Rutherford’s birthplace

Last Monday, 30 August 2021, was the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ernest Rutherford, the New Zealand-born atomic physicist. Rutherford was born at Spring Hill, near Nelson. Although Rutherford’s family left Spring Hill when he was only five, and subsequently lived in a number of other locations, his birthplace is home to a large memorial to him.

Aotearoa New Zealand has relatively few monuments to scholars and scientists, compared to those commemorating soldiers, statesmen and sporting heroes. The Rutherford birthplace memorial is also unusual in its size, its design and the fact that it includes an open-air display of information about Rutherford’s life.

Before the creation of the present memorial, the site was marked with a plaque mounted on a concrete slab, erected in the 1950s. The Waimea District Council purchased the site in the 1970s, and public meetings were held to decide what to do with the site. One meeting in 1981 voted in favour of a symbol of an atom on a tower, but this idea was subsequently rejected because it was feared the site might become the target of anti-nuclear protests.

(Rutherford had nothing to do with the development of the atomic bomb, though some of his students, and other New Zealanders, did contribute to work on the bomb. We can’t know what Rutherford would have thought of nuclear weapons if he’d lived to see their development, but we do know that in the 1930s he spoke at Cambridge University in favour of a ban on the use of aeroplanes in warfare.)

In the late 1980s, Rutherford’s biographer and convenor of the Rutherford Birthplace Project, John Campbell, proposed a memorial based on a display about Rutherford’s life. A number of organisations threw their weight behind the proposal, and the memorial was completed at a cost of some $400,000, opening in December 1991.

The memorial consists of a series of semi-circular terraces descending from a small mound in the middle. Display boards telling the story of Rutherford’s life are located in the terraces (there’s a list here of the topics covered). On the mound in the centre of the memorial is a statue of Rutherford as a child. He’s depicted as a young boy with an unusually large head, carrying an arithmetic primer.

My guess is that the shape of the memorial is intended to be reminiscent of Rutherford’s model of the atom, with the statue located in the atom’s nucleus. But the structure also suggests Rutherford’s ever-widening fame and engagement with the world. As the introductory panel explains, the site shows Rutherford’s progression from ‘humble beginnings in rural New Zealand’ to ‘world eminence’ as a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, ‘New Zealand’s most famous son’. The countries where Rutherford won his fame are represented by trees planted in the corners of the site: tōtara for New Zealand, maple for Canada and oak for England. According to the introductory panel, the memorial is meant not only to pay tribute to Rurtherford but also ‘to show New Zealand children that they too can aspire to great heights.’

By the end of his career, Rutherford had been made a British peer, Lord Rutherford of Nelson, and his coat of arms is reproduced on the wall of the memorial.

The Latin motto means ‘To seek the first principles of things’, and the shield is quartered by the growth and decay curves of radioactivity. The supporter on the left is Hermes Trismegistus, the legendary patron of alchemy, but I was most interested in the supporter on the right.

This ‘Māori warrior’ seems to function simply as a generic representation of New Zealandness, like the kiwi on the crest of the coat of arms. But it made me wonder what, if any, connection Rutherford and his career had with Māori.

Rutherford’s parents had both been born overseas (his father James in Scotland and his mother Martha in England), but came to New Zealand as children. Martha’s family settled in New Plymouth, but were evacuated to Nelson in 1860 as ‘Taranaki refugees‘, Pākehā who fled during the First Taranaki War. Martha was a school teacher, while James began his career as a mechanic, but moved into flax-milling. James’s flax-milling business took the family first to Havelock in the Marlborough Sounds, and then in 1888 to Pungarehu in Taranaki.

Leggatt, T T :[The Rutherford flax mill at Pungarehu] / T T Leggatt Feb 28th 1890
T.T. Legatt, picture of the Rutherford flax mill at Pungarehu, 28 February 1890, Ref: A-036-017. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22514790. The picture shows the flax mill operated by Rutherford’s father, James, and later by his brother, George. The mill buildings and soaking ponds are depicted, with a steamer at sea shown in the background.

By the time Rutherford’s family moved to Taranaki, Rutherford was boarding at Nelson College, but he spent school and then university holidays at Pungarehu, and helped lay out the levels for the mill ponds, which were used for soaking flax. Rutherford was digging potatoes at Pungarehu when he received news in 1895 that he had won a scholarship to study at Cambridge University in Britain, and reportedly responded by saying ‘That’s the last potato I will ever dig.’

The Rutherford’s home and mill at Pungarehu was located on Lower Parihaka Road, and Pungarehu is close to the Māori settlement of Parihaka. The resistance of the Parihaka community to the imposition of land confiscation had led to its invasion by government forces in 1881, only a few years before the Rutherfords moved to Taranaki. Some twenty years of conflict in the province had left Taranaki Māori stripped of the land and autonomy they had fought hard to maintain.

Māori had dominated the flax (harakeke) trade in the early colonial period, stripping flax by hand for use in rope-making. But the invention of the mechanical flax-stripper in the 1860s, together with the taking of Māori land and the accompanying loss of their economic base, left Māori in the role of labourers and providers of raw material for Pākehā mill owners. Mills were generally small, and located near flax swamps.

It seems reasonably likely that Rutherford would have come across Māori in and around the flax mills his father operated. James Rutherford did well from his flax-milling business, going on to open another two Taranaki mills at Ōpunake and Warea. The late Ian Matheson, a historian of the New Zealand flax industry and former Palmerston North City Archivist, commented in an article on flax in New Zealand Geographic:

Lord Rutherford’s father was a flaxmiller in Nelson and Taranaki during the 1880s and 1890s. Profits from his business helped give young Ernest a start in life. Just think, the humble flax plant indirectly contributed to the splitting of the atom!

Quoted in Gerard Hindmarsh, ‘Flax: The Enduring Fibre’, New Zealand Geographic, no. 42, 1999, p. 49.

It may be drawing a long bow to see a connection between James Rutherford’s flax mills and the splitting of the atom. But it is helpful to understand the colonial society from which Rutherford emerged, and the way in which, within that society, growing Pākehā prosperity came at the expense of marginalisation of Māori. Such an understanding is a useful counter-balance to celebratory narratives of the lone genius emerging from humble origins to take on the world.

Walter Scott and place names in Aotearoa and Australia (part 2)

Abbotsford: Walter Scott’s home near Melrose in the Scottish Borders, and the inspiration for other Abbotsfords around the world

Today is the 250th anniversary of the birth of the Scottish writer Walter Scott, and I mark the occasion by publishing the second part of this post, based on a lecture I gave in 2017.

Why did British settlers and their descendants give places in Australia and New Zealand names associated with Walter Scott? I’ve already suggested some reasons: Scott’s worldwide fame, his status as a symbol of British culture, and the desire of immigrants for reminders of home. It’s notable that many, though not all, of those giving Scott-related names to places were Scottish. I think there’s another reason, however: for at least some colonists, Scott’s stories provided a template through which to imagine the experience of settlement in romantic but ultimately reassuring terms.

In his book Writing the Colonial Adventure, Australian academic Robert Dixon describes how the Waverley novels allow the hero to pursue dreams of adventure, but ultimately end with the reassertion of social stability rooted in possession of property. White settlers in New Zealand and Australia could experience directly or, if they lived further from the frontier, vicariously through newspaper accounts, the dangers of conflict with indigenous peoples, raids by bushrangers, and natural disasters such as bushfires, floods or earthquakes. If they were of a romantic bent, they could imagine themselves as embarked on their own heroic adventure, while always aware that the ultimate aim of colonisation was the pacification of the wild country, the subjugation of its indigenous inhabitants, and the creation of secure property rights for settlers under a British-derived legal system.

Dixon’s discussion of the Waverley novels is a prelude to his consideration of the writing of Thomas Browne or, to give him his nom de plume, Rolf Boldrewood. Browne, a prolific Australian novelist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries whose most famous book is the bushranging tale Robbery Under Arms, was openly influenced by Scott and took the name Boldrewood from Scott’s Marmion.

Before he became a writer, Browne ran a succession of cattle and sheep stations, starting in 1844 with a station in the southwest of what is now the state of Victoria. He called the property Squattlesea Mere, a name that, as a self-described ‘devout worshipper of Walter Scott’, he borrowed from Scott’s novel Woodstock. He later recalled Squattlesea Mere in terms that self-consciously drew on the tropes of adventure stories:

There were wild beasts (kangaroos and dingoes), Indians (blacks, whose fires in ‘The Rocks’ we could see), a pathless waste, and absolute freedom and independence. These last were the most precious possessions of all. … I felt as if this splendid Robinson Crusoe kind of life was too good to be true. Who was I that I should have had this grand inheritance of happiness immeasurable made over to me?

But the land had not, in fact, been ‘made over’ to Browne, but rather taken from its Aboriginal inhabitants, and he goes on in his memoir to spend several chapters recounting what he calls the ‘Eumerella War’ with local Aboriginal people. The settlers won the war and, as Browne puts it: ‘Our border ruffians being settled for good and all, we pioneers were enabled to devote ourselves to our legitimate business – the breeding and fattening of cattle.’

Another settler who gave his property a name with Walter Scott associations was Robert Christison of Lammermoor station in Queensland. Born at Foulden, Berwickshire, son of a Church of Scotland minister, Christison emigrated to Australia with his brother in 1852, at the age of only 15. Christison’s life story was told by his daughter Mary Bennett in the book Christison of Lammermoor, published in 1927. Bennett recounts the following story from Christison’s childhood:

One day, long remembered, Bob was sent with a message to a neighbouring minister. The kindhearted man asked him if he had read Ivanhoe, and lent him the book. Bob devoured it almost at a reading, while day and its concerns faded unheeded, and new worlds opened to his vision. He was another knight without inheritance, and the earth a Holy Land for service and adventure.

This is the only mention of Scott’s writing in Christison of Lammermoor. But Bennett emphasises the importance of this incident by calling it ‘long remembered’ and by placing it just before Christison’s departure for Australia is recounted. Christison, we are given to believe, was inspired by his reading of Scott to seek a life of adventure in a new country.

When Christison reaches the land that is to become Lammermoor station, the book provides an ecstatic description of his first view of ‘the high land of trees and watercourses’:

All at once he seemed to see the Lammermoor Hills standing above the Merse, as the table-land stood above the rolling downs. He had thought of many romantic names for the homestead that he would build. Now he set them all aside for Lammermoor.

There’s no mention here of Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor, only of Christison’s childhood memories of the Lammermoor Hills, but a man who read Scott as a child and had been thinking of ‘romantic names’ for his property can hardly have been unaware of the name’s literary associations. It’s interesting that, as with Thomas Browne (who refers to christening his property Squattlesea Mere ‘in my mind instantly’ because the name was ‘so exceedingly appropriate’), Christison’s naming of the station is depicted as a spur-of-the-moment decision, and yet one that is so right that it is almost predestined.

Christison’s station was located on the land of Yirandali Aboriginal people (also known as the Dalleburra). There’s been some historical debate about Christison’s relationship with the Yirandali. Unlike other owners of sheep and cattle stations in Queensland, Christison encouraged the Yirandali to continue living on their ancestral land, and it was only after he sold Lammermoor in 1910 that many of the Aboriginal people were moved off to government reserves far from their home. Christison’s daughter Mary Bennett later became a prominent advocate for Aboriginal rights, and her biography of her father is not only a work of filial piety but also a polemic about mistreatment of Aboriginal people, using her father as a model for how things should have been. Yet Christison’s treatment of the Yirandali was not always as benign as Bennett makes out, and he profited from the use of their labour on the station at minimal cost.

Christison did make the effort to learn some of the language and, importantly, the place names of the Yirandali. A map in Bennett’s book shows some of the wealth of indigenous names that continued to blanket the landscape, even as Christison added new ones – Lammermoor, Merse, Foulden – from the landscape of his childhood. In her book, Bennett has Christison recall, before he leaves Lammermoor for the last time, ‘the aboriginal names of the noble chain of waterholes that form the head of Tower Hill Creek’: ‘Kooroorinya, like the roar of its waters in flood’; ‘Pilmunny, … a favourite cattle camp, where once the Dalleburra had used to hold their bora ceremonies’; and so on.

A section of ‘Map of the Lammermoor Tableland and Surrounding Country’, in Mary Bennett, Christison of Lammermoor

Writing about the disastrous expedition of the explorers Burke and Wills in the 1860s, the historian David Denholm has commented that ‘We shall have to blame William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott and other Romantics for giving Colonial Australians the means to shape their dreams with such splendid foolishness.’ In a sense, place names associated with Walter Scott bear witness to the dreams (whether foolish or otherwise) that settler Australians and New Zealanders brought with them or inherited from Britain, dreams of adventure but also of property and stability.

Yet these dreams were shadowed by anxieties, even nightmares: by fears of degeneration of the British ‘racial stock’ in the colonies, of threats from without from Chinese or other non-white peoples and from within from class conflict. And underlying all, though rarely spoken of, an anxiety about their right to possess land that had so recently been taken from Aboriginal and Māori peoples. Perhaps names such as Abbotsford, Waverley, Ivanhoe, Kenilworth, Ravenswood, Deloraine, Lochinvar, Lammermoor – names redolent of leather-bound volumes, centuries-old tradition and middle-class respectability – provided a reassuring reminder that they were part of a great and powerful empire; an empire that ruled not only the waves, but also the Waverleys.

Further reading

Robert Dixon, Writing the Colonial Adventure: Race, Gender and Nation in Anglo-Australian Popular Fiction, 1875-1914 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Stuart Kelly, Scott-land: The Man Who Invented a Nation (Edinburgh, Polygon, 2010)

Joyce Miles, ‘Oh Young Lochinvar is Come Out of the West…’, Placenames Australia, September 2008, pp. 1, 3

Malcolm Prentis, The Scots in Australia (Sydney, University of New South Wales Press, 2008)

A.W. Reed, The Story of New Zealand Place Names (Wellington, A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1952)

Ann Rigney, The Afterlives of Walter Scott: Memory on the Move (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012)

Graham Tulloch, ‘Two Hundred Years of Waverley in Australia’, The Bottle Imp (online journal), issue 16, 2014,

Benjamin Wilkie, ‘Space, Commemoration, and Iconography: Scottish Monuments and Memorials in Australia’, in Fred Cahir, Anne Beggs Sunter and Alison Inglis (eds), Scots under the Southern Cross (Ballarat, Ballarat Heritage Services, 2015), pp. 157-165

Walter Scott and place names in Aotearoa and Australia (part 1)

15 August 2021 will be the 250th anniversary of the birth of the birth of the Scottish poet and novelist, Walter Scott. The anniversary is being marked by a programme of commemorations in Scotland, and by a one-day symposium on ‘Walter Scott in the Settler Colonies’ in Wellington. This is the first part of a blog post adapted from a lecture I gave to the Edinburgh Sir Walter Scott Club while I was living in Edinburgh in 2017.

In recent years, authorities in both Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia have been asked to reconsider place names that commemorate controversial figures from colonial history. But what are we to make of places in these two countries named, not for military leaders, governors or monarchs, but for the literary works of one of the Anglophone world’s most popular writers of the nineteenth century, Walter Scott?

Scott’s fictional tales of adventure, history and heroism – many, though not all, set in Scotland – were well known across the English-speaking world. From Canada and the United States, to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, his admirers chose to honour him by bestowing on houses, streets and towns names taken from Scott’s life and, more particularly, his work.

What’s unusual about this global trend is that most of these places are named, not for Scott himself, but for the titles and characters of his novels and poems. Shakespeare may be the only other writer in English whose characters were considered so well known that their names could be given to places. There’s surely something a bit strange about naming a place for someone who never existed outside the pages of a book.

The spread of Scott-related names around the English-speaking world is a symptom of his international fame. As Ann Rigney writes in her book The Afterlives of Walter Scott, ‘Scott provided colonial exiles with a memory of Britain and its imagined landscapes, along with a memory of the pleasures they had experienced when first encountering his romances and poems.’ Scott’s writing could be a comforting reminder of home, while also providing reassurance that the emigrants had brought with them a great literary tradition.

In Australia and New Zealand, Scott was seen as an important figure in the colonies’ cultural inheritance from Britain. Yet the very fact that he was considered a hero of British culture may, to some extent, have worked against his adoption as a cultural icon by colonial Scots. Scott was eclipsed by the poet Robert Burns where public commemoration in New Zealand and Australia of Scottish literary figures is concerned.

There were Burns clubs in both countries but seemingly no societies perpetuating the memory of Walter Scott. Eight statues of Burns were erected in Australia between 1883 and 1935, while there are another four Burns statues in New Zealand. There is only one Australasian statue of Scott, erected as late as 1962 in the Victorian town of Ballarat.

Erecting statues and forming clubs is a community activity, requiring cooperation and consensus, and this may explain why it was Burns rather than Scott who was commemorated in these ways. Perhaps Burns had greater appeal than Scott as a communal rallying point for expatriate Scots because he was seen as embodying a distinctively Scottish tradition, in contrast to Scott’s incorporation into a wider British heritage. Burns may also have more easily transcended differences of class and political ideology, with conservatives, liberals and radicals alike finding elements they could approve of in his poems.

When it came to commemoration through place names, however, Scott reigned supreme. I suggest this is because it was largely individuals, not communities, who were responsible for naming. In the early days of European settlement in Australia and New Zealand, many places were named by individual explorers, surveyors and settlers. A number of the names relating to Walter Scott started as the names of houses or properties, and only later became the names of towns or suburbs that grew up around these properties.

Bestowing familiar names from Britain on colonial landscapes was a way of domesticating these places, making them feel more like home despite the strangeness of flora, fauna, climate and terrain. It was also a way in which settlers claimed possession of the land, asserting their ownership against that of the original Māori and Aboriginal owners. The land was already extensively covered with indigenous names, some of which were retained or modified by the new settlers, while others were replaced. Many of the names the settlers gave to Australasian places came from Scotland: 17% of non-Aboriginal place names in Australia are of Scottish origin, according to the historian Malcolm Prentis.

Sir Walter Scott Lodge of Light, Masonic lodge building, Thames

There are few places in either Australia or New Zealand named after Scott himself. A number of Masonic lodges were named for him, such as the Sir Walter Scott Lodge of Light in the New Zealand goldmining town of Thames. Curiously, too, there were gold mines named for Scott in both New Zealand and Australia. There’s a Sir Walter Scott Reef Mine in northern New South Wales, while in New Zealand the Sir Walter Scott mine at Karangahake was located south of Thames. At Karangahake there were also several gold mining claims named after Scott novels, apparently inspired by a set of the novels that were read by the men in the mining camp.

If there are relatively few places named for Scott himself, how about places named for his home in Scotland, Abbotsford? Abbotsford is a name that is closely associated with Scott, but we should be cautious about assuming that Abbotsfords around the world were all named to commemorate him.

Abbotsford is the name of a suburb of the New Zealand city of Dunedin, whose main claim to fame is the dramatic landslip that occurred there in 1979. This Abbotsford was not, however, named for Scott’s home, but for an early surveyor and settler in the area, Edward Immyns Abbot.

Another Abbotsford was established in the province of Hawke’s Bay in the 1860s. This town, too, was named for a man called Abbott – in this case, Frederick Abbott, who established a sheep station there near a ford over the Waipawa River. In the 1870s the town’s name was changed to match that of the river. The townsfolk were clearly aware of the name Abbotsford’s connection with Scott, however. Visitors to Waipawa can find, near the town’s centre, two streets named for Scott novels, Waverley and Kenilworth, intersecting in the shape of a St Andrew’s cross.

While there are no towns or suburbs in New Zealand named after Scott’s Abbotsford, there are some in Australia.

Although European settlement of Australia was at an early stage during Scott’s lifetime, it was far enough advanced that Scott knew people who emigrated to or spent time in the colony of New South Wales. One was a young man named George Harper who worked briefly for Scott as a gardener before emigrating to Sydney, which he reached in 1821.

Scott provided Harper with an introduction to the New South Wales Governor. In gratitude for Scott’s help, Harper named the property he was granted to the southwest of Sydney, Abbotsford, and wrote to Scott to tell him so. But Harper’s expression of thanks didn’t end there. In 1827 he returned to Britain for a visit, bringing with him a collection of ‘natural curiosities’, including two live emus which he gifted to Scott. I’ve written elsewhere about Scott’s experience with what he charmingly called the ‘Emusses’ – let’s just say Scott was not a grateful recipient of Harper’s gift.

Returning to Australia in 1829, Harper took up residence at his own Abbotsford, where he proposed to lay out a township, but this plan was never realised. However, communities called Abbotsford were to be found elsewhere in Australia.

The Melbourne suburb of Abbotsford gets its name from an early estate in the area, which was apparently named after Scott’s home. There’s also an Abbotsford in the inner west of Sydney. It’s named for Abbotsford House, built in 1878 by a local Scottish-born doctor and politician, who called his house after Scott’s.

It was in Sydney’s Abbotsford that one of Australia’s best-known writers, Henry Lawson, died in 1922. Lawson, who was frequently impoverished and who flirted with socialism and republicanism, had little in common with the comfortably-off and conservative Scott. But Lawson was linked with Scott in death through place names. For not only did Lawson die in Abbotsford; he was also buried in Waverley Cemetery. The suburb in which the cemetery is located got its name from Waverley House, built in 1827 for Barnett Levey, a merchant, founder of Australia’s first permanent theatre, and the first non-convict Jewish settler in Australia.

Waverley was the best-known and the most widely-used name associated with Scott. Scott wrote that he called the hero of his first novel Waverley because it was an ‘uncontaminated name’, with no associations other than those that readers ‘shall hereafter be pleased to affix to it’. Despite the cautionary tale of New Zealand’s Abbotsfords, it seems safe to assume that places called Waverley were, more likely than not, named for Scott’s novel.

In Australia, as well as Sydney’s Waverley, Melbourne has the neighbouring suburbs of Glen Waverley and Mount Waverley, and there is a Waverley in Launceston, Tasmania. There are a number of other Waverleys in Australia, from homesteads to streams and hills.

In New Zealand, there are suburbs called Waverley in Dunedin and Invercargill. There’s also a town in Taranaki called Waverley, although it was originally known by a Māori name, Wairoa. It was established as a military settlement in 1866, during the wars in Taranaki between Māori and colonial troops. In 1876, after the wars were over, the town’s name was changed to Waverley, probably inspired by Scott’s novels. The name was ostensibly changed to avoid confusion with other towns called Wairoa. However, I wonder whether the townsfolk may also have been seeking to assert the town’s British identity following the insecurity of the wars. Taranaki is also home to another town whose name has literary associations, Stratford, established around the same time that Wairoa’s name was changed to Waverley.

Perhaps surprisingly, given its strong Scottish heritage, New Zealand doesn’t appear to have any other towns or suburbs with names clearly linked to Scott, but there are streets with names such as Waverley and Ivanhoe. Australia has a wider range of Scott-related names, including suburbs or towns named Ivanhoe, Kenilworth, Ravenswood (after a character from Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor) and more.

But why did colonists in Aotearoa and Australia name places for Scott’s writing? I’ll consider that question in the second part of this post.

The draft histories curriculum

This is an edited and abridged version of my submission on the draft Aotearoa New Zealand histories curriculum.

I welcome the inclusion of Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories in the New Zealand Curriculum and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa. My comments focus on the draft New Zealand Curriculum content, but I have also reviewed the draft content for Te Marautanga o Aotearoa and looked at related material (particularly the local curriculum guide for Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories). In addition, I have read the report of the Royal Society’s Expert Advisory Panel on the draft curriculum.

A key challenge for any national history curriculum is striking the right balance between prescription and flexibility, and between national and local contexts. The introduction of a national histories curriculum represents an overdue recognition that local histories need to be placed in a larger context. In addition, while students should be encouraged to explore and interpret histories for themselves, they will struggle to do so if the curriculum does not provide them with some basic intellectual and factual contexts within which to understand these histories. I therefore support the overall approach of the curriculum, in seeking both to equip students with the skills of historical inquiry and to ensure that they understand some key concepts and contexts.

The structure of the draft New Zealand Curriculum content is based on an ‘Understand, Know, Do’ model.

Understand: big ideas

I agree with the Expert Advisory Panel that an additional ‘big idea’ should be included in the curriculum to recognise that Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories are connected with histories beyond these islands. It is impossible to understand events in Aotearoa New Zealand without understanding how people, ideas and technologies have moved between Aotearoa and the wider world. Adding this idea to the curriculum also helps to address concerns that focusing attention on Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories could be parochial and nationalistic.

I am unconvinced by the big idea ‘The course of Aotearoa New Zealand’s history has been shaped by the exercise and effects of power’. As currently described, this idea is so generic as to be almost meaningless, and would be true of any society. I suggest that it be either deleted and replaced by the new idea about New Zealand and the world, or given greater focus and more specific reference to Aotearoa New Zealand.

Know: topics and themes

The draft curriculum content is meant to provide an overarching structure and can never cover all historical topics. There is also a limit to how much can realistically be covered when history is just one part of a much bigger curriculum. However, I agree with the Expert Advisory Panel that many key aspects of Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories are largely missing due to the compression of the histories curriculum into a short and high-level document.

While historians and others would no doubt argue about the seven topics included in the Cabinet paper and announcement of the national histories curriculum in 2019, these provided a good starting point for discussion. They have been widely picked up in the media, because they are easy to understand and cover a range of issues within Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories. However, these topics are only partially apparent in the draft curriculum.

Instead, the draft curriculum has eight themes that appear under the three national contexts in ‘Know’. Most of these themes are useful for understanding New Zealand history. However, I am concerned that the ‘international conflicts’ theme gives undue attention to New Zealand’s participation in overseas wars. I would prefer to see this topic treated as one small part of a focus on New Zealand’s relationships with the wider world. The last two themes (the state and the people, and the state and the Pacific) also give too much attention to the state, at the expense of relationships within communities and between people(s).

I endorse the comments of the Expert Advisory Panel about major topics that are missing or lightly covered in the draft curriculum. As the Panel’s report notes, the inclusion of these topics ‘has the potential to create a more lively curriculum for many students and young people’. I am particularly concerned about the limited coverage of gender, class, and the diversity of New Zealand’s communities.

I am also disappointed that the draft curriculum almost completely ignores the history of those things that bring meaning and pleasure to people’s lives, including the arts, sport, popular culture, religion, food, clothes, and social beliefs and practices. Topics such as these could be a great way of catching the attention and interest of students, while still illustrating bigger themes: for example, the history of sport can reveal much about gender, class, racism, national identity and international relations.

Do: inquiry practices

Learning how to investigate and think critically about the past is fundamental to understanding history. I am pleased that students will be expected to develop skills of critical inquiry as part of the history curriculum.

The first of the three inquiry practices in the draft curriculum is identifying and using sequence. They will also learn that stories can be told in different ways, ‘depending on the frame of reference used in sequencing’. I worry that the emphasis on ‘frames of reference’ could lead to an approach which sees all interpretations of history as being equally valid, regardless of the evidence. Historical narratives and interpretations should always be grounded in evidence, and the evidence will be stronger for some views than for others.

The third inquiry practice is interpreting past decisions and actions. This involves taking account of the attitudes and values of the time, and the situations in which people found themselves, when students are interpreting the past. Students in later years are also expected to ‘make ethical judgements concerning right and wrong’ about people’s actions in the past.

Understanding people’s actions and motivations in the past on their own terms is an essential part of historical inquiry and explanation. Making moral judgements about the past, by contrast, is not a necessary part of history. I do not agree with those who maintain that historians should take no view on whether past actions were right or wrong. However, when historians express an opinion about the morality of people’s behaviour in the past, it is because historians are human beings grappling with the complexity and challenge of being human, not because moral judgements are central to an understanding of history.

I suggest that the inquiry practices also need to provide students with an understanding of how we can know about the past, and how what we know changes over time. Students should learn about the many types of evidence that help us to understand what happened in the past, including:

  • people’s oral or written recollections of events that they experienced
  • stories passed down orally from previous generations
  • documents written at around the time of the events being investigated
  • visual evidence, such as paintings, whakairo or photographs
  • waiata and songs
  • places, structures, objects and other material remains from the past.

In addition, students should be introduced to reasons why our understanding of the past changes over time. These reasons include new evidence being discovered, new methods and types of evidence being used, and new questions being asked about the past.

Finding inspiration and excitement in our histories

My biggest worry about the new histories curriculum is that students will find history dull and dispiriting, while my greatest hope is that they will be inspired and excited to learn more about the past, and will carry this excitement through into their adult lives. A lot will depend on how the curriculum is taught and how it is made relevant at the local level by bringing in rohe and local contexts. But the national curriculum itself has a role to play. As historian Charlotte Macdonald puts it, the curriculum can ‘open the door to the excitement, wonder and discovery in the study of history for school pupils.’

At present, the draft content for the New Zealand Curriculum feels somewhat dour and depressing. By contrast, the draft content for Te Marautanga o Aotearoa includes more to inspire and excite ākonga. I am a strong believer in facing up to the confronting and uncomfortable parts of our past, including histories of dispossession, discrimination and marginalisation experienced by Māori and by other groups within Aotearoa New Zealand. However, if students do not find history interesting, providing information about past injustices and struggles will fail to motivate students to address the legacies of injustice today. I am not arguing for a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine of difficult histories go down more easily. Rather, I want to see a curriculum that will engage students’ imaginations with the drama and the dreams, the strangeness and the familiarity, the triumph and the tragedy of Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories in all their diversity.

Boulcott’s Farm

Boulcott’s Farm memorial, Lower Hutt

Today is the 175th anniversary of the Battle of Boulcott’s Farm, which took place in what is now the city of Lower Hutt, where I live. Yesterday’s Dominion Post reported that the Deputy Mayor of Lower Hutt, Tui Lewis, is working to address the one-sided nature of the memorial to the battle that stands in a prominent position on the corner of High Street and Military Road, near Hutt Hospital. The memorial commemorates ten members of British and colonial forces whose deaths were associated with the battle, and describes the Māori attack on the British outpost at Boulcott’s Farm solely from a Pākehā perspective.

The news article, written by journalist and historian Nicholas Boyack, begins with the comment: ‘If someone does a PhD on war memorials and civic racism, the stone commemorating the Battle of Boulcott’s Farm would make a great case study.’ I can’t claim to have done a PhD on the subject, but I have written about the changing ways in which Boulcott’s Farm has been commemorated and mythologised by Pākehā, and how those stories have started to come under challenge in more recent decades.

The battle was part of a wider conflict in Te Awakairangi, the Hutt Valley, which subsequently spilled over into the Porirua area. The cause of the fighting was conflict over land, arising from the flawed New Zealand Company ‘purchase’ of the Wellington area and the Crown’s confirmation of the Company’s claims at the expense of Māori rights (for more detail, see the Waitangi Tribunal’s report on the Wellington region).

On 16 May 1846, a large Māori taua (war party) attacked the British military garrison at Boulcott’s Farm. After several hours of fighting, the taua withdrew, leaving several British soldiers dead. It is unclear how many Māori, if any, died in the fighting.

This relatively minor skirmish came to loom large in Pākehā public memory, largely through the repetition of one particular story: that of Private William Allen, more commonly known as Bugler Allen. Allen supposedly blew a warning blast on his bugle to alert the garrison to the attack, and continued sounding the alarm even as he was being killed by a member of the taua.

This story first appears very soon after the battle, and has been repeated up to the present day. It’s impossible to know if there is any truth in it, although it’s notable that it doesn’t appear in the official report on the skirmish from the British officer in command. Throughout its many retellings, the consistent themes in the story are Allen’s youth, bravery and self-sacrifice. Although Allen was actually a 21-year-old, he is portrayed in the stories as a boy, perhaps as young as 12. This misrepresentation of Allen’s age heightens the contrast with his attackers, who are depicted looming over him as he gallantly plays on.

Illustration by Alfred Pearse, Young England, 50th annual volume, 1929, p. 25 (also published in Young New Zealand, 9th annual volume, 1929, p. 25)

The story of Bugler Allen reinforced two common themes from the popular literature of British imperialism. On the one hand, the willingness of Britons to ‘do their duty’ by sacrificing themselves for the greater good; on the other, the ‘savagery’ of indigenous peoples, who are depicted as an undifferentiated mass, with no motivation beyond anger and vengeance.

This cultural context explains the popularity of the Bugler Allen story and the way in which it elevated the significance of Boulcott’s Farm. But the Boulcott’s Farm monument also had more local origins. By the 1920s, Lower Hutt was developing rapidly, and was being promoted as a thriving and progressive place in which to live and work. At the same time, the pioneering phase of Pākehā settlement in the Hutt was passing out of living memory and into nostalgia, forming a romantic prelude to the development of a modern city.

This local context helps to explain why, in 1922, the then Mayor of Lower Hutt sought to have a commemorative tablet from Bolton Street Cemetery in Wellington re-erected in the Hutt. The tablet had been erected in a Wellington church in 1846 by soldiers of the 58th Regiment, in memory of their comrades who died at Boulcott’s Farm. The Mayor’s request for the tablet was granted, but its removal from Wellington was opposed by the Early Settlers and Historical Association of Wellington. An agreement was reached whereby the New Zealand Government, the Lower Hutt Council and the Early Settlers and Historical Association would jointly fund a new memorial, which was erected in 1925.

As it turned out, however, the historic tablet was never returned to Wellington, but was instead re-erected in 1933 at St James’ Anglican Church in central Lower Hutt. For several years in the 1930s, and on the battle’s centenary in 1946, commemorative services were held at the church on the anniversary of the battle. The memorial tablet was subsequently accidentally knocked down and destroyed, but the wording of the original still appears on a stone in the churchyard.

Boulcott’s Farm memorial stone re-erected at St James’ Church, Lower Hutt. Evening Post, 12 August 1933. Ref: EP-New Zealand Wars-Wellington, Evening Post collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.
Current Boulcott’s Farm memorial stone, St James’ Churchyard.

From the 1970s, the Boulcott’s Farm story as been reassessed and rewritten, as part of the wider revision of our understanding of New Zealand’s colonial past. Boulcott’s Farm appeared in works by Pākehā writers, such as Keith Aberdein’s script and book for the 1977 TV series The Governor and Lloyd Jones’s 1988 novel Splinter, which took a more critical or satirical view of colonisation. More recently, Boulcott’s Farm has been re-imagined from the perspective of Māori combatants in Witi Ihimaera’s novel The Trowenna Sea (2009) and Jenny McLeod’s opera Hōhepa (premiered 2012). Both of these works focus on the story of Hōhepa Te Umuroa, one of a number of Māori transported to Van Diemen’s Land for their alleged involvement in the Battle of Boulcott’s Farm. In Ihimaera’s and McLeod’s accounts, Boulcott’s Farm was the tragic result of injustices committed against Māori by colonial authorities.

The current reconsideration of the Boulcott’s Farm memorial is not the first time questions have been raised about the monument. When The Governor was broadcast in 1977, an article in the Hutt News commented that ‘In the spirit of the times, the memorial commemorates only the white soldiers who were killed. More modern thinking might suggest that the Maoris [sic], too, should have their memorial.’ The Hutt Council received a few letters in the 1970s and 80s asking it to do something about the memorial’s one-sided perspective. At the time, however, the Council decided to take no action.

Aotearoa New Zealand has come a long way since then, and it’s good to see that the Hutt Deputy Mayor is now taking the lead on working to publicly acknowledge the Māori side of the Boulcott’s Farm story. I’m also encouraged that Tui Lewis is planning to take the time to ensure all those with an interest are consulted before making change. As I’ve written previously, there is value in taking a considered and consultative approach to contentious memorials. In the case of Boulcott’s Farm, the issue is further complicated by the fact that the Māori who fought against the British and colonial forces were expelled from Te Awakairangi, so they live elsewhere and are not among the tangata whenua of the valley.

There are also other places where Māori perspectives on the Hutt War could be acknowledged, including at St James’ Church and at Boulcott’s Farm Heritage Golf Club. The Golf Club is located near the memorial and in the vicinity of where the battle was fought, and may be where the British dead of the battle are buried. It would be good to see some accurate historical interpretation at or near the golf club – and in the meantime, the appalling nonsense on this sign at the club should come down immediately, if it hasn’t already.

Further reading: Ewan Morris, ‘The Boulder and the Bugler: The Battle of Boulcott’s Farm in Public Memory’, Journal of New Zealand Studies, ns 20, 2015, pp. 51-71; republished in slightly revised and updated form as ‘The Boulder and the Bugler: Boulcott’s Farm and Public Memory’, in John Crawford and Ian McGibbon (eds), Tutu te Puehu: New Perspectives on the New Zealand Wars, Wellington, Steele Roberts, 2018, pp. 32-56.

Bruce Connew, A Vocabulary

Yesterday was Anzac Day, and across Aotearoa New Zealand, people gathered to commemorate at memorials to New Zealand’s involvement in overseas wars. Many other memorials across the country, however, were created to remember the wars that took place within Aotearoa between Māori and the forces of the settler state in the nineteenth century. In a recent exhibition and book, the photographer Bruce Connew focuses his camera and our attention on these other war memorials.

The photographic exhibition has, as far as I know, only been shown so far at Te Uru Waitākere Contemporary Gallery in Auckland, and I haven’t been able to see it. But a friend kindly lent me a copy of the amazing book that accompanies the exhibition. You can see images from the exhibition and book, both of which are entitled ‘A Vocabulary’, here and here.

The originality of Connew’s approach is that he focuses almost entirely on the words of New Zealand’s colonial memorials, often shown in extreme close-up. The wording on the memorials is cropped and cut up in ways that prompt the reader to think about why these words were chosen (by the creators of the memorials, and by Connew) and what they mean. The result is a ‘vocabulary of colonisation’, as Connew aptly calls it.

The photographs in the book start with monuments to the period before, and around the time of, the Treaty of Waitangi. An early image simply reads ‘Cook’s visits’ (2)*, subverting the valorisation of Captain Cook (and its mirror image, demonisation) by reducing him to the level of a relatively fleeting visitor. Instead of picturing a glorious ‘discoverer’, the viewer might think instead of a hapless tourist on a ‘Cook’s tour’ (‘a rapid tour of many places’).

The bulk of the book, however, deals with memorials to the New Zealand Wars, mostly (but not exclusively) erected by and to Pākehā. Here, in panel after panel, the rhetoric of Empire is laid out. Māori defending their land are ‘rebels’ who commit ‘murder’. Pākehā soldiers are ‘brave men’ who ‘fell gallantly’, and it is they, not Māori, who are described as fighting for ‘their country’ or for ‘New Zealand’. British and colonial troops have their names, ranks and regiments recorded, while their opponents mostly appear as undifferentiated ‘Maori tribes’.

There is another perspective in the book, however, undercutting the homogenisation of Māori in the photographed memorials. Each image has a caption which provides information not only about the memorial itself, but also about those who took part on both sides in the battle the memorial commemorates. Here, just as Pākehā troops have their commanders and regiments listed, so too Māori (whether fighting alongside or against British and colonial forces) are given the dignity of having their rangatira and iwi named.

Some memorial inscriptions appear in full, or close to it, but the most thought-provoking are the carefully-selected fragments of text. At times these are almost perversely fragmentary. I’ve described the memorial in Whanganui to Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui as ‘New Zealand’s wordiest memorial’, but Connew’s photographs (e.g. 280-281) show only a few words from the detailed accounts of battles that appear on bronze panels near the base of the monument . An image from another memorial (88) seems to be part of an obscure mathematical puzzle: ‘L 27th 24 ½ Y’.

Some images remind us that Māori were at war with a global empire: ‘Empress of India’ (4); ‘regiment landed from India’ (76); ‘Crimean War’ (151). Others highlight hazards other than enemy fire: ‘accidentally shot by a comrade’ (23); ‘lost at sea’ (84), ‘all drowned’ (218).

The words Connew has focused on can also make us think about memory itself. We can read the words ‘who lost’ (187) and add a question mark, asking ourselves who were the winners and losers of these battles, and of the wars as a whole. Words from another memorial have been arranged to read ‘Maori War were not known’ (152). We could interpret this as suggesting that too few New Zealanders have known about the history of the New Zealand Wars, or that Pākehā have not understood Māori perspectives on those wars.

One image consists only of ‘&’ (39), while two others read simply ‘Also’ (165, 244). These suggestions of some other words about to follow could make us think about the words and stories that are absent from these memorials. Like most war memorials, they largely ignore the impact of war on non-combatants, including soldiers’ families, so it is striking when the memorialised men are placed in the context of a family: ‘also his wife’ (139); ‘somebodys sons’ (221). Above all, the impact of the wars on Māori, the loss of lives, livelihoods and land, is nowhere to be found in most of these texts.

Perhaps in an effort to provide some balance to the overwhelmingly Pākehā narratives presented on the colonial memorials, Connew includes a few photographs of pou whakamaumahara (commemorative poles) erected by Māori at battle sites in recent years. While the increasing use of pou whakamaumahara to commemorate the New Zealand Wars is an interesting and important development, I’m not convinced it was the right decision to include them here. The strength of Connew’s project is its focus on text. All the other images in the book focus exclusively on the memorials’ inscriptions: there are no photos of statues, crosses or other sculptural elements that appear on some of these monuments. Certainly, whakairo (Māori carving) has its own vocabulary, but so does Pākehā sculpture. Including pictures of Māori commemorative sculpture in an otherwise text-focused project risks stereotyping Māori as people of the image and Pākehā as people of the word, a dichotomy that oversimplifies both cultures.

Instead of including the pou whakamaumahara, it would have been better to have included more of the texts of newer memorials that present Māori views of the wars. A few of these are included in the book: the memorial at Te Tarata (205), for example, which pulls no punches in its use of words like ‘tragically’, ‘slaughtered’ and ‘confiscation’; or the bilingual Ruakituri memorial (268), with a Māori text that tells a sharply different story from that in the English version. Even some older memorials can tell a Māori story: I would have liked Connew to have photographed the panel in Māori on the memorial to Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui, which was written by Te Keepa’s sister and sets out their whakapapa.

The text on most of the memorials in these photographs is remarkably clear, and they generally seem to have been photographed in good light. In some cases, however, shadows and marks of age obscure the words. In two pictures of the memorial to Sir Donald McLean (51, 212), a shadow creeps across the stone, as though to suggest the way in which the reputations of men like McLean, once held up as Pākehā heroes, have become shadowed by their roles in the dispossession of Māori.

Jock Phillips, in his history of New Zealand war memorials, refers to memorials to the New Zealand Wars as ‘an essay in Pākehā-Māori relationships’. Connew’s A Vocabulary has remixed and rewritten that essay, helping us to see these memorial texts with fresh eyes. Having visited many of these memorials, I can say that most are unlovely creations, their blandness belying the brutality of war and confiscation. Yet somehow, Connew has made them appear both strangely beautiful, and beautifully strange.

*Bracketed numbers refer to image numbers in the book.


Bruce Connew, A Vocabulary, Vapour Momenta Books, 2021.

‘Māori Monument or Pākehā Propaganda? The Memorial to Keepa Te Rangihiwinui, Whanganui’, in Annabel Cooper, Lachy Paterson and Angela Wanhalla (eds), The Lives of Colonial Objects, Dunedin, Otago University Press, 2015, pp. 230-235.

Jock Phillips, To the Memory: New Zealand’s War Memorials, Nelson, Potton and Burton, 2016, ch. 1.

Panel discussion on memorials and names

Last week I had the privilege of being part of a panel discussion, held at the National Library in collaboration with Manatū Taonga/Ministry for Culture and Heritage. The topic was ‘Memorials, names and ethical remembering’.

The discussion was chaired by Professor Joanna Kidman from Victoria University of Wellington, co-lead investigator for a major project on the memory of the New Zealand Wars. My fellow panelists were writer, historian and consultant Morrie Love, and Nicky Karu from the Iwi Partnerships team at Wellington City Council.

A recording of the individual talks and the panel discussion is now available online here. Thanks to the organisers and the other panelists for a stimulating discussion!

More monuments

The uncontroversial (so far) statue of Peter Fraser, Wellington, with mask, May 2020

I suppose this must be what epidemiologists experienced at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic: suddenly, the thing you’ve been writing and thinking about for years is all over the news.

It’s been slightly surreal over the past week or so to see the amount of coverage of controversy over statues, memorials and place names, both here in Aotearoa New Zealand and overseas. Examples of problematic memorials and names I’ve followed and written about in the past (including on another blog that covered a period spent living in Scotland) are now mentioned in daily news bulletins and opinion pieces: the Edward Colston statue in Bristol; the Robert Milligan statue in London; the Melville monument in Edinburgh; the Boulcott’s Farm memorial in Lower Hutt; the name of the New Zealand town of Picton; and streets named after imperialists and slave-traders.

As with Covid-19, there has been much thoughtful commentary on the issues raised by controversies over monuments and place names; thankfully, I’ve seen fewer ill-informed reckons about these controversies than about the pandemic (though the reckons are certainly out there).

The latest round of debate about memorialisation has occurred in response to the police killing of George Floyd in the US city of Minneapolis. But these debates are not new. The current memorial controversies overseas are a continuation of campaigns that began with the Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter movements in 2015, but whose roots go back further. In Aotearoa, Māori and their tauiwi allies have raised concerns about memorials since at least the 1970s, and there was a wave of attacks on memorials here in the 1990s.

Still, the current moment, in which attacks on statues are fueled by red-hot outrage at racism and police brutality, may not provide the best environment in which to consider how to deal with contentious monuments. In a series of earlier posts (here, here, here and here) I wrote about a range of strategies for responding to such monuments, and concluded there is no one-size-fits-all solution. There can also be value in the debate itself, which can provide an opportunity for communities to learn about history and to better understand different perspectives on the past.

So I agree with Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon that it would be helpful at this point to pause and allow time for community dialogue, rather than rushing into decisions about monuments and names. I can also see value in the Māori Party’s call for an inquiry into colonial monuments and names. (The Waitangi Tribunal is due to look at monuments as part of a kaupapa inquiry on identity and culture, but that could be years away and would provide limited opportunities for public dialogue.)

At the same time, while a national inquiry could establish principles for decision-making and perhaps deal with some high-profile cases, it should not take the place of ongoing discussion at the local level, as communities work through how best to respond to monuments and names in their areas. In my own city of Lower Hutt, for example, the council plans to provide some balance to the one-sided recognition of the Battle of Boulcott’s Farm through new street names commemorating the pā of Māori expelled from the Hutt following that battle.

There’s another reason why a longer-term approach to monuments and place names is better than quick fixes. As I’ve written before, I believe there is value in symbolic change, but there is also a danger that it can be tokenistic or can distract from the need for substantive, structural change. Working towards equality of symbolic representation is important, but surely not as urgent as addressing inequalities in the justice system, in employment, in health care, and so on. We can work on more than one thing at once, but I’d suggest we can also allow work on memorialisation to follow a longer track.

While some issues have greater urgency than others, some memorialisation is also surely more offensive than others, and therefore more in need of correction. When it comes to the individuals who are commemorated, there is a difference between (for example) someone who actively enslaved other human beings and someone who expressed racist sentiments. Yes, racist speech contributes to the perpetuation of racist structures, as does silence about racial oppression. But some are more culpable than others, and few reputations could withstand close scrutiny of everything a person wrote or said.

Even Mahatma Gandhi, sometimes portrayed as the paradigm of unimpeachable morality, has come under fire for anti-African racism and for attitudes that were patronising, at best, towards India’s Dalit communities. There have been calls for statues of Gandhi to come down, despite his leading role in resistance to British imperialism. (From a different angle, Rachel Buchanan has asked why there is a statue of Gandhi at Wellington railway station while Māori history is largely absent from public space.)

A large part of the problem with statues and memorials to individuals is that individual human beings, with all their flaws, are set up as representatives of a community. As we seek to redress symbolic imbalances, we could think about moving away from the focus on commemorating individuals towards memorials that recognise previously marginalised and under-represented groups of people.

Where, for example, are New Zealand’s memorials or public artworks for the kinds of workers we relied on to keep doing their jobs during the Covid-19 restrictions: the supermarket staff, the aged-care workers, the cleaners, the truck and bus drivers, and others? Usually low-paid, often Māori, Pacific or Asian New Zealanders, these workers deserve better pay and conditions above all. But perhaps there is also room for creative recognition in public space of their contributions, now and in past generations, to our society? As we consider the fate of the stone and bronze men standing on pedestals, we should also think about how we can recognise the ordinary people who have so long stood in their shadows, but without whom our society could not function.

Vote 1 my Mum

Vote 1 My MumI made my political debut early – not that I had any choice in the matter.

In 1970, my mother ran for council in Werribee, a town just west of Melbourne, in the Australian state of Victoria, where I spent the first eight years of my life.  My parents had arrived in Werribee in 1966. After spending a couple of years as a teacher-librarian at Werribee High School (where she worked with Helen Garner, later to achieve fame as an author), Mum started a Master’s degree in law. She focused on the law relating to subdivision of land and how it was applied in Werribee. Werribee had been a country town but was increasingly coming into Melbourne’s orbit, and rural land was being converted to urban uses. Mum was concerned that this was happening in an unplanned way, with the risk of losing some of Werribee’s character and failing to provide adequate services for the new communities that were created. The Werribee Shire Council seemed to her to be dominated by men for whom ‘development’ meant converting rural to urban land as fast as possible.

When a sitting councillor retired, Mum decided (after some hesitation) to contest the vacant seat. She was up against Frank Purcell, a popular local solicitor. Purcell was arguably the establishment candidate, but the differences between him and Mum don’t seem to have been ideological in nature. Purcell was a member of the right-of-centre Liberal Party, but would later describe himself as being on the left wing of that party. In the same year that he ran for council, Purcell had been one of the lawyers for the claimants in the ground-breaking (though unsuccessful) land rights case brought by the Aboriginal people of Yirrkala. He would go on to be involved in other campaigns for Indigenous rights, a cause Mum also strongly supported.

Mum recalls that there’d been little campaigning in previous Werribee elections, with councillors getting in on name recognition or running unopposed. She didn’t have that luxury, so she and her campaign team needed to come up with ideas to attract publicity. And this is where I come in. Mum and a friend made a little smock out of an old sheet for me to wear, with the words ‘Vote [1] My Mum’ on one side and ‘Vote [1] Gwen Morris’ on the other. The Mail newspaper agreed to take photos of Mum out doing the shopping with me wearing the smock.

The Mail photographer was also the photographer for the Melbourne Age. And so it was that Mum and I ended up on the front pages of both the Mail and the Age.

Vote 1 My Mum (4)
Age, 15 August 1970

The Mail described it as ‘the best election gimmick of all time’, while the Age called me ‘a great vote-catcher’.

This was a time of changing roles for Australian women, who were increasingly having their own careers but were still expected to perform their traditional roles as wives and mothers. Another article in the Mail, noting that Mum was making a bid to become Werribee’s first female councillor, called her ‘a young housewife’ while also reporting that she had been in paid work for several years and was now studying for her Master’s. In the climate of the times, my brief involvement in the campaign was attention-grabbing, but also a useful reminder to voters that Mum was not only a lawyer with expertise in town planning but also a young mother.

Mum lost the election, though she received a very respectable 44% of the votes, so she was unable either to become a pioneer of female representation on the council or to help shape the future development of Werribee. The first woman was elected to a local council in Victoria in 1920, 50 years before Mum’s attempt (and a year after South Australia led the way). A century later, things haven’t progressed as far as they should have: women still make up only around 38% of Victorian councillors, and 35% in Australia nationwide. New Zealand is doing somewhat better: it elected the first female mayor in the British Empire, Elizabeth Yates of Onehunga, in 1893, and women now make up 42% of councillors here.

As for Werribee, it has changed enormously since 1970 but has retained its own identity despite the threat of being swallowed up by Melbourne. I still remember my outrage, after we moved from Werribee to Canberra, when I told a teacher (himself a Melburnian) that I came from a country town and he replied scornfully that Werribee was just a suburb of Melbourne. Werribee’s population has continued to grow and to become more diverse, as earlier non-British migrants from Italy, Greece and Macedonia have been joined by migrants from many parts of the world. There is now a significant Māori and Pacific Islander population in Werribee, and even a local branch of the Māori Wardens.

Werribee’s challenge today may be less losing its identity than having an unwelcome identity foisted upon it. If you’ve seen the 2006 Australian mockumentary ‘Kenny’, about a plumber who works for a portaloo company, you might have caught one or two passing references to Werribee. That’s because Werribee is home to a major sewage treatment plant, which is the main thing many people know about it and makes it the butt (no pun intended) of many jokes. Werribee and its people also face class snobbery and urban condescension from their big-city neighbours. Werribee is not alone in this respect: Londoners look down on neighbouring Essex, and Wellingtonians on Lower Hutt (where I now live), in a somewhat similar way.

As Werribee resident Fatima Measham wrote in a lovely essay a few years ago, ‘Melbourne wouldn’t be what it is now if it weren’t for Werribee’. The establishment of what was then known as the Werribee Sewage Farm allowed Melbourne to outsource its waste treatment and escape its former nickname of ‘Marvellous Smelbourne’. Werribee market gardens have also long supplied Melbourne with produce.

The sewage works are also the site of important wetlands, home to large colonies of native birds, and there are other areas of natural beauty in and around the town. Measham writes:

there are pockets of deep magic that belie the perception of blandness and seediness that encumber the place I call home.

There is, for instance, a creek behind our house that winds through several estates. It flows past 300-year-old river red gums, through clefts in the plains, curving gently around small marshy coves. If you knew how to look, you would find traces of the Marpeang people who used to live on and with this land.

Almost 50 years earlier, Mum was entranced by similar aspects of Werribee’s landscape: ‘I really liked the river red gums that grew along the Werribee River and in hollows on the plains. You knew the river was there but it was kind of like a hidden secret.’

Since my family left there, Werribee has also explored its history more fully. This includes not only its colonial heritage (such as Werribee Park, home to a mansion once owned by the local equivalent of landed gentry, the Chirnside family) but also, belatedly, its Indigenous heritage. As the first President of the Werribee Historical Society in 1970, Mum played a part in this process.

Mum never ran for office again, but her experiences in Werribee helped shape her thinking about the elements that make up successful communities. And her thinking, in turn, has shaped me, contributing to my interest in place and history. Happy Mother’s Day, Mum!


Margaret Campbell, From There to Here: Excerpts from the First Person Accounts of Family Migration Werribee 1840s-2000s Recorded for a Centenary of Federation Community Grant Project, Werribee, Werribee Community Centre, 2005 (particularly the accounts of Gwen Morris and Frank Purcell).

Fatimah Measham, ‘No Shit’, Meanjin, vol. 73, no., 2, 2014, available online here.


The historical bear hunt continues

Theodore Roosevelt shares a Thanksgiving toast with a collection of wild animals. Caption: ‘THE BEAR (with deep feeling) — Here’s hoping that when next we meet we see you first.’ J.S. Pughe, ‘A Thanksgiving Truce’, Puck, 22 November 1905. LC-DIG-ppmsca-26010, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

My exploration of the early history of the teddy bear in New Zealand is continued from this earlier post.

From a twenty-first century perspective, the policies of United States President Theodore Roosevelt (who disliked the widespread use of ‘Teddy’ as his nickname) can seem a strange mixture of the admirable and the appalling. He was a pioneering conservationist, and supported an activist state that intervened to curb the power of big business and to protect consumers and workers. At the same time, he was a proponent of the United States’s imperial expansion in the 1890s and fought in the Spanish-American War of 1898. As President, he promoted an assertive foreign policy in which diplomacy was backed by military power. He was also a eugenicist who believed (like many white people of his age) in the superiority of white people from Northern Europe.

The story of Roosevelt refusing to shoot the bear, that led to the creation of the teddy bear, nicely illustrates some of the complexities of Roosevelt’s public persona. On the one hand, he was the keen big-game hunter and hyper-masculine man of action. On the other, he was the protector of wild places, animals and plants, and supporter of the underdog (or, in this case, the under-bear). The story, in which Roosevelt is armed but chooses not to use his weapons, also aligned well with his foreign policy strategy of negotiation underpinned by the threat of military might: the strategy he famously described as ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’.

Roosevelt’s best-known link to New Zealand, perhaps, is his 1905 gift of wapiti deer to this country (wapiti remain at large in Fiordland in the South Island). However, one of Roosevelt’s most notable instances of ‘big stick’ diplomacy also involved New Zealand. In August 1908, sixteen United States battleships nicknamed the ‘Great White Fleet’ arrived in New Zealand, as part of a global tour aimed at demonstrating America’s naval strength. Roosevelt, a long-time supporter of naval power, dispatched the fleet at a time when Japan had recently demonstrated its naval prowess in the Russo-Japanese War. (Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his role in negotiating a peace treaty between Japan and Russia.)

Aucklanders turned out in large numbers to welcome the ‘Great White Fleet’ to New Zealand. New Zealand Graphic, 12 August 1908, p. 35. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZG-19080812-35-1.

The fleet’s visit to Auckland was a major event, lasting almost a week. Large crowds turned out to welcome the visitors, as did most Members of Parliament, who travelled up from Wellington for the occasion. The visit was also extensively reported in the newspapers. Although New Zealand was still strongly British in its political and cultural orientation, the Americans were generally welcomed as ‘cousins’ who belonged to the same race as British New Zealanders. The nickname of the ‘Great White Fleet’ ostensibly referred to the ships’ white-painted hulls, but there was also a clear racial dimension to the name. There was much talk during the visit of Anglo-Saxon racial solidarity in the face of potential threats from ‘Asiatic’ powers.

Māori occupied a somewhat ambiguous position in the midst of this emphasis on whiteness during the visit. Theodore Roosevelt himself had referred to Māori in his multi-volume work The Winning of the West, writing that war with ‘savage’ peoples was brutal and inhuman but also necessary:

American and Indian, Boer and Zulu, Cossack and Tartar, New Zealander and Maori — in each case the victor, horrible though many of his deeds are, has laid the foundations for the future greatness of a mighty people.

By 1908, such warfare was considered safely in the past by the New Zealand and United States Governments. The Māori King Mahuta was among those who met Rear-Admiral Sperry, the fleet commander. Sperry referred to his earlier visit to New Zealand in 1869 (when the New Zealand Wars were still being fought) and said he was ‘right glad that such good feeling’ now existed between Māori and Pākehā.

Before and during the fleet’s visit to New Zealand, there was much discussion about the relative positions of Māori, Native Americans and African-Americans. The New Zealand Herald quoted an American naval officer, who described Māori as:

the finest aboriginal race we have yet come across. They are quick and intelligent, and have a history which everyone should admire. We, at any rate, admire them, and to demonstrate this I can quote no better instance than the fact that many of our officers last night danced with them — a thing we would never do with the negroes.

There were, in fact, some African-Americans serving in the US Navy at this time (including in the ‘Great White Fleet’), but only in subordinate positions and with segregated eating and sleeping arrangements.

If black people were not welcome among the white American sailors, however, black bears were a different matter. The American battleships had bears on board as mascots, and these attracted great interest. The New Zealand Herald reported that the bears were:

evidently feeling the effects of too much hospitality. They have had a surfeit of peanuts, lollies, and other trifles during their stay in Auckland, and are now, most of them, suffering from indigestion…

The continuing association of bears with Roosevelt was apparent from the reply of an American sailor when asked by a teenage girl if Roosevelt was in command of the ships in battle: ‘If he ain’t making a speech or hunting wild ba-ars, he is, miss.’ The bear on the USS Minnesota was a black cub called Teddy, who was seen ‘strutting up and down the deck wearing a marine’s hat, a miniature officer’s belt, and a sword.’ He slept in a box, wrapped in blankets, and was fed mostly on malted milk.

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Caption: ‘Feeding one of the numerous Teddy bears presented to the fleet’. New Zealand Graphic, 12 August 1908, p. 40. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZG-19080812-40-1.

Bears occupy a curious position in the imagination of European and European-derived cultures. On the one hand, they are powerful and dangerous wild beasts, and are to be feared. On the other, they are imagined as cute, furry and cuddly creatures. Their ability to stand on their hind legs makes them all the more terrifying and yet also easier to anthropomorphise. Taming or domesticating bears is a way of reconciling these contradictions. In zoos, or in circuses or other types of performance, bears can present an enjoyable spectacle while still retaining a slight edge of menace. In popular culture, bears have often been metaphorically declawed, becoming benign and charming: whether characters in children’s stories such as Winnie-the-Pooh or Paddington, cartoon bears like Yogi, the Three Bears of the Goldilocks fairy tale (though these bears were more threatening in earlier versions of the tale), or dancing bears in whimsical songs (far removed from the cruel reality of bears that are taught to ‘dance’).

The teddy bear is the ultimate domesticated bear: so far removed from its animal origins that it’s difficult to even recognise it as a bear. The teddy bear hunts taking place during the COVID-19 lockdown, however, draw their inspiration from the children’s book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (1989) by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury, in which (despite the characters’ repeated self-reassurance that ‘we’re not scared’) the bear is actually something to be feared. The COVID-19 virus, which is believed to have originated with wild animals, shows the limits of our efforts to tame and domesticate the natural world.

There are no teddy bears in my household, but I have put my cherished childhood companion, Puppy, in the window. There was no social distancing between me and Puppy when I was growing up: he has been hugged to within an inch of his life, and is now a creature of patches and bandages, like some sort of lovable A&E pirate.

20200329_143736How much is that doggy in the window? Priceless.

References (for this and the previous post)

Dominion, 30 September 1907, p. 3; 3 January 1908, p. 3.

Lyttelton Times, 9 November 1907, p. 8.

Poverty Bay Herald, 21 December 1907, p. 2 (supplement).

New Zealand Truth, 13 March 1909, p. 6; 20 March 1909, p. 4.

New Zealand Herald, 11 August 1908, p. 10; 15 August 1908, p. 5.

Theodore Roosevelt, The Winning of the West, vol. 3, New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894, p. 45.