GALLERY: Hunter history unearthed

WHEN he drove down from Maitland to share a weekend lunch, Pete Smith said: ‘‘I thought you might be interested in these old negatives.’’

Under his arm was an old timber filing drawer full of glassine envelopes of black-and-white negatives and colour slides.

His main reason for visiting was to lend us, for scanning, a small but wonderful collection of negatives produced by his late grandfather, Syd Smith, of Newcastle and Maitland in the 1920s.

Pete had read our books of collected photographs, Newcastle: the Missing Years and Recovered Memories, and was aware that these publications had come about because of our chance purchase of a big collection of old photographic negatives from the estate of the late transport enthusiast, Ken Magor.

Pete is a keen student of Hunter local history and, like us, is constantly seeking stories about the past and looking for opportunities to keep those stories alive.

Syd Smith’s negatives were a thrilling new find, and Sylvia and I jumped gratefully at Pete’s generous offer to allow their use in our next book, Changing Places.

But he had brought the wooden drawer of negatives as an unexpected bonus.

A quick glimpse revealed they were of Hunter Valley subjects, probably in the early 1960s, and many of them bore the name and address of noted Australian commercial photographer and filmmaker Douglass Baglin. I knew the Baglin name, and had some of his works in my own library. As a child growing up in the 1960s, books like his Islands of Australia had captivated me and filled me with some of his wonder and respect for our country and its people.

When I asked Pete why Douglass Baglin had been in the Hunter, he explained that his former employer, the now-defunct Hunter Valley Dairy Co-operative Company, had hired Baglin to make a film – We Live in this Valley –  showing the Hunter Valley to the world.

The company, loved in the Hunter for its famous Oak brand, had made a few films before, but nothing as ambitious as the project it entrusted to Baglin.

This was to be a full-colour prospectus, a survey of the valley from top to toe, that would impress the world with the productivity and potential of one of Australia’s most fertile river valleys.

Years before, alerted to the existence of the documentary by some promotional material he had found at the Hexham clean-up, Pete had mounted a major search for a print of the film. 

It took him many months of sleuthing, but he eventually found two copies.  He filmed a rough copy from a projection onto a living room wall. When he showed it to me, I wanted  to have it digitised and turned into a DVD that every Hunter person could enjoy and think about.

Within a few weeks Pete returned with two large  reels of 16mm film, representing two complete copies of the 50-minute documentary.

The next challenge was to get copyright permission to republish the work, which we were able to obtain from the executor of the late Douglass Baglin’s estate, his niece and former close work associate, Yvonne Austin.

The present-day owner of what was the Hunter Valley Co-operative Dairy Company, Lion Foods, also gave its blessing, clearing the way for us to have the film digitised and duplicated.

Before we did this, however, we contacted the National Film and Sound Archive to discuss the addition of another film we knew they had in their keeping.

The 20-minute colour film about Newcastle, Story of a City, dated from 1945 and we were sure it would thrill and delight many of the  people who had been so moved by the images of 1930s and 1940s Newcastle we had published in our earlier books.

We had seen the clip, and marvelled at the extraordinary colour footage of our city, as it was at the end of World War II, with its trams, its 60-milers, and its hardworking heritage of coal and steel.

After a little friendly negotiation, Film Australia agreed to let us publish this film, side by side with We Live in this Valley, making the DVD into an even more interesting and exciting project.

We added as a title song, for extra flourish, the wonderful Metropolis of Steel, by Hunter composer (and photographer) Alexander Galloway, whose descendant, Pauline Black, had spent much time with me in the past discussing her forebear’s love for his city and valley.

To me, the documentaries were the perfect addition to a book that had been designed, from the outset, as a volume of vignettes about change in our Hunter community.

Changing Places is intended to take the next step down the pathway that was started by Newcastle: the Missing Years. That book concentrated almost exclusively on the Great Depression and World War II,  and drew almost entirely on photographs that had come to us from  Ken Magor.

Our next book, Recovered Memories, recapped that ground, filling in some spaces with brilliant material provided by generous benefactors including Daphne Barney (wife of the late Hunter history publishing pioneer Norm Barney) and the kindly families of former Newcastle Herald and Sun photographers Milton Merrilees and Arch Miller.

The new book uses older and newer material, creating a photographic essay that extends from the late 1800s to the 1970s, venturing partly into the era of colour photography. Its images have come from a huge variety of sources, including from readers of the first two books who wanted to share some of their collections. The book traces strands of change in the physical environment and in the social character of the Hunter. The DVD takes that a step further, adding the impact that only film can bring and expanding the theme in a way that is revealing and fascinating but also sobering. 

Even though there is much to be glad and optimistic about in the Hunter Region of 2012, the documentaries make you pause and think.

So many of the promises identified 50 years ago have come to nought. So many once-great industries and enterprises are gone. And a huge question mark hangs over the valley’s likely capacity to resume the productive rural pursuits of its past in an uncertain post-mining future.

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