Google Street View, c.1872: Hill End

The cover photograph for my blog was taken by my husband at Hill End, a  designated ‘Historic Site’ in country New South Wales.  It’s a fascinating place, well-known to anyone who grew up in Sydney and traipsed out there on a school excursion.  The township sits high in the Central Tablelands, 300km northwest of Sydney. We visited Hill End for the second time a couple of years ago, and I wrote this review as an assessment for my Masters unit ‘Making Histories Public.’

Hill End Historic Site owes much to the Holtermann Collection—the photographs taken by Beaufoy Merlin and and his assistant Charles Bayliss, who were later employed by the successful gold miner Bernhardt Holtermann. Merlin and Bayliss’ work has been compared with Google’s Street View; they travelled through Victoria and New South Wales in the 1860-70s systematically photographing every building in towns “of any importance.”(1) In 1872, Hill End was reputedly NSW’s largest inland settlement, boasting a population of over 10,000.

The starting point for a visit to Hill End is the Museum & Visitor Centre, housed in what was once the Hospital. From the Museum, visitors can either follow the signposted walk into town down Hospital Lane, and along tree-lined Byers Avenue to the centre of the township, or make the short drive there. Parking is easiest outside the Royal Hotel at the top of Clarke Street, and the large map is a good starting point for the walk around town. Clarke Street was the commercial hub of gold rush Hill End and is the focus of the displays; few buildings remain on either side of the street, but there are plaques placed along its length, each with a photograph of the building which stood on that spot in 1872.  In some cases nothing remains, but in places the outline of foundation stones peek through the weeds, or occasionally an entire building remains (as in my cover shot), usually in a state of disrepair.  There’s very little interpretative labeling on the plaques, which simply contain the photograph and name of the establishment. The handful of plaques with more information are written in a light tone, such as this outside a hotel,

“It’s true…there really was an oyster salon here in 1872. Fresh (?) oysters were brought up from Sydney in lead lined cases…would you have been game to try them?”

While the photographs successfully bring to life the short boom period in Hill End’s past, the fact that the visitor experience to the town is so bound up with the photographs tends to highlight above all else the sense of loss associated with the boom and bust story. What of the sense of loss of the original Wiradjuri inhabitants? The over-riding narrative at the Site reflects the historiography of Hill End—that of the short-lived gold rush and the subsequent sense of loss when the rush moved elsewhere.(2) But Hill End’s history is more complicated than simply telling one story. The Site misses the opportunity to tell the other stories.

A walk around Hill End today is an evocative experience. The fact that the exhibition is the town means the visitor walks around in the outdoors, exposed to the elements just as the gold-rush miners were, with the soundtrack of buzzing flies and the occasional dog barking. The almost eery quiet of the town accentuates the sense of loss evident from juxtaposing photographs of a bustling, booming town with vacant blocks and derelict buildings.  Visitors are not roped off from the exhibit—free to tramp over foundations, or to pick up a rusty nail that once held two beams together.  It was this raw quality which attracted Australian post-war artists including Donald Friend and Russell Drysdale. Drysdale’s “The Cricketers” (1948) sets three figures against the backdrop of Hill End; it was a thrill to round a corner in the town and come across this most famous of brick walls!

A trip to Hill End is well worthwhile. It’s an immersive experience for adults and children alike, plus there’s the added bonus of a nearby river where it’s still possible to pan for (specks of) gold.

Russell Drysdale, ‘The cricketers’, 1948.  Private collection, © Estate of Russell Drysdale.

Russell Drysdale, ‘The cricketers’, 1948. Private collection, © Estate of Russell Drysdale.

(1) Alan Davies, “The Greatest Wonder of the World: Exhibition Guide”, State Library of New South Wales, 2013.

(2) Alan Mayne, Hill End: An Historic Australian Goldfields Landscape (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2003): 39-43.

For more information on Hill End or the Holtermann Collection:

Keast Burke, Gold and Silver: An Album of Hill End and Gulgong Photographs from the Holtermann Collection. Melbourne: William Heinemann Australia, 1973.

http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/discover_collections/society_art/photography/holtermann/

http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/hill-end-historic-site

Archive envy

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I’ve just finished Stephen Foster’s A Private Empire, which I learnt so much from—as an historian, a writer and a reader. A Private Empire charts five generations of the Macphersons of Blairgowrie, Perthshire, a family which could be described as landed gentry, except as the narrative traces their vicissitudes, we see that the Macphersons’ hold on this status was sometimes tenuous. Foster had access to the family archive begun in the eighteenth century by the current laird’s great-great-great-grandfather. This is family history, but writ large. The richness of the archive, combined with Foster’s wonderfully accessible prose, and his skilful distillation of historical context, have resulted in a family history which can tell a far wider story than ‘simply’ the family tree. As the blurb on the book says, A Private Empire “explores Britain’s imperial past through the eyes and experiences of a single family.”

With access to the family’s letters and diaries, as well as account books, legal documents and more, Foster takes the reader behind the scenes of the Macphersons’ imperial lives, so that as well as learning about the careers of the leading men of each generation, we gain an insight into how those men felt about their careers, and their families, and the imperial spaces they inhabited—in the West Indies, India and colonial Australia. It is this private sense of empire which so drew me to the book. We see, for example, the frustration of Allan Macpherson as he fails time and again to obtain the promotions he seeks within the East India Company in the 1770s; and the similar sense of frustration his grandson Allan endured as he tried to establish himself as a pastoralist in colonial New South Wales one hundred years later. Foster also managed to elucidate the lives of the women of the family, many of whom led extraordinary lives, criss-crossing the empire. My favourite narrative which winds its way through the book is that of William Macpherson’s first family—with the slave woman ‘Countess’—founded in Berbice, British Guiana at the dawn of the nineteenth century. I will say no more for fear of spoiling the story for future readers!

The book, published by Pier 9, is beautifully produced. It’s available on Kindle, but the contemporary paintings and photographs reproduced throughout make it worthwhile tracking down the hard-copy book itself. According to the judge’s report for the 2011 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (for which the book was shortlisted), “underlying A Private Empire is substantial research – in Britain, Australia, India and America – and Foster weaves the primary source material through his narrative to masterly effect.” I couldn’t agree more.

Finding women in the archives

Late last year I attended a public lecture by Dr Noeline Kyle, an Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney, who has been working with and supporting family historians for many years. Dr Kyle discussed her recently published book Finding Florence, Maude, Matilda, Rose: Researching and writing women into family history. This is an update of her 1986 book We Should’ve Listened to Grandma. The lecture was directed at the family historian, so there was plenty of practical advice—which gave me lots to think about in researching my own family history, but also with my PhD project in mind.

My great great grandparents. Source: Judy Deane, Ancestry.com

Finding Florence is essentially a guide to finding women in the archives, with a focus on the women who didn’t make newspaper headlines. The book contains long lists of public records to search for traces of women in the past, such as educational archives, and government record-keepers for women who might have worked in the ‘female’ professions of teaching, healthcare and social welfare.

I was particularly interested in Dr Kyle’s discussion of what she calls a “circle strategy.” As women can be largely absent from the archival record, she suggested investigating the biographies of close siblings, parents, other relatives such as cousins, and friends, neighbours and work colleagues. This may be a laborious task, but as Dr Kyle said, our ancestors often lived in close proximity to extended family and community members—so newspaper obituaries (for example) for neighbours and relatives  might yield a nugget of information about a woman we know little else about. So too, the records of primary schools, community and religious organisations. The book would be of great use to researchers in Australia, as well as the UK and Ireland, as Dr Kyle has experience of researching in archives for all of these locations.

I went to the lecture with a friend who’s done extensive research into her own family tree, far more than I have. The budding historian in me was thrilled to hear her say that Dr Kyle’s lecture had made her realise why she’s found it so much harder to gain a clear picture of her female ancestors, than for the men in her family tree. Students of history will be familiar with the project of social history to raise marginalised groups (whether on the basis of gender, class, ethnicity, ability etc) from obscurity. Whether consciously or not, non-academic, hobbyist family historians seeking to elucidate the lives of their female ancestors, are chipping away at the obscurity that many women have suffered at the hands of official histories, and archival practices of the past. Just another reason why family history is such an admirable pursuit!

Noeline Kyle, Finding Florence, Maude, Matilda, Rose: Researching and writing women into family history. Published by Unlock the Past, 2014.http://www.gould.com.au/Finding-Florence-Maude-Matilda-Rose-Women-FH-p/utp0321.htm

Lego in Museums

Acropolis

Lego Acropolis. (c) Richard McLaren

As a regular museum-goer in Sydney, usually with a small child in tow, I’ve been well-aware of the appearance of Lego in museums over the past couple of years. I believe the University of Sydney’s Nicholson Museum set the trend, with their Lego Colosseum display back in 2012. Next was Lego Acropolis, which the Nicholson recently donated to the Acropolis Museum in Athens, where it is now on display.  The current Lego model on display is Pompeii.  All three models are the work of Ryan McNaught, a Sydney-based Lego certified professional. The Acropolis, Colosseum and Pompeii all incorporate elements of the sites in the past, as well as how they appear today. So the current model shows Pompeii as it was at its moment of destruction in 79AD,  as well as when it was rediscovered in the 18th Century, and as it is today. http://sydney.edu.au/museums/exhibitions-events/lego-pompeii.shtml The Nicholson proudly declares its commitment to Kids in Museums. And the Lego models really do provide an accessible entry point into ancient history for young children (and are an entertaining display for adults too). In conjunction with the Nicholson’s small but beautifully displayed collection of art and artefacts from the period, ancient Greece and Rome have really come to life. We’ve also recently been to Sydney Living Museum’s Towers of Tomorrow exhibition, which has been extended due to popular demand. The exhibition is testament to the architecture and design elements of sky-scrapers around the world, as well as a fun way to spark creativity—and awe—in children and adults alike. As well as the display, there are banks of tables with piles and piles of lego bricks. Entry to the exhibition is for a set time (I think about 45 minutes), which means that after looking at the display, visitors can pull up a stool and build their own lego creations, before the session ends and the next group of visitors enters. To be honest, I didn’t really understand the connection between Sydney’s history (which is the theme of the Museum), and Lego skyscrapers, but I presume the exhibition has managed to draw in some first-time visitors to the museum. It’s certainly a fun way to spend an hour with a Lego-mad child. I did learn something about big buildings too!Towers of Tomorrow SLM IMG_2509

A mystery solved – Photographs from the Australia Station

Australian National Maritime Museum

A Pacific island scene from a photograph album of images by a Royal Navy officer on the Australia Station around 1910 A Pacific island scene from a photograph album of images by a Royal Navy officer on the Australia Station around 1910

Jennifer McLaren is a Masters of Research student at Macquarie University who has been working as a museum volunteer assisting with research for the upcoming Test of War – Royal Australian Navy in WWI exhibition. Here she recounts a search to find the people behind a set of early 20th century photograph albums in the museum’s library collection.

The upcoming Test of War exhibition will showcase some photographs from the personal collection of a British Royal Navy officer posted to the Australia Station in the years before World War I. When the Australian National Maritime Museum Vaughan Evans Library acquired the photograph albums from an antique bookseller, they came with no record as to who had owned them or taken the photographs – their origin was a mystery.

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The Power of Audio: Presenting the Past

A cornerstone of this week’s New South Wales History Week was Presenting the Past: A Symposium on History and the Media, held at the State Library of New South Wales. The symposium has its own blog which will soon feature detailed reviews of the sessions. Suffice to say I came away from the Symposium inspired about the potential for public history, education and story-telling!

What I’ve been thinking about most since the symposium is the power of audio. As Michelle Rayner, Executive Producer of ABC Radio National’s history program Hindsight said, radio is undergoing a renaissance in the age of the podcast. The possibilities for using radio and audio for history teaching, story-telling and for connecting with the public are enormous. History programming on radio is no longer the ephemeral thing of the past, once heard, often forgotten (unless of course you had your tape recorder at the ready to record a program…)

Dr Siobhan McHugh’s presentation during the Radio Panel in particular evoked the power of audio. She argued her case for the need to connect emotionally as well as intellectually with an audience using the medium she is so passionate about.  We heard clips from radio documentaries she’d made about the Snowy Hydro scheme, with the rich variety of voices and accents  of the Scheme’s workers; from Beagle Bay, which featured the voices of a child of the stolen generation, and one of the Irish nuns who cared for the children.  Siobhan’s excerpt from Marrying Out reminded me of stories my Mum has told me of growing up Catholic in small-town NSW. But the most powerful piece for me  was an excerpt from a program about Vietnam, in which an army nurse described cradling a soldier as he died. It took enormous self-control not to dissolve into tears in the midst of the symposium. I suspect I wasn’t alone in that.

 This experience took me back to a lecture that the late great Dr Tom Stannage delivered in my first-year Australian history course at UWA in 1988. I will never forget the recording he played of Aboriginal women describing the day their children were taken from them, talking about how the children’s footprints remained on the sandy ground of their huts long after they were gone. It was the most powerful lecture I have ever attended—of course that has to do with the lecturer’s skill, and the emotive subject matter, but it was the voices of those mothers that remain with me to this day.

Attending the Symposium reminded me I hadn’t listed to Hindsight for a while, so I listened yesterday to The Catalpa Escape, which aired about a month ago. My connection with that story and the hold it has over me is probably the subject of another blogpost, but hearing the voices in that audio as they discussed a story I so love gave me goosebumps. Historians can  reach different people in different ways, for me audio seems to evoke a deep-seated response… Surely the aim of any public history project.

http://www.mchugh.org/index.html

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/hindsight/the-catalpa/4806338

http://histmedia2013.wordpress.com

Out of Work: A VC’s relief

Out of Work: A VC’s Relief

In 2012 Professor Bruce Scates gave an interesting interview about ANZAC Day: http://www.abc.net.au/classic/content/2012/04/20/3480525.htm  Listening it to again got me thinking about what ANZAC Day means,  how it’s commemorated, and how that commemoration has evolved over time.

Prof Scates mentioned a soldier who had been awarded a Victoria Cross after Gallipoli, but returned from war a pacifist. Hugo Throssell’s VC was recommended for “most conspicuous gallantry” during operations on the Kaiajik Aghala (Hill 60) at Gallipoli. On his return to Australia, he was invited to open a war memorial but shocked the attendees by proceeding to advocate pacifism in his keynote speech.  I was intrigued, having grown up in WA I’d never heard of Throssell.  A quick search of Trove took me to this article about  his return to WA— subtitled “Out of work, but never so pleased to lose a job in my life.”  http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article37605106  The journalist hoped Throssell would share his story in public…that he did in a way.

Throssell was a well-connected West Australian. He was the son of a former Premier, and married to the novelist Katharine Susannah Pritchard. A war hero, he was destined to remain in the public eye. Perhaps post-war Perth wasn’t quite ready for his message.  Sadly, Throssell took his own life in 1933. Like many veterans he struggled with the physical and psychological scars of war, never really recovering.

As Prof Scates said, ANZAC day is a day of remembering. But it’s not just the ‘conspicuously brave’, or those who died on the battlefield that we should remember. It is the myriad of stories,  with twists and turns like Throssell’s, that comprise the ANZAC tradition. Lest we forget.

Napoleon – On the Defensive?

I’m looking forward to seeing the National Gallery of Victoria’s Napoleon exhibition in Melbourne in a couple of weeks. I studied Napoleon earlier this year and while I had the chance to re-assess his actions and legacy, I’m not sure I really changed my mind about him. But I did realise just how much I had been brought up with the ‘English’ version of Napoleon.

I scoffed audibly during a lecture when I read Napoleon’s words “Is there any point on which I could be attacked and which a historian could not take up my defence? My intentions perhaps? He has evidence enough to clear me. My despotism? He can prove that dictatorship was absolutely necessary. Will it be said that I restricted freedom? He will be able to prove that licence, anarchy, and general disorder were still on our doorstep. Shall I be accused of having loved war too much? He will show that I was always on the defensive.” (From The Mind of Napoleon: A Selection from his Written and Spoken Words, edited and translated by J.Christopher Herold (Columbia University Press, 1995)).

Always on the defensive?? But to put Napoleon’s early years in context, he was ‘installed’ at the point at which the Revolution was in danger of falling apart. France was surrounded by monarchies and Empires desperate to defeat the upstart revolutionary, ‘new’ nation. Napoleon fought the war to save the Revolution on many fronts. He succeeded in salvaging the Revolution. So initially he can perhaps justifiably claim to have been on the defensive. Unfortunately he went on to instal himself as Emperor and to sacrifice the lives of countless young men in his pointless push into Russia – it is for this military debacle that he is perhaps best known in England.

Napoleon was and remains a polarising figure. I look forward to seeing what the NGV makes of him.

http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/