Photo; Jo Woolmington, Mary White College, 1979
I was browsing around looking for information on the current floods in the North when I cam across some sad news, the death of Jo Woolimington (23-4-1927 to 6-12-2007 ).
The material that follows is largely drawn from John Farrell's obituary in the Armidale Express (27 December 2007). However, I have added my personal recollections to flesh the story out. You see, Jo spans many of the things that I have been talking about on this and other blogs.
Born Jean Clara Cox at Essex, England, on April 23, 1927, Jo was a daughter of working class parents, Edward and Rose Cox, and a sister of Avis, Fred, Patsy and Celia.
Her secondary schooling was at Paddington and Maida Vale High School in London during World War II, when Jo experienced first hand the Blitz and other war time conditions, including rationing.
Possessing a strong social conscience, John records that Jo was greatly influenced by her robust Christianity which urged believers to go beyond personal moral reform to promoting social reform, and she was a prominent advocate for social justice while qualifying as a teacher at Whitelands College, London.
She graduated in 1947, and the following year married Eric Richard Woolmington, a geographer. As I remember Jo's stories, it was a whirlwind romance that essentially took place over one weekend!
In 1949 .the couple emigrated to Australia where Jo taught in Sydney at Abbotsleigh and Ascham. In 1956, Eric accepted a lecturing position in the Geography Department at the University of New England and the family moved to Armidale where Jo became an active member of the community.
She was active in the Armidale Association for the Assimilation of Aborigines and with the UNE Women’s Association which acted on their concerns about the social and economic conditions and discrimination experienced by Aboriginal people.
With like-minded people Jo was active in promoting education, employment, health and housing for Aborigines in Armidale.
She also used her dramatic talents, being a co-founder of the University Players which would produce two major productions each year in the Armidale Town Hall. Her production of East Lynn was the first to use the stage machinery at the UNE Arts Theatre. I also think that she was active first in the Armidale Theatre Club.
I must have met Jo soon after they arrived in Armidale, because she became friendly with my mother and used to drop in at home for coffee. I thought her a nice person, although I knew Eric better. At that point Jo was very much a compatriot of my mother's in my mind.
John Farrell notes that Jo enrolled at UNE, studying English in 1963 and History in 1964, while simultaneously teaching at NEGS from 1964 to 1967.
Now I think that John's dates are not quite right here, for Jo did History I with me in 1963. One of our first if not the first assignments was to prepare a summary of some work by Gordon Childe on prehistory - Jo did hers in poetry!
From then on I had a lot to do with Jo as she switched from Mum's to my friend. This was an interesting period to be at UNE in general, almost a golden time in the History Department.
The Department was very strong indeed. Mick Williams was one Professor, Russell Ward a second. Among others, Ted Tapp was pursuing his thoughts on the philosophy of history, Len Turner on military history, while Isabel McBryde had begun her pioneering work on the Australian Aborigines.
As a part time student with a family and a job, Jo could not join in all the things that we full time students did, including spending much time at our table in the Union arguing religion, politics, life and society. But she was there a fair bit of the time.
In 1965 Jo offered her house for seminars for the third year history honours group. There in the back room with its open fire, we held our seminars on the American Revolution, often side-tracking into other topics. In 1966 we all did honours together. Somewhere I have a photo of our table at the 1967 Graduation Ball, including Jo.
I mentioned that at first I knew Eric better.
On Sunday 23 February 1958, the Belshaw Block at UNE burnt down. Poor Eric. His PhD thesis was due to be submitted the following day. All copies were stored in the Belshaw Block and all were lost.
He started again. His new topic was an examination of the geographical scope of support for the New England New State Movement. This was finally finished in 1963 and the degree awarded.
In 1961 I did geography honours for the Leaving Certificate, getting into the top group in the state. As part of this, I had to do a local study. Eric helped me here. But as a strong New England New Stater, I was also interested in his geographic analysis of the movement.
Eric's central thesis was that New England was a marchland area, an area of economic competition between Sydney and Brisbane. Using a variety of techniques, he attempted to measure the natural economic boundary and then compared this to the actual boundary. The natural economic boundary lay far to the south of the actual boundat. He suggested that this area of overlap, contested territory, represented the natural heart of the movement.
He then looked at a whole variety of measurements to test movement support, relating this to his original thesis. In doing so, he painted a very accurate picture of the voting patterns that were to happen four years later in the 1967 New State Plebescite.
Eric's thinking was very influential on my own work.
In my 1966 honours thesis on the economic basis of Aboriginal life in Northern NSW. I used his model to postulate that the Northern Tablelands were a marchland area between the powerful and expanding Kamilaroi to the west and the strong Northern Coast tribes.
Later, his work formed an integral element in my own analysis of New Engalnd history. It remains powerful today when I look at the economic fragmentation and decline of Northern New South Wales, despite its apparent natural advantages.
Eric was not a new state supporter. He thought the dream unachievable, some of the logic flawed. But as he said in 1967, nobody in their right mind should vote no because it was the only thing that forced Governments to consider New England interests in any integrated way. I fear that he was right.
At the time that I am writing about, Erica and Jo's marriage was breaking up and Eric would leave Armidale, dieing in 1995.
In 1968 Jo successfully applied for appointment as tutor in the History Department. By then, I was living in Canberra. However, on most of my regular visits back to Armidale I took time to visit her, sometimes meeting with others like Brian Harrison. In fact, the last time I saw Brian was at Jo's house.
In 1972 Jo took up an active role in the Women’s Electoral Lobby. I remember this well, because I ran for Country Party pre-selection for Armidale in that year. Jo therefore interviewed me in my new role as pre-selection candidate.
I actually supported WEL, but I also knew that Jo's support for the Labor Party verged on the theological.
After talking for a bit, I said: "Jo, no matter what I say in answer to your questions, am I right in thinking it doesn't matter so far as your vote is concerned?" She laughed and said "James, I think that's right." We proceeded on that basis.
In 1973 Jo became acting principal of Mary White College at UNE , and was the principal from 1978 to 1982. Here I came in contact with her again while back in Armidale as a postgraduate student.
Jo's sensitivity to the Aboriginal cause, and its ambivalent relationship with Christianity, focused her research for two decades on the Aboriginal situation and the state of religion in the first half of the 19th century.
In 1973 Jo published a book of collected documents, Aborigines in Colonial Society, 1788-1850, still an excellent resource for anyone studying in the field. Her PhD thesis, ‘Early Christian Missions to the Australian Aborigine: a study in failure’ was completed in 1979.
In 1985 Jo was appointed a lecturer, then senior lecturer. She tells her own story up to 1987 in a chapter in a book titled The New England Experience, edited by Margaret Ann Franklin.
Jo joined with Dr Bruce Mitchell in 1988 – the bicentennial of white settlement in Australia – to present the first course on the history of Aborigines and their interaction with whites.
In this last period I was back in Armidale yet again, this time running a consulting business. Busy with business and family, I saw far far less of her than I had in the past.
After retiring from UNE Jo remained in Armidale. The last time I saw her was by accident in the main street on a fleeting trip.
She is survived by her two children, Jonathan and Nicola, as well as some members of her own family. I will remember her.