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Sydney’s forgotten pioneer

By Peter Curson - posted Monday, 29 May 2006


The current exhibition of William Stanley Jevons at the Powerhouse in Sydney is a timely reminder of the important role Jevons played in 19th century Sydney and Australia. While his reputation largely rests on his impressive body of work in the field of economics, and an esteemed reputation as a statistician: his role as a pioneering social scientist and social commentator tends to be overlooked.

This is possibly because his work in this area represented an early phase of his intellectual development, something he intended to return to later in life. In this sense, the work he left on the social and spatial structure of Sydney, while fragmentary and incomplete, provides rich insights into Sydney’s social structure, and includes many fascinating and pioneering comments on urban theory and urban classification.

Jevons was without doubt a remarkable “19th century man” in the tradition of Huxley, Darwin and Humboldt. He was fired with a pioneering spirit, an enquiring mind and remarkable energy. While in Sydney he made a systematic study of New South Wales - its climate, geology, topography, flora, along with its social and economic character.

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In January 1855 he commenced taking twice daily comprehensive meteorological observations at Church Hill. He continued to do this until1858 when this function was taken over by the Sydney Observatory. Jevon’s work was pioneering. He published widely on thunderstorms, hot winds, the alternation of floods and droughts, water quality and cloud formation. From 1856 he contributed weekly meteorological reports to a number of local journals as well as yearly summaries. His long article “Some Data Concerning the Climate of Australia and New Zealand” for Waugh’s Almanac of 1859, remains a classic of Australian meteorology.

His impressive work also included regular tours through NSW where he wrote day-to-day accounts of what he saw and experienced. He was a pioneer photographer and left many wet plate photographs of Sydney, rural landscapes, mining towns and the architecture of the day. His adult life spanned the golden age of Victorianism - an era of peace, material progress, scientific achievement and concern for social welfare and reform, and in many ways he was a man of his times.

Of particular interest is the manuscript he left unfinished at his death, written during his last year in Sydney, which was discovered some years after his death. This manuscript Remarks upon the Social Map of Sydney 1858 includes many rich insights into the residential, commercial and social structure of mid 19th century towns and cities. The document anticipates the work of Booth later in the century, as well as that of the Chicago School of Urban Sociology in the 1930s.

Undoubtedly the time Jevons spent in London prior to coming to Australia had a tremendous effect on him. His range of influences was diverse and included the social analysis of Engel’s on the condition of the English working class; Henry Mayhew’s work on the London poor; and the writing of Dickens in Barnaby Rudge. In particular, it was the growing movement for slum improvement and investigations into sanitary and living conditions in London.

Jevons ultimate goal was to work towards producing a comprehensive social map of Sydney which would show the distribution of social classes, housing types, occupations and land uses. In this way he hoped to provide a broad framework for viewing “the whole internal structure or machinery of the city”, and to establish a new field called “Social Statistics or the Science of Towns”. Regrettably, the map was never completed and on return to England in 1859, Jevons moved on to other things.

It is clear that the Sydney manuscript is more than just a simple description of Sydney life in the mould of Mayhew. While the document is incomplete, uneven and hastily written, it none the less represents the first social survey of a New World city and the first exercise in urban theory.

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The most pioneering aspects of the work are not the vivid word pictures of street life, or the preoccupation with the life and activities of the lower classes, as much as the attempt to see Sydney as an integrated interrelated system and to understand the geographical distribution of social classes and land uses. In this he was laying the foundations of a conceptual scheme for studying the social and spatial differentiation of cities. It was innovative and pioneering work.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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