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

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

History revisited - fast-forward back in time for quick service

I had no idea how bad water borne diseases were.....  typhoid was common killer.

I am constantly surprised at just how efficient Governments were in the nineteenth century, far more so than today.

The Municipality of Armidale was formally proclaimed on Tuesday 17 November 1863. Before an election could be held, a receiving officer had to be appointed. The Police Magistrate C T Weaver therefore nominated Christopher Dawson Fenwicke.

Mr Weaver’s letter nominating Mr Fenwicke is dated 23 November 1863. It was received in Sydney within four days and the required Executive Council minute was prepared on 28 November. The minute went to the Governor on 1 December and within a week both Mr Fenwick’s appointment and the date for the election were proclaimed in the Government Gazette. The election itself took place 22 December 1863.

Truly remarkable.

It would, I think, be unfair to say to much about those early councils since I suspect that the forthcoming Armidale Our Town production may have something to say. I am very much looking forward to it. However, those early councils could be quite fractious as local rivals fought for control. This was not limited to Armidale, but occurred in all the new councils across the North.

As always, questions of rates and debts were key; what should we spend, how do we fund it? The new councils had quite wide powers, in some ways wider than today. As today, they were also constrained by rate and borrowing caps imposed from Sydney. However, their key concerns were a little different from those we know now.

There was none of the angst over planning or environmental issues. That came much later. Rather, the focus was much more immediate.

The new municipalities’ roads were generally unmade, often still with tree stumps. Potholes were everywhere, while the roads became bogs during wet weather. The first concern was to remove those stumps, fill those potholes, place gravel on the roads. Then over the second half of the nineteenth century came four more concerns, fire, water, sewerage and lighting.

Fire was an enormous problem with wood buildings and no fire brigades. All Northern towns suffered, some very badly. Councils and aldermen helped from new brigades.

Water and sewerage was more difficult, for this involved real money. Until I came to research New England history, I had no idea just how bad water borne diseases were in our urban localities. Leaving aside the 1905 outbreak of plague in Lismore brought in via ship, typhoid was common killer.

Typhoid? What else would you expect with sewerage being dumped in creeks or polluting ground water and wells from sewerage pits? It really was a killer. Because of the cost to rate payers, all the new councils were reluctant to act. In the end, all had too.

That leaves lighting. Here there is a special story, one that I will leave to another column.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 20 November 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.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Ending a Never Ending Story

It was in 2007 or early 2008 that I set myself the target of completing my history of New England as soon as possible. If I could complete just 300 words per day, I told myself, I can have my first draft completed in a year. Now, five years later, I seem to have made little progress!

It's not that I haven't written a lot on New England history. I have, several hundred thousand words including my weekly Express column, two book chapters, three major seminar papers plus multiple blog posts.

It's not that my knowledge hasn't deepened. It has. It's deepening all the time to the point that I can genuinely claim to be an expert in knowledge terms. However, herein lies the first of my problems, my increasing knowledge of the gaps in my knowledge.

The history I am writing now is very different from that I would have written in 2008. The basic structure is the same, but the texture and depth is far greater. New topics have emerged, older ones shrunk in importance. The political dimension has shrunk, for example, although it retains its role as a basic framework. By contrast, economic, social and cultural topics have expanded.

Five years ago, for example, I wondered whether we could speak of a New England literary tradition despite the many books written by New Englanders or about New England. Now I know that there is not just one but several New England literary traditions. Unseen, they still exert influence. They are a story in themselves.

Five years ago I considered that the history was important to provide a picture to New Englanders of their own history and life. Based on feedback through comments and emails as well as discussion, I am convinced that this is even more important than I realised, especially for New England's Aboriginal peoples who often lack access to basic details about their past.

I am not good at setting targets. More precisely, at personal level I set many that I then fail to achieve. I get distracted. Still, I have set 2014 as the year of the book, My aim is to have a full draft completed by year's end. This time, and like my weekly column, I will write to time and not to perfection. After all, once its done I can get on with other things, including bringing out a second edition if that seems sensible.

The book is broken into three parts, Aboriginal New England, Colonial New England, New England in the Twentieth  Century. I will allocate three months to each section, leaving three months for introduction, follow up and polishing.

Do I have the discipline to stick to this in the face of other pressures? We will see. I'm not sure. But to impose an external public discipline, I will report progress here.     

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

History revisited - Armidale by periods and themes

As we come up to Armidale’s Sesquicentenary, I thought that I would give you an overview of the city’s history. I think of it in terms of periods, each with its own themes.

By far the longest period, of course, is the Aboriginal period before the town’s foundation in 1839. We don’t know when the Aborigines first came to the Armidale area. We have dates in Southern Queensland of around 22,000 years ago, older dates not far away. Dates for the Tablelands are much more recent, suggesting that the Aborigines came or came back to the Tablelands perhaps 10,000 years ago as the dry and icy conditions created by what was called the Late Glacial Maximum finally ended.

The Aboriginal settlers established a sophisticated life style developing new technology, including Bondi points, small stone blades used in the fearsome death spears. As they walked their familiar runs, they used fire to cultivate and built bora rings and other ceremonial grounds, including substantial stone constructions. At night as the smoke from the fires drifted into the star-lit sky, they told stories, passing knowledge and sometimes tall tales onto the young.

From 1788, European diseases such as smallpox spread from Port Jackson, bringing social destruction decades before the Europeans actually arrived. By the time the squatting rush reached the area around Armidale, traditional Aboriginal society had been seriously weakened. Now it would be largely destroyed.

The arrival of the squatters marks the start of Armidale’s often wild and largely male frontier period. Crown Land Commissioners were appointed to control the flooding settlement. Armidale’s founder, Commissioner Macdonald, was a hump-backed romantic who sat in his hut writing poetry about love that, in the end, he would fail to find. Thus began the Armidale poetic tradition.

The frontier period culminated in the New England gold rushes. A mass of moving humanity spread across the landscape; Thunderbolt preyed on the gold shipments. Now began the second period of Armidale’s colonial history, the establishment of social order.

Men may feature in the formal books, but it was the newly arriving women who strongly formed this period because of the need to establish order for them and their families. This was the period of the growth of towns, the firm establishment of pastoral dynasties, the rise of the small farmer. There was money to be made and Armidale prospered, creating the buildings that mark the old city today. In political terms, the fights over separation were replaced by fights to unlock land and then by disputes over tariffs.

Federation started a new period. After the depression of the 1890s and the great drought that marked the start of the new century, there was optimism that would be damaged first by the Great War, then the Great depression and the Second World War. Still, Armidale prospered because of its place at the heart of new political movements, a resurgent new state movement and the new Country Party. Armidale became the prospective capital of a new state. First the Parthenon on the Hill appeared, then a university college.

Driven by education, Armidale grew rapidly from the end of the Second World War. New suburbs emerged, along with the first flats. By the early 1970s, official forecasts saw Armidale’s population exceeding that of Tamworth. . Within Armidale, debate shifted from a focus on growth to worries about the impact of growth, blind to troubles on the horizon, for largely unseen, New England had entered a process of social and economic change that affected every aspect of city life.

The new state agitation that had supported Northern development largely collapsed after the plebiscite defeat in 1967. Old industries declined, locally owned businesses were taken over, tertiary education went through a forced restructuring process that saw first the forced merger of the University and College of Advanced Education then the failed creation of a networked university. For the first time in its history, Armidale’s population declined.

The city has largely come through that turmoil. Optimism has returned, and with it a new stage in the city’s history.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 13 November 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.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

History revisited - the "pink ribbon" gang

There are many stories hidden within the history of Northern New South Wales, stories now forgotten or little known. Have you ever heard of the 'Jewboy gang'? I had not.

Edward Davis was born 1n 1816. His place of birth is uncertain, as indeed is his real name. However, it does appear that he was Jewish.

In April 1832 under the name George Wilkinson, Davis was centered to transportation for seven years for attempting to steal a wooden till along with some copper corns. He arrived in Sydney in February 1833. Convinced of the wrongness of his sentence and determined to find freedom, Davis made the first of three unsuccessful escape attempts in December 1833. Now with an ever lengthening sentence, in July 1838 Davis made a further escape attempt, this time remaining at liberty.

In the summer of 1839, Davis formed a gang of runaway convicts. Davis’s biographer G F J Bergman suggests that they were not hardened criminals, but more juvenile delinquents who considered themselves chevaliers of the road. Davis himself bore curious tattoos, while gang members wore gaudy clothes and tied pink ribbons to their horses.

The gang based themselves at Pilcher’s Mountain near Dungog. Formed by tectonic stresses, Pilcher’s Mountain is a maze of massive boulders, with many caves and hiding places. From this base, the gang launched a series of raids across the Hunter and onto the Liverpool Plains as far north as Tamworth. They adopted a Robin Hood approach, distributing part of the booty to assigned convict servants.

By December 1840, the gang had grown to seven members. On 21 December, they descended on Scone. Davis had always insisted that they should use violence only for their preservation of their own liberty, but this time things went wrong.

The gang broke into two groups. Three including Davis went to rob the St Aubin Arms, four to rob the store of Thomas Dangar, a member of a family that would become well known across New England.

At the store, the store-keeper’s clerk, a young Englishman named John Graham, fired a shot. The gang’s John Shea returned fired, killing Graham. Learning the news, Davis realised that the gang was now in deep trouble. Gathering his men, they fled to one of their hiding places, Doughboy Hollow near Murrurundi.

Retribution was swift. Police magistrate Captain Edward Day organised a party of mounted men to pursue the bushrangers.

Day is another of those important minor figures in New England history; in June 1838 he was in charge of the party sent to arrest the men responsible for the massacre on Henry Dangar’s (Thomas’s uncle) Myall Creek Station; later he would be police magistrate for the Northern Districts.

Day’s party surprised the gang. With one exception, they were captured after a short battle and later sentenced to hang. Davis himself attracted considerable public sympathy, but appeals for clemency were rejected.

On 16 March 1841 Davis, assisted by the reader of the Sydney Synagogue, was hanged at the rear of the old Sydney goal together with his companions.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 6 November 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.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

History revisited - picture-perfect book gives a simply brilliant insight into the region

I have a rather special book on my shelves. Called simply Armidale, it is number 21 of a print run of just 78. It is clearly a semi-commercial publication, for it carries advertisements at the back. But it is also quite a sumptuous book.20050409-013-lookingIntoTown

It has a velvet cover, glossy pages with full colour reproductions of paintings from the Hinton Collection carefully separated by tissue paper bound into the book and many photos of Armidale scenes. The printers are Reg G Pogonoski Pty Ltd of Newcastle whose proprietor proclaims himself as a proud Armidalian.

What is the book? It is the limited edition of the book published in 1938 to mark the 75th anniversary of the proclamation of Armidale as a municipality.

In some ways, it is a triumphal book, the story of a small city secure in itself, confident of its achievements, proud of its progress.

Harold J Robinson’s newly rebuilt Tattersall’s Hotel proclaims that it is equipped with every modern convenience: electric light, steam heated bedrooms, air conditioned throughout. Indeed, by then standards, it was a quite a luxurious establishment, a place well suited for visiting parents coming to see their children at school.

Many years later, I remember sitting an armchair in the lounge at the front, waiting nervously to meet a girlfriend’s parents for the first time. Even then, it carried the trappings of its past glories.

To mark the seventy five years, a special Back to Armidale committee has been formed to organise the festivities. Chaired by F K Lamb with P N Harrison as secretary and W S Forsyth as Treasurer, the committee has no less than 82 members representing every section of the city. Mayor W H McBean acted as president of the celebrations themselves.

What did the local citizens then consider worthy of celebration? In many ways, current residents would find the themes quite familiar. There is a general history section prepared by students from the Teacher’s College, along with special sections on Captain Thunderbolt and the story of the newspaper press in Armidale. The local homesteads are featured, as is the Council and its aldermen.

The largest sections in the book are devoted to education, churches, public institutions and societies and to sport. What were the main sports in 1938? Seven are featured: shooting, racing, rugby league, rugby union, cricket, hockey, golf, bowls, tennis, and fishing.

I see that Rugby Union had fallen into decline, kept alive by the schools. Now the New England Rugby Union is being reborn, with the aim of running a full competition in 1939. That happened, with the New England University College fielding its first team coached by the New Zealand born Jim Belshaw.

Throughout the book, black and white photos display the beauty of the New England countryside. “See the Beauties of New England”, proclaims Charles Purkiss. “Travel by Woodward and Purkiss Motor Services.”

Beautiful then, just as beautiful now.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 30 October 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.

The photo of Armidale in Autumn comes from Gordon Smith.