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Diana Hambly suggests some starting points for investigating a locality

Hambly, D. ‘Finding a Starting Point’, Locality, Centre for Community History UNSW, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1998

Whether for pleasure or serious research there are a number of fairly simple starting points for discovering social history: walking, or using Sands Suburban Directory or subdivision posters.

Observing while leisurely strolling around one's community reveals a surprising wealth of information. Houses, shops, public buildings, streets, and open space silently voice details of a community's history. The more obvious information comes in the form of a physical distinction between old and new houses, and dates on shops and public buildings. For the serious researcher, the addition of street patterns and how open space has been used together with details of buildings suggest possible stages of development.

The age of older buildings gives an indication of the period of early development and the location of that development. Street and road patterns together with the age of the houses assists in identifying which were the earliest streets and main access routes into a community. The purpose for use of open space informs the observer of community values (via Councils) of the value placed on sport and recreation. Occasionally open space has retained some of its original trees, creeks and rock formations, providing an indication of the original bushland.

A locality can be explored on foot by randomly choosing different routes or by dividing the district into sections which can be viewed within a set amount of time. By being systematic a district can be viewed in minimal time and a mental picture of the proportion of residential, industrial, and retail areas formed. This visual information provides general social and economic details of a community.

Sometimes on walks it is possible to meet older members of the locality. Often they are keen to talk about past residents and the appearance of the community and how it has changed. Finding a source of oral history is a valuable bonus as it provides enthusiasm as well as additional details.

One source of information on late nineteenth and early-twentieth century suburban Sydney is available from the Sands Suburban Directory, (Sands) published between 1858 and 1933. Sands is useful as a starting point for details on Sydney suburbs. The directory comprises annually updated material on suburbs; trades and professionals; officials (i.e. government departments); courts, jails and legal departments; churches and religious colleges; doctors; companies; and organisations. The suburb section records Council members, the number of dwellings, the size of the local population and lists street names and the householders in these streets.

A comparison between the decades reveals when new streets were routed and population size changed, as well as the names of early residents, and sometimes their occupations.

Copies of Sands are on microfiche at many libraries. Reading the pages of Sands on a microfiche viewer can be demanding but the information is fascinating and worth the effort. Sands would be useful for gaining a general overview of a Sydney suburb at a particular date, finding out details of local streets and residents, or when a family member moved into a specific street. It also provides an indication of community life. For example, in Botany in 1900 there were poultry farmers, market gardeners, fishermen, tanners and fellmongers.

Former place names in a locality can prove challenging and interesting when trying to match them up with their contemporary names. In Botany at the turn of the century there was Popel's Paddock, Frog Hollow and Veteran Swamp, as it was the site of a group of land grants.

The third suggested starting point for researching a locality is subdivision posters which provide details of large areas turned into small farming communities and/or suburbs. The posters' usefulness as a starting point lie in the fact that they include maps of the subdivision and often the date of the auction sale of the lots.

Subdivision posters are the most tedious of the three suggested starting points. However, they provide comprehensive data on communities' development between 1850-1950 when areas on the outskirts of cities became suburbs. In many cases the design of late-twentieth century suburbs can be traced back to this period when large tracts of land, particularly land grants, were subdivided into residential-size blocks approximating a quarter of an acre.

The advantages of using subdivision posters as a starting point is that they give a bird's-eye view of how large tracts of land were reorganised, the sales promotions and/or lot sizes indicating whether the intended purpose of the lots was for shops, terraces, separate residences, or small farms. Since these maps are a record of how large tracts of land were subdivided they also provide information about when new streets were routed and give evidence of the existence of original roads, since the new streets needed to feed into existing access routes.

As well as the data relating to the subdivided area and lots, the publicity on the posters often provides valuable additional local details.

Usually the posters have an insert of a locality sketch showing the location of the subdivision and identifiable landmarks. The posters also have a description of the region and outline the advantages of buying in the area, such as a planned railway and the existence of a school.

Subdivision posters are more suited to the serious researcher as a source of additional information, after exploring an area or viewing Sands, as the posters are numerous.

Nineteenth century maps often include the location of land grants or the name of land-owners thereby tracing the transition from colonial to contemporary land use and noting important local identities.

The maps provide valuable data on a city's or town's urban origins as the patterns laid down by the early subdivisions remained unchanged until the more recent decades when expressways and large shopping complexes once again have radically changed existing street patterns.

Each of the suggested starting points can provide an abundance of information on social history. They can also be used to complement each other as they focus on different aspects of a community – explorations supply contemporary details, Sands furnishes data on early residents and life-styles, and subdivision posters provide extensive material on land use. However, no matter what is the individual approach any one of these three starting points can provide many hours of enjoyable research and effective historical inquiry.


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