Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 9 March 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.
I don’t know if you realise this, but there seem to be two Armidales. Or so the ABC seems to think.
The first is the city I know on the Northern Tablelands. Then there is another apparently similar place that the ABC keeps referring too somewhere in the North West; as best I can work out, it must be somewhere between Tamworth and Moree.
Now this may seem to be a petty complaint, although it makes me quite cranky.
First of all, it’s factually incorrect. If you are going to say that Armidale is in the North West, then Mittagong or Queanbeyan are in the NSW South West. Nobody says that. It would just sound silly.
Beyond that, names and location are actually quite important.
I am presently writing a history of a place that doesn’t exist. I call it New England. But what is New England?
As European settlement extended north from Sydney, everything from the southern edge of the Hunter Valley north was called variously the Northern Districts, Northern Provinces or just the North. Within this, there were a variety of recognised areas such as the Northern or New England Tablelands, the Hunter Valley or the Darling Downs.
The successful fight for self-government by Moreton Bay, now Queensland, put a boundary line through the North. Now the Northern Districts, Northern Provinces or just the North finished at the Queensland border.
The fight for self-government for Northern NSW that began once it was clear that the Northern Rivers and Tablelands had been excluded from the new colony introduced a new qualification.
By the way, did you know that the fight for Northern or New England self-government is the longest running political agitation in Australian history? It’s been going on and off now for 160 years. That’s longer than most of the self-government or independence movements around the world!
The self-government movement called for self government for the North. Initially, this included the Tablelands and Northern Rivers, but then extended to include what we would now call the Mid North Coast and then the Manning Valley and part of the Hunter.
In, I think, 1888, a public meeting in Newcastle formed a branch of the Decentralisation League to join the campaign against metro dominance.
This League is, by the way, the first use I have found of the word decentralisation. It is also the first record I have found of Newcastle new state arguments.
To the people at that meeting, the North included Newcastle and the Hunter. So now we have two Norths, one including Newcastle, the other not.
The first use of the name New England to describe the broader new state North dates to 1931. Then the Armidale Convention of the Northern New State or Separation Movement adopted the name New England for the whole area.
Initially the boundaries excluded Newcastle, but were then formally extended to include the whole Hunter. Now the full North and New England were identical.
When the New State Movement was reformed following the end of the Second World War, the Armidale Convention that relaunched the Movement put the proposed name for the new state to a floor vote. New England was the majority choice. The proposed boundaries were also set to included the Hunter.
Again, New England and the North coincided, with a single geographic definition.
As the campaign proceeded, the need to distinguish between Tablelands and the broader area became more pronounced. The New England came to describe the Tablelands, New England to describe the broader new state area.
In 1967, the new state plebiscite was lost on the no vote in the southern dairy farming and industrial electorates. The Movement redrew the boundaries to largely exclude the no voting areas.
Now we again have two different versions of the North, but also three of New England: the broader new state New England as previously defined, the new state New England as now defined and the Tablelands.
Is it any wonder that people got confused?
Since then the position has got worse as time and changing administrative structures have further distorted thinking.
I chose the word distort very deliberately. However, I am going to deal with that in a separate column.
At this point, I want to return to my problems as an historian in writing a history of a place that doesn’t exist.
Just what names do I use and when? How do I explain those names?