Left bright and early for the second day at the AHA conference in Ballarat. Strictly speaking, I left in the drizzly dark at 6.30 a.m. I don’t think that I’ve ever caught a train quite that early in the morning. The carriage was much quieter than it is later in the morning or in the evening, and there is an odd intimacy when you looking at your fellow passengers, knowing that just an hour before they were all asleep in bed, lying curled up and vulnerable.
The rain set in at about Bacchus Marsh and so the train drew into a Ballarat that was just as dismal as the preceding day.
Over recent months I’ve taken over writing a column in the Heidelberg Historical Society’s newsletter which makes a summary of Heidelberg events one hundred years ago. Of course 1916 was in the midst of WWI and so I’ve developed an interest in the WWI homefront that I didn’t know that I had before. I missed the first paper in this session because I just couldn’t face the idea of a 5.30 a.m train but very much enjoyed the next two papers, especially as they intersected with my interested in the warfront at a very local level.
The first paper by Claire Greer was titled ‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Exploring Homefront Hardship Through the Lens of the Great War’. In a work in progress, she is taking the Perth suburb of Subiaco and mapping out the enlistment and casualty information at a community, street by street and individual level. In particular she focusses on married men who enlisted at Subiaco at a higher level (32%) than elsewhere in Australia. Part of her work has involved identifying where and how often individual soldiers were memorialized on honour boards and through other acts of commemoration. How and why did a community claim particular soldiers as ‘theirs’? What were the networks that made that soldier part of the community? Moving down to street level, she mapped the enlistments in a particular street (Olive Street) and from there focussed on a particular family- that of John Monson. (????I’m having trouble reading my own writing!) In tracing through his story, the high level of married enlistment perhaps becomes clearer as we see the Monson family thriving in the goldrush town of Kookynie only to lose everything as the gold boom subsides. The marriage founders, so when John enlists he puts down his son as next-of-kin rather than his wife. I really liked this fine-grained use of the deluge of data generated by the ANZAC centenary to investigate the homefront rather than the warfront.
The next paper of the session was Bryce Abraham’s “An Affront to British Chivalry: Colonial Thought and the Cultural Clash at Surafend 1918”. I had heard of the Wasser Riots in the red light district of Cairo in 1915, but I had not heard of Surafend at all. On December 1918, after the war had finished, a detachment of the ANZAC Mounted Division converged at the then-Palestinian village of Surafend where, in order to avenge the death of a New Zealand soldier, they separated the women and children and massacred the men (there are no firm figures of the number of deaths) and torched the village. They then moved on to a nearby Bedouin village. The Commander-in-Chief of the ANZACS, Edmund Allenby was furious and cancelled end of the war recommendations for the whole group. At investigations into the incident, the soldiers were uncooperative, finding themselves mysteriously unable to identify anyone who was responsible (although the NZ soldiers intimated that the Australians were responsible while the Australians suggested the opposite). The massacre took place beyond the war arena, in the transition to peace, to people they were supposed to be protecting. Abraham notes that there had been incidents before, but that this was the pinnacle of racial conflict between the Palestinians and the ANZACS and was another manifestation of the racialized White Australia mindset that dominated turn of the century Australian political life.
Boom and bust in Australian and New Zealand History
As it happened, the WWI theme continued into the next session as well in what seems a bit of a grab-bag title. The third speakers didn’t turn up, and the two papers that were given fitted together quite well
Martin Crotty spoke on the poorly planned pilgrimage to WWI sites organized by the RSL in his paper ‘The RSL’s 1965 Gallipoli Pilgrimage: Botching it Up Again’. This was not the first pilgrimage back to the Peninsular organized by the RSL: there had been others in 1955 and 1960. But those pilgrimages were small, exclusive and expensive excursions, often involving people who had not even made the landing. This 1965 pilgrimage to mark the 50th anniversary was larger, shorter at 3 weeks, and with the injection of some funding from the government, cheaper (although it was still a sizeable 4000 pounds per head). The pilgrimage had two aims: first, to provide these Gallipoli diggers with a positive pilgrimage experience and second, to provide good publicity for the RSL which at the time feared that the ANZAC story would be forgotten. The historian Ken Inglis accompanied the pilgrimage, and Crotty has consulted Inglis’ exhaustive (if often illegible) archives which include the documentation on the pilgrimage. It was a debacle. The three hundred elderly men were flown over to the Middle East, put on a sparsely equipped Turkish ship, and rushed from one celebration to another when all they wanted was to be able to walk around the places they’d been and pay their respects to their fallen comrades. Three men died; others were sick for months afterwards. But even if they didn’t achieve a positive pilgrimage experience, the RSL did get its good publicity, with many newspaper articles that said little of the dissatisfaction of the pilgrims. And, as we know, the RSL’s fears about ANZAC being forgotten were well and truly misplaced.
This paper was followed by Joanna Leahy’s paper “‘Knitting with a Will, Knitting for their Empire’: the World War One Knitting Boom.” One of the things that I’ve noticed in compiling my Hundred Years Ago column for the newsletter is the mountains and mountains of socks that are being knitted by the good women and girls of Fairfield, Alphington, Ivanhoe and Heidelberg. As part of her study of domestic knitting and crochet in Australia 1840-1940, Leahy has examined these World War I socks – all 1.3 million (at least) pairs of them. There’s one in the Australian War Memorial, abandoned half-way through and still on the needles when Nellie Blain heard of the death of her older brother, for whom she was knitting. The patterns for these socks were readily available in the newspapers and special pamphlets. While acknowledging this huge effort, however, she notes that is it part of a longer tradition of domestic and charitable knitting.
PLENARY SESSION: THE CITY
This was the first plenary session that I have attended at this conference, having arrived too late for yesterday’s one. Each of the speakers adopted a different stance toward the topic. “Centering the City: Spaces of Practice in Australian Urban and Regional History. Louise Prowse’s paper wasn’t about the city at all- instead she looked at regional towns at how they have framed their identities. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they positioned themselves as separate settlements, in the fresh air far from the city, with their own local families and industries. This changed from the middle of the 20th century when, instead, regional towns prided themselves on their replication of city leisure facilities- the swimming pools, parks, shops etc. In this way, regional towns became more generic. However, from the 1960s there was an explosion in the number of historical societies (in the city, but even more in country areas) which began marking and memorializing their own local and particular history. Towns began reconfiguring their streetscapes to enhance their heritage features- although which particular era did they privilege? She pointed to the recent phenomenon of local food-based regional tourism which, unlike the 1960s tourism, does not draw a distinction between visitors and locals.
Andrew May started his contribution quoting from a travel diary written by a Welsh tourist who visited North America, Australia and New Zealand (I can’t quite remember when- I assume late 19th/early 20th century). She was dismissive of Melbourne and its sanitation problems, but warmed immediately to Ballarat. A visitor to a city assesses a new place in terms of their storehouse expectations and experience, and this differs for us all. Yet, he noted, the major national histories of Australia tend to disregard urban histories despite the oft-repeated claim that Australia is the most urbanized country in the world and not withstanding Graeme Davison’s hugely influential article ‘Sydney and the Bush: An Urban Context for the Australian Legend’ which highlighted the urban origin of the ‘bush’ stories and poets in the Bulletin. He emphasized the international dimensions of the municipal movement of the 1840s which saw the Incorporation of both Melbourne and Sydney (pipped by Adelaide) and noted the significance and longevity of Town Clerks.
Lisa Murray is the young, very enthusiastic (and active!) City Historian employed by the City of Sydney. In a rather corporate presentation, she outlined the objectives of the City Historian position, the projects it had been involved in and its relationship with other individuals and groups in Sydney who might want to adopt a ‘history’ approach in their production of civic, artistic and planning endeavours. The program makes use of digital and multimedia platforms, and is not so much into marking memorials through plaques as in making memories through oral histories and drawing on shared public memories. An interesting conundrum though- a mural in a park created in the 1980s had spawned a popular history of carnivals, elephants and balloons supposedly found on the site in the past, but the carnival was only there for six months and there was no elephant, and no balloon. A piece of artwork had in effect implanted false memories for the local residents.
Finally, Simon Sleight started his presentation with a picture of the Burke and Wills statue in Collins Street, before it started its peregrinations around different Melbourne sites until ending up in its present location on the corner of Swanston and Collins Streets. His interest was not so much the statue as the people loitering around it, which led to a discussion of walking and loitering around Melbourne during its years as a ‘walking city’ between 1860-1920 when people walked by choice, not necessity. There was walking The Block for respectable people; meeting under the clocks at Flinders Street, and the increasing perception of danger on Princes Bridge. He noted parallels with other cities- the Monkey Parades in UK or New York’s Bowery.
Transnational Celebrity in the Twentieth Century: Australia, New Zealand, North America and Britain.
My final session for the day was a panel discussion of four celebrity women who visited Australia during the twentieth century.
Desley Deacon started with her paper “Celebrity, Empire and American Morals in 1927: Australia Rejects the Young Judith Anderson.” Judith Anderson (originally Francie Anderson) returned to Australia in December 1926, eight years after she had left Australia as a 21 year old. While in America, she had had great success on Broadway, and when she first arrived back in Australia, the press greeted her enthusiastically. However, her performance in ‘The Green Hat’ was absolutely slated in reviews, so viciously that her eight-month tour ended in a physical and mental breakdown. She was hospitalized for six weeks, and left Australia quietly. But perhaps it was not her, or her performance that caused the offence: instead, there was a strong rejection at the time of the Americanization of film and a suspicion of American culture as usurping British and Australian culture- and The Green Hat, with its ‘sordid’ plotline fed right into that hostility.
There was no hostility, however, for Guide Rangi (more properly, Rangitiaria Dennan), a 57 year old Maori guide from Rotorua, who arrived in Australia in 1954, just after she had shown Queen Elizabeth around the thermal area of New Zealand. She was a household name in New Zealand, and exemplified the Maori guide in the public imagination. The guide was now the celebrity, and the press followed her visits to the Shrine of Remembrance, photographed her hugging a koala, and conducted meet-and-greets at the Tourism Agency. The press continued to lionize her, even when she made critical comments about the treatment of aborigines, at a time when few indigenous people in Australia had the same public recognition.
Finally, Cecilia Morgan spoke about ‘The Theatrical Tours of Two Canadian Margarets: Transnational Celebrity in Early Twentieth-Century Australia and New Zealand’. The two Margarets were Margaret Anglin, who visited beteen 1908-9 and Margaret Bannerman who followed her twenty years later. Both women were Canadian, even though Margaret Anglin performed on the American stage, and Margaret Bannerman had a successful career in London’s West End. Where Judith Anderson suffered from the hostility towards Americanization of stage and screen twenty years later, Margaret Anglin did not. Both women were publicized for their stylish clothes; both were described as friendly and approachable, and unlike Judith Anderson, they both starred in plays and displayed a celebrity identity which emphasized cultural dominion affinities.
And by now, I had a bus to catch so I had to leave….
Several of today’s sessions were held at Federation Uni’s School of Mines campus. I’d seen it from the outside, but didn’t realize how lovely it is inside. Actually, Federation Uni has a real presence right in the centre of town which it didn’t some years ago.
Am following up Davison, Sydney and the Bush. The first text I found was behind a paywall, but I’ll keep looking, it wouldn’t do to have an uninformed ‘Legend’.
LOL Bill, I thought of you straight away when I saw that.
Janine, that snippet about false memories is so intriguing!
You are doing a lot of travelling Janine. Are you writing these posts on the train?
I first heard of the Surafend massacre through Paul Daley’s book, Beersheba, first published in 2009. I am glad there was a paper on it. Australians should know about it as much as they know about the more admirable exploits of Australians at war. It would be interesting to juxtapose Australian soldiers’ contempt for the Arabs they came across with their relationship with Indian soldiers which, from the little I have read, was more respectful and at times, friendly.
It’s a long train or bus journey, so it’s easier to do it then than stay up till all hours at night writing them, which is what happens when I’m staying at the conference- as you know!
Thank you so much for these snapshots from the Conference – much appreciated.
From one who did not attend.
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