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.