Sounds and smells

Emma Dortins reports on a fabulous talk by Paula Hamilton at History House in Sydney on 11 October 2013.  ‘Sensory Dissonance: The Clash of Cultures in Urban Memories’ was part of an evening seminar series organised by Nancy Cushing (University of Newcastle) and Lisa Ford (University of NSW). Paula focused on the sounds and smells of Balmain and showed how sensations recalled by long-term residents add to an understanding of the gentrification of the suburb since the 1960s and 1970s.

In collaboration with Leichhardt Council and community volunteers, Paula has interviewed residents of working-class Balmain as well as those involved in transforming the suburb. Balmain emerged from de-industrialisation to be a desirable inner-suburban place to live — on a no-longer-working waterfront. (See Transforming the Local)

In her talk, Paula brought the Balmain of the mid-twentieth century to life as a place characterised by pungent industrial smells and the noises generated by the routines of work. The soapy aromas from The Palmolive-Colgate factory; the coal dust from the under-harbour mine surfacing at Birchgrove; the sounds of the men arriving home from a hard day’s work at the wharfs at the bottom of the peninsula, streaming up the streets and stopping at pubs their wives were just leaving, having shelled the evening’s peas together over a good chat.

Many of these sounds and smells were eliminated by gentrification, which brought new sensations: more shade and bird song from the trees planted by new residents. Paula showed how these sensory recollections are linked with memories of working-class life, industrial events and disasters, and with the enormous social changes of the past forty years.

For more on the interaction of memory and the senses see Paula’s article ‘The Proust Effect: Oral History and the Senses’ (Oxford Handbook of Oral History, 2010).

And for those interested in being involved in the conversation about history, memory and the senses, stay tuned to the ‘Sound, Memory and the Senses’ conference, to be held in Melbourne in July 2014. Proposals (200 word synopsis) are due to Paula ( by 31 October.

Image: Lever Bros Ltd works, Balmain, New South Wales. Creator  : Hood, Sam, 1872-1953


Place Names Can Break Our Hearts

by Bruce Baskerville.

PHA member Dr Lisa Murray, City Historian, recently posted on our PHA Facebook page an invitation to a public meeting hosted by Sydney City Council on Wednesday 16 October in Millers Point to discuss a proposal to shrink Millers Point and Dawes Point by formally separating parts of each locality and combining them to invent a new suburb named Walsh Bay. (For details of the meeting see

The post includes links to a number of technical papers, of which Dr Murray’s paper will be of most interest to historians.  I urge all members as well as other historians and toponomysts to read these papers, and give some thought, in our practice as public historians, to the issues raised.  You might also like to go along to the meeting.

We, as historians, would be appalled by and resist proposals to destroy archival records.  Those of us working in public history are well aware that the archive is much bigger than the documentary records alone.  Buildings, landscapes, artefacts, archaeological sites and place names are some of the other records critical to our work.  I think we need to pay a lot more attention to place names generally, and especially to proposals to change place names, just as we would if someone was proposed to change any other archival record.

The central claim for proposed name change is that a new community has arisen in Walsh Bay that is distinct and separate from the old communities of Millers and Dawes points.  The ‘test of time’ needs to be considered: how much time has to pass before something can be understood as historical and not a passing fad.  Finding a correct answer is not the purpose of the question.  Rather, exploring the test of time is meant to help us distinguish between the ephemeral and the enduring, to help decide what we want to conserve within a changing environment, what we can allow to pass, and how that passing might be done without losing the genius loci.

A place name attracts and evidences loyalty and identity.  That is part of its function and also its meanings.  Just like institutional names and personal names, place names are not mere assemblages of words that label something to distinguish it from what is around it.  To change a name will invoke deep and often unplumbed emotions and resonances.  It is an identity issue.  It is not something to be done lightly or cavalierly, or, as the Heritage Council’s guideline on place names states “for reasons of fashion or expediency” (have a look at

There is little respect shown towards old place names and their histories and associated communities in NSW or indeed Australia.  Place names are a significant historical record, and public historians are probably better placed than many others (especially in the professions) to argue for the heritage values of place names.  There is an argument that they have value as intangible records in the open air archive.

I think time is needed before it can be said that the place name Walsh Bay has shifted onshore and up the escarpment, just as time is needed to heal a broken heart when something of value is lost forever.

This is an abridged version of a much longer post on this topic on my personal blog.  Have a read at:

Our man in Havana

This week’s blog by Francesca Beddie takes you beyond our shores to Havana in Cuba. The magnificent old city, founded in 1519, is fortunate to have had a professional historian, Eusebio Leal Spengler, in charge for four decades. Dr Leal is the director of the restoration program of Old Havana, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982 and since then oft cited as an example of best practice in heritage practice.

What makes the Havana project unique is its interweaving of preservation and social development. And what has made that possible is to have one man at the helm with the authority to turn a vision into reality…slowly.

Much of the old city is still a crumbling mess, where people live in squalor, without access to basic infrastructure, and on very meagre resources. But they are not being shipped out to the urban fringe. Instead they are part of the project. Young people are being trained both to work on the physical restoration of buildings and to be part of the entrepreneurial activity the old city is spawning. That sector serves the tourists the old city is attracting. But the place is not just emerging as a façade of its former self, polished and renewed to cater to the tourist dollar and taste.  Housing is also being improved; schools are operating; community centres are being provided for the elderly and people with disabilities. Tourists and residents mingle.

Dr Leal was recently a guest of the Brookings Institution where he spoke about the challenges of development and restoration. The challenges remain huge but, as one of the panellists at the discussion, Francesco Lanzafame of the Inter-American Development Bank observed, Leal’s successes owe much to his singular control over not only the generation and use of the old city’s resources but also over planning decisions. No battles for him with local councils or developers!