Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants National Oral History Project

A good crowd turned out at Sydney’s Mitchell Library on Saturday 23 March  to hear a morning of fascinating talks and discussion about the Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants National Oral History Project, conducted by the National Library of Australia between 2009 and 2012.  The project was funded by the Australian Government through the Federal Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.

The project consists of more than two hundred interviews, conducted across Australia and beyond, by forty-one interviewers. It brought to light the experience and lifelong impacts of childhoods spent in (mostly institutional) ‘care’. Interviews were also conducted with relatives of those brought up in care, along with policymakers, administrators and workers in various ‘homes’ for children. Dr Joanna Penglase, whose PhD thesis first drew attention to this widespread but largely invisible and unacknowledged phenomenon, spoke movingly of the psychological, political and historical importance of the project, and alluded briefly to the personal experience that first prompted her research. Dr Joanna Sassoon, who managed the project for the National Library, talked about the many complexities and sensitivities of projects such as this one, including the need to reassure the people who were the primary focus of the project that it was historically important and valid to also record the stories of the people who worked, in one or another, within the ‘care’ system.

The second part of the morning was given over to four oral historians who worked on the project under Joanna Sassoon’s management. Roslyn Burge, Frances Rush, Virginia Macleod and Jeannine Baker all talked succinctly about different, and challenging, aspects of the interviews. Their presentations ranged across such subjects as the difficulty of retaining emotional detachment; the way in which accounts between husbands and wives, or parents and children, can produce opposing perspectives; the necessity for support and de-briefing with the project manager; and the deliberate use of fabricated stories to draw attention to wider truths. The wide-ranging approach meant that although cruelty, neglect, and abandonment appeared in many accounts, so also did stories of personal and professional success, social competence and, not least, the ability to achieve happiness. Planning, methodology and management were key to the project’s success and it is a testament to the team that in spite of the extreme sensitivity of much of the subject matter only one interviewee has withdrawn their material from the project.

An adjunct to the project is the collection of memoirs, autobiographies, papers, photographs and other ephemera associated with the experience of ‘care’. These items are now catalogued in the National Library. See

Margo Beasley

(Photo of boys and girls from the National Children’s Home arriving in Australia sourced from

Researching the Lands Department Records

by Patricia Hale

PHA NSW’s March CPD session on Researching the Lands Department Records was attended by a capacity audience of over 30 people. The purpose of the workshop was to provide researchers with the tools to locate information in the records of the NSW Lands Department held by State Records at Kingswood.

An attentive audience at the March CPD

The workshop was divided into two sessions, led by two PHA members: Dr Terry Kass, consultant historian and author of many historical and heritage studies, whose research has furnished him with an extensive overview  of  land records held in the state’s archives; and Dr Caroline Ford, a historian working in the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage whose thesis, archival fellowship and book research has provided her with total immersion in the delights and disappointments of the Lands Department records of Sydney’s coastal areas.

Terry opened with a brief summary of the history of land administration in NSW and the creation of the branch organisation of the Lands Department from 1867 and an overview of the broader perspective of historical information obtainable from Lands Department records. Maps and plans of land ownership and tenure also provide detail of soils, vegetation, topography, rivers, roads, beaches, parks and reserves. Collectively these records illustrate the development of towns, urban and rural areas, industry and mining as well as social policy on land settlement and free selection and the history of surveying.  Letters, petitions, leaflets or posters that flesh out the bones of maps and plans can be found in the Lands Department Branch Correspondence Registers.

Many of the key tools for locating this information (Crown Plans, Parish Maps, Tenure Registers and Cards, NSW Government Gazette, Certifications of Title and Correspondence Indexes) are available online. The digitisation of the Historical Parish Map collection of 35,000 maps has enabled online searching via the Historical Land Records Viewer on the NSW Land & Property Information Spatial eXchange portal at

Terry stepped us through the process of de-coding  map references to locate a file that could be tracked through the Correspondence Registers to the final ‘Put Away’ notation ( and the delight of actual filed papers) or the final MON notation (and the disappointment of no file at the end of the trail). Other possible exasperations were the black hole of a mysterious and massive file cull by the Lands Department Ministerial Branch of its registers between 1952 and 1954. (Terry suggested ways of researching around this, and other  glitches).

Caroline’s talk on the ‘Diary of an archivophile’ built on the cheers and tears of land records archival research with particular reference to her forthcoming environmental and cultural history of Sydney’s beaches. She focussed on the wealth of historical data the Correspondence Registers of the Miscellaneous Branch of the Lands Department can point to. Unexpected gems Caroline tracked down  included a beach file that documented  a 35year debate on the public right to free access to Sydney’s beaches. This detailed the  public and ‘experts’ views and the seismic shift in government thinking from resistance to acceptance. Other discoveries touched on environmental history (shoreline reclamation and change) and on various elements of social history (lobby groups, homeless people, recreational campers, the Country Women’s Association and the shark net debate) that contribute to the fine weave of social history fabric.

Caroline Ford, an archivophile

Offsetting these delights, Caroline listed some of the disappointments of her archival research: the 1950s Ministerial Branch records cull meant  there are no lands records for Bondi Beach between  the 1880s and the 1950s—its entire period of major development as a recreational site. And of the 330 files she tracked through the Correspondence Registers to their conclusion, only 147 files (45 per cent) were available, the rest either destroyed or sent to other branches of Lands or to other departments.

The sum of the two presentations provided us with a clear methodology for navigating Lands Department records, an awareness of some of the pitfalls and dead ends involved (with possible ways of working around these) and an insight into the unexpected wealth of material that can lie buried within the Lands Department files at Kingswood.

Our thanks to the presenters and to PHA NSW Vice-President Christine Yeats for organising this event.

PHA CPD excursion to Newcastle 20-21 April 2013 – a preview

Until now it has been relatively easy to regard Newcastle as a place where heavy industry shaped the city’s history and the artistic and cultural heritage was much less important. Similarly, the achievements of Newcastle’s colonial era have been overshadowed by the harsh conditions of the penal colony and its isolation from Sydney.

On Saturday 20 April, participants in the PHA CPD excursion will have the opportunity to judge for themselves as we visit many buildings and sites in historic Newcastle East that are associated with the colonial period. This walk, and the accompanying talk by our guest speaker, university archivist and chair of the Coal River Working Party, Gionni di Gravio, is intended to provide a practical introduction to the special exhibition ‘Treasures of Newcastle from the Macquarie Era’  which is currently on show at the Newcastle Art Gallery. A private guided tour of the exhibition has been booked for our group on Sunday 21 April.

Mounted in partnership with the State Library of NSW, this exhibition showcases the outstanding legacy of art that was created in Newcastle, between 1812 and 1822, by a succession of the garrison’s military officers and several of the convicts who were skilled painters, engravers and craftsmen. Along with the c.1818 Macquarie Collectors Chest and the contemporary Newcastle Chest (2010), the exhibition features Joseph Lycett  paintings, engravings and his illustrated book Views in Australia, or New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. Other important exhibits include paintings, drawings and a Panorama of Newcastle by Edward Close, Richard Browne’s portraits of local indigenous people, individually identified by name, as well as Captain James Wallis’s drawings, engraved by convict Walter Preston.

On the Sunday morning guided heritage walk from Hunter Street to the Art Gallery participants will see evidence of surveyor Henry Dangar’s 1822 town plan. Whilst there is a lot to do and see on both days there will be ample opportunities for photos along the way.

While much of the historical enquiry has tended to focussed on activities in Sydney during the colonial period, it is now time for Newcastle’s colonial treasures to be made known to a wider audience.

Margaret Blundell

Image: Joseph Lycett’s Inner View of Newcastle c. 1818


PHA NSW CPD February 2013 at Surry Hills Library (Photograph: Pauline Curby)

About a dozen of us gathered at Surry Hills Library on Saturday 16 February 2013 to hear Kate Waters’ presentation on doing oral histories with Aboriginal people.

Kate is a professional historian of long standing and has been a member of the PHA NSW, which included a stint on its executive, for many years. She ventured down to the inner west from Katoomba on an extremely wet morning to tell us all a great deal about what we certainly need to know about working with Aboriginal communities in the particularly sensitive area of oral history.

It was a genuinely enlightening talk based on years of practical experience working for diverse clients and projects including NPWS and native title claims. Her approach is one of openness, sensitivity and flexibility with communities and she readily adapts her projects to suit the needs and requirements of the people she deals with.

Just some of the many complex issues Kate raised were: recognise that all projects are potentially problematic and embedded in contemporary politics; in an oral culture the past is always present and structure of stories will be place- rather than time-based; importance of recognising key families, who has authority, community meetings and maintaining relationships after the completion of the project; consent and moral ownership are probably the biggest issues.

This is in no way a concise summary of Kate’s talk but I hope suggests the depth of the insightful information conveyed on the day. We were all left with the sense that there was so much more territory to cover and a second CPD on the subject might not go astray. Thanks Emma Dortins for organising the event, and thanks Kate for your very generous sharing of your knowledge and experience.

Margo Beasley

Postscript from Emma: Literature on Oral History and Ethics

I just came across a really interesting edition of the WA History Journal edited by PHA (WA)’s Cathie Clement: Ethics and the Practice of History (University of Western Australia, 2010 ), with three fascinating chapters on oral history that touch on some of the issues we began to discuss at CPD on 16 February.

I mentioned an article on the day, in which Lorina Barker talks about being an insider and an outsider at the same time when it came to interviewing Aboriginal people at Weilmoringle – ‘”Hangin’ out” and “yarnin'”: reflecting on the experience of collecting oral histories’, History Australia, v.5, no.1, (2008).

The Oral History Association of Australia journal has included some really interesting papers on matters ethical too. Our own PHA NSW member Sue Andersen contributed ‘Oral History and Autobiography: Some Observations Recording the Life Story of Dr Doreen Kartinyeri’ to issue no. 25 (2003), and another paper I found really interesting was Meg Kelham’s exploration of interviewer-interviewee relationships and the idea of community of experience, ‘Creating and confronting community: Suicide stories in central Australia’ in issue no. 34 (2012).

Happy reading!

PASSION PURPOSE MEANING – Arts Activism in Western Sydney: book launch

Western Sydney is the new black. It’s not just federal politicians who are discovering the dynamism of the communities that make up around half of Sydney’s total population. PHA NSW member Katherine Knight has been in the thick of cultural developments in the area for decades. This experience has culminated in the publication of her history of arts activism in Sydney’s west.

PASSION PURPOSE MEANING ― Arts Activism in Western Sydney records the rich variety of artistic expression from the many cultures represented in the region, arguing that what is being called the demographic centre of Sydney is also emerging as its cultural heart.Katherine’s book, published by Halstead Press, will be launched by David Borger, western Sydney director of the Sydney Business Chamber on Monday, March 11, at 6pm, Riverside Theatres, Parramatta. The theatres are sponsoring the launch and PHA NSW members are invited, but RSVP is essential to reserve your seats. Please RSVP by Friday March 8, to Riverside Marketing on 8839 3356 or email

Capacity may be reached prior to RSVP deadline so please RSVP as soon as possible.

(The image is detail from a 1985 drawing by Oliver Sublette for an Artswest Foundation Ltd membership flyer.)