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Alan Atkinson, The Europeans in Australia, Volume Three Nation, NewSouth Publishing, University of New South Wales 2014; ISBN: 9780868409979, Pages: 528, RRP $49.99

(This Review only covers pages 51 to 54, with particular reference to the Dongara Common, and more generally Part III of Chapter 2 ‘Australia’s Rural Code’)

I went to a book launch the other day. The launch of a new history of Australia is a rare occasion, especially one written by a highly respected academic historian. As I was flicking through the index I saw the following entry: ‘Dongara WA, 51’.

Dongara, cited in a new national history? Could that be right? I checked again. No index entries for Geraldton (although Geraldton Guardian is there). None for Port Denison or Greenough or Irwin or Northampton or Abrolhos Islands, although New Norcia gets an entry, Perth and Fremantle get two each and Western Australia a few more.

The towns of Dongara (bottom of picture) and Port Denison (top of picture), with the Irwin River and Thungara Estuary between them, 2011

The towns of Dongara (bottom of picture) and Port Denison (top of picture), with the Irwin River and Thungara Estuary between them, 2011

Written by Professor Alan Atkinson, the book is Volume 3 of his expansive history titled The Europeans in Australia, with this volume called Nation covering the period 1870 to 1918. The three volumes have taken Professor Atkinson some twenty years to research and write. They are serious histories, distilling the endeavours of a lifetime as a working historian, not the quickly-forgotten popular histories of photogenic celebrity writers.

So, what does page 51 tell readers across Australia and elsewhere around the world about Dongara? What was its important contribution to a nation’s history as it unfolded between the end of convict transportation and the end of the Great War? Is it the early gentry pastoralists Burges, Hamersley or Phillips? Is it the late 19th century merchant princes Samuel Moore or George Pearce of Dongara, Fremantle and other places? Perhaps the Dongara-born premier Sir David Brand or the Dongara-educated premier Carmen Lawrence?

Pearce House, Dongara, the home of George Pearce, chairman of the Irwin Commonage Board in the 1890s and early 1900s

Pearce House, Dongara, the home of George Pearce, chairman of the Irwin Commonage Board in the 1890s and early 1900s

Turning to page 51 reveals it is none of these Great Men or Women, nor is it about some struggling explorers who mapped the country for invasion, or about rugged individuals who tamed the wilderness. It is, instead, about the ways that local people learnt to share and manage the natural resources of the district through the Dongara Common (also called the Irwin Common), that once-vast but now virtually forgotten institution in the history of the middle and lower Irwin Valley.

Old Irwin Schoolhouse, built on land once part of the Yardarino Common

Old Irwin Schoolhouse, built on land once part of the Yardarino Common

Commons came with the colonists from England and were transplanted all across the colonies in Australia. Some still survive today. Atkinson takes the Dongara Common from an almost-forgotten chapter in local history and puts it on the stage of national history, writing about it with the Dalby Common in Queensland, Cooma Common in New South Wales and Benalla Common in Victoria. He tells a story of the commons and the commoners (the local people who had various rights to use the common for grazing, fire wood gathering and so on) that symbolises the growing idea among ordinary people of a place called “Australia”.

The whole continent, he argues, was by the 1880s becoming like one vast common, shared, managed and protected by its own people who were individually self-sufficient but at the same time interdependent on each other and those they elected to manage their commons. The continent’s resources would be shared by all who called themselves Australians. From this one great common would come our shared commonwealth, in which ideas and people would move around, as their stock moved around on the common land, and we would come to talk to each other as the commoners did in working out by experiment and experience how to share their resources for the benefit of their whole community.

Old Irwin Road Board Office, from where the common lands were managed after 1910

Old Irwin Road Board Office, Dongara, from where the common lands were managed after 1910

Dongara Common was established in 1874, one of the first in Western Australia to be created under the limited self-government granted by London in 1870. Its rules, developed by the Dongara Commoners and the Resident Magistrate, were the first to be prepared for any common in the colony. They became the model all the others followed. The Common covered 13,000 hectares around Milo, Middle Irwin, the Dongarra Flats and the coastal sandhills north of Dongara and south of Port Denison, and included the Yardarino Common that had been in existence since at least 1857 and was probably the oldest common north of Perth. The members of the Commonage Board included both ex-convicts and free settlers, with surnames such as Moore, Pearce, Criddle, Clarkson, Waldeck, Smith, Brand and Wass that still resonate today in local histories. Now these men (no women served on the Board) have been given a place in national history. This is not because they were rugged individuals but because they helped to imagine and bring into existence communities where people were mutually supportive and could develop their shared identities as Irwinites, as Westralians and eventually, and this is central to Atkinson’s arguments, as Australians rather than as displaced English, Irish, Scots or any other homesick colonials.

The Irwin or Dongara Commons in 1880

The extent of the Irwin or Dongara Commons in 1880

However, between 1900 and 1937 much of the common land was “thrown open”, in the official language of the time, a historic irony as the common land was actually closed to the public and privatised by sale to adjoining farmers. A small area was incorporated into the Irwin Townsite in 1925 on the north side of the railway line. The Common gradually shrunk to the coastal sandhills, where some parcels were converted to community uses such as the golf links (1931) and the rifle range (1945). In 1956 a large part of the Common south of Denison was incorporated in the Beekeepers Nature Reserve, after a part of the Common on the sandhills between Dongara and Seven Mile was dedicated as a nature reserve in 1952. Other little pockets of the Common probably still survive in the countryside, waiting to be found by enthusiastic common-hunters.

The extent of the Irwin or Dongara Commons in 1903

The extent of the Irwin or Dongara Commons in 1903

The details in these last two paragraphs come, not from Atkinson’s history, but from my own research for a history honours thesis at the University of Western Australia back in 1992. I could not have been more surprised to find, listed in the sources Atkinson used for his history, that thesis from twenty two years ago! I thought the thesis, like the common, had simply disappeared with barely a trace, only discernable now to the most dedicated researcher or landscape historian.

The gradual loss of the Irwin or Dongara Commons during the 20th century

The gradual loss of the Irwin or Dongara Commons during the 20th century

Back in 1994 I tried to have the small remaining pieces of the common south of Port Denison listed in the State Heritage Register, but was unable to persuade the Heritage Council of its historical significance at that time. I understand that there is now a road near the aerodrome named Commonage Road, a name that at least commemorates the old common of which that area once formed a part. However, on looking through Google maps street view I can see the ‘road’ (or track), but it doesn’t seem to have a street name sign.

Alan Atkinson’s new volume of his history has just been released in bookshops, and will no doubt receive many critical reviews and be widely acclaimed. His reference to the commons and their role in creating a sense of Australian nationhood will probably attract some attention, especially as it follows on from another recent history by Dr Grace Karskens, The Colony: A History of Early Sydney, published in 2009 and winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2010, that includes a chapter on commons in New South Wales. She writes that academic historians have not been much interested in commons and public farming, and argues:

“Public farming did not become part of the pioneer legend which focuses so strongly upon the individual men and women who battled the environment … [but] commons often created different spatial histories and patterns and unintended legacies … often sections of them were retained as public open space … where the bush could regenerate, in new forms, and in some cases these were protected as precious bushland remnant reserves … [some are] now small areas in unending seas of suburbs and industrial development … Sydney Common became the vital green lungs of the densely built-up eastern suburbs.”

Some of my later research on the history of commons in New South Wales, especially in the County of Cumberland, is cited in her book.

Sand hills and coast of the South Beach, south of Port Denison, still part of the Common and popular place for recreation

Sand hills and coast of the South Beach, south of Port Denison, still part of the Common and popular local place for recreation

Karskens and Atkinson are now, at last, bringing the commons out of the shadows. Whether you agree or not with their views on the historical significance of commons as ‘nurseries’ in the evolution of a sense of nationhood, or as landscape legacies that helped ensure the survival of open spaces for the people and for nature, commons are now bound to receive more attention from historians, and Dongara Common will be a significant historical actor in the histories they write. I think it augers well for the history of commons that Atkinson’s history was officially published on 1st September 2014 – a serendipitous anniversary exactly 140 years to the day since the Dongara Common was officially gazetted on 1st September 1874.

The National Library’s catalogue description of Atkinson’s newest volume calls it

“ambitious and unique, the culmination of an extraordinary career … an account of the various ways in which experience shaped imagination and belief among the settlers … with a focus as ever on ordinary habits of thought and feeling. In this period, for the first time the settlers began to grasp the vastness of the continent, and to think of it as their own .… the final volume in a landmark, award winning series”.

Other reviews are sure to follow, and stimulate argument and interest in, among other things, the history of commons and their commoners. That, in turn, may bring attention and perhaps even visitors to Dongara to see its now potentially famous common – or more accurately, its surviving relics. Perhaps it would be good to at least get a street name sign put up on Commonage Road for the inevitable selfies that will need to be taken by enthusiastic history tourists.

Dongara Airstrip, south of Port Denison, and around which Commonage Road curls.  The land in the top of the photo remains part of the Common land.

Dongara Airstrip, south of Port Denison, and around which Commonage Road curls. The land in the top of the photo remains part of the Common land, as does all of the beach in this picture.

Originally published as ‘Dongara makes a surprising appearance in a new Australian history book’, Dongara-Denison Local Rag, 4 October 2014.

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