Does Ashburton need a Historical Society?
First up: I am keen to keep doing my potted histories of Ashburton’s iconic shops. Now the kids are back at school I have all this space in my brain and this magical thing called... time. I will be on it in the coming weeks! In the meantime though: during the holidays my son and I did a video of a trip on the Glen Waverley Line. Turns out people loved the Alamein Line one. Who knew?! I suspect most of those viewers were him.
Every so often someone suggests to me that I should start an Ashburton Historical Society. I always reply that I can’t be bothered. My approach to history has always been to tell stories about the past.
I write my blog, take photos of the local area, and ‘produce’ my terrible videos for YouTube, Instagram and Facebook that try and make little bits of local history interesting and engaging to everyone, including all those whippersnappers out there. To paraphrase the magnificent Whitney Houston, I believe the children really are our future.
The feedback I get is that people of all ages are interested in local history. But you’re going to have to give it to them on platforms they actually use. Like the internet and social media.
But I am worried that not having a history society means the opportunity to preserve the documents and photographs hidden in people’s houses that comprise the history of Ashburton will be lost.
Ashburton is the only suburb in Boroondara with a history blogger (me!) instead of a history society. I write a lot about how its history is often locked away, neglected or ignored entirely. But will an Ashburton historical society make any difference? What are the local government’s obligations when it comes to helping preserve Ashburton’s history?
I’m going to try and consider the merits of a local historical society carefully.
What does a local historical society do?
According to the Federation of Australian Historical Societies, a local historical society can do or be whatever its founding members think it should.
Often concerned citizens form them as a type of lobbying group to save an old building scheduled for demolition. Other societies form for a milestone event, like a local centenary. Others form because of a shared interest in collating and sharing local history. It’s entirely up to the founding members.
For example, the newest Boroondara-aligned society, Balwyn Historical Society formed in 2008 ‘because adjacent groups with significant heritage and history had limited interest in Balwyn’. Hmmm... sounds familiar. It now considers its primary objectives to be:
Organise speakers on historical subjects and related community interests
Publish a regular newsletter
Encourage historical research
Collect and organise documents and photographs and make them available for research
Display historical photographs and documents
Conduct events and excursions to places of historical interest
Exchange information and work with other historical societies
Camberwell Historical Society formed much earlier in 1963. It doesn’t give reasons for forming on its webpage but it had original members with strong links to the Royal Historical Society so that was probably sufficient. Its emphasis is on ‘lectures and excursions’.
Over at the Hawthorn Historical Society (1974) its members are ‘committed to exploring, preserving and sharing the community’s history and heritage.’ They are events focused but also conduct research, help to answer queries from the public and publish historical publications and a quarterly newsletter.
It’s safe to say that in Boroondara, the local Historical Societies are about community engagement through hosting history-themed events in the neighbourhood, collecting and organising documents for research, and documenting and distributing research outcomes in PDF newsletters.
Each society uses a subscription-based membership model. It’s not very much ($25-35 per year) but they also receive financial assistance from Boroondara Council.
What is the role of Boroondara Council?
Boroondara Council seems very supportive of the historical societies and stays out of operational matters. Each society is eligible for the selection of community grants Council offers every year.
Unlike other community groups, in the last budget Council approved financial support for ‘boosting community access to their collections,’ according to page 24 of the 2022-23 Budget document.
But what does ‘community access’ mean in the 21st century, post-Covid world?
‘Community access’ and Boroondara’s Historical Societies
There is no question that Boroondara’s local historical societies are staffed with very dedicated volunteers passionate about preserving local history. I’ve also no doubt they are inundated daily with rubbish that the area’s Grandads hoarded in their heritage-listed houses for decades until they died. I have five archive boxes of Ashburton Willows-related cricket records sitting in my cupboard I don’t know what to do with yet, so I have an iota of what it might be like for them.
However, when it comes to ‘community access’ in the 21st century, people want to be able to find things on the internet. They also want to engage with you on social media.
Unfortunately, when it comes to that part of community access Boroondara’s historical societies are still in the mid-20th century. I’m not sure they will survive if they do not start seriously ramping up their online and social media presence.
I did some digging and I put together this table to demonstrate my point.
* No dedicated domain name
** Weird connectivity issue with site
» “New Website Coming Soon” (5 June 2020)
It appears of the area’s six historical societies, four have Facebook pages. On perusing them, it appears only the Surrey Hills and Hawthorn Historical Societies have figured out how much Baby Boomers love Facebook by posting with any regularity. This is ... not good. Boomers are a historical society's bread and butter. An American survey from April 2022 showed 78% of 56+ year olds used Facebook, while only 32% used Instagram. Facebook is nearly 20 years old, it’s hardly new. Nostalgia is really big business there. Old photos, school books, you name it, Boomers love it.
Case in point: I’m a member of the 3148 Group for people who grew up in Jordanville, Ashwood, Holmesglen and Chadstone (I didn’t but go with me on this). It has 2,019 members. They post an average of six posts per day reminiscing about living in that area, often recycling the same photos between them.
Copyright on photographs taken before 1955 has expired. So a historical society has a great opportunity to use any it has for community engagement.
According to the survey above, 51% of total users of social media use Instagram. This is the domain of Gen Xs and Millenials. Meta owns both Facebook and Instagram so it’s really easy to post simultaneously to both platforms. Local history accounts like Old Vintage Melbourne, HeraldSunPhoto_retro, Library_vic (State Library), Nationaltrustvic (National Trust of Victoria), historyvictoria (Royal Historical Society Vic) vic_archives (Public Records Office) and Naagovau (National Archives) all showcase their photographic collections with short spiels about them. They have thousands of followers (like me). In one post I saw showing Camberwell Junction, there were hundreds of comments from people talking about shopping, socialising and growing up there.
In short, Council funding should be contingent on all Boroondara historical societies establishing and maintaining a social media presence. There is really no excuse anymore.
I think it’s great that events and presentations are part of history societies mandates. But people under the age of 55 are often time poor and used to choosing when they want to watch anything. So you’ve got to get them online. You can easily do it with a tripod, iPad or smartphone. A couple of hundred people have watched my crappy train journey videos in three months. Granted, a fair chunk of them are probably my son but I can see from the stats that other people are out there too.
There’s lots of opportunities being missed here. But then, Boroondara Council don’t do much to publicise the area’s rich history on their online platforms either.
Boorondara Council’s relationship with publicising its rich history
Boroondara Council has a dedicated webpage to finding out about your local history
The page needs a serious overhaul. The only linked history published in this century (you know, the one that is now 23 years old) is the Thematic Environmental History (2012). It is excellent but the link on the page takes you to the wrong place. Sigh.
Reading through the ‘Key Histories of the area’ section you would be forgiven for thinking that people stopped writing about Boroondara’s history fifty years ago.
Nowhere is there anywhere to see links to the newer and numerous local histories published in the past few years, such as:
Rosemary Barkley’s History of Camberwell Girls Grammar School (2010)
Bruce Phillips’ Ashy Redbacks (2011)
Simon Gardiner’s Cricket at Canterbury (2012)
Kylie Carnegie’s Glen Iris Primary School (1865-2015) (2015)
Claire Levi’s History of 120 years of Fintona Girls’ School (2016)
John L Torpey’s Boroondara’s Private Schools (1851-1951) (2021)
People write about local history for little reward, the least Council could do is put a link of their book on a webpage.
Of course, it goes without saying that Ashburton is not anywhere on this page. Even Neville Lee’s short history Ashburton through the Ages, readily available online through the Camberwell Historical Society, is not there.
There’s a world of content lying in those historical societies but Boroondara Council’s community magazine, Boroondara Bulletin rarely features anything about the area’s history. Neither does its social media pages. So the Council is funding ‘community access to collections’ but not doing anything about communicating what this access is or what the collections are about.
So what is it doing about the area’s history?
One word. Heritage. Heritage is big news these days. Heritage is everything that gives a place its identity. Most of the time, it manifests as building protection. For example...
If you’ve been to Harold Holt Swim Centre this ‘summer’, then you’ll have seen that the diving pool has re-opened. Kids and adults alike happily line up to jump, bombie, bellyflop and very occasionally dive of the new 1m and 3m springboards.
Every 14.7 seconds or so, someone new arrives and inevitably asks the lifeguard, ‘can we go off the platform?’
The lifeguard will say no. They will then patiently explain that the diving platform does not meet current safety regulations.
Then the potential diver will say, ‘but why didn’t they fix it to meet regulations?’
And the lifeguard will sigh and say, they couldn’t. Because the diving platform - and the whole Swim Centre for that matter - is heritage-listed.
Then the diver will look incredulously up at the freshly painted white and red concrete platform and say, ‘really?’ ‘THAT? That’s heritage listed?’ Then they will walk off, shaking their heads at how an ugly concrete tower managed to pull off a heritage listing.
Then the lifeguard will continue on their job for another 14.7 seconds until the next new diver arrives to ask the same question.
Heritage is a whole other blog written by James Lesh (who I knew briefly at Unimelb – smart guy – check out his post about the ‘heritage mafia’) and I’m not going to debate the controversies of heritage listing Brutalist architecture here. All I can say is that the Pool’s managers tried for years to get Stonnington’s heritage overlay on the diving platform lifted. To no avail.
This story is to highlight just how much of a fight there can be within a Council over heritage; fighting it and protecting it. And if the Council is fighting within itself, its consuming considerable resources, time and money that could be spent elsewhere.
Boroondara Council and Heritage
Boroondara Council is the custodian of some of the oldest European-settled areas in Melbourne. It is proudly and heavily invested in preserving the area’s heritage.
You can see from this map below how many places have some kind of heritage overlay on them (See the interactive map).
Heritage protection is something given to a property by the Council through their semi-regular Heritage surveys. In Boroondara, there are c.15,000 buildings with some kind of heritage overlay or significance attached to them.
Guess how many are in Ashburton?
Ten. Boroondara Council considers ten buildings 'significant' to the 'character' (heritage) of the area. They are:
454 Warrigal Road
A Spanish Mission-style house by architect P J O’Connor (the first owner) constructed in 1930-32. It was later occupied by Harold J Coy.
Pyrus Park, 7 Vears Road
The original house was built in 1885 by Samuel Jenkins and is a ‘tangible illustration of Ashburton’s agricultural past’. It is one of only four Victorian-era houses in the suburb.
270 High Street (St Michael’s Memorial Church)
‘A post-war church representing the growth of the municipality’s outer suburbs in the mid-twentieth century.’
268 High Street Ashburton (St Michael’s Parish Hall)
‘The first Roman Catholic church in Ashburton that demonstrates Romanesque styling and a Christian decorative scheme’.
10A Fakenham Road (Ashburton Primary School)
Built in the Spanish Mission style by the Public Works Department under Edwin Evan Smith in 1928, it’s historically significant as the first state school in Ashburton.
3-7 Ashburn Grove (Ashburton Uniting Church)
Built by prolific Melbourne architects RM & MH King in 1935 to facilitate the growing congregation and their families early in Ashburton’s establishment as a suburb.
45 Yuile Street
‘An outstanding example of a house built by a builder-developer around the time of the Second World War combining and adapting popular Moderne and Dudokian stylistic elements to a domestic setting.’
10 Marquis Street
Constructed c.1891 by builder Leopold Charles Payne as his home and a ‘tangible illustration of Ashburton’s earliest suburban development.’ It was originally located in the High Street Railway Estate, first subdivided in 1888.
148 High Street
This house is part of the Mont Iris Estate and Environs Precinct and is the only one allocated as ‘Significant’ not just ‘contributory’. All the other houses in the area have an explanation of why they are listed but not this one. The tower certainly makes it look like it should be significant.
1 Keyes Street
This house, built in 1950 is a significant example of a post-war house in Boroondara that ‘sought aesthetic refinement through Waterfall styling, crating the suburban ‘dream home’ within the limitations imposed by post-war restrictions.
And that’s it. There’s a few more around Summerhill Road but that’s Glen Iris and along the ‘example of postwar housing’ line of thinking. There’s not that many in the Boroondara side of Glen Iris either; with Glen Iris Primary School and Camberwell South Primary School the only exceptions.
If Boroondara’s primary support for its history is through heritage, then where does that leave Ashburton?
And that is the real question. I don’t know. In the hands of a solitary blogger it seems.
That's not entirely true. Boroondara did help fund the upcoming Ashburton Short Film Festival that showcases stories from local residents' lives.
However, no-one seems to be interested in heritage listing the old housing commission houses as ‘examples of post-war social housing for people living in poverty’. Even the far more attractive 1920s style houses of Munro Avenue or the north side of High Street do not attract heritage attention. This means anyone who buys them can demolish them as they see fit.
To be honest, I think on balance it’s an advantage for Ashburton not to be on Boroondara's heritage survey radar. It means residents can build sustainable and more energy efficient houses more suitable to the 21st century. I always say our history is in the stories of our people, not the buildings. Yes, old Californian bungalow style houses look pretty but if they’re costing a fortune to heat, then how much enjoyment is the owner getting out of them? Houses are for living in after all.
Heritage overlay in Boroondara is fraught with challenges. One Canterbury man found this out when Boroondara Council made him remove his photovoltaic panels from his heritage-listed house. By comparison, the heritage-listed Westgarth Theatre in Northcote was allowed solar panels that spelled out the name of the cinema’s owner: Palace. Even the National Trust permitted solar panels on Ripponlea Estate.
The non-heritage listed but charming Ashburton Scout Hall - built in 1946 and still standing today despite the objections of early Fakenham Road residents - has solar panels on it, saving the Scouts hundreds on its energy a year.
So what about some kind of accessible central repository for historical documents and photographs?
Now that is far more what we need. In fact, I'll argue the whole of Boroondara does.
It’s my personal opinion that Boroondara Council should throw its local history money into a Boroondara Historical Society, not individual suburb societies. I think it would be a far more efficient use of Council funds and a more equitable way for all the suburbs historical documents to be recorded.
But Boroondara is a very conservative Council. It still insists on Christian prayer at the commencement of Council meetings despite petitions and objections. It was forced by the State Government to overturn the dry area rules.
Boroondara Council does not like change. It doesn’t even like changing the way it communicates about how it doesn’t like things to change.
In the end, local history societies are what their members make them. And if they’re happy listening to monthly lectures on the Chelsea Flower Show and Cobb & Co, then good for them.
So will there be an Ashburton History Society?
Not from me. I’ll just keep plugging away at my blog/Instagram/YouTube.*
But if you have any old photographs of life around Ashburton or its residents, Camberwell Library will accept them. The Local History people Tom and Emily will take good care of you. Anything else just scan and put up on Facebook or Pinterest. It’s what passes for a history society these days!
* I’m even learning how to use TikTok. I KNOW. I figure since all my details probably got stolen in whatever data breach du jour occurred recently, I may as well give it all to the Chinese too.