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

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Too much Armidale, not enough other in New England history

Yesterday's post on New England Australia, Discovering a New England treasure trove, recorded my excitement at finding some of my boxes of New England books. I spent much of yesterday evening and a fair bit of this morning sorting them.

One of my general complaints about New England history as a field is the absence of material especially in recent decades as historiographical fancies took writers elsewhere. Yet New England is well served compared to many Australian areas outside the metros.

As I went through the hundreds of books, I came up with a new complaint, there is just too much Armidale and, to a lesser extent, Northern Tablelands in writing as compared to other areas.

New England historiography since the Second World War has been largely driven by the University of New England until very recently. The body of work, and this includes family and local histories, has been strongly affected by UNE people and their changing interests.

UNE was established to be the Sydney University of the North, to preserve and present the history and culture of the area. In many ways, it's done a bloody good job. From the Northern Rivers to the Upper Hunter, UNE people have written histories or trained and supported  those writing histories.

From the beginning, penetration in Newcastle and the Lower Hunter was weak, accurately reflecting the psychological disconnect between those areas and the rest of the North. As a consequence, historiography in Newcastle and the Lower Hunter was driven by other factors, with limited specific local or regional writing. Only recently has the University of Newcastle begun to take up the slack.

Elsewhere, the contraction of the sense of New England, of the North, after the 1967 plebiscite loss affected UNE historical research and writing. It was always going to be the case that Armidale and the Tablelands would have a greater focus because that was where the academics lived. However, as UNE's regional view narrowed, so did historical research and writing.

The practical effect was the creation of a research and publication bias that was not compensated for by anyone else. Now when I come to write and go to my shelves, I have a double barreled problem. Not only are there large geographic gaps, but the publications are geography biased.

Armidale is my family home and I love the Tablelands, but we do need more balance.

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