Ministering angels to our warriors of Empire

Ian Willis reports on a public lecture he presented on 9 October 2013  at the Camden Historical Society  called ‘The story of the Camden district Red Cross in war and peace, 1914-1945’.

This is a wonderful story of conservative country women doing their patriotic duty in an outpost of the British Empire. From 1914 Camden district women joined local Red Cross branches and their affiliates in the towns and villages around the colonial estate of the Macarthur family at Camden Park.   They sewed, knitted and cooked for God, King and Country throughout the First and Second World Wars, and during the years in-between. They ran stalls and raffles, and received considerable community support through cash donations from individuals and community organisations for Red Cross activities.

The Red Cross was national federation of state-based divisions, with a place-based branch network that attracted middle class women as volunteers. Under the enlightened leadership of founder Lady Helen Munro Ferguson, local branches across the country harnessed and thrived using parochialism and localism for national patriotic purposes . The society re-enforced this with an iconography that presented the organisation as mothers and guardian angels  to wounded soldiers on the battlefield.  The Red Cross encouraged  women  to immerse themselves in the ministering angel mythology and serve  ‘their boys’ by volunteering at branch sewing circles and fundraisers, and as voluntary aids at  military, civilian and Red Cross hospitals.

Camden’s Edwardian women, Enid Macarthur Onslow, Sibella Macarthur Onslow and their ilk, provided leadership at a local, state and national level.  These women were intelligent, wealthy and powerful with extensive transnational networks between Camden, Sydney, Melbourne and London. Their families, along with others from the district, provided their fathers, sons and brothers as  imperial warriors for Australia’s overseas military excursions from the time of the Boer War, and local women worked to support ‘their boys’. The leadership group created ground-breaking opportunities that empowered country women and allowed them, within the strict confines of rural life, to exercise their agency by undertaking patriotic activities for the first time.

The experience of these women was highly personal, sometimes tragic, always inspiring as they devoted their lives with missionary zeal for the Red Cross cause. In their wake the women created the most important voluntary organisation in district history, a small part of the narrative of the Australian Red Cross, arguably the country’s most important not-for-profit organisation. Their stories were the essence of place, and the success of the district branches meant that over time homefront volunteering became synonymous with the Red Cross. Local Red Cross volunteering in war and peace provides a small window into the national and transnational perspectives of one of the world’s most important welfare organisations.  [Ed.note: Vol 10, No 2 (2013) of History Australia contains several articles on the International and Australian Red Cross societies.]

This work, and other local studies like it, are few and far between. Those that do exist tell the story of ordinary people in extra-ordinary times.  Local studies are part of the appeal of Australian history and have an enduring popularity. Unfortunately many dismiss them as unimportant, therebydevaluing their potential to provide a useful model for historical research. This lecture is part of a larger project funded under the Australian Government ‘Your Community Heritage program’ and is supported by an exhibition currently showing at the Camden Museum (see until late 2014

Image: Camden Red Cross women conducting a street stall outside Whiteman’s General Store c1920 (Camden Images)


Mapping North Sydney: Maps, Charts and Plans from the North Sydney Heritage Centre

North Sydney Council’s historian, Ian Hoskins, writes about staging an exhibition of local history and cartography at the North Sydney Heritage Centre/Stanton Library, North Sydney.

Custodianship of a public collection brings with it both the urge to care and cosset and the desire to display. The latter is typically driven by a fascination in the material one holds and, with that, the impulse to explain and contextualise using labels and interpretative panels. There is often, of course, also the pressure of public expectation that all the collection be out for all to see. But, as we curators know, the simple logistics of space, let alone consideration of conservation or narrative coherence, preclude showing everything that might reside in storage drawers and compactus units. We pick the bits that are in themselves fascinating or can be brought together to tell a story, and hope that others are equally intrigued. Write too much in your labels and panels and they won’t be read; write too little and one feels that justice hasn’t been done to the object in question. Such is the tricky business of exhibition.

Maps are a significant part of the ‘heritage and cultural’ collections managed by North Sydney Council’s Historical Services staff. Many have been acquired, even created, in the course of the business of local government. They are in this sense ‘archival’ – part of the core workings of Council. Others have been brought into the collection because they add to our understanding of the local area. Among the former are planning scheme maps, drafted in the wake of the Local Government Town and Country Planning Act 1945, which show zoning and land use. Those acquired for research include subdivision plans and documents used by local residents for one reason or another.

Our collection is big. Previous displays have featured some maps but none have focussed completely upon cartography. My choice for the current exhibition was guided by the inherent attractiveness of the documents and/or by their relation to a larger theme. I was restricted by space. Maps are typically large. The seven display cases we have – wonderful and capacious as they are – could only really accommodate 12 documents.

Not surprisingly as an historian I have an abiding interest in change, so those maps that show landscapes long gone were an obvious choice. The biggest intervention in the North Sydney landscape was the construction of the Warringah Expressway which effectively bisected the municipality upon its completion in 1968, removing several hundred homes in the process. Here is a theme that links many maps. An original 1891 block plan shows the size and footprint of large houses that once occupied the now erased streets. A 1953 planning scheme map shows the path of the already anticipated expressway along with the detailed outlines of the homes that would go. And a 1926 resumption map showing the properties that were demolished to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge around Fitzroy and Burton Streets is evidence of an earlier upheaval.

Then there was an intriguing collection of hand-drawn charts from the 1860s to the 1890s executed by members of the Loxton family who owned large parcels of land around Neutral Bay and, as surveyors, were motivated to map their properties. I came across these some while ago in a plan cabinet while exploring for other things. Just how these came to be with us is something of a mystery. As is occasionally the case with collections built up over decades the paper trail seems to have been lost. The maps may be archival but I suspect they were donated. That some were completed for the purposes of examination, however, is clear from the stamps and annotations. It is an aspect of provenance that might explain the exquisite skill demonstrated. But it might also be the case that these remarkable documents reflect a particular attachment to place – one that comes from viewing a landscape in terms of distance, topography, boundaries, as well as ownership. The largest of the maps, by Charles Loxton, shows the spreading delta-like mouth of the tidal creek that once ran into Neutral Bay and is now beneath Anderson Park, having gone the way of many other reclaimed foreshores. To see the detail of a place long gone is breathtaking.

Mapping North Sydney: maps, charts and plans from the North Sydney Heritage Centre is on show Level 1, Stanton Library, 234 Miller Street, North Sydney during Library hours and runs through till April 2014.

Sydney Oral Histories online

Roslyn Burge reports on the launch on 30 October by Deputy Lord Mayor, Councillor Robyn Kemmis, of the City of Sydney’s Online Oral  History Collection.

It’s a wonderful collection of interviews based around six themes –  Open all Hours, Shelter Shared Terrain, Belief, Art and Culture, and Our City. About 60 interviews are accessible online.  This is an interface with the City that will interest tourists, locals and scholars alike. The City of Sydney is to be congratulated in presenting it so elegantly. Cr Kemmis praised all the History Unit team at the City of Sydney, thanked the web design wizards and particularly acknowledged the work of the City’s Oral Historian, Margo Beasley.  Extended applause at this point, and again when Margo was presented with a bouquet, spoke of the warm affection for her.   Lots of interviewees attended, including one who had specially made the round trip from Lithgow. The evening was a chance not only to catch up with fellow practitioners in the history-related spheres (in the Customs House atop the former changing tidal lines) but also a happy occasion to celebrate this achievement.

The website is brilliant!   Simple, clean, only two colours, no darting, jumping icons, no ads, no fuss:  the people, their stories and voices need none of that; and the immediacy of the recollections allow the City to take on a whole other shape.  Stories represented under the theme of Belief include the Mission to Seafarers, Quakers, Theosophists and the Communist Party.  Accessing these stories is straightforward:  a click on one of the themes takes you to a series of photos of interviewees, click again on a photo and you arrive at a précis of the interview, an extract and a link to the audio and transcript (always an advantage when searching for a particular topic).  Under the theme of Shared Terrain, Judith Christie’s gory tale of the ivy, the rat and the hawk in Forest Lodge caught my attention.

Among the mix of potential users Cr Kemmis referred to was the ‘casual browser’. All too soon that browser will be a devotee.  This collection is a rich resource and sets a new benchmark indeed for the presentation not only of Sydney’s history but also the practicalities of delivering an oral history collection.