The Shire’s sense of its history at the outbreak of the War – Part 2

In an earlier post (18 July 2014) I attempted to create a picture of how, in the lead-up to the outbreak of war in 1914, the locals of the Shire of Alberton saw the previous several generations of their district’s history, from roughly 1840. It was based on the belief that the lived experiences and memories of overlapping generations represented a shared, natural history for all those involved. I also made the point that this natural ‘history making’ process took place within a wider socio-cultural framework which had the manifest and unchallenged greatness of the British Empire as its key reference point.

In this post, I intend to sharpen the focus and move away from the collective memory of the entire district to focus instead on the work of just one person. The person is the Reverend George Cox (Church of England) who was appointed to Yarram in 1910 and served there until he enlisted in the AIF, aged forty-four, in 1915. Future posts will show how Rev. Cox became a key player in the history of the Shire over WW1, in terms of both his own personal experiences and also the authority and influence he exercised in the local community.

Just two years after the (Royal) Historical Society of Victoria was established (1909) Rev. Cox set up a local branch – it was referred to as a ‘sub-centre’ – in Yarram. It was the only such local branch of the RHSV at the time; and, under Cox’s leadership, it became very active in locating and drawing together the full range of relevant primary source materials and then employing them to document the early history of Gippsland. Cox’s leadership was obviously critical because when he enlisted in the second half of 1915 and left the district the local historical society folded. However, the amount of local history documented in the few short years of the branch’s existence was very impressive and Cox obviously worked closely with key personnel from the RHSV, including its Secretary A W Greig, and even presented a paper to the Society on Gippsland’s early history (29 June 1914). More importantly, for our purposes at least, the history uncovered was actually published at the time. Between November 1911 and July 1914 Cox wrote and had published in the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – no fewer than 49 articles on the early history of Gippsland. In fact, after his military service and even though he was no longer based in the district, Cox continued the series of articles on Gippsland’s history, and by the time he finished in late 1930 he had written some 130 articles. For anyone interested in following up the full set of articles written by Cox, the Port Albert Maritime Museum and the Yarram and District Historical Society jointly published the complete set in six volumes in the 1990s. They are still available. The details are given below in References.

In this particular post I am looking only at the 49 articles Cox wrote and published up to the outbreak of WW1. These articles covered essentially the first decade of settlement, through to the early 1850s.

Cox himself gave some insight into his motivation for the articles. In the first article – published 31 January 1912 – he justified the setting up of the local branch of the then Historical Society of Victoria on the grounds that there were no ‘definite and complete records’ of the history of Gippsland. Moreover, the historical records were then disappearing at an alarming rate. He gave the example of the original cemetery on the bank of the Albert River, with some of the graves of the earliest settlers of Gippsland, that had fallen into decay, with headstones destroyed, inscriptions no longer decipherable and cemetery records lost. Later, in 1914, he was to claim that a key part of the problem was that Gippsland itself had not been recognised in the historical record. He had a sort of thesis to explain his claim of ‘Neglected Gippsland’. First, he argued that the early years of Gippsland had been characterised by a high level of lawlessness and, presumably, this legacy had discouraged the proper and full historical study of the region. It is actually difficult to follow his argument on this score. The second point he made was more credible, and it related to the way that the civic centre of Gippsland had continued to shift from the time of the first settlement: from Port Albert to Tarraville, to Alberton, to Yarram, to Sale. As he put it:

The other feature which creates much difficulty lies in the fact that instead of one place forming a permanent pivot around which settlement has developed, place after place has become the centre of an ever widening and progressive area. (Vol. IV, Article 49)

Cox’s mission then was to locate and study original primary sources – from parliamentary reports to private correspondence and papers, and even the personal reminiscences of old residents – and then from this research he hoped to create a ‘connected history’ by publishing a series of articles grouped round broad themes or topics. However, at the start of his enterprise, with so little written on the history of Gippsland, Cox was not even sure that the body of primary sources would sustain his written account. Interestingly, in many ways Cox’s efforts and output line up with the practice of publishing a blog: the history was aimed at the widest audience; it was written over an extended period and published in episodes; and its focus and themes developed over time. Also, Cox was keen to receive, and he definitely acknowledged and employed, ‘feedback’ from his readers. His determination to acknowledge points of contention and conflicting evidence in an attempt to correct the developing historical record was integral to his work. Presumably, the keen level of response he had from readers of his articles further motivated him to continue the series.

As well as uncovering and recording the history of a region that he saw as having been neglected, Cox was also motivated by what he saw as the power of history to both celebrate and educate:

Let it be clearly understood between reader and writer that this is a national work, a work of public interest, in which all may take a share, for the honouring of those – our pioneers – who have borne the heat and toil and the burden of the day, and for the instruction and inspiration of those who shall come after. (Vol. II, Article 1)

It is evident that Cox saw for his history, significance and purpose that were greater than the intrinsic interest of the story itself. He saw history, like his religious faith, as instruction, for both the present and future, rather than merely an account, no matter how colourful and interesting, of what had happened in the past.

What would a reader of the Reverend Cox’s articles have made of the history of Gippsland? Arguably, the key theme for readers of the articles 100 years ago was that the pastoral industry drove the exploration, occupation and finally settlement of Gippsland. It was the squatters – ‘overlanders’ – from New South Wales, moving roughly S-W in search of more and better pasture, who crossed the rivers (Snowy, Tambo, Nicholson, Mitchell, Avon, Thomson, La Trobe) and pushed into Gippsland. It was the same group who were desperate for a port on the coast – Port Albert, the site of the first settlement – from which to ship their cattle. There was no question that the ‘unoccupied’ land would be taken. Cox’s articles highlight that the fundamental purpose of colonisation was to take what was seen as ‘unoccupied’ land and use it for economic benefit. In the pursuit of this end there would be obstacles – attempts by the colonial government to control the spread and speed of the occupation; the limits of exploration; the physical challenges of geography; and resistance from the Indigenous people – but the end was never in doubt, not in Australia nor in any other part of the Empire: the basic driver of colonisation ensured that what was seen as ‘waste’ or ‘unoccupied’ land would be exploited for economic benefit.

Related to this key theme there was also a theme on the necessary and natural subjugation of the Indigenous people. Cox himself invariably referred to the ‘blacks’ and to a lesser extent he used the term ‘natives’. The original documents he cited in his articles referred to ‘aboriginal blacks’, ‘aboriginal natives’, ‘the aboriginals of Gippsland’, and ‘blackfellows’. In a few cases the term ‘savages’ was employed. In all these descriptions, the use of lower case was constant. Expressions such as ‘wild race’, ‘brutal tribe’ and ‘wild blacks’ were common. The Indigenous people were represented as simple, dangerous and untrustworthy. They speared cattle, stole supplies and murdered stockmen. Cox also devoted a considerable amount of copy to the claims about the ‘White Woman’ of Gippsland (Vol. 4 Articles 6-7): the story of a European woman who was supposedly shipwrecked in the early 1840s and captured by and forced to live with the ‘blacks’. He detailed the several expeditions to locate and free her and looked at the claims and counter claims, before eventually deciding that judgement needed to be ‘suspended’. Cox also gave some detail of the conflict and killings on the frontier; and again he presented various, often conflicting, accounts of what happened. Cox did not condone the ‘massacres’ but his narrative held that it was inevitable that Indigenous resistance to the pioneers would be overcome so that the true productive value of the land could be realised and settlement proceed. For Cox, in keeping with the theories underpinning the White Australia Policy at the time, what happened on the frontier, allowing for excesses, was seen as the inevitable outcome of a clash between races. At the time Cox was writing, the Indigenous people were seen, literally, as a doomed and dying race.

Then there was the theme of civilisation. Just as the resistance of the Indigenous people had to be contained – and this effectively meant their dispossession and elimination – so the more undesirable characteristics of European life on the frontier had to be overcome. Not surprisingly, Cox devoted considerable attention to the early (Anglican) church in Gippsland, particularly the work of the Reverend Willoughby Bean (Vol. VI Articles 41,43,47,48). The Rev. Bean emerges as a heroic figure, fighting all kinds of hardship, who traversed Gippsland from Port Albert to Bairnsdale and beyond, to bring the faith to a flock that was small, dispersed and often living in ignorance and sin. Bean’s Rough Journal is in fact gripping reading. There is an extraordinary account of his voyage from Williamstown to Port Albert in 1848 that took some 10 days and a lot of prayer in treacherous seas (Vol. VI, Article 37). It is clear that for Cox – and Bean before him – the settlement had to be Christian: children had to be baptised, couples married and Christian burials conducted. The building of churches and schools were the signs of civilised settlement. As well, whenever the agencies of law and order were not present, as at Port Albert in the early years, vice, drunkeness and lawlessness would prevail. Cox’s history is very much about reproducing the agencies and culture of civilised (Christian) society on the frontier, a theme that was repeated all over the Empire.

It is arguable that exploration was for Cox a theme in its own right and not just an aspect of the broader development of the pastoral industry. The focus on explorers was definitely a given in the society of the time. For example, each year in Victorian schools ‘Discovery Day’ was celebrated – it would later be subsumed within Anzac Day – when special attention would be given to the discovery and settlement of Australia. Cox wrote material specifically for Discovery Day (Vol. I, Article 26). Certainly he wrote extensively of the explorers, particularly McMillan and Strzelecki (Vol. I, Articles 4, 5, 19, 20, 26, 27, 34, 40), highlighting the dangers and challenges they faced. He makes much of the issue about who really discovered Gippsland and why such a debate ever arose in the first place. There is a heavy emphasis on the exploits of the ‘explorers’ as the first Europeans to discover and unlock the land. He sees these Gippsland explorers as worthy successors to the great Imperial explorers like Cook and Flinders. As well, much is made of the backgrounds of the explorers and pioneers – Scotland features prominently – linking the expansion in Gippsland to broader Imperial themes. The detail Cox gives on the movement of capital, labour, technology and even stock across the Empire is revealing. In one of his articles (Vol. III, No. 4) Cox wrote about Aeneas Macdonell, ‘the chieftain of Glengarry’ who left Scotland in 1840 and settled, for a short time, at Greenmount near Yarram. Cox quoted the following account which he said came from the Glasgow Chronicle of 20 June 1840. An entire community was to be shifted from one end of the Empire to the other:

Glengarry goes to the southern hemisphere for the purpose of forming a new Glengarry settlement. He has taken a retinue of followers with him consisting of shepherds and agriculturalists of every description, capable of carrying all the improved methods of rearing cattle, and agricultural improvements of the old to the new world. He takes out a splendid stock of all kinds of the far-famed Scottish cattle, a vast number of the most improved agricultural implements and a frame house or two. Glengarry we understand, lost his family estate through the reckless extravagance of his father and a short time since, sold one of his own estates for a pretty handsome sum, with which he now goes to Australia. After making a settlement either in Australia or New Zealand the chieftain intends to return and take all his tenants.

Overall, the historical narrative presented by Cox is celebratory and heroic. It is the iconic history of great individuals and definite types, with the key type the ‘pioneer’: forceful, larger-than-life, independent, risk-taking and enterprising. As an example of what Cox’s history does not cover, there is little on class conflict on the frontier. It is as if everyone is held together in a common bond as they battle the frontier. The frontier, in other words, appears as more powerful than class conflict generally or the more direct competing economic interests of boss and worker. Nor is his history an economic and political analysis of speculative capitalism and land alienation on the pastoral frontier. Nor is it a detailed study of Indigenous resistance to European occupation. However, for present purposes, the more important point is that one hundred years ago, leading to the outbreak of WW1, the Reverend George Cox devoted considerable time and energy in writing a comprehensive set of articles on the history of the early years of Gippsland and organised for this work to be published in the district. His effort was significant on any number of levels: it was groundbreaking work for the (Royal )Historical Society of Victoria on local history; it emphasised the importance of primary resource material; it was concerned to present and assess conflicting historical interpretations and evidence; it was intended to reach a wide, local audience; and it addressed the shortage of historical studies on Gippsland. It also made the local history of Gippsland an integral part of wider Imperial history.

Cox’s history is more heroic than analytical and more narrative than interpretative, and, unsurprisingly, he did not challenge the theoretical constructs of his time. But for our purposes, the true significance of his work is that, when WW1 came, his version of local history reinforced the powerful synergy between the pioneer and soldier. Cox’s articles on early Gippsland helped ensure a smooth transition to the Imperial war.

References

Adams, J D (ed.) 1990, Notes on Gippsland History by Reverend George Cox

Vol 1 The Exploration of Gippsland, Shire of Alberton and Yarram and District Historical Society, 1990
Vol 2 The Beginnings of Gippsland, Port Albert Maritime Museum and Yarram and District Historical Society, 1990
Vol 3 The Alberton District 1842-3, Port Albert Maritime Museum and Yarram and District Historical Society, 1990
Vol 4 Gippsland in the 1840s, Port Albert Maritime Museum and Yarram and District Historical Society, 1990
Vol 5 Alberton District from 1844 to the 1850s, Port Albert Maritime Museum, 1997
Vol 6 The Beginning of Church and School in Gippsland, Port Albert Maritime Museum, 1997

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