Twenty Five: Stories from Australia’s First Parliament

Fountain at NSW Parliament House.

Fountain at NSW Parliament House created by Robert Woodward. The exhibition reviewed in this post surrounds this stunning feature.

Twenty five stories from Australia’s first parliament – intriguing!  During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries political debate in Australia was vigorous and at times innovative.  There are a wealth of great stories lurking in the pages of Hansard and the tightly packed columns of colonial newspapers.  From the vantage point of today these stories are fascinating but of course at the time these were serious matters.  With the added allure of seeing items never previously displayed in public I was eager to see the new exhibition at New South Wales Parliament House.

The exhibition is designed to appeal to many people.  It includes the story of a member of parliament who decided that it would be a good idea to settle a dispute with famed Surveyor-General, Thomas Mitchell, by shooting it out in a duel.  The stories of the royal visitations to New South Wales parliament receive attention as do European explorers such as La Perouse who helped to chart the Australian coast and William Wentworth, famed for being one of the first Europeans to cross the Blue Mountains.  The Reconciliation Wall, a permanent space dedicated to the permanent display of artwork of Aboriginal people in 1998, is one of the stories in the exhibition.  One of the icons of Sydney, the Harbour Bridge is also featured.

Each person who visits the exhibition will relate to it in a different way.  The following is a sample of items that caught my eye.

The colony’s Muster Book from 1800 has never been seen before on public display.  This was the first ‘census’ of the European population in the colony.  The book records the occupations of each person as well as their land holdings and livestock they owned.  My immediate thought was, ‘has it been digitised?’ It would be a useful resource for people researching their family history.  It does not seem to be available on the internet but the information contained in it is available in Musters and Lists, New South Wales and Norfolk Island, 1800-1802, (Sydney: ABGR with Australian Society of Genealogists, 1988).

NSW 'Elector's Right' certificate 1901

The right to vote in NSW 1901. The holder of this certificate was “… qualified in respect of Manhood and of Residence in such District” to vote.

The issues surrounding the right to vote were an obvious inclusion in the exhibition.  On display were certificates issued to those men who had the right to vote in 1894 and 1901.  Men were required to live in the electoral district for one month, a requirement that itinerant workers found difficult to meet.  Aside from residency the other requirement was an important one.  These certificates attested to the ‘Manhood’ of the holder.  Female suffrage in New South Wales did not occur until 1902.

View of the NSW Legislative Assembly with no people present.

‘The Bear Pit’ – the lower house of NSW Parliament viewed from the Speaker’s chair. This is where Millicent Preston Stanley delivered her first speech to parliament in 1925.

Millicent Preston Stanley – that is a name to remember.  She was the first woman to be elected to the parliament of New South Wales, winning a lower house seat in 1925.  Reporting on her maiden speech The Sydney Morning Herald commented that she:

…made one of the most rousing and most arresting speeches in the history of the New South Wales Legislature.  It was a speech charged with the personal magnetism of a woman who, long before she entered Parliament, had won a distinctive place in the community as a public speaker.

Millicent Preston Stanley spoke for nearly an hour and a half effectively dealing with the interjections from the other side according to newspaper accounts.  You can read her speech here (I suspect that this is not her entire speech, for that you should check Hansard).  Among the issues she addressed were her concern at high rates of maternal and child mortality, care for the mentally ill, and her opposition to the 44 hour week.

It is tempting to put pioneers such as Millicent Preston Stanley on a pedestal and laud them for their noteworthy achievements while subconsciously disallowing the possibility that they had flaws.  I was reminded of this when I read her maiden speech and felt uncomfortable about her comments regarding the mentally ill.  This was the era of eugenics after all.

I have spent many hours reading nineteenth and early twentieth century Hansards of various Australian parliaments so I appreciated the attention given to this in the exhibition.

A black Palantype machine in a case

The Palantype machine made in 1943 on display.

On display was a Hansard reporter’s notebook written in shorthand and an unusual keyboard in a black box called a Palantype from 1943.  Palantype?  I had never heard of it and wanted to know more.  Back at home I googled it and found that it is a machine designed for recording speech.  It is important for a Hansard reporter to type as quickly as a speaker is talking.  A QWERTY keyboard is too slow even for the fastest typist.  The Palantype uses a completely different keyboard layout and allows several keys to be pressed at once to form words.  Attention is given to its ergonomic design so that operators can sustain reporting for long periods of time.  It has been found useful for helping deaf people to listen to speech.

The exhibition notes explained that voice recognition software is now used to record what is said in parliament.  The results are checked carefully because voice recognition software sometimes makes mistakes.  Some historic parliamentary records are available online, click here to see what is available.

Exhibitions are about learning something new.  I had not previously heard of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.  Through this organization the New South Wales Parliament is ‘twinned’ to the National Parliament of the Solomon Islands and the House of Representatives for the Autonomous Region of Bougainville.  This organisation promotes ‘good parliamentary practice’ and ‘understanding of democratic governance’.

Federation naturally made its appearance in the exhibition.  There was the expected mention of Henry Parkes and his speech at Tenterfield.  I found the book of photos of the celebrations in Sydney surrounding Federation interesting.  On the opened page was a photo of a parade.  A large garland extended from the first floor of a building with “Victoria the good” written in the middle.  No, the residents of New South Wales were not praising those who lived in the state of Victoria in a fit of federation fever.  The reference was to the ruling monarch at the time – Queen Victoria.

I don’t envy curators of exhibitions such as this.  How do you choose which aspects of the last two hundred odd years of parliamentary history to display?  This exhibition is designed for the general public and the general public holds a vast array of opinions and attitudes.  The exhibition seeks to inform and gently educate, not to stir debate.  It is a celebration of New South Wales parliamentary history.

Overall I enjoyed the exhibition.  I would have appreciated the use of QR codes to supplement the limited descriptions given to some items, such as the Palantype machine.  This would enable the visitor to use a QR reader on their smart phone in order to access additional commentary on items.

This exhibition draws on the collection of historic items held in the Parliamentary archives.  These archives are not generally open to the public.  Andrew Taylor reported in The Sydney Morning Herald that these holdings include items that cannot be displayed because they were “given to Parliament under privilege”.  I have to confess this makes me curious.  What else is in these archives?

I encourage you to visit this exhibition.  In this post I have discussed only some of the stories that are covered.  In fact there were two items in the exhibition that interested me so much I have not mentioned them here for want of space.  Watch out for a post about petitions coming soon!

The exhibition, Twenty Five: Stories from Australia’s First Parliament, spans two centuries of New South Wales parliamentary history and is currently showing at the Parliament of New South Wales in Macquarie St, Sydney.  Entry is free.  The last day of the exhibition is 1st March.

Some Websites that Caught My Eye

While researching this post I found a couple of websites/pages that I found interesting:

5 thoughts on “Twenty Five: Stories from Australia’s First Parliament

  1. Very interesting! I wish I could get up there to see it but alas, no chance. I appreciate your detailed discussion…as to what I’m missing! I think administrative and political history is a lot more interesting than people generally think and the fact you wanted to know more about some of the items on display are proof of that. Thanks Yvonne. 🙂


    • I’m glad you enjoyed this post. I think that people have been turned off by the deadly dull political histories that were written years ago as well as the conduct and reporting of politics today. History from below opens up wonderful opportunities to write about ordinary people doing extraordinary things because they are passionate about an issue. This is the kind of history that interests me, hence my interest in the petitions etc.


  2. I loved this post. There is so much good historical work being put into displays like the one you describe that supplement or supersede the inadequate history lessons we were taught in school. they are a fine way to introduce the larger public about women’s history and social history more generally. It helps to see in order to believe.


    • I’m glad you liked it Marilyn. I found it interesting that an exhibition which on the face of it is trying to please everyone actually appealed to me. Generally I find such history bland at best and those types of histories do run the risk of falling into the trap of reinforcing the myths that tend to develop around popular aspects of a country’s history. However, an exhibition allows patrons to reflect on the items and link them to whatever prior knowledge they may have. Hence everyone will receive the items differently. It would be interesting if a museum provided some facility for people to comment on items in an exhibition. It would be fascinating to compile the comments at the end of each exhibition and see what thoughts were stimulated by each item. That would be a story in itself.


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