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

Saturday, December 30, 2006

New England & Queensland - a truncated relationship

Photo: Gara Gorge near Armidale

My last post focused on the impact of the Dividing Range and especially on the way it affected east-west and north-south communications within New England. But this left open the question of south-north communications between New England and the colony, now state, of Queensland.

On the surface, you would expect this to be substantial. The New England Tablelands extend into Queensland, as do the western slopes and plains. The Tweed River valley is divided by the New England-Queensland boarder. Brisbane, Queensland's political and commercial capital, is closer than Sydney to much of Northern New England. On the surface, you would expect substantial trade and communications. The reality was very different.

In his 1966 PhD thesis, The Geographical Scope of Support for the New State Movement in Northern New South Wales, Professor Eric Woolmington from the University of New England's Geography Department examined the impact of the NSW-Queensland border on local activity.

Using geographic models developed to explain boundaries between the economic catchment areas of competing major centres, Woolmington defined the expected boundary between the spheres of influence of Sydney and Brisbane. This generated an economic boundary well south of Armidale.

Woolmington then examined the actual economic boundary using a variety of measures. In all cases, he found that the economic boundary was well to the north of that expected. He used the phrase marchland areas - areas of major competition between powers - to describe the territory between the projected economic boundary and the actual political boundary.

At one level, it is not suprising that Sydney's influence should have been so pervasive. The city was much bigger than rival Brisbane, especially in the colonial period. New England people had to deal with Sydney as the seat of government and power. Economic links were strong because Sydney merchants financed pastoral activities, supplying goods and selling primary products in return.

However, that is not the end of the story. At a second level, the location of the economic boundary was also strongly influenced by consistent efforts by the Sydney Government to maintain economic control, to centralise power and influence in Sydney. Those efforts, the impact they had at local level, the resistances they created, form another key theme in New England history.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Geography of New England - Impact of Great Dividing Range

Photo: Gordon Smith, New England Ranges

In my last post I looked at the impact of changing communications and especially travel time on our perception of space.

I did so because this helps us understand themes in New England history. That post followed an overview of the geography of New England.

In this post I want to extend the discussion by focusing on the impact of the Great Dividing Range and especially the rugged eastern escarpment separating the Northern Tablelands from the coastal river valleys.

The escarpment is central to New England history because of the way it separated inland New England from its coast, making east-west travel difficult. Roads, tracks really, had to be cut along the edge of ridges and were subject to constant subsidence and landslides because of the combination of unstable ground with heavy escarpment rains.

Northern New England from Armidale north was close to the river ports, especially Grafton, on the Northen Rivers. So tracks went through from Armidale to Grafton, Glen Innes to Grafton, Tenterfield to the Richmond River. Goods, especially wool, moved down those tracks for shipment out by ship, supplies to service inland needs came back.

From Armidale south there were tracks from Armidale due east to Bellingen, from Armidale south and east to Kempsey, from Armidale south and then east through Walcha to the convict settlement at Port Macquarie. Again, goods moved along those tracks to and from the small river ports, although traffic was much lower.

Inland, gaps in the range made north-south traffic down to the Hunter Valley easier in geographic terms than the east-west route.Sea transport was cheaper than land transport, especially for bulk goods. However, these lower costs had to be offset against the added costs and difficulties associated with crossing the escarpment.

This simple equation determined transport patterns. Freight from the north and east of the Tablelands went east for on-shipment by sea from the northern river ports. Freight from the southern Tablelands and the western slopes and plains went south for on-shipment first from Morpeth, the main river port on the Hunter, and then from Newcastle at the mouth of the Hunter.

This pattern influenced the political battles that helped form New England.

Local interests in the Northern Rivers wanted improved east-west links to attract more inland freight. Grazing and commercial interests inland wanted cheaper and quicker freight routes to the coast. But these improved routes were slow to come, with the first tar road to the coast not in fact coming until the early 1960's.

The constant failure of attempts to gain improved communications fueled resentment against the Sydney Government. It is therefore not surprising that the areas most affected by poor east-west communications formed the heartland of separatist agitation.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Belshaw Takes a Break

Photo: South West Rocks, New England

Tomorrow I leave for a few days in South West Rocks, one of the most beautiful places in New England.

While there is an internet cafe in South West Rocks and I will be checking my blogs and responding to any comments, I do not expect at this point to make any posts.

I want a rest to rethink and re-charge.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

On Travel Time and Our Sense of Space

We are all imprinted by the immediate environment in which we live and, especially, that within which we grew up. This is as true of people living today as it was for New England's first Aboriginal settlers.

I think that we all know this. But what is perhaps less well recognised is the way in which transport and communications affects our view of the world around us.

Today we live in a world that is both expansive and truncated. Expansive in that communications brings remote parts of the world into our lounge rooms. Truncated in that we know less of our immediate environs. This is partly a matter of individual time, we have access to more information and can only take in so much, but it is also a matter of communications and especially transport time.

Why is this important? Well, as I see it, if you are going to understand the past you have to understand how people thought at the time. This means that you must get out of your own mind frame, back into theirs. And this can be hard because the elements that set our individual mind frames are deeply embedded, unconscious.

To illustrate this, I want to take the New England of 1907. This was the year my grand father arrived in Armidale, starting a love affair with the North that lasted until his death in 1965.

Both population structures and communication systems were very different from those holding today.The country side had then not be depopulated. The rural population, people living on farms and in centres with a population less than 600, varied from area to area but generally made up between 43 and 60 per cent of the total population. A further 16 to 23 per cent lived in towns and villages whose populations ranged between 600 and 2000. (Data drawn from D A Aitkin, The Country Party in New South Wales. A Study of Organisation and Survival. ANU Press, Canberra 1972, p5. Since Aitkin's figures are mainly drawn from the 1921 census, they probably understate 1907 rural populations.)

The end result was a diversified population structure ranged in a distinct hierarchy. At one extreme was the locality or rural district, whose total population could reach several hundred. Such localities were usually, as at Arding near Uralla, centred on the school, church and tennis courts. At the other extreme were the larger towns such as Lismore (7,381 people in 1911) offering a relatively wide range of urban services.

In the middle came a variety of towns and villages. These ranged from small settlements with perhaps just a hotel, bakery and general store, to mining centres based on tin and gold, to timber towns nestling in the hills with their small collections of unpainted weather board houses huddled round the mill, to meduim size towns offering a wider range of services to the surrounding countryside.

No matter how small, these various centres sustained a range of community activities such as church groups, sporting clubs and farmers' organisations. The result was a complex web of relationships, linking the community together.

Transport patterns were also very different. The coast was not then linked together by railway, so that for many journeys it was easier and faster for passengers and freight to travel by coastal steamer. Inland, the train was was the key form of north-south transport (east-west transport was very difficult because of the absence of good roads) channelling passengers and freight first to Morpeth and Newcastle and then, by 1907, to Sydney.

Away from the railways and steamer routes, the horse and bullock were still king, with most towns linked by stage coach with a posting station or inn every sixteen to twenty one kilometres. Growing the feed needed to feed the horses was a major local industry. In addition to the roads themselves, New England was linked by an intricate network of stock-routes, along which mobs of sheep and cattle moved continually.

These different settlement and transport patterns helped mould human thinking. Even with the fastest horse-drawn transport, the distance covered in a day was roughly equal to that covered now by car in one hour on a modern highway; tarvelling as the stock moved, that hour became a journey of more than a week.

To the New Englanders of 1907, their imediate world was huge. meausred as it was in days or even weeks of travel time.It was also more sharply focused: slower transport meant that the knowledge of the landscape was greater; insignificant valleys that today vanish in few minutes then stood out in clear relief. Beyond all this, even though there were large areas with few or no people, it was a populated world. The posting stations and inns, the slower transport that allowed travellers to stop and chat, and the many farming settlements, meant that human life was spread across the landscape.

The heightened awareness of their immediate world helped develop strong emotional attachments between people and the districts they lived in. "South of my day's circle, part of my blood's country," one of Australia's leading poets Judith Wright later wrote of the Tablelands (From "South of My Days", J Wright Collected Poems: 1942-1970, Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1975 p20).

Such strong local links strenthened local loyalties to the point where they hindered (and still do) cooperation with other towns and districts within New England. But over time they also played an important part in the development of a wider Northern loyalty.

The New Englander's perception of the large size of their immediate world was normally associated with a deep seated belief in its development potential. When this was continually frustrated, strong local loyalties were transformed into a sustained attempt to unite New England in order to radically restructure the existing governmental system.