Daily Archives: February 13, 2010

‘The Squatting Age in Australia 1835-1847’

1935 first edition; 1964 second edition. 358 p.

…a book dealing with the thirties and far more important than its unpretentious exterior would indicate (p.273)

This is Stephen H. Roberts talking about another book entirely, but the same could be said of his own book “The Squatting Age in Australia 1835-1847”.  That’s it up above on the bookshelves- the rather drab burnt-sienna coloured one. It’s been around for decades and decades; it is cited in many other works, but oh- even the title induces in me a rather shrivelling distaste.  I was astounded to find a recent blogpost about the book written in November 2009 by another reader and smiled at the thought of possibly travelling on the same train and our eyes meeting (across the top of our bi-focals, I suspect) over our respective copies of ” The Squatting Age in Australia” (Nah, not likely, as he seems to be based in Armidale, NSW).  Still, a whimsical little thought.

I have to say that I was surprised by what I found inside.  Perhaps the most striking thing is the language: not at all the dry-as-stubble,  stiff and factual voice that I expected but instead a rather “purple” narrative voice written often tongue-in-cheek (or at least, I think it is) and more exclamation-marks than a Facebook page!!! Yes!!! Really!!!

Stephen Henry Roberts– that’s Sir Stephen was  Vice Chancellor of the University of Sydney and Challis Professor of History there.  His Australian Dictionary of Biography entry describes him as “empirical, research oriented, with a concern for international trends and an ability to place Australia in a wider colonial context“.   The empiricism in his work certainly comes through: there’s very detailed maps, budgets and statistics peppered throughout the book.  His first publication was  History of Australian Land Settlement 1788-1920, based on his masters thesis, and after moving to London, he moved to more international studies with publications on French colonial policy, modern British and European history and Far Eastern history before returning to Australian history with The Squatting Age written in 1935. In this book he brings his international approach to bear most powerfully in Chapter 2 ‘The Wool Trade’ which I found to be a fascinating account of how Australian wool production fed into the broader European wool industry that burgeoned and changed after the Napoleonic Wars. He also has a good analysis of the 1840s Depression in New South Wales and its context within the broader international economy.

Born of working-class origins, Roberts did not restrict his intellectual efforts to academe alone.  As a leading interational analyst, he gave public lectures, wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald and broadcast for the ABC.  In 1936 he travelled again to England on study leave, spending three months in Germany where he met with Nazi leaders and attended their rallies.  His next book The House that Hitler Built (1937) exposed the dangers of appeasement, warned of the war intentions of the Nazi regime and condemned the persecution of the Jews.  The book was translated into a dozen languages and reprinted many times.

According to the ADB, the “Sydney school” of historians that coalesced around Roberts was:

proudly a ‘hard school’, not merely because of its declared standards of data, but in its overt hostility to what it conceived as romantic or literary approaches to the past

This description surprised me.  In this book he presents a highly romantic and idealized view of the pastoral industry and the squatting project as a whole, albeit with a rather more grounded view of the boredom and dirt of the shepherd’s lot.  Like other books of its time it is interspersed with stanzas of poetry- a rather quaint stylistic touch to modern eyes.  He places strong emphasis on personality and it is here, in explaining motivations and character,  that perhaps his flights of fancy betray him.  I found the sweeping statements to support his grand rhetorical flourishes even more troubling. There appears to me to be a contradiction in his large claims: he makes much of the “quietude” in politics in the early 1840s and yet spends much time on the Great Crisis between 1841-44, and the “struggle” with Sir George Gipps.  Crisis and quietude seem to be mutually exclusive, to me.

His work has been criticized for textual errors and sloppy proof-reading and these were still evident, even in the second edition which, according to his preface had undertaken “obvious correction of misprints” and “elimination of errors”.   In a chapter in The Discovery of Australian History, edited by Stuart Macintyre and Julian Thomas, Deryck Schreuder (the author of the ADB entry) writes:

[Roberts] wrote voluminously, but also hastily.  At one stage he produced four studies (in five large volumes) in the six years between 1923 and 1928, all based in archival sources, and all covering areas where he had to pioneer a research path.  Not surprisingly, the works show signs of haste: some incorrect footnotes, faulty transcriptions, errors of fact, gaps in the documentary sources, assessments which have not always stood the test of time….Roberts never wilfully manipulated his sources to make an argument, and he did work extraordinarily hard to cover all the primary and secondary sources involved, often indeed finding the major archival source for the first time. …Whether his innovative studies, and the power of some of his studies, outweighs these defects is another matter for consideration: he is not always given the benefit of that balancing perspective. (p. 131)

The book is very much of its time, and it is too easy to deride it for its easy dismissal of aboriginal resistance and environmental heedlessness.  His use of the bland terms “dispersal” and “expansion” obscures a whole other history that took another fifty years to emerge.   That doesn’t make it any less confronting, as Geoff Page’s poem “A Classic Text”, published in Arena Magazine in April-May 1993,  remarks.  I can’t think of a way to quote the poem without producing it in its entirety- and that surely would be a breach of copyright-  so you can see it for yourself at The Great Forgetting: poems . (The link will take you to Google Books- the poem is on p.61-5.)

And yet there is a sense of humour that comes through the book- and that truly IS surprising given the worthy and rather stodgy subject manner.  I’ll leave you with a little observation he makes about the dominance of pastoral demands on Gipps’ administration-, complete with Roberts’ own exclamation mark,  and remember HE said it, not I!!

It was all the song of the sheep- money for the sheep, land for the sheep, labour for the sheep, roads for the sheep, merchants for the sheep, ships for the sheep one long ruminant refrain! (p.96)


S. H. Roberts The Squatting Age in Australia 1835-1847

Deryck Schreuder ‘An Unconventional Founder: Stephen Roberts and the Professionalisation of the Historical Discipline’ in Stuart Macintyre & Julian Thomas (eds.) The Discovery of Australian History (1995)

Deryck Schreuder ‘Roberts, Sir Stephen Henry’ http://adbonline.anu.edu.au/biogs/A160125b.htm

Geoff Page and Pooaraar ‘A Classic Text’  in The Great Forgetting (1995) p. 61

‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ by Kate Summerscale

304 p. 2008

It seems that after reading Curthoy and McGrath’s How to Write Histories that People Want to Read, I have picked up, one after the other, two books that would qualify-  Nicholas Shakespeare’s In Tasmania and now this one,  The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale.   This book won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2008, and also bears the designation “New York Times Bestseller” on the front cover.

The book describes the true-life murder of a three year child in 1860, taken from his bed in the nursery outside the bedroom of his parents Samuel and Mary Kent, and found with his neck slashed and body wrapped in a blanket in the outside privy. The family that lived in this three-storey Georgian house was not a happy one.  It was a second marriage for Samuel Kent; the older children of the first marriage had been relegated for the second family; the new Mrs Kent was not all she seemed at first.  Suspicions mounted about the relationship between Mr Kent and the nursemaid who slept in the bed beside the murdered child, the sanity of the daughters of the house, the probity of the servants: the case opened the lid on the fug of family relationships amongst what otherwise appeared to be a respectable, prosperous middle class Victorian family.

The book takes a careful chronological approach with only what I marked as one example of foreshadowing that suggested that the outcome was known to the narrator.  Instead, events and evidence unfold bit by bit, complete with the false-starts and false-leads of any investigation,  and the narrative closely follows the newspaper articles and legal documentation generated by such a notorious case.  I hadn’t heard of the case at all but I assume, given that the murderer ended up depicted in Mdme Tussuad’s waxworks, that the case has more notoriety in England even today.  For someone completely unfamiliar with it, I wasn’t sure right to the end- and even then….?

But this is more than just a country-house murder story: instead it is a closely-grained and grounded study of domestic Victorian life and sexuality, the development of “the detective” as a profession and the relationship between the press and Victorian fiction.  The detective, Mr Whicher, is a lower-class employee in a newly-developing profession, and class sensitivities emerge over what is perceived as  his puerile probing of domestic relationships and middle-class respectability, and the derisive sneering of the popular periodical press.  Summerscale embeds this true-crime story within a broader study of the detective-novel as a literary phenomenon, both at the time in the work of Wilkie Collins and Dickens, and later as a literary genre much loved of BBC Friday night dramas.

The book is carefully footnoted and researched; there are maps and photographs, and an extensive bibliography.   Its chronological structure makes you feel as if it is unfolding before your eyes and it’s quite a page-turner.  And surely that qualifies it as “History That People Want to Read”.