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines” captures in comedic form some of the strangeness and excitement associated with aviation’s early day. A number of the early Australian pioneers had connections with Northern New South Wales.

Sir Patrick Gordon Taylor (1896-1966), more commonly known as PG or Bill, was born at Mosman, Sydney, on 26 October 1896. His father, also Patrick, was a successful businessman who built up considerable business interests fuelled by urban growth on Sydney’s North Shore assisted by judicious company re-arrangements.

Taylor early acquired a sense of adventure and a love of the seas, roaming Pittwater in his dingy including an expedition to uninhabited Lion Island, site of a major Little Penguin Colony. Taylor’s parents chose to send the boy to The Armidale School to complete his education. There he finished his schooling as senior prefect.

Rejected by the Australian Flying Corps, Taylor went to Britain and was commissioned into the Royal Flying Corps in August 1916. There he served with distinction, winning the Military Cross and being promoted to Captain.

Like many First World War pilots, Taylor acquired a love of flying. During the 1920s, he flew as a private pilot, completing an engineering course and studying aerial navigation. He was drawn into the circle around Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm.

In 1933 and 1934, he flew between Australia and New Zealand as Smithy’s second pilot and navigator on the Southern Cross, acted as navigator on Charles Ulm’s return flight to England and with Smithy completed the first Australian-US flight. However, it was the events of May 1935 that established Taylor as a heroic figure in the public mind.

On 15 May, a heavily laden Southern Cross took off for New Zealand on the King George V jubilee airmail flight with Kingsford Smith as pilot, Taylor as navigator, John Stannage as radio operator.

Six hours into the flight, part of the exhaust manifold on the centre engine broke off, badly damaging the starboard engine propeller. Smithy closed down the engine, applied full power to the other two engines and turned back for Australia while the crew jettisoned the cargo.
This is one of the few airmail letters that survived the flight.
 The oil pressure on the port engine began to fall rapidly, dooming the flight. Climbing out of the fuselage, Taylor edged his way against the strong slipstream along the engine connecting strut and collected oil from the disabled starboard engine in the casing of a thermos flask. He then transferred it to the port engine.

Assisted by wireless operator, John Stannage, Taylor had to repeat this process six times before the aircraft landed safely at Mascot some nine hours later.

In 1946, these events were dramatised in the Columbia Pictures/Ken Hall production Smithy, with Taylor playing himself. Not unexpectedly, the film was popular at the Saturday night films put on for TAS boys!

Taylor went on to a long and successful career as pilot, businessman and, perhaps less expectedly, writer, publishing eight successful books with adventure, flying and sea themes.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 5 August 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.

Coincidentally, at the time this column came out,  freelance writer and film maker Rick Searle released a biography of Patrick Gordon Taylor, The Man Who Saved Smithy. You can hear an interview with Rick here. .

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

History Revisited - mixed beginnings for a household favourite

POPULAR PET: Cats weren't always well accepted in homes. Some rulers ordered them killed because of fear of vermin, others because of fear of witchcraft.

It is not clear when cats were first domesticated. The earliest date we appear to have is from a grave in Cyprus dated to around 7.500 BCE. Since the cat in question was not native to Cyprus and was buried with great care near a human burial, the assumption is that it may have been imported as a pet.

Unlike dogs who were useful in hunting and herding and were therefore domesticated first, the domestic cat emerged in the Fertile Crescent with the development of farming. Farming required food storage, creating a vermin problem. The domestic cat was the outcome.

Unlike dogs, the cat lives solitary in the wild. As a result, it has been able to take what it wants from humans (food, shelter, play) and to pay its dues in return (pest control) without losing contact with its original identity.

By the time of the Pharaos, the cat had acquired a very special place in Egyptian mythology as a sacred animal. To kill a cat was an offence punishable by death.

From Egypt, the cat colonised the expanding Roman Empire. Cats become common and valuable assets to those who harvested crops and had problems with rats and disease. They were introduced to Britain around 100 AD. The King of Wales, Hywel Dda, declared them protected by Law as sacred and valuable animals. Killing a cat could again be punishable by death.

The cat’s special mythological place did not always work to the animal’s advantage. During the Middle Ages in Europe, cats became associated with superstition and witch craft. They were considered animals of sin and were thought to be associated with Satan.

In 1348 when the Black Death (The Plague) broke out, cats were suspected as causing the disease or were in some ways associated with the devil’s work. Some rulers ordered the killing of all cats, in so doing encouraging the spread of disease.

Cats made a European comeback because of their anti-vermin usefulness as well as their attractions as pets. They were frequently carried on ships, in so doing encouraging their spread. 

The first cat probably arrived in Australia around 1804 as a ship cat. Cats breed rapidly. By 1820, Sydney had a significant feral cat problem. I have wondered how quickly and how far cats spread beyond Sydney in advance of European settlement. We know livestock spread, so a cat spread is possible.

As with dogs, cat ownership grew rapidly over the nineteenth century, associated in part with the growing middle class now able to afford pets.

Growth in pet ownership was not limited just to dogs and cats. Birds, for example, became extremely popular. The first pet food to go on the market was, in fact, bird food, with the first dog food marketed in England around 1860.

And the most important technological advance so far as cats as house pets is concerned? Arguably, kitty litter! This first became available from 1947. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 29 July 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, July 29, 2015

History Revisited - the long history of man's best friend

NATIVE CANINE: It is thought that the dingo reached Australia 4,000 ago to become the first Australian dog variety.
Continuing the story of the dog from my last column, the RSPCA suggests that Australians have over four million pet dogs. That’s a considerable number. However, the role of dog as pet is quite recent.

There appears to be considerable dispute as to when the first dog diverged from wolf ancestors. However, a date range of 27,000 to 40,000 years ago appears most likely. It also appears that population shifts during the Late Glacial Maximum, that cold period when the Northern Tablelands displayed semi-glacial conditions, helped spread the dog.

Archaeological remains suggest that the first Australian dog variety, the dingo, reached this continent somewhere between 3,500 and 4,000 years ago. We know that the dingo had reached Northern NSW around 3,200 years ago because of the presence of a canine tooth found in a shell midden at Wombah in the lower Clarence.

Dogs and humans seemed to have formed a natural pairing, in so doing changing the dogs in the process. Dogs are intelligent pack animals, fitting into the natural life style of hunter-gather societies.

With time, they came to be used in a variety of roles – hunting, guarding, herding, transport and, in some cases, food. The dingo could well have reached Australia as live food on off-course voyages.

The role of dogs as guards and hunters is well incorporated into mythology, showing the ancestry of the relationship. In Greek mythology, Cerberus is a three-headed watchdog who guards the gates of Hades. In Norse mythology, a bloody, four-eyed dog called Garmr guards Helheim. In Hindu mythology, Yama, the god of death owns two watch dogs who have four eyes.

NUISANCE: Barking in urban areas has become a problem in modern times. It's just a question of selection.  

Time, space, natural selection and breeding with related species created a variety of dog types. Breeding to achieve or preserve particular characteristics has a considerable history, Barking, now seen as a major problem in an urban environment, is an example of a trait that seems to have developed through breeding for guard purposes.

A major change took place over the nineteenth century with the creation of dog breeds through selective breeding and breed promotion through kennel clubs and dog shows. Increasingly, dogs came to be selected for attractiveness and distinctive features, resulting in a vast variety of breeds.

Growing up in Armidale, few people had dogs for pets. Those that did generally kept their dogs outdoors. There was a clear distinction between the working dog and pets, creating a rural urban divide.

From around the start of the 1980s, there was an explosion in the number of domestic pet dogs and cats. The dog became an urban phenomenon. This was reflected in changes in the veterinary profession and especially the rise of the small animal vet. Today, the majority of veterinary students see their practice in terms of urban clinics catering to pets.

The rise of the urban dog has created its own rules and problems, including the rise of the puppy farm. The puppy farms are an urban, not rural problem. There would be no puppy farms without the urban buyer.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 22 July 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, July 22, 2015

History Revisited - cattle dog legacy born in our own backyard

NEW ENGLAND UPBRINGING: Many people are unaware of the blue heeler's origins in Northern NSW
I wonder how many people know that the Australian Cattle Dog was developed in Northern NSW?

The breed owes its existence to George Hall who arrived in Sydney in 1802. By 1825, the Halls had established two cattle stations in the Upper Hunter Valley, and had begun a northward expansion into the Liverpool Plains, the New England and what would become Queensland.

Frustrated at cattle losses on long droves through unfenced and often rugged country, Hall needed a better dog to help control the cattle. He therefore imported several of the dogs used by drovers in Northumberland and crossed them with dingoes that he had tamed to create what became known as Halls Heelers.

There were an effective stock dog giving Hall an advantage and he guarded them. It was not until Hall’s death in 1870 that the dogs became available, forming the core of what would become the Australian Cattle Dog also known as the Blue Heeler.

The development and recognition of the Australian Cattle Dog as a distinct recognised breed did not occur immediately. However, by the 1890s, the dogs had attracted the attention of the Cattle Dog Club of Sydney, a group of men with a recreational interest in the new practice of showing dogs competitively who began a breeding program centred on Halls Heelers.

Central to the program was Robert Kaleski, a remarkable young man.

Robert Lucian Stanislaus Kaleski was the son of a Polish mining engineer, John Kaleski, and his English wife Isabel, née Falder. Political pressures in Poland led John Kaleski to move to Germany where he held academic appointments and from there to Australia where he re-built a career as a mining engineer and assayer.

Born at Burwood in 1877, Robert Kaleski’s initial ill health led to him spending much time with a relative at Holsworthy near Sydney where he acquired a love of the bush. He began studying law, but then at the age of 21 he abandoned his studies to go droving. After a series of bush jobs, including timber getting on the Dorrigo Plateau, he took up a small selection at Holsworthy in 1904.

I said that Kaleski was a remarkable young man. That’s the only way I can describe it. In 1903, he was only 26, his breeding work led to the recognition of the Australian Cattle Dog as a distinct breed, followed by the Kelpie in 1904.

Kaleski founded the Cattle and Sheepdog Club of Australia. He also worked his dogs with stock, and both exhibited and judged dogs in the show ring. However, that’s only part of the Kaleski story.

Drawing from his experiences during the great Federation drought, Kakeski turned the small run down farm that he bought at Moorebank in 1907 into an experimental farm. There he trialled new land management processes, patenting some of the results.

In his spare time, he wrote extensively on bush, breeding and agricultural issues. He also tried his hand at fiction, writing for the Bulletin magazine under the pen name Falder, his mother’s maiden name.

Robert Kaleski died on his farm in 1961. At the age of 84, he was still experimenting. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 15 July 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, July 08, 2015

History Revisited - women in the exchange

INFORMATION HUB. The telephone exchange became a centre for community information.
When the first telephone exchange opened in Armidale in August 1901, there were 24 subscribers connected to a 100 line switchboard. By 1910, the number of subscribers had increased to nearly 250.

The new telephone system was far more capital and labour intensive than the telegraph system. Lines had to be connected to premises, phones installed with new switchboards purchased to handle the growing traffic.

In Armidale, the new exchange was open twenty-four hours. This required the appointment of what came to be called telephonists who managed not only the calls, but also the detailed paper work required to ensure proper billing.

The first NSW switch attendants were all men. It was not until August 1896 that the first women were appointed to the Sydney central exchange, all selected from the ranks of the Education Department’s pupil teachers. It would be 1913 before the first female telephonist was employed on the New England Tableland.

The move to employ women was not welcomed by all.

In April 1908, a letter writer in the Sydney Morning Herald complained that females “are physically unfit to endure the strain of much-nerve-wracking work as telephone operating.” However, there were practical reasons for their appointment, for the pay scales were more attractive to girls than boys.

Much later, advances in telecommunications would drain jobs from country areas, but initially the first employment effects were positive. When responsibility for postal, telegraph and telephone services was transferred to the Commonwealth after Federation, the large number of employees in the PMG gave the new Commonwealth a physical presence, its only physical presence, in large parts of Australia.

While the telephone service expanded rapidly, the costs involved in the spread of the required infrastructure meant considerable lags. It would be 1925 before the first telephone call could be made between Sydney and Brisbane. This made the telephone a device first for local communication, while the telegraph or post still carried longer distance traffic.

It is easy to underestimate the importance of improved local communication on the pattern of local life. Both country and town people could ring up and order goods for later collection or delivery. It became much easier to organise meetings and events, something that was used to great effect by those with interests in politics or the advancement of particular causes. The tempo of politics speeded up.

In many country areas, the local telephone exchange became the centre of community information, of gossip about what was going on.

The telephonist became the central person in a hub of information and exchange, the one person who was in contact with nearly everybody and knew what people were doing. She was also the person people depended on to get the news through when something went wrong.

People complained, of course, especially on the party lines with multiple subscribers on a single line where anybody could listen in, but nobody who could afford to pay would have been without the service. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 1 July 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.