Five minutes with … Michelle Richmond


What is your current position/area of historical interest?

I work as a Public Historian in all sorts of places including, as you can see in this photo, Kandos, the gateway to the Wollemi National Park.

I am currently employed as Historian and Senior Heritage Consultant for GML Heritage.

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

After working as a primary school teacher in both Sydney and London for ten years I decided to explore my other passions. Returning to Australia I studied History and Archaeology at Sydney University and then took up a position as an aid and development worker in Azerbaijan for two years. It was then time to earn money again and I really wanted to use my history degree. I was fortunate to be offered a position undertaking historical research for a heritage consultancy firm in Sydney. Sixteen years later I am still working in the same industry.  I consider it a real privilege to be constantly uncovering the untold stories of Australia’s past.

Who is the audience for your history?

My work ends up being read by many different audiences. I research for the private and public sector including large development companies, individual clients, schools, hospitals and churches. I also research for government agencies at national, state and local levels. Because I work in the heritage sector my histories are typically place-based. This often involves not just the physical environment but the people who have made these places significant. Part of my work involves telling the stories of Aboriginal people during the post-contact period. This is a growing area of public history and reveals a much more complex and interwoven storey than previously understood.

What’s your favourite historical source, book, website or film?

I think the Department of Lands is a rich source of undiscovered primary material. Since I began using this material 16 years ago I have little by little been uncovering its wealth of treasures. In recent years there has been a huge change in research methodology with so much of their material now available online. The days of hundreds of conveyancers and researchers pouring over the old record books, maps and plans has long since been replaced by six-viewer and the online shop. Historic records, historic aerial photography, parish maps and crown plans are all scanned to such a high resolution that places can be understood in greater detail.

If you had a time machine, where would you go?

I would love to go to the era before cars when the horse was the main means of travel. How did they manage?  I would love to experience the smells and the sounds in the street before engines, when horse’s hoofs and carriage wheels, barrow boys and street sweepers, were the predominant sounds. The concept of transport being a living animal needing to be fed, watered, housed and cleaned up after in the midst of life’s daily activities is something I would like to see in action. I also think it would be fascinating to experience life at this slower and more contained pace for just a little while.

Why is history important today?

History is constantly being made, remade and reinterpreted. As each generation reflects on what has gone before with new eyes, they discover things previously forgotten or overlooked and often bring a different way of seeing and understanding the world.

I love uncovering the past in the present because I continue to see Sydney and other places around Australia in a new light.

Eclectic history: five minutes with … Kate Matthew


What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

My grandmother did our family history when I was really young. She had stories about our family going back to the First Fleet.  I became fascinated with how we (me, my family, my community, humanity in general) got to where we are today, and how different people approach history.

Who is the audience for your history?

Anyone who is interested – I am not fussy.  It is always a pleasant surprise when people are interested in the same topics that I am. 

What’s your favourite historical source, book, website or film?

I love the nineteenth-century English social novels, because they give such a vibrant sense of what it was to live in that place and time. My other favourite is archival records for their raw authenticity that is hard to translate into books and journal articles.   

If you had a time machine, where would you go?

The list is long and varied: Egypt at the time of Amenhotep III, the pass at Thermopylae during the Persian invasion, Viking Scandinavia, medieval England, Aboriginal Australia before white contact, Sydney in the 1860s, and a host of others.  I am interested in how the “ordinary” people lived rather than big events.  Do I have to give the machine back or can I keep it?

Why is history important today?

It lets us visit the past without the time machine, and I hope that a better understanding of the past will help us make better decisions for the future

Five minutes with … Rosemary Kerr


What is your area of historical interest?

After working as a professional historian and heritage consultant since 1996, I completed my PhD at the University of Sydney in 2012. My thesis was titled ‘On “the Road”: A Cultural History’. It explored how roads beyond the urban and suburban setting have been imagined, experienced and represented in Australia from the late nineteenth century onwards. Roads are much more than a means of getting from A to B. They are invested with so many layers of history and symbolism – like Route 66, for example! Australia may not have an equivalent of Route 66, but roads like the Stuart Highway, Birdsville Track and Great Ocean Road have captured national and international imagination. They embody stories and journeys including Aboriginal songlines, paths of European exploration, stock routes, the travels of Afghan cameleers, missionaries and outback mailmen, the  Overland Telegraph Line, World War 1 memorial and iconic tourist routes.

I like thinking about the way the meanings of place and space are culturally constructed, evolving over time through a combination of physical setting, design and planning, but also through experiences and representations in popular culture. I’m generally interested in cultural history, the history of travel and tourism, mobilities and how they intersect with cultural heritage.

Currently, I am particularly interested in the idea of ‘cultural routes’, a relatively new concept and category of world heritage and an emerging field of scholarship in Australia and internationally. Routes like the Silk Road or the pilgrimage way of Santiago de Compostela involve movement and exchange of people, goods and ideas over long time periods. So, as a ‘postdoc’ project I’d like to research and write about the ‘Hippie Trail’ – popularised in the 1960s and 70s, when travellers drove Kombi vans or hitchhiked overland from Australia to Europe and the UK via South-east Asia, the subcontinent and Middle East. Again, that is a fascinating multi-layered route that overlaps with sections of the old Silk Road, Spice Routes etc., with much cultural exchange.

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

I started out in accounting but never really felt it was where I belonged. Just after I qualified as a Chartered Accountant I travelled to Europe and realised how much I didn’t know – especially about history. When I returned to Australia I enrolled in the Arts degree that everyone had said would be a ‘waste of time’. I wasn’t thinking of a career in history but while completing my honours I did some accounting and admin work for a PHA member, and thus found out more about the PHA and what professional historians do. That led to full time employment with Sue Rosen, who founded the consultancy, Heritage Assessment And History. Working in heritage and a wide variety of projects – including roads and bridges – eventually inspired the PhD topic. My experience as a professional historian informed and helped me enormously in writing the thesis.

Who is the audience for your history?

I write for both an academic audience and the broader public. I think it’s important to reach a wider audience, to try to promote interest and engagement with history and heritage among as many people as possible.

What’s your favourite historical source, book, website or film?

Lawrence Levine’s Highbrow Lowbrow stands out as a fascinating study that demonstrates how culture changes over time. He reveals how Shakespeare’s plays moved from ‘popular’ to ‘high’ culture as society transitioned from an oral to literary tradition.

If you had a time machine, where would you go?

I’d like to be able to travel the ‘Hippie Trail’ as it was in its heyday. I’d like to see places like Afghanistan that are now practically off-limits, and cultural heritage that has been destroyed by conflicts – like the Buddhas of Bamiyan. I’m not sure how I’d enjoy travelling rough in a Kombi though!

Why is history important today?

History is such a powerful discipline as it helps to understand the present. Listening to politicians or journalists, you often feel what’s missing is a sense of historical perspective.

Droughts and flooding rains

Christine Yeats reports on the Royal Australian Historical Society’s June Day Lecture by Dick Whitaker, Chief Meteorologist with Sky News Weather in Australia.

In his lecture, ‘Of Droughts and Flooding Rains – rainfall variability in Australia and its effect on our history’, Dick discussed the impact of Australia’s often extreme weather patterns on our history. Taking a largely chronological approach he began with the arrival of the First Fleet, noting that the short period of ‘wet’ between 1788 and 1789 was followed by the drought period of 1790-1793 – the colony’s ‘hungry years’. Drawing on comments by contemporaries, and what is now understood about Australia’s droughts, Dick looked at the fledgling colony’s response to the 1790 drought. He made particular mention of the construction of the three storage tanks beside the Tank Stream and its subsequent conversion into a storm water channel and latter day tourist destination. Perhaps not surprisingly the responses to the 1790s drought and Federation Drought both focussed on water storage as protection against future dry seasons.

Discussion of the disastrous Federation Drought of 1895-1902 and its effects on agriculture in the Australian colonies included references to the New South Wales Day of Humiliation and Prayer for Rain in NSW on 26 February 1902, when everything closed for the day except the pubs. Dick also discussed Queensland’s 1902 solution to this drought, the Stiger Vortex Cannons. As Dick explained, these were the brainchild of the Queensland Chief Meteorologist Clement Lindley Wragge. Based on an invention he saw in Italy, Wragge created his own Stiger Vortex Cannons which were supposedly able to bring rain from the clouds by explosions in the air. The guns were test fired at Charleville on 26 September 1902, without success. Two of the cannons are still on display in the town.

The Federation Drought broke in 1903. Government efforts turned to drought proofing the country, beginning with dam construction. Drought returned to Australia in 1914 and 1915. Termed ‘Fisher’s Little Drought’ because of Andrew Fisher’s efforts to minimise its effects, it eventually resulted in drought relief legislation. Dick went on to look at the impact of later droughts, in particular the 1983 Ash Wednesday Fires.

Investigations of Australia’s floods, including the 1955 Maitland floods and the Queensland floods of 1974 and 2010-2011, led to the history of long range forecasting in Australia. The pioneers in this field were Clement Lindsay Wragge, Indigo Jones and Lennox Walker. As Dick explained they based their long-range weather forecasts on sun spot activity and planetary cycles. Although Jones failed to have his methods recognised as soundly based, his forecasting successes were widely acknowledged.

Today weather forecasting is linked to changes in sea surface temperatures. Dick explained that El Niño is defined by prolonged warming in the Pacific Ocean sea surface temperatures and typically happens at irregular intervals of two to seven years. Similarly, La Niña conditions and episodes are defined for cooling. In 1788 La Niña conditions prevailed, only to be replaced by El Niño, hence the drought that resulted in the colony’s ‘hungry years’.

Throughout his interesting and informative overview of Australia’s weather, integrating meteorological analysis with an overview of its impact on our history, Dick Whitaker engaged his audience and provided them with a better understanding of that perennially ‘safe’ topic, the weather.

Photo caption:

Because of dry years from 1904, severe El Niño events in 1914 and 1915, and the pumping of water for irrigation, in 1915 the River Murray dried up completely. Families took the opportunity to picnic in the river bed at Barham