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

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.   

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