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

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

History revisited - Armidale's landscape reveals its history

I thoroughly enjoyed presenting last week to the Armidale North Rotary Club.

My thanks to Mick Duncan for arranging the talk and to the Club for allowing non-Rotarians who had heard about the talk to attend. I really appreciated that.

I was asked why there were in fact so few Armidale blue brick homes. This is the quintessential Armidale building material, yet most of the older houses are weatherboard.20090515-11-08-00-around-armidale--streets-and-architecture

The present built landscape of Armidale reflects every stage in the city’s history.

If you look at an Armidale street map, you will see a central core of rectangular blocks separated by streets running north-south and east west. This is the old measured Armidale.

The 556 people who lived in Armidale in 1851 straggled. Alcohol flowed, horse races were held in the dusty main street, stringybark huts dotted the landscape. It was a rough and ready male dominated place.

Order was imposed on Armidale over the second half of the nineteenth century. In social terms, the male oriented frontier society was replaced by families who (and especially the women) demanded an ordered society. In spatial terms, the previous straggle was replaced by the neat grids we know today.

The physical landscape of Armidale is all about money.

Armidale’s population grew from 556 in 1851 to 4,249 at the 1901 census. This growth created wealth.

The Armidale mercantile and professional families often built in brick because they could afford too. The growing number of ordinary workers, the railway families and trades people, built smaller cottages in cheaper weatherboard. These cottages were built on the then outskirts of the city and especially in West Armidale towards the Railway Station.

The twentieth century political landscape of Armidale reflected these patterns. Armidale Town Hall voted Country Party, whereas West Armidale was Labor Party territory.

By the 1950s, the city’s growth had over-spilled the old boundaries. Newer houses were built in brick. Urban in-fill had started. Flats had begun to appear.

In all this, one of the most remarkable changes has been in colour. Armidale’s colours have changed.

Today, everybody remarks about the heritage colours, about the city’s greenery. I love them. They are simply wonderful. Few realise how recent they are.

Flying into Armidale in the 1950s or 1960s, three colours dominated; white, red and green. White because the predominantly weatherboard houses were generally painted white. Red and green because they were the standard galvanized iron roof colours.

Armidale always had parks and trees. But many of the trees we so love date from the Armidale Beautification Committee campaigns that began in the 1950s.

And the heritage colours? They are due to new paint types that simply weren’t available before.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 14 November 2012. The photo is by Gordon Smith. 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, November 14, 2012

History revisited - wine industry's vintage

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about a lecturer from the New England University College who went into a pub in Uralla and ordered a bottle of wine to go with dinner. After some scratching around, one was finally found. “Would you like a glass”, the waitress asked?

I mention this now because of Armidale’s recent focus on food and wine, including the forthcoming Under the Elms event at UNE. Many of we expats wish we could be there!

Even fifty years earlier, the Uralla pub story would have made no sense, for the Tablelands still grew and sold its own wine. By the time of the story, that had gone. I thought, therefore, that I should share with you the story of the rise and fall of the Tablelands’ wine industry.

In 1830, George and Margaret Wyndham purchased "Annandale" in the Hunter Valley, renaming the property "Dalwood" and building Dalwood House as a home.

In 1828 George had planted his first grapes using 600 cuttings purchased from James Busby. Following the purchase he immediately made the first commercial planting of shiraz at "Dalwood".

Produced in 1831, the first "Dalwood" vintage was not a great success; the "extremely hot conditions promised to make good vinegar." Still, in that same year Wyndham brought the 100,000 acre property "Bukkulla" near Inverell on the edge of the Northern Tablelands. There established another vineyard. Wine growing now expanded rapidly. By 1860, Wyndham's total holdings including “Bukkulla” were producing 11,000 gallons of wine per annum.

George Wyndham was not the only wine producer. Other settlers also planted vineyards and made their own wine.

The wealthier settlers were used to drinking wine, so it made sense to plant their own grapes. The surplus could also be sold locally through the little local hotels that dotted the stage coach routes.

As late as 1905, wine production from the Inverell area of New England was 227,000 litres from seven or eight larger vineyards and a number of smaller vineyards. Nor was this wine bad.

Between 1870 and 1920, wines from the area won many awards at wine shows in Sydney, Amsterdam, London, San Francisco, Chicago and France. A prominent English wine judge of the time wrote of the “Bukkulla” wines, “(They) have a character and quality above the average of most wine-producing countries. The lowest quality is better than a large proportion of the ordinary wines of Europe, while the best would not suffer in comparison to the finest known growths”.

And then all this vanished. Why? Part of the answer lies in that dreaded word, beer.

Initially, colonial New Englanders were not big beer drinkers. Among those wanting to imbibe to excess, to get smashed we would now say, brandy was the tipple of choice. The Australian colonies were one of the biggest global markets for French brandy!

Beer did not become readily available until improved brewing techniques allowed consisent quality. Beer did not become readily available until improved transport allowed bulk shipments. The combination made beer the drink of choice among ordinary Australians.

This was not the only factor.

The rise of the temperance movements, the wowsers, also changed things.

Wine drinking diminished; brandy retreated to the medicine cabinet where it became hospital brandy. Only beer survived. The Tableland’s wine industry was one victim of all this social and structural change. Now it is back!

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 7 November 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, November 07, 2012

History revisited - literature's window to our past

One of the big challenges faced by any historian is to break through the veil created by the present to that far country of the past.

The present determines the questions we ask of the evidence, but it does more than that. It creates an almost irresistible temptation to force the past to fit the past to present ways of interpretation. Yet the past is always with us, influencing us in sometimes unseen ways.

I referred to this in my last column when I suggested that Armidale’s history with its key interlocking threads of grazing and especially wool, government, education and politics influenced current life in ways not seen by those now living in the city.

As it happens, on Monday 5 November I am coming back to Armidale to talk to the Armidale North Rotary Club. My topic is Northern Images: landscape and literature through Northern eyes. In the promo for my talk, I said that would use a mixture of paintings, photos, film, poetry, literature and political symbols to give Club members a small taste of the changing ways in which those living in Northern NSW, the broader new state New England, have seen their world.

Last week saw the annual Maurice Kelly lecture at UNE.

Maurice, a tall, quiet and gentle man always interested in other people, founded (among other things) the Classics Museum at UNE. The annual lecture celebrates that event.

Wife Gwen who died recently was far more peppery. She was also one of Australia’s better known writers whose book The Middle-Aged Maidens,. a satirical study of life in a private girls' school created a real storm in the Armidale dovecots.

Like many writers, Gwen wrote in multiple forms and mined her own life for material.

I still remember the story that appeared in a women’s magazine about her daughter’s blond haired, blue eyed boyfriend Henry. Now the Henry in question was a particular mate of mine, and I think that she captured him to a T. “Hold this Mrs Kelly, and you will get an electric shock.” Hold it she did, and indeed she got an electric shock!

Both Maurice and Gwen were bought to Armidale through UNE, the education stream in Armidale history. Here Gwen joined a number of people connected in some way to UNE who wrote in one way or another about their Armidale experience.

Crime writer Robert Barnard began his writing career based on his experience as a lecturer in the English Department at UNE.

His first novel, Death of an Old Goat, was set in part in Dummondale University, and included the Drummondale School Head.

One later reviewer, put it:

As Police Inspector Royle (who had never actually had to solve a crime before) probes the possible motives of the motley crew of academics who drink their way through the dreary days at Drummondale and as he investigates the bizarre behaviour of some worthy locals, a hilarious, highly satirical portrait of life down under emerges.

The book is actually quite cruel. One of the funniest scenes is a group of local graziers sprung by the police doing a secret Aboriginal inspired rain dance to try to break the drought!

I have run out of space for this column. I guess that I will have to give you more in a later column on writers, painters, film makers and musicians and the way they saw Armidale and the broader New England.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 31 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).