Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why Newcastle is important to self-government

  I realise that I have been running a lot of Newcastle and Hunter material - the two are not the same! - on this blog, to the point that one link classified me as a Newcastle region blogger! 

I want to make a comment on why Newcastle is important to New England. But first an excerpt from my original PhD thesis on the life of David Henry Drummond. Comments follow at the end. The photo shows Newcastle Harbour in 1900. Newcastle steam and sail c 1900

"In 1907 Northern New South Wales was, in relative terms, an important part of Australia. Its population was then around 400,000, only one-third less than that of Queensland, roughly equal to that of South Australia, and far higher than the population of Western Australia or Tasmania.[1] One New South Welshman in four, and thus just under one Australian in ten, lived in the North. The local world that these people knew was in many ways very different from that existing today.[2] The biggest urban concentrations in the North were, and still are, in the lower Hunter Valley: this area includes the North's biggest city, Newcastle, which had a population of 59,319 in 1911, as well as Maitland (12,377) and Cessnock (5,102). Coal was dominant in the lower Hunter, with the mines providing the main source of income. As a result the very texture of life was different from that found elsewhere in the North. Newcastle, along with Bunbury in Western Australia, was one of the last Australian ports in which sail was still a rival to steam.[3] The tall ships in the river, the lumpers who loaded them, the boarding-house proprietors who looked after and exploited the sailors, and the merchants who supplied the ships all helped create a different atmosphere. But beyond all this was the stark reality of a life dominated by the harsh rhythm of the mines. The end result was a close-knit, inward-looking and clannish community which had little in common with, and less understanding of, life elsewhere in the north. This lack of understanding was fully shared by those living further north, for they distrusted and even feared the mining and industrial interests of the lower Hunter: the tensions flowing from these differences form one of the themes of Northern history.

Further north, the population structure was very different from that existing today. Although there were at least fourteen urban centres with populations exceeding 2,000, the main towns were very much smaller. Lismore, the largest centre in 1911, had a population of only 7,381, while there were only three urban areas with populations between 5,000 and 8,000. Equally importantly, the countryside had not then been depopulated. The rural population, that is people living on farms and in centres with a population of less than 600, varied from area to area but generally made up between 43 and 60 per cent of the total population.[4] A further 16 to 23 per cent lived in towns and villages whose populations ranged between 600 and 2,000, while the proportion living in the bigger urban centres themselves ranged from 17 to 41 per cent.

The end result was a diversified population structure, ranged in a distinct hierarchy. At one extreme was the locality or rural district, whose total populations could reach several hundred. Such localities were usually, as at Arding near Uralla, centred on the school, church and tennis courts. At the other extreme were the larger towns such as Lismore, offering a relatively wide range of urban services. In the middle came a variety of towns and villages. These ranged from small settlements with perhaps just a hotel, bakery and general store, to mining centres based on tin and gold, to timber towns nestling in the hills with their small collections of unpainted weatherboard houses huddled around the mill, to medium size towns offering a wider range of services to the surrounding countryside. No matter how small, these centres generally sustained a range of community activities, such as church groups, sporting clubs and farmers' organisations. The result was a complex web of relationships, linking together both those living within the communities and the communities themselves.

Associated with this different population structure were very different transport patterns. The coast was not then linked together by railway, so that for many journeys it was easier and faster for passengers and freight to travel by coastal steamer. Inland, the train was the key form of transport, channelling passengers and freight first to Morpeth (originally the main river port on the Hunter) and Newcastle, and then, by 1907, to Sydney. However, away from the railways and steamer routes, the horse and bullock were still king. The first cars had begun to appear, but most towns were still linked by stage coach, with a posting station or inn every sixteen to twenty-one kilometres. In addition to the roads themselves, the North was linked by an intricate web of stock-routes, along which mobs of sheep and cattle moved continually.

These different settlement and transport patterns helped mould human thinking. Even with the fastest horse-drawn transport, the distance covered in a day was roughly equal to that covered by car in one hour on a modern highway; travelling as the stock moved, that hour's drive becomes a journey of more than a week. To the Northerners of 1907, their immediate world was huge, measured as it was in days, or even weeks, of travelling time. It was also more sharply focused: slower transport meant that the knowledge of the landscape was greater; insignificant valleys that today vanish in a few minutes then stood out in clear relief. Beyond all this, even though there were large areas with few or no people, it was a populated world. The posting stations and inns, the slower transport that allowed travellers to stop and chat, and the many farming settlements, meant that human life was spread across the landscape.

The heightened awareness of their immediate world helped develop strong emotional attachments between people and the districts they lived in. 'South of my days' circle, part of my blood's country,' Judith Wright later wrote of the Tablelands.[5] Such emotional links strengthened local loyalties to the point where they hindered cooperation with other towns or districts within the North. But over time they also played an important part in the development of a wider Northern loyalty. The Northerners' perception of the large size of their immediate local world was normally associated with a deep-seated belief in its development potential. When this was continually frustrated, strong local loyalties were transformed into a sustained attempt to unite the North in order to radically restructure the existing governmental system. For David Drummond, who gave his total love and loyalty to the North, this fight would provide the central cause of his political life.

[1]The North's ill-defined boundaries make population estimates difficult. In 1924 the North's population, based on 1921 census data and excluding the lower Hunter but including a greater proportion of the western area, was estimated at 359,000. (Report of the Royal Commission Of Inquiry into Proposals for the Establishment of a New State or New States, formed wholly or in part out of the present territory of the State of New South Wales, Government Printer, Sydney, 1925, p.19.) Adjusting this figure downwards by deleting the population growth in the main Northern towns (ex lower Hunter) during the period 1911 to 1921 (6,000), and then adding the lower Hunter main town population in 1911 (76,000), gives a Northern population estimate for 1911 of about 429,000; in these circumstances 400,000 for 1907 seems a reasonable population approximation. New South Wales as a whole had a population of 1.4 million at the 1901 census and 1.6 million at the 1911 Census. Population figures are taken from: Official Year Book of New South Wales, No. 56, Government Printer, Sydney, 1959, pp.65-66; R. Ward, A Nation For A Continent: the history of Australia 1901-1975, Heinemann Educational Australia, Richmond, 1977, p.446.

[2]The description of life in the North contained in the following paragraphs has been compiled from a variety of sources. A detailed list is set out in the bibliography; the following references are some of the main ones. For autobiographical accounts see: R.J. Doolin, A Boy From The Bush Goes To Town, Published by the author, North Star, 1973; A.E. Cosh, Jumping Kangaroos, Devill Publicity, Armidale, 1978; P.A. Wright, Memories of a Bushwacker, University of New England, Armidale, 1971; and E.C.G. Page, Truant Surgeon: The Inside Story of Forty Years of Australian Political Life, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1963. For a description of life in a smaller settlement see B.L. Cameron and J.L. McLennan, "Scots' Corner": A Local History, B.L. Cameron, Armidale, 1971. H. Brown's Tin at Tingha, Brown, Armidale, 1982, deals with life in one of the mining towns, while E. Wiedemann's World of its Own: Inverell's Early Years 1827-1920, Devill Publicity, Inverell, 1981, deals with life in a larger urban centre. N. Braithwaite and H. Beard (eds.), Pioneering in the Bellinger Valley, "The Bellinger Courier-Sun", Bellingen, 1978, give a particularly vivid feel for life on a portion of the coast. J.C. Docherty, 'The Second City. Social and Urban Change in Newcastle, New South Wales 1900-C1929', PhD thesis, Australian National University, 1977, provides an interesting analysis of Newcastle.

[3]G. Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia's History, Sun Books, South Melbourne, 1966, p.279ff.

[4]The figures in this and the next sentence are drawn from: D.A. Aitkin, The Country Party in New South Wales. A Study of Organisation and Survival, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1972, p.5. Since Aitkin's figures are mainly drawn from the 1921 census, they probably understate rural populations for the pre-war period.

[5]From 'South Of My Days', J. Wright, Collected Poems: 1942-1970, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1975, p.20."


One of the themes in the history of Northern NSW, the broader New England that I write about, are the tensions and differences between Newcastle and the areas further north. My purpose in writing in the way I did in the excerpt was to paint a scene, to set a framework, for things that would be important later.

Newcastle was always different, but always part of the North. The differences meant that those seeking self-government for New England often excluded Newcastle from the proposed area. They felt, correctly, that the political, cultural and economic differences were such that it could imperil the self-government cause. The problem was that Newcastle was part of the North, making it difficult to exclude the city.

Today, similar issues arise. To accommodate that, those of us seeking self-government for New England argue that the final boundaries must be based on the will of the people expressed through referendum. If Newcastle wants to stay part of NSW, then so be it. Further, if the difficulties involved in getting a meld, then maybe there should be two states, once centred on the Hunter, one further north. Again, it comes back to the will of the people of New England.

I write wearing different hats. When I write as an historian, I musconstruction of wool stores, Newcastlet write on the history of the North including Newcastle. It makes no sense otherwise.    

The next photo shows the construction of wool stores at Newcastle. Wool selling did not come to Newcastle because the merchants of Newcastle wanted it, although they did. It came because those further north wanted it so badly that they were able to overcome the opposition of the Sydney wool merchants.

The campaign for self-government for Northern NSW, New England, is now 160 years old. Today, a cause that seemed dead after the 1967 no vote in Newcastle and the southern coal mining and dairy electorates and the collapse of the then new state movement is slowly building. This time, there is support in Newcastle.

I am not blind to the difficulties involved in re-creating a movement that, by its nature, is opposed or even ridiculed by the status quo. We have been there before. The immediate aim now is to get another referendum. Let us vote again.

This time, however, we must have support in Newcastle. Further, and regardless of one state or two or final boundaries, we have to rebuild the links across the North. Nenco, wool selling at Newcastle, shows the way. If those further north are prepared to support Newcastle, if Newcastle people are prepared to support those further north, then real change is possible.

Idealistic? Maybe. But the existing system certainly hasn't worked.  

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