Several previous posts have covered the importance of the the Rev George Cox, the Church of England rector who was appointed to Yarram in 1911. Cox was one of the most important Imperial Loyalists in the local community.
Prior to his own enlistment in 1915, Cox had been actively involved with the local Rechabite Lodge and he spoke at local temperance meetings. He had supported the local Boy Scouts and had served on the committee for Yarram State School. When the War broke out he helped establish the Belgian Relief Fund Committee. Most significantly, he was very involved in the local Recruiting Committee.
Even when he was serving with the AIF, Cox maintained a connection with Yarram and his former congregation. For example, in November 1917 he returned to Yarram to preach. In his sermon, he pointed to the differences between the ‘shirker’ and the soldier in the trenches prepared to sacrifice everything. He reminded his congregation that he had always supported the ‘voluntary system of enlistments’ and he declared that he still believed this was the best method. But now, faced with such peril, Cox urged everyone to support the Hughes Government in ‘any measure brought forward which would compel the shirker to do his bit.’ That night he gave a public address in the Shire Hall to young men on the topic of ‘The National Peril’. The National Peril was the scourge of ‘venereal diseases’. There was a write up of Cox’s visit in the local paper on 21/11/17.
Cox enlisted in September 1915. In fact, Cox had tried to enlist one year earlier in late September 1914 but was rejected by the local doctors. Most probably his age would have been a factor. He was born at Edinburgh in Scotland in 1871 and was then 43 years old. Even after he enlisted, his health was still an issue and he was actually discharged (May 1916) – rheumatic fever – before he re-enlisted, but only for home service. He served with the Australian Army Medical Corps at both the Isolation Hospital, Langwarrin and the Clearing Hospital at Broadmeadows. He held the rank of a/sergeant and he was formally discharged in January 1919. Cox’s determination to enlist and, equally his determination to continue to serve in the face of poor health, would have served as a striking example to the local community.
Cox was one of the most important advocates of support for the Empire. He used his pulpit to promote the righteous cause of the Allies, remind everyone of the greatness of the Empire and the dire challenges it faced and, in a very practical gesture, make a strong call for volunteers. For a reminder of how Cox effectively fused Christian teaching – for example, the ideal of Christian sacrifice – with support for the War refer to Post 26. Soldiers of Christ.
Another striking example of how Cox presented the Empire of Britain and the Empire of God as overlapping and mutually dependent came in the sermon he preached at Yarram on Sunday 23/5/15. It was reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 26/5/15. It was just before Empire Day and it also coincided with the feast of Whitsunday (Pentecost). Cox saw the British Empire as the civil and temporal manifestation of the Heavenly (Christian) Empire:
Tonight we are met for a two-fold commemoration. We stand on the eve of Empire Day, that day on which we commemorate the birthday of Her Most Gracious Majesty, the late Queen Victoria, and we commemorate her memory because of her life and character. She has left us an ideal of what a Christian ruler ought to be. And it was during her life that the British Empire received its greatest development, and was consolidated and established. And today, Whitsunday, we commemorate the birthday of the Christian Empire.
As well as offering both Christian legitimacy and active support for the War effort, Cox provided the local community with another considerable asset. From 1911 when he arrived in Yarram to 1915 when he enlisted, Cox provided the locals of the Shire of Alberton – and the broader community of Gippsland – with a running presentation of the history of Gippsland.
Previous posts that looked at recruiting drives and formal farewells and welcomes home have examined the themes that were commonly employed in speeches on such occasions and the theme of the young soldier as a worthy descendant of the original pioneers was very common. Possibly, even without Cox’s efforts, this theme would have been paramount but there is no question that Cox had provided both the background detail and the renewed interest in the early history of the local area and that there was a natural synergy between his history articles and support for the War effort. In Cox’s world view the success of the European settlement of Gippsland mirrored, admittedly only on the small scale, the inevitable success and greatness of the British Empire. Cox and his readers also saw the very real threat of defeat in the War as the denial of the very British virtues and strengths that had enabled the successful colonisation of Australia. Defeat would represent the very reversal of Australia’s history.
Cox’s efforts as a local historian were considerable. His articles on Gippsland history – Notes on Gippsland History – which were published regularly in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative were detailed and extensive. As indicated, they ran from 1911 to September 1915 when he enlisted. In that period there were approximately 65 articles published. The articles recommenced in 1921 and continued to 1930. In this instance I am only looking at the articles published prior to and during the War, although this also includes a handful (4) that he wrote after he enlisted.
Interestingly, the articles were written and published in the style of a contemporary blog. Cox often revised earlier texts in view of additional research on his part, or in response to comments or criticism from readers or other researchers. He actively encouraged comments on his work and appealed for additional resources. Also, the topics on which he wrote were ordered somewhat randomly and the various threads and themes in his work were not handled in a strictly sequential manner. The work was definitely in the style of a ‘work in progress’ rather than a finished history. At the same time, the overall scope and detail of his work was very impressive and he gave the community a significant picture of its history, albeit from a particular perspective: the triumph of British colonisation.
John Adams wrote a formal history of the Shire of Alberton in 1990 and in his preface he acknowledged the value of … the many articles published by the late Rev George Cox in the Gippsland Standard. The value of the articles as resource material was always recognised, and in 1997 the Port Albert Maritime Museum re-published all the articles in a 6 volume work. John Adams also wrote the introduction for the series and, again, he acknowledged the significance of Cox’s work – These articles have for many years proved to be important research material for students and historians of Gippsland history … – and also presented an overview of their scope:
From 1911 to 1930 there appeared in the Gippsland Standard, Yarram, a series of articles which went under the heading of ‘Notes on Gippsland History’. These articles, many of them up to 2000 words in length, were the result of detailed and painstaking research on the early history of Gippsland by the Anglican minister, Rev. George Cox. They covered the explorations of Gippsland, the settlement of Port Albert and the subsequent development of Alberton and Tarraville, the early squatters and the cattle trade, the first overlanders in Gippsland and the beginnings of churches and schools in the Alberton area, concentrating to a large extent on the first twenty years of Gippsland.
The other significant feature of Cox’s work was that it was undertaken under the auspices of the (Royal) Historical Society of Victoria. The society had been established only recently in 1909 and, in fact, Cox established the first branch outside Melbourne, at Yarram, in 1911.
Cox addressed the local Australian Natives’ Association (ANA) branch at Yarram in September 1911 – the paper he presented that day became the first of the published articles in the local paper – and revealed his motivation for setting up the first ‘sub-centre’ of the (Royal) Historical Society of Victoria. He was concerned that there was no definitive history of Gippsland and that the challenge was time critical because the essential material resources were fast disappearing. As well, the ‘pioneers’ were dying. He wrote often about ‘our few remaining pioneers’. Recording the past efforts of the pioneers and celebrating their successes were of paramount importance to Cox. In the same paper, he explicitly referred to the duty of honouring the pioneer generations:
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 burden of the day, and for the instruction and inspiration of those who shall come after.
This was history with a high moral purpose, a history that could teach future generations of the enterprise, values and success of the original European pioneers. It was hardly surprising that the theme of the young soldier following in the footsteps of the pioneers became so common in local recruitment appeals.
Cox’s comments ascribe a ‘national’ dimension to the work. While the history Cox pursued was definitely focused on Gippsland, he was at least conscious of the need for a sense of Australia’s national history. Also, it is reasonable to argue that in focusing on the local history of a particular area in Victoria, he was consciously offering a model for other districts and regions to employ. All such work would thus contribute to the overall national history. This idea that a national history was required and that it could be realised, at least in part, by the work of local history groups such as the one Cox had formed needs to be seen in the context that, at the time, both the idea and ideal of an Australian Nation or Commonwealth were in their infancy. Australia has just reached the end of only the first decade of Federation. Truly national history was in only its infant stages. Of course, as matters turned out, WW1 – and particularly the Anzac Legend – would come to claim an extraordinarily powerful place in the national history.
At another meeting, this time to the (Royal) Historical Society of Victoria in Melbourne in June 1914, Cox gave a rationale for the focus on Gippsland and highlighted some of the difficulties faced. The paper was covered in an article published in the local paper on 24/7/14. Cox made the case for what he referred to as ’Neglected Gippsland’. In his view, the history of Gippsland had been omitted from what national history there was at the time. Critical explorations in Gippsland had been ignored and … the opening up of the interior of this magnificent pastoral country half a century later does not seem to have been considered worth mentioning.
Cox gave several reasons to explain why the history of Gippsland had been ignored. The issue of geographic isolation was key. In fact, Cox detailed how isolated Gippsland still remained by describing how long it had taken him to reach Melbourne that very day for the meeting. In other articles Cox emphasised just how isolated the early settlements in Gippsland had been before there was an ‘overland’ route to Melbourne. This was one of the main preoccupations in his history of exploration. Another unique feature of Gippsland’s geography that had complicated the issue of identity related to the way that the focus of the settlement changed so significantly. The centre of settlement had proceeded from Port Albert to Tarraville to Alberton and finally to Yarram and Sale. As Cox 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.
Cox also gave another reason why there were such significant gaps in the history of Gippsland or, from another perspective, why there was only limited enthusiasm for uncovering the past, particularly the very early European past. There were episodes and characteristics there to which people did not want to draw attention. At the same June 1914 meeting, Cox spoke about … the fact that for several years of its early existence as a pastoral settlement it [Gippsland] was a sort of no-man’s land, its inhabitants a law unto themselves, the government apparently having neither men nor money to spare on its administration.
Interestingly, Cox himself was not a local yet he took on himself responsibility for providing the local community with its history. At the time he undertook his series of articles there was effectively no readily available, written history of the area. As Cox himself noted, the history was an oral one and there were locals who knew this oral history and who, as it were, held it in trust on behalf of the community. Cox was keen to access the oral history, match with it primary sources, identify and resolve the inconsistencies and contradictions and come up with a more definitive and critically-tested, written version of the history.
Cox knew his work would stir controversies and upset vested interests but he incorporated this tension into his basic methodology, pointedly acknowledging the different perspectives. Cox would have been able to draw on his status as the local rector to add status and gravitas to his work. The fact that Cox’s version of the history of the local area presented such a glowing vindication of European settlement – set against a background of Imperial expansion, the spread of ‘civilisation’, the ‘opening-up’ of the land, and the innate superiority of White Australia – reinforced its appeal.
This is the background to the extensive series of articles that appeared in the local paper from 1911. A future post will consider the scope, emphasis and omissions of the history.
Adams, J 1990, From these Beginnings: History of the Shire of Alberton (Victoria), Alberton Shire Council, Yarram, Victoria
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative