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).

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