New England history: George Frederick Nott Part I

Today: The University of New England and its buildings are well established in Armidale, but the early days were not all smooth sailing.
Today: The University of New England and its buildings are well established in Armidale, but the early days were not all smooth sailing.

The built landscape we have today reflects the combined effort of owners, architects, tradespeople and their supporting workers and the builders who co-ordinated the construction process. Of those builders, George Frederick Nott was arguably the most important as a builder and as a philanthropist.

It is late April 1936. Fundraising for the proposed New England University College is lagging, opposition to the concept increasing. The NSW Stevens-Bruxner government is being affected by internal rivalries within the United Australia (now Liberal) Party as Deputy UAP leader Eric Spooner begins to move against Premier Bertram Stevens.

At a Cabinet meeting, a minister suddenly moves out of the blue “that the item – a University College for Armidale – be struck off the Cabinet list”. We do not know who the minister was, but it seems probable that it was Spooner.

The college’s main protagonist, Education Minister and member for Armidale David Drummond, had been ambushed. Stevens was on leave with Country Party Leader Bruxner acting as Premier. Bruxner was in a difficult position trying to manage the increasing factional divides.

Recognising that if the motion succeeded, the university college proposal was dead, Drummond desperately talked out time until the lunch break. But what to do?

Knowing that George Nott was in town, Drummond went to him for help. If this resolution is carried, Drummond pleaded, “not only Armidale, but the whole of the north would lose the greatest opportunity it had ever had”.

Nott’s reaction was swift and generous. “Is £1000 any good to you? I will give you £500 in cash, and another £500 in bricks the day the job is started.”

When Cabinet resumed, Drummond’s colleague took up his papers with an air of finality, and said, “Well, Mr Chairman, I think we had better settle this matter now”.

“Pardon me,” Drummond interposed, “but within 15 minutes of leaving this room I raised £1000. If the government will give a firm undertaking to go ahead, the northern people will do their part. I am sure we can get the rest of the £10,000.”

Battles still lay ahead, there would be other threats, but the day had been won.

George F. Nott’s generous reaction was only part of his contribution to New England life, including its built architecture. That contribution was truly remarkable.

Over the next few columns, I will take the life of George F. Nott as an entry point to further explore New England’s built landscape and architecture and the life that created it.

Jim Belshaw’s email is ndarala@optusnet.com.au. He blogs at newenglandaustralia.blogspot.com.au and newenglandhistory.blogspot.com.au