Never speak about the lower classes

Thinking about the Great Strike of 1917 and Australia’s convict heritage, had me thinking about The Luck of the Irish by Babette Smith. This is a great book to add to your reading list if you are interested in colonial Australia.

In 1835 the ship The Hive sank off the New South Wales coast, south of Jervis Bay. On board were 250 Irish convicts. Miraculously all survived. Babette tracked what happened to the survivors and found in their personal histories much that explains the Australian way of life.

One of Babette’s arguments is that Australia’s egalitarianism was founded in the work practices and attitudes that were required because the government, in the early years of the colony, were completely dependent on the convict workforce to sustain the colony. Babette explains it like this:

The penal colonies created a dilemma for leaders who were faced with extracting productivity from workers who had no predisposition to cooperation, let alone obedience. In fact, the opposite. They were likely to respond with subterranean ridicule or dumb insolence to someone in command. And they could counter harsh commands or coercion by reducing their productivity. While the lash might punish them, it could not deliver a workplace result.

According to Babette the desire for classlessness continued after the convict era. In 1902, Henry Montgomery, an English bishop wrote a manual for clergyman heading to the colonies. His advice included:

Never speak about “the lower classes”. Australians don’t like it.

Do you agree Australia’s egalitarianism is founded in Australia’s convict heritage?

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Chain gang, Hobart


Centenary of the Great Strike 1917

Today, marks the centenary of the Great Strike of 1917. According to Joan Beaumont  in Broken Nation the Australian eastern states erupted into industrial warfare in August 1917.

The catalyst was a dispute in the New South Wales Government Tramways Workshops in Randwick, Sydney. The railway management eager to cut costs introduced a new card system designed to measure the cost and performance of each worker. In response about 6,000 railway and tramway men stopped work on 2 August.

Within five weeks, almost 70,000 workers, across three states and numerous industries had joined the industrial action. Despite this initial energy, by September and October strikes at individual workplaces were broken and the union movement were left significantly diminished.

As Joan explains, the historical importance of the Great Strike of 1917 has largely been forgotten, overshadowed by the stronger story of the Anzac legend. Its centenary today is a good reminder that the search for historical truth is not always found in the headlines of history.

Do you think other events have been overshadowed by the story of the Anzac legend? How would you describe the Anzac legend?

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Victorian Government railway engineering works, 1879

History and serendipity

One thing I enjoy about being a history enthusiast is the way it seems to promote serendipity.

Recently my partner who loves all things historical, antique and collectible started watching the UKTV show Trading History. This show tells the stories behind auctions of historical artefacts.

Knowing my interest in colonial Australia, my partner told me about the episode that featured Timothy Millett and the auctioning of his 307 convict love tokens. Timothy, a coin dealer, started the collection in 1984 when a valued customer sold him 70 tokens. Intrigued by the poignancy of these keepsakes, Timothy continued to build his collection. He also started to research the history of those named on the tokens. Reluctance to acknowledge convict forebears, however, made this difficult.

In 2008 Timothy decided the time had come to sell his collection. All 307 tokens were bought by an Australian museum. This seemed to be just where they should be, but which museum had them?

Then while doing some idling googling I found them. They were acquired by the National Museum of Australia. My local museum, and now I discover holder of the largest collection of convict love tokens in the world. Serendipity plus.

Do you agree an enthusiasm for history seems to make for a lot of serendipitous moments?

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The National Museum of Victoria, 1876

July 2017, Roundup, Indigenous History


Ann Curthoys, John Docker, Shane Howard, Paul Keating, Eddie Mabo, James McPherson, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Don Watson


Gippsland, Victoria; Kakadu, Northern Territory; Murray Island, Queensland; Redfern, Walgett, Gulargambone, Kempsey, Bowraville and Moree, New South Wales


At least 65,000 years ago: first time humans lived in Australia; Before the 1920’s: protests against Australia Day; 1965: the Freedom Ride; 1967: the Indigenous referendum; 1982: Solid Rock is a hit song; 1992: Paul Keating’s Redfern Speech and the Mabo decision.


Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS)
National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC)
National Museum of Australia (NMA)


Indigenous moments
The 1965 Freedom Ride online exhibition
Reading list: Freedom Ride
Ann Curthoys’ diaries
Indigenous rights timeline
Brief history of NAIDOC week


Caledonia Australis: Scottish highlanders on the frontier of Australia
Is History Fiction?
Freedom ride: a freedom rider remembers


The most enduring reminders of the first people are made of the stone — freed from the bedrock and raised towards the sky; used as canvases for works of art; piled high as houses of the living and of the dead; scorched and cracked by home fires of long ago; chipped and polished as tools. — Neil Oliver

Revision is the lifeblood of historical scholarship. History is a continuing dialogue between the present and the past. Interpretations of the past are subject to change in response to new evidence, new questions asked of the evidence, new perspectives gained by the passage of time. There is no single, eternal, and immutable “truth” about past events and their meaning. The unending quest of historians for understanding the past—that is, “revisionism”—is what makes history vital and meaningful. — James McPherson

White Australia has a Black history. — Author unknown

Well they were standin’ on the shore one day Saw the white sails in the sun Wasn’t long before they felt the sting White man, white law, white gun Don’t tell me that it’s justified Cause somewhere someone lied Yeah, well someone lied Someone lied Genocide Well someone lied oh — Shane Howard

Imagine if ours was the oldest culture in the world and we were told that it was worthless. Imagine if we had resisted this settlement, suffered and died in the defence of our land, and then were told in history books that we had given up without a fight. Imagine if non-Aboriginal Australians had served their country in peace and war and were then ignored in history books. Imagine if our feats on sporting fields had inspired admiration and patriotism and yet did nothing to diminish prejudice. Imagine if our spiritual life was denied and ridiculed. Imagine if we had suffered the injustice and then were blamed for it. It seems to me that if we can imagine the injustice we can imagine its opposite. And we can have justice. — Paul Keating

Let no-one say the past is dead, the past is all about us and within. — Oodgeroo Noonuccal

13,000 years added to the Indigenous history timeline

In Indigenous history timelines the National Museum of Australia (NMA) resource Indigenous moments was featured, with the earliest moment, the first time humans lived in Australia, happening at least 52,000 years ago. This will need updating.

Last week (20 July) Nature published a major archaeological study that discovered Indigenous Australians were living on the Australian continent at least 65,000 years ago. This finding follows years of digging at an ancient campsite in Kakadu, in the Northern Territory.

The study also found the first Australians:

  • Undertook the first major maritime migration in the world.
  • Were the most sophisticated tool-makers of their time — 20,000 years would lapse before other cultures caught up.
  • Were probably enthusiastic artists prior to migration and continued their art over thousands of years.
  • Lived 20,000 years before the Australian megafauna, like the giant kangaroo, died out.

This Canberra Times article provides a good account of the discovery if you would like to know more about it.

This may also be an interesting read — not sure if the calculations work, but this short Canberra Times article concludes: if Aboriginal culture were 24 hours old, then the First Fleet arrived just five minutes and four seconds ago. It includes a smart timeline  to show where the first Australians fit in world history.

Do you think that is right? Did the First Fleet arrive about 5 minutes ago if Aboriginal culture is 24 hours old?

1965 Freedom Ride

As covered in Professor Ann Curthoys the 1965 Freedom Ride was a significant moment in the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activism. If you would like to know more about the Freedom Ride The 1965 Freedom Ride online exhibition by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) is a great resource. You can also find here a comprehensive Reading list: Freedom Ride and Ann Curthoys’ diaries. Happy exploring.