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

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

New England University College: building an academic institution

New England University College matriculation ceremony 1939. Behind the work creating a new university lay the families of the academics. To mark the 80th anniversary of the foundation of the New England University College in 1938, this is the first of a short series telling you a little of the story of the wives and children of the new College
It is eighty years this year since the foundation of the New England University College, Australia’s seventh oldest university institution and the first founded outside a capital city.

On 18 April 1998 at a celebration to mark sixty years since the College’s foundation, some of the siblings, the children of the College’s early academic staff, met for the first time in a number of years. We came to be called the siblings because of the intense shared experiences from that early period.

Ten years later, Jenny Browning (Janet Howie) published a social history, Four Wives. This  focused on the experiences of four of the wives – Ella Howie, Gwenda Davis, Phyllis Voisey and Hilda Crossley – who came to Armidale with their husbands.

Later that year, UNE’s Dixson library mounted a special exhibition, Families of NEUC: A Social History as part of the celebration of the College’s 70th anniversary of the College. This examined the early days of the University through the eyes of the families that accompanied the first academics to their teaching posts in Armidale and the families of the staff that supported the running of the College

With the passage of time, those with living memories of NEUC as staff, students or children of the College have necessarily diminished. The College itself has begun to vanish into the mist of the past, becoming a simple addendum to the early history of the University.

That’s a pity. The early staff were all highly qualified and committed to building a new institution. They had to be, for the obstacles were considerable.

Today, the university takes pride in the fact that it has achieved maximum student satisfaction ratings for thirteen consecutive years, something no other Australian university can match.

It should, but we should not forget that it was the during the sixteen College years that the ethos of the place was created, an ethos that has continued despite sometimes turmoil in the later institution.

Under pressure and with limited resources, the College out-performed the mother university in teaching, research and community outreach. Staff knew that they had to be better just to survive, and in many ways they were.

But in all this, what about the wives? Jenny Browning makes a convincing case that without them, the College would have failed. They had to deal with insecurity, loneliness,. financial pressures, with multiple roles as they supported their husbands and families.

Over the next few columns I want to take you back into that now vanishing past, telling you about the wives and children of the College, of what it was like to be there.

I do not pretend that this will objective history. Rather, I want to capture the feel, the taste, of that time. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 3 October 2018. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters 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, here  2017here 2018 .


Hels said...

I agree with Jenny Browning. Without the wives, the new College definitely would have failed. They had to deal with insecurity, loneliness, financial pressures, with multiple roles as they supported their husbands and families.

Ny husband got a great job offer in Perth in the 1970s, which I loved by the way, but I missed my family terribly. My children did not have a single member of the family over there to visit.

But this point begs an important question. Were any female academics recruited to New England? If so, how did their husbands cope?

Jim Belshaw said...

It was quite hard for them, Jenny. This was especially true for those like you in Perth who were removed from all their support networks.

There was one female lecturer in those who arrived over 38, 39 but she was unmarried and remained so. I haven't actually looked at the question of female academic staff. Prior to the big social transformation that started in the fifties and accelerated in the sixties, the number of women who were the lead with partner following was very small.

When I was at UNE in the sixties there were quite a few female staff, but it wasn't until the eighties that the position you describe became more common.