Exhibition documents family lives of foundation lecturers

Published 21 October 2008

lettersphoto.jpgFamily members of foundation lecturers at the New England University College – the precursor of the University of New England – were among the guests at the opening of an exhibition illustrating the home lives of those first families.

The exhibition, prepared by UNE staff members and mounted in the University’s Dixson Library, is the brainchild of four of those family members.

Speaking at the opening on Thursday 9 October, Jenny Browning, the daughter of foundation philosophy and psychology lecturer Duncan Howie, said the initial idea for the exhibition had arisen about four years ago in a conversation with three other “pioneer children”: Cathy Davis, Peter Crossley and Yvonne Voisey. “Peter (the son of Ralph Crossley, foundation lecturer in German) was very enthusiastic about the idea,” she said, “emphasising that we had to ‘tell the women’s story’.”

That story, as revealed in the exhibition, is one of “pioneer” women – tirelessly supporting their trail-blazing husbands while negotiating their way in and around the highly-stratified society of rural Armidale.

The New England University College was established as a college of the University of Sydney 70 years ago – in 1938. Numbers of staff and students were small in the early years, and the families of staff members formed a close-knit group. Ms Browning recalled how her own mother – Ella Howie – had formed a close relationship with the mothers of the three other instigators of the exhibition. “We children were like cousins,” she said, “and the others’ parents were like aunts and uncles.”

Another of that group of children – Cathy Davis, daughter of Consett Davis, foundation lecturer in botany and zoology – was also at the exhibition opening. She recalled how her mother Gwenda, herself a lecturer in botany and zoology, had – as a working mother – taken her along on many botanical excursions.

The exhibition includes historic photographs of staff, students and College buildings, and personal and household items illustrating the lives of the “pioneer” families. One of those families – that of Frank Letters, foundation lecturer in Classics and English – is represented by items including books and music. (Frank’s wife Kathleen was a well-known musician.) The four daughters of Frank and Kathleen Letters were all at the exhibition opening.

The guests at the opening included several lecturers from the early days of the University College. Keith Lewis (for whom UNE’s Lewis Chemistry Lecture Theatre is named) was one of those. He came to the college as a lecturer in chemistry in 1942, and retired from UNE as an Associate Professor in 1981. Another was Wes Taylor, lecturer in Mathematics and Physics (and a former student) at the College, who retired from UNE in 1987, also as Associate Professor. In 1958, Dr Lewis and Dr Taylor were the first PhD graduates of the University of New England, which had gained autonomy in 1954.

Professor Alan Pettigrew, the Vice-Chancellor of UNE, welcomed the guests to the opening function, mentioning that one of them – Paul Barratt, son of the “pioneer” student Paul Barratt who later became Professor of Psychology at UNE – had come all the way from Melbourne.

Professor Pettigrew thanked the UNE staff members who had researched, designed, and assembled the exhibition. They include Christine Bryan (the University Curator), Bill Oates (the University Archivist), Dr Philip Ward (Archives Officer), and Michelle Arens (Art Collection Manager).

Mr Oates, who also spoke at the opening, said the exhibition had been made possible by the “community” that the College – and then the University – had fostered. Speaking as an archivist, he said: “This is a moment in time when we stop, reflect, and exhibit.”

The exhibition will be on display in the Dixson Library for the rest of the year.

THE IMAGE displayed here is from a photograph of three of Frank and Kathleen Letters’ daughters hung in the Dixson Library as part of the exhibition.