State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 34 October 1984


Making Tracks: Local History in The 1950s

Local history is an old pastime but a new discipline. Until recently it has been seen as the realm of the amateur and enthusiast, of those who wish to discover the origins of their own locale. They write of familiar things for a local audience. In the late 1950s, a second stream of local history writing emerged. It emanated from the universities and addressed a scholarly audience which found itself increasingly interested in concepts of “community” and “regionalism”. In the Victorian context, Margaret Kiddle's Men of yesterday (1961) and Weston Bate's A history of Brighton (1962) declared its academic flowering. The relationship between these two worlds of local history writing has been an uneasy one. They have occasionally learnt from one another — the academics offering wings to fly and the local enthusiasts providing a knowledge of the landing terrain. More often, however, academic and popular worlds have viewed one another with suspicion. Pursuing different aims and fulfilling different needs, they have carved remarkably independent paths.
One book, published in 1955, demonstrated a particularly constructive phase in their relationship. Track of the years: the story of St. Arnaud, written by Yvonne S. Palmer, was one of Victoria's first social histories of a country town. Its achievement was remarkable in that it was written very much from the local scene, yet it aspired also to careful scholarship. The result was a rare literary balance which, in the mid-1950s, meant that it straddled the two worlds just beginning to define themselves.
We can now glimpse more of Yvonne Palmer's creative effort through the archive which she is currently establishing in the Australian Manuscripts Collection of the La Trobe Library. Throughout 1984, Yvonne Palmer has been sending to the Library a succession of carefully annotated parcels consisting of the primary source material, working notes and correspondence relating to the writing of Track of the years. The resulting archive will, of course, be a useful tool for future researchers of the Wimmera. Its additional value is that is allows us some insight into the world of the local history writer at a time when the craft was still very much feeling its way.
In early 1952, the St. Arnaud town council repreatedly appealed locally for someone to write a history booklet to mark the town's centenary later that year. Yvonne Palmer eventually answered that call. After her early education in Terang — her birthplace — Yvonne Palmer had been a student at Presbyterian Ladies College and then Melbourne University, where she studied English, French and history and completed a Diploma of Education. She majored in English and this was her teaching subject throughout a career which also embraced the raising of four children. Yvonne and her husband Murray found that their various teaching appointments were to provide them with a fine survey of rural Victoria. After living in Traralgon and Colac, they moved to St. Arnaud between 1951 and 1956 and were later to live in Casterton, Edenhope, Warracknabeal and now Bendigo. When Yvonne Palmer wrote her St. Arnaud history she was not therefore a true local, but she was certainly familiar and at home with country town ways. St. Arnaud instantly appealed to her. It was the first time she had lived north of the Divide, and she found that she loved the clay colours, the gums, and the strong sunlight.
Local councils have not, until very recently, allowed sufficient time for the historical enterprises they have initiated. This partly explains the nature of much local history writing. It is often done by an old identity, voluntarily, at the urgent behest of the council. The rigour of centenary dates has forced many a history to be whipped up in weeks. It is true that Yvonne Palmer's work was also done at council initiative, for a civic occasion, and in an honorary capacity. But there were differences. She was a relatively new face on the local street. She also found that the constraints of time were widened unexpectedly by an historical miscalculation. What had originally seemed a six month task soon became three years when, early in her research, Yvonne Palmer confirmed that 1955, rather than 1952, was the correct centenary date1. The booklet, quite suddenly, was given room to grow.
Writing in the early 1950s, a local historian had few Australian models for guidance. As her research took shape, Yvonne Palmer began to challenge herself about the nature of a local history. In November 1952, she wrote to her former teacher, Professor Max Crawford, a man who, in her undergraduate years, had made her reassess her thinking about history. She told him of the sources she had used in her research and of the success she was having in finding local material. Then she asked, quite simply, “What should be the nature of a local history?” It was a legitimate question. Yvonne Palmer was seeking support or criticism of a path she already felt compelled to follow. “I don't think there is any
doubt that the book must be written in a popular style, but I also think that this should not prevent it being a sound study of the town and district,” she explained2.
Professor Crawford passed her enquiry on to Weston Bate, who had just completed a Master of Arts thesis on the history of the first twenty years of Brighton. Weston Bate was also cooperating with a local council in his work and he found Palmer's enquiry perfectly sensible: “I don't think there has been any convincing local history published yet in Australia,” he replied in January 1953. “I wish there was. It would make our task so much easier and less open to errors in the choice of material and placing of emphasis.” Weston Bate suggested as one English example C. H. Chaloner's The social and economic history of Crewe (1950) and, in the Australian context, Alan Walker's Coaltown (1945) and the McIntyres’ Country towns (1944)3. Palmer would have added G. F. James’ A homestead history (1942) to that list. These were the few signposts in an unexplored terrain. The 1950s were a period when even someone of the stature of Weston Bate could have worries about how a thesis in local history would be received, and when reviewers were reluctant to see even the best local histories as more than “chronicle”4. It is no surprise then that Bate's committed advocacy of local history as a discipline did, at times, feel the pressures of academic isolation. He wrote: “Somehow, I have exalted the standing of local history in my own mind to a level I can't possibly maintain. How can one enter all the multitudinous facets of local life with the authority one's training, or even a simple logical approach, suggests that one should have?”5 These few letters from Bate and also from Helen Coulson, who at that time was working on a history of the Dandenongs, throw light on the local historian's burden of that time. Where to look for guidance? How to maintain faith in a discipline still with dubious academic recognition? How to satisfy local needs as well as the wider demands of scholarship?
It is interesting to look back on these concerns from the 1980s when the local history business is booming and when it is an accepted province of the Ph.D. The most obvious way in which local history has changed in the interim years is in the rising standards of scholarship. As academics have turned to the new field, they have periodically castigated, goaded and encouraged the continuing efforts of amateurs. This recurrent ritual has produced some fine essays in historiography, one of the first being by Geoffrey Blainey in 1954 (“Scissors and paste in local history”) and one of the more recent by Stuart Macintyre in 1982 (“Family and local history in Western Australia”)6. This new genre of commentary has been a by-product of the second, academic stream of local history writing. Its tone, although often constructive, sometimes seemed to suggest that the learning was a one-way process. John La Nauze, then Professor of History at Melbourne University, wrote in 1959 of the great changes which had swept through Australian historiography in recent decades. The sign of professional history, he said, was not the occupation of the writer, but whether or not the work's “conventions, methods of presentation and standards of evidence, are those set by the universities”. Because he saw the university as establishing standards, he was perhaps too eager to dismiss the work of antiquarians who, he said, “still pursue their hobby, at once so interesting and so harmless”7. The academic was a saviour, drawing local history out from behind its parochial blinkers and hitching it to the rising star of national history.
We are more willing, in recent years, to recognise the merits of history written close to the ground. This has developed quite naturally as the discipline of local history has matured. It has also been boosted by the shared enthusiasm, academic and popular, for oral history, and certainly helped by the recent need for historians to go outside the universities for work. “Public history” as an area of employment symbolises this rapprochement; the professed aims of “people's history” and “community history” demand it. The result is a greater tolerance for the myopia of the antiquarian and the clumsiness of the amateur, and a readiness to see as strengths those things such as a sense of place, a respect for local memory, and a grasp of the vernacular which have always characterised popular local history.
Track of the years represents an unusual combination of the merits of academic and popular history, an achievement which makes the story of its writing particularly relevant now. It broke new ground in terms of scholarship in local history. Critics lauded it most in these terms. Yvonne Palmer “has selected her material with care, setting it in perspective against the wider background of general Australian history, and she keeps her reader aware of the interdependence of developments in the town and its region”, wrote Althea Williams in Historical studies. “The extent of the research that has gone into Track of the years is impressive and is displayed to best advantage in the full, exact and critical footnotes”8. It is clear from both the book and from the archive now being established that Palmer was meticulous in her research and care for detail. The inclusion of footnotes was a self-conscious culmination of this concern: “No apology is made for the frequent use of footnotes” are the words with which Palmer introduces a brief justification of them in her Preface.

A design for the cover of Track of the years, prepared by Kevin Brereton (then Art teacher at St. Arnaud High School) when the book was to be a local publication.

In many ways, Track of the years now appears a pioneer book for its time. Its commitment was to social history, to the story of what people did and felt. It took oral sources very seriously, continually balancing them with written evidence and occasionally preferring them with good reason9. Aboriginal life was carefully explored, and the letters in the archive show how much energy went into the interpretation of archaeological evidence. There was adventurous use of newspapers at a time when they were little regarded as a source. The reader's attention was continually directed to private as well as public life, and the lives of women in the town were a natural part of the story. There was also a clear striving for a regional history. In October 1954, Palmer wrote to Gwyn James, Manager of Melbourne University Press, and spelt out this aim: “While I think that genuine regional histories are the ideal form of local history, I do not think they can be satisfactorily undertaken until there are more documented histories of individual towns and smaller districts. I like to think that what I am doing is a stepping stone to this”10.
Track of the years was a carefully crafted work, at times sacrificing chronology in the greater interests of thematic unity11. The book explored several issues of more than local interest. It told the story of the growth of an independent Australian population, of how “the ties with their homelands weakened to a thin thread of sentiment.” It also offered an insight into the transformation of “Diggers into Townsmen”, of how a floating mining population could, paradoxically, generate individuals seeking permanence and commitment. Both themes came together in the experience of James Stewart, a gold-digger turned mayor, whose correspondence was found in the disused loft of a local store. One senses that this exciting discovery was influential in shaping Yvonne Palmer's own commitment. A close reading of the letters entrusted her with the responsibility to tell a private story well and also offered her the opportunity to do what A homestead history had already suggested to her — to tell a human story and to weave through it a wider social history.
This was not the first history of St. Arnaud. Palmer was careful to acknowledge her debt to earlier local writers, particularly to “The Barber” (Frederick Keats), a colourful early story-teller. But it was the first time someone from within the town had reached beyond its bounds for sources. With the research assistance of Ruth Stamp in Melbourne and the after-hours help of Pat Ingham at the Public Library of Victoria, official and other outside sources were consulted as well. Correspondence with Bate and Coulson allowed Palmer to explore methods, sources and themes relating to more than just her town. This relationship with outsiders culminated in the publication of her book by Melbourne University Press, an arrangement which guaranteed a wider audience. In this task, Palmer received support and encouragement from Gwyn James and also from Dr. W. V. Aughterson, then Senior Lecturer in Education at the University and a member of the M.U.P. Board. Their correspondence with her reveals a very constructive relationship between the country writer and her publishers. M.U.P. was pleased to be rescuing a fine work from the relative obscurity of a country edition. At the same time, the Press was very ready to meet the demands of the local reader. “I would not delete anything from Ch. 4,” wrote Bill Aughterson of one draft. “It will all be of interest to people of the town”12. This sort of support was expressed in more than just correspondence. M.U.P.'s advertising blurb stressed the local nature of the book's production: “Very few country towns have experienced the intense local interest aroused in St. Arnaud and district by the preparation of this book,” declared M.U.P.'s newspaper notices13. The Press was right to see the local origins of the book as a strength. Yvonne Palmer wrote, above all, for the local reader. She became steeped in, and fascinated by, the patterns of local memory. Palmer's research archive opens up that whole world of reminiscence and legend which buzzes around the writer of local history and which presents one of the craft's greatest challenges. It is a characteristic of the discipline that it confronts a world of oral testimony and attempts to write it down, often for the first time. Palmer energetically pursued the dwindling threads of family memory, even as they might be preserved in a pioneer's long-lost relative. She neither dismissed nor swallowed the handed-down stories; she squeezed them for significance. Current and former residents rewarded Palmer for her interest with their letters, sent both before and after publication. One, who regarded Track of the years as a “splendid book”, was sad to have
missed his chance to shape his town's written testimony: “I wish you had interviewed me before you wrote it”, he lamented. Some, seeing themselves as makers of history, were keen “to meet a recorder of history”. One letter must have thrilled Yvonne Palmer with its earnest contribution to her task of recording the oral culture. William O'Neill wrote:
A footnote in your book on page 225 referring to the taking up of holdings during 1868–9 on the plains at Swanwater by Robert Manton and others, calls to mind an old rhyme that was evidently current at the time.
It is proof that V. M. Mogg was a squatter who harassed the selectors who took up land out of his pastoral leasehold. The rhyme is as follows:
There was a farmer on Mogg's Plains,
Bob Manton was his name.
He brought his wife and family
To dwell upon those plains.
He had a few old dairy cows —
Which kept him on the job,
But he was greatly hunted
By a squatter they call Mogg14.
The interpretation of this local lore was one issue of concern in the letters Yvonne Palmer exchanged with Helen Coulson in 1952 and 1953. Coulson, who had written a booklet on Horsham a few years earlier, had some suggestions about how to pin down the effusions of memory: “in early directories the names of early postmasters are given, and I found that local information — notoriously hazy on dates — was often teed up with a definite era, by mention of the name of the person who was postmaster in such an era. The locals know it happened in ‘Bob Minns' time’, whereas the Directory tells you that Robert Minns was P.M. from 1893 to 1897 — and there you are!”15 Yvonne Palmer evidently used similar methods. In her research archive is what she calls a hotel “ready reference pack”, useful to her because hotels “are landmarks in all country towns, and St. Arnaud people who were reminiscing often referred to them.”
The whole process of writing Track of the years was a country town affair. Influential books happened to be lent by locals with a library. Issues of the St. Arnaud Mercury could be read at home. The compact nature of a country town meant that many sources of information were close at hand. Even the method of research was, at times, distinctly rural — in the tendency to consult a local expert ahead of the bland testimony of the official record. When seeking information about the exact location of the Mt. William Aboriginal green-stone quarry, Yvonne Palmer wrote to a Lancefield relation: “I should think you'd find people in Lancefield who would know where it is.”
The book began as a council initiative and retained its support and interest throughout. On only two occasions does the archive reveal any council influence on the writer — once with regard to what was seen to be a slight over-emphasis on bushrangers, and another about the gossipy memories of one old-timer being rather undignified for a council-sponsored publication. Yvonne Palmer worked closely and well with local councillors. At their request, she spoke frequently at town occasions, for instance at the unveiling of plaques during the centenary celebrations. The council's support, and that of the Mercury, gave her status in conducting enquiries in the town. She, in turn, was happy to pour her civic energies into the history field. She was better at it than baking cakes, she recalled.
In these various ways, Track of the years remained rooted in its own clay-coloured soil, and it drew strength from it. If Yvonne Palmer felt she had any advantage in the writing of this book, it was as a country person who knew town life yet to whom, as a newcomer in 1951, St. Arnaud's stores were fresh and strange. The combination allowed her both warmth and perspective. Her book, and her papers, allow us to witness this rare blending.

Some items from the papers of James Stewart, found by Yvonne Palmer while working on her history. The item on top is a letter written by Stewart in 1858 (but never posted) in which he explains the advantages of life in the colony.


This was due to an earlier mistake in dating the first discovery of gold in the area. There is a detailed explanation in Track of the years, p.3, fn. 5.


This interesting letter exists in draft form in the archive, dated 7 November, 1952.


Bate to Palmer, 11 January, 1953. Quoted with the permission of the writer.


Weston Bate, in the preface to his Brighton history, refers to his “early fears that a local history might not impress my examiners”.
Ian Mair, in a brief, positive mention of Track of the years in December 1955, still could not bring himself to see it as more than “very good chronicle”. He did, however, believe that it helped point the way for local history (“The upsurge in Australian writing — Australian history and politics”, the Age, 9 December, 1955, p.18).


Bate to Palmer, 15 March, 1953.


Blainey's article is in Historical studies, Vol. 6, no. 23 (Nov. 1954) p.331–44, and Macintyre's in Studies in Western Australian history, December 1982, p. 79.


J. A. La Nauze, “The Study of Australian history, 1929–1959”, Historical studies, vol. 9 no. 33 (Nov. 1959) p.1–11.


Althea Williams, Review of Track of the years and Like the ark … the story of Ararat (by Lorna L. Banfield, Cheshire 1955) in Historical studies, vol. 7, no. 26 (May 1956) p. 247–8.


e.g. pp. 6, 15, 16, 41–2, 55, 57–8, 150(n.8), 191.


Again this letter survives in draft, dated 30 October, 1954.


The first chapter looks at the 1850s gold rush, the second chapter at ‘Pastoral settlement’ and the third at ‘The Aborigines of the Eastern Wimmera’. It is an unusual and, I think, sensible re-ordering. Yvonne Palmer justified it to Gwyn James: “The book is primarily the study of a gold town; the district comes into it because it is inseparable from the development of the town … If the book began with the aborigines and pastoralists of the Eastern Wimmera, the reader might reasonably expect an account of the development of the whole Eastern Wimmera carried through to the rise of trading towns such as Donald, Warracknabeal and Charlton. But if it begins with the goldfield, the reader is given some warning of where the emphasis is to be placed.” (Draft letter, 30 October, 1954).


Aughterson to Palmer, 23 August, 1954. Quoted with the permission of the writer.


Age, 9 December, 1955, p. 21.


William J. O'Neill to Palmer, 4 January, 1956.


Coulson to Palmer, 23 December, 1952. Quoted with the permission of the writer.


Quoted in a letter from C. K. Gray to a Mr. Sparrow of the Lancefield Mercury Office

Please note: Some endnote links are inactive as they were missing from the text in the original printed edition.