Rickwood, Peter C., and West, David J., (Eds), Blackheath: Today from Tomorrow: The history of a town in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, WrightLight Pty Ltd for The Rotary Club of Blackheath Inc., Blackheath 2005
640 pp, illustrated, introduction, end paper maps, index, contents page, ISBN 0 9581934 5 2, Dewey 994.45, $65.00
“Although designed by a committee, this book is not a camel”. That is what I hoped would be my opening sentence in this review. Alas, upon closer reading of this otherwise good example of a local history, a number of camelesque features became apparent.
Blackheath: Today from Tomorrow is a handsome looking book, featuring Govett’s Leap in full flow pictured against the mist-enveloped sandstone walls of the Grose Valley. The bluish tones and the town’s signature waterfall dustjacketting a weighty and substantial volume immediately suggest to the reader that here is a combination of scholarly achievement and local knowledge.
The book is divided into two sections. The first section contains thematic chapters composed of narratives or short essays or descriptions of varying quality and length. These chapters are arranged according to themes that will be familiar to readers of local histories: Pioneering, Churches, Clubs and Utilities are some examples. Geography, Preservation Activities and Education & Philosophies are other themes that are more specific to this book, reflecting important forces that have shaped a local identity and sense of place characteristic of this upper mountains village. The content of each of these chapters is often of greater diversity and interest that the headings suggest.
The second section, comprising about one third of the book, is a reference section, containing among other things a listing of local street names and their histories, and similar lists of topographical features, local representatives (municipal, state and federal) with some biographical details, office bearers of local organisations, an honour roll of local service men and women, and a chronology of pre-1880 (old village) events in the town. For researchers this section may well be the book’s main strength.
The book commences with something that should be more widely seen in local histories: an explanation of the book’s origins and why it has been prepared, followed by a historiographical essay that covers previous histories of the town as well as historical maps of the district. The preparation of the book was a project of the local Rotary club for the centenary of Rotary International. Initially suggested as a facsimile edition of the club’s 1975 Historic Blackheath publication, it evolved into a substantial ‘update’ of the earlier work, with notable contributions by the Blue Mountains and the Mt Victoria & District historical societies. Although the impetus thus came from a local club making its contribution to the wider commemoration of an international anniversary, the need for such a publication has been long felt in the local community.
The division of the book into two parts reflects these origins. Much of the narrative section is reproduced from Historic Blackheath, usually with updated information forming a revised conclusion to each of the 1975 essays. While there are many advantages in such an approach, especially for a project being run by a community-based committee, the uneven quality of these essays reflects a disadvantage of this method.
Lavelle’s ‘The Blackheath Stockade’ and Hubert’s ‘The Private Blackheath Retreats’ exhibit the professional approaches of the historical archaeologist and heritage architect respectively, and show the strengths that focused professional research can bring to understandings of local history. Archaeological evidence can provide many insights into the early formation of any settlement, as Lavelle amply demonstrates here by the investigations of the 1820s convict stockade of the old village. Some idea can be gained of the influence outsiders might have on the shaping of a local community in its early years by Hubert’s reading of their architectural contributions to the cultural environment of the new village in the 1880s and 90s. Both matters can provide, as they do in this case, added depth to any local history writing.
On the other hand, the book’s dedication to those who “…seek historical truth” (p. vi) provides an introduction to local myth-busting that seems to miss a defining quality in the local identity that marks Blackheath as special (at least to its local residents). The essay titled ‘Legends’ describes a number of local legends, mainly related to the naming of Govett’s Leap, and then debunks these legends. Unfortunately, no account is taken of the roles that myths and legends play in a community. Legends are not about the literal truth, but are metaphors for the values of a community. They symbolise what can’t be possessed, but which needs to be striven for. Founding myths are especially potent.
Across all the stories quoted (pp63-73) run the strands of daring-do, of bravado, of escaping injustice, of sublime awe – the very characteristics attributed to the Australian bushman in the late colonial period when important national legends were being formed. That Blackheath is so rich in such myths from the time of the 1880s foundation of the new village in the wild mountain tops surely deserves better that the attribution of base motives such as enhancing local intrigue for financial gain (pp63-64). Debunkers need to be sensitive to the associations that sustain communities over several generations. It seems an unconscious irony that the essay which follows ‘Legends’ is titled ‘Mysterious Pits at Blackheath’.
The possibility of exploring the myths as an aspect of local creativity is lost because there is little coverage of imaginary Blackheath: the Blackheath that appears in literature, art, film, photography and other media, including cartography. From Phillip’s photograph albums to McCullough’s Missalonghi and more – the list would be too long to recite, and it is sufficient to remark that few towns can boast of inspiring so many creative pursuits, whether by locals or those looking in. Is it just Blackheath’s physical location, or is there something else about the society of the town? Contrast this record of creative endeavour with the paucity of aesthetic values in the project home sprawl of the 1970s, 80s and 90s in Blackheath’s ‘suburbs’. No sense of place, no concessions to local character or climate. They could be anywhere, uninformed by history or myth. Unfortunately the search for ‘the truth’ means we don’t get any insights into these matters from Blackheath: Today from Tomorrow.
The collection of essays in the chapter ‘Community Activities, Events & Features’ contains an eclectic group of writings that do address to some degree the social values of the local community. The Rotary Club has fostered the annual Blackheath Day, and the local Rhododendron Festival remains popular after some 50 years. But why is this so? – unfortunately the question isn’t asked. Local symbols such as the Blackheath Flag gets brief descriptive coverage but, while of questionable vexillological or heraldic value, no analysis of its symbolism; while visits by the great, such as various Royal and vice-regal visits, and the cricketing hero Bradman, serve to validate local pride, but again with very little discussion of what they might reflect about local identity over time.
The following two chapters, ‘Organisations’ and ‘clubs’, however, with many of the pieces authored by members of the various clubs, societies and associations, provides a more nuanced and intimate introduction to the motivations and dynamics within the local community. The community work of BANC, the CWA, Rotary, Scouts and many other service organisations; of arts organisations such as the Art Society, Folk Music group, Musical Society, Philosophy Forum, Dramatic Society and Brass Band; and of sporting clubs such as Bowling, Golf, Soccer, the two rugbies, Swimming, Cricket and Tennis, attest to a long and varied history of social and cultural life in the town, as do the chapters on the 11 churches and 11 schools. However, some discussion of why the people of a small mountain town have managed to keep such an array of cultural activities going over such a long time might illuminate something of the essence of Blackheath.
The ‘Preservation Activities’ chapter, with essays written by the members of four local environmental groups, provides a window into the contemporary community’s work in caring for the bushland on the town’s fringes and urban gullies. Unfortunately the role of earlier conservation movements are not included, although the results of their labours have given us the surrounding Blue Mountains National Park and other reserves. There are interesting links between the work of an early 20th century landscape preservationist such as Tomas Rodriguez and his role in local real estate development. Altruism was not always the guiding force, and some historical depth to this chapter would have greatly enhanced its value to the reader.
There is an overall tone of sniping at the roles of government in the district which doesn’t seem to advance the reader’s understanding of Blackheath as a distinctive place and society. For example, “…the planning of the Village of Blackheath … shows the process would have done great credit even to the cumbersome bureaucracy of today” (p. 24). This statement is followed by a chronology of the disputes within the Lands Department between 1870 and 1879 concerning the proposed sale of lots that established the new village in its present form. The competing interests evident in the chronology are not explored, and the reader is left to muse on bureaucratic inefficiency rather that given an insight into the possible futures the village may have had, and why one prevailed over another.
Cynicism concerning politics may be fashionable, but it leads to some egregious errors. NSW MLCs are not and never have been senators, now matter how much they might wish this to be! Blackheath was merged into the City of Blue Mountains in 1947 (as Low states on p. 585), not the Blue Mountains Municipality (p. 589). Any civil society depends upon its public offices being treated with respect, even if the transitory office holders are occasionally found to be unworthy. A community’s rights to self-governance cannot be taken for granted, and the book’s carelessness about elective offices does not help the reader gain any understanding of the development of local democracy in the district.
The reference section is essentially a listing section, with much historical data arranged topically and chronologically. The ‘Street Names & Origins’ list (with a surprisingly large proportion of royal commemoratives), and the ‘Topographic Features’ list, will probably be of most interest to local readers. The detailed annotations and referencing for each entry allow the serious researcher and interested reader alike to explore further, and will have lasting value. The heritage lists, by contrast, will no doubt change through additions and deletions over time, reflecting the nature of the official heritage system, and should probably be understood as a snapshot in time rather than a definitive identification. The Quick Guide to the reference sections gives a clue to local historians wanting to make their publication marketable to a wider audience: the reader can look for their suburb, their subdivision estate, their street or their house, and can (for a small fee) obtain greater details from the Blue Mountains Historical Society Research Officer.
The listings of the office bearers of local organisations, local clergy, local commercial and public officials, local political representatives and local servicemen and women records a great deal of detail that is often lacking in local histories, and which cannot always be conveniently integrated into narrative forms. It will be of great interest to local residents, and also to family historians and to future historians of many of the organisations. The biographical listings also honour the many local people who have contributed to the town’s communal identity over the years. Given the ephemeral nature of much of the information, its value cannot be overestimated.
Blackheath: Today from Tomorrow gathers together essays and statistics provided by a diverse group of authors. The contribution of the principal editor, Dr Peter Rickwood, is notable. The book has clearly been a labour of love over many years, and his dedication reflects that of many of the citizens in the biographical listings. He is clearly the driving force behind the publication, the kind of force that makes the difference in a project such as this succeeding in a small town.
In conclusion, some of the strengths and weaknesses of the publication can be summarised: there is an uneven quality to the essays, some are good, some not so good; it is not always clear why some topics receive greater coverage than others; the degree of updating of some of the 1975 essays is uneven; the cynical attitude towards public governance is unhelpful in understanding the town’s history; the dismissal of the town’s mythology misses some critical points in understanding the local culture; some exploration of the communal identity of the town as demonstrated through its cultural actives would be helpful; and the history of nature and landscape conservation in the district has a much longer history than suggested.
The strengths of Blackheath: Today from Tomorrow perhaps outweigh the weaknesses: the use of introductory and historiographical essays need emulation in other local histories; the role of maps is often neglected in local histories, but receives good coverage in this book (almost begging for a complementary historical atlas of Blackheath); the illustrations are clear in quality and well related to the text; the inclusion of a section on the district’s geography provides an understanding of the physical stage upon which the human dramas have been played out – a rare but much needed inclusion in a local history; the inclusion of archaeological and architectural analyses demonstrably adds depth to local history and should inspire other local historians to consider such historical evidence; the brief reference to local heraldry and emblems is welcome (but could be developed further); the inclusion of some discussion of the different philosophies underlying the local schools touches upon an aspect of the local social and religious beliefs often lacking in local histories; the reintegration of Australia’s Royal history into local history is welcome after the purging and denialism of the 1990s; the histories of local organisations prepared (mainly) by their members provide a real insight into local social structures and aspirations over time; and the reference section is very useful, although some readers may wonder whether this could have been more usefully treated through a companion website that would allow for the continual revisions and additions of historical data.
Overall, I found Blackheath: Today from Tomorrow a useful addition to my library, especially as I have lived in Blackheath for nearly a decade (although not nearly long enough to call myself a local Blackheathen!). Blackheath is a place of the imagination as much as of the world, and Blackheath: Today from Tomorrow explores some of each. It should stimulate more research and writing on Blackheath’s history, which may be the greatest thing that any publication can achieve. I would recommend it to any student of local history as a good example of the genre, provided that its flaws are understood as well as its strengths appreciated.
A concise version of this review was published as: Baskerville, B., ‘Peter C. Rickwood, and David J. West (eds), Blackheath: Today from Yesterday: the history of a town in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 93, Part 1., June 2007, pages 123-125.
The right of Bruce Baskerville to be identified as the moral rights author of this work is hereby asserted in accordance with the Copyright Amendment (Moral Rights) Act 2000 of the Commonwealth of Australia.