In geographical terms, the area covered is Australia’s New England Tablelands and the river valleys that extend from the Tablelands to the north, south, east and west. Defined in this way, we have a natural geographic unit that exists independent of political or administrative boundaries.
This is a large area. From Lake Macquarie in the south to Tweed Heads on the Queensland border is over 700 km (434 miles) by road, from Grafton in the Northern Rivers to Brewarrina on the Barwon River is 716 km (445 miles). To provide an international comparison, by road London to Edinburgh is around 666 km (414 miles, New York to Washington a mere 364km (226 miles). To put this another way, depending upon the precise boundaries adopted, New England at 166,000 plus square kilometres (64,000 square miles) is 25 per cent larger than England.
If that’s where New England is, what is it? This question is not so easy to answer. You see, there is great disagreement about the boundaries, with some going so far as to deny that New England as I have defined it even exists. Certainly, Australian governments with their ever-changing geographic descriptors and administrate boundaries do not recognise the place. Reflecting this, there is disagreement about naming conventions to the point that no-one can agree on a name or even names.
Initially, the area that I call New England was known as the Northern Provinces, the Northern Districts or just the North, Sydney centric terms defined by their relationship to the colonial capital. As European occupation extended north, the use of the terms expanded to fill the occupied space.
The separation of Queensland in 1859 put a new hard border in place. Now Queensland had its own North defined by relationship to Brisbane, the new colonial capital. This created all sorts of perceptual and naming difficulties.
I coined the term border myopia some years ago to describe the way borders affect our thinking, blinding us. Queensland promotes the Granite Belt around Stanthorpe in Southern Queensland as a special, even unique, area with its granite boulders, fruit and cold country wines. This promotion has been a considerable success, for it is a wonderful area. Few realise that the Granite Belt is in fact part of the New England Tablelands. Tenterfield is about 44 minutes by road south of Stanthorpe. Had the border been shifted south just a little bit, Tenterfield would now be the southern part of the Granite Belt and part of Queensland’s successful tourism promotion.
This type of perception problem is reflected in naming conventions. The words “Northern” and “New England” Tablelands are increasingly used as synonyms. In fact, they are different. The Northern Tablelands are defined in relation to Sydney and stop at the Queensland border. The New England Tablelands as a geographical area extends into Queensland to include the Granite Belt.
The 2018 Commonwealth Games provide a second example of the effect of border myopia. Held on Queensland’s Gold Coast, the opening ceremony featured the Yugambeh Aboriginal nation because of its Gold Coast linkages. Less well recognised is that Yugambeh-Bundjalung, also known as Bandjalangic, is the Aboriginal language group that stretched from the north bank of the Clarence into South East Queensland including what is now the Gold Coast. When the Queensland border was created, the hard political line created not only divided Aboriginal groups placing related people under different legal jurisdictions, but also affected the way we see relationships. You cannot write a history of the Aboriginal peoples within Northern New South Wales without addressing cross-border linkages.
Following the creation of Queensland with its own North, the coverage of the terms Northern Districts, Northern Provinces or just the North shrank in New South Wales to the area up to the new political border, setting up its own inconsistencies that have grown with time. You can see this easily if you look at terms in use today.
To begin with, what does the term the North mean? It doesn’t mean all of Northern New South Wales, but actually the north-east of NSW, the territory I call New England. The term Northern New South Wales itself has become very confused.
"Northern New South Wales is a big, fat, subtropical, coconut - and turmeric - laced cliché of heavenliness”, Valerie Morton wrote in her 2018 book Blame it on the Rain: Life around Byron Bay . Lavishly illustrated with photos, the book is a series of vignettes about beach, bush but mainly locals - with a dash of cane toads, ticks and gold top mushrooms. Did you know that some people lick cane toads because the poison contains a powerful hallucinogenic? That was certainly news to me, although I don’t think that I am going to rush off to find the nearest cane toad!. They are, after all, a poisonous introduced pest that authorities across many parts of Australia are fighting to control.
While Valerie’s book references Northern New South Wales, it is actually about the Northern Rivers, more precisely still that part of it covered by the Byron Shire, even more precisely the town of Mullumbimby and surrounds. This is counter-culture territory. where hippies rub shoulders with wealthy celebrities and socialites attracted by the allure of climate, beaches and fashion. I enjoyed the book, but was struck by the particular and very narrow use of the term Northern New South Wales. This dates to a decision by the Sydney Government for administrative reasons to attach the name Northern NSW to what used to be called the Northern Rivers, a distinct geographic unit made up of the Clarence, Richmond and Tweed river valleys. The end result has been confusion.
This type of naming confusion can be found throughout New England. I have already referred to the Northern as compared to the New England Tablelands. The name North Coast is another example.
Originally the name was attached to the coastal strip from the border to the Hunter Valley. Then came a short gap to the Central Coast, followed by another gap around Sydney and then the South Coast. This at least made a certain sense. Today we have the term Mid North Coast used to describe the area from the Northern Rivers to the Hunter. But where is the South North Coast? Or, indeed, the North Coast itself? It is now hard to say.
But why, in all this, do I use the name New England for the whole area? This name was first attached to the Tablelands by European settlers who saw similarities between the New England Tablelands and home. Some of those settlers with Scottish connections preferred the name New Caledonia, but New England was quickly adopted. Still, the Scottish focus survives today in Glen Innes’s promotion of its past and all things Celtic.
Glen Innes is not alone in celebrating and seeking to capitalise on its Celtic or Scottish connection. Maclean down on the Clarence River is another.
Two quite different groups of Scottish settlers came to the North. One group were relatively wealthy people whose independent means allowed them to build pastoral empires. The homesteads they built remain a feature of New England’s built landscape. The second were Highland people disposed by the troubles and the enclosures, many of whom were brought to Australia by that irascible Presbyterian clergyman John Dunmore Lang, a significant figure in the history of Colonial New England. These Gaelic speakers settled first in the Hunter, but then spread north to the Clarence Valley. For a period, Gaelic was a common language on the streets of the inland Clarence River port of Grafton, along with English, German and the local Aboriginal languages. Grafton had its own Gaelic newspaper. Many Highland settlers also settled at Maclean, just downstream from Grafton. Maclean’s Highland Gathering was founded in 1904 and continues to this day.
I said that John Dunmore Lang was a significant figure in New England Colonial history. He is, in fact, the indirect cause of my use of the name New England, although as a Scot he may have preferred other choices.
Lang was born at Greenock in Scotland on 25 August 1799, the eldest child of small landowner William Lang and his wife Mary Dunmore. Mary was a strong minded woman who had, in the words of Lang’s biographer Don Baker, formidable powers of moral indignation and such capacity for vituperation that in comparison her son's most savage strictures seemed but a mild remonstrance!
Lang trained for the Presbyterian ministry, early displaying that power for work, study and sheer energy that would mark his life. At Glasgow, he came under the influence of the Evangelicals who were beginning to challenge the prevailing order within the Church of Scotland. Dissatisfied with the prevailing system of lay patronage that was anathema to many Evangelicals, Lang looked for new pastures. His younger brother was already in the colony and suggested that it might provide fertile ground for Lang’s preaching. In 1822 Lang sailed for Sydney, arriving in May 1823 as Sydney’s first Presbyterian minister.
Over coming decades, Lang would play a major role in the life of the evolving colony across multiple fields. He was, Don Baker notes, a Presbyterian clergyman, politician, educationist, immigration organizer, historian, anthropologist, journalist, gaol-bird and, in his wife's words engraved on his Sydney statue, 'Patriot and Statesman”.
From our immediate viewpoint, Lang developed the idea of Australia as a federation of multiple colonies. He played an active role in the moves to separate Victoria from New South Wales. That was achieved in 1851. He then turned his attention north, arguing for the separation of the Moreton Bay colony, now Queensland, from New South Wales. That was achieved in 1859. He then turned his attention to the separation of Northern New South Wales. That move failed, although there would be outbreaks of separatist pressure through to the end of the century.
By 1900, the idea that self-government might provide a solution for Northern problems was well established. There was disagreement over boundaries and means, but separation had become a vehicle for channelling Northern resentments.
In the constitutional discussions leading up to Federation, delegates accepted that new states might be created within the new Commonwealth. Separatist agitation was especially strong in Queensland, seeking to subdivide the colony into three states covering the north, centre and south. The new Australian Constitution therefore contained a specific chapter (VI) dealing with the admission of new states, including subdivision of existing states. Those seeking subdivision were to find these constitutional provisions problematic in the extreme because they effectively required existing state governments to agree to subdivision of their territory with consequent loss of power and prestige.
While Queensland was the centre of subdivision agitation at the time of Federation, new state agitation was about to re-emerge in New England, coming in three main waves. Each failed, but left its imprint on Northern history and life.
The first wave began in 1915 in a dispute over the cancelation by the New South Wales Government of the steam ferry (the Helen) linking South Grafton and Grafton across the Clarence River. A large protest meeting convened by the Mayor of South Grafton, Dr Earle Page, quickly turned from the ferry dispute to calls for a new state in Northern New South Wales.
We will come across Earle Page many times in our New England travels. Born at Grafton on 8 August 1880, Page was a brilliant surgeon with a solid business head. He was also energetic, mercurial, sometimes disorganised, overflowing with ideas that could sometimes cross-over each other. The Helen episode marked the start of a public career that in seven years would take Page to the second highest office in the land, Leader of the Country (now National) Party in the Commonwealth Parliament and Deputy Prime Minister.
Driven by Page, agitation spread quickly, but then died down because of the war. In 1919, Page re-launched the separation campaign. Again, agitation spread quickly. The cause was picked up by Victor Thompson, editor of the Tamworth Daily Observer, now the Northern Daily Leader. Thompson launched a press propaganda league to campaign for separation from New South Wales that soon had 120 member newspapers from the Upper Hunter to the border.
In 1924, political pressures forced the NSW Fuller Government to appoint a Royal Commission (The Cohen Commission) to inquire into the feasibility of new states in New South Wales. The proposed states were a Northern, Riverina and Monaro new state. Premier Sir George Fuller had no intention of acceding to political pressure that might lead to the break-up of New South Wales. The terms of reference were carefully written in such a way as to reduce chances of success by creating a series of barriers that the new state proponents had to pass to obtain a positive result.
The Cohen Commission reported in 1925. It accepted that the country had been disadvantaged, but believed that had now been addressed. It concluded that new states would not be financially viable and that the same objectives could be more effectively achieved through a system of regional councils with decentralised administration. It was a crippling blow, and agitation declined.
The second wave of agitation began in February 1931, again launched by Page. These were turbulent times. The very fabric of Australian life was fraying under the impact of the Great Depression. Civil war seemed possible. Again, the agitation spread like wildfire, with another movement springing up in the Riverina under the leadership of Charles Hardy.
For the first time, the name New England came to be attached to the broader new state area when, at its 1932 Maitland Convention, the Northern Separation Movement adopted the name New England for the whole area seeking self government. The move made a certain sense. New England was the name of the North’s central geographic feature. It was also a name locationally independent of Sydney. There were now two New Englands: the first the name attached to the area seeking self-government; the second the New England Tablelands, more commonly known just as the New England.
In August 1933, the New South Wales Government appointed a second Royal Commission into new states, the Nicholas Commission. This time the terms of reference were carefully crafted by David Drummond, the member for Armidale and Minister for Education. Drummond had drafted the 1924 motion setting up the Cohen Royal Commission. However, the wording of the motion had given the freedom required to allow Premier Sir George Fuller to slant the terms of reference towards a negative result. Drummond was mortified and was determined that this would not happen again.
I must to pause here to declare a special interest, for David Drummond was my grandfather and helped form my political views. In 1938, Drummond played a key role in the formation of the New England University College. The first lecturer to arrive at the new College was New Zealand born James Belshaw who was to teach economics and history. There he met the first librarian, Drummond’s eldest daughter Edna. They married in 1944. Drummond, cynics remarked, had founded a university to find a husband for his daughter.
Drummond carefully orchestrated the creation of the new Royal Commission. The focus was on the definition of areas in New South Wales suitable for self-government as states within the Commonwealth of Australia . There would be a single commissioner. The terms of reference were discussed with Nicholas to clarify his role.
After an extended series of public hearings that exhausted all involved, Nicholas finally reported in 1935. He found that two areas would be suitable for self-government as States within the Commonwealth of Australia, a northern region, and a central, western and southern region, with descriptions of the boundaries of each region listed. The mother state was consequently significantly reduced in size. A referendum was recommended in each of the proposed areas, with electors informed of the questions at issue, and of facts relating to the advantages and disadvantages of subdivision.
The movement had what it wanted, but not quite. The recommended boundaries of the Northern state included Newcastle and the Lower Hunter. This made sense in many ways. The boundaries were based on watersheds. They included Maitland, the rail head between the Northern and Southern lines, and a functioning port at Newcastle. They reflected economic and historical linkages and added to economic viability. But they also brought into the proposed state the coal and industrial interests in Newcastle and the Lower Hunter whose political affiliations, culture and interests were very different from those in the more agricultural north.
Following the report, Premier Bertram Stevens offered the movement leadership their referendum based on the proposed boundaries. They were in a quandary. Support for separation had declined as the Depression eased. The movement itself was exhausted after the long grind of the Nicholas Commission hearings where, lacking full time staff, they had had to coordinate witnesses and prepare submissions using volunteer labour.
They knew that there would be strong resentment further north at the inclusion of Newcastle, but could see the logic. The previously adopted boundaries had put a line south of Maitland to include the important railhead and the separatist areas in the Upper Hunter, but this cut the Hunter Valley in two. Apart from some campaigning by Drummond in Newcastle in 1931 where he explored the degree of support, there had been no education of Lower Hunter or Newcastle voters. Could they educate them in time? In the end, the leadership decided that the time was not right for a referendum, a decision that they would come greatly to regret. Separatist agitation now rested
The third new state wave came from a somewhat unexpected source, David Drummond’s son-in-law. As the Second World War began to wind down in 1944, attention turned to post-war reconstruction. There was a creative bubble of new ideas. Belshaw, then normally called Doc and later Prof, did not agree with his father-in-law that new states were an answer, but was committed to decentralisation and Northern development. To his mind, the answer lay in effective regional councils of the type proposed by the Cohen Commission. Along with geology lecturer Alan Voisey, also from the New England University College, Belshaw launched a regional councils’ movement.
As it became clear that the Sydney Government would never give real powers to the proposed regional councils, this movement turned into a revived New England New State Movement. A somewhat bemused Belshaw found himself as secretary of a movement that had gone in a different direction from that planned. Disillusioned with the idea of regional councils as a vehicle for decentralisation, Belshaw now turned to the idea of selective decentralisation, something that would later be picked up at the Australian National University and become the central point of the Whitlam Government’s growth centres strategy.
The revived new state movement re-adopted the name New England and also accepted the Nicholas boundaries, including Newcastle. It had also learned from the past. It knew that with fluctuating popular support, you must have staff to maintain pressure over time. This was done.
Over the 1950s, campaigning was maintained even though the end point still seemed far away. In 1961 a new campaign, Operation Seventh State, was launched culminating in a decision by the newly elected New South Wales Askin Liberal/Country Party Government to grant a plebiscite based on the Nicholas boundaries. The movement was now in the position that it had been in just over twenty years before.
The 1967 plebiscite campaign was a difficult one. The Labor Party was strongly opposed, the Liberal Party officially neutral, while only the Country Party was strongly in support. There was support in Newcastle and the coal fields, but polling showed that people were reluctant to go against Labor Party opposition. Asked if Newcastle should be included if there were a New England new state, a majority said yes. Rephrasing the question to say that Labor opposed separation, are you in favour, the yes vote dropped to 32 per cent.
In the end, the plebiscite was lost 53 per cent to 47 per cent. Newcastle and the coal fields voted solidly no, as did the dairy farming areas of the Hunter and Manning Valleys who were fearful of losing their preferential access to the Sydney milk market. These no votes just offset the high yes vote elsewhere in New England.
There was bitter disappointment. It had been a long and expensive campaign. The movement redrew the boundaries to exclude the Hunter and decided to run new state candidates at the next state election. Many Country Party new state supporters saw this as a betrayal. In the end, the movement collapsed, exhausted, amidst recriminations.
In the years since the 1967 plebiscite, the ideal of New England or the North has declined, lost in the turbulence of continuing social, economic, political and administrative change. And yet, and as we shall see, despite the constant change the basic identity survives, if sometimes like the shadows of the past upon paddocks revealed only by modern archaeological techniques.