Monday, October 12, 2009

Just a note on social change in colonial NSW

Just a few very brief snippets today following up on yesterday's post, Sunday Essay - for Neil: threads in Australian history. This post took a fair bit of time to write, but the views should really be taken as work in progress.

In discussion with Marcellous he made, among others, this point on the sectarian divide and the changes in the Roman catholic Church in the second half of the nineteenth century:

I would have thought that the point you make about the catholic church relates to the hierarchy rather than to their flock.

Why did the hierarchy change? (I agree that it did.) Might it be because the catholic laity (at this stage almost entirely Irish) were in a position either explicitly or implicitly to get the episcopate and clergy they desired?

This pulled me up a little because it raises a question I cannot properly answer.

Back in June in church, state and social change in Australia I discussed social change through the prism set by three books, one on the Methodist Church in Uralla, a second on the Country Party, the third a history of the Ursuline Order. The view taken by  Pauline Kneipp, herself a member of the Ursulines, was extremely unsympathetic to the changes within the Church and the divisions that resulted.

Part of the problem in writing social history is to know to what extent the material that you are dealing with is in fact representative. In focusing my reading on New England just at present, I am writing of an area where the Catholic proportion of the population was lower than elsewhere, the non-Irish proportion of the Catholic population higher than elsewhere. So not necessarily representative.

Alan Atkinson's Camden, my current train reading, deals with events at a local level further south. This is a fascinating book because it deals with thought and life at a community and family level. This is also a community that was on the Catholic chain migration route to the south from Sydney.

One of the reason why good local history is so important , and this is a very good history indeed, is the way in which it forces us to question broader constructs written at state or national level.

As one example, marriage in early colonial NSW had not yet acquired the later form now seen as the norm. The ceremony itself, if there was one, was less important. A remarkably high proportion of births were very early or illegitimate. This then changed quite quickly.

Part of the reason for this, it seems, was the religious revival movement within the Catholic Church in Ireland. Among other things, this led to a large increase in the number of Irish religious.

I hadn't focused on this at all - my concern had been the interplay within the Australian hierarchy and the interaction between this and changes in the Church in Europe. What happened in Australia was in some ways the playing out at local level of events in Europe linked to the Papacy itself. When you look at the dramatic decline in the number of illegitimate births among Camden's Catholic population, you can see a social change that links directly to religious change.

I do not know to what degree Camden was representative of developments further north. There are clear differences because of Camden's particular social structures, including the role of the Maccarthurs as lords of the manor. But the broad trends do fit with my own analysis.      


marcellous said...


We probably all (well, both, to be precise) have to go and read a bit of Patrick O'Farrell.

My own guess is the change in the hierarchy is related to Irish catholic emancipation and the beginning of mass emigration from Ireland. These coincided, more or less, with the change in the nature of immigration to Australia.

Jim Belshaw said...

Agree with you on Prof O'Farrell. I have read his history of he Catholic Church (a long time ago) but not his history of the Irish in Australia. Around 50,000 Irish came as convicts, a bit under a third of the total. Then the famine more or less coincided with the gold rushes. One note I saw on scale suggested that by the end of the nineteenth century one in four Victorians were of Irish ancestry.

More to learn. The Australian colonies were far more welcoming to the Irish than the US, something that I had not realised. The evidence I have seen so far in doing quick rough checking makes you original point an important one.