The Diaries of a WWI Soldier

Soldiers Diaries AdvCThere were many advertisements just like the one above, placed in newspapers around Australia after the end of World War I. The soldiers of Australia’s citizen army had finally returned and some of them brought with them intimate historical records of the war – the diaries they had composed on the battlefronts. The principal librarian of the State Library of New South Wales, supported by the Library’s trustees, recognised the value of these records and set about collecting them through these advertisements.

The European War Collecting Project is a significant collection held by the State Library of NSW. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been immersed in these soldier diaries. The volunteers at the State Library have done a tremendous amount of work transcribing them which is enabling me to examine the diaries digitally.

I am still in the midst of working with these diaries but I realised early on that the diaries of Archie Barwick are a significant part of this collection. The day after I had quickly glanced at one of his diaries I received an invitation to a book launch at the State Library of New South Wales. Harper Collins has recognised the significance of his diaries and has now released these diaries in book form.

four people gathered around a table looking at the original diaries.

Looking at Archie Barwick’s diaries at the launch: Elise Edmonds (State Library NSW), David Hassall, Judy Hassall and Alex Byrne (State Librarian, State Library NSW). Photographer: Joy Lai, State Library of NSW.

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East of India: Forgotten Trade with Australia

East of India logoMany Australians would be unaware of how much Indians have contributed to this country.  Indians have traded with Australia since the first European settlement; they have lived and worked here for over two hundred years.  Yet we don’t often hear about this aspect of Australian history.  The exhibition, ‘East of India: Forgotten trade with Australia’ currently being held at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney is a welcome opportunity to learn more about this.

Understanding historical context is vital in good histories and this exhibition provides plenty of that.  The items shown in ‘East of India’ weave a story of power, wealth, violence, culture and everyday life.  The visitor is first immersed in the history of colonial India starting from the time when the Portuguese adventurer, Vasco da Gama, became the first European to find a sea route to India, to the Indian Rebellion in 1857.  During the age of empire it was the sea, not the land which provided the transportation through which European nations dominated the globe.

‘East of India’ has some stunning exhibits, among which is a map on a parchment from 1599 with a section of the northern coast of Australia labelled as ‘beach’. I couldn’t help thinking how appropriate that label is! I was also attracted to a tiny locket commemorating the wedding in 1662 between Charles II of England and Catherine of Braganza, Portugal.  What struck me as remarkable about the locket was not its form, but the enormity of what it represented.  Catherine’s dowry included the Portuguese territory of Bombay (now Mumbai).  I found it staggering that the wedding between two people could have such great repercussions for people who lived in a place that required months of arduous travel to reach. Continue reading

Quietly Pushing Barriers Aside

Every student attending Hamilton High School photographed standing outside school building in 1953

This photo of Hamilton High School in Victoria was taken when my mother was in Form 1 (year 7) in 1953.

This week came the disappointing news that the participation in Maths by girls in their final year of school in New South Wales is declining significantly.  In 2001, the first year when students were no longer required to study a Maths or science subject in year twelve in order to qualify for university entrance, 90.5% of girls studied Maths whereas 96.9% of boys did.

The disparity between the genders in participation in Maths was already noticeable in 2001.  Ten years later this disparity has worsened.  By 2011 girls participation in year twelve Maths had dropped to 78.2%.  The participation of boys had also decreased but not to such a degree.  In 2011 90.2% of boys studied year twelve Maths.

Rachel Wilson, Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at University of Sydney noted that this problem is partly due to the attitude about girls and women being bad at Maths.

There are many, many examples of girls and women excelling in Maths.  Jane Gleeson-White has highlighted the stories of three Australian women who are clearly brilliant at Maths.  She could have listed many more.

Unfortunately some dismiss these women as being ‘unusual’ (which is often code for ‘weird’ or ‘abnormal’). Yet the story about Clio Cresswell, senior lecturer in mathematics and statistics at University of Sydney, caught my eye.  It is not the tale of success in maths one would expect.  Cresswell told Jane Gleeson-White that she struggled with maths at school.  What led Clio Cresswell to ultimately succeed in maths at a high level?  Read Jane Gleeson-White’s post to find out!

In this post I want to highlight a story of an ordinary woman and her quiet determination to participate in science and to study Maths.  She was not brilliant at Maths but she enjoyed it and wanted to pursue it. Her story demonstrates some of the subtle and not so subtle barriers that dissuade many women from studying Maths and Science.

This woman is my mother. Continue reading

Book Review: Flood Country by Emily O’Gorman

Author, Emily O'Gorman holding her book, Flood Country

Author, Emily O’Gorman at the Sydney launch of her book, Flood Country: An Environmental History of the Murray-Darling Basin (Collingwood, Vic: CSIRO Publishing, 2012).

I would never have read this book if it wasn’t for twitter.

Last year I came across the twitter stream of the University of Wollongong’s, Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research (@AUSCCER) and those of researchers who work at the Centre.  I have enjoyed these tweets about geography and the environment . One day I noticed their tweets about the Sydney launch of a book written by one of the researchers at the Centre, Flood Country: an Environmental History of the Murray-Darling Basin.  Happily I was free at that time and could attend.

People remain connected to and dependent on the natural environment despite all our inventions designed to make us more comfortable.  However, our technology and structures have lulled us into thinking that we are immune from the vagaries of our environment.  We get a nasty shock when this veil is ripped from us in a fire, drought or flood and we are forced to confront a difficult reality.

It is no accident that I decided to read Flood Country this month.  I was going to read another book but the flooding in Queensland and northern New South Wales from ex-tropical cyclone Oswald prompted me to change my plans.

My mother remembers flooding along the Murray when she lived there in the late 1950s.  This scrap of newspaper from that period demonstrates a local community grappling with the knowledge that they need to plan for floods.

My mother remembers flooding along the Murray when she lived there in the late 1950s. This scrap of newspaper from that period demonstrates a local community grappling with the knowledge that they need to plan for floods.

In Flood Country author, Emily O’Gorman uses the case studies of four floods to examine the relationship between the European settlers and the environment in the Murray-Darling Basin.  She covers a broad sweep of European settlement starting with the flood in Gundagai in 1852, then moving on to the flooding of Bourke in 1890, Mildura in 1956 and the flooding in south-western Queensland in 1990.  In between the accounts of these floods are chapters that tease out particular issues of the period such as the differing approaches to regulation of water for the pastoral and mining industries in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the rise of the engineered solution to water management in the twentieth century. Continue reading

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. Continue reading