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Jervis, James (1883–1963)

by Peter Woodley

James Jervis (1883-1963), teacher and local historian, was born in County Armagh, Ireland, the son of Thomas William Jervis – a coach builder – and his wife Eleanor nee McKeown.[1] His family emigrated to the United States when he was a young child. His father died in New Jersey, and his mother brought James and his siblings to Australia in around 1898.[2]

Jervis was educated at Auburn and Cleveland Street schools, and worked for the retailers Farmer and Co before becoming a teacher with the New South Wales Department of Public Instruction from 1907. He married Maud Evelyn Keeble in Paddington in 1912, and they had one daughter.[3] Jervis taught at country schools before returning to Sydney to teach at Parramatta. After studying as an evening student at the Sydney Technical College, he graduated in 1925 as Associate of the Sydney Technical College (ASTC), and appended that post nominal to his name in publications for the rest of his life. He was appointed the following year to teach in the science department at Canterbury Boys’ High School.[4]

In the meantime, Jervis had developed a keen interest in the history of Parramatta. He first presented a paper to the Parramatta and District Historical Society in 1919, and conducted lectures and tours of local sites of historical significance. By 1921 he was appointed the society’s vice president and his articles were appearing in the society’s journal.[5]

Jervis became a member of the Royal Australian Historical Society (the Society) in 1926, and devoted much of his time and energy to the society for the remainder of his life. The Society (initially without royal patronage) had been founded in 1901 to promote interest in the study of Australian history, particularly of early colonial New South Wales, among a general, educated but not necessarily academic audience.[6] Later, it became a parent body for local historical societies across the state.[7] Jervis was awarded a Fellowship in 1935 (a second post nominal he used consistently from the on), and held executive positions continuously between 1937 and 1960: as Councillor (1937-46), Vice President (1947-48), and Research Secretary (1949-60).[8]

The Society provided a continuing outlet for has passion for local history. He contributed regularly to the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, generally with articles on New South Wales localities and prominent people (the Society records 127 journal articles and other contributions between 1927 and 1963).[9] In 1928 he contributed a brief history of the Sydney suburb of Auburn to the local council’s publication commemorating its jubilee.[10] It was the beginning of what would become a long association with municipal government. A history of Granville followed in 1935, but Parramatta was still his most frequent subject. He contributed articles of local historical interest to suburban newspapers.[11] Parramatta Shire Council appointed him as its official historian in 1938 on the sesqui-centenary of European settlement there, and several publications ensued. While he was still working as a secondary school teacher, he subsequently produced histories of Botany (1938, with Leo R. Flack), Dundas (1939), Condobolin (1940), Camden (1940) and Drummoyne (1940).

Jervis retired from teaching in his mid-sixties in 1947, but continued his prodigious writing, producing local histories of Dubbo (1949, though it was never published), Canterbury (1951), Wellington (1958), Woollahra (1960), Orange (1960), Parramatta (again, 1961), Berrima (1962) and Rockdale (1962). Between September 1954 and November 1955 he produced regular articles for the Farmer and Settler newspaper under the heading ‘Recalling the Pioneers’, about the history of rural settlement.

Jervis’s publishing coincided with, and propagated, a wave of enthusiasm for a celebratory style of local history writing that connected places to a particular reading of the colonial past. It overlapped with jubilees and centenaries of municipal government and the gazettal of towns and villages, the sesquicentenary of the First Fleet’s arrival, and the ‘back-to’ events staged to commemorate country towns and their pasts. His municipal clients sought to locate their role in an unproblematic and flattering Anglo-Australian foundation story.

Jervis’s local histories generally comply with a standard and familiar structure, beginning with early European settlement, proceeding chronologically through early occupation, farming and industry, until municipal government is attained. There follow short chapters on local institutions and infrastructure, with concluding reflections on the extent of progress since settlement, and prospect of more to come. ‘From Bushland to Throbbing City’, proclaimed a heading in the Auburn publication to which Jervis contributed.[12] The persistent theme was of uncritically venerated pioneering beginnings, leading to unremitting progress and impressive modernity, passing lightly over dispossession, conflict and regress. Marginalised groups were silently overlooked. Jervis was New South Wales’s most prolific exponent of what the historian Graeme Davison has characterised as the ‘patriarchal’ style of local history writing.[13]

Notwithstanding the rather formulaic shape of these works, Jervis was probably as familiar with the historical record of colonial New South Wales as any amateur historian of his time. The era saw the publication of New South Wales’s early colonial archive in the Historical Records of Australia, and the reproduction of the early colonial journals of Arthur Phillip, John Hunter, Watkin Tench and David Collins.[14] Jervis drew on these sources, as well as newspapers and gazettes, Lands Office records, and in various publications acknowledged the support of the Mitchell Library.

Though he was for a time a local historian for hire, Jervis’s keen interest in local history appears to have arisen from his deep attachment to Parramatta and the built imprint of its early colonial past.[15] In that environment, history for him was – as for WG Hoskins in England – as much to be interpreted by walking in the landscape as in reading the written record.

Jervis died at the age of seventy-nine at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney in April 1963. He was survived by his wife and daughter.[16]

Endnotes

[1] Death certificate.

[2] Death certificate; Philip Geeves, ‘In Memoriam – James Jervis’, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 49, Part 1, 1963, pp. 74-8; Sydney Morning Herald, 1 June 1912, p. 14.

[3] Marriage certificate.

[4] John McClymont, ‘James Jervis, 1884 [sic]-1963, Parramatta Historian: a Short Biography and Bibliography’, prepared on the occasion of the first James Jervis Memorial Lecture held of the Parramatta and District Historical Society Inc, 29 October 1988, paper held by the RAHS.

[5] John McClymont, ‘James Jervis, 1884 [sic]-1963, Parramatta Historian: a Short Biography and Bibliography’, prepared on the occasion of the first James Jervis Memorial Lecture held of the Parramatta and District Historical Society Inc, 29 October 1988, paper held by the RAHS; Sydney Morning Herald, 22 August 1927, p. 10, 29 September 1930, p. 15.

[6] Marjorie Jacobs, ‘The Royal Australian Historical Society, 1901-2001, Part 1, “Students Like a Hobby”: the Society 1900-1954’, in Alfred James (ed), Much Writing, Many Opinions: the Making of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 1901 to 2001, published as Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol 87, Part 1, June 2001, pp. 10-31.

[7]   Helen Doyle, ‘Royal Australian Historical Society’, in Graeme Davison, John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian History, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998, p. 564; Brain H Fletcher, ‘The Royal Australian Historical Society and the Writing of Australian History’, in Alfred James (ed), ‘Much Writing, Many Opinions: the Making of the Royal Australian Historical Society 1901 to 2002’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 87, Part 1, June 2001, pp. 1-6.

[8] Alfred James (ed), ‘Much Writing, Many Opinions: the Making of the Royal Australian Historical Society 1901 to 2002’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 87, Part 1, June 2001, pp. 76-7.

[9] Database maintained by the RAHS.

[10] James Jervis [containing history of Auburn by’], Auburn: 50 Years Progress, 1878-1928, Regent Press, Sydney, [1928].

[11] For example, Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 23 September 1935, p. 2, p. 8, 9 January 1936.

[12] James Jervis [containing history of Auburn by’], Auburn: 50 Years Progress, 1878-1928, Regent Press, Sydney, [1928], p. 7.

[13]  Graeme Davison, The Use and Abuse of Australian History, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 2000, pp. 202-05.

[14] Brain H Fletcher, ‘The Royal Australian Historical Society and the Writing of Australian History’, in Alfred James (ed), ‘Much Writing, Many Opinions: the Making of the Royal Australian Historical Society 1901 to 2002’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 87, Part 1, June 2001, pp. 1-6.

[15] Sydney Morning Herald, 29 September, p. 15, 11 September 1933, p. 8.

[16] Philip Geeves, ‘In Memoriam – James Jervis’, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 49, Part 1, 1963, pp. 74-8; death certificate.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Peter Woodley, 'Jervis, James (1883–1963)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/jervis-james-32452/text40252, accessed 30 June 2022.

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