DAILY PROMPT: WEST END GIRLS
Every city and town contains people of different classes: rich, poor, and somewhere in between. What’s it like where you live? If it’s difficult for you to discern and describe the different types of classes in your locale, describe what it was like where you grew up — was it swimming pools and movie stars, industrial and working class, somewhere in between or something completely different?
The Northern Tablelands region of NSW is about halfway between Sydney and Brisbane. The explorer John Oxley recommended it for grazing, and in the early 1830s, a few hardy British pioneers took his word for it and rolled up to establish small farms running sheep and cattle. Imagine their delight when they discovered that unlike most of Australia, the area has four distinct seasons. Home from home, they thought, and named it New England.
The administrative centre of all this [sic] British splendour is Armidale, gazetted in 1849 and named after Armadale on the Isle of Skye, ancestral home of the NSW Commissioner for Crown Lands in the late 1830s. (Whether the Commissioner was put out by the city fathers’ inability to spell, history doesn’t relate.) Soon after this, gold was discovered in surrounding creeks and gullies, and a few years later, cathedrals popped up, presumably to save the wayward souls of gold diggers no doubt succumbing to the wine, women, song and general debauchery known to flourish in gold-rush communities.
So by the time we moved there in 1947, Armidale was a Cathedral City, although its population was ridiculously small by normal city standards. It was also an educational hub, with numerous church-affiliated boarding schools, a Teachers College and Australia’s first rural university. And surrounding it all were the graziers, still affluent in those days, and still a power to be reckoned with.
The resulting class divide was simple: Town, Gown and Landed Gentry.
An interesting place in interesting times: a small town facing major challenges unprecedented in Australia.
Because the graziers had always been there – they got there first, after all – the town accepted them as different but harmless. The university was something else. It was inhabited by strange beings speaking a different language, and often decidedly weird to boot. And as for the students – trouble-makers, the lot of them.
But in 1954, the university, until then a satellite college of Sydney University, achieved its autonomy. The ceremony for the Installation of the First Chancellor – Sir Earle Christmas Grafton Page, doctor, politician, caretaker Prime Minister for three weeks and semi-local boy made distinctly good – was a brilliant and dazzling affair attended by top university dignitaries from around the world, and the Governor General himself, no less. For the town, it was a wake-up call. If one ceremony brought high-flyers from Britain, America, Europe, Asia and Africa (and the GG) to their door, then perhaps this university lark had previously undreamt-of possibilities. The academics were odd, the students were often a nuisance, but they had put the place on the map, and the town set out to make sure it stayed there.
It wasn’t an easy ride: students are students, academics are academics and rural towns regard mass invasions with well-founded wariness. But over the years, Armidale became a thriving city embracing its diversity and celebrating its cultural sophistication. And that’s where I grew up.
Where did we belong in the class divide?
Nowhere. We straddled the boundaries. My parents had good friends across the spectrum, but no social sector considered us theirs.
Was it lonely?
I’ve no idea. It just…was.