Tag Archives: England
The announcement by Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, that pubs in England will be allowed to resume trading from July 4 was greeted with rousing cheers from some. But having a pint in the pandemic era will be slightly different. While two-metre social distancing rules are being relaxed to one metre to ensure economic viability for publicans, to maintain the safety of customers and staff, pubs will where practical be restricted to “table service”.
Standing at the bar is one of the most cherished rituals of the British pub experience – and many people are worried that the new rules could be the beginning of the end of a tradition that dates back centuries. Except, it doesn’t – the bar as we now know it is of relatively recent vintage and, in many respects, the new regulations are returning us to the practices of a much earlier era.
Before the 19th century, propping up the bar would have been an unfamiliar concept in England’s dense network of alehouses, taverns and inns. Alehouses and taverns in particular were seldom purpose-built, but were instead ordinary dwelling houses made over for commercial hospitality. Only their pictorial signboards and a few items of additional furniture distinguished them from surrounding houses. In particular, there was no bar in the modern sense of a fixed counter over which alcohol could be purchased and served.
Check out: Intoxicating spaces
Instead, beverages were ferried directly to seated customers from barrels and bottles in cellars and store rooms by the host and, in larger establishments, drawers, pot-boys, tapsters and waiters. The layout of Margaret Bowker’s large Manchester alehouse in 1641 is typical: chairs, stools and tables were distributed across the hall, parlours, and chambers, while drink was stored in “hogsheads”, “barrels”, and “rundlets” in her cellar.
The bar as we know it didn’t emerge organically from these arrangements, but rather from the introduction of a new commodity in the 18th century: gin.
Originally it was imported from the Netherlands and distilled in large quantities domestically from the later decades of the 17th century, but the emergence of a mass market for gin in the 1700s gave rise to the specialised gin or dram shop. Found mainly in London – especially in districts such as the East End and south of the river – an innovation of these establishments was a large counter that traversed their width.
Along with a lack of seating, this maximised serving and standing space and encouraged low-value but high-volume turnover from a predominantly poor clientele. The flamboyant gin palaces of the later 18th and early 19th century – described by caricaturist and temperance enthusiast George Cruikshank as “gaudy, gold be-plastered temples” – retained the bar, along with other features drawn from the retail sector such as plate-glass windows, gas lighting, elaborate wrought iron and mahogany fittings, and displays of bottles and glasses. While originally regarded as alien to local drinking cultures, by the 1830s these architectural elements started making their way into all English pubs, with the bar literally front and centre.
As architectural historian Mark Girouard has pointed out, the adoption of the bar was a “revolutionary innovation” – a “time-and-motion breakthrough” that transformed the relationship between customers and staff. It brought unprecedented efficiencies that were especially important in the expanding and industrialising cities of the early 1800s.
In particular, a fixed counter with taps, cocks and pumps connected to spirit casks and beer barrels was more efficient than employees scurrying between cellars, storerooms and drinking areas. This was especially the case for “off-sales” – customers purchasing drinks to take home – which had always been a large component of the drinks trade and still accounted for an estimated one-third of takings into the 19th century.
Posterity has paid little attention to the armies of service staff who kept the world of the tavern spinning on its axis before the age of the bar. But they are occasionally glimpsed in historical sources – such as Margaret Sephton, who was “drawing beer” at Widow Knee’s Chester alehouse in 1629, when she gave evidence about a theft of linen. While skilled – one tapster at a Chester tavern styled himself rather grandly in 1640 as a “drawer and sommelier of wine” – drink work was poorly paid. Staff were often paid in kind with food and lodgings and the work was usually undertaken by people who were young, poor, or new to the community.
The lack of a bar made the job especially challenging. It was physically demanding – in 1665 a young tapster at a Cheshire alehouse described how during her shift she was “called to and fro in the house and to other company, testifying to the constant back and forth. The fact that drinks were not poured in front of patrons made staff more vulnerable to accusations of adulteration and short measure – sometimes with good reason – and close physical proximity to customers when serving and collecting payment meant such disputes could more readily turn violent. For female employees, the absence of the insulating layer of material and space later provided by the bar meant they were much more exposed to sexual abuse from male patrons.
What can the historical record teach proprietors of any newly bar-less pubs? There are, of course, modern advantages such as apps and other digital tools – plus the example of European and North American establishments, where table service was never fully displaced. But there are practical lessons to be learned from the past all the same. Publicans today might streamline the range of drinks on offer and encourage the use of jugs for refills. Landlords could develop careful zoning for their staff – in larger alehouses and taverns tapsters were allocated specific booths and rooms. Most importantly they need to establish and enforce clear rules about behaviour towards staff – especially in terms of physical contact. Better to have premodern pubs than no pubs at all, after all.
The chances of finding another major archaeological monument near Stonehenge today are probably very small given the generations of work that has gone into studying the site. Stumbling across such a monument that measured more than 2km across must be highly unlikely. And yet that is exactly what our team from the Anglo-Austrian “Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes” research project has done.
We discovered a circle of pits, each ten metres or more in diameter and at least five metres deep, around Stonehenge’s largest prehistoric neighbour, the so-called super henge at Durrington Walls. More amazingly, the initial evidence for this discovery was hidden away in terabytes of remote sensing data and reams of unpublished literature generated by archaeologists over the years.
Durrington is one of Britain’s largest neolithic monuments. Comprising banks and ditches measuring 500 metres across, the henge was constructed over 4,500 years ago by early farmers, around the time that Stonehenge achieved it’s final, distinctive form. The site itself overlies what may have been one of north west Europe’s largest neolithic villages. Researchers suggest that the communities that built Stonehenge lived here.
Over the last decade, there has been a quiet revolution in the landscape around Stonehenge as archaeologists have gained access to enhanced remote sensing technologies. Around 18 sq km of landscape around Stonehenge has now been surveyed through geophysics. Now archaeologists are joining the dots within these enormous data set, and making associations they might not have done otherwise.
The first geophysical anomalies related to our new discovery were recorded (but not published) some years ago when a small number of peculiar circular splodges in the magnetometry data south of Durrington. These were initially interpreted as shallower features, possibly dew ponds, unlinked to the henge. But our research group realised that similar features had been recorded far to the north of the henge by archaeological contractors, interpreted as natural sink holes caused by solution of the chalk bedrock.
Our mapping work suggested all these features were actually linked and part of a single, massive circuit surrounding the henge monument at Durrington. Detailed study, including drilling for underground samples, revealed the anomalies as massive pits, with near vertical sides, containing worked flint and bone. Radiocarbon dating suggested the features were from the same time as the henge.
Shafts and pits are known in prehistoric British archaeology, but the sheer number of massive pits and the scale of the Durrington circuit is unparalleled in the UK. The internal area of the ring is likely to be at least around three sq km. This arrangement of pits certainly gives the impression they bound an important space, and here there may be a comparison to be made with Stonehenge itself.
Stonehenge actually has a territory sometimes called the “Stonehenge Envelope”. This is marked by lines of later burial mounds clustering around the monument, covering an area similar to that of Durrington Walls. The space is marked so clearly that archaeologists have suggested only a special few people may have been allowed to enter the area.
This association of Stonehenge with death and burial has also led to interpretations that it was reserved for ancestors. Durrington, in contrast, is believed to be associated with the living. But our discovery of the pits suggest that Durrington did have a similar special outer area, as large as that associated with Stonehenge.
The pit circle also provide insights into the mindset of the people who built these massive structures. The pits appear to be laid out to include a much earlier monument: the Larkhill causewayed enclosure.
Built more than 1,000 years before the Durrington Walls henge, such ditched enclosures were the first large communal constructions in Britain and they were clearly important to early farming communities. The decision to appropriate this earlier monument into the circuit of the henge must have been a deliberate, symbolic statement.
In fact, the pits appear to have been laid out in a notional circle so that they were all the same walking distance from the henge as the causewayed enclosure. Given the scale involved and the shape of the landscape, which includes several valleys, this would have been difficult to achieve without the existence of a tally or counting system. This is the first evidence that such a system may have been used by neolithic people to lay out what must be considered a sacred geometry, at the scale suggested by the Durrington pits.
The unexpected discovery of a unique set of massive pits within the Stonehenge landscape may also have implications in terms of the site’s management. There are similar individual features scattered throughout the landscape that are unexplored but may be of equal significance. Yet a proposed road (the A303) development includes a road tunnel that will pass close to the iconic site of Stonehenge itself and impact a large corridor of land directly associated with the site.
The issue of value is complex when we’re discussing a period of history in which the digging of pits clearly had a multitude of social values. We would do well to consider the implication of such discoveries before a tragic loss ensues. Future generations are unlikely to forgive us if we damage this unique landscape.
As a professor of medieval Europe, I’ve taught the bubonic plague, and how it contributed to the English Peasant Revolt of 1381. Now that America is experiencing widespread unrest in the midst of its own pandemic, I see some interesting similarities to the 14th-century uprising.
The death of George Floyd has sparked protests fueled by a combination of brutal policing, a pandemic that has led to the loss of millions of jobs and centuries of racial discrimination and economic inequality.
“Where people are broke, and there doesn’t appear to be any assistance, there’s no leadership, there’s no clarity about what is going to happen, this creates the conditions for anger, rage, desperation and hopelessness,” African American studies scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor told The New York Times.
Medieval England may seem far removed from modern America. And sure, American workers aren’t tied to employers by feudal bonds, which meant that peasants were forced to work for their landowners. Yet the Peasant Revolt was also a reaction brought on by centuries of oppression of society’s lowest tiers.
And like today, the majority of wealth was held by an elite class that comprised about 1% of the population. When a deadly disease started to spread, the most vulnerable and powerless were asked the pick up the most slack, while continuing to face economic hardship. The country’s leaders refused to listen.
Eventually, the peasants decided to fight back.
Clamoring for higher wages
Surviving letters and treatises express feelings of fear, grief and loss; the death tolls from the 14th-century plague were catastrophic, and it’s estimated that between one-third to one-half of the European population died during the its first outbreak.
The massive loss of life created an immense labor shortage. Records from England describe untilled fields, vacant villages and untended livestock roaming an empty countryside.
The English laborers who survived understood their newfound value and began to press for higher wages. Some peasants even began to seek more lucrative employment by leaving feudal tenancy, meaning the peasants felt free to leave the employment of their landowning overlords.
Rather than accede to the demands, King Edward III did just the opposite: In 1349, he froze wages at pre-plague levels and imprisoned any reaper, mower or other workman in service to an estate who left his employment without cause. These ordinances ensured that elite landowners would retain their wealth.
Edward III enacted successive laws intended to ensure laborers wouldn’t increase their earning power. As England weathered subsequent outbreaks of the plague, and as labor shortages continued, workers started to clamor for change.
Enough is enough
The nominal reason for the Peasant Revolt was the announcement of a third poll tax in 15 years. Because poll taxes are a flat tax levied on every individual, they affect the poor far more than the wealthy. But similar to the protests that have erupted in the wake of Floyd’s death, the Peasant Revolt was really the result of dashed expectations and class tensions that had been simmering for more than 30 years.
Things finally came to a head in June 1381, when, by medieval estimates, 30,000 rural laborers stormed into London demanding to see the king. The cohort was led by a former yeoman soldier named Wat Tyler and an itinerant, radical preacher named John Ball.
Ball was sympathetic to the Lollards, a Christian sect deemed heretical by Rome. The Lollards believed in the dissolution of the sacraments and for the Bible to be translated into English from Latin, which would make the sacred text equally accessible to everyone, diminishing the interpretive role of the clergy. Ball wanted to take things even further and apply the ideas of the Lollards to all of English society. In short, Ball called for a complete overturn of the class system. He preached that since all of humanity constituted the children of Adam and Eve, the nobility could not prove they were of higher status than the peasants who worked for them.
With the help of sympathetic laborers in London, the peasants gained entry to the city and attacked and set fire to the Palace of Savoy, which belonged to the Duke of Lancaster. Next they stormed the Tower of London, where they killed several prominent clerics, including the archbishop of Canterbury.
A bait and switch
To quell the violence, Edward’s successor, the 14-year-old Richard II, met the irate peasants just outside of London. He presented them a sealed charter declaring that all men and their heirs would be “of free condition,” which meant that the feudal bonds that held them in service to landowners would be lifted.
While the rebels were initially satisfied with this charter, things didn’t end well for them. When the group met with Richard the next day, whether by mistake or intent, Wat Tyler was killed by one of Richard’s men, John Standish. The rest of the peasants dispersed or fled, depending on the report of the medieval chronicler.
For the authorities, this was their chance to pounce. They sent judges into the countryside of Kent to find, punish and, in some cases, execute those who were found guilty of leading the uprising. They apprehended John Ball and he was drawn and quartered. On Sept. 29, 1381, Richard II and Parliament declared the charter freeing the peasants of their feudal tenancy null and void. The vast wealth gap between the lowest and highest tiers of society remained.
American low-wage laborers obviously have rights and freedoms that medieval peasants lacked. However, these workers are often tied to their jobs because they cannot afford even a brief loss of income.
The meager benefits some essential workers gained during the pandemic are already being stripped away. Amazon recently ended the additional US$2 per hour in hazard pay it had been paying workers and announced plans to fire workers who don’t return to work for fear of contracting COVID-19. Meanwhile, between mid-March and mid-May, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos added $34.6 billion dollars to his wealth.
It appears that the economic disparities of 21st-century capitalism – where the richest 1% now own more than half of the world’s wealth – are beginning to resemble those of 14th-century Europe.
When income inequalities become so jarring, and when these inequalities are based in long-term oppression, perhaps the sort of unrest we’re seeing on the streets in 2020 is inevitable.
[You need to understand the coronavirus pandemic, and we can help. Read The Conversation’s newsletter.]
In early April, writer Jen Miller urged New York Times readers to start a coronavirus diary.
“Who knows,” she wrote, “maybe one day your diary will provide a valuable window into this period.”
During a different pandemic, one 17th-century British naval administrator named Samuel Pepys did just that. He fastidiously kept a diary from 1660 to 1669 – a period of time that included a severe outbreak of the bubonic plague in London. Epidemics have always haunted humans, but rarely do we get such a detailed glimpse into one person’s life during a crisis from so long ago.
There were no Zoom meetings, drive-through testing or ventilators in 17th-century London. But Pepys’ diary reveals that there were some striking resemblances in how people responded to the pandemic.
A creeping sense of crisis
For Pepys and the inhabitants of London, there was no way of knowing whether an outbreak of the plague that occurred in the parish of St. Giles, a poor area outside the city walls, in late 1664 and early 1665 would become an epidemic.
The plague first entered Pepys’ consciousness enough to warrant a diary entry on April 30, 1665: “Great fears of the Sickenesse here in the City,” he wrote, “it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all.”
Pepys continued to live his life normally until the beginning of June, when, for the first time, he saw houses “shut up” – the term his contemporaries used for quarantine – with his own eyes, “marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there.” After this, Pepys became increasingly troubled by the outbreak.
He soon observed corpses being taken to their burial in the streets, and a number of his acquaintances died, including his own physician.
By mid-August, he had drawn up his will, writing, “that I shall be in much better state of soul, I hope, if it should please the Lord to call me away this sickly time.” Later that month, he wrote of deserted streets; the pedestrians he encountered were “walking like people that had taken leave of the world.”
Tracking mortality counts
In London, the Company of Parish Clerks printed “bills of mortality,” the weekly tallies of burials.
Because these lists noted London’s burials – not deaths – they undoubtedly undercounted the dead. Just as we follow these numbers closely today, Pepys documented the growing number of plague victims in his diary.
At the end of August, he cited the bill of mortality as having recorded 6,102 victims of the plague, but feared “that the true number of the dead this week is near 10,000,” mostly because the victims among the urban poor weren’t counted. A week later, he noted the official number of 6,978 in one week, “a most dreadfull Number.”
By mid-September, all attempts to control the plague were failing. Quarantines were not being enforced, and people gathered in places like the Royal Exchange. Social distancing, in short, was not happening.
He was equally alarmed by people attending funerals in spite of official orders. Although plague victims were supposed to be interred at night, this system broke down as well, and Pepys griped that burials were taking place “in broad daylight.”
Desperate for remedies
There are few known effective treatment options for COVID-19. Medical and scientific research need time, but people hit hard by the virus are willing to try anything. Fraudulent treatments, from teas and colloidal silver, to cognac and cow urine, have been floated.
Although Pepys lived during the Scientific Revolution, nobody in the 17th century knew that the Yersinia pestis bacterium carried by fleas caused the plague. Instead, the era’s scientists theorized that the plague was spreading through miasma, or “bad air” created by rotting organic matter and identifiable by its foul smell. Some of the most popular measures to combat the plague involved purifying the air by smoking tobacco or by holding herbs and spices in front of one’s nose.
Tobacco was the first remedy that Pepys sought during the plague outbreak. In early June, seeing shut-up houses “put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll-tobacco to smell … and chaw.” Later, in July, a noble patroness gave him “a bottle of plague-water” – a medicine made from various herbs. But he wasn’t sure whether any of this was effective. Having participated in a coffeehouse discussion about “the plague growing upon us in this town and remedies against it,” he could only conclude that “some saying one thing, some another.”
During the outbreak, Pepys was also very concerned with his frame of mind; he constantly mentioned that he was trying to be in good spirits. This was not only an attempt to “not let it get to him” – as we might say today – but also informed by the medical theory of the era, which claimed that an imbalance of the so-called humors in the body – blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm – led to disease.
Melancholy – which, according to doctors, resulted from an excess of black bile – could be dangerous to one’s health, so Pepys sought to suppress negative emotions; on Sept. 14, for example, he wrote that hearing about dead friends and acquaintances “doth put me into great apprehensions of melancholy. … But I put off the thoughts of sadness as much as I can.”
Balancing paranoia and risk
Humans are social animals and thrive on interaction, so it’s no surprise that so many have found social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic challenging. It can require constant risk assessment: How close is too close? How can we avoid infection and keep our loved ones safe, while also staying sane? What should we do when someone in our house develops a cough?
During the plague, this sort of paranoia also abounded. Pepys found that when he left London and entered other towns, the townspeople became visibly nervous about visitors.
“They are afeared of us that come to them,” he wrote in mid-July, “insomuch that I am troubled at it.”
Pepys succumbed to paranoia himself: In late July, his servant Will suddenly developed a headache. Fearing that his entire house would be shut up if a servant came down with the plague, Pepys mobilized all his other servants to get Will out of the house as quickly as possible. It turned out that Will didn’t have the plague, and he returned the next day.
In early September, Pepys refrained from wearing a wig he bought in an area of London that was a hotspot of the disease, and he wondered whether other people would also fear wearing wigs because they could potentially be made of the hair of plague victims.
And yet he was willing to risk his health to meet certain needs; by early October, he visited his mistress without any regard for the danger: “round about and next door on every side is the plague, but I did not value it but there did what I could con ella.”
Just as people around the world eagerly wait for a falling death toll as a sign of the pandemic letting up, so did Pepys derive hope – and perhaps the impetus to see his mistress – from the first decline in deaths in mid-September. A week later, he noted a substantial decline of more than 1,800.
Let’s hope that, like Pepys, we’ll soon see some light at the end of the tunnel.
[You need to understand the coronavirus pandemic, and we can help. Read The Conversation’s newsletter.]
Tall ship tales: oral accounts illuminate past encounters and objects, but we need to get our story straight
Captain James Cook arrived in the Pacific 250 years ago, triggering British colonisation of the region. We’re asking researchers to reflect on what happened and how it shapes us today. We will be publishing more stories in this series in the coming week.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains images and names of deceased people.
In the early Sydney colony, newcomers commonly quizzed Indigenous locals about their memories of Captain Cook and the Endeavour.
They believed the arrival of a shipload of British men who stayed for a week was an incredibly memorable event; and assumed that details of it would have been preserved — even treasured — over time.
The accounts given are hardly ever a straightforward recounting of what Cook did. And they rarely tally with what is recorded in the voyage accounts.
Rather, they carry those common qualities of remembering: telescoping, conflating, rearranging time, stripping back detail, and upping symbolism and metaphor. Unpicking the threads of these memories is vital for historians wanting to find agreement on details and interpretations, and provenance of items that changed hands during early encounters.
Some oral accounts were written down – either at the time they were heard or later. Records reveal accounts extracted out of curiosity, to assist with commemorations, or simply to pass the time.
One account comes from the early 1830s. Two priests stationed at St Mary’s Cathedral near Sydney’s Domain met an Aboriginal man from Botany Bay. They asked him “if he had any recollections of the landing of Captain Cook”? He was born too late to have witnessed it himself, but he shared a reasonably long story he had inherited from his father, the recollection of which one of the priests later published.
Similarly, in a recent prize-winning essay, historian Grace Karskens reconstructs a tantalising conversation between Aboriginal woman Nah Doongh and her settler friend Sarah Shand.
“Shand was intensely curious about Nah Doongh’s memory of her first contact with white people”, Karsken explains, but was frustratingly incapable of seeing she was implicated in the dispossession of Aboriginal people, including Nah Doongh.
Nah Doongh offered her a story about Cook, whom she presented as big and evil, violent and greedy, in a way that anticipates late 20th-century Aboriginal oral narratives.
Cook emerged as an erstwhile topic in cross-cultural conversations across colonial Sydney, but the substance of what was said and why was less dependent on the details of what Cook and his crew had done in 1770 than on the conditions, contexts and purposes of the chats.
As many have noted, discourses about Cook in Australia are neverending; but their contours and emphases change in relation to – and contribute to change in — broader Australian culture and politics.
Who is speaking?
Sometimes it is not the account given of Cook that is of primary interest, but the identity of the narrator.
Dharawal woman Biddy Giles lived around the Botany Bay area for much of the 19th century. An account she gave of Cook’s landing was written down after her death by a white settler.
He recalled she’d said: “They all run away; two fellows stand; Cook shot them in the legs; and they run away too!”.
This economical account is faithful to longer Endeavour voyage renditions. But researchers are more exercised by biographical information showing Giles was briefly married to a much older man, Cooman. Speculation swirls that Cooman’s grandfather, also called Cooman, was one of the two fellows shot.
When historian Heather Goodall in her book Rivers and Resilience returned to Giles’ life, she made it clear she thought historians who relied on documentary sources should not attempt such jumps.
Not all researchers have been so circumspect. In 2016, speculations about the identity of one of the two men shot contributed to formal requests to museums in Britain for the return of artefacts either known to have been collected at Botany Bay during the Endeavour voyage (four spears at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge) or believed to have been (a shield at the British Museum in London).
The repatriation claim repeated historian Keith Vincent Smith’s assertion one of the two men was Cooman.
When asked for advice on this repatriation request, I (Nugent) concluded there was no consensus about that assertion, noting it was unfortunate that:
historical claims which derive from inconclusive evidence, are based on questionable interpretative leaps, and are not presented in ways that recognise and respect the complexities of writing “early contact” history from fragmentary sources […] were being relied upon.
Other arguments would serve applications for return far better.
The request was unsuccessful, but the process was productive and generally positive. More work has taken place since, both further historical research and object analysis, and importantly, renewed and enriched relationship-building.
Building a material history
Retracing the speculative leaps made between the historical encounters, collected objects, and related written, oral and visual sources reinforces the urgent need for well-resourced, critically reflexive, and multimodal methods of interpretation. This is particularly true when the return of an object and the knowledge it embodies is strongly desired.
This year we will commence a new ARC-funded project, Mobilising Objects to draw together objects in international collections, images, written records, oral accounts, and contemporary expertise to generate a material history of early colonial Sydney.
The project aims to build knowledge about exceptional, but poorly-documented, Aboriginal objects from Sydney and the NSW coast (circa 1770-1920s) in British and European museums. We hope to build strong relations between Aboriginal communities and overseas museums and lay robust foundations for future projects seeking the return of Indigenous cultural heritage.
Gathering together records of oral accounts given by Aboriginal people about Cook and other seaborne interlopers, and grappling with the interpretive challenges they present, will be a vital aspect of this work.
During this visit, the ship’s natural history expert Joseph Banks spoke favourably of the landscape, saying it resembled the “moorlands of England” with “knee-high brushes of plants stretching over gentle and treeless hills as far as the eye could see”.
Since then, Kamay has become an icon of Australia’s convict history and emblematic of the dispossession of Indigenous people from country.
However, memories of the pre-British flora have largely been lost. Ongoing research drawing on ecological data, and Indigenous and European histories, reveals what this environment once looked like. It shows many of the assumptions about the historical landscape we hold today may actually be wrong.
The site better reflects 20th-century European exploitation of the landscape than it does early or pre-British Botany Bay.
From swamps to suburbs
Today, the northern shore of Kamay acts as Australia’s gateway to the world. It hosts Australia’s busiest international airport and one of Australia’s largest container ports, major arterial roads and a rapidly growing residential population.
From the early 19th century, urban development gradually overprinted a vast network of groundwater-fed swamplands, whose catchment extended north from Kamay to what is now the southern boundary of Sydney’s CBD.
These swamps have largely disappeared under the suburbs, or have been corralled into golf course ponds or narrow wetlands alongside Southern Cross Drive – a sight familiar to anyone who has driven between Sydney city and its airport.
Viewed by British colonial authorities as both an unhealthy nuisance and a critical resource, the ever-shrinking wetlands played a crucial role in the water supply and industrial development of early Sydney, before becoming polluted and a disease-causing miasma.
A misremembered past
But attempting to protect ecosystems that reflect a version of the past has a major constraint. Long-term information about their past species composition and structure can be fragmented, misremembered, or absent.
This is especially problematic in the case of the Kamay swamplands, which, like many urban ecosystems, have been fragmented, hydrologically altered, and polluted.
Yet not all is lost. We studied pollen released from flowering plants and conifers, which can accumulate and preserve in sediment layers through time.
Looking at this preserved pollen lets us develop a timeline of vegetation change over hundreds to thousands of years.
One wetland remnant, called Lachlan Swamp, occurs at the springhead of the swamplands in Centennial Parklands. Boardwalks and signs at the site encourage visitors to imagine the swamps and the paperbark forest (Melaleuca quinquenervia) surrounding them as a relic of pre-British Sydney.
We used the pollen technique at Lachlan Swamp to determine whether the contemporary ecosystem reflects the pre-European landscape being protected.
And our results reveal that, at the time of British occupation, the swampland was surrounded by an open, Ericaceae-dominated heath. Casuarina and Leptospermum species were the dominant swamp trees, not the swamp paperbark.
This plant community was present at the site for at least the previous 2,000 years, and was only replaced by the contemporary paperbark forest between the 1890s and 1970s.
Ongoing work from the La Perouse Aboriginal Community led research team drawing on Indigenous knowledge and European history suggests this open heathland vegetation grew consistently across the Lachlan and Botany Swamps during and prior to European colonisation of Sydney.
Continuous cultural knowledge about the environment, held by local Dharawal people, can provide a rich picture of Kamay’s botany and how it was used – well before the arrival of the HMS Endeavour.
For instance, the Garrara or grass tree (Xanthorrhoea), which is depicted in many early colonial paintings, is a multi-use plant used to construct fishing spears – a tradition upheld today within the La Perouse Aboriginal community.
Similarly, other food and medicinal plants have been long been used by this community. This includes Five Corners (Ericaceae), Native Sarsaparilla (Smilax), Lomandra (Lomandra) and multi-use heath and swamp plants such as the coastal wattle (Acacia longifolia), swamp oak (Casuarina glauca) and coastal tea tree (Leptospermum laevigatum).
The plant species described and utilised by the local people correlates with the pre-European vegetation reconstructed from the Lachlan Swamp pollen record, and with what is described in early British records.
Not all is lost
Our common understanding of the Kamay landscape, as recognised in the protected swamp remnant in Centennial Park, is based on a misremembering of the past.
If our future goals are to conserve beautiful, unique ecosystems that have escaped European exploitation and mismanagement – such as the version of Botany Bay described by Banks – it’s crucial to start including and listening to long-term environmental histories to compliment our scientific research.
We must protect a resilient, ecosystem-rich landscape informed by accumulated Indigenous knowledge, passed down over many generations.
Though Sydney’s environmental past may be misremembered, it’s not lost entirely. Its legacy is subtly coded into the remnant landscapes of pre-British occupation, and preserved in the continuous knowledge systems of the land’s first peoples.
With care, it can be read and used to support resilient and authentic urban ecosystems.
Rebecca Hamilton, Postdoctoral Researcher in Palaeoecology, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History; Dan Penny, Associate Professor, University of Sydney; Josephine Gillespie, Senior lecturer, University of Sydney, and Shane Ingrey, Postdoctoral research fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH), UNSW