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

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

History revisited - vegetable gardens a fading necessity

In January 1885, Albert Wright purchased Kangaroo Hills, now Wongwibinda. It had been done in a rush.

They had been living at Nulalbin outside Rockhampton. The year before eldest son Bertie had died after a lingering illness. The death came as a shock, and Albert and wife May decided that they must find a home in a more temperate climate.

They left Nulalbin in December for Bickham, a Wright family home in the Hunter Valley.. In early January Albert went north, buying Kangaroo Hill on the spot. At end January, the whole family shifted to the new property.

One of Albert’s first acts was to plant a large vegetable garden near the new house being built for his family. This was a common pattern on the properties around Armidale, for the kitchen garden and associated fruit trees were critical to the supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. It was a day’s ride to Armidale, so you could hardly buy there on a daily basis.

In town, people had more choices. Even so, most people had vegetable gardens, while much of the fruit and vegetables they might buy were grown locally. The Chinese market gardener was once a common feature in most Northern towns.

This reliance on locally produced produce created a pattern of seasonal gluts and shortages. When produce was plentiful, people bottled, preserved or prepared for storage in cool, dry, dark places. Later, when fresh produce was scarce, they ate.

Some of the tastes were wonderful. Some of us would kill today for a jar of Aunt Kay’s tomato relish!

That old world has largely gone, killed by supermarkets and modern transportation. In a time poor two income world, what’s the point of growing and producing your own when you can go to the supermarket and buy the quantity you want when you want?

The spring of 1885 was a very good one on Kangaroo Hill. Albert planted onions, cabbages, lettuces, pumpkins, beans and fruit trees. Then came that evil we all know so well, a sudden frost.

“It seems useless”, Albert wrote, “to try to grow anything in such a climate.” Nevertheless, he persevered.

Many years after Albert’s time, I read a book on New England gardens. The thing that struck me was the gardener’s ability to create micro-climates through location, wind-breaks and walls. We also learned when to plant things to best effect.

What did we eat with our vegetables? I have already spoken of beef and lamb or mutton. But then, the most luxurious meat was, arguably, roast chook.

Many people had their own hens, mainly for eggs, partly for meat. Those chooks were killed for special occasions. Others brought their chooks from local farms.

Today when chicken is the cheapest of meats, it’s hard to imagine a world in which chook was a luxury, when every part was eaten later. So the world changes.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 11 February 2015. 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, here for 2015.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

History revisited - settlers' craved Australia's cheaper meats

In 1893, Sydney Doctor Philip E Muskett attacked Australian’s love of meat, tea and tobacco. Dr Muskett was one of the first if not the first Australian nutritionists, much concerned with children’s diseases and especially rickets.

Australians would be healthier, he suggested, if they ate more salads, drank more wine, substituted a small cup of coffee for tea and walked ten or more kilometres a day. This advice was largely ignored.

Australians had become the world’s largest per capita consumer of tea and meat. This love emerged in the early period of European settlement and for practical reasons.

Tea was a low bulk, high value product that could be carried easily to NSW from China and then distributed reasonably cheaply. It disguised the taste of often muddy water and replenished fluids lost in heavy work in high temperatures.

Vegetable had to be carted at considerable expense or grown on home or station gardens. By contrast, livestock was readily available and could be driven to market over considerable distances. New England beef helped feed the diggers on the Victorian gold fields.

The European settlers were attracted to meat for another reason as well. In the home countries, meat was expensive, a relative luxury. Many families rarely tasted meat in their daily diet. Now it was cheap and freely available.

In his book on the history of daily life in Australia up to the First World Way, historian Geoffrey Blainey suggests that meat was more than a food, more than an incessant topic of conversation; it had become a way of life.

In the absence of refrigeration, meat spoiled quickly. For that reason, it was desirable that meat be slaughtered close to the customer, often in the cool of the evening. One result was a proliferation of butcher’s shops. The name of the best butcher, the best place to buy your meat, was a common topic of conversation.

You can see the remnants of this pattern today in the number of former butcher shops in the older parts of Armidale. Often located next to a general store, the butchers were both a sources of meat and of information. This photo is actually from Quirindi. 

People had their favourites. When I was growing up, my mother always went to a butcher in West Armidale because, to her mind, he had the best meat.

Across Australia, beef was the most popular meat because it was cheaper. This was not true in Armidale, for here sheep meats were freely available and cheaper. The more expensive beef cuts were less popular. Steak was a special treat.

Growing up in Armidale, I now struggle with the price of lamb. It just doesn’t seem right!

In my next and final column in this food series, I will look at other aspects of Armidale’s changing diet.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 4 February 2015. 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, here for 2015.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Growing up in New England – four stories

Some years ago now, Neil Whitfield commented that he and I seem to have grown up in different Australia's. The trigger for the comment lay in an exchange of experiences relating (among other things) to first exposure to things Asia. He was right, of course.

I was reminded of this by four books that I have been re-reading. The books are all set on the Northern or New England Tablelands. Each is a story of childhood or young adulthood in a country setting. Spanning many years, they tell stories of change set against a backdrop of major historical change.

The period from the early eighteenth century to the start of the Second World War saw a period of economic expansion followed by consolidation. There were major shocks: the depression of the 1840s, that of the 1890s and the 1930s; there was war. During those periods, many lost their properties, some their lives, yet the social system they established seemed solid. Decline followed in the great remaking of Australian society from World War Two through to the end of the twentieth century. By the end of the twentieth century, their society that had seemed so secure had been largely relegated to history.

Writer and film maker Maslyn Williams was born in England in 1911. In the 1920s he came to Australia to work as a jackeroo on a large station near Tenterfield. His Mother's Country[1] is an almost lyrical account of his experiences there. His account shows life on the station but also in the nearby town from the perspective of someone who could mix across social divides. In Maslyn’s case, his experiences created a love of Australia that would keep him there for the rest of his life.

Poet and writer Judith Wright was born in 1915, a member of the Wright family who had major pastoral interests in the Falls country to the east of Armidale and in Queensland. Her half a lifetime[2] is a very different book. Written towards the end of her life, it is a partial account of that life up to the death of husband Jack in 1966 covering childhood, school, her experiences at Sydney University and then in Queensland.

The historical span of half a lifetime is greater than the other books, stretching over 140 years from the arrival of George and Margaret Wyndham in the Hunter Valley in the late 1820s. It is a more acerbic and reflective book than the others, written by a woman looking back and reflecting in part on the formation of her own views.

Binks Turnbull Dowling was born in Papua in 1923. In 1928, her parents sent her to stay at Kotupna, the Turnbull family property also in the Falls country east of Armidale not far from the Wright properties. Bink’s autobiographical memoir For crying out loud![3] starts in Papua, covers her childhood and early life up to her marriage. Full of detail, the book centres on life on Kotupna and the interactions among the extended Turnbull family.

Judith Wallace was born in 1932 and grew up on Ilparren, a sheep and cattle property just to the west of Glen Innes. Her family was part of the Ogilvie family, a family described a little earlier in George Farwell's book Squatter's Castle: The saga of a pastoral dynasty.[4].

Judith Wallace's Memories of a Country Childhood[5].centres on Ilparren, recording the now vanished life style and the changes that were forced on it from external events. He book ends:

The new owners (Ilparran had been sold) never homesteaded on Ilparran and the great house, still standing in spite of the sunken foundations, stares with blind eyes over the ravaged garden.

Three of the four books are marked by this sense of impermanence. In Judith Wright’s case, The Wyndham branch of the family lost much of their assets in the great crash of the 1890s, while the Wrights’ themselves would lose Judith’s beloved Wallamumbi the year following publication of half a lifetime. In Bink’s case, the book is in part about the decline and loss of Kotupna.

As personal stories, the books are interesting in their own right. Together, they also represent social history of particular life in an area over time.

I referred at the start to Neil Whitfield’s comment that he and I seem to have grown up in different Australia's.

The overlapping worlds of all four writers are familiar to me. I am very much younger, but aspects of their life and the people they write about are also part of my own life. I see things a little differently, in part because of age, in part because I came from another if again overlapping part of New England life, more because my experience and research means that I see them contextually, as part of a broader pattern.

It’s complicated to explain. Some aspects, my personal reactions, are better dealt with via autobiographical memoir where I can observe from my own perspective. But as historical documents, the four books are intensely interesting because I can put them into context as part of an interlinked story.

[1] Maslyn Williams, His Mother’s Country, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1988

[2] Judith Wright edited by Patricia Clarke, half a lifetime, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1999

[3] Binks Turnbull Dowling, For crying out loud!, published by the author, Glen Fernaigh via Dorrigo, 1997

[4] George Farwell, Squatter's Castle: The saga of a pastoral dynasty, Lansdowne Press, 1973.

[5] Judith Wallace, Memories of a Country Childhood,. University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1977.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

History revisited - a bit about bread

Apparently, the first bread slicing machine was invented by Frederick Rohwedder. Rohwedder started work on the machine in 1912, but bakeries were reluctant to use it for fear that the bread would go stale. Then in 1928 Rohwedder invented a machine that would slice and wrap bread. The modern mass produced sliced loaf was born.

It took some time for this new trend to reach Australia. Here mass production of sliced and packaged bread had to wait until the rise of the supermarket. Tip Top, the first national bread brand, was launched in 1958.

Prior to the rise of the supermarket, bread was produced, distributed and sold by small, independent family-owned bakeries. The bread, unwrapped and unsliced, was mostly white and was often delivered to homes by horse-drawn cart or, later, vans.

The mass produced sliced loaf may have been slow to reach Australia, but it quickly wiped out the old bakeries, a process aided by selective purchase and closure. Then came new bread making technology that allowed the proliferation of the bread shops along side the supermarkets. Still, the bread they make does generally taste different from the old loaves.

Older Armidale residents will remember those old loaves. As kids, we used the break them open and pull out the soft bread from the centre. They tasted different in part because the bread was fresher, in part because of the absence of chemicals added now to extend shelf life. They also provided the raw material for bread pellets that could be thrown at other kids!

Bread is one of the oldest human foodstuffs, with a history extending back at least 30,000 years.

In Aboriginal Australia, bush bread or seedcakes formed part of the staple diet across the slopes and plains of inland Australia. The seeds used varied depending on the time of the year and area.

Women harvested the dry seeds, winnowing the grain sometimes several times. The grain was then ground using a millstone to create flour. This was mixed with water to create a dough that could then be baked in the ashes, providing a bread that was high in protein and carbohydrate.

We know about these bread making techniques in part from the observations of early explorers and settlers, in part from the presence of millstones and plant residues found at Aboriginal sites.

While exact dates are uncertain, it seems likely that Aboriginal bread making is one of the oldest examples in the world, pre-dating the rise of agriculture that would make bread a basic ingredient supporting the growth of urban populations.

The existence of Aboriginal bread making in fact challenges one of the continuing assumptions about the evolution of settled society, that hunter-gatherer communities did not have access to technologies that would come with farming.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 28 January 2015. 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, here for 2015.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Volume three of Alan Atkinson's The Europeans in Australia wins the Victorian literary prize

Monday's post on my personal blog, Monday Forum - the historianswas triggered by Alan Atkinson's success in winning the Victorian prize for literature for volume three (the final volume) of  The Europeans in Australia. I was pleased. It also gave me the Monday Forum topic. Here I wrote:
All this brings me to the topic of today's Monday Forum, a break from Australian politics.
What historian do you especially like or dislike? Why are they good or bad? Do you actually read history? 
Don't limit yourself to my questions or, indeed, Australian historians. Go in whatever way you like. Tangents are welcome. I'm just interested in what you think.
Do feel free to join in.