The Past and Future of a Nation: Edward Dowling and Frank Walker

by Tessa Milne

As Marjorie Jacobs observed in her article '"Students of a like hobby": the Society 1900-1954', in spite of the presence of Edward Dowling and Norman Selfe who were both involved in the Central Federation League, 'patriotic rhetoric and nationalist pretension are notably absent in the stated aims of the early members' of the RAHS. Jacobs argued that 'neither surviving evidence nor the early activities of the Society suggest that the founders saw a link with Federation or were able to win public approval for their enterprises through its appeal to patriotic sentiment'

In spite of this as 2001 draws to a close, it seems timely to look at the common ground of the two centenaries, and this can be personified in the examples of two of the RAHS's first councillors, Edward Dowling and Frank Walker.

It is possible to argue that the work of both men has contributed significantly to our sense of nationhood: Dowling's achievements occurred outside the RAHS through his role as Secretary of the Australasian Federation League of New South Wales, while Frank Walker's were within, as he drew RAHS members and the wider general public's attention to various aspects of Australia's history through his writings, talks and photographs.

Dowling was born in 1843 in Sydney, the son of a painter, Edward, and his wife Jane; Walker was his junior by some 18 years, being born in 1861 in South Yarra, Melbourne. Though of different ages the two men had much in common. Apart from their roles as founding Councillors of the RAHS, they shared the same religion, Congregationalism. Both men also had professional links with printing: Walker was by profession a printer and stationer, and although in 1853 Dowling began his working life in the office of a Sydney merchant, three years later he moved to the Government Printing Office as a an office boy and compositor. By 1872 he had been promoted to the position of reviser and from 1882 to that of accountant, during which time he also compiled several statistical and descriptive publications. Dowling's contributions in terms of publications in the RAHS journal was limited to a paper entitled 'Early Colonial Printers' which was read before the Society on 1 April 1901.


Let us now turn to Edward Dowling's significant contribution to the birth of Australia as a nation. It was during his time at the Government Printing Office, that Dowling developed organisational and accounting skills which would hold him in good stead during the later Federation campaigns. There he became interested in, and an early advocate of, providing working men with the opportunity to gain an education. When the Board of Technical Education was established in 1883 Dowling became its full-time secretary, involved in executive aspects of establishing Sydney Technical College. However in 1887 ill health struck, and when the Board was abolished in 1889 Dowling retired from the Public Service.

This was fortunate for the Federation movement for it was at this time that the issue of Federation was beginning to capture not only political attention but that of the wider general public. One of the key groups campaigning for Federation from outside the political arena was the Australian Natives Association which had been founded in Melbourne in 1871 as an all male Friendly Society. Initially it provided medical benefits, but from the early 1880s political activities also came to the fore, particularly the issue of Federation. Edward Dowling become Secretary of the New South Wales ANA in 1889.

However the ANA was not exclusively concerned with Federation. In the wake of the failure of the Colonial Parliaments to pass the Constitution Bill drafted at the 1891 Federation Convention, the Federal Leagues were established as unofficial organisations to advocate and promote Federation. In early 1893 the NSW Attorney-General, and later Australia's first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton called for the setting up a Central League in Sydney and this was eventually launched quietly at a small, restricted meeting on 17 July. Among those elected to office were Edward Dowling and A.P. Canaway as joint secretary-treasurer. The object of the League was: 'to advance the cause of Australasian Federation by an organisation of citizens owning no class distinction or party influence, and using its best energies to assist Parliamentary action'. Dowling's role in Federation was not limited to the League, for he continued as honorary secretary of the ANA. From 1897 to 1909 Dowling was the sole honorary secretary of the Australasian Federation League of New South Wales. Dowling remained very much to the fore of events following the successful 1899 referendum. While in London in 1900 with the Australian delegation to negotiate the finer details of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia Bill, Barton confided in Dowling as the Secretary of The Australasian Federation League in Sydney.

In 1901, in the wake of the inauguration of the Commonwealth the Seventh Annual Report of the Australasian Federation League stated that: 'Mr. E. Dowling has borne the lion's share and has given time and trouble in unstinted measure for the furtherance of our aims. From us his labours deserve the most ample recognition'. Geoffrey Bolton, in his recent biography of Edmund Barton, described Dowling as being 'the perfect foil for Barton'. 'Without him', Bolton argued, 'the federal movement in New South Wales would probably have fallen apart.'

Following the abolition of the League in 1909, Dowling occupied himself with another of his many causes, as a member of the Aborigines' Protection Board He died of heart disease at his Mosman home on 16 October 1912, survived by his wife Hannah, two sons and three daughters.


Frank Walker, on the other hand, was a less public figure. His contribution to nationhood stemmed from his eagerness to both recognise and preserve the fledgling nation's past and to draw it to the attention of others both within the RAHS and the wider community. This was in part due to his role in the actual formation of the RAHS. As KR Cramp noted, it had been Walker who not only 'numbered among the small group of enthusiasts who in 1900 stressed the urgent need for such a Society', but who at the meeting held in the Sydney Town Hall on October 30, 1900, 'moved the proposal which was adopted, namely: "That an Australian Historical Society be formed, having for its objects the collection and preservation of records, memoirs, old prints, sketches, photos, books etc, dealing with the early history of the colony"'.

Over the ensuing years, just as Dowling held key administrative positions in the Federal organisations, so Walker held them within the RAHS. At the inaugural meeting held in the Queen's Hall on 15 March 1901 Walker was elected to the Council and as Cramp recalled, 'six days later he accepted the office of Honorary treasurer - a position he retained until his elevation to the presidency for the two years, 1912 and 1913'. He retained his seat on the Council without a break until 1944, mainly as a Councillor but for different periods as Vice-President. In 1916 he served as acting Treasurer and from 1918 to 1920 as Honorary Librarian.

Walker travelled throughout NSW gathering historical evidence, photographing what he saw and addressing audiences on the nation's past. Walker's means of transport was the bicycle. As K.R. Cramp noted, 'Probably Mr. Walker's main contribution to the cause of Australian history lay in his enthusiastic efforts to spread an interest in the subject.' He recalled that 'wherever he travelled, he seized every opportunity to address audiences on some phase of Australia's story' and 'on several occasions he offered prizes for essays written by school pupils.'

Over the years Walker delivered lectures on a wide range of topics relating to Australian history particularly exploration and local history at the Australian Historical Society's general meetings. Many lectures were illustrated by lantern slides.

At the beginning of the 21st century, with the internet, databases and other primary historical sources at our fingertips, it is easy to overlook how few sources were available when Walker was at his peak. As Cramp noted in 1948, in the case of Walker's writings, 'many of these articles were written at a time when original material on which such papers should be based was much less known and far more inaccessible than in more recent years'. Walker's article 'The Old Peat's Ferry Road' which was read before the Society on 28 April 1925 demonstrates a comfortable ease of style by which Walker ensured his reader understood the context in which the main subject matter of the paper was to be discussed. 'The Hawkesbury River is intimately associated with the earliest annals of Australian History' he began, noting however: 'before dealing with the old Peat's Ferry-road, which has lately come into such prominence, mention might be made of one or two facts which add to the interest of this noble stream.'

Cramp recalled Walker 'figured prominently in the Centenary Celebrations connected with the successful crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1813 by Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson' and 'was thus closely associated with the movement that led to the erection of the conspicuous commemorative obelisk to the three explorers at Mount York'. Walker also 'reproduced Gregory Baxland's tour of discovery with references, explanatory notes, maps etc.'

Among Walker's contributions to the RAHS collection were various pamphlets, books and articles of historical interest but, as Cramp recalled in 1948, 'probably his most valuable gift was that of several thousand lantern slides of views (with cabinets included) taken by himself while engaged many years ago in touring the State on a bicycle'.

At the time these would have provided people with new insights into the significance of the backblocks of their nation. Now they provide us with a wonderful insight into life in Australia around the time of Federation. Walker's collection covers many aspects of private and public life. He could not have imagined that not only would his glass lantern slides survive but that in the year of the RAHS centenary and that of the Australian Nation, that they could be looked at by simply pressing a few computer keys, and that these heavy objects could be transported about on a CD rom.

In 1916, when the first Fellowship of the RAHS were established, Walker was elected as one of the five original fellows for as Cramp recalled, his 'contributions to a knowledge of Australian history and services to the Society'. This was 'the highest honour in the power of the Society to grant'.

Both Dowling and Walker have contributed significantly to the two centenaries which we have celebrated this year, that of the birth of the nation and of the RAHS.