50,000 years of Australian History: a plea for interdisciplinarity

Professor Lynette Russell, Monash Indigenous Studies Centre, Monash University
The 2nd Bicentennial Australian History Lecture, hosted by the Department of History, the University of Sydney

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Joseph Lycett – Aborigines Resting by a Camp Fire near the Mouth of the Hunter River, Newcastle, NSW. (National Library of Australia)

How do we understand, imagine, visualise and create narratives for 50,000 years of Australian history?

As commonly presented, Australia’s past seems to consist of 230 years of European colonisation and over 50,000 years of Aboriginal culture, the former the purview of historians and the latter of archaeologists. Yet it presents striking opportunities for a truly integrated and seamless deep continental history, combining disciplines and methodologies.

Such a history would consider the full range of human experience from arrival, through changes in climate, technologies and belief systems to interactions with Maccassan, Portuguese, Dutch, French and finally the British. It would stretch across 2500 unbroken generations of people birthed, nurtured and sustained: people who modified landscapes, hunted, sang songs, practised religion and buried their dead.

This lecture argues for mixing epistemologies to create historical narratives of the deep past that may be taught in schools and universities, presented in museums and popular culture, and proudly shared by all Australians.


Professor Lynette Russell is Director of the Monash Indigenous Studies Centre, Monash University, and Node Director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence in Australian Biodiverstiy and Heritage. She traces her Aboriginal ancestry via her grandmother from Western Victoria with connections into Tasmania and the Bass Strait islands; on the other side she is descended from transported convicts.

Lynette has a PhD in history from the University of Melbourne and has taught and researched in historical studies for over twenty years. In 2015 she was visiting fellow at All Souls College Oxford. Her monographs include: Hunt them, Hang Them: The Tasmanians in Port Phillip, 1841-1842 (2016); Roving Mariners: Aboriginal Whalers in the Southern Oceans 1790-1870 (2012); Appropriated Pasts: Archaeology and Indigenous People in Settler Colonies, coauthored with Ian McNiven (2005); A Little Bird Told Me (2002); and Savage Imaginings: Historical and Contemporary Representations of Australian Aboriginalities (2001). She is the current President of the Australian Historical Association.

The Bicentennial Australian History Lecture is a biennial public lecture hosted by the Department of History in the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, University of Sydney. Distinguished historians offer engaged and critical perspectives on Australia’s past and the legacies of colonisation.

Date: Thursday 19 October, 2017
Time: 6 - 7.30pm
Please join us before the lecture for a reception in the Nicholson Museum at 5pm.
Venue: General Lecture Theatre, The Quadrangle, The University of Sydney. Venue location
Cost: Free and open to all with online registrations required
Register: here


History department staff are regulars in the ‘Thinkers Guide to the 21st Century’ talk series brought to you by the Sydney Ideas/Laureate Research Program in International History.

You can listen to the podcasts on previous topics such as The New International Order (Glenda Sluga), Authoritarianism (Dirk Moses), and Feminism in the Age of Populism.

Coming up, Thomas Adams and Glenda Sluga talk about Globalisation. Live from the University of Sydney, and on podcast - the last of the Thinkers Guide to the 21st Century, on October 25th. University of Sydney.

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Many congratulations to Mark McKenna for winning the Australian History Prize for his book From the Edge: Australia's Lost Histories

And to Peter Hobbins for winning with NSW Community and Regional History Prize with Annie Clark and Ursula Frederick for Stories from the Sandstone, the book that grew out of the Quarantine Station project.

The Department also congratulates Miranda Johnson, whose The Land Is Our History was one of the three finalists for the extremely competitive General History Prize.

It's an honour for the Department to have been so well represented in the Premier's Awards this year.

Chris Hilliard
Chair, Department of History


Steph Mawson, who did her Honours and MPhil degree with the department (winning numerous prizes, the University Convocation Medal, and co-founding the student journal History in the Making), has continued her award-winning ways with two articles that she wrote up from her MPhil research.

Steph's article entitled "Convicts or Conquistadores?: Spanish Soldiers in the Seventeenth-Century Pacific,” published in the prestigious journal, Past & Present (232 [2016], pp. 87-125), won the Royal Historical Society’s (RHS) Alexander Prize.

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Named for L.C. Alexander, the founding secretary of the RHS who endowed the original award, the Alexander Prize “…is awarded for an essay or article based on original historical research, by a doctoral candidate or those recently awarded their doctorate, published in a journal or an edited collection of essays.” Prize winners receive a silver medal, two hundred and fifty pounds and an invitation to submit a further article for consideration by the editors of the RHS’ in house journal Transactions.

In awarding Stephanie the prize the judges remarked:
“This ambitious and important article examines the ragtag army which colonized the Spanish East Indies during the seventeenth century. Its deep archival research reveals ordinary soldiers to have been quite unlike their stereotypical depiction as conquistadores. They were a motley collection of criminals, vagrants and fugitives, many conscripted and mostly from New Spain, who seldom shared the spoils of conquest with their commanding officers. The author at once restores agency to these historical figures and displays its narrow limits. Mutiny and desertion were among the few pathways open to the conscripted and the mistreated. Such a small, impoverished and volatile force could not be relied upon to achieve Spain’s imperial ambitions, resulting in the recruitment of increasing numbers of indigenous troops. The article offers a compelling portrait of the early modern Philippines. Its intertwining of social and military history makes it distinctive among submissions dominated by intellectual history. Its success in ‘[h]umanising and complicating the face of imperialism’ invites historians of empire to take account of the conflicting interests and motives of the colonisers and their correspondingly diverse relationships to the colonised.”

For further information, see:http://pastandpresent.org.uk/congratulations-stephanie-mawson/

If that wasn't enough, Steph also won the Dr. Robert F. Heizer Award for 2016 for another article she published in Ethnohistory, entitled “Philippine Indios in the Service of Empire: Indigenous Soldiers and Contingent Loyalty” (Vol. 63, No. 2 [2016], 381-413).

The award is given to the article that the committee believes exemplifies the best in Ethnohistorical research. The committee was impressed with the originality of the research, the strength of analysis, and the importance of its scholarly intervention.

For more on the award, please see: http://ethnohistory.org/index.php/awards-and-prizes/article-award/

Steph is now completing her PhD at Cambridge University.

Many congratulations to Steph!

It’s time to congratulate a few more of our stellar postgrads.

Michael Warren, PhD

The examiners’ reports for Michael Warren’s doctoral thesis - Unsettled Settlers: Fear and White Victimhood in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, 1788 – 1838 – have just come in. In what is undeniably a crowded field, Michael’s ‘outstanding’ thesis has been praised for its originality. In the words of one examiner: ‘In breaking new ground on matters of historical and current importance, and in providing a history of some of the deepest emotions arising from the colonisation of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, [this thesis] deserves a wide audience’. Michael’s work has been deemed ‘worthy of publication’, both as a series of ‘journal articles’ or as a ‘book’. This is an extremely impressive result.

Billy Griffiths, PhD

The Department also congratulates Billy Griffiths on what his examiners agreed was a stunning PhD thesis. As Billy’s supervisor Iain McCalman notes: it’s difficult to choose from among the shower of plaudits from his examiners. Here is one of the best short summaries of Billy’s extraordinary achievement: “Deftly weaving together biography, history and literature, an immense variety of Australian landscapes and ecologies with the many and complex strands of archaeology, Griffiths brilliantly charts the history of modern Aboriginal archaeology in Australia, and how the continent’s astonishing deep time history was discovered. … it explores the ways these new understandings transformed and continue to transform national narratives and sensibilities – the remarkable shift from the ‘young’ nation, a footnote to empire, to a continent with an ancient heritage, the ‘oldest continuous culture in the world’; from a nation which for most of its modern history forgot or ignored Aboriginal people and their culture, to a country where people increasingly realise that ‘Beneath a surface veneer, the evidence of ancient Australia is everywhere’ (p.4), a pulsing presence.” The examiner concludes by suggesting that this could be ‘a landmark book’.

Rainald Roesch, MA

And warm congratulations to Rainald Roesch whose MA thesis on Queensland’s attempted annexation of New Guinea in 1883 has received high praise from both examiners. It’s encouraging to see Rainald’s years of hard work in both German and Australian archives acknowledged. As one examiner noted, 'Roesch is clearly across the relevant peaks in political and community interest in both Australia and Germany on the question of New Guinea. He makes excellent use of both English and German language sources and offers some cogent modifications to the earlier historiography, particularly the work of Tampke and Hiery. Bringing together the German and Australian material clearly enriches the historiography of both fields’. Both examiners praised the thesis for the quality of its research and writing. Rainald’s primary supervisor was Judith Keene, until Mark McKenna took over this role.

Many congratulations to all three.

Frances Clarke, Postgraduate Coordinator

In The Land Is Our History, Miranda Johnson shows how the forces of globalisation - much maligned in the current political climate - allowed previously marginalised indigenous peoples to form transnational networks of solidarity with which they asserted strong claims against national governments. This was the beginning of a powerful new ‘politics from below’. For the first time, minority indigenous groups in Australia, Canada and New Zealand successfully engaged with the legal systems of these states to insist on their distinct identities and, importantly, land rights. Rejecting policies of assimilation, indigenous activists radically challenged assumptions that the nation-state was one single and unified entity. Beginning in the 1960s, indigenous peoples established a ‘fragile truce’ with settler-states that would last for the next three decades.  Crucially, their claims carried extra weight as these nations attempted to cut ties with their British pasts, redraw their foreign policies in light of decolonisation and forge new cosmopolitan national identities.

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RC: The book places indigenous legal claims in this period in a global perspective, and shows how closely their success or failure was tied to global politics and anti-colonial discourses.  In the increasingly interconnected world of the 20th and 21st centuries, is it possible to separate nations from global or transnational contexts? What implications does this have for writing indigenous histories of this period?

MJ: Nationally-defined fields are still the norm in history departments and that is still how we frame many of our undergraduate classes. Of course, in the last two decades or so, transnational and global approaches to historical inquiry have been in the ascendant, so that those who work exclusively within a national framework may feel like they need to defend why they do so, which is interesting. I think few historians would write now without a sense of how the global impacts the local. Even if you frame a project within the context of a single nation-state, most historians are alert to how globalization––variously defined––impacts their study.

Indigenous history as a field plays a very interesting role in all of this. The fields of Aboriginal history and Māori history, for instance, emerged in part as a critique of settler national history. So historians involved in the construction of these fields such as Henry Reynolds here in Australia framed their projects in terms of the nation, but as a critique of the costs borne by Indigenous peoples in the making of that nation. They were critical nationalists. The effectiveness of the field of Aboriginal history in leveling this critique can be seen for instance in the infamous History Wars of the late 1990s and then in the development of another approach, that of settler colonial studies.

In the last few years, a new kind of critique has emerged, influenced by the work of historians arguing for transnational, trans-imperial, trans-regional approaches, which is that the frameworks of the nation-state really delimits, even conceals, Indigenous peoples’ agency. In response, some scholars are arguing for a focus on the mobility of Indigenous peoples both within nation-states and across them. This critique arises from different political circumstances, as a response to the effects of the legal claiming that I talk about in my book. As we well know in Australia, “native title” which, it was hoped in the early 1990s, would revolutionize Aboriginal peoples’ place and status has in fact led to new forms of inequality and constraint. In representational terms, there’s a lot of concern that the process of claiming native title has actually further intensified the operation of an “oppressive authenticity,” as Jeff Sissons calls it, in which Indigenous peoples are fixed in time and space. So, the argument for tracing Indigenous peoples’ mobility is in part I think a response to this distinctive legal process and political moment in settler states such as Australia, as well as broader trends in the historical discipline. As you can see, I am interested in the transnational, the global and the national. I think all these frameworks are important in thinking about the twentieth-century histories of Indigenous peoples.

Activists in these decades forced courts to accept indigenous testimony and to incorporate indigenous practices and oral traditions into western legal systems. Does indigenous engagement with the settler-state legitimise it? Is it possible to resist the state without engaging with it? 

Engagement with the state, or refusal of the state’s power, are two poles of Indigenous politics. These might be more significant than conventional distinctions between “Left” or “Right” politics that are used to define majoritarian politics in liberal settler democracies. Yes, to be a claimant in a settler court means that to some extent you are legitimizing state sovereignty, the state’s power to offer limited justice, to redistribute property, to mediate disputes. At the same time, I think for a lot of Indigenous claimants it’s certainly the case that while one might recognize the authority and the power of the state to make decisions about one’s future that this doesn’t mean you think that the state is morally legitimate. So a large part of what was at stake in the cases I talk about in my book was demonstrating this gap between law and justice, showing up the immorality of prior legal rulings and policy-making, to force a change. Of course, some Indigenous people would say that to engage at any level with state processes is to cede a degree of sovereignty and so they refuse to do so.

At the end of the book you suggest that the ‘fragile truce’ struck between indigenous polities and settler states has come undone in the face of neoliberal reforms that limit the commitment of governments to equality and social justice. Is there an implicit narrative of progress in many activist histories? What are the implications of this?

The Indigenous rights claims that I talk about in my book came to national attention in a period of heightened awareness of racial discrimination, of anti-colonialism, civil rights protests and so on. Aboriginal rights became a progressive cause in this context––the 1967 referendum was, for the majority of the population in Australia, an issue of equality and social justice. But Indigenous rights struggles were about more than equality; they were claims to the state for recognition of the distinct sovereignty of Indigenous peoples, often based in land rights. So they always troubled a progressive consciousness for it was never going to be enough to simply establish rights to equality; Indigenous peoples wanted something more than that. I think this claim is not very legible to settlers and yet at some level it registers and troubles them.

This trouble came more out into the open in the 1990s, post-Mabo, in Australia, and as claims to the Waitangi Tribunal in New Zealand increased in number and extent in the same period. Many white settlers began to feel that their rights to land, and their sense of identity and belonging, was under threat. At the same time, the old social contract was being pulled apart, as you say, through radical neoliberal reforms. Suddenly, I think it seemed to a lot of white settlers that Indigenous peoples were getting things that were being taken away from them, whites. So this particular and complex set of changing political conditions were what I was trying to allude to in saying that the “fragile truce” was undone during the late 1990s/early 2000s. And I think this breakdown of the brief consensus around the importance of recognizing Indigenous rights was really disheartening for many Indigenous activists and leaders, even if they also expected it. In the sense that in order to fight for change, you need to believe that change is possible, then certainly activist consciousness is progressive (or even radical in some instances); but I think for many Indigenous activists there is a critical awareness of the specific constraints and limits of how far one can get in a settler majority democracy.

Since the 1990s, the politics surrounding indigenous history in Australia have been intense and divisive. What are the challenges of writing indigenous histories in this climate? Does it affect the kinds of histories that are told? What attitudes do students bring to the study of indigenous history?

I see a lot of students come into my classroom who think that Indigenous issues are important but they don’t know why. As I’ve been briefly alluding to, the issues are incredibly complex and we don’t have a “go to” shared language for talking about these politics. So I feel like I need to teach a new language to the overwhelmingly non-Indigenous students I have, one that will take them beyond the guilt or shame or denial that still characterizes public debate about Indigenous issues in this country. This is one of the major challenges for writing or teaching Indigenous history here in Australia, establishing a useful, critical language for thinking and talking about the distinctiveness of Indigenous-settler state politics. Studying Indigenous history is hard, it is challenging intellectually, ethically, politically.

The (at times) thorny question of agency is crucial to histories from below. You describe The Land is Our History as ‘a rare story about the disempowered changing the status quo’, yet you never diminish the ability of powerful state institutions to affect indigenous lives.  Can an overemphasis on agency run the risk of obscuring the determining role these powerful forces can play?

Great question! In fact, this is the question I was wrestling with in writing this book; how far can I take the story of agency? Is structural oppression of settler colonialism really the true story? As you point out, I try to have it both ways because this is the reality that I perceive and that I have drawn out of the archives I used for this project. The story of a struggle, which this book is, is necessarily a dialectical one.

You argue in the book that for a variety of reasons - including shifting global political paradigms - there was a reversal of the 'relations of power' between indigenous peoples and settler-states in the 1960s and 70s.  As the modern neoliberal era is threatened by a new politics that promises a reclamation of national sovereignty, do you see opportunities for the creation of a new truce between indigenous peoples and states? What do relations of power between these two groups look like in 2017?

It really depends which Indigenous people you’re talking about and where. I think one of the things that is really different about 2017 from, say, 1967, is that there is now a recognition on the part of the state of a plurality of Indigenous representatives, political communities, voices (even if this is not necessarily well-represented in mainstream media). So there are multiple forms of relation, opportunities for compromise, negotiation etc. There is also a marked difference between and among Indigenous nations in terms of socio-economic wellbeing and so on. It’s hard to tell a single story about advantage or disadvantage because the reality is so complex. And yet, you have a fascinating and important story of unification in the making of the Uluru Statement recently. How that came about, and what it’s effects politically will be, is yet to be told.

What do you know now that you wish you knew before you started working on the book? 

That the hard part of bringing a major project to completion is the psychological game, the kind of faith that you have to maintain in order to get there but which, after many years, is often wavering because you think that what you’re saying is so obvious.

The Land Is Our History is published by Oxford University Press. Order it here

29 Jul


Established by the History Department, USYD First Gen aims to celebrate the skills and perspectives that first generation students bring to academia and beyond.

Our objectives include:
1. Providing support to students in the transition from high school to university through initiatives
such as sharing social and academic resources among members on campus and online;
2. Fostering a community amongst First Gen students who share common experiences; and
3. Providing the First Gen community at USYD an inclusive platform where they can express
themselves and embrace their identity as First Gen students

A First Generation student is a student who is the first in their family to attend university; whose parents or guardians who have not completed tertiary study, or an equivalent qualification abroad. We also acknowledge students whose older siblings have gone to university, as well as staff and graduates.

To find out more about us and receive updates, visit our Facebook page: USYD First Gen

Or, send us an email: usydfirstgen@outlook.com

A few days ago I spoke at the annual conference for the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean. The University of Ghent was this year’s host, and the medieval trading city was a perfect setting for a group of medievalists.

A view of St Nicholas' Church in Ghent, taken just around the corner from our conference HQ.

It was a wonderfully diverse set of attendees (Austria, Beligum, Canada, Cyprus, Czechia, Egypt, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States … and Australia). The diversity was matched in the presentations, with sessions ranging from the Cairo Geniza to religious minorities in medieval Iberia, Islamic and Christian accounts of the crusades to the circulation of intellectual culture across Mediterranean communities. It was inspiring to see this idea of a ‘the medieval’ decentered.

Professor Marina Rustow (University of Princeton) and Professor Nikolas Jaspert (University of Heidelberg) both gave keynotes. Of course, I delivered my paper but I was not the only person from the University of Sydney to do so. Dr Jan Shaw (from the Department of English) spoke as did the Department of History’s own Dr Hélène Sirantoine.

During one of the lunch breaks, I chatted with Hélène about where conferences sit in a historian’s work, what advice she had for those new to the experience, and why medieval Spain (her field of research and teaching … with a unit this coming semester) is important to medievalists and historians more broadly.

First up, what’s your conference paper on?

My paper was entitled ‘The Emperor and his Muslims: Andalusí identity through Christian eyes under the reign of Alfonso VII (1126-1157)’.

Where do conference papers sit within a historian’s work? How do you find them most useful?

Well, a conference paper can sit at various points of the historian’s work timeline. It can be the occasion to pitch a new research project and feel how the audience reacts to it. It is also the moment when one will make contacts with other scholars in the field, and maybe create fruitful collaborations. However, in most cases, a conference paper will be the opportunity to divulge the results of an ongoing or almost finished project. In a way, it is a sort of declaration to the academic world: ‘Look, this is what I’ve been doing in the past months/years. Be prepared to read my next article/monograph!’. And the deadline set by an upcoming conference also works, for many of us, as an incentive to finally write down what we would have otherwise left lingering in the limbo of procrastination.

Just before you were here you were at Leeds International Medieval Congress, which is one of the larger medievalist conferences. I was watching the #IMC2017 feed on Twitter and it is almost like a festival for medievalists as well. How does a big conference like that compare to something more focused? What are the benefits but also challenges?

The Leeds IMC is indeed one of the annual grand-messes of medievalists worldwide, with a paper programme so heavy that it can easily jeopardize one’s luggage allowance on the way back home! This year, I heard that there were about 2400 of us, and the number of parallel sessions was so large that the organising committee had to request one more building than usual to accommodate us all. I recall very well how intimidated I was the first time I attended the IMC a few years ago. But you have to keep in mind that such events are primarily designed for scholars to network, so the more of us there are, the more connected we get!

In that sense, the Leeds IMC is hardly comparable to a more human-size conference, whose purpose will generally be to discuss a particular topic in deptH. At those conferences, both participants and attendees are expecting scientific results above all. There are no book fairs or medieval reenactments, but many new ideas at the end of the day.

What things should a postgraduate consider when choosing a conference?

Sometimes, the conference chooses you! It is not rare to receive a CFP (call for papers) that matches one’s doctoral project. It is then a good opportunity to make a name for yourself among the community of scholars in your field. In any event, before sending a paper proposal, I believe that a PG student should always consider how the conference will fit into his/her agenda. If it is leading you too far from the immediate demands of the dissertation, then make sure that it won’t put you in a delicate situation in terms of timing. Ideally, the closer you get to your submission deadline, the more you should prioritise papers that will directly feed your dissertation.

I find sticking to a twenty-minute limit a real challenge. We hold our topics close to our heart and spend a lot of time researching the field, so it can be tough. How do you deal with this challenge?

Ah… Quite badly in fact! I generally write an over-large first draft of my papers, and then spend the days and hours before it is my time to speak shortening my whole argument (with a huge dose of frustration generated in the process). But then I remember that: (1) it was not a waste of time, as I will use my over-detailed draft for a later publication; (2) my audience was probably very thankful that I did not enter into too much detail that would have made my paper hard to follow. A conference paper is a subtle exercise of communication, so a short but well organised argument will convey your point in the most efficient manner.

What is the most defining characteristic that sets a conference paper apart from other scholarly ‘outputs’, such as an essay or article?

Again, a conference paper is an oral performance, during which footnotes and lengthy sentences will not help you make your point. At the utmost, projected slides, if they are well done, will assist. Besides, we do not read in the same way that we listen. Have you ever heard someone reading out loud something that was clearly meant as a written piece of rhetoric? It is a very painful experience!

Medieval Spain is your specialisation and you’re about to teach an undergraduate unit, ‘Reconquest: A History of Medieval Spain’. What does this particular history of medieval Spain offer the the discipline more broadly? Why is it important/intriguing, not just to Iberianists, but historians generally? Has scholarship on intercultural relations in medieval Spain offered methodologies and frameworks for other histories of intercultural/interfaith relations?

The main theme of the Leeds IMC this year was ‘Otherness’, and the conference you and I attended in Ghent dealt with ‘Emotions, imaginations, and communities in the medieval Mediterranean’. In both cases, the medieval Iberian Peninsula represents a particularly rich domain of investigation, with its multi-faith and multi-linguistic communities. It is actually quite interesting to observe that, decades ago, the Iberian Peninsula was for most medievalists a periphery of Christendom and a guarantee of exoticism. Nowadays, it is rather considered a centre of interculturality and a case study to measure changes in historiographical practices. This is partly what I aim to convey to students in my course on medieval Spain. It is actually called ‘Reconquest? A History of Medieval Spain’. The question mark is very important, as the notion of Reconquest is highly problematic, though commonly used. After all, it expresses none other than a Christian point of view that makes the Islamic history of Spain a deplorable parenthesis. In the unit, we study the origins of that notion of ‘Reconquest’, and how it was a construct of Spanish nineteenth-century national-catholicism. We also examine the tensions that the debates surrounding the notion generated all through the twentieth century, and the social and academic anxieties that its use still reveals today.

What project are you working on at the moment?

When I first started to investigate the history of the past in my Honours year, I wanted to work on the relationship between Christendom and Islam through the specific prism of multicultural Spain. My PhD dissertation then led me quite far from this project, and I wish now to make it the centre of my attention, with research focused on perceptions of the Islamic world by Christians Spaniards. By examining how the Islamic world was depicted, named, and utilised in Christian Spanish documents of the early to high Middle Ages (9th-13th c.), the idea is to decentre traditional approaches to the field, which have privileged religious perspectives at the expense of polities, geopolitics, and history. The paper I presented in Ghent was directly linked to this project.

As an historian of early modern dress and material culture my research requires a wide range of documentation – wardrobe warrants, probate inventories and wills, visual sources such as engravings and paintings, popular literature like plays, didactic texts and broadside ballads, and even personal correspondence such a letters and diaries – in order to construct an accurate picture of a past material world. However, there are often still limitations to using only these traditional written and visual sources.


Wardrobe warrants and probate inventories can tell the historian the economics of clothing production – who ordered what, how many and when, as well as information about the materials used in their production, however, they don’t outline patterns or methods of construction. Other texts like popular literature and personal correspondence can tell us information about how these items functioned socially – what people thought of them and how that influenced social and cultural norms, but many of these sources express just that: thoughts, both popular and personal, leaving the historian to pursue the relationship between ideas and everyday embodiment. Then there are visual sources that are not only valuable in their own right, but can help to interpret the written record, allowing the historian to decode sometimes complex technical terminology or to match descriptions of dress with a dated image. Surviving artefacts themselves also hold the key to vast amounts of information that has been lost to the printed or archival record, or is not discernible in visual representations. For example, sweat marks and continued wear and tear in particular places on the garment can tell us much information about the effect that dress had on the body or that the body had on dress. Yet whilst the life of the garment (and that of the person who wore it) may still be visible on surviving artefacts, some questions remain unanswered, and this is where historical reconstruction can be a valuable research tool for the historian.

Historical reconstruction has, until recently, not been seen as a concern of the serious academic, believed to belong to television, re-enactors or living history museums. Yet reconstruction has been used by archaeologists, curators and conservators for many years. More recently, Ulinka Rublack from the University of Cambridge has incorporated reconstructions into her work on Renaissance fashion, leading the field in early modern material studies. Pamela H. Smith, an historian of early modern science, has established the Making and Knowing Project at Columbia University, which uses reconstructions of recipes from early modern texts to explore the intersections between artisan practices and scientific knowledge. Renown fashion historian and the figure to whom many of us now working in the field owe our gratitude, Janet Arnold, was also a pioneer of fact-based faithful reconstructions of historical dress, and institutes such as the School of Historical Dress run by Jenny Tiramani exist to teach both scholars and amateurs alike period-accurate construction techniques.


Two years ago I was awarded a grant by the Department of History at the University of Sydney to make, using historically accurate materials and sewing techniques, some of the items that my research examines – an Elizabethan bodie (corset) from around 1603, a mid-seventeenth century bodie and two styles of farthingale (structured underskirts) – in order to learn not only about the historical production process, but also to interpret the often polemical and sometimes outrageous sources that often describe early modern women and their dress. We may never know exactly how a sixteenth or seventeenth-century woman felt when she wore these items, nor am I suggesting that we can use reconstructions accurately to recapture bodily experiences from the past; it would be anachronistic to place these garments on a modern body unburdened by years of wearing restrictive clothing to see how “we” would feel wearing them, as historical notions of comfort and other sensory experiences vary widely. However, faithfully recreating these garments allows modern historians to not only understand historical methods of construction, but also to gain a more nuanced view of surviving historical records.

My four reconstructions took about one and a half years (of non-continuous hand sewing) to complete. All of these garments utilised period-accurate materials that were found in surviving wardrobe warrants and tailoring bills such as silk taffeta, linen, silk thread, and wool. As whalebone (‘baleen’) is, for good reason, not available anymore I decided to use a modern plastic alternative that mimics baleen’s properties such as its strength and flexibility.


The two ‘bodies’ were made to the exact size and dimensions as the original surviving examples, with the same sewing techniques employed in the originals to make the reproductions. Unlike the bodies, accessing an original or observation based pattern of either a French farthingale roll and French wheel farthingale was impossible as no examples of either style have survived anywhere in Europe. Instead, my reconstruction of these ephemeral garments was much more experimental and relied on archival material, visual images, as well as my own understanding of seventeenth-century construction techniques.


The process of reconstructing these garments by hand has given me invaluable knowledge about not only how to construct early modern dress, but also how to analyse surviving objects in museum collections – a skill which some scholars of historical dress still lack. Most importantly for my research, however, is the fact that placing these reconstructions on models of different sizes and instructing them to sit down, bend over and walk has allowed me to assess the visible physical limitations that these garments placed on the modern female body and then apply those observations to my historical research. This is one of the main merits of historical reconstruction: it allows us to reconstruct lost objects of the past to examine often problematic surviving historical sources, whether it is in relation to sources on production, or the everyday social embodied acts of wearing. After all these items were real, and many women (and some men) spent their whole lives wearing different styles of various sizes and shapes, and so reconstructing them not only allows the historian to become closer to the sources of the period, but also to people and their real and lived experiences of these items.

If you would like to read in more detail about the step-by-step process of making my reconstructions please visit my
own blog.

Dr. Sophie Loy-Wilson’s new book, Australians in Shanghai recently featured in an ABC news story, and/or listen to the podcast on the Earshot program produced by Sophie and Tamson Pietsch.

Professor Mark McKenna's book From the Edge: Australia's Lost Histories has been reviewed in the SMH, ABR, Saturday Paper, Adelaide Advertiser, Telegraph, and the Monthly. Between October and December 2016, he did over 20 radio interviews (WA, SA, Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland, NSW, Northern Territory) about the book, and Radio National’s Earshot is broadcasting and podcasting a half hour documentary based on the book.

Professor Glenda Sluga's co-edited volume has just been published entitled Internationalisms: A Twentieth-Century History which the Chronicle succinctly describes as a collection of essays on internationalism as an idea and institutional phenomenon espoused by groups across the political spectrum.

Dr Marco Duranti was recently interviewed by Phillip Adams on Late Night Live (Radio National) about his recently released book The Conservative Human Rights Revolution. Marco has also published a commentary in The Conversation UK on how The Conservative Human Rights Revolution informs the controversy in Britain surrounding Theresa May’s calls for the UK to exit the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The book was also reviewed in Lawfare, where legal scholar Ed Bates concluded, “Duranti’s book is highly recommended....it should influence debates on how the ECHR is seen today.” And, in an unexpected twist, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange provoked a robust discussion on the book’s argument when he tweeted about the book.

For some other reviews of new books by members of the department, see: http://blogs.usyd.edu.au/historymatters/2017/05/new_reviews_for_our_latest_pub.html

Dr Miranda Johnson discusses indigeneity and the sacred and what it means when a river is legally declared a person on the Social Science Research Council blog called The Immanent Frame, which publishes short invited essays about secularism and politics. Her creative and innovative teaching around The Pitcairn Project was also recently featured in Sydney University news.

Dr Chin Jou contributed an essay on historical precedents for protesting Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’ for The Huffington Post, and also was a featured author in the Princeton Alumni Weekly

PhD candidate Marama Whyte recently published an article in History Today on women of the American press and their fight for equality in the 1960s and 1970s.

PhD candidate Sarah Bendall published a piece on using material culture to examine notions of gender in the early modern English world on the Journal for the History of Ideas blog.

PhD candidate Billy Griffiths recently contributed a piece to The Conversation on western Arnhem Land and the important work of Indigenous Rangers in caring for country and telling it’s stories to raise awareness of environmental threats to their land.

MA candidate Chris Maxworthy featured on ABC Radio Drive talking about the early Spanish explorer Luis Vaez de Torres, and how the strait that bears his name between Cape York and New Guinea was 'plagiariased' by James Cook in 1770.

Professor Dirk Moses was interviewed by the Turkish Platform for Independent Journalism, platform24.org on freedom of the press and genocide denial. He wrote about the Australian press and its treatment of European affairs for the ABC Religion and Ethicssite, and on the historical categorisation of Donald Trump in the Washington Post.

Associate Professor Michael A. McDonnell was interviewed about enlistments in the Revolutionary War for the US public radio program and podcast BackStory. He also recently featured in a podcast on “The History of History Writing” for the popular Ben Franklin’s World in the US, and served as an NEH Visiting Scholar at a Summer Institute at the Library of Congress on the topic of "On Native Grounds."

Dr. Frances Clarke was interviewed by ABC’s Nightlife on April 9 2017 on the end of America’s Civil War, and recently wrote a blog post for the Australian Women’s History Network

Professor Glenda Sluga posted an article on the recent concern about the demise of the existing international order on E-International Relations, which was also published in German in the May edition of the German magazine Merkur, as part of her GeschichtesKolumn series. She also blogged on women in the long history of humanitarianism for the Australian Women’s History Network

Professor Mark McKenna took part in three events at the Sydney Writers Festival, appeared at the Writer’s Festival, South Coast, NSW in April, was interviewed by BBC and AAP Reuters regarding Uluru Statement on May 26, and contributed an article to the Conversation on ANZAC day and republicanism. He also published a major essay on Australian political biography in the Monthly in April, and was Interviewed on RN Late Night Live.

In July, I head off to do archival research at the Richelieu site of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF) in Paris. The site is currently undergoing a large-scale renovation (although, thankfully, it doesn't look like it will interfere with my work there). Archival spaces like the BNF are second homes for historians and other researchers, so I thought it's a good opportunity to show one of France's great archival institutions undergoing renovation.

Built in the nineteenth century, the Richelieu Library is the 'historical cradle' of the BNF, before a new centre was built on the Seine banks under the Mitterand Government in the 1980s (hence, the François Mitterand Library). Today, it houses the BNF's special collections: performing arts, maps and plans, prints and photographs, manuscripts, coins, medals and antiquities.

The Richelieu Library is pretty spectucular. It's everything we imagine a grand library to be, from massive, book-lined walls to the banker lamps on the desks. From 2009/2010, it's been going through an equally spectacular staged renovation that is due for completion in 2020.

In December last year, one of the key stages was complete. The Labrouste Reading Room (pictured below) and Manuscript Room were completed as part of this stage.



I believe work has started on the equally impressive Oval Room (pictured below).


Source of above photo: Photographer Guillaume Dutreix (@guillaume_dx) on Instagram.

You can watch a short video documentary (14mins) about the renovation project. It is in French, but you can get the idea.

You can discover more about the Richelieu renovation project here: http://www.bnf.fr/en/bnf/renovation_work_richelieu.html

With just a few weeks until I head off to the archives in Paris, I wanted to share some of the preparation work I’ve been doing over the past several months. You can read about my PhD project here. I’m only in Paris for a few weeks, so I have to make the most of my time. I figured the more I can do in advance, the more efficient and fruitful would be my use of that time.

Added to this are two other challenges. First, it’s my first time doing archival research of this kind. Second, I discovered earlier this year that one of my archive sites is currently undergoing major renovations (until 2020!). This means materials might be inaccessible or relocated. I wanted to establish the state of play early on.

>Read my post on the Richelieu renovation project

I’ll be spending most of my time at two sites of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF; the National Library of France): the Richelieu site (where the manuscripts room is located, pictured below) and the Bibliothèque d’Arsenal.


In this post, I wanted to share some of the questions I asked myself and learnings I picked up along the way. Some of these might seem really obvious, so apologies in advance. But, it’s often the obvious things that are the easiest to miss.
Here are five are five areas I’ve been looking at in preparing for my archives visit. If you have any to of your own to pass on, add them as a comment to this post.

1. What am I going to do there? Setting my research goals

What am I actually going to do there? Will I be spending time with sources, translating/transcribing them? Sifting through lots of archival material? Or will I just be taking copies of material to bring back home?

These are questions I had to work out. For my project, I don’t have to do a huge amount of sifting. My sources are relatively obvious and easy to identify.

Over the past six months, I have been identifying documents and manuscripts I want to access using the BnF catalogue and their amazing digital platform, Gallica. I set them out in a spreadsheet, noting:

  • the key ‘metadata’ for each document (record number, document type title, publication year);

  • what I wanted to do with the document (inspect, copy, transcribe, etc);

  • comments or notes; and

  • a priority rating on a scale of one to four.

Prioritising what I want to see is important. If I run out of time, at least I’ve copied the most essential.

It might be a bit OCD, but I’ve even scheduled what documents I want to work on specific days. In all likelihood things won’t go to plan, but at least I’ll have a something to work with when I get there.

2. Research the archives

Of course, it’s important to do some preliminary research into the institution that you’ll visit. If they have restricted hours or requirements for access, you don’t want to discover that when you arrive on their doorstep. Here are some of the questions I investigated (and, again, forgive me if they are obvious).

  • What are their opening hours? Don’t assume that things are open every day 9am-5pm.

  • Are there any public holidays that might mean the archives are closed?

  • Are they undergoing renovations or any other work that might involve disruption to usual services? This is very applicable to me because the Richelieu site is undergoing renovations.

  • What documentation do they require for permission to access material? Photo ID is easy, but what if they require a reference from your supervisor? The BnF, for example, requires an ‘Attestation Form’ to be completed by the supervisor and stamped with the university’s stamp.

  • Is there an interview procedure beforehand?

  • Are there any applicable fees for accessing material? The BnF requires you to have a Reader’s Card, which attracts a fee (tiered depending on duration of access).

  • What procedures do they have for requesting material? How long do you have to wait from when you request something and when they deliver it? BnF has scheduled times for requesting material.

  • Are there rules or restrictions on what you can do in the research space, such as only being able to use pencils or restrictions on copying/photographing material? 


3. Equipment and storage

What equipment do I need to use at the archives beside a notepad and pen? I guess this really depends on what you intend to do at the archives.

Since most of my time will be spent inspecting and copying (that is, photographing) sources, I needed to think about a way of storing all this data securely so I could work on it when I return to Sydney. Storage is a really important issue and there are several solutions, whether a hard drive, USB, or cloud-based options (such as Dropbox).

The big two issues are volume (lots of photos) and security (Paris is a long way from Sydney, so I don’t want to have all this data lost or damaged). Is a USB really the best solution in terms of volume and security? If I put everything on a device such as a laptop, tablet, or smartphone, what happens if that is lost or damaged? Should I back up my work? Yes!

My supervisor, Nick Eckstein, recently returned from an archives visit in Italy and offered some useful advice on storing the thousands of images he had taken of manuscript folios from the 1600s. I ended up going with a combination of cloud-based and hard-drive.

Fisher Library has a Research Data Management team that can provide advice and invaluable information organised into modules on this page: https://library.sydney.edu.au/research/data-management.

Also think about how you are going to organise your material so it all makes sense when you get back home. You don’t want to deal hundreds of random image files such as ‘IMG_089’.

Finally, don’t forget about things like power chargers etc.


4. Contact the archives

As I said, there are major renovations underway at the Richelieu BnF site. Another supervisor gave me the heads-up that this might affect access to material. I needed to establish whether anything I wanted to consult was affected, so I emailed the Department of Manuscripts at Richelieu specifying the manuscripts I most wanted to access. They responded, and we’ve been working through obtaining access approval for each source.

Contacting the archives before I arrive not only meant I could sort some of this stuff out before I arrived. It now means I have a few contacts within the BnF for when I am there. One of the archivists I’ve been exchanging emails with looks after the collection of Turkish manuscripts. This is a boon because the collection itself has its genesis in the very subject of my research. It is not only someone who can help me with locating material but who can relate the history of the collection itself.

So, I think it’s really useful to start building a relationship with archivists before you go, if possible. If the archives are in a non-Anglophone location, consider using the local language for communication (if you can) and observe professional communication practices.

5. Speak to other historians and postgrads (and follow them on Twitter)

I spoke to a few historians and fellow postgraduates in Sydney who had visited the archives I’ll be visiting, seeking their experiences and advice. This was incredibly helpful.

I also found some great advice on blogs run by institutions, historians, and postgraduates, including the following.

Then there’s Twitter. You’ll be surprised how useful it is as a budding historian to follow your peers and established historians on Twitter. For example, I follow Dr Sara Barker (@DrSKBarker), who works on the French Wars of Religion and print culture at the University of Leeds. Sara was tweeting during her archival research at the Bibliothèque d’Arsenal in Paris. It was such a wonderful and invaluable insight into archival work, both the trials and tribulations. I asked her a few questions about the archives and she responded with fantastic advice, including where to get the best coffee nearby (vital advice for a researcher!) and what the air temperature is like inside (you don’t want to be freezing or sweltering during your time in the archives).

Here are some sample tweets from Dr Barker.

Tweet from @DrSKBarker

Tweet from @DrSKBarker

As another example of historians talking archival research on Twitter, here’s a great thread from Professor Marie Hicks (historian of technology): https://twitter.com/histoftech/status/868170316706701312

So, find the historians on Twitter who work in your field and follow them.

All of the above reflects some of the questions, thoughts, and practices that I considered in preparing for my archives visit in July. Let’s see what happens!
Meanwhile, if you have any tips or suggestions of your own, add them as a comment to this post.

5 Jun

Wesley College represents one of the University of Sydney’s prestigious and illusive magnates of the bright, well to do and country larrikins. The college presents a fascinating insight into the experiences of youth and the development of relations between university qualifications, sporting and cultural ability and youthful cheek. Wesley College celebrates it’s centenary this year. The celebrations provide a unique opportunity to explore the development of the institution and its role contributing to the progress, or lack thereof, of the University of Sydney.

Wesley bears its archives to the curious student; providing Honi Soit unprecedented access to its darkest secrets. Tractors driving through dining halls, hazing scandals and cunning master’s are just some of the hot gossip to be found in the damp dusty halls of the College. A new website shall provide the opportunity to discover the story of Wesley College’s unsung heroes, memorable characters and the evolution of an esteemed establishment. Read between the lines of the insightful commentary of yours truly to discover the enthralling tale of Wesley College’s first hundred years.

We each exist within several different alternate communities, overlapping and interacting with the defined geographic community to which we belong. Every community consists of several sub-communities that each individually contribute to the overall character of society. Each of these ethnic, religious, and cultural groups lend their own unique flavors and traditions to the collective atmosphere, enhancing the connection between neighbors and friends. The Persian community within the greater Ryde community has significantly contributed to Ryde’s economic, artistic, social, and culinary domains. In 1988, the Persian Ryde School was established in order to educate the Persian-Australian children in the community and to ensure that the Persian language and traditions are passed on to future generations.

With the 30th anniversary of the Persian Ryde School approaching, we should celebrate the abundance of contributions the Persian community has made. The public history of Persians in the Ryde community is not solely of value to the Persian community, but deserves to be recognized and celebrated by the greater Sydney community, as well as by others. The group's relatable story is encouraging and should be of relevance to us all, especially considering the increasingly worrisome exclusion and misrepresentation of minorities within communities across the globe.

As with any project, this project has encountered obstacles and has changed course a number of times. Hopefully, this piece of advice will come in handy for next year’s students: embrace flexibility. It is completely okay to end up changing course; in fact, it is more than likely, so do not succumb to stress. Understand that you will not truly realize the impact of your project on the community with which you are involved, until you have hit some walls and find yourself asking opposing questions. Again, this is natural! Follow the path your project develops with sincerity and sensitivity. Whichever way it takes you will be worth exploring.

What do you know of anarchism besides blood and bombs? What do you know of anarchism besides crime and chaos? It might surprise you but there’s more to it than that. In fact, that isn’t even anarchism, that’s anarchy! They are different as you will see… Anarchism is the idea of an alternative way of living that you are in fact already living. Who is in between you and your friends, you and your family? Is it the State? The police? The military? It’s you, you are between you and them. Of all the things that are meaningful, it’s because you have associated yourself with it. This surely is “chaos”… Jurabooks in Petersham is one of the only collectives running along these. Its primary goal is essentially asking what I started this piece with: “What do you know of anarchism?” Jura’s primary goal is education. As is often the case, we need to be educated about what will educate us. We already know about how schools or universities can educate us, but can a bunch of anarchists? The answer is yes, and my project will show it through the history of Jura, whose goal has been throughout its busy 40 years to educate a society that is generally reactive against and ignorant to solutions for the future that aren’t down the sewer pipe of politicians, government, hegemony exploited labour, the “carrot on a stick” workplace, and so much more. The pipe is long and wide.

I believe that knowledge of local history is important. The little chunks of history that have gone unknown for years can be unearthed and rediscovered with the potential to excite and fascinate. Who knew that before Ryde Eastwood Leagues club existed there was a small business called Cooper’s Tank Works that ran for over 80 years? Well, I did and I have known it for years and I believe that it is about time that others should discover a tiny little history swallowed up by the years gone by. My paper for the Ryde District Historical Society intends to give an easy way to access this hidden history and other just like it.

The Ryde District Historical society wants to broaden their readership by allowing written histories to be available online and have tasked me with writing one of them. I want to highlight the smaller histories that make up the city of Ryde. The site used to belong to one of the many industrial businesses that made up the area along the train line at West Ryde. Looking at the area today, it would be difficult to imagine such an array of businesses residing there. Which is why I want to show a little snippet of what life used to be like by writing this paper. I hope that a love of local history can be achieved through my paper and all the papers to come.

The Big Issue Magazine is Australia’s most successful social enterprise. It has put a whopping $25 million into the pockets of Australia’s homeless and disadvantaged community over the course of the last 20 years. And yet, there are still people who live or work in Sydney who have never noticed the vendors in their fluorescent yellow vests and red caps, selling magazines to passers-by. We all exist in the same space as these homeless or disadvantaged folks, but sometimes it’s as if we inhabit totally different worlds. We rush back and forth, living out our busy and comfortable lives—and never stop to look around at those who are worse off. They are (we think) irrelevant and therefore invisible to us.

Working with the Big Issue to organise their records and to construct a history of their work is about making that story of empowerment and social justice visible. And working on a dynamic timeline of The Big Issue with the vendors themselves is about nurturing their pride in the organisation that does so much for them. The colourful exhibit on their garage wall, that we create together, will stick around as a reminder of The Big Issue’s philosophy: your story is what you make of it.

To future students of HSTY3902: don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone. I am very much an outsider at The Big Issue—not simply because these are new people I’ve never met, but because of my socio-economic status. This project has been both confronting and a chance for personal growth; it has taught me that history can help us begin to break down social segregation in our own worlds, even as we attempt to do so on paper. Go outside your community. If you think about it, all historians are outsiders: none of us inhabited the worlds we study and analyse. So when you choose an organisation to work with for your project, think about all the invisible barriers in your world, and set out to tear them down.

Media Pitch:
Calrossy House is a building like no other. Its red brick exterior, exquisite stained glass windows and marble floors have been a quintessential image within the city of Tamworth from its origins in the late nineteenth century. Although initially a tourist site, Calrossy House has had a much greater history within Tamworth as a home and school for young women. Calrossy House was initially sold to The Church of England Girls' School (now named Calrossy Anglican School) in 1923. Despite this building becoming an integral feature representing the expansion and development of Calrossy Anglican School for nearly a century, no history has yet been written. Thousands of girls have lived or studied in Calrossy House and yet they remain disconnected from its history. I have been given the wonderful opportunity to complete a visual history of Calrossy House within my university 'History Beyond The Classroom' course. I was instructed to compile a number of photographs tracking the development of Calrossy House and how its changes are representative of the wider societal changes facing Calrossy Anglican School. This history, in the form of a physical booklet, will be displayed within the Calrossy library so that students may be able to reconnect with their past. Still today, the girls of Calrossy Anglican School eat in the same dining hall, sleep in the same dormitories and even sign their names in at the same front office as students of decades past. It is essential that these students may be able to realise how fundamental Calrossy House has been in shaping Calrossy Anglican School so that they can appreciate that this building has a lot more to offer than aesthetic beauty.

A Note to Future Students:
This project has been a lot of fun to complete, and I believe that I have been successful so far. The key to success is to organise with your institution early, so that you can allow for many contact hours in the initial stages. Things can go wrong, and the nature of your project may change, so it is best to get started early so that you have enough time to overcome any unforeseen struggles.

In a time of increasingly unaffordable housing in Sydney and rent prices shooting through the roof, Housing Co-ops offer a viable alternative for university students. They operate by members who make decisions in the running of the property. Stucco, formed in 1991 and located in Newtown, is Sydney’s only student housing co-operative and is home to around 40 students. Its members pay low rent and the spirit fostered in community living is unparalleled through other housing alternatives. In organizing Stucco’s archives for its members and writing a more concise history for their website my project will draw attention to this housing alternative for students and improving educational access for students that need to live away from home to study.

I would tell future students that when looking at archives you can find many surprises, don’t go in knowing what you will write about. Looking through the Stucco archives I thought I would be dealing with maybe a few old newspaper clippings about the housing. It was built in an old glass factory and many of the original structures were adapted. I found myself researching how glass was made in the 1920s, finding old letters written by politicians, and old pamphlets for youth unemployment benefits from the 1980s. Archives are never isolated to the organization that collected them and are far reaching through time and society.

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