Early in February 1938, a young looking thirty year old lecturer in history and economics arrived to take up his appointment at the newly created New England University College. It would be some weeks before the next academic staff member arrived. There were just two students enrolled; Jean Dyce, the Warden’s secretary, promptly tried to enrol him as the third and was disappointed to find that he was only a staff member.
The story had begun some six months before. On the journey back to New Zealand from England after completing his PhD at Manchester, the ship had called at Sydney. The young man left the ship to inquire about job prospects at the University and the banks. It was in the Economics Department at the Bank of New South Wales that he heard vague rumours about a proposed university college to be established in a remote part of the state. Those he talked to were not impressed.
Around December, the first five academic positions at the New England University College were advertised. Without much enthusiasm and with decided reservations, he decided to apply, beating thirty five other applicants for the position.
His reservations did not disappear with his arrival in Armidale, nor was his enthusiasm aroused. The town seemed small; it was dry, brown and dusty, a huge contrast to New Zealand’s green. It seemed to be asleep a great part of the time, or at least very drowsy.
Booloominbah, the home of the new College, was three miles from town along a narrow dirt track. Since none of the new lecturers had cars, it appeared very isolated even from Armidale. Further, work on building alterations was still underway. Everything was being done in a rush.
You can get a feel for this if you look at the chronology. Legislation to allow the formation of the new College passed Parliament in December 1937. Then all the machinery issues had to be addressed before building work could commence and academic staff be recruited. There was less than three months between the advertisement for academic staff and the start of lectures.
There were very particular reasons for this rush.
The University College’s main proponents had all been involved in the creation of the Armidale Teachers College ten years before. That, too, had been done in a rush and wisely so. Depression hit Australia twelve months after its creation. There were moves to close the Armidale Teachers College, but the project was too far advanced.
With that lesson in front of them, the University project was pushed hard and again wisely so. Had the opening been delayed even twelve months, the onset of war could well have closed the University College. As it was, it was to be a close fought battle with the Army who wanted the site for a convalescent battle.
And that young staff member? He stayed and became an active member of that close knit University College community forged through those early experiences.
Photo Dr James P Belshaw October 1940
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 6 March 2013. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. 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, here for 2013