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

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

History revisited - city founders' grand designs

Armidale’s built environment reflects the different stages in the city’s history. Those stages may now largely invisible in daily life, for the city changed enormously over the second half of the twentieth century, yet their effects linger.

One of Armidale’s most attractive and distinctive features is what I call the old city, that compact part of the city that stretches especially south from Beardy Street up South Hill. This is Victorian Armidale, with its blue brick and iron lacework.

Armidale residents generally take the old city for granted, it just is. Visitors to Armidale are surprised by it, as they are by the schools, for there is nothing quite like it elsewhere in Australia.

That surprise is itself a sign of the social and economic changes that took place in the North and throughout Australia over the second half of the twentieth century. Even fifty years ago, Armidale was widely recognized in Australia and beyond as the Athens of the North, the prospective capital in waiting of our own Northern state.

Four interconnected things built Armidale: grazing and especially wool, government, education and politics.

Wool was important because it was a high value product that supported European settlement beyond the immediate boundaries of settlement, the nineteen counties. Settlement exploded. To manage this, the Government in Sydney appointed Crown Land Commissioners to establish authority beyond the official frontier. One of these, George Macdonald, established his headquarters on the Tablelands and called the place Armidale.

As an aside, in checking a fact for this story, I found no less than four spellings of the Commissioner’s name, all in common usage!

The Commissioner’s action made Armidale an administrative centre. At the 1851 census, Armidale with a population of 556 was the largest Northern town outside the lower Hunter, followed by Port Macquarie on 519 and then Grafton on 319. Grafton would soon outstrip Armidale in population. But ten years later, Armidale was still the largest inland urban centre.

Armidale’s role as a centre of Government brought schools and churches. Both added to the still small town’s importance. Armidale, the city of schools and churches, was born.

Politics was important because it added to the process.

In 1920 the first full New State manifesto, Australia Subdivided, put a key problem facing the North in this way: In Northern New South Wales, a few high schools, no technical schools, no universities exist to retain the intelligence and culture of the area.”

The political battles that followed saw first a teachers college and then a university college established to meet the needs of the North. These new institutions drew staff and students to the city, adding to the mix. Armidale as we know it now was born.

The world changes and the city has changed with it. Yet the four interconnected themes of wool, government, education and politic still influence the culture and character of the city today. We don’t always see it, but it’s there.

In coming columns, I will explore some of those influences, showing how past and present entwine in a fascinating mix.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 24 October 2012. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012 (Belshaw's World), 2012 (History Revisited).

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

History revisited - a pressing change

A week back, The Armidale Express Facebook page carried a staff photo from the paper’s earlier days. That caused me to cast my mind back to the paper’s earlier days.

Express staff

On Friday 12 April 1929, the Sydney Morning Herald reported the formation of a new company, the Armidale Newspaper Company Limited, to purchase two Armidale newspapers, the Armidale Express carried on by P. C. G. Hipgrave and J. B. McKenzie and the Armidale Chronicle carried on by A. Purkiss.

This announcement marked another stage in a change process transforming the Northern press.

At the start of the twentieth century, even small towns had their own independent newspaper to press the interests of town and district. Many had several. Then the development of new and costlier technology with growing competition from the metropolitan dailies began to threaten the financial survival of the country press. Papers started to close or merge, while a number became dailies.

The new country dailies were aggressive. In the North, the Grafton Daily Examiner and Northern Daily Leader combined with the Lismore Northern Star and the Murwillumbah Tweed Daily to form the Associated Northern Dailies to compete for city advertising. In 1931 the Maitland Daily Mercury would join the group.

Competition from the Northern Dailies increased the pressure on the other newspapers still being published on a tri-, bi- or weekly basis. In the New England, the combination of train and truck allowed the Northern Daily Leader to reach towns from Tamworth to the border in time for breakfast.

Mind you, the competition was not all one-sided.

Following a bad train crash, Northern Newspaper’s Ernest Sommerlad wrote with glee to fellow director David Drummond in September 1926 that the Glen Innes Examiner had “got a good one on Tamworth yesterday, in connection with the rail smash.” “Armidale passed the word on that Tamworth were sending a special edition up, to arrive about 7pm”, Sommerlad explained. “I got busy & made a fine display of stuff in the short time available. Then hired a motor-bike and sent 350 copies to Inverell, having rung Knapton to get a dodger out in the meantime. The street was blocked with people waiting for copies & we made a great sale - & a great scoop.”

Despite such successes, the pressure on the smaller papers grew. Then in 1928, a financial adventurer, William John Beckett decide to launch a chain of newspapers around Australia. Armidale was mentioned as one of the key centres in the Beckett proposals.

Realising 'that at all costs Beckett must be prevented from getting a foothold in the North', Sommerlad agreed with Albert Joseph (the founder of the Northern Daily Leader) that the Tamworth Newspaper Company and Northern Newspapers should jointly sponsor the merger of the two papers. In Sommerlad's view, this intervention was necessary 'since the two Armidale proprietors were so mutually jealous there was no possibility of the amalgamation being brought about except by an outsider.' This view was supported by Drummond, now member for Armidale.

Tensions between the parties led the Tamworth Newspaper Company Board to refuse to participate. Northern decided to continue.

On 10 April 1929, The Armidale Newspaper Company Limited was formed with Dr. R.B. Austin (Chairman), E.C. Sommerlad (Managing Director) and Colonel H.F. White as initial directors. W.S. Forsyth, the main Armidale promoter, wrote happily to Sommerlad that he was 'pleased with the entire outlook.'

Drummond and three others were appointed to the Board at the first directors' meeting, and then, on 2 September 1929, the first edition of the merged paper appeared. The twentieth century Express had been born.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 17 October 2012. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012 (Belshaw's World), 2012 (History Revisited).

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

History Revisited - flypaper and chip heaters

Each period of New England life has had its own rhythms. Last week, I told a story from New England’s Aboriginal past, the week before I mentioned Masyln Williams’ evocative picture of Tablelands’ life during the 1920s.

Reading Williams reminded me of two things from my own past, things that older Armidale residents will remember that have now largely vanished.

Armidale has always had a problem with flies, both the blowfly and the common housefly. Hiking though the paddocks with the 2ndArmidale scouts (I still don’t know what happened to 1st Armidale!), the blowflies used to gather, attracted by the salt in the sweat that soaked our shirts under the packs we carried. Looking forward while walking in file, each scout carried his own crowd of flies hovering around the pack, diving to settle on the sweaty patches exposed as the pack moved.

As an aside, I had assumed that the blowfly was an Australian pest. Apparently not. It appears that the sheep blowfly arrived in Australia from South Africa in the mid to late 1800s, causing a major outbreak of fly strike in many areas in 1897.

The fly position in town was worse. Very few houses then had fly screens, doors and windows were always open in summer, allowing flies to congregate inside. What to do? Well, flypaper was one answer. This was a longish thin strip of paper coated with a sticky substance, sometimes impregnated with poison such as arsenic. This impregnation featured in two famous British murder trials where the accused was alleged to have soaked the fly paper in water to extract the arsenic for later nefarious use.

Hung from the ceiling or from an often begrimed dangling light shade, the flypaper was hardly an attractive sight. For that reason among others, it went out of fashion, despite its sometimes effectiveness in attracting and killing flies.

The second vanished item was far more attractive.

Many Australian places and especially in the country, had no access to gas or electricity. Water for bathing had to be heated on the stove and then carried to the bath or tub. This world was captured in a nostalgic poem by Mary Gilmore, The Saturday Tub. There, standing in a line by the fire, the children take their turn

To stand in tub the size of a churn,
It was, 'where's the flannel?" and, "Mind the soap!"
Slither and slide, and scuffle and grope

Despite Mary Gilmore’s childhood nostalgia, the process was very time consuming. An Australian invention from around the 1880s came to the rescue, one that took advantage of the relative availability of wood. This was the chip heater.

The cylindrical heater included a fire box that was fed with paper, pine cones and chips from the woodheap. Water circulated through the firebox, providing a supply of hot water for bath or shower.

Many older Australians have nostalgic memories of the chip heater drawn from child hood. We had one for a brief period when I was young, and there was an immense thrill in being allowed to light it and then feed the fire! They could be cranky and noisy, but they were also fun.

By the 1960s, the spread of electricity as well as water heated from slow combustion stoves had destroyed the market. The chip heater went the way of fly paper, leaving just memories behind.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 10 October 2012. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012 (Belshaw's World), 2012 (History Revisited).

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

History Revisited - Red Kangaroo & the Bundarra mob: an epic tale of warfare in prehistoric New England

The year is about 1720. The place a major bush camp outside what is now Gunnedah. The smoke from the camp fires drifts into the dusk air. Overhead, the stars are beginning to appear. The visiting envoys sit silent, waiting patiently. The warriors have been in council all day, and it is time for decision.

The trouble had begun some months earlier. The powerful Tablelands’ mob from the Bundarra-Kingston area had been raiding for women in Gamilaraay (Kamilaroi) speaking lands. They left the strong Nammoy River mob alone, but had struck at the Goonoo Goonoo and Maneela (Manila) River mobs with considerable success, seizing women and killing the warriors who had opposed them. Finally, both groups sent envoys seeking help from the Nammoy to get their young women back. The Nammoy could keep the Bundarra women taken, although if many were taken, perhaps the Nammoy would share.

Lit by the fires, Gambu Ganuuru (Red Kangaroo in Gamilaraay), the Nammoy warrior chief, moved to the centre of the gathering.

The Red Kangaroo was then about forty and had been war chief since the age of nineteen. At over 190cm, he was a tall well built man whose body carried the scars of past battles. Now he summed up. The prize of the Bundarra women was not of great concern, but it was “another thing to have this Bundarra tribe come raiding so close to our territory. We are strong now, and we have to break any strong tribe who is a danger to us. Do you agree with me that we fight the Bundarra warriors to prove whose tribe is the ruling tribe, first and last?”

There were ninety warriors in the war party that now assembled. The Red Kangaroo led the forty strong Nammoy party, while Goonoo Goonoo war chief Ilparra commanded the fifty warriors from Goonoo Goonoo and Maneela, with Maneela war chief Mooti second in command.

There was no chance of a surprise attack, for throughout the one hundred kilometre journey small Bundarra parties gathered on all sides, spying on them and driving away the game they needed for food. Finally, a bigger force than theirs came to give battle on a long granite sand-flat through which ran a wide stony creek.

Ilparra was killed early by a spear through the throat, with Mooti taking command of the combined Goonoo Goonoo/Maneela force. For two hours, neither the combined force nor the Bundarra warriors that opposed them could gain ground. Realising that the Nammoy warriors were getting too far ahead and out of touch with Mooti’s party, the Red Kangaroo ordered his men to turn to take the party fighting Mooti on its flank.

The main Bundarra party that had been fighting the Red Kangaroo called out three times. At this pre-arranged signal, those opposing Mooti ran back to the main Bundarra group. Mooti and his warriors pursued, ignoring Red Kangaroo’s calls for them to join him. In the following fighting, Mooti was killed and his warriors broken into small groups.

The position was now desperate. Red Kangaroo’s party were outnumbered, had thrown nearly all their spears, while the Tablelands’ spears would not fit into the Kamilaroi spear throwers. “Gather and break their spears”, the Red Kangaroo told his party. “We must make it across to that pine scrub where they will be forced to fight hand to hand.”

Using his powerful voice, the Red Kangaroo coordinated the fight against the still larger but more disorganised Bundarra forces. Fighting as individuals or in small groups, the Bundarra warriors finally broke and ran. Kibbi, their great war chief, was killed by the Red Kangaroo’s spear.

Red Kangaroo and his warriors came the main Bundarra camp. Only old men and women were there. “Go tell your warriors to bring their women and children back to this camp”, the Red Kangaroo said. “No warrior who comes back will be harmed.”

Under the peace terms now imposed, the stolen women were returned, while five women each were given to the Goonoo Goonoo and Maneela tribes. Thirty four young women and five young boys and girls were taken by the Red Kangaroo and his warriors for the Nammoy tribe.

I hope that you have enjoyed this tale from New England’s more distant past. If you would like to learn more, Ion Idriess’ Red Chiefgives a gripping fictional account, while Michael O’Rouke’s Sung for Generations provides a detailed analysis of the source material for all the Red Kangaroo stories.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 3 October 2012. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012 (Belshaw's World), 2012 (History Revisited).

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

History Revisited - sharing a love of history

Last year I came back to Armidale to deliver a paper on social change in the broader New England over the second half of the twentieth century. While in town I did as I always do, I went book shopping.

As a writer and commentator on New England history and issues, I need access to books and records, many now out of print and hard to find. For that reason, I buy what I can when I can. I also buy for the sheer joy of it, for we have had some wonderful writers.

On this trip, I struck real gold in the form of Maslyn William's His Mother's Country (Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1988). I knew of Williams as an award winning Australian writer and documentary film maker, but had no idea of his New England connection.

Williams was born in England in 1911. After his parents’ death, an uncle sent him out to Australia to work as a jackaroo on a large station near Tenterfield. There he fell in love with Australia. His Mother’s Country explains why. Written in the third person (he calls himself the lad throughout), the book describes Williams’ experiences in 1920s New England, the lives and personalities of numerous individuals he encountered, and the distinctive identity of the landscape that ultimately claimed his loyalty.

It really is a wonderful book. It justly won the FAW Christina Stead Award in 1988 and then in the following year the Douglas Stewart Prize in the State literary awards.

Maslyn is not the only writer who describes childhood or early life in New England. Another is Judith Wright, a third Judith Wallace. Their writing traces the texture of a changing world in Armidale and beyond.

Last weekend, I was back in Armidale for a reunion of the TAS Leaving Certificate class of 1962. Those attending had come from all across Australia, from Hong Kong, Canada and the United States.

Scots Band 2012 As I waited to go to TAS, the sound of bagpipe music from nearby Central Park drifted across the motel balcony where I was sitting. Distracted, I packed away my notes and walked to the park to listen. It was PLC’s 125th anniversary celebrations, and the Scots College band was playing. I met the Headmistress and explained that my brother and I used to line up with the girls for our bread and jam, This was in the old school before the move to the top of the hill.

Later at TAS, we yarned about our shared history, about the changes that had taken place, about the things that we had done. For most of us, to come from Armidale or to come here for school or university is to leave the place. I have been lucky, for I have been able to come back on visits, then to live here again, and now once more to visit. For all of us, the links remain.

In coming columns, I would like to share with you some of those links through the wonderful history that we have in common: from spies to classical Greek plays; from the very local to the regional and beyond; from fly paper to chip heaters; from food to furniture; from our ancient Pleistocene past to the present.

I hope that you will come with me on the journey. I hope, too, that you will contribute your own stories.

Next week, I will give you a story of warfare beyond the frontier of written history, of a time before Captain Cook. It’s an exciting tale that I think that you will enjoy.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 26 September 2012 in the new History Revisited series. It was my first column after a gap. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012 (Belshaw's World), 2012 (History Revisited).