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

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.

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