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McGowan, Barry (1945–2018)

by Andrew McGowan, Ross McDonald, Paul Macgregor and Juanita Kwok

Canberra historian Barry McGowan succumbed to cancer on September 2, 2018. After the disease was first diagnosed more than two decades ago, he travelled, researched and wrote prolifically until his death. An expert on Australian mining history, his research led him to his later, greater passion: the history and heritage of Chinese people in rural and regional Australia. He became a vocal advocate for creating awareness of their pioneering role in the nation's pastoral and agricultural development.

Born to Mac and Olga McGowan in Oakleigh, Victoria, Barry and his brother Chris grew up in Mount Gambier at his parents' grocery store. At high school, he honed his skills as a public speaker in the debating team, which served him well in his professional life.

After completing an economics degree at the University of Adelaide in 1967, McGowan spent two years in Noumea working voluntarily as an economist for the South Pacific Commission. He maintained his interest in the Pacific's colonial history and had work published only recently on the Communards transported to the French penal colony of New Caledonia.

He moved to Canberra in the late 1960s, where his sons Andrew and Douglas were born. He joined the public service, working for the Department of Industrial Relations and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. During his long-service leave, he travelled with his family through central Australia. It was the first of many outback adventures camping under the stars. While driving up to Katherine and Mataranka, and across the Simpson and Sturt Stony deserts, the family put up with baking heat, no air-conditioning, and eating tinned tuna, spam and corned beef most nights, but the trips provided many unforgettable memories.

The family's travels led McGowan to write about four-wheel-drive adventures, first for Australia Post and then for 4x4 magazine. As his interest in ghost towns and the histories of mining communities grew, he began writing for Heritage Australia. His first book on mining, Lost mines revisited: historic mining communities of the Monaro, Southern Tablelands, and south-west slopes districts of NSW, was published in 1994. He returned to study at the Australian National University, gaining an arts degree in 1995 before completing a PhD at the ANU in 2002. His thesis, Dust and dreams: mining communities in south-east NSW, was published as a book in 2010.

McGowan's first expertise was in the history and archaeology of goldmining communities in the southern goldfields of NSW, particularly at Braidwood, Mongarlowe and the Shoalhaven. This knowledge led him to focus increasingly on the history and heritage of Chinese communities in rural and regional areas. He began the Tracking the Dragon series with a history of the Chinese in the NSW Riverina district and expanded it to write about Chinese in the Tumut, Adelong, Temora, Wagga Wagga, Hay, Deniliquin, Hillston and Narrandera districts of NSW, and the Rutherglen/Wahgunyah districts of Victoria.

He was keen to emphasise how central Chinese labour had been to early Australian agriculture. He connected detailed histories of Chinese-Australian historical sites (mining fields, market gardens, dwellings) with the personal and community histories of those who created the sites, and their descendants. He focused less on stories of Chinese people's victimisation and more on their agency and the positive contributions they made. He contacted many Chinese-Australian families, and the combination of his professional credentials and personal warmth encouraged them to shared their stories.

McGowan followed in the footsteps of earlier pioneers into Chinese-Australian history, such as Lindsay Smith, with whom he co-wrote a Tracking the dragon report on Chinese heritage in the Riverina and southern NSW area for the NSW Heritage Office in 2008. He received the Jennifer Cushman memorial endowment fund grant in 2012 and 2017, and, in turn, mentored a new generation of historians, sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm. A long-time research fellow at the ANU's college of Asia and the Pacific, he was involved in the centre for Chinese southern diaspora studies and contributed many articles to the centre's journal. He took ANU students on field trips to Captains Flat to study the area's mining history and the effect of mining on the environment. He was a prodigious researcher who published 16 books, 15 heritage reports, dozens of journal articles and over 70 conference papers. He presented regularly at Australasian Mining History Association and Dragontails conferences.

His zest for life was invigorating and infectious. He shared his love of music with everyone. When his sons were young, he would put them on his knee and belt out Elton John or Rolling Stones songs. He continued to delight in giving recitals on the piano or ukulele, singing with gusto, including at jam sessions at Smith's Alternative cafe in Canberra.

Until the end, he kept up many interests, including his music, tennis and learning French, and played an active role in the Rotary Club and the Uniting Church in Curtin. He loved to talk about politics, his grandchildren and his latest research.

Most recently, he co-wrote, with Genevieve Mott, True Australians and Pioneers: Chinese Migration to the Orange Region of NSW. He had hoped to continue to research the social and economic interdependencies of Chinese-Aboriginal families in that area and expand his research on Chinese in rural NSW.

McGowan received a medal of the Order of Australia this year for his services to community history. Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove visited him in Canberra Hospital late last month for a personal investiture of the award, and McGowan died two days later surrounded by family.

He is survived by his partner Chong, his sons Andrew and Douglas and their partners Sheri and Chantelle, and his grandchildren Max and Imogen.

Original publication

  • Canberra Times, 22 September 2018

Additional Resources

Citation details

Andrew McGowan, Ross McDonald, Paul Macgregor and Juanita Kwok, 'McGowan, Barry (1945–2018)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/mcgowan-barry-28177/text35860, accessed 16 September 2019.

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