Sunday, June 18, 2006

Towards A History of New England: pause for reflection

Blogs are meant to be about conversation, about discourse. When I began this blog, I thought of it as a way of encouraging conversation about the history and culture of Australia's New England.

Now it has evolved into something different, a vehicle for outlining New England's history, a way of providing material from my own past historical research. I do not know that this is an appropriate role for a blog. I do feel, however, that if I do not do this then other time pressures may in fact stop me ever making my work and ideas accessible to others.

The difficulty with conventional academic writing is that each block must be properly researched and presented. This takes time and focus, both lacking in my current life. So this blog is at least a partial substitute.

An aside: about Tenterfield

Located on the Tablelands in Northern New England just 18kms from the Queensland border, Teneterfield has a population around 3,3oo.

To find out more about Tenterfield, go to the local tourism site, If you would like to find out more about the town's history, you might visit the web site established by the University of New England's heritage centre -

Today Tenterfield is best known as the place from which Sir Henry Parkes, sometimes credited as the founder of Australian Federation, delivered his famous Tenterfield speech on 24 October 1889 and as the birthplace of Peter Allen (the Boy from Oz) whose song "The Tenterfield Saddler" is an Australian favourite.

Oddly, or perhaps not given that we are both locals, Peter Allen and I went to the same primary school, the Armidale Demonstration School. My old kindergarten teacher who taught us both used to get confused and think we were in the same class. In fact, Peter was in front of me and I do not remember him. However, many aspects of his life do resonate with me because of the shared experiences.

Returining to the point. while Tenterfield today is a small community isolated to some degree by history, back in the days of colonial New England the town (like many other New England centres) had every hope of growing into a major city.

From a European perspective, the area was first discovered by the explorer Alan Cunningham in 1827 on his way back from discovering what became the Darling Downs in Queensland. The first squatting property, Deepwater Station, was established in 1839 followed by Tenterfield Station in 1840.

Like other New England squatters, the Tenterfield squatters wanted to establish road routes to the east. The following is an edited excerpt from Norman Crawford's souvenir booklet published by the Back to Tenterfield Committee in 1949.

The excerpt shows the efforts put into establishing roads and the importance of the transport links to the coast. The number of bullock teams involved and their move after the arrival of the railway hints at another theme in New England's history, the dramatic impact changes in technology have played in changing New England. Finally, the reference to the black boy are an indication of the often forgotten role the indigeneous population played in development.

The edited excerpt follows:

In the earliest period of settlement in Tenterfield the only means of communication with the outside world was by means of a rough track down New England, through Tamworth, across the Liverpool Range and then down the Hunter Valley, a long, bad road. The track ended at Tenterfield in the North. All supplies had to come that way and wool and station products go that way to market. Riding horse, pack horse, and bullock dray were the means of transport.

... Thomas Hewitt, manager of Stonehenge Station, beyond Glen Innes, being a man of energy and initiative, determined to find a route to the Clarence River, then being opened up. With Archibald Boyd he had previously explored the country to the east of Glen Innes and found it too rough. With, his brother-in-law, Mr. Cowan, and a black boy, he came northward to Tenterfield, apparently late in 1840, and found a trafficable route on the southern side of the Cataract River and down the Sandy Range to Sandy Hills and then to Tabulam, thence across the Richmond Range to Busby's Flat, Wyan and thence to Grafton.

The new road was quickly opened up sufficiently for bullock drays to traverse. The first teamsters to traverse the new road are said to have been Noakes and Skinner, who took wool down from Deepwater Station. Two other early teamsters were Newman and Girard, whose names are perpetuated in Newman's Pinch and Girard State Forest.

From the earlier part of 1842 this route became the great artery of traffic from the North Coast to and from Tenterfield and Northern New England. Over 500 teams were engaged mi carrying on this road just prior to the railway connection.

At a later period the traffic to Grafton was diverted to the nearer shipping port of Lawrence. It might be mentioned here that Grafton was first known as "The Settlement," then "Woolpore' when the wool began to go there, and Grafton when fhe town was laid out. At a still later period when the road was opened from Tabulam over the Richmond Range to Casino, much, if not most of the traffic went that way. On the arrival of, the railway at Tenterfield the hundreds of teamsters transferred elsewhere as practically all freight then was carried by the railway.

Friday, June 16, 2006

History of New England: the impact of transport costs

Earlier I spoke of the way in which the combination of transport and geography had helped shape New England’s history. Drawing from Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance, I now want to extend this discussion by focusing on the economics of transport.

New England’s European settlers had to pay two sets of transport costs, shipping costs to get goods to or from the nearest port, then land freight costs to get goods to their final destinations.

Blainey notes that transport by land was twenty times more expensive than by ship. It cost more in 1820 for a Sydney merchant to send a barrel of whale oil (whaling was then a major Australian industry) 100 miles inland than around the world to London.

The reason for this was simple. Bullock drays were the most cost-effective land transport. Limited in load and slow, a bullock team and dray cost roughly as much as a modern truck. So per ton costs were very high as compared to ship.

According to Blainey, this meant that only commodities that were extremely valuable on a per ton basis could afford transport from areas more than 40 miles from deep water.

Early European Australia lacked such commodities. By 1800, twelve years after the initial settlement, Britain had occupied just two small areas, a patch around Sydney together with Norfolk Island.

European points of presence then expanded quite rapidly, but initially they were (to use Blainey’s classic phrase) limpet ports, small port settlements clinging to the edge of the continent established for reasons of strategy and policy independent of the resources of the vast interior.

New England’s first European settlements, Newcastle (1804) and Port Macquarie (1821), reflected this pattern.

Both were located at the mouth of rivers and were established as penal settlements to accommodate the growing number of convicts. Both offered access to immediately available resources close to water. Newcastle provided access to coal, timber and also lime from the shell middens established over the generations by the local aborigines. Port Macquarie had fertile soil (the new settlements were expected to feed themselves) and timber, important in part because cutting had already depleted immediately available timber around Newcastle.

Wool changed this limpet settlement pattern. Wool was a valuable commodity, worth at least ten times as much per ton as wheat, sometimes up to twenty. This meant that it could be grown away from the coast and still shipped profitably to London. Wool also grew better away from the humid coastal strip.

The first sheep had come to Australia with the first fleet – fat tailed sheep from the Cape of Good Hope. Initially sheep were primarily another food source. This began to change in 1797 with the arrival of the first fine wool Spanish merinos, forming the base for a selective breeding program by John Macarthur and the Reverend Samuel Marsden.

The first auction of Australian wool was held at Garraway’s Coffee House in London in 1821. By 1838 sheep had moved into every Australian colony, the annual wool clip was over two million kilos and wool had become Australia’s main export (short history of the early wool industry drawn from

Wool may have been valuable enough to allow international sale and thus support the initial spread of settlement across inland New England, but the squatters and those who serviced or depended upon them, still had a powerful interest in lower freight costs.

For the squatters, the problem lay not so much in the direct freight cost of wool, though that was important,

Wool growing was then very labour intensive. Shepherds looked after the sheep in the absence of fences. Sheep had to be gathered for shearing and then sheared. The wool had to be washed (washed wool gained a higher price in London), dried, bailed .and then transported. All the men involved had to be fed and clothed, with much of this brought in by land freight from the nearest port. These freight costs placed a major cost impost on the industry. To overcome this, the New England squatters needed good roads to the nearest port

The impact of road improvements could be quite dramatic. The initial Great Western Road between Sydney and Bathurst was completed in 1815 and then improved. According to Blainey, the cost of carting a ton of goods between Sydney and Bathurst (a distance of around 200 kilometers) was about £20 pounds a ton in the mid 1820s. Within a few years it almost halved and continued to fall over coming decades. Wool growing profits increased as a consequence.

New England squatters were well aware of these economics. They provided the core underpinning to the fight for improved east-west communications described in an earlier post.

Monday, June 05, 2006

In Praise of Geoffrey Blainey

Geoffrey Blainey is my favourite Australian historian. He writes with a force and clarity that I can only envy. He also has the capacity to bring the past alive, to point to the differences between the world we now live in and that holding at past periods.

We all live in a prison whose walls are set by our experience and the time in which we live. These walls stand between us and an effective understanding of past times. Blainey has a unique capacity to break through the walls, pointing to basic differences between the now and the past.

I say this because in my next posts on the history of New England I will be drawing from two of Blainey's books to explain elements of New England's past.

The first book is The Tyranny of Distance (21st century edition, Pan Macmillan Australia, Sydney 2001). Subtitled "How distance shaped Australia's history", the book explores the ways in which Australia's vast distances have shaped our history and thought.

The second book is Black Kettle and Full Moon (Penguin Books, 2004). Subtitled "Daily life in a vanished Australia", the book is just that, an exploration of daily life up to the First World War.

I commend both books to you as thoroughly good reads.