More than the sum of the parts

Local history, city history, regional history, national history and global history all have different concerns and tend to have varying depths of field — details which are crucial in one area are not so crucial in another. Because no historian can be completely comprehensive, writing history is always a case of choosing what to notice.

Combine this with the different concerns of historians who study particular activities, such as sport or brickmaking, or social themes, such as health or religion, and the complexity increases.

The Dictionary of Sydney hopes to bring a range of these points of view, and depths of field together, creating a composite history of Sydney that joins family histories to local histories, city histories and thematic histories. It’s our hope that this whole will be more than the sum of the parts.

We’ve just had a small example of how this can happen, when you shift the field of vision and connect with a wider history.

In a blog post some days ago, I mentioned George Smith, a mayor of Sydney about whom our consultant historian Terri McCormack was able to find little information, not least because of his maddeningly common name. (Parents, remember to call your children by outlandish monickers. Historians will thank you.) I called him ‘a shadowy figure’, and our biography of him says: “he was probably the civic-minded George Smith who, in 1844, signed a petition to the mayor of Sydney to convene a meeting…”

G Smith Esq, detail from 'Australian aboriginal cricketers' 1867, Dixson Library, a1564001/DL Pf 140

Shortly after that post we received an email from a contributor, local studies librarian for Manly, John MacRitchie. He knew that our George Smith was a prominent figure in the early history of Manly, and sent us a fuller biography and a lead to this picture of him. Some of his information came from researcher John Moore, who had been working on the history of the property Bungarribee which was purchased by George’s father in 1832.

George was the son of a convict, Charles Smith, pickpocket and butcher, who had been transported in 1819. We now know so much more about George, including his dates of birth and death (1826-1889), and his role as backer and manager of the tour of Aboriginal cricketers to England in 1869. After marrying Ann Smithers, a Manly girl, in 1851, with whom he later had 12 children, George lived in Manly for at least the last 25 years of his life, and was active in building that community as patron of the local school, and a signatory to the petition to the Governor applying for incorporation of Manly in 1876. He must have been socially connected with the emerging political aspirants of the place as two of his daughters married future mayors of Manly.

All this will appear in a new article in the Dictionary soon. We anticipate more stories like this, as word gets out, because many Sydney identities had interests all over the Sydney basin, and did not confine themselves to one area. George Smith’s father, Charles, for example, when he died in 1845, left property in George Street, at Brickfield Hill, Eastern Creek, and Windsor as well as in rural New South Wales. He had strong links with the new council, apart from his son later being an alderman, as another of his properties was the Sydney Council Chambers, then in York Street. John Rose Holden and George Hill, who were both also early City of Sydney aldermen, were executors of his will.

The Dictionary has the ability to link family, local and citywide history. We look forward to telling lots more of the stories that tie us all together.

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About Emma Grahame

Emma Grahame has been Editorial Coordinator of the Dictionary of Sydney since May 2007.
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