When Great Britain was home

Royal Visit on the occasion of the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, 2006. Image source: theroyalfirm.com

This week Australia’s constitutional monarch, Elizabeth II, celebrated sixty years of reigning over us. It seems a good time to consider Australia’s relationship with Great Britain as it is reflected in the names we have called the mother country since Australia’s infancy.

The Queen lives in the northern hemisphere; we, her Australian subjects, live in the southern hemisphere. The first migrants were deposited here from 1788 onwards as convicts, soldiers, and free settlers – British subjects in an alien land. Naturally they referred to Britain as home (often with a reverential capital letter). We find it in the first colonial newspaper, The Sydney Gazette, in the first year of its publication, 1803: ‘Memorandum relative to the Pay of the private soldier at Home, and in New South Wales.’ Their descendants too called Britain home – and many continued to do so well into the twentieth century:

Home to 90 per cent of Australians is a Sydney or Melbourne slum, or a decayed mining town, or the wide and dreary bush, yet they talk glibly of England as ‘Home’. (1929, G. Meudell)

Home was a concept that resonated with a population of overwhelmingly Anglo ancestry, although its popularity fluctuated in response to the times. A mood of nationalism took hold in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as exemplified in the pages of The Bulletin and in the celebration of Australianness in the work of such writers as C.J. Dennis, Banjo Patterson, and Henry Lawson. At this time traditional ties with Britain were questioned, only to be turned upside down by the impact of the Great War. The following quotations illustrate this flip-flop:

Ten years ago England was spoken of affectionately as the Old Country or Home. Now it is ‘home’ or more sarcastically ‘’ome’. The inverted commas make all the difference, and the dropped ‘h’ contains a class contempt. (1893, F.W.L. Adams)

Deep down in our hearts, we knew that England, dear old England – Home – needed us and was hailing us now as her sons, her supports! (1916, E.F. Hanman)

About this time several terms arose to refer to Great Britain (often specifically England) that were less reverential in tone. The old dart (1886), ‘the old country’, is an ironic term in which ‘dart’ is a dialect pronunciation of dirt – in the same vein the Oxford English Dictionary records old sod ‘Ireland as one’s homeland’. Fogland (1904) had a brief life before the First World War, and alludes to the reputation of the British Isles, and specifically London, for foggy weather (‘Floods In Fogland’, announced a newspaper headline).

Pommyland (1913) has outlasted both, following just a year after the first appearance of the word pommy ‘a British person, especially a recent immigrant to Australia’. The related Pomland (1966) is offhand at best and plainly dismissive in this quotation from Bazza, the Barry Humphries character: ‘I’ve never been overseas before—youse wouldn’t count Pom-land.’

For some the ties to home continued to hold during the twentieth century despite Australia’s growing sense of independence: ‘We still talk about England as Home here. My wife and I do, and we were born and bred out here’ (1960, M.Vizzers). But by this time it was a minority viewpoint, an outdated sentiment for those born and bred in Australia. It is hard to imagine anyone but a diehard monarchist expressing this view today.