Looking at Darwin with new eyes

Media release: Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Darwin historian Dr Mickey Dewar has shed new light on the city's postwar history, with a research grant from the National Archives of Australia.

'Many historians have traditionally assumed there is a shallow sense of community memory in Darwin,' said Dr Dewar. 'This is because the city has been evacuated so many times and even now, has a large transient population, up to 60 per cent in some areas.

'Instead of my research supporting this assumption, I was surprised to discover a strong thread of cultural continuity in Darwin, a persistent survival. The people who returned after the war formed and still form the nucleus of the town.'

Dr Dewar was granted the $15,000 Frederick Watson Fellowship by the National Archives in 2007 and spent the past year researching the development of Darwin after its wartime evacuation. She is giving a public talk Darwin – No Place Like Home on her findings at the National Archives in Darwin on Wednesday, 19 November at 12 noon.

'Darwin has been destroyed four times, by cyclones in 1897, 1937 and 1974, and by Japanese bombs in 1942 and '43,' she said. 'The resulting destruction and loss of life with the civilian population evacuated and sent south, marked a complete break in the history of the town.

'But when people returned home after the war, they found there was no housing for them. Most people, white and "coloured", had to live in the remains of old military camps, under terrible conditions often with no sewerage, electricity or water connections. Typhoid broke out in some areas.'

In the camps, everyone felt a similar sense of deprivation and people had to work together to survive. One outcome of this cooperation was the formation of a number of political organisations to fight for better conditions. These included the Darwin Housewives Association, suburban progress associations and hut-dwellers lobby groups to protest at the poor housing conditions. The Half Castes Association, a key Darwin organisation fighting for social change, was founded by Aboriginal people from Parap Camp, many of whom had served during World War II but returned to face discrimination.

'People wanted better representation and there was a sense of agitation for political change. I wanted to find out where it was coming from and I believe that, in part, it resulted from the shared experience of disadvantage,' said Dr Dewar.

'The archival histories of the people in the camps endure today in the names of Darwin's most prominent families. Despite the destruction and dislocation, the history of housing reveals cooperation and a surprising thread of cultural continuity in the town.'

The public is invited to attend Dr Dewar's talk Darwin – No Place Like Home at the National Archives in Darwin on Wednesday, 19 November at 12 noon. More information is available at (08) 8985 0300.

Contact information

  • Elizabeth Masters (Media Officer)
    t (02) 6212 3957 m 0427 853 664 e elizabeth.masters@naa.gov.au
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