The Inaugural Eric Richards Symposium in British and Australasian History

From 31 January to 3 February 2017 Alexia attended the inaugural Eric Richards Symposium in British and Australasian History hosted by Flinders University’s School of History and International Relations at its city campus in Victoria Square, Adelaide, South Australia. With Adelaide’s temperatures in the mid-twenties, and having escaped Yorkshire’s sub-zero weather to return to her hometown, she assures us she only occasionally stared wistfully out the windows at the bright blue sky beyond.

Held in honour of Professor Eric Richards, whose work has shaped Australian historiography, especially migration history, for decades, this conference brought together historians of and from Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Keynotes from Professors Alison Bashford (University of Cambridge), Joy Damousi (University of Melbourne), Philip Payton (Flinders University), Katie Pickles (University of Canterbury), and, the man himself, Eric Richards (Flinders University) covered broad ground. Colonisation, imperialism, migration and gender were all discussed in depth. I particularly enjoyed Joy Damousi’s analysis of post-war compassion and sentimentality in the movement for Japanese and Vietnamese war orphans to be allowed entry to Australia (1957-1970). Another highlight was the keynote from Katie Pickles: ‘The hand that rocked the cradle ruled the British world?’, an examination of the role of women in imperial citizenship-building, complete with references to Beyoncé and the recent women’s marches.

My paper introduced Men, Women and Care to a new audience outlining the methodologies we are using as well as some of the research questions we are hoping to answer. I focused on the case of a Sapper from the Royal Engineers who had a disability attributable to his war service. He was originally paid a pension but, after the Ministry of Pensions found out that he had abandoned his wife and children, his payments were transferred to his wife and his file was marked ‘Man not to be informed’. Along with raising questions about the extent of state intervention into the private lives of citizens (which I will be discussing further at ‘What Tommy Did Next‘ in March), this case highlights a number of issues I want to explore over the next few years including post-war mobility and migration, institutional cooperation in the administration of pensions across the empire, the workplace death and injury of disabled ex-servicemen, and the on-going surveillance of the male body by the state.

My interests in war, medicine and gender histories were well-served over the four days. Effie Karageorgos (University of Melbourne) discussed war trauma in the South African War of 1899-1902 and highlighted the ways symptoms of psychological trauma were often attributed to other causes. Her work has parallels with some of what Eilis Boyle, one of Men, Women and Care’s PhD students, is finding in the PIN 26 files on sunstroke and psychological wounding in the First World War. Effie’s paper caused me to think more broadly about the history of medicine in conflict, rather than my usual focus on the First World War. I hope to continue those conversations later in the year as we have both submitted abstracts to the Australian and New Zealand Society of the History of Medicine’s next conference in Melbourne in July.

Kate Ariotti (University of Newcastle, NSW) and Emily Robertson’s (University of Canberra) paper compared the portrayals of Germans and Turks in Australia during the First World War. I was particularly interested in Kate’s discussion of the changing narratives about the Turks during the war years in Australia. They were variously portrayed as ‘unspeakable barbarians’, ‘inferior second-rate opponents’ and ‘honourable foes’. Kate argued that their rehabilitation was, in part, to allay the fears of Australians at home who were anxious about the sanctity of Australian graves in Muslim lands at Gallipoli. I found those historical concerns interesting because, contrary to those anxieties, it was Australian First World War graves in England that were vandalised on the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, and again a few months later.

I was delighted to chair a panel on medical histories, which is something of an underdeveloped field in Australian historiography  (due, in part, to there being no dedicated funding body equivalent to the Wellcome Trust’s support for the medical humanities in the UK). Carol Putland (Parliament of South Australia) examined the efficacy of sanitoria as curative institutions for tuberculosis in Australia and Margaret Boult (University of Adelaide) provided a detailed analysis of the institutionalisation of people with epilepsy as represented in a report published in 1887 by the proprietor of a private asylum in NSW. Ella Stewart-Peters presented an excellent paper on scientific communication in the English vaccination debate from 1840 to 1907. As part of her broader project on the Vaccination Act’s reception in Cornwall, Ella examined how vaccination was debated among those who did not have professional medical training and she demonstrated the religious and class-based factors that led to the success of the anti-vaccination cause.

My interest in cultural history was also catered for with fascinating and entertaining papers from Geoff Ginn (University of Queensland) on late Victorian cultural philanthropy, Felicity Barnes (University of Auckland) on consumption, identity and the cultural economy of empire, and John Griffiths (Massey University) on British provincial city cultural life in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The final session was a panel discussion with the five keynote speakers that raised some interesting questions about the current and future direction of British and Australasian historiography. With medical history central to two of the panels at the conference it was acknowledged that it is not just its own special subfield but has pertinent things to say about other areas of research including war and migration – a comment that prompted cheers from me and a couple of other medical historians in the audience. A generational shift was also noted with the advent of ‘homegrown’ specialists in British history, which then raised questions about the vitality of Australasian history in British universities. There is currently limited provision for this and, as a recent export to the UK, it has prompted me to think more concretely about my hitherto nebulous ideas for teaching Australian history at Leeds.

The conference organisers from Flinders University (Andrekos Varnava, Philip Payton, Ella Stewart-Peters and Tony Nugent) are to be commended for putting together a brilliant four days. I also join the other attendees in thanking Professor Eric Richards for allowing us to gather in his name – I am looking forward to doing so again in 2019 at the University of New England in Armidale, NSW.