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

Monday, June 25, 2007

Towards a Course on the History of New England- The Colonial Period.


Note to readers: This post is a work in progress. I have decided to post it then add to it progressively until finished. First update 8 July. Extended 10 July. Extended 11 July. Extended 12 July. Crikey, this is taking a while! In this context, my apologies to those who are getting multiple feeds since I am saving as I go along. Extended 13 July

In my first post in this series, I defined our task as the development of an outline New England history curriculum. If you have not read this post, please do so first because it sets a context for this post.

Developing a full curriculum outline is obviously beyond the scope of any blog post, so what I am going to do is to indicate a few of the things that might go into such a curriculum. In doing so, I will point to a few of the differences with other approaches. But do compare it with your own knowledge of Australian history and the way it is taught and make your own judgements.

New England's Geography

We are all formed by our interaction with the world around us. We can see this in the use of the word "country" by Aboriginal people. Here New England is a broader geographic entity in a way unmatched in Australia among the states and territories except for Tasmania. You simply cannot understand New England's history if you do not understand its geography.

The New England Tablelands with its rugged eastern escarpment is central to that geography.
Running for several hundred miles from the edge of the Hunter Valley to Toowoomba in Queensland, the Tablelands are a major Australian landform. All New England's eastern flowing rivers from the Hunter in the south to the Tweed in the north have their origins in the Tablelands. Then there are the western flowing rivers such as the Namoi and the Gwydir that also start in the Tablelands and form geographic entities until they enter the vast expanses of the western plains, finally merging with the Darling River.

This geography has influenced every aspect of New England life from the arrival of the first Aborigines until today. For that reason, any New England history curriculum has to start with an understanding of New England's geography.

There is actually some good and exciting stuff here from a teaching viewpoint simply because you can look at geographic change and interaction over a long period across a varied set of linked landforms.

Aboriginal New England

The Aborigines would be front and central to New England history in a way that is simply not possible in NSW nor, for that matter, in Australia. There is no ideology in this statement. It's just a fact linked to the relative size of the indigenous population, geographical unity and smaller size. Further, there are real possibilities to teach Aboriginal history in new ways.

Note I say Aboriginal history, not just the history of black-white relations. I am talking about a new approach.

New England is a European construct. It makes no sense to limit discussion of pre-European Aboriginal life to European boundaries. Rather, the focus should be on the geographic entity including the full Tablelands and the surrounding areas.

This is where it gets exciting, because we can use archaeological, anthropological, audiovisual (photographs, sound, film footage) and ethnohistorical material to look at cultural sequences, patterns of life and relationships between geographically different but linked areas with major Aboriginal populations over long time periods. We can also link this to local sites and material such as bora rings, allowing for significant localisation.

By doing all this, we can bring the long Aboriginal occupation of the country alive for both indigenous and non-Aboriginal kids in ways that are hard to do at present. Further, because this along with New England's geography is a foundation building block in the course, it takes Aboriginal history out of the academic ghetto into which (at least as I see it) it has now fallen.
Imagine what it would be like for, say, a Bundjalung kid to have the long history of his people and their relationships with other groups form a core part of mainstream history studied by all.

Periods versus Themes

Life gets more complicated with the arrival of the Europeans. Here we have a methodological clash, one that also forms an element in the history wars, between a narrative, chronological approach on one side, a thematic approach on the other.

My personal view is a simple one, you have to have both using a matrix structure to integrate.
Some measure of narration and associated chronology is necessary to set a frame so that people can set things in context and see relationships. However, there also needs to be a thematic approach to allow people to see and understand related changes over longer periods. A thematic approach can also aid localisation.

Where I part company with some of my colleagues is my belief that the themes should be dictated by the history, not imposed upon the history because the topic is considered to be important for some reason external to the history itself.

The balance between narrative and themes and the interaction between the two has to be defined as the course is defined to ensure that the course flows, that the bits fit together, that it can in fact be studied properly within the allotted hours.

This is beyond the scope of this blog post. Instead, I am going to point to some of chronological periods and to some of the key themes. That way I can at least give a feel for what the course might look like, for some of the issues and challenges involved.

The Colonial Period

The colonial period covers the time span from the arrival of the Europeans through to Federation. Now here we come to our first major methodological problem.

When I first started thinking about writing a history of New England all those years ago, I was going to start by looking at the arrival of the Europeans and the Empire through Aboriginal eyes, progressively switching the focus as the invaders established their hold on the land. I wanted to do this for dramatic reasons and to redress what I saw as the then very Euro-centric view of the early period of European settlement.

I think now that this is too difficult to do in quite the way I wanted to. Instead, I think that the course needs to continue with an overview of the colonial period, pointing to main themes and changes within a chronological framework to set a context. I say this in part because of the need to avoid fragmentation, in part because this period established patterns that would continue to be of importance in later New England history.

A few examples to illustrate.

The interaction between geography, transport and settlement patterns created two overlapping regional patterns. The east-west pattern linked the western slopes and plains and the tablelands with the main northern river ports and especially Grafton. The north-south pattern linked the tablelands, western slopes and plains to the Hunter and first Morpeth and then Newcastle.

These regional patterns and the interaction between them form a core element in New England history.

Then we have the growth of the shipping, mining and industrial activities in and around Newcastle. This made Newcastle very different from the rest of New England. The two were interdependent but also deeply suspicious of each other, suspicions that deepened with the formation of the union movement and the creation of the modern political parties. These differences played themselves out over time from the early days through to the defeat of the New State plebiscite in 1967 and still exist today.

European Invasion

Having established an overall context for the colonial period, I think that the European invasion needs to be dealt with as the next block, in so doing fleshing out and extending some of the points made in the overview segment.

This would be a difficult but interesting segment to write and teach in part because you have in the same classroom the direct local descendants of both the original inhabitants and the invaders. This is not unique to New England, but is generally different from the big metro centres of at least Sydney and Melbourne where dispossession was generally complete.

It is also difficult because it is a complex story in which events on the ground were influenced by local conditions played out within a frame set by the colonial administrations in Sydney, then Sydney and Brisbane, and by the home Government in London.

One of the key issues is just how you present this segment.

At this level, the Aboriginal story is rawer, harsher, than it is in the broader courses. Myall Creek and the other massacres that did occur were local and regional events, not something that happened up-country, remote. Teachers are often teaching in class-rooms with significant numbers of Aborigines present. In some cases, the majority if not all of the students are Aboriginal.

I think that the only way this can be handled is by presenting the material objectively, explaining as best we can from the evidence what happened and why.

A second issue is where to draw the end point for this segment. At this stage, my inclination would be to take the story through to the end of the nineteenth century, although there is a case for finishing earlier, and then treating the Aboriginal story as a theme.

Colonial Period - Themes, Topics

Just as the way the Aboriginal story is affected by the adoption of a particular geographic focus, so with other themes or topics.

We can see this if we look at the historiography. Local or narrower regional histories such Robin Walker's Old New England are invaluable, but suffer to some degree because they struggle to present local life in a broader context. By contrast, the broader state or national studies are again valuable, but have the opposite weakness. They are too broad to really provide the context required to fully understand developments in particular areas.

Take, as an example, the question of the 1890's depression.

We all know that there was one as the period of rapid expansion especially in Sydney and Melbourne came to a shuddering halt. But was there in fact a depression? The answer is far from clear cut, because this collapse (unlike the Great Depression) appears to have been very much a localised affair whose effects varied across the country.

The advantages of histories such as the one that we are looking at here on New England is that they fill a gap between the broader necessarily broad brush stories and their narrow regional or local counterparts.

Colonial Period - Settler Patterns

The European settlers who came to New England in waves largely came from Great Britain. There were far fewer Irish, fewer Roman Catholics, more English, more Scots, more Presbyterian than elsewhere in NSW.

Some, as in the Scottish migrations organised by John Dunmore Lang, were poor people removed by the enclosure who wished to better themselves. They came first to the Hunter Valley before moving north and especially to the Clarence Valley. For a period, Gaelic was widely spoken in some local areas.

Others, again including many Scots, were from better off families who came with capital. Many of these settled on the Tablelands, leaving behind a range of Scottish names - Glencoe, Glen Innes, Ben Lomond.

Their life was very different as they sought to build a life modelled in some ways on the county and country families from home. Some failed, but many (Whites, Dangars, Wyndhams and Wrights are examples) built major pastoral empires from the Hunter in the south into Queensland.

The rise and later fall of the squattocracy forms one key element in the New England story, affecting not just the built landscape but also social structures and manners. There were huge differences in life, outlook and manners between the small farmers on the coast and elsewhere and the big pastoral families with their wealth and social position.

These differences lingered into the present time. "Jack's as good as his master so long as they both come from the same GPS school" was still a Tableland's saying towards the end of the twentieth century.

Differences in outlook and background among settlers, the impact of differing forms of agriculture and pastoral activity, created major divides, divides that affected cooperative activity within New England. The attempts to overcome those divides, their successes and failures, forms a major theme in twentieth century New England history.

Unlike Victoria where the grazing elites were essentially absorbed into the Melbourne establishment, many - not all - of the New England equivalents maintained a degree of separation from Sydney. This separation was to be important in facilitating cooperative activity.

While some New England squatters sent their children to Sydney or even home (Great Britain) to be educated and saw themselves in Sydney terms, others identified with local and regional causes. They invested part of their wealth in the establishment of new facilities including hospitals, schools and, later, the establishment of wool selling in Newcastle and of the New England University College. They also played an active role in politics and broader regional development activities.

The effects of this regional focus were quite profound.

In Victoria, the rural community was clearly divided between the Melbourne focused generally conservative pastoralists and the more radical small farming communities, a divide reflected in the later histories of and relations between the Victorian Country Party and what is now called the Liberal Party.

In New England, by contrast, farmers and graziers were able to combine in the formation of a single party, making the Country Party dominant outside Newcastle and the immediately surrounding mining towns. Even today, and as we saw in the last NSW State election, the Liberal Party struggles to establish more than a toe hold in New England.

While settlers from the British Isles formed the dominant group, they were not the only new arrivals.

European wars and religious persecution brought smaller groups of settlers to particular areas such as German families including the Sommerlads to Tenterfield, a family that was to play a major role in the history of the New England media. Then there were the Chinese, by far the largest group outside those from the motherlands.

From 1851 there were a series of mineral discoveries - especially gold and then tin - from the Upper Hunter through into Queensland, attracting people in their thousands.

At Nundle, for example, gold was discovered at nearby Swamp Creek in 1851. By 1865 the population was around 500 with about 50 businesses in operation.

At the bigger Rocky River fields near Uralla, there were 1,200 people in May 1856, 3,ooo in July, 4,500 in mid-September. Over 1856, Rocky River yielded 40,000 ounces of gold, around 22 per cent of the total production in the colony of NSW in that year.

As in other parts of Australia, the first Chinese arrived quite early at the new fields, attracted by the prospect of 'Xin Jin Shan', or the New Gold Mountain. At the Rocky River fields, the first Chinese appeared in 1856. From 1858 onwards, Chinese outnumbered Europeans on this field.
While Chinese numbers were to decline with the imposition of restrictions on migration and the end of the rushes, they have left a significant continuing imprint on parts of New England.

Leaving the story to return to my theme of a course on New England history, while students need to understand the overall pattern of settlement, this is also an area where localisation is both possible and helpful.

Students in some Clarence Valley schools, for example, might want to look at the history of Scottish migration to the Valley. This provides a window into the experiences of a particular group entering Australia through organised migration flowing from conditions at home.

In similar vein, some Tenterfield students might want to look at German migration, while schools in gold and tin areas might well choose to study the Chinese. Each slice provides a different story that illustrates and amplifies the broader migrant experience.

Colonial Period - Economic Activity

The rise of various New England industries and economic activities and the linkages between these, transport and patterns of life is another area that has to my mind become lost, submerged, in broader Australian history.

This is not a criticism of Australian history. Times change. As they do, previously important topics drop below the radar. Yet those topics can remain important to particular groups.

To illustrate with two examples.

For many years, Australian rode on the sheep's back. With the decline in the importance of the wool industry, wool has begun to disappear from the national radar, including the study of Australian history. Yet you cannot understand key elements in Australian history and especially that of New England if you do not understand wool, because wool has left a major imprint on Australian and especially on New England life and culture (here for an overview of the history, here for the New England slice).

In similar vein, the Australian steel industry has long lost its central place in Australian life. BHP is now, as it began, predominantly a mining company. Yet you cannot understand the story and history of Newcastle if you do not understand the role of "the BHP" as it was called and of the surrounding industries.

Colonial Period - Transport and Industry

Transport, the combination of transport and geography, fights over transport are all central to New England history. This is not unique to New England, but as with other parts of Australia the story takes particular local form.

The story of transport in nineteenth century New England is one of competition between three transport modes - water, road and rail.

Water transport was far cheaper than road, with land transport costs so high that road transport over the rough tracks was largely uneconomic for all but the highest value goods.

Initial settlement therefore occurred close to navigable waters where products such as coal or timber could be extracted and shipped to market by sea. Coal mining as well as forestry, logging and the associated timber milling have been major New England industries over much of the historic period, leaving significant imprints on New England life.

Wool changed settlement patterns because it provided a high value for weight product that could justify high land transport costs, encouraging broader settlement and the rise of the pastoralists.

Mining too - gold, then tin and precious metals including diamonds - met the high value for weight criterion, leading to new settlements and industrial establishments across much on New England. For a period, New England became the world's largest tin province.

Rail changed patterns, allowing economic carriage of lower value for weight farm products. This, together with free-selection acts intended to break up the large pastoral properties, led to a rapid expansion of farming.

In all this, each transport mode has its own story.

Water transport is the story of New England's rivers and the adjoining coast. There was some paddle boat traffic on the Darling River in the far west, but the eastern rivers and coast dominated water transport.

Freight and passengers came from the inland to the river ports and especially Morpeth and later Newcastle on the Hunter, Grafton on the Clarence. Goods and passengers flowed back to the inland properties and emerging townships. The rivers were the main arteries for travel in their own valleys and to Sydney. From Newcastle, clippers carried coal to world markets.

The story of shipping in New England, in fact Australian maritime history in general, has always been poorly taught and today is largely relegated to isolated displays in local museums. This makes it easy to forget just how central it was to New England life, especially in coastal regions, until quite recently.

It was not just the ships and those who sailed on them. It was also all those who built them, financed them and serviced them. Each New England river valley had its own ship building industry, in total building hundreds of ships and river boats during the colonial period.

The road transport story is similar in some ways to shipping, yet different.

Today we think of roads in terms of arteries along which people and goods travel. That was true in the past, yet roads in colonial New England were also centres of economic and industrial activity in a way that is, I think, not true today.

Horse or bullock travel required people in a way that is not true of modern transport.

At Tenterfield, for example, over 500 teams were engaged in carrying freight between Tenterfield and the coast ports just prior to the railway connection. Then people were required to grow the oats to help feed the animals, providing a significant market for local farming activities. People were also required to make or repair equipment and own and staff the myriad of inns and posting houses located along main transport routes.

All this made for a much more dispersed population than we see today in rural New England. It also helped create images of landscape and life that linger still.

Rail transport was different again.

The first New England railways serviced the coal mines. Then came the slow growth northwards of the Great Northern Railway. This, one of the great Australian engineering feats of the nineteenth century, is largely forgotten today. Yet it was the main rail line between Sydney and Brisbane until the 1960s. Spur lines sprang from the main line, opening up new areas especially for wheat farming.

Water, road and rail transport came together in a complex mix.

The growth of rail brought cheaper goods, but this destroyed many small local industries. Rail competed against water transport, a competition aided by differential rail freight rates intended to attract traffic from water transport.

Initially, and for a very brief period, this benefitted Newcastle, creating what Lazlo called an economic commonwealth centred on that city. But then the line between Sydney and Newcastle finally opened. With freight rates on the new stretch between those cities effectively set at zero for some products in order to attract freight to Sydney, Newcastle trade collapsed in the face of Sydney competition.

In the face of competition from the north-south rail connections, New England coastal shipping and merchantile interests combined with inland merchants and primary producers to try to create better east-west links. These moves failed. The first tarred east-west road would not come until the 1960s. East-west rail lines remain a dream.

The attempts to create better east-west links and the reactions to the constant failures to do so form an enduring theme in New England history and politics, fueling resentment against the Sydney Government.

As with many other elements in New England history, there is plenty of scope for localisation in the transport area.

On the coast I feel that there are enormous possibilities to bring the romance and danger of coastal shipping alive in ways that will not only tell people about their own areas, but also instill a love of history as a discipline.

Inland students would also find the shipping story interesting, including the links with their own areas. However, they are more likely to focus on road or rail where historical artefacts are more readily available.

Colonial Period - Towns, Time, Politics and Society

At one level, it sounds like a truism to say that life in colonial New England was very different from today. Yet it was in ways that we find hard to penetrate today.

One of my favourite books is Geoffrey Blainey’s Black Kettle and Full Moon (Penguin). Subtitled Daily Life in a Vanished Australia, the book explores different aspects of daily life from European settlement until the early part of the twentieth century. Blainey's book is necessarily broad brush in geographic terms, but provides a key entry point for any social study of 19th century Australia.

This was a world of great technological, political and industrial change.

At the time of New England's first convict settlement at Newcastle (1801), the French Revolution was just twelve years old, while the Napoleonic Wars were raging. This - really the first total war of the modern era - saw the British Empire pitted against French controlled Europe.

The agrarian and industrial revolutions were in their early stages. Most cooking was done over open fires, light at night came from fires, candles and lamps or from moon or starlight. There was no refrigeration, limited foodstuffs. Communications were slow and eratic.

The next 100 years saw massive change.

European settlement spread rapidly, so that by 1901 New England's population was over 400,000. Steamers had replaced sail. Railways linked the inland to Sydney. Refrigeration had appeared, allowing (among other things) export of meat and dairy products. Canning meant a wider range of food stuffs. There were new stoves and other domestic products. Gas and then electric lighting had begun to spread. The telegraph linked communities, as well as the Australian colonies to other parts of the Empire.

This was a very different New England from that we know today.

To begin with, the North or Northern Provinces as the area was then known (the name New England did not come into wide use until the 1930s) was far more important in wealth and population terms than it is today, although signs of relative decline were already apparent.

In 1901 the total NSW population including New England was just 1.4 million, of whom around 500,000 lived in the Sydney region. So New England fell not far short of Sydney and was easily the most populous area outside Sydney.

In national terms, New England's population was only one third less than that of Queensland, roughly equal to that of South Australia, far higher than Western Australia or Tasmania. New England's mines, grazing properties and farms made a major contribution to the new Federation's export performance.

The distribution of the New England population was also very different from that holding today.
The biggest urban concentrations were in the lower Hunter Valley.

There was found Newcastle, the North's biggest city, with a population in 1901 still more than one tenth of that of Sydney notwithstanding decline towards the end of the century. There, too, was Maitland.

Long Newcastle's rival, Maitland had been eclipsed as the main Northern commercial centre partially as a consequence of railway developments that favoured Newcastle. Still, in 1901 the city remained more than 50 per cent larger than Lismore, the biggest New England town.
I wonder how many school students in Maitland today understand the historical role that their town has played in New England history?

Life in the lower Hunter was dominated by coal, leading to a very different texture of life.

Newcastle, along with Bunbury in Western Australia, was one of the last Australian ports in which sail was a rival to steam. The tall ships in the river, the lumpers who loaded them, the boarding-house proprietors who looked after and exploited the sailors, and the merchants who supplied the ships all helped create a differnt atmosphere.

But beyond all this was the stark reality of a life dominated by the harsh rythm of the mines.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Towards a Course on the History of New England - the Twentieth Century

Note to readers: This post continues the discussion of the development of a course on the history of New England and is a work in progress. I will add to it progressively until finished.

In my last post in this series, I discussed issues associated with New England's history and the teaching of that history during the colonial period. This post looks at New England during the twentieth century.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

New England Timelines - the Aboriginal Period

I am developing this page to provide indicative dates for developments during that long sweep of New England life from the arrival of the first human beings until the arrival of the Europeans.

The page is very much a work in progress and it will take me a long time to flesh it out in any meaningful way.

c123,000 BCE. The sea level was around 25 feet higher than it is now, so much of what is now New England's humid coastal zone was under water.

c98,000 BCE. At the start of the fourth ice age, the sea level began to fall. This moved the shore line out about six to ten miles, creating a large coastal plain stretching along the current New England coastline.

c18,000 BCE. Around 20,000 years ago, the sea level began to rise again, progressively submerging the coastal plain.

c3,000 to 4,000 BCE. The rise in sea levels slows, then stops. Progressive siltation then creates the coastal zone with its various river deltas as we know it today.

Back to Timelines entry page.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

New England Dictionary of Biography - a project note

Well, I have now made a little progress in my long held plan to try to create something approaching an embyro New England Dictionary of Biography.

The trigger to act was a stocktake post that I was doing on previous posts on writers with New England connections. I decided that I would create NEDB pages at the same time. It took me many hours just to record names from the first two posts on writers, stalling the stocktake in the process. Still, I have at least made a start.

Given limited time, it will be a long while before the NEDB is of any use as a real resource, but I console myself with the thought that even an entry a week means 150 names over three years.

Now that I have made a start on NEDB I should also do something about the time-line project, creating an initial structure to give me an incentive to add key dates as I go along.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

New England Dictionary of Biography - H

Note to readers: This is one of a series of pages that I am creating to provide a reference list of people with New England connections.

Initially the references will be fairly fragmentary, linking especially to my own posts. My hope is that in time it will provide the base for a true New England Dictionary of Biography. You will find a complete list of pages here.

Horne, Donald. Writer. Hunter Valley. Donald Horne was born at Muswellbrook in the Hunter Valley. Here

New England Dictionary of Biography - E

Note to readers: This is one of a series of pages that I am creating to provide a reference list of people with New England connections.

Initially the references will be fairly fragmentary, linking especially to my own posts. My hope is that in time it will provide the base for a true New England Dictionary of Biography. You will find a complete list of pages here.

Ellis Bob. Writer. Northern Rivers. Bob Ellis was born in Lismore. Here, here

New England Dictionary of Biography - M

Note to readers: This is one of a series of pages that I am creating to provide a reference list of people with New England connections.

Initially the references will be fairly fragmentary, linking especially to my own posts. My hope is that in time it will provide the base for a true New England Dictionary of Biography. You will find a complete list of pages here.

Massey, Robert George 1815-1853. Commissioner Crown Lands. Mid North Coast, Macleay Valley, New England Tablelands. Here.

Murray, Les. Poet. Mid North Coast. One of Australia's most famous poets, Les Murray was born at Bunyah on the North Coast and has now returned there. His early life and influences have had a significant impact on his poetry. Here, here

Murray, Patrick Desmond Fitzgerald 1900-1967. Academic. University of New England. Here.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

New England Dictionary of Biography - C

Note to readers: This is one of a series of pages that I am creating to provide a reference list of people with New England connections.

Initially the references will be fairly fragmentary, linking especially to my own posts. My hope is that in time it will provide the base for a true New England Dictionary of Biography. You will find a complete list of pages here.

Callaghan, Emma Jane (1884- 1979). Aboriginal nurse and midwife. Born at La Perouse in Sydney, Mrs Callaghan moved to the Nulla Nulla Aborigines' Reserve near Bellbrook in the Upper Macleay Valley where she played a major local role. Here.

Chauvel, Charles (1897-1959). Pioneer film maker. Northern Rivers, New England Tablelands (South Eastern Queensland portion). Here.

Croft, Julian. Poet. New England Tablelands. Here

Friday, June 01, 2007

New England Dictionary of Biography - S

Note to readers: This is one of a series of pages that I am creating to provide a reference list of people with New England connections.

Initially the references will be fairly fragmentary, linking especially to my own posts. My hope is that in time it will provide the base for a true New England Dictionary of Biography. You will find a complete list of pages here.

Shand, Donald Munro (1904 - 1976). Grazier, agribusiness pioneer, aviation pioneer, politician. New England Tablelands. Here, here.

Sharkey, Michael. Poet. New England Tablelands. Here, here.

Swan, James (Jim). Aviator. Liverpool Plains. Jim was a pilot with East West Airlines. Here.