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

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

History revisited – Lang vs Clark Irving: the battle for Northern self-government begins

Following the separation of Victoria in 1851, our sometimes irascible clergyman John Dunmore Lang turned his attention to the matter of Moreton Bay. In 1854 he was re-elected to the NSW Legislative Council, this time by the Moreton Bay District, to press the case for separation.

Lang’s vision did not yet include self-government for what we now call Northern NSW or New England. He wanted the bigger Northern NSW that stretched to Torres Strait to be broken into three colonies; separation for Morton Bay was a first step. He also wanted the boundary of Moreton Bay to be south of the present line.

As it became clear that this was not possible, Lang turned his attention to a new project, the creation of a new colony in Northern NSW. The battle that now raged was fought out in the Northern Rivers. There Lang was pitted against Clark Irving, merchant, ship owner, pastoralist and politician.

Irving had been elected in 1856 to represent the Clarence and Darling Downs in the first Legislative Assembly formed after the grant of responsible government to NSW. In 1857 he lost his seat in the face of local dislike of leadership from Sydney, as well as justified doubts about Irving’s support for the Moreton Bay separatist cause.

Now overtly anti separatist, Irving used his not inconsiderable political skills and financial resources to fight back, gaining re-election in 1859, the year of Queensland separation, as member for Clarence.

Irving controlled the local newspaper. Lang and his supporters therefore decided to establish a rival paper. In 1859 financial backing was found to bring William Vincent to Grafton to establish the Clarence & Richmond Examiner, now the Grafton Daily Examiner. This marks the start of the Vincent newspaper family that was to play such an important role in the history of the New England press and in the promotion of Northern causes.

Irving won. The agitation died down, resurfacing at Glen Innes in 1875 and then again in a stronger way in 1887-1888. This agitation is important because it saw the emergence of concepts and arguments that are still important today.

From the start of the 1880s, all the capital cities began gaining population at the expense of the rest of their colonies. The problem was most pronounced in Victoria, leading to the formation of decentralisation leagues to campaign for balanced development.

The decentralisation movement spread. In Newcastle, some speakers at an 1888 protest meeting, called over the railway plans of the Sydney government, advocated separation. The move was rejected, but the newly formed North and North-western Decentralisation League subsequently proposed that the Colony should be divided into ten provincial districts (regional councils), each entitled to a share of the national revenue.

The Newcastle discussion over separation reflected the resurgence of separatist support further north. Beginning in 1887, a campaign for separation spread along a line from Grafton through Glen Innes to Inverell. For the first time there was a clear expression of Northern identity, a creation of the period since Queensland separation.

Agitation died. However, a base had been laid for the bigger campaigns of the twentieth century.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 30 July 2014, the second in a series telling the story of the Northern or New England self-government moment. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they 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.

If you want to follow the story of the Northern or New England self-government movement, this is the entry post for the whole series.

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