Dr Barry McGowan

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Dust and Dreams, Mining Communities in South-east New South Wales, UNSWPress, 2010

381 pages, 81 black and white photos, limp cover
Book review by Robert Willson, Canberra Times, 23 October 2010

In modern Australia elections are usually conducted in a peaceful manner. But in the gold mining settlement of Araluen 1869 was known as the year of the ‘pick and shovel’ election. Class divisions, combined with sectarian and local tensions, caused a rare period of serious civil unrest. The first poll was declared null and void after demonstrators blockaded roads and mounted police were called in to keep order while a second poll was held.

Some claim that it was anti-Irish sentiment after the attempted assassination of the Duke of Edinburgh in Sydney the previous year. However, in Dust and Dreams, a detailed examination of the many mining communities which dotted the map of south-eastern NSW more than a century ago, Barry McGowan concludes that these settlements were generally peaceful and remarkably free of sectarian tensions.

McGowan, a historian and Visiting Fellow in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the ANU has written extensively on early mining settlements in the area from Goulburn down to the Victorian border and from Harden across to Braidwood. He is no armchair historian having driven and walked long distances battling rough country, thickets of black-berry bush and flooded creeks, to locate abandoned mines and forgotten settlements. He has also combed the surviving records of such sites in newspapers, reminiscences and government reports.

Unlike his earlier books, this book is not so much a guide for fossickers. Rather his focus is on the towns and camps and how such communities lived and worked. He describes the mining society and culture of the settlements, including the Chinese, an important part in many of them. He also pays considerable attention to what he calls the legacy of environmental degradation left by the mining settlements, including deforestation and water pollution, issues which were ignored in the feverish search for gold and other metals. He reminds us that old mining areas along the Shoalhaven and Mongarlowe rivers are of national heritage significance. On many mining fields, the remains of smelters, crushing machinery and boilers are so profuse that the sites resemble large open air mining museums.

The author shows that mining society was complex, involving a mosaic of occupations, working arrangements, ethnic and religious backgrounds and allegiances. It has been suggested that localism, the ideology which elevates local interests above all others, is a key to explaining how mining communities functioned. He devotes a chapter to what he calls ‘the power of localism’.

McGowan admits that he could not cover every tiny mining settlement. Somewhere near Lake George there was once a place rejoicing in the name French Mountain. Ever since I discovered a report from this place in the Empire newspaper of 1870 I have wanted to know more. McGowan does not mention it but his fine book inspires me to continue searching for information.


Home | Australian Ghost Towns | Fool's Gold. Myths and legends of gold seeking in Australia | Dust and Dreams, Mining Communities in South-east New South Wales | Tracking the Dragon. A History of the Chinese in the Riverina | The Golden South. A History of the Araluen, Bell's Creek and Major's Creek gold fields | Contact & To Order

© Barry McGowan