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

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

History revisited – Armidale’s many connections

I can’t help being obsessive. It’s a problem.

People who live in Armidale now are absorbed by the rituals of daily life in that city as it is today. That’s understandable. But what about the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, who have connections with the city but who don’t live there? Where do they fit in?

At work a new staff member said “where do you come from Jim?” “Armidale.” “I wondered”, she said. You see, she used to work for the Business Enterprise Centre in the 1990s. Just across from my desk is a bloke whose family comes from Kelly’s Plains. “We are having a reunion”, he says. “I have never been there. I would like to go”.

Across the partition is a colleague who was born in Bundarra. He talks of the Bundarra Public School athletics team going to the big city (Armidale) for sporting events. “I didn’t have running shoes”, he says. “The Armidale boys did”. I have written several Bundarra columns just for him.

Nick sits just over my shoulder. He is married to a Greek girl from one of the former Greek café owning families in Armidale.

Four people, each with very different memories of and connections to Armidale and the North. The same pattern could be seen a week back at the launch of Came to New England. Published to mark last year’s 75th anniversary of the University College, the book’s thirty seven authors tell differing stories of connection with institution and place that span the decades since establishment.

I said that I was obsessive. Most local or regional historians are, for we are trying to capture and tell the stories that form our collective past. These form the things that bind.

In my columns on the history of the New England fight for self-government I traced the development of a sense of Northern identity, of connections that bind. By the end of the 1920s these were well established, providing a framework for local action. Then from the War came waves of economic and demographic change.

In 1950, every Northern newspaper or radio station was locally owned, as was TV when it arrived. This local ownership provided the base for Victor Thompson’s 1920 newspaper new state campaign. By 2000, most of the newspapers, all the radio station, all the TV stations were externally owned and controlled. The North had lost its voice.

From 1980, mass migration to the North Coast transformed the North’s population. In ten years, the population of the Tweed Valley grew by more than the total population of the Northern Tablelands.

This influx broke the previous balance between coast and inland, reducing the inland to a population rump. The old family connections and shared stories were broken, replaced by new connections and stories to places elsewhere.

In future columns I will return to the story of the Northern fight for self-government, now set in the context of the rise and fall of the sense of Northern identity.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 1 October 2014, the next 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 for2009, 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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