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

Thursday, March 05, 2015

History revisited - reflecting back on our history

FIRST OF ITS KIND: St John's Theological College was the North's first tertiary institution.
Continuing my story of New England historiography, the history of history in New England, the last decades of the nineteenth century saw a burgeoning interest in Australian history. Australia as a nation did not yet exist, but each of the colonies wished to promote their own achievements, while there was an evolving sense of national identity.

In 1880, for example, the text books introduced into NSW schools contained a segment on Australian history. That same year saw the founding of the Bulletin magazine. In 1901, the Royal Australian Historical Society was established, publishing its own journal from 1908.

This was also a period of considerable intellectual curiosity in areas such as ethnography and anthropology and of a belief in self improvement leading to the creation of school of arts and mechanics institutes. These trends were reflected in Northern New South Wales.

In the Clarence Valley, for example, Thomas Bawden, as President of the School of Arts, gave three lectures in 1886 on the early history of Grafton. His collection of newspaper clippings and personal notes eventually filled 63 volumes. By 1906, the Grafton Daily Examiner was calling for the establishment of a local museum.

In 1898, St John’s Theological College (the North’s first tertiary institution was established in Armidale to train clergy. In 1918 E H Burgman was appointed Rector, the following year A P Elkin was appointed Deputy Warden, bringing to Armidale two men who were to play major roles in the development of Australian thought.

Later, in 1926, Armidale would lose the College to Morpeth in the Hunter. From its base there and especially through its Morpeth Journal, the College would have a significant impact on Australian thought through the 1930s.

Local newspapers began to publish historical pieces, while settler’s reminiscences started to appear.

Of especial importance from the viewpoint of New England’s Aboriginal peoples was the work of R H Mathews.

Born in 1841, Mathews worked as a surveyor across Northern NSW and into Queensland. In 1872, he married Tamworth girl Mary Sylvester Bartlett.

Mathew’s work drew as surveyor and magistrate drew him into contact with Aboriginal people. From around 1890, he began to document the language and social structures of the Aborigines with a particular focus on Northern NSW and Southern Queensland, creating a resource that would be of increasing importance.

All this work was laying the basis for later studies, but it remained localised and fragmented. Events were now to occur that would create the basis for the emergence of an integrated, influential and arguably unique New England historiographic tradition.

I will look at this in my next column. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 25 February 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.

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