Tag Archives: #fundTrove

Educating the mob

Who pays for education? Private or public, secular or religious? Should it be funded by federal or state governments? We’ve been here many times before.

There are so many aspects to this debate, but one that gets forgotten now, when Australians are all – or are alleged to be – functionally literate, is the basic relationship between education and democracy. When everyone gets to vote, then everyone needs to be able to read and write, and compulsory education came close on the heels of manhood suffrage.

In small towns and tribes, people can choose their leaders by direct personal experience. It worked in Athens, or the Italian city-states, which is why rhetoric was once such an important university subject, and why I find the American process of town hall rallies and caucuses so fascinating, even though most of the candidates seem to have lost their voices by now.

Once the community grows too large for public speeches, though, we rely on gossip and hearsay – or on newspapers – to choose our politicians. This basic link isn’t as important these days, when radio and TV mean that voters can decide about their politicians by listening to or watching them. There is a functioning democracy in India, where illiteracy remains a problem, but radios and mobile phones are everywhere.

Once, though, literacy was essential if democracy was to work, so when most white working men got the vote (roughly from 1858 in New South Wales and Victoria, the 1860s in the United States, 1867 in Britain) it became important that they learned to make an educated decision on how to use it. Or, as one conservative politician put it at the time, ‘We must educate our masters’*.

Robert Lowe, Viscount Sherbrooke

Carlo Pellegrini, ‘Robert Lowe’, in Vanity Fair, 27 February 1869

Robert Lowe led opposition to the Second Reform Bill in the British Parliament. In 1866, Lowe and his associates defeated the bill, but the following year the Conservative Party led by Benjamin Disraeli passed a modified Reform Act that gave the vote to most male heads of households.

Once that battle was lost, though, Lowe threw himself into the business of bringing schooling to the masses. He wasn’t worried about an agile workforce, or training the rising generation to adapt to new technologies, or the economic advantages of more STEM-trained graduates. He just thought that voters needed sufficient education to make up their minds for themselves without being swayed by demagogues. By 1870, all children had to attend school until the age of 10.

Robert Lowe reached his conservative political position in reaction to his experiences as a young man in Australia during the 1840s. He arrived in New South Wales in 1842, planning to make money in the colony as a lawyer, so that he could later fund a comfortable retirement back in England. His need was more urgent than most, though, for his doctors had warned him (wrongly, as it turned out) that he might go blind within a few years.

Robert Lowe was an albino. Portraits show a very fair man, with pale eyes squinting in the light. After grey old England, the harsh bright light of Sydney must have been a misery to him. With the rough charm of people who wouldn’t know political correctness if they tripped over it, the colonists called him ‘Pink-eyed Bob’.

Lowe was well connected and well educated, at Winchester and Oxford, and he arrived in New South Wales with letters of introduction to Governor Gipps. The Governor quickly nominated him to the newly formed Legislative Council, expecting him to back him, but Lowe soon went feral. There was constant argument between Gipps and the squatters during the early 1840s, and Lowe took their side. He also started an opposition newspaper, The Atlas, to pursue his vendetta against the Governor.

Then, in 1848, after nearly 10 years without convicts being sent to New South Wales, the British government decided to send another boatload of convicts on the Hashemy to test the water. The pastoralists liked the idea of cheap labour, but everyone else was furious. The respectable middle class were appalled at the prospect, just when they were putting ‘the convict stain’ behind them, while the working class were horrified that they might have to compete for jobs with an unfree labour force.

The result was that when the Hashemy arrived at Circular Quay in early 1849, a demonstration – or a riot, depending on your point of view – was there to meet it. The Sydney Morning Herald says there were four or five thousand protestors there. The Hashemy was initially unable to unload its cargo of convicts, who were eventually re-directed to Moreton Bay instead. Robert Lowe addressed the crowd from the back of a horse-drawn omnibus:

Let them send across the Pacific their emphatic declaration that they would not be slaves – that they would be free. Let them exercise the right that every English subject had – to assert his freedom. (Cheers.) He could see from that meeting the time was not far distant when they would assert their freedom not by words alone. As in America, oppression was the parent of independence, so would it be in this colony. The tea which the Americans flung into the water rather than pay the tax upon it, was not the cause of the revolt of the American States; it was the unrighteousness of the tax – it was the degradation of submission to an unrighteous demand. And so sure as the seed will grow into the plant, and the plant to the tree, in all times, and in all nations, so will injustice and tyranny ripen into rebellion, and rebellion into independence. (Immense cheering.) [Sydney Morning Herald, 12 June 1849] 

It was stirring – and faintly seditious – stuff. Without a megaphone, most people probably couldn’t hear him anyway, but his distinctive appearance meant that he stood out, and the presence of Robert Lowe, MLC, was a bit of a coup for the organizers.

But Lowe seems to have panicked after his experience of getting up close and personal with the hoi polloi. Mobs aren’t rational, even (perhaps especially) when they think their cause is just. The reality of popular democracy unnerved him. A few months later, Lowe and his wife returned to England, with a comfortable fortune from his years as a colonial lawyer. He took a job as leader writer for The Times, and entered Parliament.

As he grew older, he grew more conservative, even reactionary, opposing any change that might give more political power to the working class – the same people who had cheered him on at Circular Quay, and had threatened violence to the convicts aboard the Hashemy. His suspicion of the mob must have been reinforced when he was stoned by drunken workers during a political rally in 1857, and ended up with a broken skull.

Robert Lowe was on the wrong side of history. During the 1850s, members of the Anti-Transportation League like Henry Parkes were elected to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, and brought in universal male suffrage by 1858. In Britain, the Second Reform Act passed in 1867, and male householders gained the vote.

But Lowe was also on the right side of history when he threw his weight behind a universal system of compulsory education. As we again debate the costs and benefits of education, to the country and the individual, it’s worth remembering how basic it is to a functioning democracy. Otherwise decisions are made on the basis of emotion or brute force, and politics becomes the plaything of populists.

*According to Parry, Lowe’s exact words were: ‘I believe it will be absolutely necessary that you should prevail on our future masters to learn their letters’ (Hansard 3, 188, 15 July 1867, col. 1549)

References:
Ruth Knight, Illiberal Liberal: Robert Lowe in New South Wales, 1842-1850 (1966)
Jonathan Parry, ‘Lowe, Robert, Viscount Sherbrooke (1811–1892)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2011 [http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.library.uq.edu.au/view/article/17088, accessed 7 April 2016]
The Atlas has not yet been digitised on Trove, and unless the National Library of Australia receives more money, it may never be – #FundTrove

Correction: Lisa Hill’s comment below sent me back to look further at this event. The Hashemy convicts were sent on to Moreton Bay, not Port Phillip, as I initially had said. I’ve corrected the post accordingly. According to Douglas Wilkie, ‘The Convict ship Hashemy at Port Phillip: a Case Study in Historical Error’, Victorian Historical Journal,  2014 – here – historians have been getting muddled up about this affair ever since the 1850s.

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A Treasure Trove of Newspapers

When I was a child growing up during the 1950s and 60s, a stamp, a phone call, and a newspaper all cost about the same. A local letter was four pence for so many years that the stamp is very common, and despised by collectors accordingly.

1966_QEII_4c_Red

A local newspaper was about 6d, and a phone call much the same – though long distance calls cost much more. Then, during the inflation of the 1970s, these prices started to diverge. Phone calls got cheaper, thanks to new technology which cut out the cost of labour, while postage kept pace with inflation, thanks to innovations like post codes that made postal workers more efficient.

But the price of newspapers went through the roof. Newspapers depend on labour at every stage of production, and the arrival of a new, quality newspaper, The Australian, [ha!] in 1964, raised the bar for good, and therefore well-paid, journalists. Besides, newspapers rely on a non-renewable resource – wood pulp – which until appallingly recently was sourced from old growth forests.

Since then, of course, the internet has come along to change our ways of communicating, but the relative prices of phone calls, postage and newspapers were already diverging long before. I first used email in 1988, and surfed my first web in 1993 – but only because I had access to these systems through the university. It took another decade before these activities were commonplace in the wider community.

A hundred years of habit meant that most middle class suburban households still had a paper delivered until relatively recently, but not now, and people seem to have stopped writing letters altogether. Meanwhile the mobile phone is ubiquitous – and cheaper still, there’s Skype. What will we historians be doing in a hundred years?

Letters and newspapers were never cheap. We rarely think about the cost or means of distribution of private letters, concentrating on their content instead, but of course posting a letter always involved a cost, both in time and money. Jane Austen’s heroines are always absenting themselves from the action because they ‘have some letters to write’, and the physical effort of writing long, newsy letters must have consumed a good deal of time. Writing paper was expensive, quill pens needed constant mending, and then there was the cost of postage. Before the penny post (1840) postage was calculated on distance, so Emma Woodhouse’s letters from Highbury to London cost much less than my Walter Davidson’s letters from London to his brother-in-law William Leslie outside Aberdeen. That, in turn, was a trivial cost compared with the letters his nephew Patrick Leslie sent them from New South Wales.

Newspapers were expensive too. The first Australian newspaper, the Sydney Gazette, began in 1803 on a hand press brought out from England. It came out once a week, occasionally vanishing for months at a time when the supply of newsprint ran out. When the editor, ex-convict George Howe, was supplied with poor quality paper, the ink ran, and for weeks or months the print would be blurred.

First edition of the Sydney Gazette

By the 1830s, newspapers were proliferating. They seem to have reached a peak about 1843, around the time of the first election for the Legislative Council, when I once counted about a dozen papers in Sydney. Each of these papers had private backers and a political agenda – narrowcasting is not new – and most were ephemeral.

It’s often hard to work out how much these newspapers cost, because they were sold on subscription, usually 3 months ahead, rather than over the counter. It’s hard to know how widely they were read, because then as now, newspapers had a vested interest in exaggerating their circulation figures so they could charge more for advertising. On the other hand, many readers often seized a chance to read them for free in pubs and clubs, just as today we check out the papers at a coffee shop. They weren’t cheap, and only rarely made a profit. Shadowy proprietors lurked in the background, propping them up for political purposes, while the editor made his money from advertising and other printing jobs.

As a historian, the public newspaper and the private letter are my bread and butter. Which brings me to Trove Newspapers, the jewel in the crown – jam in the sandwich? – for all Australian researchers.

Trove runs out of the National Library of Australia. For years now, it has been digitizing Australian newspapers and making them freely available in searchable form online. Many countries are similarly digitizing newspapers, but not many are free. Trove has also introduced a unique feature that makes researching with Trove a cooperative effort. Anyone can register with Trove, and once registered we can contribute by correcting text, and leaving searchable hashtags – for personal use, or for others who come along later. It is a system based on trust and cooperation, and the sense of shared community, and it has worked very well. (For those who haven’t tried it, correcting text is also a strangely soothing addiction.)

Newspapers today may be entering a death spiral of rising prices and falling circulation, but we rely on newspapers from the past all the time. Now Trove is under threat, because the Federal Government has cut the National Library’s funding. In response a Twitter campaign began last week, under the hashtag #fundTrove, and directed at the Minister responsible, Senator Mitch Fifield. In 140 words or less, people told their stories about the ways in which they use Trove, and the stories they have found. The campaign has flushed out so many researchers, from family historians to PhD students to best selling writers. Some of my favourite stories come from people who are using Trove in innovative ways, such as Jodi Frawley’s investigation of Aboriginal fish traps, and the former range of endangered animals like the Murray perch.tweets about fundTrove

Then there is the story of how a boy in South Africa received a 3D-printed prosthetic hand based on a design mentioned in an Adelaide newspaper in 1844. My own example was a tiny advertisement I found in the pages of the Sydney Gazette from 1808, from the important early colonial artist John Lewin, seeking carmine paint.

sydney gazette 11-9-1808 advert

Digital projects are taking place all over the world, transforming the way we do history – but only a few of them are free. Trove and New Zealand’s Papers Past are amongst those that are – for now. Yes, there is a cost in making this material available, but the benefits are huge, not just for Australians, but for our place in the world. Whatever happened to soft diplomacy?

#fundTrove

Update: In the comments, someone asked the following:

‘In the novels I read rich men are always offering to ‘frank’ the letters of their impoverished wards. Do you think the frank-er was running an account with the mail service, or he’d prepaid?’

There may be examples of pre-paid postage (there are a couple of philatelists who follow this blog who will know much more than I do), but before the penny post, it was one of the perks of being in Parliament. Members of both House of Lords and House of Commons had the privilege of free postage – and it had become a convention that they would also frank the letters of their friends and relatives (as well as impoverished wards).

It seems to have been an absolute rort. WSD used to get his cousin, an MP, to frank blank sheets of paper to lay in a supply of free letters for future use, and MPs made useful company directors because they cut down the cost of postage.