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

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

History Revisited - Tale of a blossoming city

TRANSFORMATION: After once being described as unprepossessing, Jim Belshaw says Armidale is now beautiful
Today Armidale is, rightly, seen as a beautiful city. Yet it’s not always been seen in that way.

Writing in 1963, a geographer at the University described Armidale’s aspect as unprepossessing. With rare exceptions, it was an urban hodge-podge, lacking buildings that were distinguished, elegant or stately. Sometimes its vistas were enhanced by colour changes in its surrounding rural landscapes and in the blossoms and foliage of exotic trees planted a thin profusion in parts of the town. At best this relief was temporary, confined to only a few weeks in Autumn and Spring.

If you lived in the city at the time you could see his viewpoint, although many locals bristled at his words.

The city had grown in fits and starts. Brick homes sat next to sometimes rundown wood cottages. Recurrent droughts and associated water restrictions were common..

Constantly short of money because of its limited rate base, the Council had been reluctant to spend on civic improvements. Indeed, there were moves to try to subdivide open space including Drummond Park and the proposed arboretum to increase population and rates.. Some roads were still un-tarred, although the position here was improving.

Twenty years later, the city was transformed. The apparently ugly duckling had become a swan. There would be losses in that transformation, but by happen stance, sheer luck and some good decisions, the result was a generally harmonious whole creating a unique character.

Armidale began with good bones, a creek and two hills. The visual possibilities of this landscape were always there. It just took time to realise.

The initial town straggled. In 1848, a grid pattern was imposed on this by surveyor John James Galloway. It was meant to run north-south, east west, but Galloway was forced to shift this slightly to accommodate existing buildings. Still, order had arrived.

The area covered by the grid pattern that would become the municipality was limited in size. A bit over 3.2 square miles, 2,060 acres, on the old measurement. And so it remained until, I think, 1961 when the city boundaries were finally extended.

As the city grew in the 1950s it extended into the adjoining Dumaresq Shire. There, freed from restrictions, new road and settlement patterns emerged. You can see this clearly today on the map.

Within the traditional city boundaries, a distinct pattern emerged with different types of architecture linked to time. location and money. Time because the architecture reflected the prevailing fashions. Location and money because that determined where you could afford to live, how much you could afford to spend on your dwelling.

Larger dwellings emerged near the main street and then further up South Hill. Generally on large blocks, these faced north, looking down the valley. Victorian Armidale, what I call the old city, had been born.

The survival of these dwellings would become critical in the transformation of Armidale. However, that is only part of the story of the birth of the Armidale swan. That story I will continue in my next column. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 20 January 2016. 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, here for 2016.

No comments: