The Battle for the Commons, Episode No 4353

The never-ending battle for the commons goes on.  It must be one of history’s great continuities.

The beautiful common lake, St Albans Common, NSW. Photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

The beautiful common lake, St Albans Common, New South Wales. Photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

After failing in November 2016 to persuade the NSW Parliament to abolish the commons, the NSW Government is preparing to again try and convince Parliament to do what it so conspicuously refused to do just three months ago.

Black swans on the common lake, St Albans Common. photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

Black swans on the common lake, St Albans Common. photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

Submissions closed on 21 February 2017 for public responses to the latest proposals for ‘reform’ of commons from the NSW Department of Industry’s Crown lands agency.  The Government’s ideas of Crown lands as a just a resource to be monetised is illustrated by this administrative arrangement, and it is difficult not to be cynical about any reasons given for wanting to remove the commons from their commoners.

A mob of cattle being mustered, coming over a crest in Wollombi Road and heading for the bottom yards. photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

A mob of cattle being mustered, coming over a crest in Wollombi Road on St Albans Common and heading for the bottom yards. photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

A commoners’ campaign, lead by the commoners of St Albans Common in the Macdonald Valley, north of Sydney, developed a set of basic principles for the future care and control of commons in New South Wales.  These include:

  • Commons belong to their commoners – they are not Crown land, and their arbitrary confiscation must not be allowed
  • Commons must remain under the care and control of representatives elected by the commoners – not ‘managers’ appointed by the minister
  • Commons legislation must remain as stand-alone legislation – it should not be repealed or otherwise replaced by Crown lands or other legislation
  • The responsibilities of commoners, and their rights of commonage, are of great traditional and historical significance – this should be respected and supported by the State
  • Commoners who have managed their commons sustainably, especially over many generations, should not be arbitrarily penalised because some others haven’t.
The mob going through the gates into the bottom yards, St Albans Common. Photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

The mob meanders through the gates into the bottom yards, St Albans Common. Photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

Commoners watch the mob as it moves into the bottom yards. Photo mrbaskerville 20 January 2017

Commoners and drovers making sure the mob is in the bottom yards, St Albans Common. Photo mrbaskerville 20 January 2017

I made a submission on the Department’s proposals, from the perspective of a historian of commons rather than that of a commoner.  My submission is essentially consistent with the commoners’ principles.  It also calls for the Department to abandon its attempts to abolish the commons, and instead adopt a ‘common-centred’ approach to revitalising the commons, and increasing local community engagement with their commons, especially commons that are claimed to have been neglected, or for which commoners now seem to be unaware of their traditional rights and responsibilities.

Cattle being inspected in the race at the bottom yards, St Albans Common. Photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

Commoners inspecting cattle in the race at the bottom yards, St Albans Common. Photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

My submission can be dowloaded here and the St Albans Common site contains links to the commoner’s submission, and to several other useful resources in the ongoing battle to save the commons of New South Wales from mammon.

The Settlers Arms, in the nearby village of St Albans. Photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

The Settlers Arms, in the nearby village of St Albans. Photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

A Scotch Thistle in flower - one of the more exotic inhabitants of St Albans Common. Photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

A Scotch Thistle in flower – one of the more exotic inhabitants of St Albans Common. Photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

Sullivans Bight, one of the many little vales that edge the flats of St Albans Common. Photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

Sullivans Bight, with post and rail fence of the old weaner’s yard, one of the many little vales that edge the flats of St Albans Common. Photo mrbbaskerville 20 January 2017

Old quarry along Wollombi Road, in St Albans Common. Photo mrbaskerville 20 January 2017

Old quarry along Wollombi Road, a landscape record of one of the multiple historic and contemporary uses of St Albans Common. Photo mrbaskerville 20 January 2017

Koalas, kangaroos and wombats - a sign of some of the natural inhabitants along Wollombi Road in St Albans Common. Photo mrbaskerville 20 January 2017

Koalas, kangaroos and wombats – a sign of some of the natural inhabitants whose environment is conserved along Wollombi Road in St Albans Common. Photo mrbaskerville 20 January 2017

St Albans Commons, cared for by its commoners since 1824, granted to its commoners in 1853, a place of historical, traditional and cultural significance that must, and will, survive and thrive long into the future. Photo mrbbaskerville, 20 January 2017

St Albans Commons, cared for by its commoners since 1824, granted to its commoners in 1853, a place of historical, traditional and contemporary cultural significance.  The common and its commoners will continue to survive and thrive long into the future, while transitory governments come and go. Photo mrbbaskerville, 20 January 2017

Historic Reserve Trusts & Boards Abolished, Commons Almost Go Same Way

The NSW Government’s new Crown Land Management Act 2016 came into force on 14 November.  This new Act repealed the Crown Lands Act 1989 and a number of other Acts such as the Trustees of Schools of Arts Enabling Act 1902, the Western Lands Act 1901, the Hay Irrigation Act 1902 and the Orange Show Ground Act 1897, as well as the regulations and by-laws made under these Acts.  The mainstream media failed to cover any of these fundamental changes.

One Act slated for repeal was the Commons Management Act 1989, legislation with roots going right back to the first commons established by Governor King on 11 August 1804 and the historic Epitome of the Existing Laws respecting Commons drawn-up by Judge Advocate Richard Atkins in Sydney in January 1805.  This was the first ‘charter’ of common rights created in Australia, linking the new commons here with the customs and practices of their ancient predecessors and with a future in which local people – commoners – would share and manage resources for their mutual benefit as communities.  Wherever they came from, however they arrived, their shared interests as local commoners were what mattered.  About half the first trustees appointed in 1805 were ex-convicts.

Following determined representations by the community in St Albans and the commoners of St Alban’s Common to all State MPs in all parties, all references to commons and the Commons Act were removed from the Bill by parliament.

One effect of the new Crown Lands legislation is to abolish or otherwise fundamentally change existing community bodies managing various Crown reserves.  This includes many boards and trustees.  In their place, the Minister may appoint a ‘land manager’, which could be a local council, a ministerial corporation, the head of a government agency or the existing reserve trust or board, among others, at the Minister’s discretion.  The Minister may sell, lease, exchange, transfer or otherwise dispose of such Crown land.

Another effect of the new Act is that many old and historic local community-based institutions have been abolished or transformed.  About 700 local reserves are (or were) controlled by local trusts.  For example, the 119-year old Orange Showground Trust will be replaced by Orange City Council as Orange Showground Land Manager. On the other hand, five reserve trusts are designated ‘special reserve trusts’ and appear to be exempt from the new Act, such as the 150-year old succession of trustees for Wagga Wagga Racecourse Reserve, and the 133-year old succession of trustees for the Hawkesbury Racecourse Trust, as well as all Crown cemetery trusts.  Apart from these few, the whole concept of local community trusteeship has been discarded in favour of management processes subject to the Minister.

The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common

But leaves the greater villain loose

Who steals the common from the goose.

Folk rhyme, 18th century

The quick action of the St Albans Commoners means that all commoners still retain control of their commons.  St Albans Common is one of the ‘old commons’, established in 1824, under the control of the trustees chosen by the commoners.  It is the oldest common still continually managed by its commoners as trustees, formalised in an 1853 Deed.  At 163-years old, the commoner’s Trust is older than any other form of self-governance in NSW and Australia, older than the parliament (160 years) which almost abolished it without a second thought, older than any local council, and equal in age to the Supreme Court of NSW.  Only the Governor and the Crown itself predate the St Albans Commoners as continuing historic institutions in New South Wales.  Commons and their trustees are just as significant to our shared heritage.

A politician realizes the significance of a common. Windsor & Richmond Gazette, 26 January 1917, page 8

A politician realizes the significance of a common. ‘St Albans Common’, Windsor & Richmond Gazette, 26 January 1917, page 8

However, the late change in the Bill does not mean commons are safe.  They will be considered again in 2017 when further amendments to the Act will be made.  The abolition of Commons Trusts has only been ‘deferred’ (Second Reading speech, Hon Niall Blair MLC, 8 November, and Kevin Andrews MLA for Tamworth, 9 November), so all commoners, whatever their common, need to remain alert.  In the debate, Clayton Barr MLA for Cessnock noted that the ‘deferral’ only occurred because commoners

“…came bearing arms against the changes … they were repulsed … they took up arms – their pens and keyboards – they were successful and should be congratulated for dragging the Government to agree to an amendment … at the eleventh hour

(Legislative Assembly, Second Reading Debate, 9 November).

It is clear from reading the debates that the Commoners of St Albans played a key role in saving the commons (see, for example, speech by David Shoebridge MLC, 8 November).  The commoners continued a very long tradition of upholding their rights, and their actions today recall those of the commoners of the Field of Mars Common and Ham Common in the 1860s and 70s and many other commoners over the years who fought valiantly, but often unsuccessfully, against enclosure and privatisation of their commons.  Eternal vigilance is the real price of commonage.

Commoners have a long history of fighting to defend their commons. 'Field of Mars Common', Sydney Morning Herald, 4 April 1862, page 5

Commoners have a long history of fighting to defend their commons. ‘Field of Mars Common’, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 April 1862, page 5

Are you a trustee or member of a reserve trust?  Are you aware of the impacts of the new Crown lands legislation on you, the Crown reserve that you steward, or your local community?  Has your reserve, its trust or its board been in existence for many years?  Do you know its history?  Is it embedded in the traditions of your community?  Do you know where its records and archives are (the new Crown land managers are specifically not ‘government agencies’, and so will not be subject to the State Records Act 1998)?  Do you know if it is being abolished?  Is your reserve listed on your local council’s LEP or the State Heritage Register as a heritage item?  Are you a commoner worried about the future of your common and commonage rights?  Do you know if you are a commoner of your local common?  Do you know where your common is (or perhaps, used to be)?

Commons are a part of our shared histories as communities, and they are also part of our present and future.  Commons were the first places where people had to work out how to live together in a new place, how to share resources so that all could benefit, and how to care for and look after a sustainable local environment that could support them all now and into succeeding generations.  Some succeeded, some didn’t, but that is part of our ‘common history’ from which we can learn so much about communal endeavour and ways for people to live and work together.  Conservation of historic institutions such as commoners and their trustees goes hand-in-hand with the conservation of environments and natural resources.  The ‘tragedy of the commons’ is never inevitable.

Commoners were not always successful in keeping their commons out of the clutches of the enclosers and privatisers. 'Sydney Common Estate', Evening News (Sydney), 17 October 1881, page 3

Commoners were not always successful in keeping their commons out of the clutches of the enclosers and privatisers. ‘Sydney Common Estate’, Evening News (Sydney), 17 October 1881, page 3

The new Act has only just been passed, and the fate of the ‘deferred’ commons and the ‘special reserve trusts’ has yet to be decided by your parliamentarians.  Instead of waiting to see what might happen, you can begin making inquiries now with your local council, Lands Office or State MPs.  Ask your MPs which way their vote was cast on this legislation, what they said in the debates, and which way they will vote for commons in the future.  Remind them to keep you informed of what they will do when commons next come before parliament.  Let them know you’ll be watching.  Don’t let them forget that historic, learned ways of local stewardship of local environments are central to continuing community traditions, living local economies and healthy local communities.  They must not be quietly stolen away.

Sometimes, a politician had to admit that a common was important, even if a public servant had to be the whipping boy. Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 23 February 1917, page 4

Sometimes, a politician had to admit that a common was important, even if a public servant had to be the whipping boy. Windsor & Richmond Gazette, 23 February 1917, page 4

Some Useful Resources

 Some useful words:

  • Common: land over which rights of common may be exercised without personally owning the land.
  • Commonage: generic term for rights of common, such as grazing, wood gathering, camping, mushrooming, collecting clay and fishing.
  • Commoner: a person with rights of common, usually defined by residence near a common.
  • Tragedy of the commons: an economic theory claiming commoners only act in their self-interest and will inevitably destroy their shared resources, but which ignores the reality of commoners managing their shared resources prudently and cooperatively without any need for enclosure or privatisation.
Commons management in action, by the trustees elected by the commoners. Windsor & Richmond Gazette, 12 September 1908, page 16

Commons management in action, by the trustees elected by the commoners. Windsor & Richmond Gazette, 12 September 1908, page 16

Place Names Can Break Our Hearts

Sydney City Council recently posted to an invitation to a public meeting hosted by the Council on Wednesday 16th October in the Abraham Mott Hall in Millers Point, Sydney to discuss a proposal to shrink Millers Point and Dawes Point by formally separating parts of each locality and combining them to invent a new suburb named Walsh Bay. For all the papers, see Corporate, Finance, Properties and Tenders Committee, scroll down to ‘Item 4’.  The notice and invitation to the public meeting can be viewed here.

Links are included to a number of technical papers, of which City Historian Dr Lisa Murray’s paper will be of most interest to historians. I urge all members as well as other historians and toponomysts to read these papers, and give some thought, in our practice as public historians, to the issues raised. You might also like to go along to the meeting.

View over Millers Point with the wharves built over Walsh Bay in the centre of the photo.  Image mrbbaskerville

View over Millers Point with the wharves built over Walsh Bay in the centre of the photo. Image mrbbaskerville

I have a view that a place name, or toponym, is a historical record that can be researched, read and interrogated like any other historical document. Yes, I have been much influenced by Paul Carter’s writings in this regard, especially Road to Botany Bay (1987), but place names have long been an important historical record for historians in many other countries. In contrast, place names in Australia have largely remained the province of linguists and taxonomists.

Historians would be appalled by and resist proposals to destroy archival records. Those of us working in public history are well aware that the archive is much bigger than the documentary records alone. Buildings, landscapes, artefacts, archaeological sites and place names are some of the other records critical to our work. I think we need to pay a lot more attention to place names generally, and especially to proposals to change place names, just as we would if someone was proposed to change or detroy any other archival record.

Of course things change. I believe change is the only constant in the universe. But change is not necessarily a juggernaut. The idea of managing change so that what is significant is not lost to the future is at the heart of heritage conservation. Another word for it is sustainability. Millers Point has already had its western boundaries manipulated and shaved to invent the new gambler’s playground named Barangaroo. If its northern shores are lost to the newly surburban Walsh Bay, the once maritime Millers Point will have become landlocked. How much longer before even that name, with all its inherent history, is lost and the Millers Point community consigned to the shadows?

fedration homes, millers point, sydney

fedration homes, millers point, sydney (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The community arguments for and against the proposed new suburb name are summarised in the documents on the Council website linked above. Support for conserving the existing toponomyscape comes from the people who have lived in the area for generations, and long-ago acquired their own demonym of ‘pointers’. Advocates of the new suburb claim a new identity by virtue of their recent resettlement in the rehabilitated wharf buildings. They may think of themselves as baysiders rather than pointers, at any rate they do not seem to regard themselves as new pointers.

I am struck, in reading the submission summaries, by claims that people who work in the old wharves are counted as ‘residents’ (which would surely mystify, although as a tactic perhaps not surprise, experienced resident action activists). Perhaps it reflects the merging of work and home into one continuum with no escape from work, something that the waterside workers of Millers Point would have resisted. I am also struck by the seeming failure of the much-vaunted arts and cultural activities in the old wharves to have meaningfully engaged with the residents living south and east of Hickson Road. Instead, culture is offered as a reason for separation. Have the Hickson Road-Pottinger Street revetments become a sort of harbourside Berlin Wall, separating the old town above from its waterfront below, quite contrarily to the intention of their design? The bridges and public steps are the links and unifiers between the levels in the landscape, not exits or entrances. Has a border been created where once there was none? And in only ten years? I think it is too early to know.

The Sydney Theatre and The Wharf Theatre, whic...

The Sydney Theatre and The Wharf Theatre, which are part of the Sydney Theatre Company, are located in Dawes Point (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The central claim for the suburban name change is that a new community has arisen in Walsh Bay that is distinct and separate from the old communities of Millers and Dawes points. The ‘test of time’ needs to be considered: how much time has to pass before something can be understood as historical and not a passing fad. Finding a correct answer is not the purpose of the question. Rather, exploring the test of time is meant to help us distinguish between the ephemeral and the enduring, to help decide what we want to conserve within a changing environment, what we can allow to pass, and how that passing might be done without losing the genius loci.

A place name attracts and evidences loyalty and identity. That is part of its function and also its meanings. Just like institutional names and personal names, place names are not mere assemblages of words that label something to distinguish it from what is around it. To change a name will invoke deep and often unplumbed emotions and resonances. It is an identity issue. It is not something to be done lightly or cavalierly, or, as the Heritage Council’s guideline on place names states “for reasons of fashion or expediency” (have a look at Place Names of Heritage Value Policy).

The question becomes one of whether the new residents (however they are defined) of the old Walsh Bay wharves have truly become a historical community, so distinct that it needs a named and bounded space separate from that out of which it has grown? I am not arguing that a place name should never be changed or that its boundaries should be set in concrete. But there must be a rationale for a change that is persuasive and meaningful. The poor mapping and comprehension skills of some government agencies who apparently have some difficulties telling the location of a Walsh Bay apartments street address is just not such a reason.

English: Walsh Bay wharf apartments

English: Walsh Bay wharf apartments (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To remove or shrink a place name is to remove or reduce an archival record, to loose or restrict the histories contained within the name. Would Sydney still be Sydney if its name was changed to something else, with no historical connections to its foundings or contexts? Place name changing can sometimes be a form of historical denialism, of pretending that the history of place didn’t happen in the ways that it did, of fulfilling a wish that it happened in some other way, or inventing an ephemeral future without roots. There will be instances of a community strongly desiring such a change so that their future can be freed from an oppressive past (for example, Stalingrad). That is not necessarily wrong, but it still raises a question of whether it socially and culturally desirable to purposely forget parts of the past because, at a certain time, some people find it uncomfortable or confronting? Should future generations be denied the opportunity to visit that past on their own terms, pretty or not? Will they thank us for whitewashing their history?

The issues involved in diminishing the highly significant histories of Millers Point and Dawes Point, and inventing the rehabilitated wharfscapes of Walsh Bay as a new suburb, are emblematic of larger issues. They go to the heart of how we value, understand and manage our cultural environments. There are plenty of examples of old place names being discarded or new place names invented across Sydney and NSW. Some of the results are truly awful, some so artfully the contrivance of property developer interests, some little more than empty syllables strung together in a supposedly mellifluous arrangement (vale Pristine Waters Council Area, 2000-2004).

The proposed name change does not reduce the place name Walsh Bay to that level. It is the proper name of a geographical feature over which wharves were built as part of the wholesale transformation of Millers Point by the Sydney Harbour Trust. That twentieth century history should be understood and valued in a holistic sense and on its own terms. I am not convinced that Walsh Bay is really a separate place from Millers Point and Dawes Point. At least, not yet. But nothing is inevitable. It’s that old ‘test of time’ issue.

The Millers Point and Dawes Point Village Precinct listing on the State Heritage Register (2002, see here) includes the statement “The natural rocky terrain, despite much alteration, remains the dominant physical element in this significant urban cultural landscape in which land and water, nature and culture are intimately connected historically, socially, visually and functionally.” That for the Walsh Bay Wharves Precinct (2000, see here) includes the statement “The Walsh Bay area is … [a] unique combination of steep rocky terrain, early, mid, late-Victorian and Edwardian housing, surviving relatively intact Victorian bond stores, and the results of an early twentieth century urban redevelopment scheme of unique scale”. The boundary of the proposed new suburb is the boundary between these two heritage items. Just a decade ago the distinction between the bay and point was only perceptible as a convenient planning arrangement. The evidence from the submissions for change suggests that still remains the only real distinction.

Walsh Bay, 1949

Walsh Bay, 1949 (Photo credit: State Records NSW)

There is little respect shown towards old place names and their histories and associated communities in NSW or indeed Australia. Place names are a significant historical record, and we as public historians are probably better placed than many others (especially in the professions) to argue for the public heritage values of place names. There is an argument that they have value as intangible records in the open air archive. Suburbanising Walsh Bay neither respects nor values the histories that have shaped and continue to shape this still-evolving and beautiful pointer locale. I think time is needed before it can be said that the name Walsh Bay has shifted onshore and up the escarpment, just as time is needed to heal a broken heart when something of value is lost forever.

Declaration: I was an Crown employee assigned to the NSW Heritage Office between 1998 and 2008, and during that time processed the Millers Point and Dawes Point Village Precinct nomination for State Heritage Register listing in 2002, and was the executive officer to the Heritage Council’s History Advisory Panel when it developed the Place Names of Heritage Value policy document for the Heritage Council in 2004. I have not been employed in the NSW Heritage Office since August 2008.

Happy 225th Queen’s and King’s Birthday Holiday

Today, Monday 10th June 2013, is the 225th Queen’s (or King’s) Birthday holiday in eastern Australia (Western Australia has the holiday in September or October, during the wildflower season).  It is Australia’s first and oldest public holiday, having been celebrated and recorded every year since 1788.

Captain Watkin Tench of the Marine Corps wrote the following description of the King’s Birthday in Sydney Cove on the 4th June 1788:

“Hours of festivity, which under happier skies pass unregarded and are soon consigned to oblivion, acquire in this forlorn and distant circle a superior degree of acceptable importance.

On the anniversary of the King’s birthday all the officers not on duty, both of the garrison and His Majesty’s ships, dined with the governor.  On so joyful an occasion, the first too ever [be] celebrated in our new settlement, it were needless to say that loyal conviviality dictated every sentiment and inspired every guest.  Among other public toasts drunk was prosperity to Sydney Cove, in Cumberland county, now named so by authority.  At daylight in the morning the ships of war had fired twenty-one guns each, which was repeated at noon and answered by three volleys from the battalion of marines.

Nor were the officers alone partakers of the general relaxation.  The four unhappy wretches labouring under the sentence of banishment were freed from their fetters to rejoin their former society; and three days given as holidays to every convict in the colony.  Hospitality, too, which ever aquires a double relish by being extended, was not forgotten on the 4th of June, when each prisoner, male and female, received an allowance of grog; and every non-commissioned officer and private soldier had the honour of drinking prosperity to his royal master, in a pint of porter served out at the flagstaff, in addition to the customary allowance of spirits.  Bonfires concluded the evening and I am happy to say that excepting a single instance which shall be taken notice of hereafter [the convict Samuel Payton’s attempt to rob an officer’s tent], no bad consequence or unpleasant remembrance flowed from an indulgence so amply bestowed.”

In one of the more formal rituals on the day Governor Phillip described the boundaries and named the plain around Sydney Cove as the County of Cumberland, in honour of the King’s brother Prince Henry, Duke of Cumberland.  This was the first significant regionym (royal or vice-regal placename) bestowed in New South Wales, and the first and oldest sub-division of the colony.  He had also planned to unveil the name of the intended town in Sydney Cove but decided otherwise, although that name was rumoured to be Albion.

Landscape plan of Sydney Cove in April 1788, showing Government House where the Governor entertained the naval and military officers, and the camps where the convicts received their grog.  Image source National Library of Australia

Landscape plan of Sydney Cove in April 1788, showing Government House where the Governor entertained the naval and military officers, and the camps where the convicts received their grog. Image source National Library of Australia

The King’s Birthday was also celebrated in the colony’s other settlement of Sydney Bay, on Norfolk Island, where Lt Governor King recorded the following in his journal:

“Wednesday 4th June 1788, Winds NW, no surf at landing place, fresh gales and cloudy, began breaking up part of the ground on the NE side of the hill [Mt George, now Flagstaff] to sow wheat.  At sunrise hoisted up the colours in observance of the Anniversary of His Majesties Birth Day and gave each of the people some liquor to drink His Majesties health and at their request excused them from any work in the afternoon.”

Map of Norfolk Island (right) and Sydney Bay (left), c1790.  Image source Nationbal Library of Australia map-rm3460-v

Map of Norfolk Island (right) and Sydney Bay (left), c1790. Image source Nationbal Library of Australia

Back in London, on the other side of the globe, there were official ceremonies that were reported in newspapers across the kingdom, of which this is a typical example:

“Yesterday being the anniversary of His Majesty’s birth-day, who entered into the fifty-first year of his age, the drawing-room at St. James’s was one of the most numerous and brilliant perhaps ever seen at the British Court.  Their Majesties, the Princess Royal, Augusta, Elizabeth and Mary, Prince of Wales, Dukes of York, Gloucester and Cumberland, with all the foreign Ambassadors, Envoys, Secretaries, and Consuls, Duke of Orleans, Mons. de Calonne, and other foreigners of the first distinction; the Lord Chancellor, most of the Bishops, all the great officers of State, a number of the Nobility of both sexes, &c, &c, were precient.  Their Majesties, and the Princesses … came to the ball-room … at nine-o’clock, and the Princes and Duke of York a few minutes before them.

The King was dressed in a dark coloured suit, exceedingly plain, not even a diamond.

The Queen was superbly dressed in a blue silver tissue buoy, train and petticoat; the latter entirely covered, in waves, with deep fine blond lace; in front, finer stripes of blue satin ribbon, edged with diamonds; in the middle of the ribbon were roses of diamonds at proper distances, and pendant from each a tassel of diamonds; round the bottom a deep silver fringe; on each extremity on the top of the hoop was a large bow of diamonds; the stomacher one blaze of diamonds, and a large bouquet of diamonds placed on the left-side sleeve knots of diamonds; necklace and ear-rings equally superb.

Queen Charlotte, consort of George III, mezzotint by Thomas Frye, 1762.  Image source Tumblr

Queen Charlotte, the first queen-consort for New South Wales, mezzotint by Thomas Frye, 1762. Image source Tumblr

The Duke of Cumberland appeared in his naval uniform.

The King was surrounded by all his Ministers during the evening, but conversed mostly with Mr Pitt, Lord Sydney and Lord Howe.

Some of the illuminations, particularly at the west end of town, were splendid as were all the places of public amusement.”

Many of the newspapers also printed the ‘Ode for His Majesty’s Birthday 1788’, that included lines such as “What native Genius taught the Britons bold/To guard their sea-girt cliffs of old?/’Twas Liberty …/ The King’s, the people’s balanc’d claims to found/ On one eternal base, indissolubly bound/ … For lo, revering Britain’s cause/ A King new lustre lends to native laws/ The sacred sovereign on this festal day/ On Albion’s old renown reflects a kindred ray/”

George III as the colonists in New South Wales may have encountered him.  Image source Museum of Victoria.

George III as the colonists in New South Wales may have encountered him. Image source Museum of Victoria.

George III as the colonists may have imagined him.  Image source Museum of Victoria

George III as the colonists may have imagined him. Image source Museum of Victoria

But what does it all mean?

Historian McKenna argued in 2004 that the Sir Robert Menzies’ understanding of allegiance to the crown was a means of connecting contemporary Australians with enlightened and noble historical traditions, with a mystical past.  The constitution itself, in the mystical, shakespeareanesque language of its covering clauses and preamble, connected Australians to an ancient and mythological past.  Republicans see this as anachronistic, but overlook its profound appeal, its mythological language of belonging, what might be called a Dreaming.  For Menzies the crown was ‘an element of the spirit, a spiritual and emotional conception’.  Political scientist Judith Brett has written that the crown still fulfils the need to symbolise the foundations of the nation-state by something beyond itself, something broadly accepted and emotionally rich in symbols.  The foundations of this civic creed, as described by McKenna and Brett, flows through the readings of the King’s Birthday celebrations in 1788 in Sydney Cove and Sydney Bay and London.

The colonists, by the act of place naming, imagined into existence new places such as New South Wales, Botany Bay, Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, Norfolk Island, Sydney Bay, and Cumberland County.  This is how they imaginatively and intellectually occupied, historicised and inhabited the native spaces of the continent.  The first king’s birthday celebrations added further historical depth to these new/old places.  It was part of the revolutionary transformation of locally indigenous spaces into globally connected places.

Part of the history evoked in these new/old place names, and the serial royal birthday celebrations (as Tench indicated, this was the first of many to come), is a history of a direct mystical connection between peoples and their king, regardless of place or social status.  The king’s ethereality is enhanced by distance and absence, by being in a faraway place, present only in the symbolic representations of royal heraldry and royal portraiture.  For most colonists, his presence can only be imagined, rather than physically encountered as it was by the denizens of St James’ Palace (although even they encountered but a representation, a king ‘in a dark suit without even a diamond’ amidst the silken blue finery of his official birthday party).

The annual Queen’s Birthday holiday reveals, year after year, the enduring founding mythos of a sacred covenant between subjects and their sovereign that extends across time and space, ‘indissolubly bound’ as the Ode declaimed, and which remains at the heart of the society that has evolved in Australia.

Indeed, this mythos is contained in the preamble to the Australian constitution which states the people have agreed (through the Federation referenda of 1898, 1899 and 1900) to “unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown”.  A deep desire to retain this immemorial entanglement was again expressed by the people through the republic referendum in 1999.

Is it possible for a new civic mythos to be imagined, a fusion of indigenous and settler ancientness, another Dreaming that explains peoples and places across the continent and its isles?  Could it be argued that the Queen’s Birthday holiday, pregnant with possible futures, is the real Australia Day?

A re-imaging of the Queen's Birthday holiday in Sydney in 2013.  Image source Keystone Group

A re-imagining of the Queen’s Birthday holiday in Sydney in 2013. Image source Keystone Group

Watkin Tench A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, 1793; edited by Tim Flannery and published as 1788, Text Publishing, Melbourne 1996: pages 66-68

Philip Gidley King Remarks & Journal kept on the Expedition to form a Colony in His Majestys Territory of New South Wales …His Majesty’s Ship Sirius …, 24 October 1786 – 12 January 1789pages 150-151

Historical records of New South Wales, Vol. I, Part II, 1783-1789, Government Printer, Sydney 1889

Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 5th June 1788

Chelmsford Chronicle, 6th June 1788

Mark McKenna This Country: A Reconciled Republic, UNSW Press, UNSW 2004, pages 98-101

The dedicated reader will find it useful to have a look at Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme & Power of a Common-Wealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civill, first published in London 1651, particularly Part II: ‘Of Common-Wealth’; and (regarding the power of place naming) Paul Carter’s The Road to Botany Bay: An Essay in Spatial History, Faber and Faber, London and Boston 1987.

More than Anzac: Remembering Australia’s German Place Names

The approaching centenary of The Great War or World War One seems to be focused on the ‘front line’, military figures, battlefield memorials and so on.  The official designation is the Centenary of Anzac (see http://www.anzaccentenary.gov.au).  It’s as though the war was fought by our innocent, fun-loving, adventurous Australian lads against blood-thirsty, incompetent, blimpish British generals.  I fear wave upon wave of nationalist jingoism is about to be heaped upon us for the next four or five years.

However there are as many pasts as there are futures, and we can choose to explore different paths to the official history. Prior to the outbreak of the War there were a great many place names used in Australia that were of German origin, and reflected the patterns of settlement by German-speaking colonists.  By 1914, German-born Australians formed 5% of the overseas-born population and 1% of the total population. With their locally-born descendants the community was larger than this figure suggests.

The significance of Australia’s German heritage today can be seen in the 2011 Census. People of German ancestry form 4.5% of the total population, with 83% born in Australia, 10% born in Germany and 7% elsewhere. German is the sixth-largest ancestry group, and second-largest ‘non-British’ ancestry, among Australians.  German is the 8th most-spoken language in Australia.  Despite this strong historical and contemporary presence, Australia’s German heritage is not well known or appreciated in the general community.  This is a silent but lingering legacy of two world wars.

During the war, and especially in and after 1917, at least 96 German place names were replaced with place names that were considered more suitable or patriotic.  Only about 18 of the German names were reinstated in later years.

The name changing took place in a highly charged atmosphere of anti-German feeling.  People of German heritage were being excluded from jobs, business activities, land dealings and other economic and social activities, incarcerated in detention centres (called concentration camps at the time), and labeled enemy aliens.

Recruitment poster showing Australia being re-named under German occupation, 1916

Recruitment poster showing Australia being re-named under German occupation, 1916

About 73% of place name changes occurred in South Australia, but the name changing occurred in all states.  The earliest was in 1915 (Bismark to Collinsvale, Tasmania) and the last in 1920 (Reinholtz’s PO to Reynold’s PO, Victoria). There may also be, at more local and personal levels, instances of the changing of German names for streets, parks, buildings and businesses, or suppressing the use of German language in schools or the press.

There was also a degree of replacing German place-names in German New Guinea after Australia occupied the German colony in 1914 (e.g. Berlinhafen to Aitape, but no change to Bismarck Sea), but it does not seem to have been as extensive as in mainland Australia.

A few instances of name changing occurred in Canada (e.g. Berlin to Kitchener, Ontario 1916), but none in New Zealand.  A bill was introduced in the US Congress in 1918 to change all US towns named Berlin or Germany to Liberty or Victory, but it was never enacted.  Changing German place names seems to have been predominantly an Australian phenomenon in the English-language world during the Great War.

The other major name-changing event during the war was the change of the name of the royal house from Saxe-Coburg & Gotha (or Wettin) to Windsor.  By a royal proclamation of 17th July 1917, King George V changed the name of the royal house to Windsor.  He also abandoned all titles held under the German Crown, stripped his German relations of their British titles and encouraged the anglicisation of all German sounding family names (e.g. Battenberg to Mountbatten).  The same happened in Belgium where the royal house name was changed in 1917 from Saxe-Coburg & Gotha to van België (Dutch)/de Belgique (French).   The royal house names, whether in their German form or as Windsor or van België/de Belgique, were also place names.  The change of the name of the royal house was widely reported across Australia, it symbolizes the intensity of anti-German feelings throughout the community, it directly relates to the idea of war-inspired name changing, it illustrates the ways that war divided every family, and it provides a transnational element that connects the world-wide character of the war to events within local communities and families.

George V sweeps away his German relatives, and symbolically the German connections of all his subjects: Punch (London), 27 June 1917

George V sweeps away his German relatives, and symbolically the German connections of all his subjects: Punch (London), 27 June 1917

Another significant factor in the replacement of German place names in Australia is its occurrence at around the same time as the conscription referenda in October 1916 and December 1917.  Both resulted in victories for the ‘no’ vote, and exposed many social, cultural and political divisions about the war within local communities and families and between friends and colleagues.

The changing of place names and the changing of the royal house name are book-ended by the conscription referenda.  All occur around the same period during the war, and collectively illustrate a powerful and disturbing mix of anti-German feelings, anti and pro conscription passions, suspicion, gossip, allegations, innuendo and spying within every community.  The brutalization of war reached into every street and home.

The German Arms, Hahndorf, South Australia: a part of Australia's German heritage.  Photo http://www.australia.com/explore/cities/adelaide/sa-hahndorf.aspx

The German Arms, Hahndorf, South Australia: a part of Australia’s German heritage. Photo http://www.australia.com/explore/cities/adelaide/sa-hahndorf.aspx

Not every German place name was changed in Australia.  Notable examples include Adelaide (SA), Coburg and Brunswick (Victoria), Pyrmont and Leichhardt (NSW) and Hermannsburg (NT).  Why were some places different?  What local factors were at work that saved these German place names?

Recovering our heritage of lost or suppressed German place names will provide an opportunity for reflection within local communities about the ways that war on the grandest of scales distorts and damages life in even the smallest suburbs and country towns, within families and between friends. There would be an opportunity to connect with families who changed their German names, or denied their German ancestry, or adopted other tactics to survive anti-German feelings of the period.

Such remembering may also uncover the ‘flip side’ of anti-German feelings, such as the German-Australians who served in the military forces and were accepted by their comrades in arms, as well as the non-German defenders of local Germans and German cultural forms (such as place names and music).

The suppression of German place names is a symbol for the angst and suffering that occurred far from the front lines for communities and families as familiar places and people were deemed alien and cast out as enemies.  The war was fought around every kitchen table and living room, on every verandah and in every meeting room and pub as much as it was fought in the trenches.

Recovering, remembering, perhaps even reinstating our German place names would provide a counter-point to the official narrative, and show the deeply pervasive nature of war far from the scenes of battle.  It would allow all Australians to rediscover and newly-appreciate our shared German heritage, and help some old divisions and hurts to be addressed and reconciled.