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Peter C. Rickwood and David J. West (eds), Blackheath: Today from Yesterday, the History of a Town in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales.

Peter C. Rickwood and David J. West (eds), Blackheath: today from yesterday: the history of a town in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, WriteLight Pty Ltd for the Rotary Club of Blackheath Inc, Blackheath, 2005, 640 pages; ISBN 0 9581934 5 2.

Blackheath: today from yesterday is a handsome looking book, featuring Govett's Leap in full flow pictured against the mist-enveloped sandstone walls of the Grose Valley. The bluish tones and the town's signature waterfall wrapped around a weighty and substantial volume immediately suggest to the reader that here is a combination of scholarly achievement and local knowledge.

The book commences with something that should be more widely seen in local histories: an explanation of the book's origins and why it has been prepared, followed by a historiographical essay that covers previous histories of the town as well as historical maps of the district. The preparation of the book was a project of the local Rotary club for the centenary of Rotary International. Initially suggested as a facsimile edition of the club's 1975 Historic Blackheath publication, it evolved into a substantial 'update' of the earlier work, with notable contributions by the Blue Mountains and the Mt Victoria and District historical societies. Although the impetus thus came from a local club making its contribution to the wider commemoration of an international anniversary, the need for such a publication has been long felt in the local community.

Blackheath: today from yesterday gathers together essays and statistics provided by a diverse group of authors. The contribution of the principal editor, Dr Peter Rickwood, is notable. The book has clearly been a labour of love over many years, and his dedication reflects that of many of the citizens in the biographical listings. He is clearly the driving force behind the publication, the kind of force that makes the difference in a project such as this succeeding in a small town.

The strengths that focused professional research can bring to understandings of local history are shown by Siobhan Lavelle's 'The Blackheath Stockade' and Pamela Hubert's 'The Private Blackheath Retreats', which exhibit the professional approaches of the historical archaeologist and heritage architect respectively. Archaeological evidence can provide many insights into the early formation of any settlement, as Lavelle amply demonstrates here by the investigations of the 1820s convict stockade of the old village. Some idea can be gained of the influence outsiders might have on the shaping of a local community in its early years by Hubert's reading of their architectural contributions to the cultural environment of the new village in the 1880s and 90s. Both matters can provide, as they do in this case, added depth to any local history writing.

Some of the weaknesses of the publication can be summarised: there is an uneven quality to the essays--some are good, some not so good; it is not always clear why some topics receive greater coverage than others; the degree of updating of some of the 1975 essays is uneven; the cynical attitude towards public governance is unhelpful in understanding the town's history; the dismissal of the town's mythology misses some critical points in understanding the local culture; some exploration of the communal identity of the town as demonstrated through its cultural activities would be helpful; and the history of nature and landscape conservation in the district has a much longer history than suggested.

The strengths of Blackheath: today from yesterday perhaps outweigh the weaknesses: the use of introductory and historiographical essays need emulation in other local histories; the role of maps is often neglected in local histories, but receives good coverage in this book (almost begging for a complementary historical atlas of Blackheath); the illustrations are clear in quality and well related to the text; the inclusion of a section on the district's geography provides an understanding of the physical stage upon which the human dramas have been played out--a rare but much needed inclusion in a local history; the inclusion of archaeological and architectural analyses demonstrably adds depth to local history and should inspire other local historians to consider such historical evidence; the brief reference to local heraldry and emblems is welcome (but could be developed further); the inclusion of some discussion of the different philosophies underlying the local schools touches upon an aspect of the local social and religious beliefs often lacking in local histories; the reintegration of Australia's royal history into local history is welcome after the purging and denial of the 1990s; the histories of local organisations prepared (mainly) by their members provide a real insight into local social structures and aspirations over time; and the reference section is very useful, although some readers may wonder whether this could have been more usefully treated through a companion website that would allow for the continual revisions and additions of historical data.

Overall, I found Blackheath: today from yesterday a useful addition to my library, especially as I have lived in Blackheath for nearly a decade (although not nearly long enough to call myself a local Blackheathen!). Blackheath is a place of the imagination as much as of the world, and Blackheath: today from yesterday explores some of each. It should stimulate more research and writing on Blackheath's history, which may be the greatest thing that any publication can achieve. I would recommend it to any student of local history as a good example of the genre, provided that its flaws are understood as well as its strengths appreciated.

An extended version of this book review can be viewed on the History Matrix website http://www.brucehassan.

Bruce Baskerville

Public Historian
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Author:Baskerville, Bruce
Publication:Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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