Mrs Jean Newall is passionate about the rich history of Armidale, particularly in her role as Archivist at New England Girls’ School and has put together an exhibition at the Armidale Folk Museum for National History Week.
What do the NEGS Archives mean to you?
History starts yesterday. I find the life people lived in the past came so much more vividly to life with their memorabilia around you. We are like an iceberg, floating on a certain plane, but there is so much more underneath. It doesn’t mean forgetting about the present – we need to be computer literate and change with the times – but it is also important to be inquisitive about the past. Living in a world of e-books doesn’t mean forgetting about (printed) books.
The NEGS Archives Centre was named in your honour. You were awarded an OAM in 2006 and given in entry in 2007 in Who’s Who of Australian Women for your services to education and local history. Apart from NEGS, what are your other areas of interest?
As archivist and curator I liaise with the Armidale Historical Society, of which I am a Life Member and Patron, and I am also curator of the St Peter’s Cathedral Tower Room historical exhibition. NEGS has connections with both. Armidale is a place where heritage and history is valued, with places such as the Folk Museum, the university archives, Family History Group, NERAM and the Museum of Printing. I have also written a history of St Mary’s Anglican Church West Armidale, which has links with NEGS, being designed by the NEGS architect WH Lee, and where senior girls used teach Sunday School.
Tell us about your time at NEGS.
I came to the school as Librarian, then became Archivist and was asked to establish the Archives Centre in the former Music Block, a 14-room building designed by the Armidale architect RN Hickson and constructed in 1923. The centre is a museum of memorabilia of the history of NEGS from its founding in 1895 and some of the people associated with the school. As Archivist and Museum Curator, I deal with enquiries from Old Girls and their relatives, historians, and other members of the community. I research archival material, liaise with fellow archivists and historians, conduct tours of the collections and help class teachers share an appreciation of the history around us with their students. As a life member of the NEGS Old Girls’ Union, I am a link between the school’s past and the current administration of the school.
What are some of your favourite items?
There are thousands and thousands of documents, photos, and other items, all of such interest I don’t really have a favourite. There is so much variation, from settings of crested crockery and silverware from the Dining Hall, a mangle from the old laundry, uniforms of the past and sporting memorabilia.
Some of the more unusual items include birds’ eggs brought back from an expedition to the Antarctic in 1929, a psalter from St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, golf clubs used on the golf course formerly in the school grounds, a saddle from a packhorse used in the Great War, two cast-iron bells from the former St John’s Theological College that is now part of the school, building materials, personal items and even two early microscopes from the late 1800s used in the time of founding headmistress Miss Green – she was very much ahead of her time in teaching girls science and current affairs.
Many of the things are the handiwork of girls, such as four cloths with the signatures of girls embroidered on, the earliest from 1908. Apart from their historic value, many of the things here are just interesting and beautiful in their own right.
How do you engage students in the history of NEGS?
It is much easier to teach girls history by making it real for them. They pick up a flat iron and feel how heavy it is, understand how it worked and see the scorch marks on an old school tablecloth or bedsheet. I encourage them to pick things up and handle them. Items are labelled and set out thematically but fairly informally, to engage their interest.
Year 7 girls come every year and are given a tour and then a ‘treasure hunt’, where they have to find certain things. Often if their teachers are interested in history, they will incorporate pieces in their class work, such as drawing. This year at the end of their visit, a young girl said to me, “I don’t want to leave; it’s so nice in here” – and that means something.
While you love the past, what about the future?
Both NEGS and St Peter’s parish have made significant contributions to the social, educational and commercial development of Armidale. As Anglican institutions, they have been part of the spiritual life of the city, and both have strong connections with the architectural and cultural heritage of Armidale.
At both, there is a need to continue, to extend and to update archival material, to maintain and improve the conservation of historical items and other memorabilia. I will continue writing articles to contribute to relevant publications, to update the books and other works on the history of NEGS. And I have a dream to produce a worthy history sometime in the future of St Peter’s Cathedral and its contribution to the community.
Thank you Mrs Newall.
Photo: Mrs Newall with the eggs from the Antarctic donated to NEGS by Commander Moyes, brother of Bishop Moyes.