Keeping the past alive

THEY are largely in their 70s now, but barely a step slower than in their youth. They garner an energy from their work here on Circle Street, but mostly from each other. And the conversation is virtually non-stop: they are constantly laughing and talking, then reading closely, pausing and thinking, frequently digressing and then getting back on track.

These are the core human constituents – mostly women – of New Norfolk’s Historical Information Centre, and there’s not much about this place, their home, that they don’t know. What is that tall brick tower over the river and what did it do? Why did they establish Millbrook Rise in New Norfolk? And most important, what can you tell me about my great-great-great-grandmother, Sarah Eyles and her convict days?

New Norfolk and the fertile valleys that surround it provide a rich resource for these women, as it has done since it was established in 1807. “Not us!” they hasten to let me know. “We haven’t been here quite that long… “By the way, this is Sue. That’s also Sue, she used to be postmistress in New Norfolk. The other Sue is not here today.”

The introductions come from Ruth Binny, chair of the HIC, an educator and historian in her own right. And a keen mind and knowing smile to go with it. Ruth has been chair of the Historical Information Centre on and off for about 10 years, but involved for more than 30. Not surprising when you learn she’s a former teacher of a range of histories – modern, British and ancient – at colleges from Rosny and Rose Bay to New Norfolk High. A fellow former teacher, Brian McNab, also shoulders a good deal of the load at the centre.

“We’ve all known students who dismiss their history lessons at school as a waste of time,” says Ruth. “But all those dates and names should be seen as coat-hooks on which you can hang great stories, important moments in the life of a community. Especially a place like this.”

Set up as a Bicentennial project in 1988, the centre originally was not open to the public. “With support from another strong local voice, Pam Mason, that changed so that our work is accessible by those seeking to really know their own families, where they come from,” says Ruth. Those in this small research group have the advantage of knowing each other for a very long time, in many cases back to their childhoods in the post-war years in the Valley. As a group, their powers of retention are remarkable. “Shirley S…? Absolutely! Lives down on Station Street, on the other side of the river. She’s the mother of …” Or: “Now this is interesting. These photos we just got of old hopfields should go with those from those we have on the Macquarie Plains farms. That’s a good collection.” Most of all, they are engaged and interested. They know stuff and are happy to share it.

Today, there are about a dozen of these historians in this inner circle of the New Norfolk Historical Information Centre, and they get together usually on a Thursday afternoon, but sometimes on Tuesday mornings, too. The centre, adjacent to the Derwent Valley council chambers, has the ability to conduct historical searches including burial records and can provide clients with written reports. The centre is also home to displays of historical artefacts and information, including photographs. Their office houses an impressive library of reference materials about the Derwent Valley, its pioneers, farms and homes. Church, military and family records make for an excellent research base. But it is the human component that brings this place to life, brings the past into the present. As the English writer Adam Nicolson observed: “Nothing is intelligible without the past, not because it is the past, but because it is the missing body of the present.”

The Historical Information Centre is open each Thursday from 1.30pm, and provides a welcome to the curious, to visitors and to those who have a few coat-hangers of their own. Ask for Sue.