Fiona Gatt

HDR student

The area we now call the suburb of North Melbourne was destined to be urbanised as soon as the European settlement of Melbourne had proven successful. Sub-divided in 1852, its early years were shaped by the needs of those who came to Melbourne en-route to the goldfields and those who came to settle. There was a frontier uncertainty and promise of opportunity, which residents felt so strongly they established themselves as a municipality when only about one-half of the municipal area was even built on. What is urbanisation in this context? What or who shaped the material environment and what relationship did this have with the society that developed there in the nineteenth century?

Fiona’s thesis aims to recover the lived experience of nineteenth century urbanisation on Melbourne’s colonial urban frontier, focusing on the town of Hotham, now known as the suburb of North Melbourne. Fiona’s research delves into the quantitative data of the rate books, using urban history techniques, but blended with qualitative insights to achieve a recreative mode, of more intimate details of the urbanisation process.

In her work Fiona explores the complex interplay of opportunities, occupations and ownership of the material environment which informed the development of Hotham society. 

  • What first sparked your interest in your field and how has that interest lead you to topic of research?

    In the final year of my Bachelor of Arts I did a ‘mini’ thesis of original research using the WWI diary of my great grandfather. That led me to my Honours thesis where I looked at seven interconnected Melbourne families and used family history techniques to provide a long view of the interruption of the Great War in people’s lives. Some of those families lived (for generations) in North Melbourne and I discovered that no comprehensive history of the suburb had been written – which has led me to my PhD project. 

  • Why did you pursue a HDR?

    When I was studying a Bachelor of Arts my intention was to then complete a Master of Teaching and set out on a new career, after a long career in the IT world. I discovered I loved researching and writing history so much, however, that I couldn’t resist a detour year into an Honours thesis … and then off the rails into the PhD. I want to achieve the writing of a book-length manuscript and to contribute the history of North Melbourne to the local history shelf at the State Library.

  • What has been the highlight of your candidature so far?

    I began teaching as a casual academic (at Deakin) in T1 2020 and I just love taking seminars and marking. It’s a real thrill when you sense that how you facilitated a discussion helped a student think in a new way or come to a new understanding. Whilst teaching might not seem like part of my candidature I find that it helps me grow as a student. In reigniting ways of thinking historically about topics not related to my PhD research, teaching prompts me to approach things from new angles.

  • What has been the most unexpected moment of your candidature so far?

    Well, not so much a moment, but a series of occurrences has come out of the pandemic lockdowns. I was a Cloud student and a bit disconnected from ‘the academy’, ‘the circuit’, the general networks and connections between historians. The pandemic forced everything online and I suddenly had all these opportunities to join more seminars, open chats, writing groups and masterclasses, run by Deakin but also history groups like the Professional Historian Association. As a result I am more connected to my peers than ever.

  • You are stuck on a desert island with four books. Three are related to your field/area and one isn’t. Which books do you bring with you?

    For the book not related to my field/area is must be my favourite: To Kill a Mockingbird. I could read it endlessly. For the three related to my field: The History of Brighton (Weston Bate) with its wonderful narrative prose; The History of Footscray (John Lack), with its superb detail; and Marvellous Melbourne (Graeme Davison) for its bold and convincing style and impressive level of research.

  • Imagine an ideal world with no constraints. What would you be doing with your HDR/where would your HDR take you?

    No constraints? I would like a generous commission to turn my PhD thesis into a book, which would cover Hotham/North Melbourne 1852–1905. Then I’d like a follow up commission on the twentieth century history of North Melbourne. And during those projects I would like to teach history (on a rolling secure contract) part time. And somehow in all the mix I’d like time to try my hand had writing historical fiction.

  • Writing is big part in the HDR process. Do you have any rituals that help you get in the writing mood/vibe/mindset?

    I use the ‘Shut up and Write’ method: writing for 25, talking for 5 (four times over) in a Zoom group once a week. When I am by myself (most days) I write for 35 and do housework for 5 – rinse and repeat four times before a longer break. The short breaks make the 35 minute stints fly by so I can, overall, keep writing for longer. 

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