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

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

History Revisited - Dymphna Cusack: writing her own story

RENOWNED PLAYWRIGHT: Armidale educated Dymphna Cusack travelled the World during her writing career
From time to time in this column I have commented on the many writers with New England connections. Dymphna Cusack (1902-1981) is another such writer.

Dymphna Cusack was born in 11 September 1902 at Wyalong, the third of six surviving children of Beatrice and James Cusack. The combination of straightened family circumstances with the girl’s ill-health led to her being brought up by her childless aunt and uncle, Nell and Tom Leahy at Guyra.

Dymphna was very much alone during those bush years apart from her Aunt and Uncle and her cat, William Adolphus. However she loved animals, fishing and time spent outdoors. Her uncle was a keen fisherman, and they often went fishing together. Later, she would live in many great cities across the world, but she remained a bush girl at heart.

The child read omnivorously. She also discovered a love of teaching when the headmaster at Guyra Primary (“what a man! what a teacher!) let her take over lower classes when their teachers were away.

In 1917, Dymphna was sent to board at St Ursula’s in Armidale. I have commented before on the contribution that St Ursula’s made to New England’s cultural life. Founded by German nuns in 1882, the school still (in Dymphna’s words) “bore their imprint in its reverence for learning for learning’s sake, and in its rigid discipline.”

Importantly, the school trained girls for University entrance. As a consequence, in 1920 Dymphna won an exhibition and Teachers’ College scholarship to study at the University of Sydney, taking her place in 1922. Upon graduation, she embarked on a teaching career while also writing.

Dymphna wrote her first play while at University, followed by three more that were all well received. In 1936 came her first published novel, Jungfrau, a tale of personal relationships and moral conflicts based on her University experiences.

By the time of her death, she had published twelve novels (two of which were collaborations), seven plays, three travel books, two children's books and one non-fiction book. She also helped Catherine Edmonds write Caddie. Caddie, Red Sky at Morning, and Come in Spinner (written with Florence James) all became Australian films or television shows. Another . book, Heatwave in Berlin, was staged and televised across the Soviet Union as part of the 1965 celebrations of the twentieth anniversary of victory over fascism.

The themes in Dymphna’s work reflected her changing life experiences, taking her far from that early New England life. Yet her love of the county remained and was reflected in some of the descriptions and memories contained in her writing.

In 1961 she returned to her earlier memories in Picnic Races. The setting is the imaginary gold mining town of Gubba, one that combines echoes of Bathurst and Goulburn as well as her beloved New England.

Her husband, Norman Freehill, described the book as a deceptively light-hearted yet profoundly critical study of rural Australia against a pioneering background which was her own.

The sometimes malicious anecdotes and passing descriptions in the book would be instantly recognisable even today, a trait that she shares with other New England writers.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 19 August 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, August 25, 2015

Janine Rizzetti's review of Klaus Neumann's Across the Seas: Australia’s Response to Refugees. A History

Janine Rizzetti's The Resident Judge of Port Phillip remains one of my favourite history blogs. I mention this now because she has written a number of very good posts, most recently a book review,
‘Across the Seas: Australia’s Response to Refugees. A History’ by Klaus Neumann.

From Janine's summary, I suspect that this is a book I should read for both personal and professional reasons. I also hadn't realised  until I read the post that former Fraser Government Immigration Minister Michael MacKellar had died. Janine has a link to his obituary in the Age. . 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

History Revisited - Mallaby shared his soap with the world

AUSTRALIAN INFLUENCE: Armidale's renowned soap maker travelled to Paris for the World Exhibition in 1900 
In an earlier column on Armidale industry, I referred to Mallaby’s Soap. Its golden bar soap was perfect for toilets or washing laces, silks and woollens, while scrubbing the table, floors, pots and pans with Mallaby’s pumice stone soap made them much cleaner.

I don’t remember Mallaby’s Soap, production finished by early 1942, but I certainly remember those scrubbed tables that you used to find in country kitchens.

In 1900, George Mallaby attended the World Exhibition in Paris. Held in pavilions stretching from the Eiffel Tower, the Exhibition was not just a display of the miracles of the new, but also a celebration of the wonderful Art Nouveau style, bringing that into public prominence.

The old European order that would be swept away by the Great War was its peak, and countries vied with each other for the grandeur of their exhibits, joined by chambers showcasing science and industry. If you google the Exhibition, you will find early colour photos of the whole show. It was quite something.

It is not clear what Armidale’s George Mallaby made of the whole thing, although I’m sure that he found it interesting. His purpose was more pragmatic, to exhibit his soap for which he apparently won a gold medal. He also took the opportunity, and this was probably the primary purpose of the trip, to visit England after a very long break. His parents had died and he wanted to visit their grave and pay for the cemetery plot. 

We know from John Harvey’s story of his grandfather (New England Lives II) that George Mallaby was born on 13 December 1860 at Osset, West Riding, Yorkshire. On 21 May 1882, George married the twenty year old Faith Furness. Both had been working in the mills.

In August the following year, the young couple set sail for Australia. After a relatively brief stay in Dubbo, the family moved to Armidale around early 1885 to escape the Western Plains heat. There George began making soap in a copper in the backyard.

By the time of George’s visit to England in 1900, he had established a successful business and had also acquired considerable real estate. Just as well, for there were now seven children!

I have written before about the way the new Great Northern Railway reduced many local activities because of the competition from imported goods. In the Mallaby case, George was able to use the railway to gain business, shipping soap south to Werris Creek, north to the Queensland border, thus consolidating his business. Nearby Hillgrove with its gold mines was also a profitable market.

Many of the patterns of life in Armidale and the North more broadly were linked to varying forms of religious observance. The Mallabies were strict Methodists, although Faith and George appear to have mellowed somewhat in later years.

Saturdays were preparation for Sundays, with the boys filling the wood box and polishing shoes. On Sunday, oldest daughter Emma stayed home to prepare the roast while the rest of the family went to church. No embroidering or reading for pleasure was allowed, while music was limited to hymns.

George Mallaby died in 1926, Faith died less than a year later. By then, the young couple from working class England had been able to provide for their now large family, giving them the opportunities they had lacked. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 12 August 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, August 12, 2015

History Revisited - how one TAS Old Boy took to the skies

P G Taylor and Charles Kingsford Smith welcomed in Hawaii on the first Australia-US plane flight
“Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines” captures in comedic form some of the strangeness and excitement associated with aviation’s early day. A number of the early Australian pioneers had connections with Northern New South Wales.

Sir Patrick Gordon Taylor (1896-1966), more commonly known as PG or Bill, was born at Mosman, Sydney, on 26 October 1896. His father, also Patrick, was a successful businessman who built up considerable business interests fuelled by urban growth on Sydney’s North Shore assisted by judicious company re-arrangements.

Taylor early acquired a sense of adventure and a love of the seas, roaming Pittwater in his dingy including an expedition to uninhabited Lion Island, site of a major Little Penguin Colony. Taylor’s parents chose to send the boy to The Armidale School to complete his education. There he finished his schooling as senior prefect.

Rejected by the Australian Flying Corps, Taylor went to Britain and was commissioned into the Royal Flying Corps in August 1916. There he served with distinction, winning the Military Cross and being promoted to Captain.

Like many First World War pilots, Taylor acquired a love of flying. During the 1920s, he flew as a private pilot, completing an engineering course and studying aerial navigation. He was drawn into the circle around Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm.

In 1933 and 1934, he flew between Australia and New Zealand as Smithy’s second pilot and navigator on the Southern Cross, acted as navigator on Charles Ulm’s return flight to England and with Smithy completed the first Australian-US flight. However, it was the events of May 1935 that established Taylor as a heroic figure in the public mind.

On 15 May, a heavily laden Southern Cross took off for New Zealand on the King George V jubilee airmail flight with Kingsford Smith as pilot, Taylor as navigator, John Stannage as radio operator.

Six hours into the flight, part of the exhaust manifold on the centre engine broke off, badly damaging the starboard engine propeller. Smithy closed down the engine, applied full power to the other two engines and turned back for Australia while the crew jettisoned the cargo.
This is one of the few airmail letters that survived the flight.
 The oil pressure on the port engine began to fall rapidly, dooming the flight. Climbing out of the fuselage, Taylor edged his way against the strong slipstream along the engine connecting strut and collected oil from the disabled starboard engine in the casing of a thermos flask. He then transferred it to the port engine.

Assisted by wireless operator, John Stannage, Taylor had to repeat this process six times before the aircraft landed safely at Mascot some nine hours later.

In 1946, these events were dramatised in the Columbia Pictures/Ken Hall production Smithy, with Taylor playing himself. Not unexpectedly, the film was popular at the Saturday night films put on for TAS boys!

Taylor went on to a long and successful career as pilot, businessman and, perhaps less expectedly, writer, publishing eight successful books with adventure, flying and sea themes.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 5 August 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.

Coincidentally, at the time this column came out,  freelance writer and film maker Rick Searle released a biography of Patrick Gordon Taylor, The Man Who Saved Smithy. You can hear an interview with Rick here. .

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

History Revisited - mixed beginnings for a household favourite

POPULAR PET: Cats weren't always well accepted in homes. Some rulers ordered them killed because of fear of vermin, others because of fear of witchcraft.

It is not clear when cats were first domesticated. The earliest date we appear to have is from a grave in Cyprus dated to around 7.500 BCE. Since the cat in question was not native to Cyprus and was buried with great care near a human burial, the assumption is that it may have been imported as a pet.

Unlike dogs who were useful in hunting and herding and were therefore domesticated first, the domestic cat emerged in the Fertile Crescent with the development of farming. Farming required food storage, creating a vermin problem. The domestic cat was the outcome.

Unlike dogs, the cat lives solitary in the wild. As a result, it has been able to take what it wants from humans (food, shelter, play) and to pay its dues in return (pest control) without losing contact with its original identity.

By the time of the Pharaos, the cat had acquired a very special place in Egyptian mythology as a sacred animal. To kill a cat was an offence punishable by death.

From Egypt, the cat colonised the expanding Roman Empire. Cats become common and valuable assets to those who harvested crops and had problems with rats and disease. They were introduced to Britain around 100 AD. The King of Wales, Hywel Dda, declared them protected by Law as sacred and valuable animals. Killing a cat could again be punishable by death.

The cat’s special mythological place did not always work to the animal’s advantage. During the Middle Ages in Europe, cats became associated with superstition and witch craft. They were considered animals of sin and were thought to be associated with Satan.

In 1348 when the Black Death (The Plague) broke out, cats were suspected as causing the disease or were in some ways associated with the devil’s work. Some rulers ordered the killing of all cats, in so doing encouraging the spread of disease.

Cats made a European comeback because of their anti-vermin usefulness as well as their attractions as pets. They were frequently carried on ships, in so doing encouraging their spread. 

The first cat probably arrived in Australia around 1804 as a ship cat. Cats breed rapidly. By 1820, Sydney had a significant feral cat problem. I have wondered how quickly and how far cats spread beyond Sydney in advance of European settlement. We know livestock spread, so a cat spread is possible.

As with dogs, cat ownership grew rapidly over the nineteenth century, associated in part with the growing middle class now able to afford pets.

Growth in pet ownership was not limited just to dogs and cats. Birds, for example, became extremely popular. The first pet food to go on the market was, in fact, bird food, with the first dog food marketed in England around 1860.

And the most important technological advance so far as cats as house pets is concerned? Arguably, kitty litter! This first became available from 1947. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 29 July 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.