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Tearing down and building up

18 July 2017

Extract | How Geoffrey Bolton’s environmental history made a difference

Right:

Inspired by suburbia: historian Geoffrey Bolton. UWA/AAP Image

Inspired by suburbia: historian Geoffrey Bolton. UWA/AAP Image


In Spoils and Spoilers, Geoffrey Bolton wrote what we might consider to be Australia’s first national synthesis of environmental history. It was published in 1981, that stellar year in Australian historical literature. As the poet Judith Wright wrote to Bolton, “We all seem to be writing ‘man and environment’ books just now.” Wright’s own environmental and social history of the southern Queensland frontier, The Cry for the Dead, was published that year, as was Henry Reynolds’s The Other Side of the Frontier and Eric Rolls’s A Million Wild Acres. The burgeoning ecological consciousness that underpinned the new conservation politics of the late 1960s and 1970s was having its impact on historical scholarship.

In later years, Bolton was to look back on this period of his life – around 1981 – as a time when his confidence in his academic career was renewed. In the previous decade he had harboured some self-doubt about his capacity to be a national historian of the stature of his successful contemporaries Geoffrey Blainey and Ken Inglis. He felt his scholarly recognition had stalled, and he was also a bit dissatisfied with the impact of his earlier books. But Spoils and Spoilers was a shot in the arm: it was widely and positively reviewed, and it had span, as Keith Hancock would have put it. It was a national history, a grand narrative, a synthesis. And at about the same time as Spoils and Spoilers was published, Bolton was approached to be general editor of a five-volume Oxford History of Australia to anticipate the 1988 bicentenary.

As a further endorsement of his stature, he was appointed in late 1981 as the foundation head of the Australian Studies Centre at the University of London. Bolton was always grateful for the opportunity to write Spoils and Spoilers, for, as he recalled, it “really got me back into productivity.” He was fifty when it was published, and the book boosted his confidence about tackling Australia-wide questions; it also carried a message about national self-confidence.


Geoffrey Bolton was born into the middle of the Depression years and had strong childhood memories of a society struggling with poverty and unemployment, of people knocking at the door looking for work; such experiences would shape his historical curiosity and compassion. He grew up in a Perth suburban neighbourhood that he remembered as a lively, face-to-face community, with home deliveries by horse and cart. Some of his earliest memories were of domestic spaces, including the chooks, almond tree and grapevine in the family’s productive backyard, though he also vividly remembered horse teams from an early visit to the wheatbelt.

Bolton’s grandfather had taken up farming in Pingelly in 1912 and the family maintained connections with the region throughout his childhood. But he never seemed to regret his suburban upbringing. Visitors to Perth’s Hyde Park can press a button at a heritage installation to hear the voice of Geoff as an elderly man, recalling how his childhood self saw the islands in the park’s lakes as sites of imagination, places where exciting things might happen. His early experience of the urban domestic and material world as lively and absorbing infiltrated many of his histories.

Spoils and Spoilers was a culmination of years of experience and thinking. As a postgraduate student, influenced by Fred Alexander’s Moving Frontiers, Bolton had set out to apply Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis to the Australian setting; in the early 1950s he worked in the Kimberley while researching a master’s thesis on the history of pastoralism. So at the age of twenty-one he found himself in remote rugged country looking at the land, talking to the people and pecking away at his typewriter, getting to the station journals before the white ants did, talking to the old hands before they died. He took the fieldwork seriously, staying in the region for more than three months. He didn’t want to be seen as “just some young bloke trying to take a winter holiday.”

Nineteen fifty-two was a drought year, there was scalded country, erosion on the watercourses, and cattle feed was scarce; Bolton became interested in the unintentional changes to the land as a result of white settlement. He was also fascinated by the local technologies and skills developed by settler Australians as they grappled with the distinctive environment of the northwest. This admiration for settler ingenuity fuelled his emerging conviction, elaborated in Spoils and Spoilers, that many environmental problems arose from the tendency to privilege imported ideas and models over locally derived knowledge and solutions.

In 1954 he won a Hackett Fellowship that enabled him to trade the limestone of the University of Western Australia for the sandstone of Balliol College, Oxford. There, like Fred Alexander and Keith Hancock before him, he read History. Hancock at this time was the director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies within the University of London. As a student, Bolton had heard about Hancock and read his books, and he “devoured” Hancock’s autobiography Country and Calling when it came out in 1954. He later called himself a “disciple” of Hancock’s, and even his half-century of devotion to the Australian Dictionary of Biography can be seen in part as a kind of tribute to a creation of Hancock’s.

As he left for London, Fred Alexander and a local doctor, Bruce Hunt, provided Bolton with personal introductions to Hancock. The two historians had much in common. Hancock had experience at the University of Western Australia, having worked as an assistant lecturer there in 1919 under Edward Shann, who encouraged him to develop his interest in land use. During those lively days Hancock was also introduced to the Western Australian flora by his housemate Desmond Herbert, an acquaintance from his Melbourne schooldays who had recently been appointed government botanist of Western Australia.

An interest in the land always permeated Hancock’s work and over time, as “environment” emerged as an object of public concern and activism, these themes became more pronounced in his writing. His Australia (1930), though principally an analysis of the cultural, political and economic life of the nation, included a much-quoted section which, in the vein of George Perkins Marsh, railed against the environmental damage wrought by colonial economic development: “in the second half of the nineteenth century tree murder by ring-barking devastated the country on a gigantic scale,” he wrote. Bolton would later take the “invaders’” hatred of trees, identified by Hancock, as a basis for a chapter of Spoils and Spoilers.

Bolton was completing his DPhil when Hancock asked him to take up a research fellowship at the Australian National University in Canberra, where Hancock had recently been appointed director of the Research School of Social Sciences and Professor of History. It was a nourishing environment in which to develop interdisciplinary scholarship. One model was the Wool Seminar, convened by Hancock from 1957 to 1959. Scholars from a range of disciplines – history, economics, geography, political science and the natural sciences – came together to discuss wool, which interested Hancock not only because of its economic importance, but also because of “its talismanic value as an index of Australian distinctiveness.” Bolton later observed that the Wool Seminar “revived and kindled that interest in environmental history already foreshadowed in Australia” and which distinguished much of Hancock’s later scholarship.

In 1959 Bolton also found himself on another northern field trip, with “environment” as a sub-theme of a regional study; he had been commissioned to write a history of North Queensland by the North Queensland Local Authorities Association. Published in 1963 as A Thousand Miles Away, this project helped to sustain Bolton’s broad interest in relationships between people and place. In a preface, he argued that settlers arrived in North Queensland at a time when Australians:

had not yet learned to understand their environment. The result was a prodigal waste of resources… It was only when the newcomers had learned to adapt to their environment, to husband their land and cooperate in planning its development, that permanent white settlement in North Queensland was assured.

The dual theme of settler environmental understanding and adaptation would feature centrally in Spoils and Spoilers. By the mid 1970s, however, Bolton regarded A Thousand Miles Away as engaging insufficiently with environmental issues. In a telling reflection on the way in which understandings of the category “environmental” were being clarified – and narrowed – at that time, he suggested that the lack of attention paid to environment in A Thousand Miles Away put him “no further forward” than the approach of economic historian Edward Shann thirty years earlier. From a contemporary perspective, the value of “land use” studies as environmental histories is clearer.

After Bolton’s return to Western Australia in 1966, his old boss and mentor began to research an environmental history of Canberra’s mountain hinterland. Published in 1972 as Discovering Monaro, Hancock’s book also used the concept of “land use” but drew additionally on botany, forestry and ecology, thus anticipating the cooperative alliance of historians and ecologists that would flower in the “forest history” of the 1980s. Hancock’s work, written in the midst of an archaeological revolution (Australia’s Pleistocene human past was confirmed in the 1960s), was quick to integrate deep time into a regional narrative and to incorporate insights into Aboriginal burning regimes by archaeologist Rhys Jones. Manning Clark, writing in the Bulletin, considered Discovering Monaro “the first significant look at our past through what might be called the ‘pollution or ecology window.’”

In the same year, Bolton completed his social history of the 1930s Depression in Western Australia, A Fine Country to Starve In. In following the distinctive responses of the Western Australian community to a global crisis (and donating all royalties to two charities) it conveyed Bolton’s keen sense of social justice, but environmental themes were not prominent.

But this was a time when environment could not readily be ignored: the Western Australian government had recently established an Environmental Protection Authority, which had immediately acted to prevent development of an alumina refinery in the Swan Valley. Environmental campaigns, including the Great Barrier Reef, Little Desert and Lake Pedder, were making headlines nationally.

It was in this climate that Bolton joined forces with his undergraduate friend David Hutchison at the Western Australian Museum to produce a study of “European Man in Southwestern Australia,” published in 1973. Drawing on the work of local and regional historians and historical geographers, it comprised an early survey of the environmental history of the southwest and a call for further research. While giving a nod to the “subtle environmental awareness” of Discovering Monaro, it was a work of synthesis that would not be followed up with a deeper, more engaged study of Bolton’s native region: whereas the retired Hancock, raised in Gippsland, had pursued his fascination with and desire for attachment to country in Monaro, Bolton was to return to his suburban roots in his first retirement project, a detailed history of the street in which he was raised.

In 1973, on taking up the foundation chair of history at Murdoch, the new “bush university” in the southern suburbs of Perth, Bolton received funding from the US State Department to travel around the United States and see how American Studies was taught there. During this visit he met with Roderick Nash, who in 1970 had launched a course at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in “American environmental history.” Though Nash was later criticised for his parochial neglect of foreign precedents, from the English and French as well as geographers and anthropologists, Bolton was impressed by his efforts to develop the area as a sub-field of American history, later describing him as “the leading environmental historian – young and bright.”

Bolton himself was always quick to acknowledge the pioneering work of Australian historical geographers, who for years had colonised ground ahead of the historians. Graeme Wynn has characterised the late 1960s as a time of introspection and some pessimism among historical geographers in Australasia, in response to the challenge of developing more quantitative and theoretical approaches. However, the early 1970s saw a flourishing empirical scholarship in the field. Perception, evaluation and transformation of land were key themes, evident for example in the work of Keith Moon and Michael Williams on the South Australian landscape, Les Heathcote on arid lands, and Jim Cameron on early colonial Western Australia. In Sydney, Dennis Jeans produced the first book-length historical geography of colonial New South Wales, while in Melbourne Joe Powell commenced a study of land policy in nineteenth-century Victoria.

On his return from the United States in 1974, Bolton attended a conference convened by the environmental scholar George Seddon as part of the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere program. In the proceedings, he mused:

It would be particularly useful if some intrepid scholar were to venture upon a history of Australians acting upon their environment. Such a book would be bound to attract much criticism in detail, but given the right use of written, oral, and photographic material, it would be a stimulus and a necessity. Then we might follow the American examples and introduce the teaching of Australian environmental history in a number of Australian universities.

Bolton would be that “intrepid scholar,” though the teaching preceded the textbook by five years. The historical geographers’ interest in environmental perception was prominent in the Australian Environmental History course he launched in 1976: the brief handbook entry lists “European man in 1788 – preconceptions about landscape” and “Australian visions of Australia” among the areas covered. A second-year course with no prerequisites, it was designed for the kinds of students attracted to the new university in Perth, for Murdoch was consciously innovative and multidisciplinary and many of the students who took the course were studying the environmental and biological sciences. The different perspectives of the science and arts students led to frequent debates, making it what Bolton called “a good lively subject.” The course had legs, running with its original title until 2010 and then onward with a new one.

It began by considering “Aborigines and their effect on the environment.” Aboriginal people didn’t figure prominently in Bolton’s work on the Kimberley: he’d had little contact with them in his youth, and during his fieldwork he felt hampered by his lack of ease with Aboriginal informants. Yet, as he later recalled, he returned from the Kimberley having “learned respect for Aboriginal capacity.” In the mid 1970s this perspective nurtured his interest in recent work on Aboriginal environmental impacts, from Rhys Jones and John Mulvaney in the east, to Duncan Merrilees and Sylvia Hallam in the west. He saw Aboriginal people as key agents in environmental change, anticipating Bill Gammage’s later work in his claim that “the whole of Australia was their farm, and it was a farm which they exploited with care for the needs of later generations.” But he was careful to reject the static and essentialising “ecological Indian” stereotype, pointing out that some prehistoric Aboriginal practices may have led to environmental impoverishment.

Bolton’s conviction about the importance of Aboriginal agency was strengthened by Tom Stannage’s invitation to contribute a chapter on twentieth-century Aboriginal–settler relations to A New History of Western Australia. Bolton worked on this in parallel with Spoils and Spoilers, using WA Aborigines Department records to show how Aboriginal people were not “passive victims” but had often mobilised to provide for their own needs in the face of state exclusion and neglect. The two projects were mutually supportive; both contributed to Bolton’s trajectory of increasing support for Aboriginal rights and later reconciliation, as well as his confidence in the utility and significance of his own historical work.

The invitation to write Spoils and Spoilers came from Heather Radi, a historian at the University of Sydney and a friend of Bolton’s, who was commissioning books for a new Allen & Unwin series of thematic histories on “The Australian Experience.” Radi knew of the environmental history course and, as Bolton later recalled, “it always concentrates the mind if someone says that, ‘We want you to do this and here is a contract.’” Always intended to be a general survey, the book drew on the material gathered for the course, as well as new research. Written partly while Bolton was a visiting fellow at Cambridge, but mostly in a small, tranquil cottage in an orchard near the southwest town of Balingup, it was dedicated to the Murdoch staff and students who participated in the course’s creation.

Curiously, given Bolton’s earlier work, the north of Australia received scant attention in the text, though these experiences of regional and rural history had familiarised him with the most useful types of primary source material. Michal Bosworth, then working on her own groundbreaking environmental history school textbook, which was also published in 1981, unearthed many of the images.


The title of Spoils and Spoilers is enigmatic. It is a phrase that evokes plunder and pillage; a dual sense of destruction and theft in an ongoing conflict between settler Australians and the land. It appears to mark out the work as a declensionist narrative of fall from ecological harmony and abundance, unredeemed by hope. This is, however, at odds with the book’s content, which is rather more balanced and optimistic.

How might we account for this dissonance? The initial working title, appearing in 1977 when the book was contracted, was “Man-made Australia.” As the book neared production in March 1980, Heather Radi looked forward to seeing Bolton with a manuscript and new title; by June it was still undecided, with publisher John Iremonger asking Bolton and Radi, “Has a small muse of fire ascended the brightest heaven of invention and brought you both back a title?” Radi then wrote to Bolton, with some exasperation, that “no one yet seems to have agreed on a title!”, finishing the letter with her hope that they would arrive at a decision between “Cutting down building up” and “Tearing down and building up: Australians making their environment.”

Those versions, invoking both destructive and creative impulses, more accurately reflect the tone of the book than the final title, which emerged sometime in the following two months. In August, while Heather Radi was visiting Perth, Bolton wrote to Iremonger, “The choice of title and sub-title seemed alright to me, so I have not bothered to write about that.” In his reply, Iremonger had Spoils and Spoilers as the subject line, and indicated that he was glad Bolton liked “the final choice of title.” It seems that the title was the publisher’s and while Bolton’s feelings on the title appear lukewarm, he declined to contest it.

Early sales of Spoils and Spoilers were “extremely encouraging,” with more than 800 copies sold in the first two months. Reviews appeared in a very wide range of publications, from Perth newspapers to the Bulletin and the American Journal of Environmental Quality. Reviewers generally saw the book as significant and timely, with the notable exception of George Seddon, discussed below. Having set out to write a book with popular appeal, Bolton would have been pleased with the review appearing in the Daily News, Perth’s “underdog” newspaper for afternoon commuters, which deemed the book “one of the most valuable, stimulating and important Australian books to appear for some time.”

Of all the reviews, that was the only one to identify an “overriding theme” of hope. By contrast, the reviewer for the West Australian portrayed it as an unremitting tale of devastation, ignorance and greed, of settler Australians’ hatred of the land. Most reviewers were struck by Bolton’s gloomy prognosis for the future – of increasing exploitation in a period of economic downturn and steadily degrading urban environments under increasing population pressure – and it appears this coloured their interpretation of the text as a whole.

In an era of proliferating and increasingly obvious environmental challenges, most reviewers acknowledged the book’s importance and utility: this was a history from which we could – indeed, needed to – learn. The Queensland History Teachers’ Association newsletter declared that the subject matter of Spoils and Spoilers “should be central to every course in Australian history or social studies,” while Keith Hancock expressed his hope, in a private letter to Bolton, that the book would “have some impact on the policy-makers.” Reviewers also appreciated its “readability,” achieved through evocative and clear prose, with Edmund Campion for the Bulletin particularly emphasising its literary qualities.

The principal academic reviewers were geographers: Dennis Jeans found it “difficult to think of a more insightful overview” of the forces shaping urban environments over time, while Murray McCaskill was impressed by its “apt and challenging generalisations.” Both criticised the book for its lack of attention to international contexts, though this was no impediment to the sole North American reviewer, a bureaucrat in the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, for whom parallels between the Australian and North American experiences were self-evident.

Other academic reviews were spread across the disciplinary spectrum, from Pacific studies, political science and history to environmental management. The multidisciplinary dimensions of the book were part of its innovation in the new field of “environmental history.” In his integration of ecological perspectives, Bolton was influenced by Hancock’s Discovering Monaro. From the 1960s, ecology had gained power as both a science and a metaphor, and ideas of community, webs and relationships became influential in environmental and social thought. In the writing of his late classic in environmental history, Hancock had walked the paddocks of the high plains with soil scientists, botanists and foresters, and one of his heroes was Baldur Byles, a forester who gathered evidence of soil erosion on his hands and knees and passionately advocated the protection of the mountain water catchments from grazing cattle. In Spoils and Spoilers Bolton referred not only to “land” and “nature” but also to “ecology”and “ecosystems,” and he brought a keen attention to the inter-relatedness of climate, soil, biota and humans – although Hancock wrote to Bolton saying he would have liked to have seen more about soil chemists and agricultural botanists.

By contrast, Geoffrey Blainey’s book A Land Half Won, published in the same year as Bolton’s, was more geographical than ecological and was less responsive to the environmental politics of the time. When Bolton later reflected on the course he taught at Murdoch in the 1970s, he said, “I wasn’t preaching, but some of [my students] did become very green in their thinking.”

Venturing across the science–humanities divide got him into trouble too. Bolton’s friend George Seddon, who had a doctorate in geology, wrote a highly critical review of Spoils and Spoilers which consisted mostly of carping about geological and biological errors made by this trespasser from the humanities. Seddon considered the national historical synthesis to be “premature,” but that was exactly Bolton’s challenge. Bolton himself was generous about Seddon’s inspiring body of work and even his “caustic wit” – and he happily acknowledged the disciplinary breadth and promiscuity of Seddon’s intellect. Seddon’s books Swan River Landscapes (1970) and Sense of Place (1972) were highly original studies, Bolton noted, that built on a tradition of topographical essays in English literature that might be said to go back to Gilbert White’s The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, first published in the year of the French Revolution. Bolton explained that it was “a genre which before the coming of photography required the combination of literary grace and a sharp eye for natural phenomena.” He valued Seddon’s combination of scientific observation with “the good old-fashioned art, the Augustan art, of connoisseurship of landscape.” Bolton and Seddon shared an interest in combining studies of the natural and built environments and in scholarship that enabled intelligent environmental stewardship. Bolton approvingly quoted Seddon’s definition of ecology as “the science of good housekeeping.”


This points us to another, neglected source of strength in Spoils and Spoilers. Bolton drew on an organic, local, vernacular tradition of writing often overlooked by academics. This is what he appreciated about Seddon’s work, for he saw him as working in that nature-writing tradition. So we find Bolton invoking on the first page of Spoils and Spoilers the zoologist Hedley Finlayson, whose book The Red Centre, published in 1934, was one of the great pieces of Australian nature writing; we find him drawing on Francis Ratcliffe, whose 1938 book Flying Fox and Drifting Sand was of the same lineage; and we find him starting a chapter with the feisty zoologist Jock Marshall and his “fine angry title,” The Great Extermination: A Guide to AngloAustralian Cupidity, Wickedness and Waste (1966).

In an assessment of environmental history influences in Western Australia, Bolton honoured two naturalists who closely observed and described intimate seasonal changes in plant and animal life. One was Vincent Serventy, whose book Dryandra (1970) described a eucalyptus woodland reserve in 1934, and the other was Barbara York Main, an arachnologist whose book Between Wodjil and Tor (1967) became a celebrated piece of scientific prose poetry about the wheatbelt. Bolton was always a strong advocate of local and regional history – that’s where his own career began – and he saw environmental history as a natural development of that literature of place.

Spoils and Spoilers therefore grew out of Bolton’s strong advocacy for local and regional history, which was part of his “view from the edge,” part of his identity as a Western Australian. His doctoral thesis at Oxford had focused on a populace marginal to Britain, the Anglo-Irish of the eighteenth century, and his histories of the Kimberley and North Queensland were both studies (as he put it) of “a frontier society on the margin of white Australian civilisation.” In a 1999 memoir, Bolton elaborated his “Provincial Viewpoint” as being more than geographical; it was also “a habit of mind” that was expressed in an awareness of diversity, fidelity to grassroots sources and a mistrust of bold generalisations. He made fun of his younger self as “a bigoted empiricist.”

Bolton certainly liked to build his arguments from the ground up and was thus intellectually inclined to regionalism. He was interested in the history of regionalism as a political movement and in the writing of regional history, and he saw his study of North Queensland as part of an academic rediscovery of regional history from the late 1950s, as evidenced by the work of Margaret Kiddle on the Western District of Victoria, Duncan Waterson on the Darling Downs and R.B. Walker on New England. Even his work in London, as foundation head of what became the Menzies Centre, had an edginess he relished. As he put it, in London he was pursuing “one of my own persistent themes, that within Australia as a Western Australian, within Britain as an Australian, you are there to stand up for the provincials, for the people on the periphery.” Although he also feared provincialism and occasionally felt the isolation of Western Australia, he was determined to make an advantage of his geography.

Bolton’s early literary models included Lytton Strachey, Edward Gibbon and Thomas Babington Macaulay; he admired good, compelling prose. As a young man he met Miles Franklin, Henrietta Drake-Brockman and Mary Durack and was introduced to the Fellowship of Australian Writers, where he participated in a poetry group. He had been active as a student journalist and took pride in publishing the early poems of Randolph Stow. He recalled a “strong consciousness of trying to keep alive the traditions of Australian literature.” When he sparred with Geoffrey Blainey in the pages of Historical Studies over the reasons for the founding of the British colony of New South Wales, he saw their debate as an echo of Henry Lawson’s literary stoush with Banjo Paterson.

He called himself “the least ideological of creatures” and as a scholar he claimed to be “a tortoise, basically, rather than a hare”; he liked to earth himself in place, period and people and to allow patterns to emerge from that mastery. Thus he respected writing embedded in locale, and wisdom that grew from experience. This spirit underlies Spoils and Spoilers – and it shapes its analysis too, for Bolton told his publishers that the book argued that “Australians have done best when they discarded ideas and models brought from Britain and North America” and that “the worst mistakes have taken place through disregarding the native experience.” By the turn of the millennium, “native experience” included Aboriginal lore, and Australian regional and environmental histories had become essays also about settlers’ relationships with Aboriginal country – as seen, for example, in Tom Griffiths’s Hunters and Collectors (1996), Peter Read’s Belonging (2000), Tim Bonyhady’s The Colonial Earth (2002) and Mark McKenna’s Looking for Blackfellas’ Point (2002).

Another striking aspect of Spoils and Spoilers,read from an early twenty-first-century perspective, is its attentiveness to urban and domestic environments. The cities and the suburbs are the sites of a substantial part of Bolton’s “environmental” history – he takes us into the intimate, noisy, smoky worlds of domestic houses and fenced yards, the streets and lanes of traffic, abattoirs and incinerators. Two-thirds of its chapters are principally or wholly devoted to urban settings and issues.

Sometimes, in describing the development of the field of environmental history, we have fallen into the American habit of saying that urban history was long neglected in favour of forests, “wilderness,” and the preservation of the “natural” world. Yet, for Bolton, environmental history and urban history were seamlessly integrated in a national narrative from the start. Like Hugh Stretton, he suggested that the origins of Australian environmentalism were to be found in the very suburbia disdained by intellectuals. He described how conservation thinking emerged at the same time that Australians were turning the bush into suburbs. So his interest in the built environment, the little blocks and boxes, the nature strips and backyards, is part of his argument about the bush and what the loss of it came to mean. Spoils and Spoilers was written and taught in the same years that Graeme Davison presented his compelling critique of Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend, arguing for the urban origins of “the Australian Legend” – and Bolton’s book also offered a counter-narrative to the Ward thesis.


This urban emphasis seems at first surprising: Bolton had pursued environmental themes most prominently in his work on rural and regional environments – the Kimberley river frontages, the steamy canefields of North Queensland. Look a little closer, however, and a lineage emerges. Bolton’s early 1970s work with David Hutchison on southwestern Australia delves into how Perth’s urban infrastructure and geography shaped the experience of its inhabitants, from opportunities for recreation to class differentiation according to environmental amenity.

This incipient interest was nurtured by a period of frenetic activity in Australian urban history. Tom Stannage was working on The People of Perth, which shocked and dismayed Perth conservatives when it hit the bookstores in 1979. The Sydney History Group’s first publication, NineteenthCentury Sydney: Essays in Urban History, was launched in 1978, an exceptional year for urban history that also saw the publication of Graeme Davison’s The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne, Weston Bate’s Lucky City and Peter Spearritt’s Sydney Since the Twenties. Bolton himself collaborated with young Murdoch graduate Su-Jane Hunt, who was working on a history of Perth’s Metropolitan Water Supply, Sewerage and Drainage Board, to produce an article of enduring significance on the early water supply and sanitation of Perth. Beyond the discipline of history, Max Neutze and Hugh Stretton were producing influential works engaging with postwar urbanisation.

Surveying the advent of town life in Australia, Bolton not only described the planning and administration of colonial settlements but also evoked what it felt like to live in these places of unmade roads, rudimentary or non-existent organised waste disposal, and ubiquitous flies. Partly a literary strategy, this approach also yielded new insights: Australians’ failure to develop a Mediterranean “al fresco” culture, for example, arose not from their lack of sophistication but from the sensory deterrents exercised by dust, mud, flies and stench; these elements of the urban environment also shaped, from very early on, a preference for vehicular transport that insulated occupants from the experience of inhospitable streets. Decades before the “material turn” in the humanities, Bolton provided numerous ways in which materiality and embodied experience shaped significant features of Australian cultural life.

Within this analysis is nested a keen sense of social justice, leading to an early articulation of the concerns that would later inform much work on environmental justice. Bolton emphasised the ways in which the material and social processes of urbanisation produced quite different outcomes for rich and poor. For example, writing at a time when the first civil suits against the siting of landfill facilities were taking place in the United States, and drawing on Tom Stannage’s groundbreaking history of Perth, Bolton highlighted the practice of locating rubbish tips in the poorest suburbs. His analysis of urban environmental issues led to an understated yet profound conclusion: “It was the same with environmental hazards always. If they could be kept out of sight of the prosperous and influential, remedial action was slow in coming.”

Drawing both a chapter title and one of the key themes guiding his exploration of the urban scene from J.K. Galbraith’s 1958 classic The Affluent Society, Bolton proposed that the relative neglect of public spaces and infrastructure, aggravated from the mid nineteenth century by the advent of a “weak and lopsided system of local government,” bore hardest on those migrant and working-class families with the fewest resources to invest in their private surroundings. Meanwhile, the seemingly intractable problems of public spaces encouraged many urban residents to devote their efforts to carving out more agreeable private environments in the home and garden – a finding that featured prominently in reviews of the book.

Bolton examines these “private” environments in some detail, pointing, for example, to the fact that in the 1920s most Australians did not have access to spaces that were entirely private. Even bedrooms were shared: with siblings when young, and later with spouses. “This meant that most people seldom had the opportunity of asking: ‘What sort of environment would I create for myself if I were planning for myself alone?’”

Here, “environment” is domestic and intimate: the living spaces and conditions that shaped most Australians’ everyday subjectivities. Household life is evoked in unexpected detail for an environmental history – the manifold daily uses of the kitchen table, the customary prints adorning the walls: “a solitary Arab with his camel gazing over the endless Sahara sands, or a handsome couple in evening dress conversing in a Mediterranean garden.” A lively and sympathetic historical imagination is exercised for analytical ends: Bolton concludes that the lack of opportunity for most suburban Australians to effectively shape their private environments meant that they also had no expectations of controlling the public environments in which they met and moved. Meanwhile, increasing access to beaches and hills meant that many suburban families began to visualise alternative home environments; dreams that were often pursued in the context of postwar prosperity.

The underlying concern here is with how people’s views are shaped in interaction with their immediate surrounds. Similar approaches became popular in the first decades of the twenty-first century, inspired by anthropologist Tim Ingold’s philosophy of dwelling and bodily engagement, among other influences.

Bolton’s commitment to and interest in urban environments increased over time: while he finished the first edition of the book with a hope that Australians might come to regard the earth as their mother, in the 1992 revised edition he accepted that perhaps this tradition “was insufficient in a nation whose environmental issues were increasingly those of the urban environment.” He also took issue with the longstanding tendency of conservation and environmental activists to focus on issues of “wilderness” remote from the daily lives of most Australians. Even in the first edition, he asked, “what if the ACF started to intervene in urban Australia” where most people lived and property rights were most entrenched?

By 1992 the criticism was more overt: conservation was often seen as the protection of “nature” or rural habitats, although the environment was often an artefact, most characteristically in the city and its suburbs. Even the more radical “green” movement of the 1980s and early 1990s concentrated on the preservation of forest or wilderness instead of looking at the problems of the urban environment which was home to most Australians. The “greens,” who at one time had seemed a potent force for change, were in danger of marginalisation.

For Bolton, cities were the big environmental issue, and a failure to address the environmental inequities and challenges in the places where most Australians lived threatened to make environmentalism a concern of a privileged minority. But while Bolton deeply respected the desires and choices of ordinary Australians and the visions of reformers who sought to provide them with a spacious and leafy environment, he also recognised the collective problems generated by “suburban sprawl.” It is a tension that is unresolved in the book, and remains one of the key challenges facing Australian cities.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, leading American environmental historians vigorously debated whether cities should be included within the scope of the field. Were they insufficiently “natural,” or were they important as sites where nature was encountered, transformed, represented and managed? In Australia, while many key environmental conflicts took place outside the cities and the historians tended to follow them there, some, like Bolton, recognised the importance of cities and suburbs as environments. Dan Coward (now Huon), who had worked as a research assistant to Keith Hancock for Discovering Monaro, marked Sydney’s environmental history as a story of pollution and public health in Out of Sight (1988). Inner-urban contagion and pollution also featured in other studies around this time, while George Seddon and David Ravine bucked the trend with their innovative application of art history and historical geography to the study of Perth in A City and Its Setting (1986).

Subsequently, amid debates over urban consolidation and the establishment of federal programs to combat “sprawl,” planning and economic historians pursued environmental themes in work on town planning and suburban expansion. Another factor bringing together the study of cultural and natural landscapes was environmental history’s emergence in the 1980s as an instrument of heritage practice, as a way in which public historians could talk to natural scientists and heritage practitioners across the nature–culture divide. Spoils and Spoilers encouraged that dialogue.

In the early twenty-first century, historians regarded urban en­vironments from a range of angles. A growing number of works on town planning, gardens, political mobilisation and local history ex­plored environmental themes and expanded our knowledge of how urban environments were transformed, regarded and used for liveli­hood or profit. Others aimed to achieve a more integrated storying of urban ecologies and societies: Heather Goodall and Alison Cadzow linked the ecologies of Sydney’s Georges River to its critical role as a centre of networks, enterprise and ultimately survival for Aboriginal people; Graeme Davison with Sheryl Yelland showed how the car was drawn into Australian cultures, where it worked to transform both the structure and the very air of our cities; Grace Karskens, at­tentive to the material culture of the residents of early Sydney, took us into their homes and helped us understand what it felt like to live in a two-roomed hut in the growing township, and to contemplate the vast bush beyond. Andrea Gaynor, with an eye to the future and a notice served by a local council ranger (“Nah, you can’t keep chooks here!”), explored suburban food production as a practice connect­ing minds and bodies to the broader urban environment.It turned out that the eviction of her chooks occurred in the dying days of a middle-class project of suburban modernisation, undertaken over the twentieth century at the expense of (largely) working-class capacity for self-provisioning.

While these works consciously engaged with contemporary environmental problems, they avoided the polemical approach taken by William Lines in Taming the Great South Land (1991). The first national environmental history to appear since Spoils and Spoilers, it lacked the empathy, humour and balance of its predecessor. The revised edition of Spoils and Spoilers (1992) contained relatively few changes, principal among them a new final chapter that combined discussion of the escalating environmental problems and conflicts of the 1980s and early 1990s with a strong critique of economic rationalism as a force increasingly shaping relations between society and environment. A more subtle change involved the subtitle, from “Australians make their environment 1788–1980” to the softening of human agency in “A history of Australians shaping their environment.”

Funding was sought from Film Australia to develop a pitch for a TV documentary based on the book, to coincide with the release of the revised edition; despite much enthusiasm for this proposal around Canberra, it never got off the ground.


In London in 1982, Geoffrey Bolton had a disagreement with Barry Humphries who, in the guise of Australia’s “cultural attaché” Sir Les Patterson, had imagined a rather different representative of Australia in Britain. Bolton’s mission was seriously in tension with that of the comedian. The historian Jim Davidson wrote to Bolton in 1982, saying, “If you manage to bury Sir Les Patterson, you’ll have done a good job.” Ten years later, in his 1992 Boyer Lectures, Bolton continued to ask, “So why do we [Australians] so often succumb to self-hatred and self-mockery, why do we accept Les Patterson and Sylvania Waters as icons of Australia?”

This stand-off between Australian icons at the heart of the old empire reminds us that one of Bolton’s causes as a historian was to foster “a collective Australian self-confidence.” He felt again that his experience in the west and north of the continent delivered an advantage, for they were “regions whose errors have often been errors of too much optimism rather than too little. But some of that quality of optimism is needed in Australia today.” Optimism and cultural confidence could be valuable, he argued, if they strengthened trust in homegrown wisdom and local solutions – and this was very much the message of Spoils and Spoilers.

Australian historians living at the margins of their continent, beyond the “golden triangle” (as Bolton called it), can become serious nationalists and keen students of federalism. Bolton’s view of the robustness of regional identity and the origins of Australia as “an archipelago of city states, each with their own hinterland” led him to argue that “the achievement of the politicians who put together the Australian Federation must be seen as impressive.” He was attracted to a biography of Edmund Barton because he was a leading figure who saw Federation “as a means of reconciling provincial diversity with the establishment of a national polity”; thus Barton enabled Bolton to resolve some of his own tensions between the metropolitan and the marginal. One of his favourite metaphors was “the belly and the limbs,” drawn from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, which argues the interdependence of belly and body. The central belly, or Commonwealth, however much resented for “cupboarding the viand,” does digest and distribute nourishment to the limbs of the states. Throughout his life, he was a strong and thoughtful champion of the federal invention that is Canberra. “Most other nations would be proud of such an achievement,” he declared in his Boyer Lectures. “It is a symptom of the Australian disease of self-hatred that we knock it.”

Spoils and Spoilers, then, was upbeat, ecological, literary, federal and urban. Bolton, like Barry Humphries, drew inspiration from Australian suburbia – but for him it was a source not of self-mockery but of a rather surprising radicalism. When the revised edition was published in 1992 – a time Bolton described as replete with gloom – his publishers assured readers that “Professor Bolton… reaffirms the message of hope from the first edition, that Australians can influence governments and markets to ensure the quality of urban and rural environments.” And he wanted his book to make a difference. He advised his publishers: “Every member of parliament should have [a copy] – at least those who read.” •

This is an extract from A Historian for All Seasons: Essays for Geoffrey Bolton, edited by Stuart Macintyre, Lenore Layman and Jenny Gregor, published by Monash University Publishing.

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