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

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A note on Commissioner Robert George Massie

I have been trying to find out a little about Crown Lands Commissioner Robert George Massie. I first came in contact with the name in the context of his reports on the Aborigines. However, now I find him a mystery.

He was Crown Land Commissioner on the Macleay. Then I find references to him from at least 1851 as Crown Land Commissioner in a New England context. So who was he and what happened to him?

There is no Australian Dictionary of Biography entry on him, so either no one was interested or he was not considered important enough. I think the first a pity, the second plain wrong.

Searching around, he emerges in the entry for Annie Maria Baxter in the Dictionary of Australian Artists Online. There he apparently had an affair with her from July 1841 to July 1843. The story of Mrs Baxter is an interesting one in its own right, and I will come back to it in a later post.

Then we find that from 1 May 1855 to 31 Jul 1855 he was an elected member the first Legislative Council for the Pastoral Districts of New England and Macleay. The election was declared void for unspecified reasons.

The NSW Parliament suggests that he was born in 1815, died 1883. It says in terms of biographical detail:

Exact dates of birth and death are not known (1 January is used for database purposes). Nineteenth child (of 22) of Richard Massie of Coddington, England, and his wife Hester Lee Townshend, daughter of Edward Townshend of Wincham Hall. He married Annette Browne, daughter of Thomas Browne (who wrote under the name of Rolf Boldrewood); Browne's sister was married to F. M. Darley, a Member of the Legislative Council. He was a Commissioner of Crown Lands around 1844 - 1847.

The Crown Land dates are clearly wrong. Well, that's as much as I know!


I have now found more material that I must write up in Marie Neil's history of the Macleay Valley.

New England Australia History Research Report - April 2009 2

Over the last few weeks, my reading has been largely focused on the western tablelands and slopes. I have to complete that, as well as finish writing up my earlier notes on New England's prehistory before I attempt anything else. However, a comment by Jim Simon on New England Airways - Postscript reminded me that I had yet to read  Virtue In Flying written by Joan Priest.

The reading I have been doing on the Aborigines means that I am close to putting a comma in this part of my research in that I now have at least some idea of the flow of England's Aboriginal history from 50,000 years ago to the present. Obviously there are still huge gaps, but the framework is there. So my reading is now deepening my knowledge.

I already had something of a framework for the western tablelands and slopes. Here my recent reading has been fleshing this out a little more. Once I write up my notes, I will have at least base material for mining and the Chinese, as well as much more detailed material on the patterns of settlement as well as town life.

I cannot afford to open a new front until I have bedded existing reading down. However, I then plan to switch focus to the North Coast and especially transport.

One book I have to find and read is North Coast Run: Men and Ships of the N.S.W. North Coast, By Michael P. Richards, Mike Richards. Published by Turton & Armstrong, 1977' ISBN 0908031025, 9780908031023. I started looking at shipping some time ago, but then put it aside. I need to fill this gap. In checking publication details for this book I also found an archaeological report on the PS Rainbow.

I have already written a little on the fascinating history of New England Airways. Virtue in Flying: A Biography of Pioneer Aviator Keith Virtue By Joan Priest, Published by Angus & Robertson, 1975, ISBN 0207132305, 9780207132308, will allow me to flesh this out.

When I first started my attempt to write my history of New England all those years ago, my work had a strong focus on politics. The political theme is still there, but there is now a much stronger focus on social history and on people.

It's not always the prominent, although there are many fascinating larger than life characters. The real challenge is to bring the history alive through the eyes of ordinary people.

Much of my work draws from secondary sources. This is synthesis, rather than research based heavily on primary sources. I worry about this sometimes, but there is really no practical alternative. The task is just too big otherwise.

I am very conscious as I read as to just how many of the secondary sources are out of print. Time moves on, and fashions change. This remains one of the drivers for my own work, the need to redress the balance in some way. 

Sunday, April 19, 2009

New England Australia History Research Report - April 2009

It is just over one month since my first research report.

I have spent a fair bit of time on an update of New England in the Pleistocene Period. I have decided with referenced posts like this one to progressively update in Word and then re-post, so I will do so over the next day or so.

To avoid confusion, I will need to put a header on past posts alerting readers to changes. The alternative would be to just update the previous post. I may go this route ultimately, but for the present I like to be able to see how my thinking has evolved.

As part of my thinking on the Pleistocene period I have been much concerned with the sea-bed. We are dealing with major shifts in sea levels. To understand the impact of this on New England's coastal strip, we need to understand what the sea bed is like in structure and depth.

The maps that I have found on-line to this point have limited coverage of the sea bed. While they are helpful in showing that major bays or harbours such as Port Stephens or Trial bay would have been either dry land or river valleys, they do not allow me to look far enough out to sea.

I really need maritime maps showing depth contours up to at least 140 metres, maybe more.

The sea-bed slopes quite steeply. As sea levels fell, the rivers would have pushed out through progradation. However, the extent of the estuaries and wetlands - good food areas - would clearly depend on the slope of the land. Too steep, and a falling sea level, while still expanding land, might actually have reduced food supply. 

Turning to more modern times, I remain heavily entrenched in the Inverell region.

I spoke of Elizabeth Wiedemann's work in Book review - Elizabeth Wiedemann's World of its own: Inverell's early years 1827-1920. I know that she has published another book covering the later period, but have yet to find it. 

Following Elizabeth's book, I turned to Helen Brown's Tin at Tingha (Brown, Armidale, 1982).

What a fascinating book this is, although I wish she had used footnotes. She was criticised at the time for this. She makes it clear that she promised not to identify sources because of the need to get people to speak freely. Still, it does create problems.

Using Wiedemann and Brown together will allow me, among other things, to write a first slice on the Chinese in New England. I do not know whether the Chinese presence was important outside the Tablelands and Western Slopes. That is something that I will need to find out later.       

Saturday, April 11, 2009

People and Politics in Regional New South Wales

A note just to record a reference that I found in Google books.

People and Politics in Regional New South Wales
By Jim Hagan
Published by Federation Press, 2006
ISBN 1862875715, 9781862875715
360 pages

I scanned the two North Coast chapters. It fills a rather nice gap from my viewpoint.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Book review - Elizabeth Wiedemann's World of its own: Inverell's early years 1827-1920

Armidale, Inverell and Glen Innes make a triangle.

Armidale and Inverell are 126 kilometres apart by road, Glen Innes and Inverell just 67 kilometres, Armidale and Glen Innes 98 kilometres. Three towns, three very different relationships. The relationships between these towns and their links to Grafton in the east form one thread in New England's history.

I was reminded of this because I have been re-reading Elizabeth Wiedemann's World of its own: Inverell's early years 1827-1920 (Inverell Shire Council and Devill Publicity, Inverell 1981). The title comes from Elizabeth's perception of Inverell's geographic place between the Tableland's and Western Plains, along with the relative isolation created by poor transport links.

This is a very different history from John Ferry's "Colonial Armidale".

Whereas John consciously wrote from a broader perspective looking at Armidale in the context of broader trends, Elizabeth's focus is more local, Inverell and district focused. This makes the book less accessible to a broader audience, but also makes it intensely interesting to someone like me who wants to understand the detail of local history, to draw trends and relationships from it that might inform a broader regional history.

Geography is central to Inverell's history.

The town itself lies on the MacIntyre River. This river rises in the Tablelands near Glen Innes and flows north west. There it is joined by the Dumaresq River, a river forming part of the boundary between New South Wales and Queensland. From this point the MacIntyre flows west to become part of the Barwon River that in turn becomes the Darling River.

While Inverell lies on the MacIntyre, the Inverell district actually straddles the MacIntyre and Gwydir River valleys. The Gwydir River begins as Kentucky Creek south of Uralla and then, like the MacIntyre, flows north and north west before swinging west to finally join the Darling River. At its closest point, Inverell is less than 20 kilometres from the Gywdir.

In Aboriginal times, the juxtaposition of the rivers along with the location between the Western Plains and Tablelands made the Inverell area a mixing point between the northern and central Tablelands and the Western Plains.

With the arrival of the European settlers, people and stock moved north from the Hunter Valley first to the upper Gwydir and MacIntrye Valleys and then on to the Darling Downs. Easier travel - the word easier is relative - along the Western Slopes as compared to the Tablelands made the Inverell area a main through point.

The later creation of Queensland and then the location of the railways broke this pattern, although linkages to Queensland remained. The feeling of neglect in the border areas from the remote Sydney Government helps explain the strength of new state feeling in the area.

European settlement brought conflict with the Aboriginal inhabitants. Elizabeth sketches this out, bringing out the violence that occurred. There is some interesting material here, because the fighting actually rolled back settlement in some areas. The Myall Creek massacre was one outcome of the conflict.

Settlement began with sheep and cattle. Elizabeth traces this squatting period from its rise through to decline in the face of farming and closer settlement. In doing so, she draws out the importance of transport and transport costs.

Inverell did not get a railway line until 1901. This meant that the district's rich farming potential could not be achieved for many years because of high transport costs. Now here I noticed something very interesting.

Many of the histories of the New England Tablelands are in fact written from an Armidale perspective. I think that this is true to some degree of both Robin Walker's Old New England and the later High Lean Country.

Robin Walker, for example, does discuss mining, but it is just one thread.

In Inverell's case, the rise of mining along the western granite country of the Tablelands is absolutely central. Mining provided a market for agricultural produce and for other locally produced goods. Without it and in the absence of a railway line, Inverell would have probably have remained a small local service centre.

In similar vein, both Old New England and High Lean Country do mention the Chinese who were drawn to the Tablelands by the mining rushes, but again they are a small part of the picture. This was not true of the mining towns themselves, nor of Inverell. The Chinese remained an important presence into the twentieth century.

One of the strength's of Elizabeth's book is the way she draws all this out. We can see the reality and impact of mining and of the Chinese presence.

Another of her strengths is the way in which she provides the detail of local life. There is so much here to draw from, from the constant fires to the deaths by typhoid to the actual detail of travel time.

Sometimes this can be a little overwhelming, but it makes the book a remarkably valuable source for all those interested in Australia's past.   

Sunday, April 05, 2009

New England in the Pleistocene Period

Aboriginal people may have reached the area that would be variously called Northern New South Wales, the North, Northern Districts or New England as early as 40,000 years ago.

We know from dating at Warren Cave in Tasmania that the Aborigines had reached Tasmania around 35,000 years ago[1], while dates from Willandra Lakes in South West New South Wales suggest occupation as early as 41-40,000 years ago[2]. Given these dates, it seems reasonable to assume a working date of around 40,000 years ago for first Aboriginal occupation of New England.

We do not have hard evidence for these dates. The earliest date I know of in New England itself comes from a dig by Graham Connor at Stuarts Point in the Macleay Valley. This places human occupation at 9,320 +/- 160BP.[3] Further north in South-East Queensland, the Wallen Wallen Creek site shows continuous occupation from about 20,000 years ago.[4]

Despite the absence of earlier dates, it is hard to believe that the Aborigines had not reached New England if they were at Willandra Lakes around 40,000 years ago, had reached the southwest of what is now Tasmania by at least 35,000 years ago.

What type of world did they find?

Sea levels fluctuated greatly during the long Pleistocene period. Forty thousand years ago, sea levels were perhaps 50 metres below current levels, creating a broader coastal plain. Rainfall was high, temperatures moderate. Rivers running east and west from the Tablelands would have carried substantial volumes of water.

In the east, this would have led to progradation, with significant river estuaries, coastal dunes and marshes. It seems likely that the larger coastal strip was thickly wooded and at least as rich in marine and land resources as today. In the west, the rivers and associated wet lands would also have provided a rich environment.

The position on the Tablelands is unclear because so much of the analysis that I have seen deals with later periods. I suspect that the Tablelands were wooded and at least visited by surrounding groups.

The size and distribution of the early Aboriginal population is obviously unknown since at this stage we have yet to prove that they even existed. My own feeling is that it was probably much smaller but mirrored the pattern at the time the Europeans arrived; higher concentrations on the coast and on the western slopes and immediate plains, sparse on the Tablelands.

From around 36,000 years ago, the climate became cooler and drier. The cooler temperatures offset the lower rainfall by reduced evaporation; the streams, lakes and wetlands of inland New England therefore retained their water, providing a continued base for Aboriginal occupation.

From perhaps 25,000 years ago, the local environment deteriorated significantly. Sahul, the name given to the continent that then included Australia and New Guinea, became very dry, both intensely hot and intensely cold. This climatic regime peaked during what is called the Last Glacial Maximum, 21,000 to 15,000 years ago.

The sea retreated to perhaps 120 metres below current levels. The sea became colder, 2-4 degrees C below current levels. On land, mean monthly temperatures probably fell by 6-10 degrees C. Extensive inland dune building suggests that the climate become much windier.

According to Mulvaney and Kamminga, severe cold, drought, and strong winds over central and southern Sahul, would have discouraged tree growth , although some species common today must have survived in sheltered or better-watered refuges.[5]

The retreating sea would have progressively increased the size of New England’s coastal strip. The sclerophyll woodland and deciduous forests would have progressively colonised the new land, with the coastal dunes and associated wetlands following the shifting coast east. While colder and drier, there would have been sufficient water and food resources to maintain populations.

The Tablelands would have been a very different story. Here average temperatures fell by perhaps 8 degrees C. The New England Tablelands marked the start of a region of cold steppe and scattered sub-alpine woodland sweeping down through the southern Snowy Mountains[6] into Tasmania.

In the southern Snowy Mountains, the fall in temperature was sufficient to allow glaciers to form despite the lower precipitation. In New England, the higher portions of the Tablelands in the centre and south where average heights are around 1,300 metres must have been very cold, dry and windswept. Along New England’s Snowy Mountains where the highest peak (Round Mountain) is almost 1,600 metres, there were probably blizzards and semi-permanent snow despite the much lower precipitation.

It seems likely that any previous human occupation of the Tablelands would have come to an end, although people may still have visited the lower areas.

To the west, Mulvaney and Kamminga suggest that much of the south-eastern interior of Sahul experienced cold arid conditions similar to modern Patagonia[7]. That said, the lower western Tablelands and slopes were probably vegetated by grassland with spring herbs with patches of woodland and forests. Further west, the streams crossed the arid plains.

While these changes took millennia and would not have been noticeable to individual generations, the effect on the human population must have been quite severe.

Water and food supply were two of the critical determinants of prehistoric demography. Water became scarcer, droughts more frequent. Food supply was reduced. Over time, populations would have been forced to relocate and may well have become much smaller.

In the absence of archaeological evidence, it is impossible to say just what the precise effects were in New England.

We know that there was Aboriginal occupation of the coastal strip given that the Wallen Wallen site in South East Queensland shows continuous occupation from 20,000 years ago, a date in the earlier part the Late Glacial Maximum. It is reasonable to assume that any occupation on at least the majority of the Tablelands ceased. But what happened further west?

Under current climate, Northern NSW is generally wetter and warmer than Southern NSW because the area is affected by two different weather patterns. Rainfall also declines to the west because of the impact of the Eastern Ranges.

The climate during the Late Glacial Maximum was clearly very different. However, my feeling is that the current pattern was replicated to some extent because of air flows from what is now the Pacific.

In later times, ethno-historical evidence suggests that the presence of standing water was very important[8]. During wet periods, people moved out into the broader landscape, concentrating round permanent water during dry periods.

With diminished rainfall but also lower temperatures, it seems likely that there were areas on the Western Slopes and Plains that would have continued to provide sufficient water and food to maintain life. Why, then, is there still no archaeological record?

Assuming that the area was populated, the pattern of sites would have reflected then on-ground conditions. Many of the sites would have been camping sites, not easily identifiable beyond lithic scatter. Other sites would have reflected the then location of permanent water.

My feeling is that we need to chart what the landscape was like then to identify possible sites. Mind you, this may already have been done and I have simply not discovered the analysis.

[1] John Mulvaney & Johan Kamminga, Prehistory of Australia, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 1999. P186. The broad framework for this section is drawn from Mulvaney & Kamminga’s work.

[2] Op cit, p197

[3] G Connah, Archaeology at the University of New England 1975-76, Australian Archaeology, No 5, 1976, PP1-5

[4] Ian Walters, Antiquity of Marine Fishing in South-East Queensland, QAR, Vol 9, 1992, pp35-39. P35. Accessed on line 4 April 2009.

[5] Mulvaney & Kamminga, op cit, p116

[6] I have used the term southern Snowy Mountains because New England has its own smaller range also called the Snowy Mountains.

[7] Mulvaney & Kamminga, op cit, p117

[8] J Belshaw Population distribution and the pattern of seasonal movement in northern New South Wales. In I. McBryde (ed.), Records of Times Past, pp.65-81. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1978.