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

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

History revisited - the telling of New England's history

STARTING POINT: Many of New England's first professional historians were drawn to Armidale when the Teacher's College was established in 1928
Lionel Gilbert was an Armidale institution, something drawn out clearly in John Harris’s obituary (AE, 11 February). He was also part of what I have come to think of as the golden age in New England historiography, the writing of history about the place and region in which we live.

Triggered by Lionel’s death, I thought that I might tell you a little in my next few columns about the history of history in New England. It’s an interesting story, reflecting both the changes in New England life and broader events, fashions and trends.

How historians write is largely set by the canons of the discipline. However, what they write about, the questions they chose to ask and answer, is very much a creature of current fads and fancies.

You can see this if you look at the Australian histories on the shelves in the diminishing number of bookshops. War is presently popular, as are books connected in some way with the convict period.

In my case, I write about the history of the broader New England because that is my personal passion, one connected with my own family and with the Northern causes that I became involved with from an early age. I am, I suppose, an historical relic in my own right, part of the history that I write about.

Historians stand on each other’s shoulders.

What we can think of as the North’s first professional historians were drawn to Armidale first by the Teachers’ College (1928) and then by the newly created University College (1938). They focused on local and regional history partly because of the ethos of the newly created institutions, partly because that was the source material that was most readily available.

By 1949, their students were beginning to produce theses such as A V Cane’s 1949 MA study, Ollera, Study of a Sheep Station. This was followed by articles and books, culminating in something of a publishing explosion in the 1980s. By then, each Armidale bookshop plus Pidgeon’s had a small section devoted to local publications.

Not all this writing came from the academy. Much such as Owen Wright’s Wongwibinda (University of New England, 1985) reflected family and local interests that had been triggered and directed to some degree by the professional historians.

Interest and output then declined, although interest in family history continued to grow rapidly. It wasn’t all bad news. Individual historians such as Lionel or John Ryan maintained interest, while there was also some very good individual writing.

In my next column, I will look in more detail at the history of our history, starting with the early period in New England historiography. Most of the books are now out of print, but you can still find them in second hand bookshops or in local libraries.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 18 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.

No comments: