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

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Geography of New England - Impact of Great Dividing Range

Photo: Gordon Smith, New England Ranges

In my last post I looked at the impact of changing communications and especially travel time on our perception of space.

I did so because this helps us understand themes in New England history. That post followed an overview of the geography of New England.

In this post I want to extend the discussion by focusing on the impact of the Great Dividing Range and especially the rugged eastern escarpment separating the Northern Tablelands from the coastal river valleys.

The escarpment is central to New England history because of the way it separated inland New England from its coast, making east-west travel difficult. Roads, tracks really, had to be cut along the edge of ridges and were subject to constant subsidence and landslides because of the combination of unstable ground with heavy escarpment rains.

Northern New England from Armidale north was close to the river ports, especially Grafton, on the Northen Rivers. So tracks went through from Armidale to Grafton, Glen Innes to Grafton, Tenterfield to the Richmond River. Goods, especially wool, moved down those tracks for shipment out by ship, supplies to service inland needs came back.

From Armidale south there were tracks from Armidale due east to Bellingen, from Armidale south and east to Kempsey, from Armidale south and then east through Walcha to the convict settlement at Port Macquarie. Again, goods moved along those tracks to and from the small river ports, although traffic was much lower.

Inland, gaps in the range made north-south traffic down to the Hunter Valley easier in geographic terms than the east-west route.Sea transport was cheaper than land transport, especially for bulk goods. However, these lower costs had to be offset against the added costs and difficulties associated with crossing the escarpment.

This simple equation determined transport patterns. Freight from the north and east of the Tablelands went east for on-shipment by sea from the northern river ports. Freight from the southern Tablelands and the western slopes and plains went south for on-shipment first from Morpeth, the main river port on the Hunter, and then from Newcastle at the mouth of the Hunter.

This pattern influenced the political battles that helped form New England.

Local interests in the Northern Rivers wanted improved east-west links to attract more inland freight. Grazing and commercial interests inland wanted cheaper and quicker freight routes to the coast. But these improved routes were slow to come, with the first tar road to the coast not in fact coming until the early 1960's.

The constant failure of attempts to gain improved communications fueled resentment against the Sydney Government. It is therefore not surprising that the areas most affected by poor east-west communications formed the heartland of separatist agitation.

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