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

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

History revisited – threads in New England’s history

In my last column, I took the story of the North’s fight for self-government through to the end of the 1920s. Now we plunge into the tumultuous story of the Depression in which the North came within an inch of formal forced secession from New South Wales. This was also the time in which the term New England first started to be used to describe the broader North.

I suspect that some readers may be surprised at just how long it is taking to tell the story of the North’s fight for self-government. You shouldn’t be. This is a fight that has continued for over 150 years, one that is inextricably entwined with Northern history.

Still, to give you a break while also setting a context, I thought that I might stand back from the main story and talk about themes in New England history. You see, even now with all the changes, that’s what shapes us.

Geography shaped Aboriginal New England. Obviously, there was no such thing as Aboriginal New England. New England or the North is a European construct. But the core pattern of the Tablelands with its originating rivers still shaped Aboriginal life.

When the Europeans arrived, settlement came in two broad streams: an inland stream mainly from the Hunter north and then across to the coast; and then a coast stream by ship up the river valleys north and then across into the inland.

This pattern formed New England life, creating overlapping north-south and east-west axes. The north-south axis centered first on Morpeth-Maitland and then on Newcastle with the expansion of the Great Northern Railway; the east-west axis centered on the various river ports and especially Grafton.

Separatist support was strongest along the east-west axis, for that was the area that was most adversely affected by Sydney centralising policies that effectively impeded the development of east-west linkages and trade. However, separatist support also extended along the north-south axis as far south as Maitland, for that was the area most affected by Sydney centralisation policies that diverted trade to Sydney after the opening of the railway bridge over the Hawkesbury region.

In all his, the sense of Northern identity was lowest in Newcastle and the lower Hunter and from the Manning Valley south.

Newcastle did see itself in Northern terms, but this was muted by the rise of coal mining. The coal owners and the miners saw the world in very different terms from those living further north. On the coast, from the Manning Valley south the focus was on Sydney with few Northern linkages.

This pattern was reflected in the 1920s’ separatist campaigns. It was also reflected in the 1967 plebiscite vote on self-government.

Movement of people along both the north-south and east-west axis created linkages of kith and kin. Simply put, we all had relatives elsewhere in the North. The establishment of the Armidale Teachers’ College and New England University College reinforced this pattern, for it brought together kids from across the North. This further facilitated the growth of Northern identity,

Then from 1980 came fundamental demographic shifts, the rise of the coast, that would progressively erode that sense of Northerness. I will look at this in my next column.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 24 September 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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