Tomayto, Tomahto; Frenchs Forest, Forestville.

Historians are indoctrinated with the importance of dates and names from an early age. I can certainly still regurgitate the dates of significance from WWI and WWII along with names of high profile Nazi party members on demand (thank you very much HSC Modern History). For the majority of my undergraduate degree, most of my historical inquiry for essays and assessments has largely been sourced from secondary sources. So its unsurprising that it is now, when I have very little secondary sources to draw upon (except for the Local Studies gold mine at Dee Why Library) that I’m discovering just how difficult it often is making sense of the past.
My major project will take the form of ten blog posts about lesser known histories of the Northern Beaches. I came across the mention of Forestville Soldier’s Settlement in my early research, immediately intrigued, and jotted it down as a topic for one such blog post. Little did I know that this would be the beginning of a very frustrating search for further information.
Inputting this exact name into Trove and Google returned very few results;
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My hopes of finally stumbling across a piece of Northern Beaches history that could be told in a fascinating narrative were slowly withering away. However, I’ve never been one to back down from a challenge – so I started thinking and searching laterally. Thankfully, by skimming the similar results that Google provided, I gained my first clue. Forestville and Frenchs Forest appear to be used interchangeably in different excerpts.
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For those unfamiliar with the beautiful bushland suburbs north of The Bridge, Forestville and Frenchs Forest are two adjoining, but different, suburbs. This clearly hasn’t always been the case. James French was the first to settle most of this area and developed a timber industry, explaining ‘Frenchs Forest’. However, the soldiers’ settlement (an Australia-wide government initiative to provide farmland and, subsequently, livelihoods to soldiers’ returning from WWI) was actually within modern Forestville.
Given that I had now determined this particular soldiers’ settlement was located in Forestville, but potentially referred to as Frenchs Forest – I entered this into Trove and Google, crossed my fingers, and hit enter.
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JACKPOT. Not only did this bring up a wealth of sources to work with (even an entire book on the subject written by a local historian!), there was some juicy details involved. The land in this area was largely infertile, and the returned soldier’s felt particularly failed by the scheme – so they launched an inquiry that was bountifully covered by local and national newspapers.
Shakespeare’s Romeo so famously asks; ‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Well, he has a very valid point – tomayto, tomahto; Forestville Soldier’s Settlement, Frenchs Forest Soldier’s Settlement – different names for the same thing.
(Side note: the soldiers’ settlement scheme is itself very interesting and deserves an entire blog post or essay itself).

But What Is My History?

I have always been fascinated by history, leading me to choose as much elective history as possible throughout high school, and only naturally resulting in a major at university. This fascination probably stems from the fact that I have always been surrounded by history. My grandparents would tell me enthralling stories, I’ve long watched my Dad passionately piece together our family tree, and my Mum constructs our immediate family history in scrapbooks. Yet, my interests have always extended far beyond Australian or local history.
While I tell myself I am so interested in WWII and post-war European history because it’s my ‘family’ history (a great-grandfather and grandfather who served in WWI and II respectively, and ancestry from the United Kingdom, Ireland and Germany), is it really ‘my’ history?
With every session I have with my community organisation, Manly, Pittwater and Warringah History Society (MWPHS), I become more and more aware of just how unknowledgeable I am about the rich local history of the area I have lived my entire life – the Northern Beaches.
The popularity of local history, exactly what MWPHS strive to collect, preserve, and circulate, has exploded in recent years. Graeme Davison puts it clearly and simply – “Local history, which links our aspirations for community to a sense of place, our fragile present to a seemingly more stable past, has a strong claim on the contemporary imagination”.
So, I guess rationalising my attraction to European history is justified, as my family history has very much impacted my life today, linking my “fragile present to a seemingly more stable past”. But how then do I explain my lack of connection to the history right on my doorstep? (This isn’t an exaggeration. A quick walk into the bush near my house, and you’ll stumble across Aboriginal rock carvings). The history with which I should resonate, given my physical relationship, “a sense of place”.
I’ve always assumed my local area lacked an ‘interesting’ history worthy of my attention, but I’m continuously being surprised as I come across documents in MWPHS’ archives (like newspaper advertisements for Manly Ferries from the early 1900s, or photographs of one of the many farms that once existed in my suburb). Why has it taken this long for me to be exposed to this information? If I had been exposed earlier, could I have a stronger sense of belonging to my local community?
History, whether it is public, local, national, Indigenous, female (the list goes on), is very much about identity making. The power of history lies in its ability to educate about the past, in order to make sense of the present, and inform or progress the future. This happens at all levels (community/local, nations, transnational), but most basically for individuals. HSTY3902 students – who knows what little known information you’ll uncover and publicise? Whose identity may your work help shape in the future? You have the power, use it wisely.