New England's History

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

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Judith Wright, a quintessentially New England writer


In her own words: Judith Wright's first book of poems, Moving Image published in 1946 included a number of poems that have become New England classics including "South of my Days".This, the third in a series on growing up on the Northern or New England Tablelands, is the first of three on poet and writer Judith Wright
Many parts of Australia claim poet and writer Judith Wright as their own.

In Queensland, the State Government has expropriated her for a performing arts centre. Her New England connection is dismissed in just a few words: “Judith Wright was a Queensland resident for over thirty years. She was born in New England, in regional New South Wales, and came to Brisbane as a young woman”.

Her Wikipedia entry notes that she was born in Armidale, but then says she spent most of her formative years in Brisbane and Sydney. Later, Canberra and Braidwood would claim her too.

In all this, Judith remained a quintessentially New England writer. That was where her views were first formed, although her later experiences and especially her relationship with the older novelist and philosopher Jack McKinney would exercise a powerful influence over her.

Judith met Jack McKinney when she moved to Brisbane. He was a much older man, some twenty four years her senior, only two years younger than her father. They fell in love, moving to Mount Tamborine in 1950; daughter Meredith was born in that year. In 1962, Jack and Judith finally married. Four years later Jack died, leaving a hole in Judith’s life.

Jack McKinney was the second of three powerful men in Judith Wright’s life. The first was her father, Phillip Arundell Wright, with whom she shared a middle name. The third was H C “Nugget” Coombs, a noted Australian economist and public servant, with whom she had a twenty five year love affair.

Coombs was again an older man, in this case by nine years. Both were major public figures. Judith was a widow, Coombs long separated from his wife. Both shared common interests, including Aboriginal advancement and the environment. Judith moved to Braidwood to be closer to the Canberra based Coombs, but the affair was kept secret, if open to their friends and the Canberra network within which they moved.
" It was he that gave her that love, affection and unstinting support that seems to shine through in the letters between them."
Each man had a powerful impact on Judith, but I think that it was the father that formed her core views. It was he that gave her that love of the environment and of the country. It was he that gave her that love, affection and unstinting support that seems to shine through in the letters between them.

I think that Judith would accept that conclusion. Whether she would accept my claim that she remained a quintessentially New England writer is more open to question. “You ask me to read those poems I wrote in my thirties?” she wrote in Skins. “They dropped off several incarnations back.”

That may be true and there are reasons for it, but her 1999 autobiographical memoir half a lifetime draws out the continuing importance of her early life history. I will look at this in my next column. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 11 July 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 

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Maslyn Williams - the beginnings in Tenterfield and beyond


Maslyn Williams: one of Australia's best post war documentary makers before turning his hand to writing. This the second in a series on growing up on the Northern or New England Tablelands
“He should go to Australia, to his mother’s people,” Uncle George said, “that’s what she always intended.”

The lad listened. Aunt Yvonne was not convinced. ”But he’s got a good brain. He should go to Cambridge like his father.”

Uncle George, a Whitehall civil servant with a practical mind accustomed to shedding responsibility, would have none of this.

“He can go as an immigrant for next to nothing. I’ll arrange it. If he doesn’t like it, he can come back.”

“He should go to Australia, to his mother’s people” Uncle George said; “that’s what she always intended.”.

The lad listened. Aunt Yvonne was not convinced.

”But he’s got a good brain. He should go to Cambridge like his father.” Uncle George, a Whitehall civil servant with a practical mind accustomed to shedding responsibility, would have none of this.

“He can go as an immigrant for next to nothing. I’ll arrange it. If he doesn’t like it, he can come back.”

Robert Ronald Maslyn Williams, the listening lad, was probably around 17. He had been born in 1911. His father, a career military officer, had been killed in the Great War. His mother had just died.

Fate decided, the lad joined a group of young immigrants on the journey to Australia and, in his case to station outside Tenterfield to become a jackeroo. There he fell in love with Australia, ultimately becoming one of this country’s best known documentary film makers and writers.

It is clear that the lad was interested in writing from the beginning, although his taste first ran to poetry. He kept notes, wrote descriptions and long letter to his Aunt Yvonne.

In 1988, the 77 year old Williams used those notes and letters to write an award winning biographical memoir, His Mother's Country (Melbourne University Press), looking back at the lad (he refers to himself as the lad through out) coming of age on the Tablelands. It was a time when life seemed to be “permanently sunlit”.

The first part of the book outlines why he came, the voyage, reactions to Sydney and describes the long train trip to Tenterfield on the Brisbane Mail, a description that would be instantly familiar to older New Englanders.

The lad knew little of Australia, less of the country or farm work and nothing about his destination. This was his introduction to the new, to strangeness that would soon become familiar.

At Tenterfield, the lad was met by the boss who managed the station on behalf of the family and taken to his new home. It was a large and well established place, a self-contained world, a small village.

One core focus in the book from this point is station life, work and people, as the lad learns to do his job and establishes his place. A second is the lad’s growing involvement in the life of Tenterfield and, to a lesser extent, the nearby big town of Glen Innes.

Final acceptance comes when the irascible and taciturn overseer Old Mackie, the Old Man, is hurt in an accident and the lad has to go for help. Two days later, a heavily bandaged Mackie comes in for breakfast, sits down and looks straight at the lad and says “G’day”.

The book ends with the lad’s departure for England following a further intervention by Uncle George. It’s clear, though, that the lad will return to Australia.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 27 June 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 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

New England history: Personal stories reveal times of change

War photographers, New Guinea: (Back left) Damien Parer, Frank Hurley, (front left) Maslyn Williams and George Silk. This the first of a six part series on growing up on the Northern or New England Tablelands
My writing on domestic life and childhood has taken me deep into nostalgia territory, as it has for some of my readers. This has not been helped by the Armidale Families Past and Present Facebook site!

Founded and moderated by Elizabeth Pollard, the membership has exploded to almost 2,200. The majority of members no longer live in Armidale, but are enjoying exchanging reminiscences and sharing photos. It is, all agree, quite addictive.

From my viewpoint as an historian, the site and others like it add to the already great depth of historical material on the broader New England. We need many more historians if we are to capture and present the story of our past over the last 30,000 years to the level that it deserves.

That requires broader action. For the moment and to continue the childhood and nostalgia theme, I thought that I would share with you over coming columns five stories about growing up or coming of age on the Tablelands during the twentieth century.
"They are stories of personal and family change set against a backdrop of major change at local, regional and national level". 
Four of the five are based on autobiographical pieces. The writer’s age varies, although all were born before the Second World War: Maslyn Williams was born in 1911, Judith Wright in 1915, Binks Turnbull Dowling in 1923, Judith Wallace in 1932.

To their stories I have added a fifth, that of Peter Woolnough, better known by his stage name Peter Allen. Born on 10 February 1944, Peter carries our coverage into the 1950s.

Four of the five were born in New England, the fourth (Maslyn Williams) was born in the UK. Three of the five became writers, the fourth a songwriter, singer and cabaret star. The fifth (Binks Dowling) was the daughter of a writer. Of the five, only Binks Dowling remained in New England.

Each story is different, describing different aspects of life during formative periods in the subject’s life., They are stories of personal and family change set against a backdrop of major change at local, regional and national level. Yet there are similarities between them.

All four have an element of nostalgia, a feeling of looking back. Four of the five have an element of loss. Only one, that of Maslyn Williams, is totally sunny. Only one, Judith Wright, involves an explicit and sometimes acerbic rejection of a past that yet retains its hold over her.

In the short compass of these columns with my 500 word limit I can do more than sketch a few key elements in each story. Still, I hope that they will be of interest and encourage you to read further into the fascinating story that is New England’s past.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 13 June 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  

Thursday, June 21, 2018

UNE Humanities Weekly seminars on-line

In an earlier post, New England Travels: journeys through space and time, I posted a paper that I had delivered in the University of New England Humanities seminar series.

One of my frustrations in living away from Armidale is that I cannot get to the seminars on a regular basis. As you know my primary historical focus is on New England, but I'm always interested in what other people are doing and in other fields as well. It stops me becoming blinkered.

I mention this now because the University is making all the seminars available as podcasts including the discussion. The sound quality is a little variable, but not enough to be a significant problem. Four years of seminars are on-line, with seminars added generally the week after they have been delivered. You will find the full set here.

I am working my way through the whole series, starting with the ones in which I have the most immediate interest. You might like to have a browse.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The high country flick - Enjoying the warm heart of the family home


All smiles: The kitchen in Marsh Street, Christmas Eve 1979. Kathleen Vickers is on the left, and Jim Belshaw Snr is washing up.

I suppose that we might call it the high country flick. The girls would come into the kitchen, stand with their backs to the stove and flick up the backs of their skirts to allow the heat to penetrate.

As with so many homes, the kitchen at 202 Marsh Street was the family centre. It was neither a big nor a posh kitchen. Few were at that stage. It was, in fact, extremely poky. Later when we sold the house, the first thing the new owners did was to rip it out.

Despite its small size and sometimes crowded nature with people perched around the small kitchen table, it had a warmth. That was partly because it was warm., no small plus in a New England winter, at least as much because my mother created a welcoming space.

In it’s own way, that kitchen was a microcosm of our shared history.

The kitchen benches were low, too low for me. I had to stoop to use them. They were low because people were shorter when they were built.

People are just much taller now, an increase that has happened over many generations. When I played rugby at school I was taller and heavier than average. Now I am dwarfed by the average rugby player.

The sink had two cold water taps. One was for town supply, the second from the tank. Because town water was so hard, tank water was used to make tea or coffee or for cooking.

On the sink sat a tin with wire on the top and holes punched in the bottom. In the tin sat a bar of sunlight soap. Hot water run through the tin provided suds to wash the dishes. I don’t think we ever used commercial dish washing fluid.

The stove was the nerve centre. When we first moved into the house this was an old iron range. Then a new rayburn was installed. This gave a constant supply of hot water and was wonderful for cooking, if sometimes a bit cranky. .

The firebox was on the right. The temperature of the whole stove could be controlled by varying the intensity of the fire through a combination of fuel and dampers. The hot air ran along the top of the stove from the fuel box to the chimney on the left.

A hot plate ran the length of the stove with heat gradually diminishing towards the chimney. This allowed food to be cooked and then moved to a cooler place to set or stay warm.

The ever present kettle could be moved from the left of the stove to the hotter right where it quickly boiled. The oven was on the left with a warming oven below. This allowed food to be kept warm or plates to be warmed before serving.

I still miss that stove!

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 13 June 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 

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Hidden stories and the respectable art of sticky-beaking

Paul Gavarni, La Flâneur 1842: To be a flâneur is to idle without purpose, interested in what you find
I was introduced to the art of flânerie by John Baxter’s book The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A pedestrian in Paris

Baxter, an Australian born writer, journalist and film maker, has lived in Paris since 1989.

There, by accident, he became a guide taking walking parties on literary tours through the streets of a city that he had come to love. The book describes his experiences in that role

I enjoyed it in part because I have been to Paris several times and so knew many of the places and some of the stories he wrote about. It’s a well written easy to read book. I was also interested in a professional sense since I see part of my role as a story teller. 
"The term itself derives from the Old Norse verb flana “to wander with no purpose”.
Baxter used the concept of the flâneur - literally the stroller, lounger, saunterer - to introduce his view of the pedestrian in Paris. The term itself derives from the Old Norse verb flana “to wander with no purpose”. However, it was in 19th century Paris that the flâneur became a cultural icon, someone who wanders the streets as an observer and philosopher, an urban explorer, a connoisseur of the street.

I was immediately attracted to the idea of flânerie. It provided a perfect justification for my habit of just wandering, following my nose to see what I could find. It justified a sometimes insatiable curiosity that could verge on sticky-beaking. I was now engaged in a respected cultural practice! Most of all, I liked the idea of combining history with current observation.

We are surrounded by history if only we could see it.

The drive between Armidale and Sydney via Thunderbolt’s Way is a fascinating history lesson in its own right, embedded as it is in 30,000 years of human history. The streets of our towns and villages, the country side itself, are full of hidden stories.

To discover those stories you need to stop, to stroll, to observe and then to investigate. In fact, you need to become a flâneur!

In recent columns, we have been talking about aspects of domestic life, most recently Australian’s love of meat.

In the days before refrigeration, meat had to be killed locally to ensure that it did not spoil. Well, perhaps not spoil to much, for by the end of a hot day the meat could already be spoiling, beginning to turn black!

Animals might be killed just outside the town or on the butcher’s premises. The demand for meat meant that there were multiple butcher’s shops often co-located with a small general store, each one strongly favoured by particular customers.

Most have gone, victims of changing tastes and the rise of the supermarket. Still, if you walk your town you may be surprised how many of the buildings themselves survive. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 6 June 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 

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Settlers board the gravy train


Scottish immigrants Morris Drummond and wife Catherine 1882. Morris was struck by the availability and cheapness of food in Australia.This is the fifth in a series on domestic life and the rhythms of childhood  
Two things impressed Scottish stonemason Morris Drummond on his arrival in Melbourne in March 1879 on the way to his new home in Sydney. The first was the stonework, the best he had ever seen. The second was the food.

“Meat is cheaper than at home”, he wrote in his diary. “we had a good Dinner for sixpence I will give you an idea of it had soup and Bread Mutton Potatoes & Cabbage and Plum pudding for a Desert” Tea was just as cheap: “we had our Tea for the same amount and as much as we could eat and fruit is cheap.”

This picture of the Australian colonies as places with plentiful cheap food is something repeated in many immigrant accounts. Australians had a particular love of meat, something that Sydney doctor and nutritionists Philip E Muskett complained about in 1893. Australians should, he suggested, eat more vegetables for health reasons.

There were good reasons for this love of meat. Livestock was readily available and could be driven to market over considerable distances. New England beef helped feed the diggers on the Victorian gold fields.

By contrast, vegetable had to be carted at considerable expense or grown on home or station gardens. The expansion of the railways allowed fruit and vegetables to be brought to the cities more easily, but the love of meat remained.
"Now that meat was cheap and freely available, they consumed it with gusto."  
In the home countries, meat had been expensive, a luxury. Many families rarely tasted meat in their daily diet. Now that it was cheap and freely available, they consumed it with gusto. It was, suggests historian Geoffrey Blainey, more than a food, more than an incessant topic of conversation. It had become a way of life.

Outside sheep country, beef was more popular and freely available than mutton. Pork became readily available from the 1890s linked to the spread of dairying. From the 1870s rabbit meat was being sold, initially as an expensive luxury. By the 1890s, rabbit had become the cheapest meat. The humble chook was available but remained expensive.

In sheep country like the New England, mutton dominated. The weekly rations of a station worker could include close to 6 kilos of mutton a week, more meat than some immigrant workers had eaten in six months or longer at home.

There were some complaints, but most settled in happily eating three meals of meat each day and talking about their good fortune in letters home.

Although Australians remain great meat eaters, the earlier meat based diet with its English overtones now seems old fashioned, even unhealthy. The idea of meat and three veg, itself a later model, has been replaced by a melded perception of food attributed to the migrant intakes after the Second World War.

There is some truth in this stereotype, but like most stereotypes it is only partially true. The reality is far more complex.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 30 May 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  2017, here 2018 

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Is technology bringing history to life or distorting it?


Czesława Kwoka (15 August 1928 Wólka Złojecka – 12 March 1943 Auschwitz) was a Polish Catholic child who died in the Auschwitz concentration camp at the age of 14. She was one of approximately 230,000 children and young people aged less than eighteen among the 1,300,000 people who were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau from 1940 to 1945. The colourisation was done by Marina Amaral. You will find her website here,  a little about the story of  Czesława Kwoka and the process here.
There was an interesting piece by Steve Hendrix, in the Washington Post (May 10 2018),Is technology bringing history to life or distorting it?, examining the impact of new digital technology on the presentation and interpretation of history. Examples cited include the colourisation of photos; the use of digital technology to create the speech that JFK would have given in Dallas had he not been assassinated; and the use of powerful interactive techniques drawn from computer games to explain and allow people to participate in historical periods.

I find this an uncomfortable area. I'm not absolutely sure why. The use of dioramas to present historical scenes in museums, for example, has been around for a long time, as have the use of paintings and models. Skeletal reproductions are another example.The recreation of a speech whether by use of voice technology as in the Kennedy case or through the combination of actors and technology as in the case of martin Luther King's “Fill Up the Jails” speech, delivered at Durham’s White Rock Baptist Church in 1960 is more akin to a dramatic performance.  They are linked to history, but are not themselves historical works.

Thinking about it, I guess that I have two problems. The first is where the sheer power of the technology overwhelms the history, effectively substituting the presentation for the evidence. The presentation becomes the history, not an interpretation of the history. The second is where the technology alters the evidence in some way, substituting a new for the original.

I have a particular problem with the growing tendency towards colourisation. I am quite prepared to accept that Marina Amaral undertakes careful research to determine which colours to use. I would accept, too, that colourisation can provide new insights. In this sense, a colourised photo become the equivalent of a research paper based on the original photo. The difficulty is that the colourised version often lack context especially since the technique has become so widely available. The simplest rule is not to use a colourised version as evidence at all unless you do happen to know that the original had colour added at the time.  

There appears to have been a fair bit of discussion at international level as to how to manage all this to ensure historical integrity. An example is the International Charter for the computer-based visualization of Cultural Heritage. The London Charter 2009.


Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The custom of the good Aussie cuppa


Billy Tea advertisement: Advertising always reflects current tropes. This ad plays to national themes in a way intended to present the brand as uniquely Australian.This is the fifth in a series on domestic life and the rhythms of childhood  

In 1893, Sydney doctor Philip E Muskett, one of the first Australian nutritionists, attacked Australians love of meat, tea and tobacco.

Australians would be healthier, he suggested, if they ate more salads, drank more wine, substituted a small cup of coffee for tea and walked six or more miles a day. This advice was largely ignored.

By 1893, Australians had become the world’s largest per capita consumer of tea with their own tea culture. .This love emerged in the early period of European settlement and for very practical reasons.

The East India Company ships that carried first convicts and later free settlers to NSW went on to China to load tea for the British market. Some of that tea was left behind in Sydney on the return journey to meet local demand.

Unlike England where high taxes on tea limited consumption, tea was a freely available relatively cheap product in NSW. 
"'Would you like a cuppa' or 'I will put the kettle on' continue as Australian welcoming phrases."
Its low bulk and high value allowed it to be distributed easily across an increasingly dispersed settlement. It disguised the taste of often muddy water and replenished fluids lost in heavy work in high temperatures.

Green tea was initially popular. Then came black Chinese tea. Later still, came black tea from India and Ceylon.

Green tea was largely drunk unsweetened. Sweetened tea became popular with black tea. The rations provided to agricultural workers came to include a mix of meat, flour, sugar, tea and salt.

Today, we are used to tea made in pots. However, while teapots appear to date back to the Chinese Yuan dynasty founded by Kublai Khan in the 13th Century, they were not common for ordinary people until later in the Industrial Revolution when cheap mass produced versions became available.

Initially, tea was brewed in quart pots and then in that universal Australian icon, the billy.

The billy offered several advantages. It was lighter, you could fit a smaller billy inside a larger one and attach both to your swag via the metal loop at the top. That loop also made it easier to place the billy on or remove it from the fire. You could also carry water in the billy for later use.

In 1883, Alfred Bushell established what is claimed to be Australia’s first teahouse in Queensland. It is no coincidence that when his sons took the business to Sydney in 1899, they created Billy Tea as the new firm’s central brand.

Today coffee has replaced tea as the dominant Australian drink. However, tea’s dominance survives in morning tea, afternoon tea or just tea for the evening meal.

“Would you like a cuppa” or “I will put the kettle on” continue as Australian welcoming phrases. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 23 May 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  2017, here 2018 

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Bathing becomes a warmer prospect

A new, more comfortable, era: Enjoying the luxury of hot water in an early advertisement. This is the fourth in a series on domestic life and the rhythms of childhood  

The hot showers or baths that we take for granted today require water, a way of transporting and heating the water, a way of disposing of the waste water

.The first instantaneous hot water heater – the geyser – was invented by an English painter Benjamin Maughan in 1868. In 1889, the first storage hot water system was invented in the US. In 1915, Dux started making electric hot water heaters in Australia,

By 1900, some big New England homes or institutions had boiler systems that provided heating and hot water. However, the new domestic systems were slow to spread because they depended upon money and access to electricity or gas that was in limited supply outside urban areas.

In Australia and New Zealand, the invention of the chip heater from the 1880s provided a partial solution to the heating problem. This consisted of a cylindrical unit with a fire box and flue, through which a water pipe was run. Water was drawn from a cold water tank and circulated through the fire box. When heated, the water was drawn off to the area where it was used, typically in a bath.

Heat was provided by paper, chips and often pine cones. This could heat the water quickly, but would go cold if too much was run off. A careful balancing act was required to draw of the water at the right speed. A bath could take quite some time to prepare.

One common memory among those who grew up with chip heaters is the sound. They roar from the sound of the fire and boiling water.

As late as 1958, many houses in New England towns were not connected to either town water or electricity.

“We didn’t have electricity, we relied on tank water and our bathroom contained a chip heater, clawfoot bath and a cement floor” one New Englander recalled of 1958 weekly bath nights. .

“We would collect chips from the woodpile in a bucket and on Sundays Mum or Dad would light the chip heater and run a bath. Dad would add paper and chips and a dash of kerosene and the chip heater would roar and spit out boiling water. Very scary!”

“The kids bathed first, followed by Mum and Dad. As the only girl I got to bath first. About three inches of water in the bottom of a huge bathtub wasn't a lot. After I finished, more water was added for each person.”

“After our bath Mum would always check behind and inside our ears and the bottoms of our feet to make sure we had washed properly.”

“I so envied the full bath that my Dad used. Never even considering that five other people had bathed before him!”

The tone is nostalgic, but you can see why so many older New Englanders still regard hot running water as the ultimate luxury. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 16 May 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  2017, here 2018