My Whitlam Hang-Up

I spent the afternoon of 11 November 1975, the day the Governor-General dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, marking essays on an earlier dismissal, when the New South Wales Governor, Sir Philip Game, sacked the Premier Jack Lang in 1932.

As a very junior tutor in Australian History, I had a desk in an outlying building well away from the hub of the History Department. By current standards, I had generous accommodation – a room on my own! – but also by current standards, I was isolated there: no internet, no phone, no tea room or gossip in the corridors. All I had was a deadline and a good 50 essays to mark and return before the students sat for their final exam. When I finally got to the bottom of the pile, in the mid-afternoon, I bundled them up and headed back to the department.

As soon as I entered the corridor of Forgan Smith – the original sandstone building at the centre of the University of Queensland – I knew something must be up: knots of people talking, radios switched on behind closed doors, notices pinned to those doors saying their occupants were elsewhere because of ‘reprehensible circumstances’. This was the phrase the opposition leader, Malcolm Fraser, had used to justify his decision to refuse to pass supply in the Senate.

As we all now know, that afternoon Sir John Kerr sacked Gough Whitlam and appointed Fraser as interim Prime Minister. An election was called for 2 December. As the topic of my essays shows, this was not a unique event. There have been a surprising number of occasions throughout the British Commonwealth when a government has been dismissed by Vice-Regal authority, but it had never happened at the Commonwealth level before – and 43 years after Lang’s sacking, nobody had expected it ever to happen again in Australia – least of all Whitlam.

For us workers at the chalk face, mid-November was one of the busiest times of the year. We still ran year-long courses, and these were the weeks leading up to final exams, and the publication of results in early December.

After we marked the exam papers, the marks were entered (by hand!) and added up (in my head!) on individual 5×3 inch student cards, and transferred to a dot matrix printout of student names and numbers. It feels like I’m describing horse and buggy days.

Denis Murphy et al, The Big Strikes

David Hall, Denis Murphy and Margaret Cribb with their new book, The Big Strikes (1983). I’m fairly sure the photo was taken in Denis’s office

My direct superior was Dr Denis Murphy. He was an excellent lecturer in Australia history, while also moonlighting as an important reformist member of the Australian Labor Party in Queensland. During November 1975, Denis was up to his eyeballs in the political upheavals going on around us.

As part of the election campaign, Whitlam held great rallies of the faithful in all the major cities. He had run a chaotic government, and Labor was expected to lose the election, but Kerr’s dismissal had turned him into a martyr, improving his chances a little. The Whitlam government had done a lot that affected me personally: for women, for universities and – sadly – I was about to become one of the first beneficiaries of their no-fault divorce law.

I attended one of the candlelight rallies in King George Square (long loose hair, long floral dress with flounce, a flickering flame in the twilight – what on earth was I thinking?) but although my heart was with the Whitlam government, my head said it was a goner. Denis, ever the party loyalist, was offering bets of $10 on an ALP win – but I wouldn’t take his money.

A couple of weeks after the dismissal, we tutors were all in Denis’s office, collating results in Australian History. We relied on a card index of students, so there were always a few missing marks to chase up, which meant phone calls (often to parents who had no idea that their kids had stopped attending lectures 6 months earlier).

The meeting took all day, and was grindingly slow and boring. During one coffee break, I was on my own in the room when the phone rang. When I answered it, it wasn’t the expected student or parent with an essay mark – it was Gough Whitlam. No doubt he was ringing Denis for an update on the political fortunes of Labor in Queensland, or to arrange transport or whatever for his next visit north.

Sadly, I have no idea. This, surely, was my closest brush with history in the making – but I was so startled to hear his voice, I hung up on him!

(There’s a video of the 1975 rally in Brisbane, converted from Super 8 film, in the collection of the Fryer Library here)

Ebola – lessons from the past

The Four Horsemen – War, Famine, Pestilence and Death* – tend to work as a team. War brings famine (and famine, or at least land shortage, brings war). Hunger makes people vulnerable to infectious diseases – and pestilence, famine and war all bring death.

Durer Four Horsement

Albrecht Durer , The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1497-8)

But sometimes a new disease turns up unexpectedly, like Ebola in West Africa right now, or smallpox in the Aztec Empire in the 16th century, or the Plague of Justinian in 541AD, the first recorded pandemic caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, better known from its second appearance in 1347 as the Black Death.

Historians are good are looking back and finding explanations, and epidemic diseases are most deadly when certain preconditions exist: poverty, poor hygiene, poor nutrition and over-population all make things worse. But sometimes, there are no preconditions, and it doesn’t do to blame the victims: the Aztecs were doing just fine until the Spanish arrived, bringing smallpox to a population that had no immunity to the disease.

Ebola is not quite a new disease – it was first identified in 1976 – but the current outbreak is far, far worse than anything that has gone before. There must be many people trying to tease out what we can learn about this disease by looking at previous plagues and pandemics. For what it’s worth, here’s my ten cents’ worth:

  1. Epidemics tend to have a far worse impact in cities than in areas with low populations. An epidemic disease can have a devastating effect on people in scattered villages or small family groups, such as the epidemic of smallpox that struck the Aboriginal people around Sydney in 1789, but without a large host population, the disease will run its course. The Black Death (1347-51) had much more impact in southern and western Europe than in eastern Europe, where the population was so much sparser.
  2. Disease follows trade routes – by land or by sea, and latterly by air as well. The Black Death arrived in Sicily on a ship from the Crimea, a key staging post on the Silk Road from Asia. AIDS has travelled along trucking routes wherever roadside prostitution is common. Any large-scale population movements will exacerbate the situation. The Spanish flu went home with demobilized soldiers at the end of World War I – and the pandemic eventually killed more people than the war.
  3. Quarantine is a ruthless deterrent to the spread of disease that suits the prejudices of authorities, since it lays the blame squarely on outsiders for causing infection. Sometimes it works, but it’s not always effective. The name comes from the 40 days of isolation that Venice imposed on incoming ships during the Black Death – but it’s one thing to quarantine ships and travellers, another altogether to keep the rats out, and tens of thousands of Venetians died from plague. The best guess at present seems to be that fruit bats spread Ebola. Unlike ships’ rats, bats are not usually intercontinental travellers.
  4. Epidemic disease is recurrent. There were nearly 800 years between the Plague of Justinian and the return of Yersinia pestis to Constantinople in 1347, but thereafter the plague came back fairly regularly. There was a minor outbreak in Europe in the 1380s, a generation after the first, and intermittent outbreaks after that, but it was less virulent, probably because those people who survived and reproduced had more genetic resistance to the disease than those who had died.
  5. The disease is worst the first time around – not just because of 4, above, but because in the first outbreak, there is nobody with any immunity, so no one to care for the sick or tend the fields or otherwise keep the show on the road. When smallpox struck the Aztecs, every age group was affected, whereas in Europe, where the disease was endemic, there were likely to be some scarred survivors from earlier epidemics who could look after the children and young adults who were its main victims.
  6. In illness, as in everything else, the poor are at a disadvantage. There’s nothing like a good diet, clean clothing and warm, dry shelter to give you an advantage, even in the face of infectious disease. The rich can also afford to run away. In The Decameron, Boccaccio wrote about a group of wealthy young people living in seclusion in a villa outside Florence, while the plague was ravaging the city. It’s always useful to have a Tuscan villa to retreat to.
  7. Despite this, infectious diseases don’t always respect rank and wealth. Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861. His doctor diagnosed his death as typhoid fever, a disease that was normally associated with poverty, poor housing and poor hygiene. His death shocked the Victorians, for if the Prince Consort was at risk, so was everyone else. Albert’s death didn’t cause the Victorian preoccupation with sanitary reform and urban renewal, which was already well underway, but it certainly helped it along. Typhoid, like cholera, did not discriminate. Neither does Ebola.
  8. Finally, new diseases terrify people and cause panic, and unfortunately, panicky people are often nasty people. Some of the more unedifying videos doing the rounds of social media at present show this clearly enough. Minority groups have born the brunt of such panic in the past: Jews were blamed for the plague in 14th century Europe, Chinese were blamed for leprosy and plague in 19th century Australia, homosexuals have been demonized for spreading AIDS. Even in a scientific world, there are still plenty of frightened people looking for explanations in the Book of Revelation, or its equivalent. The Four Horsemen have a lot to answer for.

*Yes, I know there’s debate about who the Four Horsemen are (except Death, everyone seems to agree on Death), but I base my categories on Terry Pratchett.

Bonnets, burqas and bikinis

During the 1860s, a trickle of English women went out to the colonies with loans from the Female Middle Class Emigration Society to cover their fares in Second Class – the middle class, between First and Steerage. They sent letters back to the FMCES when they repaid their loans, so we know quite a bit about them. Most of them were in their late twenties or thirties, so had missed the marriage market. Their best hope of economic security was to become governesses, a ‘white blouse’ occupation that required, above all, respectability and accomplishments. You might be lousy at teaching mathematics, but your manners must be beyond reproach.

A disaster occurred to one of them on the voyage out: several weeks away from Australia, she was walking on the deck when a sudden gust of wind blew her bonnet overboard. It was an appalling loss for her, because without a bonnet she couldn’t go up on deck or appear outside where she could be seen by the crew or the male passengers. Going bareheaded would be unthinkably bold.

I’m quite sure she could have bought or borrowed a shawl from one of the emigrant women in steerage, or rigged up a kerchief of some sort using a petticoat or bed linen, but a bonnet was important, because it showed her middle-class status. Instead she spent the rest of the voyage inside, unable to enjoy fresh air or sunshine or exercise until the ship reached Australia.

At about the same time, throughout the Pacific, missionaries were busily introducing Islander women to the delights of the Mother Hubbard, a shapeless, loose cotton dress with a high neckline and long sleeves that concealed all those parts of the female anatomy that the women concerned had not previously realised needed concealing. Eventually most Pacific Island women adopted the Mother Hubbard, because it became a symbol of Christian conversion. Variants like the Hawaiian muu-muu are still worn. I wonder how other women felt about the new outfit? Forms of clothing that emphasize extreme modesty can feel like an implied rebuke to those who don’t wear them.

On the other hand, Pacific Islanders had their own scrupulous notions of modesty and privacy that governed their lives. In 1851, the adventurer Ben Boyd seems to have unknowingly blundered into the women’s quarters on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. This was where the women went to bath, to toilet, and where they stayed during menstruation. It was an area absolutely taboo to all men, and when he ignored the islanders’ attempts to keep him away, he was speared to death.

Modesty takes many forms. Currently there’s a debate in Australia – and many other parts of the world – about Muslim women and their distinctive forms of dress, summed up in some extremists’ demands to ‘ban the burqa’ – which is nicely alliterative, but not at all accurate since there are probably no women in Australia who currently wear a burqa. Perhaps a few hundred wear the niqab, and many more wear other traditional forms of dress, more or less concealing, though it’s by no means universal amongst Islamic women.

Burqa sewing pattern

Clothing, particularly women’s clothing, carries so many meanings – class and respectability in the case of a bonnet, religious conversion in the case of the Mother Hubbard. It can also be a symbol of modernity or of rebellion. I can just remember, as very little girl, a family holiday at the beach, when my two grandmothers saw their first bikini. I can remember them both peering out the window at a young woman walking by in what – I now realize – was probably a very modest two-piece. ‘Look, you can see her navel!’

swimsuit pattern from Women's Weekly

Australian Women’s Weekly, 6 December 1961

It was at about the same time, in the 1950s, that Greek and Italian immigrant families began to arrive in Brisbane. Inevitably, given the long years of war in their homelands, there were many older, widowed women amongst them. These women dressed in their traditional widows’ clothing of a black dress, black headscarf, and black stockings and shoes. They were a haunting alien presence, and locals found their clothing confronting.

No one forced a Mediterranean widow to wear these clothes, any more than the 1860s governess was forced to wear a bonnet. On the contrary, in either case to force her not to wear the clothing of her choice would imprison her, in a ship’s cabin or within the family home.

It’s not always women’s clothing that becomes the focus of attention. Men’s clothing has sometimes been politicised too, often as a symbol of modernity. In the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire banned the turban as old-fashioned and inappropriate in the modern world, and replaced it with the fez. A century later Ataturk banned the fez as old fashioned in modern Turkey, and recommended the Homburg hat instead. There was a religious dimension to this change too, part of Ataturk’s drive to secularise the nation: an observant Muslim can place his forehead on the ground in prayer while wearing a turban or a fez, but not while wearing a hat with a brim.

But it’s usually women whose clothing is policed – or who police themselves. Men play a role in this, especially when a form of clothing is treated as an outward and visible sign of religious faith, for men are the traditional gatekeepers in religious observance.

Older women play a role in the policing too. Modesty takes many forms, and it is deeply internalized. Personally, I wouldn’t be seen dead in a bikini. I like to think this is a personal decision – and an aesthetic one, believe me. But I never wore a bikini, even in my long ago youth, and I suspect there has always been a faint memory there of my grandmothers at the window tut-tutting – ‘Look, you can see her navel!

Eliza, Elizabeth, Betsy and Bess

Riddle on the name Elizabeth

in Iona and Peter Opie, The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book (1955)

I’m struggling with naming conventions at the moment – both the conventions of the late 18th / early 19th century when the characters in my book were alive, and the conventions I should use myself as a historian writing about them now.

The main character in my book is Walter Stevenson Davidson, whom I’ve discussed before (see tag). Walter was named after his mother’s brother, Walter (later Sir Walter) Farquhar, who was his godfather. Sir Walter’s wife Anne had the maiden name of Stevenson, so I’m assuming she was WSD’s godmother. I’ve come across this convention before, where godmothers’ godsons are given the woman’s surname as a middle name. So for instance Sir Walter’s daughter Eliza Farquhar was godmother to her cousin’s son, who was named George Farquhar Leslie.

Anne was a widow when she married Walter Farquhar in 1771, with 2 children, John and Elizabeth Harvie. John died young, but Elizabeth grew up and married Simon Halliday in 1787. As Elizabeth Halliday she features regularly in family correspondence and her husband went into partnership with one of Sir Walter’s sons. They were clearly well integrated into the Farquhar network.

So here’s the puzzle: Anne Farquhar went on to have 7 more children with her second husband, 3 boys and 4 girls, and the youngest girl, born in 1783, was named Eliza. I know that families used to recycle particular names, often reusing the baptismal name of a dead baby to ensure that a name survived if it had particular significance. And every genealogist knows, to their frustration, that a small set of first names are repeated endlessly within the family circle. But surely have 2 living daughters named Elizabeth and Eliza would be a touch confusing?

My friend Jenny Harrison, who is an expert on family history, tells me that families did often use confusing (to us) combinations of names within the family – perhaps a John and a Jack, say, or a Margaret and a Peggy. This doesn’t seem  satisfactory here though, because Eliza and Elizabeth are so clearly versions of the same name. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is called Elizabeth (Darcy), Miss Eliza (sneeringly, by Miss Bingley) and Lizzie (by the family). It’s very odd.

Jenny tells me that there was a particular convention at work in choosing family names, from generation to generation. When the rule worked perfectly (and of course it rarely did), the eldest son was named for the father’s father, the second son for the mother’s father, the third son for the father. For girls, the priority could be for the first daughter to take her maternal grandmother’s name, the second her father’s mother’s name, and so on.

In Walter Farquhar’s family this naming practice works only partially. The eldest daughter was named for his mother Catherine, but his eldest son was named Thomas Harvie Farquhar after Anne’s father and her first husband (unless, of course, the Harvie comes from a godmother somewhere whom I haven’t yet located). The second son, Robert, was named after Walter’s father; the third was called Walter.

The other side of this problem comes in the writing: how do you differentiate between generations of people, all with the same name? WSD was always referred to in his own time as Walter Stevenson Davidson (or W S Davidson) to distinguish him from his cousin Walter Davidson of Calcutta, but referring to him by all 3 names becomes a bit heavy going after a while. That’s why I use the abbreviation WSD for my own convenience, though I’d be wary of doing so in a formal paper. Amongst his business associates, who knew both men, he was referred to as ‘China’ Davidson to distinguish him from ‘Calcutta’ Davidson.

There’s another naming convention that I struggle with. Do I refer to characters by their first name, or surname, or ring the changes somehow? And do I treat men and women in the same way? This is a troubling issue for any feminist historian, made more complicated because our naming conventions are at odds with those of the past.

In WSD’s day, people called men by their surname alone, even – perhaps especially – within the family circle. Darcy is Darcy to his aunt and his cousin, and we wouldn’t even know what his first name was if not for his signature on that letter. Women, on the other hand, were called by their first name within the family – Jane, Lizzie – or more formally with a title – Mrs Bennet. Neither is satisfactory in a serious historical work, and using the surname alone indicates class (Hill is a servant). Nor will many people these days pick up the nuances of ‘Miss Bennet’ (Jane, the eldest) and ‘Miss Eliza’ (a lower mortal altogether in the complex family hierarchy that determined who sat closest to the fire, or walked into dinner first).

Which brings me back to the curse of too many Elizabeths. At the moment I’m writing about society in early New South Wales through the eye of a small group of middle aged women: Elizabeth Macarthur, Elizabeth Marsden, Elizabeth Paterson…. Are you beginning to pick up a pattern here? Around the time these women were born in the 1770s, Elizabeth was clearly a very popular name. Governors Bligh, Macquarie and Darling also had wives called Elizabeth.

So thank goodness for diminutives. I know John Macarthur called his wife Elizabeth, whereas Samuel Marsden and William Bligh called theirs Betsy / Betsey. Governor Darling’s wife was Eliza, as was Elizabeth Macarthur’s goddaughter Eliza Kingdon, who was possibly named after her. John and Elizabeth Macarthur’s granddaughter was Bessie, while a grandniece, daughter of Hannibal Macarthur, was known as Libby. Stay tuned for Beth, Betty and Lisa.

Open House Brisbane 2014 coming up

Next weekend, 11 and 12 October, Brisbane’s Open House weekend for 2014 is on. Last year I wrote discursively about Open House days here. The range of open houses and other buildings is wider this year, with a variety of reasons for their inclusion, not just historical, but for their architectural or ecological significance as well. And new buildings have been added, such as the ABC studios at South Bank.

Last year I spent a very happy day wandering around the city centre looking at public buildings. It was fascinating, particularly looking at ones that are not usually open to the public, like the Masonic Temple on Ann Street, designed by Lange Powell, my grandfather’s older brother, in the 1920s. This time I’m planning to have a peek at some of the open buildings in the suburbs, and maybe get a sense of Brisbane’s domestic architecture as well.

Highly recommended. For people in other cities, a Google search will bring up your particular Open House weekend – they are scattered throughout the year.

Open House 2014 booklet

Many thanks to Open House Brisbane’s organisers, who sent me the booklet and VIP passes for the weekend. The very first payola I have ever received for this blog!

The Coming Storm

Reports are coming in that an ‘extreme’ solar storm is heading towards Earth, and is likely to affect communications and power grids tomorrow (Friday or Saturday, depending on where you are).

This won’t be the first or last such event, but it’s only since we became so dependent on satellites, electricity, and global communications that a solar storm has had the potential to cause havoc. Before we relied on electricity, no doubt people just enjoyed the pyrotechnics as the sky lit up with the Aurora Borealis or (for the minority of us in the southern hemisphere) the Aurora Australis – and attributed the display to supernatural phenomena.

One of the largest such events to be recorded in detail took place between 28 August and 2 September 1859. Continue reading

Are you a local?

Last weekend our neighbourhood hosted the Sandcliffe Writers Festival, named after two of the participating suburbs, Sandgate and Shorncliffe. I missed the Saturday, but I spent part of Sunday afternoon in the audience at the Sandgate Town Hall for a session entitled ‘Loving the Australian Landscape’. I knew almost nothing about what to expect, except that it began at 1:30, was free and – most importantly for someone of my natural apathy on a Sunday afternoon – was happening about 5 minutes walk from home.

Foolishly imaging it might be hard to get a seat, I arrived early. As I came in the door 2 volunteers grabbed me, one with a camera.
‘Are you a local?’ they asked.
‘Well, yes…’ I live at the other end of the street.
So they hung onto me as a useful (and possibly rare) prop for photographs with Our Local Member, and in due course I was squeezed in between him and Matt Condon, the first of the speakers to turn up. I’ve no idea what they did with the photos, but as they forgot to get my name, if I feature in them, I will have to be labeled ‘A Local’. Continue reading