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

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

History revisited - approach of UNE's perfect storm

In 1972, NSW Department of Decentralisation and Development population projections showed Armidale’s population growing from 18,156 in 1971 to 47,301 in 2001, larger than Tamworth. Two years later, University of New England Geography Department suggested a slower rate of growth, with Armidale’s population projected to reach 33,394 in 2000.

On the campus, the focus at the time was coping with growth. In the city, many were concerned that such rapid growth would destroy Armidale’s life style advantages. There was considerable resistance to any business development plans that might encourage or support growth. Neither town nor gown was really aware of just what was coming.

Between 1938 and 1985, the University College/University had six wardens or VCs. Now came four in eleven years: Lawrence Nicol (1985-1988), Don McNicol (1988-1990), Robert Smith (1990-1994) and Bruce Thom (1994-1996).

Over those eleven years, the University experienced the equivalent of a perfect storm that it was ill-equipped to deal with and which threatened to sink it entirely. In the city, growth stalled and then went into reverse. The population within the old city boundaries peaked at 21,605 in 1991 and then started falling.

The events of those turbulent years are vividly and indeed bitterly etched in the minds of many Armidale people and in the broader university community beyond. For that reason, I don’t want to talk about events in detail. Rather, I want to sketch some of the elements that made it such a perfect storm.

To the north of Armidale lay a university that combined research and teaching. Its tradition structure had two elements: a largely self-governing and collegiate if sometimes fractious academic arm; and an administrative wing that supported university activities. The VC sat over both.

To the south, lay the Armidale College of Advanced Education. Focused especially on teaching as opposed to research, the College had adjusted to the decline in the number of teacher trainees by introducing new courses, by reaching out. Its structures were more centralised, its approach more entrepreneurial than that holding at the University.

Down on the coast, you had another College of Advanced Education, Northern Rivers. Like the Armidale CAE, it had responded to the decline in the number of teacher trainees by introducing new courses. Of the three, it was the most entrepreneurial. It was also, and this was backed by the Lismore community, the local press and politicians, determined to become a university in its own right. In a way, Northern Rivers was a bit like UNE had been just forty years before.

There had been quite close links between the Lismore Teachers College, later Northern Rivers, and UNE. To a degree those links had atrophied as UNE withdrew from its broader Northern outreach role to focus on what it saw as its primary mission as a university.

Three institutions, three cultures, about to be jammed together by events happening far to the south in Canberra.

I will continue the story in my next column.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 19 February 2014. 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, here for 2014.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Introducing the Australian Agricultural Company

Note to readers: This post is a work in progress, an introduction to the Australian Agricultural Company. I have quite a lot of material on the AA Co, but at this point it is easiest to put up a slightly expurgated version of the Wikipedia  entry on the company. I will amend as I go along. As I do so, I will add  related posts at the end of this post. 

The Australian Agricultural Company (AA Co) is one of New England and Australia’s most fascinating companies. Founded in 1824 through an Act of the British Parliament, with the right to select 1,000,000 acres (4,047 km2) in New South Wales for agricultural development, it is one of Australia's oldest still-operating companies. Its main New England connection finished in the 1920s, but by then it had had a major impact on New England’s history.


The Company’s main purpose was the production of fine merino wool with the addition of crops not readily available in England. Merino sheep were preferred because there was an abundance of land at the time and because the mild winters meant there was no cost for housing or handfeeding stock.It would also provide workers for the Colony at no cost to the Government and also employ a large number of convicts.

Amongst the principal members of this company were the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General of England, 28 Members of Parliament, Governor, Deputy Governor and eight of the directors of the Bank of England; the Chairman and Deputy-Chairman and five directors of the British East India Company, besides many other eminent bankers and merchants of England.

The area selected under the founding charter extended from Port Stephens, embracing the Karuah River valley, to the Gloucester flats, and to the Manning River, including most of the northern shore of Port Stephens, extending to 464,640 acres (1,880 km2). However, it soon found that better land was available and, in 1830, a communication from the Secretary of State for the Colonies to Governor Darling notified the latter that the company was to be permitted to select land in the interior of the colony, in lieu of an equivalent area at Port Stephens, but retaining mineral rights to the latter.

After an inspection in 1833, the company decided on two new areas. These were the Warrah Estate of 249,600 acres (1,010 km2), west of Murrurundi, and Goonoo Goonoo estate of 313,298 acres (1,268 km2), along with the left bank of the Peel River to the south of present-day Tamworth, New South Wales. The township of West Tamworth adjacent to the present city was the original company-owned business centre for the area. In 1856, Arthur Hodgson was appointed general superintendent of the company. The pioneering settlers of the area were ordered to leave and paid little from the company for their properties.

Convicts soon became the companies largest type of employee, although those who had served a sentence, aborigines and indentured servants on seven-year contracts were also employed with the later making up the bulk of initial employees.[4] The AAC attempted to exploit convict labour to generate a profit. When the supply of convicts was facing potential limits in the mid-1830s, company directors attempted to source convicts from the city-state of Hamburg.

The colonial government was not able to manage coal production efficiently. On 3 May 1833 the company received land grants at Newcastle totaling 1,920 acres (8 km2) plus a 31 year monopoly on that town's coal traffic. The company became the largest exporter of coal from Newcastle for many decades. They also bought 1,280 acres (5 km2) of freehold and 3,131 acres (13 km2) of leasehold land on the South Maitland coalfields at Weston, near Kurri Kurri, where they built the Hebburn Colliery. Because of drought and depression during the 1840s mining created more profit than wool production did.[3]

By December 1903 the pit was sending a fully loaded train away each day. By 1912, the output exceeded 2,500 long tons (2,540 t) per day and a large overseas trade had developed from this mine. In May 1906 the company purchased a half-share in the Aberdare Junction to Cessnock railway for £40,000 which, already owning the other half, placed them in full ownership of the line. With the post-Great War slump, the company ceased its coal-mining activities in the early 1920s, sold their assets therein, and moved on into the cattle industry.

Australia's first railway

n 10 December 1831 the Australian Agricultural Company officially opened Australia's first railway, lLcated at the intersection of Brown & Church Streets, Newcastle, New South Wales. Privately owned and operated to service the A Pit coal mine, it was a cast iron fishbelly rail on an inclined plane as a gravitational railway, described as follows:

Once raised up the shaft, the coal was yarded or emptied into wagons; each of 1 t capacity. Loaded wagons were run in pairs down a self-acting inclined plane railway (two loaded wagons going down hauled another two emptied ones up). They were then pushed by hand, assisted by gravity, along a graded wooden trestle. It crossed a sandy area, now occupied by Hunter Street and the Great Northern Railway, to a loading staith at which small ships could berth while coal was tipped into their holds.

The Australian Agricultural Company constructed a total of 3 gravitational railways: the second was in 1837 to service B Pit and the third was in mid-1842 to service C Pit. The gravitational railway from B Pit connected with the 1831 railway. The gravitational railway from C Pit, which made use of the last of the Government’s offer of cheap convict labour, feed onto an extended gravitational railway to reach the port. It is presumed that when the A Pit mine was exhausted in July 1846 its railway was directly transferred to form the C Pit railway, although no hard evidence can support this thought.

Short-lived coal monopoly & providing land access: disputes with James Mitchell

In 1828, 3 years after commencing their 31 year lease, the Australian Agricultural Company was accorded a monopolistic position after the company received a grant of 2,000 acres of coal land in the centre of Newcastle. Further, it was feared that the company may have had control of the entire coal supply in the Colony had the Crown Law Officers responsible for the substitution of a grant for the lease not objected and an alternative agreed upon.

Between 1835 and 1850, the Australian Agricultural Company was involved in significant Australian historical law events relating to monopolistic coal mining and private railway access.

In 1835 James Mitchell purchased approximately 900 acres of coastal land extending from the far side of Merewether ridge to Glenrock Lagoon and named the property the Burwood estate, which was later extended to 1,834 acres. Not long after Ludwig Leichhardt’s visit to the Burwood estate in 1842, Mitchell announced the planned commissioning of tramroad tunnels, Australia’s first two railway tunnels, through Burwood ridge (or bluff).

Whilst Leichhardt visited the Burwood estate he drew up the stratigraphy of the coastline. It is speculated that Leichhardt may have established the extent of the coal seams under Mitchell’s property. Mitchell claimed the construction of the tunnels was to allow access to Burwood Beach in order to build a salt works. It is further speculated that Mitchell actually sought to destroy the Australian Agricultural Company’s legal monopoly on coal mining. Prior to these events Mitchell had already approached Governor Gipps seeking:

  1. a repeal of the Metallic Ores Act;
  2. Newcastle be made a free port; and
  3. that he be permitted to mine and use coal from Burwood estate as fuel for a copper smelter.

Mitchell was unsuccessful with only his request to use coal as fuel in a copper smelter.

Although Mitchell had no legal use of coal, the commissioned tunnel project commenced in 1846 with the cutting line being directly into a coal seam. Between 2 and 3 thousand tonnes of coal were extracted but unusable owing to the Australian Agricultural Company’s monopoly.

Whilst Mitchell’s operations were going on, a number of small illegal mines operated in the district in defiance of the monopoly. A mine near East Maitland operated by Mr James Brown undercut the Australian Agricultural Company’s price to supply coal to steamships at Morpeth which lead to prosecution.

The Government’s legal advice after this case was that they would have to individually prosecute every illegal mine, which Governor FitzRoy believed the cost of the prosecutions should be paid for by the Australian Agricultural Company. In 1847, the NSW Legislative Council created the Coal Inquiry and appointed a Select Committee to investigate the matter. Both Mitchell and Brown gave evidence; Mitchell in relation to his tunnel and Brown in relation to price cutting. Before the Committee could issue any recommendations the Australian Agricultural Company relinquished its monopoly. Mitchell proceeded to lease out the coal rights on the Burwood estate, with five mines being quickly established by J & A Brown, Donaldson, Alexander Brown, Nott and Morgan.

Because Australian Agricultural Company owned the land between the Burwood estate and the Port of Newcastle the company refused to allow Mitchell to transport coal by rail across its land. Mitchell successfully lobbied the Government again by having New South Wales’ first Private Act of Parliament titled, Burwood and Newcastle Tramroad Act 1850, passed, that specifically allowed Mitchell to carry coal through Australian Agricultural Company lands.[

Also in 1850, the coal mining monopoly ended with the peal of the Metallic Ores Act as promised by Governor Gipps, allowing copper to be brought into NSW duty-free. After the monopoly ended, Mitchell established the copper smelter in 1851 until its closure in 1872. In 1913, salvaged bricks from the site were used to cap some of the old mines.

[i] Unless otherwise specified, the background material in this piece is drawn from Wkipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_Agricultural_Company - accessed 17 February 2014.

Related Posts

Monday, February 24, 2014

First Chinese connection with the newly established settlement at Port Jackson

Australians have long been used to thinking of the first European settlement in Australia as the establishment of a penal colony at what was then the ends of the earth, flung out ill-equipped to settle in a distant land. The reality was a little different.

Port Jackson may have seemed a long way from England, but from the beginning, it was part of an extended web of trade and communications that would surprise many Australians.

In January 1785, Sir George Young, a naval commander and a friend of the Prince of Wales, wrote to Barren Arden, the British Attorney General, suggesting that the China Ships belonging to the East India Company might go on to China after landing the felons.[1] This, he thought, would pioneer a new route to India. Lady_Penrhyn_(sailing_ship)

Three of the ships in the First Fleet, the Scarborough, Charlotte and Lady Penryhn (photo), were in fact on charter to load tea in China after they had unloaded their convicts. All three went onto Canton without any trouble.

Surgeon Arthur Bowes Smith was travelling on the Lady Penryhn and was amazed at what he found in Canton. “I say there were between Macoa & Wampoe at least 10,000 Boats of different kinds”, he wrote in his journal.[2] In the harbour, Bowes Smith counted forty-five British ships, one French, one Spanish, one Swedish, three Danish, four American. Four Dutch.

This web of trade and influence would have considerable influence on the early decades of European settlement in Australia. Among other things, it laid the base for early Chinese migration to Australia.

[1]Quoted Eric Rolls, Sojourners: The epic story of China’s century old relationship with Australia, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1998, pp 17-18. Unless otherwise cited, the material in this section is drawn from Rolls.

[2] Quoted Rolls, Sojourners, p 18

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

History revisited - changes at the helm of UNE

I was in Armidale for a board meeting of the New England Writers’ Centre the day the news of Jim Barber’s resignation broke. That cast my mind back.

There have been twelve wardens, vice chancellors since 1938, thirteen if you count Jim Belshaw Snr who was acting warden for some three years with a break in the middle. If you add in the principals of the Armidale campuses during the short period of the networked university, you get to fifteen.

I suppose that I have known them all in some way. Mind you, known is a somewhat elastic concept. I was one day old when the first warden, Edgar Booth, came to visit my mother in hospital to inspect the new addition!

Later that year, Dr Booth left Armidale to become Chairman of the International Wool Secretariat. My memories of him, and they are clear memories, are actually an amalgam of things told to me later. He exercised a powerful influence on people.

Being head of an institution such as UNE is sometimes difficult. You only have to talk to people in Armidale about particular VCs to get a feeling for that!

The period from the establishment of the University College in 1938 to the early 1980s saw great changes, but was also marked by continuity. The first twenty years under Booth (1938-1945), Belshaw (1945-1947) and Madgwick (1947-1966) was the institution building phase, including the initial establishment of distance education.

The next twenty years under Madgwick, Cowan (1966-1970) and Lazenby (1970-1977) saw rapid growth.

From 1958, student numbers grew rapidly, as did the building program. ArmidaleRobert Madgwick boomed.

By 1966, Madgwick (photo) was expressing serious concerns about UNE’s capacity to maintain its character and to deliver good education. The University, he thought, was in danger of becoming too large.

There were particular challenges during this period, including the student unrest of the late 1960s and early 1970s, something that affected all Armidale schools and colleges. Both Zelman Cowan and Alec Lazenby had the personalities to manage this. Lazenby, the only internal appointment to the VC position in the University’s history, understood the student body very well indeed.

But beyond these particular challenges, the central concern was simply managing growth. This created strains at all levels across the campus.

Ron Gates (1977-1985) provided a steadying pair of hands. By the time Gates was appointed, the rapid growth phase was over, cut backs in funding had begun, as had the Canberra pressure to get big or get out. Gates focused on consolidating and conserving, on protecting the institution. .

Years later, the Gates period is seen (rightly) as the end of a University golden era. Now came a time of troubles that brought UNE to the point of extinction, that broke its continuity with the past, that left all those who loved the institution adrift.

I will look at this period in my next column. 

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 12 February 2014. 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, here for2014.

Monday, February 17, 2014

New England Lives – Robert Dawson (1782-1866), company manager, pastoralist and writer

Robert Dawson was the first Chief Agent of Australia’s first really large public company, the Australian Agricultural Company[i]. If he had not clashed with a Macarthur family determined to feather its own interests, he would not have been first suspended in April 1828, dismissed in January 1829. Had that not happened, he might not have written the two books he did, some of the first writing connected with New England. 300px-Robert_Dawson_AustAgricCompany

Born in 1782 at Great Bentley, Essex, Dawson was educated at Dr Lindsay's Grove Hall School near Bow, returning to Essex to farm the family estate. In 1811 he married Anne Taylor. Ten years later, an agricultural depression forced him to Berkshire where he managed Becket, Viscount Barrington's estate. That move would affect the later naming of New England features including Barrington, the Barrington River and Barrington Tops.

In December 1824 an old school friend, John Macarthur junior, persuaded him to accept the post of chief agent in New South Wales for the newly formed Australian Agricultural Co. His key role was to establish and manage a new pastoral business based on a land grant of 1,000,000 acres (404,609 ha). In carrying out this role, he would be subject to a committee resident in NSW. This committee was entrusted by the directors in England with 'extensive discretionary powers,. Dawson was advised to accept their advice at all times.

On the surface, this made sense. The directors in England could hardly directly govern such a distant operation. They needed an on-ground supervising body made up of local experts. However, the committee was dominated by members of the Macarthur family, and this would case trouble.

Dawson had to organise many things. After buying stock in France, Saxony and Spain and recruiting workers, The Australian Agricultural Co party sailed for Sydney in the ships York and Brothers. On the trip, Dawson was assisted by his nephew John Dawson, then nineteen. In November 1825, the small convoy reached Sydney. On board were a party of 15 men, 14 women, 40 children, more than 600 sheep, 12 cattle and 7 horses.

Meantime, the local committee had been considered the three alternatives for the land grant suggested by Surveyor-General John Oxley. They concluded that the area between Port Stephens and the Manning River was most suitable for the company's activities, although this was not Oxley’s preferred site. After inspecting the area in January 1826, Dawson accepted this advice. He recommended that the whole establishment should be moved there as soon as possible. Later, Dawson would be criticised for not checking the other sites. Objectively, it is hard to see what else he could have done.

Dawson moved rapidly. By June 1826 headquarters had been established at Carrington on Port Stephens; by 1827 much land had been cleared and spacious stores and workshops erected. Dawson had already recognised that the humid coastal country was not suitable for sheep and had begun to move stock inland. His efforts attracted praise, including from James Macarthur who in May 1827 spoke highly of Dawson’s management and the progress being made.

Trouble now broke out. Dawson, concerned at the way the Company was being forced to buy old and diseased sheep from the local committee’s flocks, refused to buy more. 'I was no longer disposed”, he wrote to James Macarthur in June 1827, to make the Company Grant a burial ground for all the old sheep in the colony'.

James Macarthur moved against him. On 27 December 1827 he paid another to Carrington. This time, his report castigated Dawson for mismanagement and extravagance. He was accused of bad management and insubordination, of taking up land on the north bank of the Manning River and running his own flocks on it, of using the company's resources in exploring and settling it. John Macarthur stated: 'The concern cannot prosper because the Company's servants are only solicitous for their own interests', In April 1828 Dawson was suspended by the local committee and, on James Macarthur's report to the court of directors in London, was dismissed in January 1829.

Dawson fought back. Now in London, he published his Statement of the Services of Mr Dawson, as Chief Agent of the Australian Agricultural Company[ii]. Apart from providing details of the early days of a significant part of New England’s history, it is the first written record of corporate infighting in Australian history.

The following year, Dawson published a second book, The Present State of Australia; a Description of the Country, its Advantages and Prospects with Reference to Emigration: and a Particular Account of its Aboriginal Inhabitants[iii]. It was this book that really left his longer term mark. Nor only was it in part the story of the establishment of the Australian Agricultural Company, but it also became a fundamental source book on New England’s Aboriginal peoples. Dawson liked them, respected them and employed them.

Dawson’s efforts to achieve justice slowly had an effect. In 1836, after repeated representations to the Colonial Office, he was given land in New South Wales in recompense for the grant he had sought unsuccessfully from Sir Ralph Darling in 1828 even though such grants were now forbidden by law. He returned to New South Wales with his second wife in 1839 to superintend his estate, Goorangoola, on the upper Hunter: he also acquired a 100-acre (40 ha) grant at Little Redhead, near Newcastle. Soon after his return he was again appointed magistrate for the area. One of his last recorded actions in New South Wales was to advise on the Botany Bay water supply scheme for Sydney.

Dawson returned to England in 1862, dying in 1866 and was buried at Greenwich. He was survived by two sons and one daughter of his first marriage and by one son of his second. The elder son of his first marriage, Robert Barrington, became well known as a civil servant and pastoralist. In the end, even the directors of the company had some awareness of the wrong done. 'The misconduct of Mr. Dawson is far exceeded in culpability by that of the Committee whose orders he was to obey', the directors recorded.

[i] Material in this piece is drawn especially from E. Flowers, 'Dawson, Robert (1782–1866)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dawson-robert-1969/text2379, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 17 February 2014.

[ii] Statement of the Services of Mr Dawson, as Chief Agent of the Australian Agricultural Company. (London, 1829), accessed on-line. http://digital.slv.vic.gov.au/view/action/singleViewer.do?dvs=1392619628144~191&locale=en_US&metadata_object_ratio=10&show_metadata=true&preferred_usage_type=VIEW_MAIN&frameId=1&usePid1=true&usePid2=true 17 February 2014

[iii] The Present State of Australia; a Description of the Country, its Advantages and Prospects with Reference to Emigration: and a Particular Account of its Aboriginal Inhabitants, (London, 1830). Accessed online - . http://books.google.com.au/books?id=6swNAAAAQAAJ – 17 February 2014

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Family counts: glimpses of Chinese life in New England in the first half of the twentieth century

Kwong Sing store

back in May 2009, I posted an introductory post, The Chinese in New England 1848-1853, on the story of the history and experience if the Chinese in New England. The following is an excerpt from Janis Wilton's Chinese Whispers from New South Wales looking at aspects of the life of the Chinese on the Northern Tablelands in the first half of the twentieth century. This is a photo of the Kwong Sing store in Glen Innes.

This excerpt is far more than I would normally publish, but I really wanted to preserve the material. Far too often recently, on-line stuff has just vanished.

The story:

The result of the (Immigration Restriction Act 1901) combined with the drying up of gold and tin deposits and with the intention of many Chinese immigrants that they should ultimately return home, witnessed a dramatic fall in their number in Australia. Despite the pressures, some Chinese continued to settle, bringing with them customs and networks which shaped their lifestyles and their ability to negotiate the hostile legislation and attitudes which frequently confronted them. They also put down roots, had families and made significant contributions to the economic development of Australian localities and regions.

The recounted experiences of a small group of Chinese-Australians who, from around the end of the nineteenth century, settled in a particular area in northern New South Wales, confirm the vital role of an oral and local history approach in evaluating the Chinese contribution, beyond that afforded by conventional sources.

The area of interest is a part of the northern tablelands of New South Wales and, in terms of the history of the Chinese in Australia, is defined by the discovery of gold in the 1850s and especially the discovery of tin in the 1870s and 1880s. These events saw an explosion in the number of Chinese in the district. According to the 1891 census, for example, the area contained one of the highest concentrations of Chinese (over 11 per cent of the recorded population in a particular district) in New South Wales at the time. Once the tin was mined, many of the Chinese moved to other areas or returned to China, and the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act discouraged new immigration and settlement. The number of Chinese-born in the district dropped from the 1891 figure of around 1,300 to 593 in 1901, 169 in 1921 and forty-seven in 1947. This decrease, however, did not mean a cessation of new arrivals. Many Chinese living in the district regarded the opportunities sufficiently rewarding for them to sponsor relatives and fellow villagers to migrate to Australia. The methods and networks involved emerge through the stories passed on about the immigration of fathers and uncles.

One such story relates to the efforts and acumen of Percy Young, the founder of an Australian branch of the Kwan clan. Percy was born in about 1865 in the village of Wing Ho, Shekki, Chungshan. When he was about twenty years old he emigrated to Australia where, through Chinese (most likely Chungshan) networks, he spent the next ten years working in a number of different Chinese stores, largely in rural New South Wales. He also spent some time in China, although he saw his future in Australia as he sought naturalisation in 1883. In the late 1890s the network led him to a Chinese store, Kwong Sing War, which had been established in Glen Innes, northern New South Wales, in 1889. By 1907 he had become a partner in the business and by 1912 was a major shareholder and manager of the store. Percy’s children were born in Australia and he sponsored his nephews, one by one, to come to Glen Innes to work in his shop. They then branched out and established their own stores, married and had families of their own.

This sponsorship, expansion and settlement all took place after the imposition of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. Percy Young, and other storekeepers in the northern tablelands, took advantage of exemption clauses in the Act to sponsor relatives, and to seek regularly and successfully to extend their stay in the country. The exemption clauses were a recognition by the legislators that, by the turn of the century, some Chinese had already settled in Australia, and that among those still in the country were a number who were providing a boost to the economy through owning and running profitable small businesses, especially shops. Storeowners were permitted to bring in Chinese-born assistants and family members provided they stayed for limited periods, and that the businesses in which they were employed had a minimum turnover and were engaged in a certain amount of export trade with Hong Kong or China. As Daisy Yee, Percy Young’s daughter, explained:

Dad brought out all the nephews one after the other. He had to take out a bond of £100 for each member, and he had to import/export a certain amount of goods for each member. I can remember apples. He brought the nephews out gradually. They had to be at least sixteen to come out.

Elaine Jang whose parents, John and Mary Hong, owned the Hop Sing store in the town of Tenterfield, recalled the networks and strategies used to make the legislation work for the benefit of relatives and fellow villagers in Australia and China. It was a network which they utilised until 1950:

I think ... my father knew the people in Sydney who had business [in assisting with immigration papers] and he’d write to them to give them names of people who could want somebody from China as an assistant of a shop. That way the law said you can be brought out to help ... That’s one of the ways he brought people out. There were other ways as well, but this was the main one.

The legislation requirement that a shop could only employ a certain number of Chinese-born assistants provided a stimulus for business expansion which went beyond concerns for profit. The more stores that were established, the more relatives could be sponsored to come to Australia. This was particularly apparent in the branches and businesses which stemmed from another of the Chinese stores on the northern tablelands. The Hong Yuen store in the town of Inverell had been established in 1899. By 1915 its manager and major shareholder was Harry Fay, an Australian-born Chinese who had spent a good part of his childhood and adolescence in his ancestral village of Dau Tau, Shekki, Chungshan. By the late 1930s, the Hong Yuen store had become the centre of a network of businesses which included three other small shops in Inverell itself, three Hong Yuen branch stores and two cash-and-carry shops in nearby towns.

These businesses, and the other twenty to thirty Chinese stores on the northern tablelands, were located in small communities. The largest town boasted a population of around 5,000. Consequently, the Chinese did stand out as different and were subjected to, at times, what could only be described as racist and discriminatory jibes and practices. Yet the businesses prospered. They provided a much-needed service offering the jumble of goods familiar to Australian country stores of the time, while, increasingly, assistants serving in the stores were local non-Chinese residents or Australian-born Chinese. Descriptions offered through oral history interviews evoke this past era of country stores. Beatrice Winmill who joined the staff of the Hong Yuen store in Inverell in about 1915 recalled the store’s layout and the goods offered:

The drapery section was a big long counter with everything on it, even shoes, all the men’s mercery (trousers and cardigans), haberdashery, dress materials. At the bottom [end] of the counter there was a showroom with corsets and dresses. And we had lots of hats then. You don’t have so many hats now. There were big shelves behind the counter for the stockings and things like that. The cash box was in the middle of the shop. And the counter on the other side was for all the groceries and veggies and fruit. We also had a bit of furniture – you went through a door to the furniture. And an ironmongery.

Ken Gett provided the following recollection of the inside of his parents’ store, Yow Sing and Company, which was opened in the old tin mining town of Emmaville in the early 1930s:

As a child I remember going into the store. It had two big doors and when you entered the first thing that you saw was all the products hanging off the ceiling. You know those country stores. We had bicycles and tubs hanging off the ceiling … We sold a tremendous range of things. We sold guns, we had things like horseshoes and horseshoe nails. We had a drapery, a haberdashery section, grocery section. We had a produce section – chaff, bran, all those things – kitchen ware.

Bessie Chiu, whose father, Ernest Sue Fong, also had a store in Emmaville particularly remembered a different atmosphere and different tasks compared to stores of the late twentieth century:

In the olden days you had a lot of people’s loyalty, people would speak to you. We used to have a couple of chairs and they’d come and have a talk. Now there’s nothing like that. In those days we used to weigh everything – sugar, dates, sultanas – everything was bulk.

What was clearly different were the activities and lifestyles of the Chinese storekeepers and their Chinese staff. Behind the scenes, storeowners worked through their network of associates which stretched through Sydney and Hong Kong to home villages in Chungshan to negotiate the immigration of family members, and to further their business interests. It was here that the cultural and social needs of Chinese employees were looked after. It was here that the mainly young men brought out from China contemplated the strangeness of their new environment and sought to put down foundations for some sort of life.

Recollections of the routines involved in working in the stores provide a sense of the specifically Chinese community and traditions which underpinned business and employment practices. Overseas and Australian-born, young Chinese men were provided with jobs, accommodation and food, and worked in an atmosphere permeated by paternalism and a Chinese work ethic. Ernest Sue Fong who joined the staff of the Hong Yuen store in Inverell in the early 1930s recalled his early years at the store:

I worked at Hong Yuen for 25 bob [shillings] and keep. I lived in the shack with about seven other Chinese boys from all over. Another five lived upstairs [above the shop].

Now the way it worked: at 7.30 in the morning the cook would ring the bell, and everyone would go down to the kitchen...and we’d have a Chinese breakfast with rice and Chinese food. Then into the shop until the shop opened and we’d cut up bacon, fill the shelves, jobs like that. At lunchtime, the bell would ring again and all the staff [Chinese and non-Chinese] would go for lunch. It would always be English meals... Then back to work.

At 6 pm supper was served. Chinese food this time... Some nights, say two or three a week, we’d go back to the store to, for example, bag up sugar, depending on what was needed. We’d work until 9 pm.

In the Kwong Sing store in Glen Innes, manager and owner Percy Young framed and hung on the wall some Chinese proverbs (in Chinese characters) demonstrating the values he honoured which he, presumably, exhorted his Chinese employees to follow. They included, for example: 

When men are born they all want to be wealthy, but you have to learn to be satisfied with what you have in your daily life.

If you are poor it is because you are lazy.

Work hard at your business and never complain of hardships.

Harvey Young evoked what took place out of sight of the customers of the Kwong Sing store in Glen Innes in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Among the boiling water used for melting honey, the sheds, the stables, and the loading bays for chaff, wheat, super phosphate and rock salt, he could remember:

... growing vegetables round the back of the shop. There was quite a bit of land there. Chooks and ducks. They used to kill those quite regularly.

Then there were the cooks. They used to make noodles out the back of the shop. Fresh noodles. And the old method then was on a table with a bamboo pole which was tied at one side and a person with one leg over it jumping up and down on this thing to make fresh noodles.

Harvey Young’s sisters, Valmai Au and Olma Gan, recalled the accommodation and facilities available for the Chinese cooks and other staff. They remembered specific employees and where they stayed:

There was George Woo and Jimmy Sheah … They were in the bedrooms upstairs, on the side facing Tattersalls Hotel. And I think the cook lived there too. Though not Kum Jew [one of the cooks] … he lived in a room close to the kitchen.

There was another cottage, separate cottage, at the back of the shop which has now been pulled down. The kitchen was there. … And then there was the dining room where the staff used to eat …

Leona Tong, another sister, also remembered the Kwong Sing cooks whose presence figured in her childhood: 

I can remember three or four different cooks in my time. When I was little there was big fat Long Go. He was bald and big like a giant. He ate a great bowl of rice. Then there was George Lay. He had long finger nails. I can remember him stirring the rice at night with a big stick.

The presence of Chinese cooks, staff, food, language and other cultural practices were a constant reminder of the roots and links which extended well beyond the relatively isolated Australian rural towns they serviced. These links were reinforced by regular visits to China by family members. Visiting relatives, pursuing business interests, returning to share material goods and wealth acquired while overseas, honouring ancestors, revering the ancestral village, providing children with a Chinese education, contemplating a permanent return to the home village: these were the motives behind such visits.

The experiences they entailed were not always the happy homecomings anticipated, however. After all, these Chinese had lived for some time in a foreign country and many of the children were born overseas. They had become strangers in their ancestral land. Recorded recollections capture a sense of this dislocation. Members of the Fay family from the Hong Yuen store in Inverell visited Hong Kong and China in the early 1930s. Joyce Sue Fong (nee Fay) recalled her visit to the family’s ancestral village:

Well [Dau Tau] was strange at first. All little Chinese children running around with no shoes on and just playclothes. And when we first went there, they all followed us and called us – you know, how we call people ‘Ching Chong Chinaman’ here.

They called us the opposite when we went over there. Because we looked different … We had English clothes on and they had Chinese clothes on, pants and that.

Joyce Sue Fong’s sister, Eileen Cum, added:

I can also remember the Chinese kids used to throw stones at us and call us ‘white girl’ – Ton Yang

Not all differences and experiences were seen as negative or disconcerting. There are recollections of a comfortable life and a feeling of being ‘at home’ which strengthened bonds to China or which at least emphasised that some differences were due to a wealth and cosmopolitanism unfamiliar to the lifestyles available in northern New South Wales. Eileen Cum, for example, was stunned by the vibrant nature of 1930s Shanghai:

It was like the Paris of the East. One part was American, one part was French. There were beautiful buildings and lovely things. Lots of American things. It was under the Nationalists then. There were also lots of friends who’d been in Australia and had gone back to China.

The pull of China remained. However, the Sino-Japanese War of the 1930s followed by the Second World War and then, in the late 1940s, the Communist revolution closed the door to China. Visits ceased. Emigration ceased. Chinese in Australia had little option but to view their new country as the site of their and their families’ immediate futures. The stores had provided a base. Then, as Australian-born children acquired Australian education, and careers, other occupations became possible. Many of the children and grandchildren moved to metropolitan centres like Sydney and Brisbane and away from the rural towns in northern New South Wales. Some pursued careers in business; others joined the ranks of the professions.

At the same time, the climate of tolerance in Australia was slowly undergoing a change. By the late 1950s, it was becoming clear that the attitudes and practices associated with the White Australia policy were becoming untenable. Over the next three decades the official climate moved from racism through assimilation to multiculturalism. Chinese-Australians born before the Second World War lived through these changes. In the eras of officially-sanctioned racism and assimilation they had learnt to remain silent about their Chinese heritages. In the era of multiculturalism they were encouraged to claim or perhaps reclaim those heritages. As May Lun and her daughter-in-law, Rosalie Lun, observed:

May Lun: In the old days, when we were quite small, people hated you because you were Chinese. They were not only not friendly, they really had a hate for you. I used to be frightened to walk home by myself in case they bashed me up … for nothing at all. …

Rosalie Lun: Years ago it wasn’t good to speak another language … outside. You just wouldn’t. But nowadays, tradition, culture, its changed and is becoming more broadminded, so you wish you had that second language.

Source: Janis Wilton, Chinese Whispers from New South Wales, History Today, Volume 47, Issue 11, 1997, http://www.historytoday.com/janis-wilton/chinese-whispers-new-south-wales, accessed on-line 16 February 2014

Further reading:

On the Kwong Sing store:

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

History revisited - tragedy at sea

The SS Fitzroy was a familiar sight in Coffs Harbour. Owned by the Sydney based shipping firm Langley Brothers, a smaller competitor of the large North Coast Steam Navigation Company, the ship ran a regular passenger and general cargo route between Sydney and Coffs and return.

The afternoon of Saturday 26 June 1921 threatened storms. The ship took on considerable cargo, as well as fourteen passengers. SS Fitzroy Coffs Harbour

The Fitzroy was not a big ship. Built at Old Kilpatrick in Scotland in 1914, it was 51.87 metres long, had a breadth of 9.33 metres and had a gross tonnage of 623. However, it was important to the people of Coffs as a key way of getting to Sydney, as well as goods in and out.

The afternoon of Saturday 26 June 1921 threatened storms. The sixteen passengers along with luggage had been loaded onto the ship via wicker ware baskets. This was not uncommon. As late as the 1930s, North Coast students returning home from the Armidale Teachers’ College had similar experiences.

The ship sailed under the command of Captain James Colvin. A Woolgoolga man, Colvin was an experienced mariner who had been shipwrecked several times on the sometimes dangerous North Coat run. He knew the territory, but in those pre-weather broadcast days, you had to make the best judgement you could.

As the ship steamed south on Saturday night, it was struck by what was variously described as a gale or a cyclone. The deck cargo shifted and the ship listed, flooding the engine room. Power lost, the crew tried to launch the two life boats but could not because of the list.

There was no panic as the crew tried to help the passengers. One of the sailors seeing a stewardess on deck, told her to get a life belt. “I can’t”, she replied. “I have to get blankets for the passengers.”.

On board, the Captain tried to steer the ship for shore to beach it. As the ship sank, he was seen still at his post trying to save the vessel.

Passenger Herbert Ramsay was sucked down with the ship, but manager to get to a lifeboat that had broken free. “Everybody remained cool to the last”, he said. Ramsay saw the second boat with eight people aboard, but it was never seen again.

Able seaman Jansen was thrown into the water. He grabbed the stewardess, but she was swept away in the swirling waters. Jansen survived by swimming 14 miles to shore.

In the end, three crew members and one passenger were saved. It had been a horrendous experience.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 5 February 2014. 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, here for 2014.