Hunting for local history treasures

It is not easy finding good second hand bookshops in regional areas – at least not in my recent experience in NSW. For me an indicator of something special is the range of local history carried – books and monographs that are specific to the area and that one might not find elsewhere.

Armidale and surrounds are an exception; almost certainly because the town has a University of long standing and high repute – the University of New England – and there have long been good researchers and writers in the Armidale and District Historical Society.

There are two good bookshops there. The first, Burnett’s Books, has been in the beautiful little town of Uralla (20 minutes south of Armidale) for at least a decade. That place is worth a visit in its own right because of the new boutique brewery, McCrossins Mill Local Museum and the Uralla Wool Room (the latter is owned by my sister – so I should add a disclaimer).

My nicest find in Burnett’s was a 1960 edition of The Australian Legend signed by the author. Russel Ward, of course, taught at the University of New England and completed that foundational study of Australian identity there in 1957/1958 when it was published. So my volume is not quite a 1st Edition but it’s signature and location give it a very nice provenance and proximity to the author.DSCN5913

Another discovery had both local associations and relevance to the Sydney Harbour history I was writing at the time. That was Nancy Keesing’s Garden Island People in mint condition published by the Wentworth Press in 1975 but signed by the author and dedicated to Russel Ward in 1983.

That trawl also produced Laurence Le Guay’s Sydney Harbour, a photographic work from 1966 (the year I arrived in Sydney Harbour as a boy in a boat!) with a great preface by Kenneth Slessor.

Burnett’s has some gems but don’t go there expecting conversation. Despite my many purchases I rarely get a hello – it is at the ‘Black Books’ end of the spectrum for those familiar with that comedy series.DSCN5914 At the friendly end is Boobooks in Armidale itself. I visited their new premises the other week fired up with a need to find out more about local history because of a couple of drives through the surrounding grazing land that left me breathless with its beauty (see my previous blog-post).

It was a fruitful visit. Sitting on top of a new acquisitions table was RB Walker’s Old New England – a 1st Edition from 1966 by Sydney University Press in mint condition. And a great read.

Down in the local history section was another 1st Edition; this one EJ Banfield’s Last Leaves from Dunk Island. There is very little literature about the Australian coast before the post-war period and the poetry of John Blight and a few others. Robert Drewe and Tim Winton were pioneers of a genre as late as the 1980s.

The temptation to get this volume because of my interest in the coast increased when I saw in a child’s hand the dedication to ‘Daddy’ followed by the names Judith, Bruce and Peter. There, too, was the original Armidale bookseller’s stamp.


The Wrights were a prominent local family. A quick consultation of the online Australian Dictionary of Biography confirmed my hunch that this was Judith Wright’s Christmas present to her father – probably chosen by her and on behalf of her younger brothers. The datDSCN5911e ‘1925’ means the gift was likely prompted by the family’s recent cruise north to SE Asia, taken as a last attempt to improve her mother’s health. Ethel Wright died the following year and the young Judith was devastated. Last Leaves is double the treasure because of its provenance.


Relics of an industrial coast: Losing the Port Kembla chimney and saving Catherine Hill Bay jetty

I’ve never understood the urge to cheer when something is destroyed, however spectacular the destruction might be. My feeling is that objects embody effort, skill and time – and sometimes a great deal of blood, sweat and tears. All that is worthy of respect and consideration, at least. There are some exceptions to this of course; not least the toppling of the statues of tyrants. The golden likeness of the brutal Enver Hoxha of Albania is a good example.

The demolition of the towering Port Kembla copper smelter chimney last week produced whoops and claps from the audience assembled to watch the structure come crashing down. Admittedly I didn’t grow up near what the Daily Telegraph (20 February 2014) referred to as the ‘infamous’ tower. My washing was never spoiled by it, nor did I breathe in its exhaust. Perhaps some of those who cheered were really glad to see the thing go because of the bad memories it triggered and what it represented – though it hadn’t been operational since 2003. Perhaps the chimney was something of a tyrant in its own right.

But reports also suggested there were those who shed a tear. Some worked at the place, others considered it a defining landmark. One man’s father helped build the stack and was too upset to see it destroyed. The chimney was just under 50 years old; built in 1965 it symbolised the post-war industrial development of Port Kembla. The copper smelter gave many immigrants their first permanent job. Indeed for a community that now suffers from chronic unemployment it was a very obvious reminder of a productive, even heroic, past.

‘A relic’s worth’, as the writer David Lowenthal points out, depends in part ‘on what use its serves’. If the retention of the chimney serves no purpose as a reminder, an icon, a focal point of community identity then I suppose its loss does not matter. Lowenthal goes on to say ‘everything surviving from the past has some value which is forfeited unless it is preserved’. I’m not sure, however, if that value or the depth of community feeling was much assessed in Port Kembla.

Retaining the obsolete industrial monoliths of the 20th century is fraught. They are often hard to re-use and expensive to maintain. Some are contaminated, though in the case of the Port Kembla chimney reports suggest that the asbestos had been removed. Size and retention cost are the reasons that the 60 year old Garden Island hammer head crane will be dismantled. Its removal will profoundly change the skyline of Sydney Harbour, cutting the last significant focal link to that waterway’s industrial past.

But at Catherine Hill Bay – a small State Heritage Listed mining settlement on the NSW’s central coast – the case for retaining the massive coal loading jetty may just have become stronger. It was not included in the Heritage Listing and was slated for demolition for the same reasons as Sydney Harbour’s hammer head crane. However, a fire in late 2013 that destroyed other heritage sites in the 130 year old town left most of the jetty intact. The local Progress Association and Lake Macquarie City Council hope the owner, Lake Coal, will fund its restoration. It is unlikely that any reuse can be found for the structure – it is too high to be used as a fishing wharf. But it has ‘symbolic’ value as a link to the origins of the settlement. And as one of the last of the long jetties that once extended like fingers into the sea from Byron Bay to the Illawarra it surely has state significance. Maybe the case can be made again as plans proceed to build the large subdivision just south of the original settlement. Maybe funds might be found through that development. For the jetty would be clearest reminder of Catherine Hill’s historical reason for being.

The Catherine Hill Bay jetty before the 2013 fire
The Catherine Hill Bay jetty before the 2013 fire

There is precious little industrial heritage left on the NSW coast. The phenomenon of sea change has so transformed towns that it is hard to imagine our relationship with the coast before the advent of surfing and mass holidays. Structures like the Catherine Hill jetty help offset that collective amnesia.