By Peter Dewar
The New Year arrived in a hail of ‘shock and awe’ fireworks. Just the fanfare I needed to farewell 2017’s obsession – history of the west.
As for the countless hours lost squinting at tiny text and pouring over detail, I’m with French diva Édith Piaf – regret nothing. In fact, if you’re a poet or Shakespearian best look away: months spent wading through historical texts – literature’s tough mudder – rate as some of the most rewarding reading of a lifetime.
Salty river begets national economic powerhouse to the scornful chorus of wider Melbourne. What a story arc. In streets as familiar as childhood. Local history gave us compelling characters, triumphs and tragedies. And nothing could stand in the way of the hero (our community) in 20th century Footscray, a true-to-life Cinderella.
So what’s this got to do with here and now? History has served-up champions of industry, inspiring leaders and grand themes. But as a parting gesture to 2017, I’d like to remember the minor players and unheralded episodes from the pages of local history.
From a long and colourful list of contenders, I’ve chosen: an inspiring westie, a lesson for contemporary times, and one of history’s quirks, just for fun. So, if history awards could be given, here’s my top three.
Number one local hero
Joseph Goble (pictured above) grew up in poverty so desperate church leaders of the late 1800s began questioning long-held religious beliefs: individual salvation alone was no answer and cold comfort to the many who were starving and shivering in rags. With a background in trade unionism, and recently converted, the ‘boy preacher’ took to the pulpit.
His message attracted thousands of working class men and women, many who were atheists, to Sunday sermons. So genuine was Joseph’s commitment, he shared a modest Baptist stipend with the needy. This dissident, left-leaning preacher challenged a patriotism to Empire that had young workingmen marched off to war.
After forty years of service, the unexpected passing of Joseph was mourned at the largest funeral Footscray had ever seen.
Best social lesson
Louts roaming the streets in packs … it’s not new. Nor are dippy gang names.
Around the time of the Great War, gangs of larrikins, or pushes, took out their hostility towards authority and military discipline in escalating violence. With names as inane as ‘Footscray Dingoes’, ‘Bob Tail Push’ and ‘Stephen Street Push’, gangs brawled using pickets as weapons, attacked police, beat up on passers-by and tore-up property. The public outcry was resounding when an 80-year-old merchant was viciously assaulted and kicked.
Mob violence waxed and waned but continued throughout the 1920s. The ‘Troc Eagles’, ‘Blue Birds’ and ‘Tottenham Tigers’ made sure of that. The good news is the public nuisance eventually died down. Less comforting is what our past tells us about easy solutions. In a ‘History of Footscray’ John Lack comments: ‘Police influence was much exaggerated. … At the most the police succeeded in suppressing those [incidences] around the business centres and railway stations in old Footscray and Yarraville’.
Here’s hoping today’s politicians and authorities have better luck dealing with gangs. Mind you, they’ll have to re-write the playbook.
Most unlikely tunnel ever to be built
The ‘build it and they will come’, policy of early Municipal councils worked. Neighbourhoods flourished on the back of investment in infrastructure. But, there was one project …
Crossing the Yarra has been front of mind almost as long ago as settlers landed at William’s Town. In ‘The History of Williamstown’ William Elsum writes that ideas for a bridge over, or tunnel under the river were occasionally raised, and way back in 1891: ‘an unsuccessful attempt was made to construct a tramway from Williamstown, under the Yarra, to Melbourne …’ Total cost – 212,000 Australian pounds.
Not bad, if only for the charm of riding in a Melbourne icon rattling underground. I was amazed at how effective early communities were at overcoming obstacles, but tunnelling under the Yarra? Insurmountable. Until now. The West Gate Tunnel Project will cost a jaw-dropping $6.7 billion and be completed in 2022 … unless Opposition parties have their way.
So, it remains to be seen if a west to east subterranean transport tunnel is doomed to go down in history as an impossible dream.
As for me, time’s come to return the hardcovers to shelves. But if you’re short on a New Year’s resolution, and if my 2017 is anything to go by, you could do a lot worse than search out your hometown’s history.
Where to start a history search:
Footscray and Williamstown libraries have extensive heritage sections.
Footscray Historical Society: www.footscrayhistoricalsociety.org.au
Williamstown Historical Society: www.williamstownhistsoc.org.au
Footscray Mechanics Institute: 209 Nicholson St, Footscray
Williamstown library run a Monthly heritage group for support researching family and local history. For more details phone 1300 462 542 or visit www.libraries.hobsonsbay.vic.gov.au/ family-history
Don’t be a stranger to the Heritage shelves at your local library
WESTPECTIVE: Peter has always lived here. Writing about the west has opened his eyes to its many heroes.