Cosmopolitan Conservationists:
Greening Modern Sydney
By Peggy James

Reviewed by Janine Kitson

The book celebrates eight visionary Sydney residents who, with their professional and social networks, shaped many of the initiatives and reforms from 1900–1960 that created the parkland, national parks and recreational spaces that Sydney enjoys today.

The chapters on Charles Bean (1879-1968) and Thistle Harris (1902–1990) are of particular interest to teachers. Both were passionate about education and the environment.

Charles Bean, well known for his work as a World War I war correspondent and historian, was also passionate about promoting physical education. Bean argued that without a green belt of parkland children would be condemned to poor health. He campaigned tirelessly for parkland and playgrounds to ensure children were fit, healthy and well balanced.

The chapter on Thistle Y. Harris is of great significance to Federation members as she was an active member of the Teachers Federation Peace Committee and a strong supporter of Federation. During her career as a high school science teacher she taught at Murwillumbah, Broken Hill and St George Girls high schools and went on be a botany lecturer at Sydney Teachers College in 1938.

Her books on wildflowers were instrumental in the promotion of Australia’s flora, both nationally and internationally. In 1962 she established one of NSW’s first environmental education centres — Wirrimbirra Sanctuary at Bargo. This is also of interest as Federation was once affiliated to the David G. Stead Memorial Wildlife Research Foundation which managed the sanctuary; Federation Life Member and past Organiser, David Beswick was its Federation representative in the early 1970s.

Thistle Harris was also closely associated with the Forest League’s Schools Branch, which aimed to encourage a conservationist “forest consciousness” among children. The Forest League’s School Branch also worked closely with the Department of Education. Later, Harris edited the Junior Tree Warden, a journal that the Department distributed to schools.

The NSW Department of Education’s Schools Branch promoted literature that aimed to teach children the beauty of native plants and included forest songs for children, school literacy, art and photographic competitions. These views were “shared at the highest levels of the Department of Education” including Peter Board, Director-General of Education (1905–1922) who was the patron of the Gould League of Bird Lovers. Nature study in schools included Arbor Day tree plantings, cultivation of flowers and produce in school gardens, and annual Bird Day celebrations. Fred Berman, headmaster of Five Dock Public School and member of the Teachers Federation Horticultural Society, was also an active proponent of Nature Studies in schools.

The other “cosmopolitan conservationists” of the book include David G. Stead (1877–1957), who campaigned against the hunting of koalas and established one of Australia’s first conservation groups, the Wildlife Preservation Society (1909), as well as being the father of renowned novelist Christina Stead and husband of Thistle Harris; Walter Burley Griffin (1876–1937), the award-winning architect who designed Canberra; Norman Weekes (1884-1972) the town planner who made valiant efforts for a series of green belts to surround Sydney; Marie Byles (1900–1979) feminist, lawyer and mountain climber; Myles Dunphy (1891–1985) wilderness campaigner; and Annie Wyatt (1885–1961), founder of the National Trust of Australia (NSW).

They wanted Sydney to be green, clean and beautiful. Their “garden city” vision for Sydney valued its bushland, wildflowers, forests, lagoons and coastlines. Even as early as the 1920s, many were acutely aware of the rapid degradation and destruction of the city’s natural heritage.

The chapter on Thistle Harris is a wonderful reminder of how Federation and a network of educators actively promoted the environment and quality education.

Available for borrowing from Federation Library.

Janine Kitson is on long service leave.