Friday, December 22, 2017

Memories of New England Christmas's past

Every New England family has its own Christmas rituals. As children, brother David and I had a fixed and very satisfying Christmas pattern.

Christmas Eve was open house at our place for mum and dad’s friends and their children.

Planning began days in advance. A suitable pine tree branch was obtained, put in an old iron pot and surrounded by packed down dirt. Mum got out the Christmas decorations from the top shelf of the linen closet to decorate the tree and the house.

Downtown, David and I visited Coles and Penneys with our money clutched in our hands to buy presents. Later, with a little more money, we might visit Armidale’s two department stores as well, but the two variety stores were cheap!

On Christmas Eve, sometimes the day before, Dad would go out to Ryan's Cordials, Armidale’s soft drink maker, to get the soft drinks and mixers. Supplies of beer and spirits were obtained. The ice was broken up and put in the laundry tub or, later, eskies.

Mum got out the special punch jug and supporting glasses, pretty glassware only used at this time of the year. She then made her special and famous punch and then the sandwiches, especially cucumber and tomato. People started arriving about 7pm. The Buzos, the Halpins, the Harrises, the Foxes and so on. We were allowed to help and played with the other kids. Then, after people left, we tidied up and finished off the last of the cucumber sandwiches.

Christmas morning David and I woke early to see what Santa had brought us. In our case, Santa filled a pillow case (none of those small stockings!) that was left on the end of our bed. There were lollies, books and loads and loads of small toys.

Years later, my own children having heard the stories also insisted on pillow cases. This tradition continued long after Santa!

Once our parents woke - usually with a bit of prodding - it was time for present exchange. Then David and I settled down to play and read.. Mid morning it was off to Fah and Gran's, a block away in Mann Street.

Mann Street - we always called it Mann Street to distinguish it from Marsh Street, our house - was a children's paradise. The house was a large weatherboard Federation located on a very large block. Originally built to face the north looking down on the town, the front of the house with its front steps dropping to the garden was in fact the back, the back the front.

Tall pine trees ran along the front and back fences, creating a paradise for children who liked to climb. I still remember the excitement when heavy snow caused branches on the trees at the front (always the better climbing trees) to crash to the street.

Looking at the house from the street, the more formal gardens faced the street. There were small single car garages to the left and the right whose rooves could be reached by nearby trees, creating vantage points for kids playing hide and seek; home was always one of the big cement pedestals marking the end of the stairs at the other end of the house.

Facing from the street, gardens ran to the left and right of the house.

On the left, the flatter side, there was a gravel path near the house then a row of shrubs and gardens, a stretch of grass then a hedge. This was the side of the house we could break into as kids because the house was lower to the ground, allowing us to climb up the foundations.

On the right, a lawn sloped down to a gravel path (we loved rolling head over heels down this lawn) and then the garden shed. This provided another vantage point for our games of hide and seek.

At the front (back), the house was high from the ground with a veranda facing the north. There were in fact verandas on the south, east and north of the house. The verandas on the west of the house had been closed in.

On the high veranda at the front there were chairs for people to sit and watch the rest of the garden, including especially the tennis court. It was here sometimes that I used to sit with Fah in the morning eating my porridge in the weak morning sun. Proud of his Scottish ancestry, he ate porridge with cream and salt, not sugar. I did the same.

From the veranda there was a short stretch of down sloping land, mainly lawn, to another hedge and then a fence marking the dividing line to the back garden. On the left was the kitchen garden, then the tennis court and a stretch of rough grass where the cow grazed when we were very young. At the back of the tennis court was a small byre for the cow, then more rough grass finishing in the pine trees. 

Back to Christmas. Upon arrival at Mann Street we exchanged presents with Fah and Gran and my aunts. This was followed by open house for my grandparent's friends and campaign workers. At the time I was born, Fah had already been a local Member of Parliament for twenty five years, so there was a constant stream of people.

Then lunch, usually a chicken from the birds my grandparents kept, with all the trimmings. The Mackellars, (Mr Mackellar managed Foreglen, Fah's property outside Armidale), always came in for Christmas with the family. At lunch, we kids always ate separately from the adults in a small sun room off the dining room, separate but still in seeing and hearing distance.

We played in the afternoon while the adults talked. I remember one year a piper came in (Fah was very proud of his Scottish ancestry) and we all gathered on the veranda while the piper strode the lawns below.

Then back home for a rest. In the late afternoon we always went up to the Halpins for a drink. Vee and Bruce were long standing friends of Mum and Dad, while brother David and I were close friends with the Halpin twins.

Finally, home for a meal of left overs.

Time passes, things change.

Mr Mackellar decides to move and Fah sells the property Our aunts get married. Then Gran is killed in a car accident. My parents think about buying Mann Street but hold off because we cannot get a good enough price for our house. Then Fah marries again, dividing Mann Street into two flats, retiring from politics soon after. I form the habit of dropping into Mann Street for a drink with Fah and Aimie. No longer a child, I listen to Fah's stories about his dreams, experiences and achievements. Then Fah dies and Mann Street is sold.

More time passes, more things change. I join the New England diaspora taking a job in Canberra.

New England has been draining its young for more than a hundred years. In the absence of self-government, it lacks the public service positions that would allow people like me to serve local interests, as well the state branch positions found in other states. We also have few major locally headquartered businesses.

All this means that New England's most ambitious young leave. Neville Crew’s 1960s’ research showed that for every one person living on the Tablelands there was one Tablelands’ born person living elsewhere. This pattern is replicated across the broader New England, from the lower Hunter to the boarder. As best as I can work out, if we count those born in the broader New England plus their immediate children, we are talking about more than a million people.

Now there is a new pattern. At Christmas time from Newcastle in the south to Lismore in the north, from Kempsey in the east through Armidale to Moree, thousands of New England's young return home to family for Christmas. Initially they travelled by train and especially the night mail trains, meeting friends on the train, later by car and plane.

These are big changes. Yet they happen in a time horizon that allows for adjustment. 

Our Christmas evening Marsh Street opening houses continue. Christmas now is a time for catching up with old friends, including especially those living elsewhere. We talked, played tennis or sometimes golf, visited the pub. Then it was over for another year.

More time, still more changes. My parents die, then Uncle Ron, destroying part of the old rituals. There is a short gap and then I return to live in Armidale with my own family, recreating the old pattern although we do spend some Christmases in Sydney with my wife's family.

As with David and I, Santa leaves presents in a pillow case on the end of the bed. There is then the excitement as the kids wake up early to see what Santa has brought them. Over breakfast we open presents to each other. Then at either lunch or dinner time it is usually off to Aunt Kay's for the main Christmas meal.

Merinda Place, Kay's home, now plays the role that used to be played by Mann Street as the aunts and often their children gather. There are now far fewer returning expatriates of my generation as their parents retire away from Armidale or die, but it is still all reassuringly familiar.

Still more time passes, still more changes.

Time periods are shortening now. After eight years in Armidale we move to Sydney so that my wife can pursue a new career, but still we mainly return to Armidale for Christmas with Kay and my other aunts. My daughters are older, but there is still all the excitement of going back, of seeing Kay and the other family.

Then one by one my aunts die including Kay. With no immediate family left in Armidale, with no family home, Christmas is now largely spent in Sydney with my wife's family. There is still the excitement especially for Helen and Clare, some things are still the same, but I do miss the old rituals and the people that formed such an important part of my life for so long.

This is the story of one family, one group. Each family has their own rituals, repeating in their own way the patterns across the generations. At this Festive time, it pays us to value what we have, to enjoy our family patterns.

I wish you and yours the best of the Festive season.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Introducing the Walcha artists

Walcha artist Ross Laurie in his studio
Monday 20 November 2017. With financial support from The Greater Bank, the New England Regional Art Museum (NERAM) took a large group of volunteers down to Walcha to experience that town’s artistic development.

Hosted by leading Walcha artists, the visit was organised by NERAM as the annual excursion for the volunteers who support NERAM’s operations, providing them with an opportunity to meet local artists and see how they work in their studios. NERAM’s Robert Heather records:
“This year with the support of a donation from The Greater Bank we could organise a much bigger bus to carry everyone from Armidale down to Walcha where we could visit the artists in their studios, take a walking tour through the Walcha Outdoor Sculpture Gallery and have a great day in a beautiful location.”
The story in the Walcha News (NERAM Volunteers visit Walcha for an artistic journey) provides a very good overview of the visit. The photos by Darrel Whan are especially good. When you look at the story, do browse the photos. I would love to have been on that trip.

To add to the story, I thought that I would tell you a little about Walcha and its artistic life.

Walcha lies in the Southern New England Tablelands, You can reach it from Tamworth (around one hours eleven minutes), Armidale (52 minutes), Gloucester (just under two hours) or Port Macquarie (two and a half hours). It’s far enough away from bigger centres to preserve its own sense of identity and remoteness, close enough that Walcha people can visit many places including the beautiful national parks near the town.

The distance is important because it has both limited the town’s growth and created a sense of distinctiveness.. The big pastoral families that dominated the town’s early growth were always seen as distinct, snobbish even, compared to those to the north.

At 1,067m, 3,501 ft, Walcha’s climate is cool, sometimes cold. This plus rain makes it a fertile area for both cattle and fine wool merino.

Like many New England towns, Walcha went through a period of decline as economic forces worked against country growth. Then decline stabilised and slow growth began again. All this makes it an unlikely place to become a significant artistic centre. However, the town has also been quite an entrepreneurial place over an extended period.

Angus Nivison, Walcha studio, painting "Star Turn" 2016.
Two things seem to have contributed to Walcha’s artistic growth.

The first was the decision by children of local families including Ross Laurie and Angus Nivison to practice their artistic craft there. The second was the decision by prominent sculptor Stephen King and his partner painter Julia Griffin to establish their base there.

In 1996, Stephen approached Walcha Council asking it to collaborate with him to create a fountain sculpture for McHattan Park in the centre of town. The decision to accept his offer and install Walcha's first sculpture lead to the suggestion by Council to form the Walcha Arts Council to facilitate an ongoing public art program.

A plan was conceived and drawn up by the Walcha Arts Council and was adopted by Council into its 1998 Management Plan. The result was the Open Air Sculpture Gallery. This now consists of 49 different pieces of art situated all around the town.
Stephen King, winning entry, Sydney's Sculpture by the Sea 2013
In parallel, other artists were drawn to the town including Kate Durack, Paula Jenkins, James Rogers and Myf Gulliver. A gallery, the Walcha Gallery of Art, was established to provide a local base for the growing artistic community.

I don’t have the knowledge to describe them all nor the resulting work, beyond noting that they have established distinct styles that reflect local conditions as well as broader artistic trends. I have talked about Julia Griffin’s work before.

Julia Griffin, Rain on the Uralla road
There is a real story here, one that that deserves broader national coverage.

To do it myself, I would need to immerse myself in Walcha, soaking up life, atmosphere and style.

Perhaps one day!

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Round up of local history stories across the New England media no 2

Photo: patrol post, Greta Migrant camp
Over on my New England History blog I have begun a regular round-up of stories from the local media on local history. This is the second in the series.
My aim is to build another resource that can be tapped to by those wishing to explore the history of New England or of their specific region or locality.

By their nature, many of these stories cannot be relied upon to be absolutely accurate, but they are useful in providing information and ideas.    

Monday, October 16, 2017

House prices in New England 2017

 Interesting piece by Jennifer Duke and Kate Burke in Allhomes, Out of breath': Newcastle, Wollongong join Sydney property price downturn. I have referenced it here because it includes housing price data for twelve New England locations over the last twelve months.

The results, summarised in the following table, show changes in the median house price for regional NSW. Armidale Dumaresq (1.7%) had the lowest percentage increase in New England, Ballina (14%) the highest.The table also provides an interesting snapshot of differences in median house prices.

Sept. 2017
June 2017
Sept. 2016
Quarter growth
Annual growth
Armidale Dumaresq
Clarence Valley
Coffs Harbour
Great Lakes
Port Macquarie- Hastings
Richmond Valley
Tamworth Regional
Wagga Wagga

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Australian census 2016 - tracing New England's decline over time

The 2016 ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) census allows you to sort regionally. The results summarised in the following table provide a snapshot of New England's continued structural decline.

The regions selected cover the boundaries recommended by the Nicholas Royal Commission boundaries that were used in the 1967 plebiscite. They exclude some western areas that form parts of other statistical divisions.  .

To put the numbers in the table into historical perspective:
  • In 1911, New England's population was about 429,000. In that year, the NSW population was 1,699,376 (New England 25.7%), Australia's population 4,573,786 (New England 9.37%). In 1911, the population of Queensland was 623,123, South Australia 419,392 and Western Australia 293,923. The initial new state boundaries excluded the Hunter. The Cohen Royal Commission (1924) estimated the population in that initial area at 359,000, so more than WA and a bit behind South Australia.
  • By 1950 with decentralisation and separation agitation relaunching, the NSW population had increased to 3,242,057 with a significant proportion of that growth in Sydney. The Queensland population had increased to 1,205,418, South Australia to 722,843, WA to 572,649. I haven't calculated precise figures for New England, but it was something around 700,000. The area had declined as a proportion of the NSW population, had fallen significantly behind Queensland, but was still level pegging with South Australia and well ahead of WA.
  • By 1961 when Operation Seventh State was launched leading up to the 1967 plebiscite, New South Wales' population had increased to 3,951,65, again with Sydney attracting the lion's share of the growth. The Queensland population had jumped to 1,540,251, South Australia to 979,351 and WA to 755,213. I can't find my reference with New England's population, but I think it was around 760,000. Further down as a proportion of NSW, now well behind South Australia in total, but still level pegging with Western Australia. 
  • If we now track forward to the statistics shown in the table, you can see that New England's relative decline has continued. In 2011, its population of 1,371,776 was 6.38% of Australia's population, declining to 5.89% in 2016 even though the total population had increased to 1,425,728.. In 2011, its share of the NSW population had dropped to 19.83%, falling further to 19.06% in 2016. In 2016 South Australia, often considered something of an economic basket case, had a population of 1,676,653.   
In addition to these higher level changes, there have been major distributional changes. These are discussed following the table.  .

New England Comparative Population Statistics

% of Australia
% of NSW
% of New England
% of Australia
% of NSW
% of New England
% increase over 2011




Greater Sydney


New England North West
Richmond Tweed
Coffs Harbour-Grafton
Mid North Coast
Hunter Valley exc Newcastle
Newcastle Lake Macquarie
Total New England



There have been important distributional changes within these aggregate figures over time. 

Up to the end of the seventies, the inland and coastal populations within New England outside the Hunter were broadly in balance. Then came the sea-change phenomenon which led to rapid growth in the coastal populations.To a degree, this growth was unstable and has now slowed because jobs did not follow the growth, leading to increased poverty. .

In 2011, the North Coast population reached 597,770, up slightly to 600,071 in 2016. Stagnation in the inland population meant that from rough balance, the New England North West population fell to 31.49% of the coastal population in 2011, down to 30.96% in 2016. 

The area was affected by fragmentation too from outside forces. The growth of Brisbane and the Gold Coast conurbation helped drive growth in the Richmond and especially the Tweed Rive Valleys. By 2016, the Richmond-Tweed population had grown to 245,164 or 17.2% of the New England population, roughly equaling the inland New England population including the Upper Hunter. 

In the south, two drive variables came into play. Sydney's growth extended into the Lower Hunter While Newcastle suffered from losses associated with the industrial restructuring of the 1990s including the closure of the BHP as well as Sydney blindness, its closeness to Sydney, its life style opportunities and the rise of coal mining and tourism all contributed to growth in Lake Macquarie, Newcastle and the Llower Hunter. The growth was lower than Sydney's, but high enough to increase the Hunter and especially the Lower Hunter's share of the New England population. 

In 1911, the population of Newcastle and the main nearby towns including Maitland and Cessnock was 71,000 or 16.5%  of New England's population.   In 2016, Newcastle and Lake Macquarie on their own totaled 25.96% of the New England population. The Hunter Valley as a whole totaled 44.88% of the New England population. 

The second southern driver, one not recognised because of border myopia, was the rise of Canberra.

In 1961, the ACT's population was just 76,000, although it had begun to grow rapidly. The population of the ACT plus what is now called the Capital Region, those areas most within Canberra's economic sphere of influence, was less than the inland New England population. In 2016, the ACT's population reached 403,468 with a further 224,288 living the Capital Region for a total population of 627,756. 

The effects have been quite profound, for it has shifted the economic center of gravity south. Lacking any major centre of economic gravity, New England has fragmented, drawn in multiple directions north and south with very little present control over its future.