Thursday, December 27, 2012

History Revisited - just a bit of bull

One of the little known facts about Armidale is its role as national headquarters of a remarkable number of beef breed societies. I haven’t counted them all, but there are over twenty. I didn’t know that there were that many beef breeds!

This fact got me wondering about the history of cattle in Australia.

I found that the first cattle to arrive in Australia came on the first fleet, picked up at the Cape of Good Hope on the way through. There was old Gorgon the bull, four or five cows and a calf. They were almost certainly of Africander breed, with probably at least one balck Vaderlander.

They quickly strayed after a convict who was meant to be watching them fell asleep. Livestock were valuable. Five hundred men were mobilized to search for the cattle, but to no avail. There were no more known cattle in the colony until another ship arrived three years later, again from the Cape, with eleven black Vaderlanders aboard.

In 1795, a convict was told by an Aborigine about a herd of cattle to the west of Sydney. He went to investigate, and found the escaped herd near modern Camden. It had grown to sixty one, a remarkable rate of increase for such a small herd in just seven years.

In the still small settlement, these cattle were a valuable resource. Governor Hunter rode to see them. He named the area Cowpastures, made it a reserve for the wild cattle and ordered a guard house built to stop poachers. Numbers grew steadily.

Sydney was full of rogues intent on enriching themselves. Governor King laid personal claim to a large number of the wild herd on the basis that Governor Phillip had owned part of the original herd and had given them to him. The wild cattle were difficult to catch. King therefore promptly swapped the claimed cattle for 200 tame Zebu and black cattle from the Government herd!

In a colony of rogues, John Macarthur was the rogue of rogues. On his first exile in England, Macarthur went to see Minister Camden and persuaded the minister to give him a very large land grant around Mount Taurus.

This was blatant chicanery. Lord Camden had no idea that Mount Taurus was in the centre of the cattle reserve, that he was giving Macarthur not just a land grant, but control of the wild herd itself. Governors might object, but the grant stuck.

Macarthur himself was more interested in sheep than cattle. His efforts here laid the base for another great New England industry.

Some of the best cattle were domesticated, others were shot for meat. The herd vanished. However, its rugged genes became widely spread throughout the colony’s rapidly growing cattle numbers.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 19 December 2012. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012.

This will be the last History Revisited column posted here. I am switching posting to my New England history blog since the columns are exclusively history. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

History Revisited - performing arts shows town's dramatic side

The first “big” play that I ever intended was an Armidale Theatre Club production in the old Parish Hall. I was very young and it was quite frightening!

Why? It was a murder mystery about a serial killer. He had a desk that included a secret drawer in which was to be found a noose. He used this to strangle women.

To get to the drawer, he had to carry out a special movement, a sort of a hand wriggle. Now there I was in the dark of the Parish Hall, watching an aunt standing with her back to the murderer while he got out the noose. See why it was frightening?

During the week, Judith Ross Smith sent me her book Never Whistle in the Dressing room: a history of the Armidale Playhouse 1953-2003 (Kardoorair Press 2005). From that book, I know that the play was probably The Ladykiller, one of the fist productions of the Armidale Theatre Club.

That actually makes me feel very old!

Armidale and the surrounding area has a quite remarkable theatre tradition. At the time my girls were born there, we had a choice of fifty different productions within one hour’s drive of our home. That’s astonishing.

Armidale shares part of its story with the broader New England, the way in which smaller communities created their own fun. But there were also special features in Armidale associated with its role as an education centre for the broader New England and well beyond.

Many of those features are entwined in my own mind, either directly or through my knowledge of our area’s shared history.

In December 1923, for example, the Sydney Morning Herald announced that The Armidale School Dramatic Society would present the Greek play, "Prometheus Vinctus of Aeschylus" in the original Greek; the Quarrel Scene from Corneille's "Le Cid;' and "Gaspard de Coligny," by W. Wentworth Shields (an old boy)at the King's Hall. You could buy tickets at Paling's.

To my knowledge, this is the first time that an Armidale theatre group presented a play by an Armidale author to a Sydney audience. That’s interesting, but it was the reference to the original Greek that caught my eye.

Digging into the story a little, I found that the senior boys in the TAS Greek class, TAS then taught ancient Greek as well as Latin, wanted to make TAS and Armidale the Australian centre for studies concerned with classical Greek!

There is something wonderfully eccentric about this notion, but then theatre in Armidale has always seemed a little larger than life.

Today Armidale has many production venues. The photo shows the inside of the Hoskins Centre. That wasn’t always the case.

Initially, plays were presented in one of Armidale’s little halls or in the Town Hall. The opening of the Teacher’s College added a new venue. Then in March 1969, the Armidale Theatre Club opened the Armidale Playhouse as Armidale’s first dedicated venue. But that’s a story for another column.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 12 December 2012. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

History Revisited - Armidale's retail changes

One of the significant changes in the Armidale streetscape over the last sixty years has been the decline in the corner store. They are still there, but their numbers have diminished.

Even sixty years ago, many Armidale households did not have a car. Bus services did exist, but they were infrequent. Some products such as milk, bread or ice were delivered on regular rounds. By then, you could order groceries for home delivery by phone, although store staff still visited to take orders at the back door from regular customers. But for many, a walk to the nearest corner store was still the normal way to buy day to day items.

You can only carry so much in a string bag. For that reason, the stores were quite widely spread, with the greatest concentration in the old city south of the creek.

Then as today, kids had vivid memories of the nearest stores for there you bought lollies or snacks. .You may be surprised at just how often those memories feature at reunions, on Facebook pages or in email exchanges among the tens of thousands of people now living elsewhere whose memory of Armidale was formed in childhood and at school.

In our case, it was Mrs Beatty’s store, now Knights. Midway between our parents and grandparents houses, we visited often.

I remember being sent there with a note from my mother. In return, I received a brown paper package to bring home. It would be years before I worked out that the package contained a sanitary napkin!

The transformation that we would reshape Armidale shopping was already well underway.

While there is debate about the exact genesis of the concept, the idea of the supermarket first emerged in North America with the spread of the automobile.

The concept was a simple one. Instead of customers knowing what they wanted and then ordering from a shop assistant who packed items individually, replace this with a more open store where customers chose and then carried the item to the check-out. This allowed greater variety and was cheaper.

It took some time for the concept to reach Armidale.

In the period after the Second World War, three Armidale businesses (Hanna’s, Richardson’s and Burgess’s) progressively introduced the concept. As they did, the centre of retail gravity shifted.

Initially, the changes were locally driven. Then came the chains.

In Armidale, there were two of what were then called variety stores, Coles and Penneys. They were great for kids with limited budgets looking for cheap Christmas presents for family. They also had toys!

Coles transformed. Expanding rapidly, it bought Penneys among others.

In 1960, G J Coles opened its first Australian supermarket. I haven’t checked my facts here, but my recollection is that Coles first reached Armidale when they took over Richardson’s grocery business. A new era had begun.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 5 December 2012. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

History Revisited - ship sales marked the end of an era

On 31 March 1954, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the North Coast Steam Navigation Company had called for tenders for the sale of its nine ships. This announcement marked the end of a now largely forgotten era.

The Company had begun in 1857 as the Grafton Steam Navigation Company primarily to get the produce of the coast and tablelands more effectively to Sydney. Over time, it grew into a significant coastal shipping operation. Now squeezed by rising costs, the company had decided to go into voluntary liquidation.

Before the construction of the Great Northern Railway, people living in Armidale and surrounding districts had a choice in bringing goods in or sending produce out. You could send them overland to the river port at Morpeth on the Hunter or, alternatively, down one of the precipitous tracks over the escarpment to one of the North Coast river ports.

The choice was made on grounds of cost and convenience. From Armidale north, the focus was west-east to the coast. At Tenterfield just prior to the construction of the railway, several hundred people were employed carting goods between the Tablelands and the Northern River ports.

Even after the construction of the railway, the coastal trade continued. As late as the 1930s, some North Coast students at the Armidale Teachers College found it easier to go to Sydney by rail and then complete the journey by steamer because of the bad condition of the roads to the coast. One student remembered being lowered in a wicker ware basket from the steamer onto the long wooden pier at Woolgoolga that used to stretch from the beach into the open sea.

The Northern seas could be treacherous. Wrecks were common.

The 2005 ton twin screw steamer Wollongbar was the pride of the North Coast fleet. It had accommodation for 235 first-class passengers, 40 second-class and extensive general cargo.

On 14 May 1921 the ship was alongside the jetty at Byron Bay when a storm broke out. Attempts to move the vessel into the Bay failed. It was driven ashore and wrecked. Its replacement, the Wollongbar II, was lost of Crescent Heads in 1943.

The Second World War came far closer to Armidale than many realise. Japanese submarines operated along the Northern coast, torpedoing ships and laying mines. The mini-sub attack in Sydney Harbour is well remembered because of the panic it caused. Fewer people remember the sea war of the New England coast.

During the War, both the Great Northern Railway and the New England highway were vital transport links. Troop trains and war supplies passed through the Armidale railway station on Brisbane bound trains.

The railway is gone now, of course. Armidale itself would have lost its rail connection without the work of our local activists.

The mournful sound of the whistle of the Brisbane Mail as it travelled through Armidale at 3am is a fading memory. The railway station at Wallangarra with its dual Queensland and NSW stations with their very different architectures stands as a mute memory of that past.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 28 November 2012. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012.