Bourbons, Bush Workers and Material Life (Braidwood)

Dr Denis Jeans

On 27th February, 1983, Dr. Denis Jeans of the Department of Geography at Sydney University addressed the Sydney Branch on the subject of rural life and labour in colonial N.S.W.from an archaeological perspective.

Focussing his attention on one carefully selected case study – that of the Braidwood district of Southern N.S.W. -Dr Jeans examined in fascinating detail the changing human landscape of the region since the first European encroachment and settlement in the early 1820’s. Ranging across the entire archaeological record, he analysed the interrelated material, social and cultural impact of four successive waves of European settlement – by the squattocracy, the gold miners, the small farmers and the town dwellers. The analysis left no stone un turned and no building style untraversed. Even garden layout came under scrutiny. “The historical landscape,’ Dr Jeans suggested, “had been written on again and again by the gentry, the miners, the farmers, and the towns people”. That landscape, he proposed, provides us with a unique record of social, cultural and technological transition.

“Gentry Society” was the first to take root in the Braidwood area, and its continued dominance down to the 1920’s is well reflected in the material record, said Dr. Jeans. The social order represented by the convict barracks of the 1820’s and the stately homestead of the 1830s was still sufficiently intact to leave its imprint on the memorial to the dead of The Great War, which was erected in Braidwood township just on one hundred years after the first European settlement. The memorial is still there. The names it carried are listed in order of military rank, and the names of the officer caste atop the list belong to those of the landed gentry.

Yet despite this clear historical continuity, the successive waves of gold miners, free selectors and town dwellers who followed on the heels of the gentry during the 19th century forced .considerable modification in the nature of gentry dominance. Dr Jeans provided several superb illustrations of the material manifestations of this process of conflict and accommodation. In doing so, he threw into sharp relief the class and cultural tensions which arose between the landed patricians on the one hand and the town merchants, rural smallholders and intinerant labourers on the other.

The material record, suggested Dr Jeans, exemplifies the resultant of these conflict. The architectural pastiche that was colonial Braidwood is one such resultant. Another, perhaps more poignant than any other, is the abandoned rural cottage, large numbers of which litter the poorer ground around the area. These ruins stand as stark testimony to the tragic plight of the farming-cum-labouring family in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, if there was one clear constant throughout Dr. Jeans’ analysis, it was the class divide between the man of property, whether pastoral patrician or town trader, and the rural labouring poor.

The general discussion which followed the address left no doubt that the methods of the historical archaeologist offer exciting new avenue of approach for all these interested in labour history, capital history and economic history. We eagerly await the fruits of work now being undertaken by Dr. Jeans and his colleagues on the historical archaeology of urban Australia.