Monday, March 24, 2008

John Ferry's "Colonial Armidale"

I have just been reading the late John Ferry's Colonial Armidale (Queensland University Press, 1999). The book has been described at the best local history written in Australia. I would go further. I think that it is one of the best history books written in Australia.

I first read the book a few years ago. Aunt Kay gave me a copy for Christmas. With Dee driving, I read the whole book in one sitting while we were driving back from Wagga Wagga following Christmas. I could not put it down.

The book vanished, but was recently refound in a box. This morning I picked it up to read again. Again, I have found it hard to put down.

Most local histories are reasonably boring unless you have a specific interest in the area. Colonial Armidale is very different, I think, even to someone who has never heard of the place.

The chapter titles will give a feel - Stories in a Landscape; A Homeland or a Howling Plain; World's Turned Upside Down; Making a Profit and Earning a Quid; The Master, The Servant and The Masterless Man; Immigrant Dreams and Colonial Realities; The Gendered Domains; New Worlds and Old Images; The Second Struggle for the Land; The Struggle for the Town.

The book begins: Two creeks cross the landscape of this story: Separated by a rib of low hills, both flowing sluggishly, and in dry seasons fitfully, across land sloping gently to the south east.

Geography is central to this story, as are people. The interaction between the two is central to Armidale's history.

In writing about people, Ferry shows the changing structure of the town and its immediate area, both social and economic. We see the struggle and clashes of interest, always set in the context of broader Australian history.

The first two chapters deal in part with the Aborigines and with the evolving relations between the Aborigines and the new arrivals. The sad personal story of Commissioner Macdonald forms one element in this.

The community that followed was an immigrant community that from the early days drew its people from many countries - Ireland, Scotland, England, Germany, China among others. Those migrants came for different reasons, but in all cases had faced the peril of travel and of re-location to a new land. Here he also shows the importance of chain migration, something that explains (among other things) Armidale's early German connection.

Ferry's writing is deeply influenced by his New England colleagues.

Ron Neale's writing on class is one influence, as it was in my own work. I did not accept Ron's overall view, I am hardly a marxist, but I took many of the same lessons from the work as John.

Alan Atkinson and Norma Townsend's work on rural communities in the nineteenth century was a second influence. Both relied extensively on the time-consuming method of family reconstitution to bring alive the population at large. Atkinson's Camden remains, in my view, one of the better Australian histories.

The book draws deeply from a wide range of archival material, including State and bank archives. This allows Ferry to test, in some cases forced him to test, commonly held assumptions about Australian history, including his own somewhat left of centre views on certain issues. I am not saying that he resiled from those views, simply that he was prepared to modify them in light of evidence.

Born in 1949, John Ferry started as a teacher before becoming a lecturer at the Armidale College of Advanced Education and the University of New England. His untimely death in 2004 robbed us of further work.

A little later

I am about two thirds of the way through re-reading John's book. It is still very good, I still rank it as highly as before, but I find myself questioning spots that I did not before.

In some cases it's because I think that that he could extend his argument. In other cases, I find his personal views intruding on my enjoyment.

In any event, I have lots of new things to muse over and to talk about!

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