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

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

History revisited - Armidale envisaged as Athens of the North and as an Australian Oxford

"The Country Party encapsulated country grievances about country neglect..."

A question that has puzzled many is just how Armidale got not just one but two higher educational institutions in the space of ten years. Yes, Armidale was already an educational centre. Yes, the first helped lay the base for the second. Yes, there was a local member in David Drummond who was also Minister for Education.

Yet none of this really explains just what happened, why those institutions were established in Armidale so far in advance of any equivalents elsewhere. The answer lies in a remarkable confluence of circumstance.

The first reference that I know of to the possible establishment of a university in Armidale comes from 1892. Appearing before a NSW Parliamentary Committee, Armidale Mayor William Drew extolled the educational virtues of the city, drawing a somewhat sarcastic comment from a committee member: “It will become a sort of modern Athens, I suppose?” “A University of Oxford, perhaps”, responded the mayor. Those two ideas, Armidale as the Athens of the North and Armidale as an antipodean Oxbridge, were to exercise a powerful influence on the city and its institutions.

Over twenty years later, in 1924, David Drummond as local member arranged for a deputation to meet Albert Bruntnell, the Minister for Education in the Fuller Government, to press the case for the creation of a university college in Armidale. Led by Armidale Mayor Morgan Stevens, the deputation included the heads of Armidale’s major schools. The Minister was sympathetic, but to the point. The estimates provided for the cost of establishing university colleges were prohibitive. The matter rested there for the moment. However, by 1924 much had changed and those changes were to be important.

Armidale itself had changed. While its population in 1921 was still only 5,500, the educational institutions in the city had continued to advance. While this was important, the emergence of two new political movements was more important. The first was the Progressive, later Country, Party, the second a reborn new state movement.

The Country Party encapsulated country grievances about country neglect, including education. While a state wide party, its strength was heavily concentrated in Northern New South Wales. The new state movement drew from similar grievances, but in pushing for self government for the North it articulated a common sense of Northerness that did much to overcome that rigid sense of local parochialism that so impeded regional cooperation and would later make the networked University of New England the most spectacular failure of the Dawkins’ education reforms.

Beyond these factors was the simple rivalry of two educators with very different views about teacher training, a rivalry that was central to the establishment of the Teachers’ College. I will continue this story in my next column.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 17 July 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

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