Caesar, the Rubicon and Me

I remember from one of the early readings that a concept I had never truly thought about properly was proposed to me. It offered the idea that there is much more to history than simply what historians deem to be “important”. The example used was Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon in 49 BC. It highlighted that Caesar’s crossing was marked as an incredibly important event in the history of not only the Roman Republic but also the world. However, it also posed a difficult question for historians; what about the million other people who cross it the same year as Caesar?
What of these people? Who were they? Who did they love? What were their interests? Who were these people who took the same journey that Caesar took? But more importantly, what impact did these crossings, let alone these people, have on history? I would argue just as much as Caesar himself in many ways.
I guess I always knew of this concept, I just never really thought of it in an academic sense, nor on a personal level. Having done three years of academic, “dead people” history already, I found this very hard to comprehend on a formal level.
My current project working with Holy Cross College, Ryde, pertains to old boy ANZACs. Now, I’m not one to perpetuate the mythos of the formulaic nation building that current “pop-politickers” love perpetuate on both sides the argument. I find that both sides of the argument, pro-ANZAC and seemingly more anti-ANZAC, tend to homogenise all ANZAC men as one giant group or “idea” rather than the actual men themselves. My interest however, is similar to the idea of the many Romans who crossed the Rubicon. How these men lived beforehand, how their schooling shaped them, how they travelled halfway round the world never to see their Gladesville, Redfern or Ryde again.
This class has opened my eyes to all these concepts and ideas. Now it is up to us as historians to use these ideas of public, personal history to help the community to grieve, celebrate, acknowledge, love and hate people and events that may not fit the “Great History” like Caesar, but mean things to individual people. I feel as if these ideas of atomising individuals, rather than homogenising, is important when looking at the histories of the public.

Ashfield Polish Club Update

Ashfield Polish Club update: My documentary is slowly taking shape! It has been an incredibly rewarding experience but I still have a lot to do. This unit as a whole has completely reshaped my approaches to history and personalized the experience of history immensely. Hearing everybody speak yesterday was so incredible and thanks to everyone who shared where they are at with their projects!! Inspiring me to work harder! The Polish community in Sydney and the wider area has been incredibly accommodating and this project has been a LOT of fun. As I said in an earlier post, check out the Polish Club’s website and Facebook! website: Facebook: Looking forward to seeing what everybody finishes up with at the end of the semester and to hear about ongoing work!

Useless histories

Throughout my entire schooling I have only written useless histories. In my junior high school years I would write essays on topics I can’t even recall, using Wikipedia as my key source. In later high school I would aim for objectivity, using primary sources as infallible evidence for claims.

When university came around I continued writing essays. I continued to use Wikipedia – admittedly far less. I still valued my primary sources as ultimate forms of evidence, though used them more critically, more hesitantly. And throughout these nine years the only things I ever produced were useless histories. They were read by my teacher, my lecturer, and occasionally my parents or girlfriend. My volunteer editors feigned interest in the obscure topics that they had no attachment to or care for. My teachers would reward me for my use of sources, but in the end there were curriculum points to mark by, and that’s all they ever looked for.

University is different, right? I’ve heard my lecturers are only paid for fifteen minutes of marking per essay. I have only ever produced useless histories.

Now here one might argue that these essays weren’t entirely useless. Without these essays – and the skills I put to practice in them – how else could I have developed my proficiency as a historian? I owe my critical knowledge of history to these essays. This argument is sound. I agree with it even. However, the point remains: the histories I produced – the histories I laboured over for hours and hours of my schooling years – were useless as histories.

Another argument arises here. One could say I was not ready to produce histories that would make an impact. My history writing was not developed enough to be ‘accurate’, let-alone useful.

I have my hesitations with this argument.

History is currently structured around a hierarchy of worth. Students across this country sit on the lowest rung, writing worthless histories full of spelling errors and Wikipedia quotes still in the original Arial 10.5 font. Slightly above them are the ‘unqualified’ or ‘underqualified’ local historians, who write histories without referencing (sometimes) and without a rigorous process of academic review. Above these local historians is the undergraduate History student who shows promise, but still writes histories for one person: the marker. Then comes the Honours students, and consequently, the PhD students. It is only at the postgraduate level that a historian begins to be recognised – and even then, only by a select few. It is only after years and years of producing useless history that historians begin to make an impact, however small that impact may be.

Wait a second. Doesn’t every profession require you to go through these same motions? This process of producing useless works with the aim of honing your skills is seen in mathematics, where you answer endless questions until one day you start to ask you own. It is seen in science, where you perform experiment after experiment, despite the fact they have been done before, all for the purposes of developing your knowledge and your skills. It is seen in law, where you tackle theoretical and historical case studies, preparing you for what you will face beyond the university’s sandstone walls. Why should history be any different? Why should history value work by historians ‘in training’?

Because history is a social process as much as it is a profession. All people are agents in the construction and interpretation of history. Yes, some are more qualified than others to construct critical and reliable histories. That I do not contest. There is a place for academic history. But there is also a place for history by the people.

The hierarchy of history that determines the worthy from the unworthy is counter-productive. What is needed is an acknowledgement of different forms of history, not different worth. A local history display in a country town theatre has a far greater impact on that community of 7000 people than, say, a thesis on the Decentralisation of Colonial Power in Algeria could ever have on its audience of highly specialised and bickering academics.

Sure, academic history can shape the world. Yet it does so very rarely. If we are to measure worth by academic proficiency, then academic history is the only history worth writing. If, however, we are to measure worth by social impact, then we need to re-evaluate the hierarchy that currently shapes our approach to history.

Now for a good-old ahistorical quote to wrap up this rant. Abraham Lincoln famously called for a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” It’s interesting to consider the link between history and politics. A good government will hear the voice of the people and be shaped by this voice. A bad government will ignore the voice of the people, view it as useless, and blaze its own destructive path. History needs to listen to the people, not just classify them as useless and unworthy. More than this, it needs to be shaped by the voices of the people. Lincoln shaped a nation when he called for a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” I wonder what he would think about a history of the people, by the people, for the people.

History and the Public

This class, and the community work I’ve done for this class, has raised an issue that I believe is implicit within the very structure of our projects. To engage with “History Beyond the Classroom” I believe belies a problem with the way that history within the academic world is being done, namely; that historians have become too isolated within their ivory towers, too structured in their intellectual pursuits and too disengaged with a public who would otherwise exist as very receptive audience as it comes to historical works. This is not to say that the work done by historians is not important, otherwise in writing this I somewhat shoot myself in the foot. Nor is it to suggest that academic historians do not produce publically influential work, Tony Judt’s ‘Postwar’ was a NY times bestseller, Foucault’s work remains a penguin classic and Howard Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States’ is a quotable moment in Good Will Hunting (itself a brilliant film). But it is to suggest that in the absence of professionally trained historians presenting to the public a history that is cogent, engaging, accessible and well written, it is left to others to fill the gap.
Far be it from falling prey to elitism in this regard, as perhaps university students and professors are prone to do. But Peter FitzSimmon’s ‘Gallipoli,’ Rebecca Scoot’s ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ and the ever entertaining Bill O’ Reilly’s book ‘Killing Reagan,’ to name but a few, can be said to exist as reaction to the absence of accessible and engaging works of history written by practicing historians. Again, this is not to say that these works are not valid, or valuable – in O’Reilly’s case I’m sure there exists some comedic value – but that these writers perhaps fall prey to some of the theoretical assumptions that are made by those who have not been professionally trained. FitzSimmon’s belief that he can tell “what happened,” and let people draw their conclusions from what he writes, may ring alarm bells in a historian’s head, and for good reason. It is not for nought that we may be wary of those who claim objectivity, especially if we can very easily see otherwise.
Not to sell short popular histories either. They themselves have a long history and are undeniably important, no question. In fact historical fiction has long existed as an engaging way of both teaching and learning history, Tolstoy’s War and Peace is perhaps the most brilliant in this regard. And, speaking personally, the Horrible History series is what engaged an 8 year old me in history. But I wonder if there something to be said in attempting to reengage with the public, as academics and as writers. To “sit in Ivory towers” and write academic pieces almost solely for an audience of academics and students, remains, in my mind, an exercise in elitism. I believe that what individuals like Bruce Baskerville, and Peter Hobbins do is not public history in actuality but just history. Public history has become a name we, perhaps condescendingly in many cases, must give their work because the academia has long ignored the very subject it’s studying; the public sphere. In my opinion, this is not the role of history. Historians must be engaged, not simply for political reasons, for history has always been a political weapon – Prime Minister Netanyahu this week past stating that it was the Grand Mufti of Israel, Amin al-Husseini who ‘put the idea of the holocaust in the head of Hitler’ is a good example of this. But because historians risk becoming irrelevant to the public should we abscond into obscurity.
Anyway, just some food for thought.

The Quarantine Station

As part of my community engagement, I recently visited the Quarantine Station to explore the grounds with Peter Hobbins, an historian working on the Stories from the sandstone: archaeology and history of quarantine project. The Quarantine Station was used from the 1830’s to isolate ships and their passenger suspected of carrying contagious diseases, and has also been found to be of great significance to the Indigenous population of the area. I have chosen a quarantined ship, The Canton, which arrived in 1835, for my research, in part due to the existence of a relatively legible journal, written by 15-year-old passenger Thomas Dawson, relaying the perils of passage and of the quarantine period. As part of my volunteer work, I have been transcribing the journal, a task that is slightly harder, though much more detailed, than anticipated!
A well preserved page of Dawson’s journal.
Viewing the various inscriptions on my visit made it clear just how important the work of Peter and his colleagues is. While the inscriptions made by quarantined individuals offer such a rich source of interest and information regarding early emigration and quarantine procedures, they are at mercy of the environment and weather, and many have already become illegible over time. The appropriate recording and research into the inscriptions will ensure that over time, they are still accessible for use and research.
Examining some of the inscriptions
Not only is the Quarantine Station an incredible place in the history world, it is undeniably one of the most beautiful places in Sydney. I would highly recommend a visit for one of their many tours, or just a walk around the grounds, where the inscriptions and original buildings remaining will give you a great insight into the experiences of the original passengers held in isolation.

Johnston’s Creek Extension: hope for residents

For my project I’ve been working with the No West Connex action group, which is campaigning to stop the proposed West Connex road which, at 33km long, is the largest road project in Australia. West Connex will start as an extension of the M4 in Parramatta and end on the M5 in Beverly Hills. Stage 3 of the road, known as the M4 M5 link, will be built between Haberfield and St Peters and involve the demolition of hundreds of homes. My own house in Newtown will be affected due to projected increased traffic congestion and fumes from pollution stacks.
Worried about my local area, I first attended a community meeting on West Connex in Leichhardt Town Hall held be concerned residents and action groups in 2013. Despite being impressed by the knowledge and spirit of the campaigners, I quietly thought; “but what hope do we, residents, have in stopping this road?”. I left feeling despondent. According to No West Connex campaigners, my pessimistic sentiment is widely shared amongst the community.
However, historically, there have been many examples of community action groups stopping roads being built that the community are probably largely unaware of. Namely, in 2005 residents and action groups such as EcoTransit were able to stop an extension to the F6, called the Johnston’s Creek Extension, which would have run from the Anzac Bridge, through Newtown, and into Randwick. Like West Connex, the four lane highway would have involved the demolition of hundreds of houses and businesses. Furthermore, a road reservation had existed along the corridor since 1945 and the RTA had discretely been buying properties along the route for decades. Despite this, the public had still not been informed that the road was even being built. Luckily, town planner Michelle Zeibots realised the government’s plans and launched a campaign to stop the road. 

100 000 newsleafs were produced and distributed in both Newtown and Randwick, campaigners door-knocked and Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon called for papers in parliament regarding the road. All the while, Labor denied plans for the Johnston’s Creek Extension even existed. Labor minister Carmel Tebbutt, the then local member for Marrickville, threatened to sue the Greens and Eco Transit for fear mongering and defamation.
A break-through occurred when one campaigner, Mary Jane Gleeson, spent an entire week sorting through the documents that had been released to the Greens. Amongst the “mountain of papers” she located one e-mail exchange between members of the RTA that referred to the road’s construction. This email was then presented to Carmel Tebbutt who was visibly shocked. Fearing the backlash from her electorate, Tebbutt was skilfully able to not only scrap the plans for the road, but lift the road reservation altogether, preventing governments from building there in the future.
letter johnstons.jpg
I want to spread awareness about the Johnston’s Creek Extension campaign mainly to reignite hope in residents that, yes, community groups can take on governments and, through tireless campaigning, can stop their homes and neighbourhoods being demolished. I know personally through doing this project that my faith has been restored that roads like West Connex are not inevitable.

Redfern Legal Centre’s Historical Accomplishments

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Redfern Legal Centre, Annual Report: July 1991 – June 1992 (Redfern: Redfern Legal Centre, 1992).
The Hon. Gough Whitlam, Clare Petre and Valent Santalab cut the cake at RLC’s 15th birthday in March 1992
For the past semester, I’ve been working with the Redfern Legal Centre to assist them in creating a Historical Achievements page for their website. I’ve mainly been going through their annual reports from the last 38 years but I’ve also had a look through trove and Hansard for some newspaper articles and parliamentary comments. I’ve really enjoyed reading about all the amazing work the Centre has done.
Just a few examples of their achievements include:
– Publishing numerous helpful legal guides for the community on a wide variety of different issues from debt to share housing
– Raising over $16,000 in fundraising for the Legal Aid Centre in Aceh following the 2005 tsunami
– Assisting and representing international students, postgraduate students and TAFE students in countless casework wins
– Presenting hundreds of community legal sessions
– Establishing programs such as the Sydney Women’s Domestic Violence Assistance Scheme
These are truly just an extremely tiny sample of RLC’s accomplishments. So far I’ve selected roughly 34 achievements to display on the webpage and I’ve found photos, graphs, case studies and articles from the annual reports to make the page entertaining and engaging.
I chose to work with Redfern Legal Centre because it has a rich history which deserves to be heard now more than ever. With recent government cutbacks to community legal centres, including RLC, this is the perfect time for the centre to remind the community and the government of its incredible impact throughout its almost 40 year history. I hope that the webpage I create will inspire readers to donate to the centre in order to ensure it can continue to do this amazing work long into the future.
If anyone is interested in knowing more about the centre or in donating to help them in providing legal services to the most disadvantaged in our community, please follow this link:

Students and Communities Make History Together

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Proposals came in from students last week detailing the extraordinary and fascinating work they have been doing with their chosen local/community organisation for HSTY 3092 History Beyond the Classroom. The proposals also outlined the major projects that have grown out of that work and which students will be working on over the next month. We were amazed at the work they have been doing and the ideas they have come up with for their major projects. Some of these I have blogged about already at: Students themselves have also blogged about their work, and I have urged them all to tell us more about their partnerships and projects. Check back regularly for more updates.
For now, it is worth noting that our thirty-eight students are working with a total of thirty-four organisations around Sydney and regional NSW. The organisations vary enormously in purpose, scope and activities, and are listed below. Web links to the organisations can be found on our blogroll.
Historical Societies
Marrickville Heritage Society
Campbelltown-Airds Historical Society Inc.
The Glebe Society
Hills District Historical Society
Canada Bay Heritage Society
Lennox Head Heritage Society
Australian Railway Historical Society (NSW BRANCH)
The Haberfield Association
Blue Mountains Historical Society
Historic Sites
Quarantine Station
Civic Theatre, Scone
Rockdale Market Gardeners
Sports/Community Groups
Ashfield Polish Club
The Temple Society
Hurlstone Park Wanderers Football Club
Parramatta Basketball Association
Rotary Club of Waitara
Powerhouse Youth Theatre
Trading Circle
St Mark’s National Memorial Library
Redfern Legal Centre
Hope Worldwide and the Gumine Community of PNG
The Whitlam Library
New South Wales Writers Centre
Activist/Political Groups
No West Connex Action Group
North Parramatta Residents’ Action Group
Parramatta Female Factory Friends
Pride History Group Oral History Project
Schools and Indigenous Histories
Aboriginal Heritge Office
O’Connell Public School
Cammeraygal High School
Holy Cross College, Ryde
Willoughby Old Girls

Meeting with Pride History Group

When I arrived for the Pride History Group’s general meeting in August I had no clue what to expect. Having never worked or been in contact with a historical society before, I turned up without expectations of any particular activity or process. The group of members present, who are dedicating their free time to their passion for history and LGBTI NSW were truly inspirational. The atmosphere seemed to be that of an open platform for the ideas of members, where projects such as a lesbian walking tour in Newtown and ‘Queer History in the Pub’, which brings historical topics to the public in a fun social way were discussed. What struck me the most was the interest and creativity the members had in engaging with history, which should in hindsight perhaps not be so shocking in a historical society!
The Pride History Group (PHG), works as a database for researchers as well as conduct their own projects such as published books and pamphlets. One of their major projects at the time which I have ended up volunteering for is the ‘100 voices project’. It collects oral history interviews about ‘the queering of Sydney back from around the 1950’s to the present date, of which part of the content is being made available on their website and where the access of full interviews can be requested. The work that I am doing is, transcribing and logging two interviews from the ‘100 voices’ project. The aim is to create a table of venues, names, movements etc. being discussed that are of relevance to LGBTI Sydney and to indicate at what time in the interview they are discussed as well as what is said about them. The purpose of this is to facilitate researchers to search for key words and thereby easily find the information about them in interviews from the project. It takes a lot of time and careful listening but the stories are really exciting!
The PHG is an open membership group, furthermore a great archive for anyone looking to find out more about LGBTI history! You can find more information on their website:

Local Sports History: the scramble to salvage the past

For the past few months I have been working with local football (soccer) club Hurlstone Park Wanderers. We have been trying to recover records of a metropolitan-wide football tournament that ran through the 1950s called the Canterbury Cup. Hurlstone Park won the tournament numerous times and calls this period its ‘golden era’.
An issue that I have come across in my research is access to archival material. Local sporting organizations are invariably run by a handful of dedicated individuals who have precious little time for preserving and maintaining archives. There is also a high turnover in these administrative roles, making it very easy for records to go missing. A more general problem is that these materials are almost always held in private collections (i.e. in a box in someone’s garage). A huge chunk of my work has been making phone calls to many very willing but mostly bewildered former players and administrators.
This week I met with the President of the Canterbury Football Association, Ian Holmes. Ian is typical of many people working in local sport. He spends countless unpaid hours dealing with complaints, negotiating with uncooperative councils and, interestingly for me, tracking down lost archives. Ian explained that although the association is nearly 100 years old, it has very little record of that history. Most of the archives were destroyed in a fire many years ago. Recovering records from personal collections has become a matter of great urgency as many older players pass away. Ian’s work is as much genealogical as it is historical. It is quite literally a race against the clock to recover these records.
The history of local sporting organizations should not be forgotten (or lost). The place of sports in local communities can reflect wider cultural phenomena (e.g. race, class, gender). Often, sport can be a vehicle for social change, as was the case with the influx of non-British migrants into the Canterbury area in the 1950s. It is to history’s great benefit that in sporting organizations around the country there are likely to be hundreds of people like Ian, doggedly salvaging what remains of the past.