Support your national library


by Francesca Beddie

On 22 February the Sydney Morning Herald ran a story saying ‚Äėthe National Library of Australia¬†has launched a major review of services, with key programs to be curtailed or cancelled amid staff cuts, as management struggles to deal with the Turnbull government’s efficiency dividend‚Äô. It reported that the library expects to shed more than 20 jobs by 30 June with additional redundancies to follow in 2017-18. It will also¬†reduce its international print and online subscriptions.

Users of the library will have noticed that already the library’s opening hours and weekend services have been reduced and that it has been making great efforts to find alternative funding sources. For example this year it managed to reinstate a fellowship program, having raised $700,000 in philanthropic support.

There is no doubt that the library has done great things in the digital world and continues to do so.¬†While Trove, the flagship of Australia‚Äôs digitisation programs,¬†is currently undergoing a major upgrade,¬†the library’s director general, Ms Schwirtlich, is quoted as saying the library will cease aggregating content from museums and universities unless it is fully funded to do so.

Last July, PHA NSW and ACT member Yvonne Perkins wrote a post on her blog , Stumbling Through History, which made the important point that, while digitisation does help to increase access to the library:

the vast majority of historical items are not digitised and will not be digitised for decades. Access to the physical item will remain vital to research for years to come. Opening hours are a gateway by which information is made more or less open. With less funding comes more restricted access. Historians and digital humanists need to be vocal in their support of the work of libraries and archives. We need to help them demonstrate their value in their quest for better funding. One way to do this is to highlight the collections we use and to tell libraries and archives when we use them in papers and projects.

Yvonne’s post includes a list of the papers presented at the Global Digital Humanities Conference 2015 that referred to Trove. Perhaps PHA members can continue her good work by making sure people (including the NLA Council and your local member) know how much we use archival material and how valuable cultural institutions like the National Library of Australia are for the innovative nation the government wants to create

Illuminating local history


… by Ian Willis

‚ÄėGet to know your neighbourhood ‚Äď you could be in for some surprises!‚Äô says PHA member Katherine Knight, after picking up one of the volumes in the Kingsclear Books Pictorial History Series. A number of PHA members, including myself, have written for Kingsclear about particular localities, regions or local government areas. My contribution to this ongoing project was to write the text for Camden and District.

Map_Camden_District_1939[2] CamdencoverLThe Camden district is a constructed concept. It refers to a cultural region that developed from the settlement of the private village of Camden on the Macarthur family estate of Camden Park in 1840. As the town’s stature as a regional hub increased over the next century so too did the district around it.

But the Camden district does not show up on any administrative document. It is a compilation of the economic, social, political and administrative activities of a host of people and organisations. Using oral and written sources I constructed the map of this cultural district during my MA (Hons) in Australian History at the University of Wollongong in the early 1990s. I am pleased to say that my creation has survived research into many dark corners of the areas local history.

Maps are an under-utilised tool by historians. They are helpful in reconstructing a past sense of regional identity, which can give additional context for stories of place and landscape.Map_Camden_District_1939[2]

The Kingsclear Books Pictorial History Series includes 35 titles produced over the last 33 years. Each title has a collection of black and white images. The photograph is a snapshot of the past and a view into the soul of a locality. In Camden and District one image of a local Edwardian family on the first floor verandah of their general store, dressed in their Sunday best, illustrates a tender scene in their busy lives in the town. The Whiteman family were local identities. Many of their descendants still live in the area. These images trigger many memories about family celebrations, commemorations and other events.

Memories make a powerful emotional connection to place. The medical profession uses them as a healing mechanism for communities that have suffered massive trauma, such as bushfires. A collection of images such as the Kingsclear series offers can have the same effect. I was told of one such story in Camden.

A friend gave a copy of Camden and District to a local elderly woman suffering from dementia. The woman is a member of a prominent Camden family with connections to the colonial period. She grew up during the Interwar period on the family farm. One of the images from the time of her youth is of her family’s prize-winning cow at the Camden Show, for over 100 years one of the most important rural festivals in the local area. She recognised the cow and recalled winning the sash. My friend told me the woman holds onto the book in her waking hours as if were a most precious item. It brings back memories of a better time in her life that evoked hope and happiness.

Other readers of Camden and District have welcomed its coverage of the local community’s contribution to the cultural region in the post-war period. Much of the history of Camden had hitherto concentrated on the colonial period and the Macarthur story. As important as this is in the Australian narrative of national building, it ignores the host of other stories that have swirled around it. The local story has many levels, many paths and many layers, including those of more recent decades.

Feature image: part of the Whiteman family portrait.

The Yellow Flag ‚Äď writing about the plague


by Christa Ludlow

plague proclamationBubonic plague in Sydney in January 1900 infected 303 people and by August had killed 103. The outbreak coincided neatly with the beginning of the Edwardian era and the rise of the ‚Äúexpert‚ÄĚ in public life. I became interested in this part of Sydney‚Äôs history while I was researching for my mystery novel, Taken At Night, which is set in Sydney in the early days of the plague. I was particularly intrigued by the character of Dr John Ashburton Thompson, who at the time of the plague outbreak was the President of the Board of Health, a position he had held since 1896. Thompson was a surgeon and physician, educated in London, Cambridge and Brussels, who had come to the colony in 1884. He was a disciple of the new discipline of public health and hygiene. He is credited with first conclusively establishing and documenting the relationship between plague in rats and plague in humans. His reports on the subject became ‘classics’ among the medical profession and he was invited to address medical congresses in the USA and Europe on the subject of the plague.[1]

Today plague is uncommon but not unknown. Modern doctors would treat it with antibiotics. In 1900 there existed a vaccine of inactivated plague cultures but this was not widely available. Once a person contracted the disease, little could be done but wait and see.

The Chronology of an Epidemic

The first news of the plague apparently caught Thompson by surprise. The Daily Telegraph of 25 December 1899 reported that its journalist had informed him of a fatal plague outbreak in Noumea. Thompson issued instructions to port health authorities that every vessel arriving from a New Caledonian port would be obliged to hoist the yellow flag, and be held in strict quarantine. However, nine passengers had already landed from one steamer and the police had to pursue them through the city and return them to the ship.

Thompson was keen to get supplies of a vaccine, but the nearest supplies were in India. On 28 December he stated that the only remedy was for the Board to make its own.

After repeated representations to import plague bacillus to create the vaccine, the former Premier and Treasurer, Mr Reid, gave his verbal permission. This was renewed by Premier Lyne. Legally, this was a permission which the Premier had no power to give and upon which the Board could not rely. Nevertheless, they started inoculating animals with the plague in secret to increase their knowledge of the disease.[2]

In effect, the Board was unlawfully experimenting with the bacillus something that was fraught with danger. Only the previous year, 1898, I discovered, researchers in Vienna had contracted bubonic plague while conducting similar experiments; several had died. A similar incident in Sydney could have caused public panic and discredited the Board.

The first suspected case of plague was reported on 20 January 1900. He was Arthur Payne, a van driver who worked near the wharves. The second victim, Captain Thomas Dudley, had recently cleared out five dead rats from the watercloset in his Sussex Street premises.

On 14 February¬†the Board of Health received notice that rats were dying around the Huddart Parker and Co and Union Company wharves.[3] It was from a rat found on the Union Wharf that the first positive result of a plague bacillus was obtained. Thompson now had sufficient proof that rats in Sydney had the plague, and it was the same kind as infected humans. Thompson complained on 26 February ‘‚Ķthe sewerage connections in a vast majority of cases in old houses in the city of Sydney are not at all what they should be‚Ķ’

Mayor Harris thought differently, complaining that the Board of Health was working the plague ‘for all it is worth as a public sensation’.[4]

book coverThis is the setting for Taken At Night. Ashburton Thompson appears to reveal that the Board has been illegally experimenting on the plague bacillus. The conflict between the medical experts and the political amateurs creates the background for a story set on the wharves, the Quarantine Station and the streets and laneways of The Rocks and Millers Point. The main protagonists are a woman photographer and a police detective. I have tried to capture the atmosphere of the city in 1900, where feminism, eugenics, race theories, socialism and new technologies were all jostling for attention.

In May 1900 large areas of Darling Harbour, Walsh Bay, The Rocks and Millers Point were resumed by the Government and put under the control of a new specialised body, the Sydney Harbour Trust. Swathes of streets, buildings and wharves were demolished. What survived took on a nostalgic patina. Artist Lionel Lindsay and photographer Harold Cazneaux, among others, captured images of tumbledown stone cottages, wharfies on their way to work, and children playing in the street. These were the remnants of a Victorian Sydney that had been doomed by the yellow flag of quarantine.

¬†[1] Curson and MacCracken, p. 120; W G Armstrong, ‘An Eminent Epidemiologist’, Health, 3, July 1925, p.100.
[2] Samuel T Knaggs ‚ÄėCultivation of the Bubonic Plague Bacillus‚Äô, Australasian Medical Gazette, 20 February 1900, p. 58-9; Board of Health Minutes, August 1899; Jean Duncan Foley, In Quarantine, Kangaroo Press 1995, p.91.
[3] Sydney Morning Herald 24 January 1900
[4] Daily Telegraph, 26 February 1900

Dust, rust and shadows


by Carol Roberts …

A few years ago I began interviewing the earth-pastel artist Greg Hansell. My research led to me running several historical tours based on Hansell’s artistic representation of heritage sites in the Hawkesbury and close environs.

Hansell says his attraction to painting farm implements, tools and industrial technology¬† is ‚Äėhard-wired‚Äô from his early connections to farming and mining. Born in Goulburn in 1949, Greg studied art at St George Technical College in the late 1970s. An award-winning artist, he is currently Fellow, Council member, teacher and Art School Director at the Royal Art Society of New South Wales. He crushes rocks and clays to make his own pigments and, with no added binders, creates earth pastels with colour permanence of the highest rating.

In my research, I also investigated how the artist’s exhibitions and the associated guided tours set up links between art and history. Hansell’s specific methods of recording what he sees means his art can be an important primary source for finding out about the past. His paintings strive to find the nexus between historic sites and perceptions  of place. They also prompt the viewer to consider the tenuous grip we have on our tangible heritage.

Hansell and I are now collaborating on a book, which will showcase Greg’s depictions of the Hawkesbury area.  My role is to research and write about the heritage sites featured in the paintings. And I will be opening his new exhibition, Dust, rust and shadows, which will launch the 2016 program of the  Historic Houses Association of Australia.

The opening will be on Sunday 21 February in the Annie Wyatt Room, National Trust Centre, Observatory Hill, Sydney  at 2.00pm. Members $20 Guests $25.

[Image, part of Hansell’s Bathurst Street, Pitt Town]