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excerpts from Peter West’s article on writing local histories

West, P. ‘Local history — a commentary and a case study’, Teaching History, History Teachers’ Association of NSW, Vol. 24, No. 3b, 1990

excerpt one

There has been a revolution in the writing of history in Australia in my lifetime. When I went to the University of Sydney in the early 1960s there was no Australian history – or rather, there was one course which we were warned not to do under any circumstances. Histories of Australia were few, dull and British oriented. The reality today is different. The Bicentennial Year alone produced a flood of material analysing life in 1838 and 1888, the role of women, and numerous other aspects. We now have a solid body of material too, on how our history is written. But this revolution has left one corner of Australian history-writing untouched: the field of local history.

Local history should be something lively and interesting. It should he the means by which ordinary people can relate their own lives to world events – to see in local events "a portion of the history of the world" as Ranke says. Some personal histories can unite small-time local events with world trends, as Ward's autobiography does. This local history ought to be able to show the citizen of Ballarat or Bellerive or Burwood how his or her suburb developed under the impact of those great events which make Australia a part of the world: wars; economic boom and depression, immigration; the spread of scientific and medical advances; and ideas like communism or the recent enhanced consciousness of the environment

What is wrong with "local history" – this lurks in historical societies and local libraries and which ought to die out in favour of a properly thought-out regional study?

Common Faults of Local Histories

Most local histories fall down in the following ways. First, there is no development over time. The chronology of Australia is reasonably clear-cut, with some forty thousand years of aboriginal occupation followed by years of white invasion, some conflict between the two groups and gradual deforestation, agricultural settlement, industrialisation and urbanisation. All this can be seen in virtually any town in Australia to some degree. Richard Cashman describes Marrickville as going through four changes from a rural outpost of Sydney to an inner-city suburb, and its changes over time are clear. But most local historians do not have the ability to see such development. Even well-known local historians usually ignore aborigines altogether and spend most of their time detailing the early years of their town or city. The key historical question of how today's town developed from what existed two and three generations ago is ignored. The chapter headings in most local histories show the lack of historical development: after a couple of chapters on the suburb's foundation, there is a succession of chapters entitled "Transport' or "Old Houses" before an end-piece entitled "The Present". There is no history here, only a mish-mash of historical data and trivia thrown in together.

The case of Pollon's book is fairly typical. The book is based on James Jervis' The Cradle City of Australia, with additions by Philip Geeves. Despite, or perhaps because of this multiple authorship, the book begins with Captain Cook and the arrival of Captain Arthur Phillip in Parramatta in November, 1888. But any sense of movement has been abandoned by chapters 6 and 7 which talk merely of "The Early Inns" and "Public Buildings". A final chapter entitled "Parramatta Now!" adds a few superficial comments on Parramatta in the early 1980s

Whatever this is, it is not history – systematic analysis of the past by a writer who asks a series of questions; or as Pieter Geyl said, a debate between the past and the present

A second is related to the first – the heavy concentration on the first 50 or 60 years of white settlement. Existing histories of Parramatta fall into this pattern, with much detail on Macarthur's fights with Macquarie, Marsden's propensity to have convicts flogged, and so forth; while the complex developments of the Depression and postwar expansion are largely ignored. It is easy to see why. The early history is well known and well documented: all a historian has to do is to trot out the old familiar stories and the readers will be happy. On the other hand, the recent history of Parramatta is not well known and is difficult to write about because the scale of change has been so great: even as late as the 1900s, places like Parramatta and Penrith were country towns linked to Sydney by a railway, with the whole social fabric dominated by twenty or thirty families who ran the shops, small industries and professions and larger orchards. Since that time, the population has doubled many times and the complexity of the settlements has greatly increased. So historians simply do what is easiest and stop when the research becomes too onerous.

Third, the really significant issues in Australian history are not investigated by most local historians. Some of the questions which should be addressed are: How did aborigines live before the arrival of white people? Did whites attack aborigines, or provoke their attacks? Which ethnic groups (Irish, Scots, Welsh, ltalians, Asians) appeared in the locality, and why? And one very simple question, often ignored,

is – how did people work, get around and enjoy themselves in any given period? No doubt other historians would ask other questions. But historians have to ask questions; they do not simply reproduce history. The questions we ask reflect our own values, and we must make clear from the beginning where we stand and what questions we will ask. Otherwise what is supposed to be history becomes a rag-bag of trivial bits and pieces.

Fourth, local histories tend to be unable to maintain a balance between fact and interpretation I think one of Pollon's worst errors is an inability to distinguish fact from function. For example: "Some settlers were speared and sometimes eaten by the natives."

This seems to have been a misunderstanding – possibly based on Collins' claim that the newly-arrived English, illiterate and ignorant of their Australian environment, spread the rumour that the bush was full of cannibals. Further, Pollon provides few references for any of her claims, apart from incidental source for a quotation. The reader inevitably makes his/her own judgement of such a historian.

How Can These Problems Be Solved?

Enough of the problems I see in local histories. How did I and fellow historians solve these problems in working on the history of Parramatta. Let me take each of the above problems in turn.

First, development over time. I decided that work had to be done on every period of Parramatta's history, not just on the usual 1788 1850.1 worked out what I thought were some turning-points after doing some reading and thinking. These points seemed to be as follow: 1788, the year when Parramatta (or Rose Hill) became a town; the Macquarie era, 1810-1820, when it ceased to be a few huts and became a permanent settlement; the coming of the railway in 1855; the industrial development of about 1870-1900; and the end of World War II which saw the start of a massive input of people and capital. I dedicated chapters to each period marked by the turning-points, and added some more chapters, for example on the Depression, to see whether developments Australia-wide were matched by those in Parramatta.

Second, I had to address the problem of writing about the events of my own lifetime, 1945 to the present. As suggested above, the scale of the change was huge: Parramatta in 1945 was a small, folksy country town surrounded by orchards farms and a scattering of houses; Parramatta today is a city of towering glass and concrete. I read other histories of towns and cities and tried to comprehend what had happened and then why it had happened. In doing so I talked to fellow historians and students, and was able to persuade a graduate student to write his own version of Parramatta since the war. Even so, the events in Parramatta since the war are so vast and reflect so many national and international events (for example, the Whitlam Government's emphasis on the suburbs, and the flood of migrants from Europe and Asia into Western Sydney) that I keep wondering whether my account will be adequate to the task.

Third, how did l try to avoid in my own history a random collection of events, important and trivial? I looked at other histories and saw that the best of them imposed a framework of questions on the people and events they studied. My questions went as follows, for every period of the town's history:

  • What did Parramatta look like?
  • How did people get around? (on foot on horse, by car)
  • How did people earn their living?
  • How did young people spend their time? (in schools, in organised sport, playing, in technical and further education)
  • What was the relationship between Parramatta and its region?
  • How was Parramatta changing?

Even with this framework, numerous problems arose. We can only guess what Parramatta looked like before 1788. We have Lycett's Views of Parramatta and other paintings of the region around 1800 – but all of them show a landscape which is obviously European, with its grassy slope s and bright green trees. In almost every period, the same problem presented itself: the views of Parramatta whether by poet, painter or historian, tell us more about the eyes and mind of the person who created the picture than about the town itself. By comparing sources and looking at conclusions common to them, a sense of objective reality could be obtained. Even so I was conscious that I was writing a personal interpretation.

Fourth, how did I maintain a balance between fact and opinion? I tried to use a multiplicity of sources and asked the above questions of the sources. I certainly read secondary critically – the works of Jervis and Pollon discussed earlier. I turned to the local and Sydney newspapers to try to get a picture of daily life: but as someone with some journalistic experience, I am very conscious that newspapers filter out a great deal of information and present their readers with a comfortable view of the world. (Western Sydney's readers of the Sydney Morning If Herald and other media have been very critical of the view from Broadway in which Parramatta and Blacktown appear as places where typical daily events include pack rape, wife-beating and drunken brawls). I turned to maps, street directories, and photographs to gain another view of life in Parramatta. And I wrote to or interviewed old people about their memories, because I wanted to hear the voices of Parramatta's people. I talked to other historians and asked for critical comment. I taught students what I knew, and asked them to investigate small pieces of the whole. Some outstanding examples were John Martin's piece on postwar Parramatta, and two studies of the Depression by dune Keogh and Pat Johnson. I repeatedly conferred with dim Power, who teaches courses with me. And I tried hard to create a history which avoided the errors I could see in other histories.

I tried to change established patterns of thinking and cross familiar boundaries. As a matter of sheer academic convenience, historians write about schools or colleges of TAFE, or towns, or cities, or a dozen different subject areas. I tried hard to create a history which united all these in one grand sweep – so that readers could understand how changes in schools were connected to those in the industry, and those in Colleges of TAFE, and changes in the size of the town the risks of doing so are large, but it is worth trying.

Finally I had readers in mind; teachers, children old people, immigrants and their children. I tried to write a history which anyone with an upper primary school reading age could understand. I don't think enough of us think hard about what we will produce and how it will be used. Too often, we get buried in our difficulties and don't think enough of our reader's concerns. History is not difficult to write, and so there are many bad local histories. But to write a carefully-planned local history which ordinary people can understand is a very complex task indeed.

excerpt two

Parramatta at the End of the Depression

A visitor to the town in 1933 was full of praise:

It is the most English-looking town I have seen outside of England... The old-world trees and grasses, the shady river bank, the romantic bridge, the wide, pleasant streets, the absence of shrieking trams, the well-laid out parks, the flowers and lawns and church spires – all these make you think of an English town of the better class.

Cars, buses, lawns, and old homes made Parramatta a quiet and restful town away from the noise and bustle of Sydney, the writer said.

By 1937-8 Parramatta was enjoying full prosperity, although there were radio reports of annexations and rearmament from Germany and Japan. Shirley Hennessy tells us what it was like growing up in Parramatta in the thirties. Shirley was born in Morton Street, East Parramatta in 1928. At one end of the street was a large old building used as a residence for King's School boys. Every year when the boys graduated from school, they would tear each others' uniforms off – a tradition still alive today. Men with horses and carts brought the daily necessities to families: the iceman, the clothes prop man, the milkman the eggman and lastly the rabbit man, who would get boys and girls running to him with his cry of "Rabbit-oh! Rabbit-oh!" Horses and carts, too, were used to remove garbage and sanitary pans. Shirley also remembers families in her street having nets with which they used to go prawning in the river. On Sundays her family would often catch the red steam tram down George Street to the wharf at Camellia, then travel by ferry to Nielsen Park. Another popular outing was walking to Rydalmere to watch the asylum's inmates working on farms. Shirley went to school at Parramatta South school in Macquarie Street. Its Infants school Mistress was Miss Swan, who lived at Elizabeth Farm. Two fellow students were Jewish refugees from Germany. Shirley went on to the Domestic Science school, where she studied book-keeping, shorthand, typing, English, Maths, History, Geography, Art and Physiology. These were intended to prepare girls for a life as shop keepers, office girls and housewives. Such training would "bring contentment to many an Australian home", a Minister of Education stated confidently.

Parramatta was still a country town, but one which lay on the edge of Sydney. It had had its electric rail service since 1928, and Parramatta Road had been concreted during the Depression, so that its links with Sydney were strong. It had a Parramatta Electric Supply Company and the Australian Gas Light Company to supply homes. An industrial plant at Clyde, owned by Shell after 1928, was the first oil refinery in Australia. The age of the motor car had arrived.

In 1938 Parramatta was proclaimed a city. The occasion provided an opportunity for much comment by the newspapers. One anonymous comment tells us nevertheless how small and pretty a community Parramatta was:

The surrounding country, richly varied, undulating and tree-clad, with attractive homes and gardens dotting the landscape, with a river winding through green banks to the sea, may fairly be ranked among the show places of the world.

Although it was now called a city, Parramatta still had the relaxed mood of a country town. In 1938 Parramatta's shopping centres included a wide range of shops typical of most town and suburbs. For example, in George Street you would have found the Parramatta Seed Company, McEwan's Cash and Carry (the antecedent to today's supermarket), Lanyon's Chickens, Swans Dry Cleaners, McKay Brothers Pastrycooks and Whatmuffs Radio Store. In addition, Murray Brothers flourished on the corner of Church and Macquarie Streets. Schools included Parramatta High and Parramatta Commercial High, two state primary schools, two convent schools and the Marist Brothers as well as other private schools.

Martin sums up developments to 1939:

Parramatta was a pleasant place to be. With a municipal population of 18,630, it was very close to is hinterland. Huge areas of land were dedicated as parks (the Parramatta Park then included much of Westmead). Lake Parramatta was dedicated as a "Bushland Picnic and Swimming Reserve". The Lake was no longer needed' as a water supply, the town having been connected to the Sydney water system in 1930.

But Parramatta's days as a rural showplace were numbered. World War II and its aftermath would change it forever.

Reproduced with permission of the author, Peter West.

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