Saturday, November 20, 2010

What's in a name - the case of New England

It's very interesting the way definitions affect perceptions. The use and abuse of the name New England in Australia is a case in point, one that causes me constant problems.

Growing up, there were two New England's. The first, often called the New England, covered the Northern or New England Tablelands. The second, the name of the prospective new state, covered the Tablelands and the surrounding river valleys in NSW including the Hunter River.Flag

This map from the Sydney Morning Herald (1954) shows the boundaries of the broader New England as I knew them. This was also the map used on the back of new state envelopes and in publicity material.

When I began this blog to record, discuss and promote the life, culture and history of New England, I automatically used the broader definition. These are, with a few exceptions, the broader boundaries that set the geographic coverage of the history I am writing at the present time.

However, I now find that I face a real and continuing problem in the active denial of the validity of my use of the word New England.

The Wikipedia page on New England (New South Wales) can be taken as an example. While a little of the wording from my first personal edit explaining the broader concept,survives, my wording keeps on being edited to get rid of or limit any explanation or discussion of the broader concept. There, and in other discussions, there is an active denial that my use of the word New England has any validity. So let's look at a few facts.

The New England Tablelands, Australia's largest tablelands, does not as is often presented finish at the Queensland border, but extends into Queensland. If you want to talk about the New England region of NSW then it stops at the border. If you want to talk about the Tablelands in geographic terms, then you need to include the small portion in Queensland. Its actually very hard to find material on the Tablelands as a whole because of border truncation.

One of the issues I faced in defining the coverage of my general history was just how to treat the state border. It makes no sense to use a line on the map when that line did not exist for the Aborigines or for the early European settlers. For that reason, I define the broad field as the Tablelands and the river valleys to the east, west, south and north flowing from the Tablelands, linked geographic units. Once the border goes through and acquires political meaning, my focus narrows because of the political and other impacts of the border. Even then, I still have to deal with some Queensland issues.

One side effect of this is that I cannot call the book a history of Northern NSW because it both is and isn't.

Initially, the areas covered by the book were called variously the North, Northern Districts or Northern Provinces, a geographical descriptor obviously based on relative location to Sydney. The area covered by these terms essentially covered the area from but including the Hunter north and initially extended into what is now Queensland.

From the 1850s, the emergence of various pushes for self government for the North introduced another set of boundary issues, for the borders proposed varied over time. The early twentieth century movements all used the term the North, but the discussed boundaries often excluded the Hunter and sometimes the Manning. So now we have two if varying definitions of the North.

I had thought that the first recorded use of the name New England for the whole area came at the Maitland Convention in April 1931. However, I was wrong. It was the precursor Armidale convention in February 1931 that decided that the name New England should be applied to the whole area seeking self-government. The boundaries set included the whole North with the exception of a small area around Newcastle, with the proposed boundaries dissecting the Hunter.From this time, the name New England as well as the North came to be used for a variety of purposes.

The 1935 Nicholas Commission recommended boundaries for New England that included all the Hunter, but cut out some parts of the far west. These boundaries were accepted by the movement, 

New state agitation died down, but then resumed again at the end of the war. Again, the naming issue was addressed. At the 1949 Armidale convention delegates considered a range of names. New England topped the poll with seventy five votes, followed by Oxley with thirty-one. Use of the name New England to describe the whole of the North in a particular context continued.

Following the defeat at the 1967 plebiscite, the movement maintained the name but redefined the boundaries to exclude the Hunter. There were now three geographic versions of New England, again two versions of the North. When the movement collapsed exhausted, use of the name New England progressively contracted towards the Tablelands. The name North continued if, in a somewhat attenuated form, to describe the whole area up to the Queensland border.

All this creates considerable complications from my viewpoint.

At a purely personal level, I continue to use the names New England and the North interchangeably as I have done all my life, using the term that makes the most sense at the time.

At a professional level, I use the term New England in discussions on developments prior to 1788. It's not a perfect term, after all it is a European descriptor, but it has the advantage of geographic specificity. From 1788 to 1931 I generally use the term the North since that was the most common descriptor unless the context demands another term. After 1931, I use both New England and the North, with the term used depending upon the context.

At both a professional and personal level, I find that I get annoyed when people want to apply current usage to the past despite the sometimes invalidity of so doing.

New England is not just the Tablelands. The North is not just Northern NSW. The New England Tablelands do not finish at the Queensland border. And so it goes on.          

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