Last updated:

March 2, 2020

In the midst of the centenary of World War I commemorations, Provenance this year features a fascinating range of articles exploring different dimensions of Australia’s participation in the war and its aftermath.

Pat Grimshaw and Hannah Loney in ‘Doing their bit helping make Australia free’ explore the predicament of Victorian Aboriginal servicemen and their families. The mothers of Aboriginal sons fighting for Australia in Europe had to engage in their own battle on the home front to retain control of their son’s military pay. The letters written by the mothers of Aboriginal servicemen reveal women who were proud and astute advocates for justice and equality in the face of government policy as administered by the Board for the Protection of Aborigines. Meanwhile in the Forum section, Jennifer McNeice’s article ‘Military exemption courts in 1916’ reminds us of the often-overlooked reluctance of many men to leave behind their families and economic livelihood despite the growing official and social pressures to follow their patriotic duty. Examining the records of the military exemption courts that were established in 1916 to assess applications for exemption from military service, Lynch’s article reveals the resistance to moves by the Australian Federal government to enforce some kind of compulsory military service and the perils of patriotic jingoism.

A number of other articles in the issue explore the aftermath of the war. In his revisiting of the debate about the outcomes of the Soldier Settlement Scheme, James Kirby in ‘Beyond failure and success’ urges historians to take a more nuanced approach to assessing the communities that grew up around soldier settlement blocks across Victoria. Kirby achieves this through a consideration of the qualitative aspects of life in soldier settlement communities, in particular looking at the lived experience of families of the Ercildoune Road estate through government records and oral history. Cassie May in ‘Lithium and lost souls’ looks at the grim aftermath of war, the damaged servicemen, many of whom experienced debilitating mental health conditions. May celebrates the role of places like the Bundoora Homestead which provided these men with effective treatment and a participatory community. Janet Lynch’s article in the Forum section, ‘The families of World War I veterans …’ presents a similar story of resilience despite the awful psychological trauma inflicted by the war, as servicemen and their families lobbied the government for appropriate treatment and care.

Also in this year’s issue are two articles that demonstrate the way that researching government records can be used to explore the history and workings of public institutions such as welfare and school systems. Cate O’Neill’s article ‘She had always been a difficult case’ revisits the case of ‘Jill’, a state ward in her teens, brutalised by the Victorian child welfare system once she became categorised as a ‘female delinquent’. The article examines how Jill became a political football as her case became fodder for a sensationalised media circus and the machinations of the political cycle. The changes introduced in the aftermath of Jill’s tragic death by suicide were meant to address the failings of the child welfare system. O’Neill’s article, despite its focus on the political cycles of the 1950s, is a timely contribution to the discussion about current inquiries into institutionalised child abuse, a reminder that previous public controversies over these issues have not necessarily overcome institutional failings. Amber Evangelista explores Melbourne’s Ragged School system in her article ‘… From squalor and vice to virtue and knowledge …’, particularly the contribution of Hester Hornbrook, a vehement Evangelical crusader who late in life established eight Ragged Schools in Melbourne during the late 1850s and early 1860s. Under the influence of the Evangelical movement in England, Hornbrook established schools that would cater to the children of the poorest families, primarily out of an austere conviction that the cause of their poverty was an underlying spiritual corruption that could only be addressed via religious education.

Also in this year’s issue of the journal, three articles demonstrate the ways in which records can be used to research the history of places and communities. Barbara Minchinton’s article ‘Reading the papers’ follows up her article published in Provenance in 2011, ‘The trouble with Otway maps’, which demonstrated the inadequacy of the survey maps of the Otway Ranges for the purposes of administering land holdings in that area owing to the difficult terrain. In this year’s article Minchinton’s close reading of land administration files shows the various ways in which officials in the Victorian Government compensated for the difficult terrain and the unreliable survey maps by developing working criteria that reflected the reality of conditions in the Otways, to thereby promote the original intent of the land Acts to facilitate small land holdings across Victoria. In ‘Historical maps, geographic information systems (GIS) and complex mining landscapes on the Victorian goldfields’, co-authors Peter Davies, Susan Lawrence and Jodi Turnbull present an innovative re-use of survey and mapping data about water networks created for mining purposes that can be extracted from the wide range of maps held by PROV. As an example of the kind of exciting possibilities opened up by Digital Humanities projects, the article shows how historical maps and digital technology can be combined to produce tools to better understand histories of place, in this case, the relationships between competing water users and the way they shaped the mining landscapes during the colonial era. David Evans’s article, ‘John Jones’, primarily utilises the City of Melbourne’s early records relating to intentions to build homes to paint a portrait of a prolific builder in the West Melbourne area, the built landscape to which he contributed, and his local community.

Finally, this year’s issue features two articles based on the unexpected pleasures that arise from undertaking family history research based on government records. Jacqui Browne in ‘Who says “you can’t change history”?’, presents her remarkable research journey, which she and her mother began back in the 1970s, and which led her to eventually uncover surprising family secrets and an extensive network of family connections in Melbourne and its surrounds. During her family history research, Dorothy Small stumbled across the case of Thomas Drewery, a man wrongly convicted of theft in England who was transported to Melbourne in 1847, which she narrates in her article ‘An innocent Pentonvillain’. The article shows the lengths that Drewery went to clear his name and reunite himself with his family, as well as the hardships and opportunities that awaited him and his family in Victoria.

Sebastian Gurciullo & Lauren Bourke

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