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

Thursday, March 20, 2014

History revisited – Brown Street: an iconic Armidale Street

For those who love the look and feel of Armidale, the Armidale Visitor Information Centre has a little treasure trove of books about Armidale. One is John Ferry’s Brown Street Armidale NSW 2350.

John was, is, one of New England’s greatest historians. He was only 55 when he died in 2004. The book was written long before, in 1990, but it wasn’t until just before his death that he offered it to the Historical Society. It was then lovingly edited by Bruce Cady, finally coming out in 2007.

Brown Street has changed since John wrote, but it remains a special study of a special street. You can still walk Brown Street today with the book in hand, if sometimes sadly noting the changes. Gordon Smith, Brown Street, Armidale

Growing up, I thought of Brown Street as one of Armidale’s more interesting streets, although it wasn’t my favourite street. That honour was taken by Faulkner Street, followed by Dangar. By contrast, I regarded my own street, Marsh Street, as a pedestrian affair: very boring, really, with its long sweep down and up the hill. .

Brown Street is anchored by two of Armidale’s iconic buildings. 

On the west is the Railway Station, a piece of High Victorian architecture with Italianate features. It’s hard now when only a few railway enthusiasts keep the dream of the Great Northern Railway alive to understand just how important that station was to Armidale.

Try an experiment. Go to the station. As you come onto the platform look to your left. There were the old refreshment rooms. Now go to the platform’s edge and look north along the disused line. Shut your eyes and try to think back.

You are ten. You are going to Sydney on the Glen Innes Mail, sharing a sleeping compartment with your brother. You have never done that before, and steam trains are exciting anyway. All that power!

In the distance, you can hear the faint hoot of the whistle. Now the train comes into sight, rushing towards the station. As it stops, you rush up to see that hero, the engine driver with fireman feeding coal. Steam leaks from the engine.

People have rushed to the refreshment rooms to get supplies. Now your parents call you back. The guard has blown his whistle; people are swarming back onto the train.

You enter that marvelous compartment with all its special features. Your own basin! Who wants the top bunk? You can see why we were excited.

Down the other end of Brown Street can be found TAS with its John Sulman designed main building. This is a very different style, but one that is equally striking.

Jessie Street marks the divide between these different worlds, the poorer industrial west compared to the more genteel and wealthier east. The buildings reflect that transition.

I am not going to describe all the features of Brown Street. Rather, I want you to buy the book and walk the street yourself!

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 12 March 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.

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