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

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Season's Greetings to all my readers

I am taking a short Christmas break. I wish all my readers seasons greetings. May you have a happy Christmas and a great new year.  

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

History Revisited - building a New England media empire

MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD: in his Extra column this week, Jim Belshaw explores the background and achievements of journalist Ernest Christian Sommerlad
In 1950, all the Northern media (press, radio and then television) was locally or regionally controlled. By 2000 all this had been swept with local media becoming part of external media empires.

One result of these changes is the disappearance in large part of the press figures that once formed such a distinctive part of Northern life. Ernest Christian Sommerlad was one such.

Earnest by nature, constantly active and a devout Christian in belief, E C Sommerlad was part journalist, part community activist and publicist, part politician, part writer, part business man whose influence endures to today.

Sommerlad was born on 30 January 1886 at Tenterfield, the youngest of twelve children. His parents, John and Louisa, had emigrated to Australia from Germany, forming part of the several waves of German immigrants that settled in the Clarence and at various localities on the Tablelands.

At eleven, Sommerlad left school to help on the family farm. Restless, he enrolled at Newington College in Sydney at the age of 21 (his classmates were all 14), passing the junior public examination in 1908. After theological training, Sommerlad left for Fiji as a missionary, but returned after six months because of a throat infection that made preaching difficult.

He remained active within the Methodist Church, this involvement providing one of the continuing threads of his life.

In February 1912, Sommerlad joined the Inverell Times as a reporter, moving three months later to the rival Inverell Argus where he quickly rose to editor. It was during this Inverell period that Sommerlad met a young sharefarmer called David Drummond. Also a devout Methodist and equally earnest, Drummond and Sommerlad formed a close friendship that spread across Sommerlad’s varied interests.

In May 1918, Sommerlad purchased the Glen Innes Examiner, laying the base that would later become Northern Newspapers, a key part of the Sommerlad publishing dynasty.  

Here three threads in Sommerlad’s life come into play.

The first was journalism and writing, interests he retained until the end of his life when in 1950, two years before his death, he published Mightier than the Sword, the first handbook on Australian journalism.

The second thread was his role as a publisher and business man. This was reflected in the growth of his own newspapers, in the role he played in local newspaper consolidation during the 1920s and then in the evolution of the country press and its association. As first general manager, then Managing Director and then Chairman of Country Press Ltd, he built the organisation into a major business.

The third thread was Sommerlad’s involvement in politics and community development.

He became actively involved in the new political movements emerging in the North after the First World War including the Country Party and the New State Movement. Totally committed to the North and Northern development, he used his paper as his pulpit to promote local and regional causes.

E C Sommerlad died in 1952. He left a considerable legacy.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 16 December 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.
This is the last column for 2015. The next column will appear in the paper on 13 January 2016, on this blog on 20 January. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

History Revisited - Guyra's link to organic farming origins

A DIFFERENT WAY TO GROW: Harold Fletcher White was one of the pioneers of organic farming from his Guyra property
I suspect that most people think of Australian organic farming as a recent development dating to the 1980s.one thread in the growing environmental movements with their interest in sustainability.

Few Australians would know that the world’s first organic farming organisation, the Australian Organic Farming and Gardening Society, was formed in 1944. Its periodical, the Organic Farming Digest, was the first organics advocacy journal.

If few Australians know of the early history of organic farming, fewer still would know of the New England connection with that early history.

The term organic farming was coined by Lord Northbourne, appearing first in Northbourne’s manifesto on organic farming, Look to the Land, published in London in May 1940. The book reached Australia quite quickly, and was widely and favourably reviewed.

The ideas in the book attracted attention from that linked group of New England farmers and graziers already interested in scientific farming, as well as other Northern causes. .From the beginning, the newly established New England University College had been seen as a vehicle for the advancement and application of agricultural science.

Harold Fletcher White was a key member of the New England group. Known as Bill to his friends and Colonel to everybody else, White was a formal rather stern man of firm views who commanded considerable respect.

Born in 1883, White was part of the first group of pupils at the New England Proprietary School (later The Armidale School). After TAS, he studied arts and engineering at Sydney University for two years, but gave that up to join Pitt Son & Badgery. In 1906 White returned to manage some of the family properties at Guyra.

A member of the 6th Australian Light Horse since 1906, White enlisted in 1914, finishing the War as a lieutenant-colonel. Upon return to Australia, he continued the pasture and stock improvement work that he had begun on Bald Blair.

As part of his work, White experimented with the application of fertiliser to pastures. This gave great initial yields which then diminished despite increased application of fertiliser. White concluded that much farming was soil mining, that healthy food required healthy soil, that monoculture was part of the problem. To his mind, action to increase the humus content in soils was central to sustainable agriculture.

White began to experiment with various techniques that might increase the humus content. This focus on practical experimentation was one of the features of the New England group as a whole.

White was involved with the Australian Organic Farming and Gardening Society from its formation to demise in 1955. Starting with the first and ending with the last publication, he contributed twenty articles to its periodical, making him the second most prolific contributor.

In 1953, he joined with Professor C Stanton Hicks to write and publish Life from the Soil setting out his ideas in some detail. The book was a considerable success, going through three editions.

The Society was forced to close in 1955 because of lack of support. However, by then it had popularised the concept of organic farming. The ideas that it and White espoused remain relevant today.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 9 December 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, December 09, 2015

History Revisited - Thomas' death a blow to New England's Aboriginal history

PHOTOGRAPHY PIONEER: Thomas Dick took many photographs of Aborigines in the Hastings Valley in the first decades of the 20th century
The discovery of another collection of Thomas Dick’s Aboriginal photos attracted considerable interest. Oyster grower, naturalist and photographer, Thomas Dick produced 500 photographs of the Hastings Valley that are today seen as works of art.

Thomas Dick’s grandparents settled at Port Macquarie in 1841. Grandfather John was a tanner. Thomas’s father, also John, worked in the family tannery business until taking up one of the first oyster leases on the Hastings River in the 1880s.

Thomas took up his own oyster lease in 1899. Like many at the time, this was the age of the amateur naturalist, he became fascinated by nature. This brought him into contact with the young economic zoologist Theo Roughley who had just started working at the Technological Museum in Sydney and was especially interested in fisheries.

Roughley taught Thomas the rudiments of photography and helped him buy his first camera just before the start of World War One. Thomas became hooked, setting up his own darkroom.

During the working week, Thomas worked his lease, growing and marketing his oysters. Then at the weekend, he explored his interest in natural history and photography, searching for suitable objects and backgrounds. Thomas was clearly knowledgeable, providing information both to Roughley and to Richard Baker, the Technological Museum’s curator.

Thomas is best known now for his Aboriginal photographs. “I set out years ago, he wrote in 1923, “to collect and write the history of these Aborigines, and get together, not only a fine collection of photos, but also a fine collection of implements etc., and …. a remarkable amount of information.”

Thomas’s photos were staged, itself a remarkable feat for he had to persuade his Aboriginal models to remove clothing and pose undertaking traditional tasks. He built trust, aided in some cases by payment of fees.

The photographs may have been staged, but they were authentic nevertheless. Thomas went into the mountains with the Aborigines, gaining trust and the secrets of their laws, information provided on the basis that it would not be made available until after the death of the informants.

“I was fortunate”, he later recorded, “for some of the old men were most intelligent and they recognised that their race was run, as it were, so they gave me under the conditions named, the history of their race.”

“Now by these means I secured all of the marks on the sacred trees, and their meaning, all of the rules of the ‘Waipara’ or man making ceremony.”

Tragically, Thomas Dick died on his fiftieth birthday in 1927. He had gone to study marine life in one of his favourite rock pools and seems to have been caught by a major wave.

Thomas knew the value of the information he had, but had clearly been struggling to get it down. . “I do not known when I will bring out the work for I am now too much handicapped”, he had written sadly in 1923. In that year, he also resigned as a member of the Royal Society of NSW. There were clearly problems.

With Thomas’s death, we lost access to that past he had learned about, lost the chance to establish a bridge between that past, the present and the future. This loss is particularly great for the Birpai/Biripi people themselves. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 2 December 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.