Blackheath History Forum 2017 Program

Topics and Speaker Biographies

You can download and print our 2017 program flyer here.

July 29: LINDA EMERY (freelance historian and researcher for SBS)

The History behind SBS’s “Who Do You Think You Are?”

The SBS Television series ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ has proved to be one of the most successful documentaries of its kind, with Season 9 currently in production.  Linda will discuss her experiences working as a researcher on the program, the reasons for its continuing popularity and how the combination of solid historical research and captivating story-telling techniques elicit such powerful responses, not just from the subject of each episode, but from the viewing public.

Linda Emery is an active freelance historian, with a particular research interest in 19th century Australian history. For the past eight years, she has been a member of the research team for the SBS television genealogy program ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ and is currently working on Series 9.  Linda is the author of numerous books and articles on the Southern Highlands, and writes regularly for Highlife Magazine.

 In a voluntary capacity, Linda is Archivist and Vice President of the Berrima District Historical and Family History Society, a large and active organization with some 300 members. She was researcher and co-curator of the Southern Highlands 1200 exhibition on World War 1 which opened in 2015 at the Berrima District Museum.  She is a member of the Wingecarribee Shire Council Heritage Advisory Committee which reviews matters relating to heritage issues in the shire, and is a member of the Board of Governors of Oxley College, Bowral.

Her books include:

  • Pictorial History Southern Highlands
  • Pictorial History Hunters Hill
  • A Lovingly Woven Tapestry, Oxley College Bowral
  • A Window to the Southern Highlands
  • Tales from a Churchyard, All Saints Church and Cemetery, Sutton Forest – a history of the church 1828-1928
  • Exploring Exeter – a guide to the heritage buildings of Exeter NSW


August 12: NICK BRODIE (University of Tasmania)

British Colonisation & Official Terrorism in Van Diemen’s Land

Australians are taught that Van Diemen’s Land was colonised in 1803 some years after Sydney in 1788.  But, also in 1788, Captain Bligh planted an apple tree on the future ‘apple isle’.  This is but a small hint that Australia’s usual story of ‘discovery’ and then ‘settlement’ is a bit too simplistic.  Tasmanian history traditionally says that the warring Aboriginal Tribes in Van Diemen’s Land were ‘conciliated’ by humanitarian policies.  But, like in early New South Wales, ruling officials in Tasmania advocated terrorising Aboriginal people into submission. This talk follows the story of British Tasmania from the 1770s through to the great tragedy of the Vandemonian War of the 1820s and 1830s, debunking some old myths, and setting the bigger story of British colonisation straight.

Dr Nick Brodie is the author of Kin: A Real People’s History of Our Nation (2015), 1787: The Lost Chapters of Australia’s Beginnings (2016), and The Vandemonian War (forthcoming, 2017).  Qualified as both historian and archaeologist, Nick’s research interests range widely from medieval vagrants (his PhD topic) to Tasmanian manuscript traditions.


August 26: ELIZABETH TYNAN (James Cook University)

When Atomic Thunder Rolled Across Australia

This talk will delve into a remarkable era in Australian history when this nation hosted another country’s nuclear weapons test program, and paid the price for decades.  Maralinga was born in secret atomic business, and has continued to be shrouded in mystery decades after the atomic thunder died away at the South Australian test site.  The Cold War set the tone for this story – paranoia, distrust of enemy and ally alike, the rush for supremacy in technology, geopolitical game-playing and scientific hubris.  Australia became part of the mad dash to create atomic weaponry, although most of the population had no idea what the government had agreed to and as a nation we had no past or future stake in nuclear technology.  We were a non-nuclear nation at the heart of the nuclear arms race.  The British commandeered 3200 square kilometres of South Australian desert in their desire to keep up with the arms race that they had helped to initiate.  They named the site Maralinga (which means “thunder” in an Indigenous dialect).  At this desert test range, experiments on the destructive capacities of atoms proceeded without complete safeguards, including the safeguards afforded by public scrutiny and accountability.

Dr Elizabeth (Liz) Tynan is a senior lecturer at the James Cook University (JCU) Graduate Research School in Townsville.  Her PhD from the Australian National University examined aspects of the British nuclear weapons tests in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s.  She is a former journalist and journalism academic with a background in both print and electronic media.  Liz has worked for the ABC as a reporter and subeditor, and was later Sydney correspondent for New Scientist.  She was a publication editor at CSIRO for nearly five years, and has also worked at the Australian Institute of Marine Science in communication roles.  Liz is co-author of the Oxford University Press textbook Media and Journalism: New Approaches to Theory and Practice, now in its third edition, and lead author and editorial adviser on the OUP text, Communication for Business, published in 2013.  In September 2016 her popular history, Atomic Thunder:The Maralinga Story, was published by NewSouth.


September 9: HUMPHREY MCQUEEN (historian and activist

Dr Marx, Professor Childe and manure: some rather crude materialism  (9th annual Vere Gordon Childe Lecture)

Replenishing the soil was of concern to Adam Smith, to Johan von Thunen as the founder of marginal economics, and to Karl Marx, whose volume I of Das Kapital appeared 150 years ago, early in September 1867.

Drawing on Marx’s historical materialism, the Australian-born founder of the discipline of Prehistory, V. Gordon Childe, by 1934, had identified the agricultural or Neolithic Revolution starting some 10,000 years before the present as among the most significant moments in how our species has remade itself; Childe later added the urban revolution.

The shifts between pasture and farming, the engrossment of lands after 1750, a population explosion and then urbanisation, directed attention to the impoverishment of the soil – a matter given scientific urgency by Justus von Liebig in the 1840s.

Settlement colonies in North America and Australia allowed Britain to ‘import a million hectares’. The demand for guano led to the ‘turd wars’ in South America in the 1880s, while the Great War might well have been over by Christmas had Fritz Haber not synthesised ammonia for explosives and fertilisers in 1913.

In homage to the sweep and depth of historical materialism founded by Marx and enriched by Childe, the lecture will weave the contest of ideas into a survey of struggles to control the wealth of nature.

Humphrey McQueen is a Canberra-based historian and activist at work on yet one more Marxist account of the origins of capitalism, to be titled The Revolution inside Capital.

For access to a selection of his writings over fifty years see www.surplusvalue.org,au.


September 23: RHYS CRAWLEY (Australian War Memorial)

The Secret Cold War: ASIO, 1975-1989

Like its predecessors, The Secret Cold War, the final volume in the Official History of ASIO trilogy, was written with unrestricted access to ASIO’s classified files.  Its publication in October 2016 was significant in many ways; not only did it mark the culmination of a history project the likes of which had not been seen in Australia, but it also provided the first official confirmation that ASIO had been penetrated by the KGB.  In this presentation Dr Rhys Crawley, who co-wrote The Secret Cold War, will talk about the process of researching and writing this volume, as well as discussing the many changes that occurred within ASIO and the wider Australian intelligence community.  Rhys will also examine some of the successes, failures, and challenges faced by Australia’s security intelligence organisation in the latter years of the Cold War.

Dr Rhys Crawley is an historian at the Australian War Memorial where he is writing the Official History of Australian Operations in Afghanistan, 2005-2010.  He is also an adjunct lecturer at the University of New South Wales, Canberra, and a visiting fellow at the Australian National University.  His publications include Climax at Gallipoli: The Failure of the August Offensive (2014), The Secret Cold War: The Official History of ASIO, 1975-1989 (with John Blaxland, 2016) and The Long Search for Peace: Observer Missions and Beyond, 1947-2006 (with Peter Londey and David Horner, forthcoming).


October 7: PETER HOBBINS (University of Sydney)

Snakebite, science and suffering: serpents, dogs and doctors in colonial Australia

How do we know when a snake is dangerous?  In nineteenth-century Australia, snakes were often deemed ‘venomous’, yet the basis for this purported ‘knowledge’ was rarely disclosed. From Aboriginal testimony to anatomical analogy, settlers, naturalists and doctors accepted a wide variety of evidence.  Yet beyond snakebite cases in humans, the most potent testimony has been largely overlooked.  From the very first years of white colonisation, imported animals died regularly following bites by indigenous serpents.  Horses and oxen, sheep and cats, pigs and fowls proved regular casualties.  While at first accidental, by the late 1840s these encounters were increasingly orchestrated.  With dogs forming the vast majority of victims, itinerant antidote sellers and snake charmers regularly encouraged colonial audiences to enjoy the spectacle of envenomation.  In forcing snakes to bite domesticated animals, these staged ‘experiments’ were intended to prove not only that a serpent’s venom was dangerous, but that the resultant animal suffering was directly applicable to humans.  In this talk Peter Hobbins will argue that such ‘vivisection’ was both widespread and blatant across the Australian colonies, with doctors following rather than leading popular practice.  Furthermore, he believes, the moral consequences for snakes, dogs and ‘scientific medicine’ were rarely healthy.

Dr Peter Hobbins trained as a pharmacologist and worked as a medical writer before undertaking a Masters and then a PhD in history at the University of Sydney.  Focusing on science, technology and medicine, Peter has recently published two books.  Written with archaeologists Ursula Frederick and Anne Clarke, Stories from the Sandstone is a public history work exploring the past of Sydney’s former Quarantine Station.  In early 2017 Manchester University Press published Peter’s monograph, Venomous Encounters: Snakes, Vivisection and Scientific Medicine in Colonial Australia.


October 21: GRACE KARSKENS (University of NSW)

Recovering the Hawkesbury’s Vanished Places: Four River Stories

Grace is fascinated by lost places: the physical processes and politics by which one landscape succeeds another over time; the way we can read markers of earlier, phases in later landscapes; and the impacts these vast changes have on people.  Her talk will present and discuss four elemental stories from her forthcoming book People of the River (Allen & Unwin), a history of Aboriginal and settler peoples on the Hawkesbury-Nepean River from deep time to about 1830.  These stories sketch out new ways to understand people and country in early colonial Australia, exploring the profound power of the bush and the river in shaping human destiny and sense of place in this country.

Professor Grace Karskens is a historian, writer and teacher. She is a leading authority on early colonial Australia and teaches Australian history at the University of New South Wales.  Her books include Inside the Rocks: The Archaeology of a Neighbourhood and the multi-award winning The Rocks: Life in Early Sydney.  Her latest book, The Colony: A History of Early Sydney, won the 2010 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the US Urban History Association’s prize for Best Book 2010.  Her next book is People of the River, a history of Aboriginal and settler peoples on the Hawkesbury-Nepean River from deep time to about 1830.


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