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Armidale and New England Region (c. 1830 - )

Archival ResourcesPublished Resources
New South Wales, Australia
The New England region, a vast tract of land more than 1,000 metres above sea level and stretching approximately 250 kilometres north from the Moonbi Ranges in New South Wales to the Queensland border, was first discovered by Europeans in 1818, when the Surveyor-General, John Oxley, was instructed by Governor Lachlan Macquarie to trace the course of the Macquarie River to its mouth. Impeded by unusually wet weather and floods, the party turned east to cross the Liverpool Plains and skirted the southern end of the New England tablelands on their way to the mouth of the Hastings at present-day Port Macquarie. On ascending the tablelands, Oxley was awestruck by the nature of the landscape with its deep gorges, undulatng countryside and abundant native pastures. It was, he wrote in his journal, ‘the finest open country, or rather park, imaginable’. A country of ‘running waters, on every hill a spring and in every valley a rivulet’, the New England tablelands provided excellent conditions for pastoral development.

Not surprisingly, then, New England’s first European settlers were pastoralists who hoped to take advantage of the conditions so enthusiastically described by Oxley. This process was not immediate but began fourteen years after Oxley’s discovery, when in 1832 the Australian Agricultural Company was granted 600,000 acres of land on the Liverpool Plains. Some stockowners who used this land to graze sheep and cattle were displaced, and so began looking for land further afield. The colonial authorities, in an effort to safeguard property and maintain law and order, had already set limits on European settlement; in 1831 this boundary was defined as ‘by the Manning River, from the sea coast westward to the chain of mountains at the head of that river, and that chain extending in a general direction nearly westward - so as to include all streams, valleys, and ravines which descend to the Goulburn and Hunter Rivers’. But, with the Australian Agricultural Company’s appropriation of land on the Liverpool Plains, pastoralists began to steal across this artificial boundary in search of suitable grazing country. By all accounts, the first ‘squatter’ to take up land in New England was Hamilton Collins Sempill, of Belltrees in the Hunter Valley, who in 1832 formed a station in the upper Apsley Valley which he called Wolka (Walcha). About the same time, Edward Gostwyck Cory, a settler also from the Hunter district, ascended the tableland by way of the Moonbi Range and settled at Salisbury Waters. His headquarters were briefly located at Gostwyck itself, but after William Dangar took charge of the property in 1835, Cory built a homestead at Terrible Vale. Salisbury Waters in the meantime was taken up by Robert Ramsay Mackenzie. Dangar was closely associated with the Australian Agricultural Company, as was his brother, Henry, and together they occupied strategic pastoral sites on the tablelands. The Commissioner of the Australian Agricultural Company, Henry Dumaresq, was equally shrewd and appropriated property for himself and his brother, William, on land close to present-day Armidale.

By 1836, other squatters had established their flocks in the southern districts of the tableland as far north as Guyra and as far west as Bundarra. Over the next two years, Scotsmen mostly from the Hunter Valley ventured even further north and opened runs around Inverell, Glen Innes (then called Furracabad) and Beardy Plains. The sudden invasion of the New England tablelands by squatters led to clashes with local Aborigines, culminating in 1838 in the Myall Creek massacre. The government, recognising the need to establish law and order in the ‘unsettled’ regions but also motivated by a desire to ensure that depasturing licenses were paid for by stockowners, appointed a Commissioner for Crown Lands, George James Macdonald, to the New England district in May 1839. When he arrived with a party of ten border police, Macdonald surveyed the area and, as he explained in his first report several months later, fixed his head station ‘on an extensive open Plain - well watered and sheltered - centrically situated, and continguous to the Extensive Establishments of Messrs. Mackenzie, Dangar and Dumaresq’. He named the place ‘Armidale’ after the baronial estate of Lord Macdonald in Scotland. Consistent with its proper spelling, some locals continued to refer to the place as ‘Armadale’, but when the town was officially gazetted Macdonald’s misnomer was retained.

The Commissioner diligently set about his work, establishing a courthouse shortly after his arrival and a post office in 1843. Services were nevertheless rudimentary; in 1841 Armidale was populated by fewer than twenty people and the Commissioner himself was forced to obtain food supplies from the nearby station stores. By 1847, however, when Macdonald departed, Armidale had already become the natural administrative and supply centre for the New England district. From a primitive village of a dozen slab huts (including Macdonald’s) the settlement had grown into a town of ninety-nine brick or stone buildings with a further 115 timber buildings. Two years later Armidale was proclaimed a town, and by 1851 it was serviced by two breweries, two steam mills, at least five inns and four stores. There were two doctors, ‘three other educated persons’, a butcher and a chemist, twenty-three male and fourteen female domestic servants, twenty-five labourers, thirteen agricultural workers and a ‘residue’ of 351. From a population of ninety-three in 1843, the township had grown to 547.

With Armidale’s rapid expansion, the first signs of a modern, ‘progressive’ community began to emerge. In March 1846, the first Anglican clergyman, Reverend Henry Tingcombe, arrived. There followed a Presbyterian minister in 1851 and a Catholic priest in 1853. All three denominations, as well as Methodism, grew rapidly, and by the end of the 1860s Armidale was the headquarters of both a Church of England bishop and a Catholic bishop. A Catholic cathedral, St Mary’s, was built in 1872; three years later, its Anglican counterpart, St Peter’s, was opened. The churches were largely responsible for education and as early as 1852 a Church of England school had sixty-three children on the roll. By the following year, a Catholic master was also teaching to a class of sixty students.

A newspaper, the Armidale Express, was established in 1856 after local residents raised £89 to bring its founders, William Hipgrave and Walter Craigie, from Maitland. They transported their printing press by bullock dray, an arduous journey which took twenty-seven days to complete. A hospital, opened in 1853, moved to more adequate premises five years later. The town’s first bank, the Australian Joint Stock Bank, began operating in 1856, and in the same year an insurance company made Armidale its headquarters. Ten others followed in about as many years. A new couthouse was finished in 1860 (its distinctive clock tower came later, in 1899). The electric telegraph to Newcastle and Brisbane opened in 1861. It was followed two years later by the completion of a purpose-built Post Office. By this time Armidale also had it own gaol, located on the town’s southern hill and upon which the Armidale Teachers’ College was later built.

And yet, for all these amenities, Armidale remained a rather shabby country town. The roads especially were poor. They were often deep in mud and locals had a habit of building their houses with little if any regard for the plans laid down by the town’s first surveyor, John James Galloway, in 1849. Even in the 1850s, one resident could describe Armidale as little more than ‘a few houses scattered along the creek’, while for another it consisted almost entirely of ‘one long straggling road’. With these concerns in mind, a group of prominent townspeople in April 1863 called for a public meeting to ‘consider the propriety of obtaining incorporation’. The meeting was attended by nearly 200 people and a motion to seek municipal status was carried with applause. On 13 November that year, incorporation was achieved, and a month later six aldermen were elected to Armidale’s first Council. In accordance with the townspeople’s main concerns, almost two-thirds of the Council’s first budget was spent on upgrading Armidale’s roads.

As the chief administrative, cultural and religious centre of the New England district, Armidale continued to grow over the next two decades. By the early 1880s, its population was nearing the 3,000 mark. The roads were much improved and the busiest streets boasted kerbing, guttering and gravel carriageways. A fire brigade began operating in 1887 and by the end of the century Armidale had a fresh water supply after the building of Dumaresq Dam. These were decades of rapid development, and throughout the 1880s and 1890s a number of buildings were erected which have since become an indelible part of Armidale’s architectural landscape. The current Post Office was completed in 1880; a number of hotels went up during the same period, including the New England with its magnificent cast-iron balcony and bull-nosed verandah, the Imperial, even more exquisite in its use of cast-iron lace and ornate arches, and the Railway Hotel in Rusden Street; Town Hall, with its imposing façade and close attention to detail, likewise retains many of the dominant features of late-Victorian archiecture. An important influence on the town’s distinctive architecture during these years was John Horbury Hunt, who, after designing the Anglican Church at Armidale, was commissioned to draw up plans for a number of other local buildings. These included the new Armidale Hospital (1883, now all but buried behind subsequent stages), St John’s Theological College (1899) and the private houses ‘Booloominbah’ (1888) and ‘Trevenna’ (1889).

In 1883, the railway reached Armidale after initial proposals to bypass the town were met with a storm of protest; the Council, led by eight-times Mayor, John Moore, vigorously pressed Armidale’s claims and in the end the line was re-routed. When the first train steamed into Armidale on 1 February, it was greeted by a crowd of no less than 4,000 people. More than anything else, the railhead allowed Armidale to consolidate its position as the administrative and commercial ‘capital’ of the region. This was reinforced in March 1885, when Armidale was proclaimed a city. This was not because of its status as the centre of New England, nor because of its population, which was small in comparison with other cities, but because, in accordance with the convention of the times, Armidale was the seat of both an Anglican and Catholic bishop. Its importance was reflected in the fact that the Federal Capital League seriously considered the idea of making Armidale or nearby Gostwyck the seat of the new Commonwealth after 1900.

For much of the twentieth century, Armidale remained the commercial and administrative hub of New England. The city’s greatest achievement, however, was its development as an educational centre in the late-nineteenth century. The role of the churches in this process was paramount; shortly after arriving both of the major denominations established schools to rival the emerging national system. At a time when environment played an important role in shaping Anglo-Australian attitudes, moreover, Armidale with its ‘healthy English climate’ was frequently cited as an ideal educational city. The place was forever being referred to by locals as ‘a city of schools’ and ‘the great scholastic centre of the north’. And there was some truth in these descriptions. By the 1920s, Armidale was home to two Catholic and two Anglican boarding schools, a prosperous private school (later the Presbyterian Ladies’ College), a growing co-educational high school and four state primary schools. There was also a small Anglican theological college, St John’s, which trained clergy from throughout rural New South Wales. These circumstances, along with the fortuitous election of David Henry Drummond to the state seat of Armidale in 1920, led the establishment of the Armidale Teachers’ College (later the Armidale College of Advanced Education) in 1928 and, a decade later, the New England University College. The University College, originally a subsidiary branch of Sydney University, was granted autonomy in 1954 and became the University of New England.

Armidale, with a current population of around 25,000 people, remains the educational and cultural – if not the commercial – heartland of New England. The pastoral industry on which the city was built no longer provides the sole reason for its existence. But, with the diminishing role of pastoralism in the region, Armidale has adapted magnificently so that its local economy is now bouyed by the many educational and cultural activities which the city offers. Apart from its many schools and the University of New England (which absorbed the Armidale College of Advanced Education in 1989), Armidale attracts students from across the region to its Technical College. There are museums of various kinds, including the Folk Museum (opened in 1958 and housed in the premises which were originally established for the Armidale School of Arts and Mechanics Institute in 1863), the Museum of Education opposite the old Teachers’ College on Kentucky Street, and the Museums of Zoology and Antiquities at the University of New England. Of special cultural significance is the New England Regional Art Museum, which houses the Howard Hinton, Chandler Coventry and Armidale City Collections. The Hinton Collection is the only one of its kind in Australia, covering the period 1880 to 1940 and representing the work of most of the country’s early artists - including the Lindsay family, Tom Roberts, Elioth Gruner, Sir Arthur Streeton and JJ Hilder.

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Related People:

JF Campbell, ‘Discovery and Early Pastoral Settlement of New England’, Royal Australian Historical Society Journal, vol.8, part 5 (1922); Armidale Express Centenary Supplement (April 1956), RB Walker, Old New England: A History of the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales, 1818-1900 (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1966); Tony Barker, Armidale: A Cathedral City of Education and the Arts (Sydney: Cassell Australia, 1980); Lionel Gilbert, An Armidale Album: Glimpses of Armidale’s History and Development in Word, Sketch and Photograph (Armidale: New England Regional Art Museum, 1982); Krista Mogensen and Ted Colville (eds.), New England Tablelands, NSW (Blackburn, Victoria: See Australia, 1986).


Prepared by: Sophie Patrick
Created: 26 June 2002
Modified: 7 July 2006

Published by The Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre, 5 April 2004
Prepared by: Acknowledgements
Updated: 23 February 2010

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