Fascinating works on servant migration, railways see UOW historians honoured at national conference

Fascinating works on servant migration, railways see UOW historians honoured at national conference

Frances Steel, André Brett win awards at Australian Historical Association Conference

Two history researchers from The University of Wollongong (UOW) were praised for their work at the Australian Historical Association Conference in July.

UOW’s Head of History, Associate Professor Frances Steel won the Marian Quartly Prize for the best article in History Australia.

UOW is one of just a few Australian universities to teach Pacific history, an area of research explored in Dr Steel’s journal article, Servant mobilities between Fiji and New Zealand: the transcolonial politics of domestic work and immigration restriction, c.1870–1920’.

“I’m pleased that work on the Pacific has been recognised by a prominent Australian journal,” Dr Steel said.

“There’s growing interest in stories about people who, in the past, were left out of the narrative.”

Frances Steel and André Brett at UOW.

In late-nineteenth-century New Zealand, immigration policy was guided by principles of preserving a white population, however exemptions were often made for non-white people recruited from neighbouring islands to serve white families.

“There were small instances where that traffic in and out of the country was allowed,” Dr Steel said. “Sometimes those workers found ways to carve out new opportunities in New Zealand, rejecting assumptions about servility and dependence”.

Meanwhile, André Brett won the Allan Martin Award, a coveted award for early career academic historians.

The award is designed to assist historians with a research trip, and Dr Brett will travel to WA, intent on filling in a few chapters of a book he is writing about Australasia’s railway history.

A career highlight so far has been his work as a researcher for TV documentaries about The Ghan and Indian Pacific passenger trains.

For his book, one of the more fascinating findings so far is the lack of detailed planning that went into building steam railway lines to the most arid parts of Australia.

“The authorities were dealing with a growing colonial economy, once they had a few years of good rain in a place, they had this ludicrous belief, ‘We’re going to settle this area more intensively,’” Dr Brett said.

“In one instance, they pushed railways deep into Outback Queensland, then a few years later they had no water to run the trains, and so they cancelled services or brought water from hundreds of kilometres away.”

The funding will unlock access to collections of the State Records Office of WA, the State Library of WA and the WA Rail Transport Museum.

Dr Brett was delighted to receive the award, which will allow him to complete his manuscript by September 2020.