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Camden Showgirl, an enduring pageant

A rural anachronism

The Showgirl (formerly Miss Showgirl) competition is, in many ways, an anachronism from the past. It has survived for over 45 years under the onslaught of feminism, postmodernism, globalization and urbanisation. A worthy feat indeed.

The competition is still popular and the local press is always a strong supporter. The 2010 Camden Showgirl competition attracted seven young women.

Camden Show Signage 2018
The Camden Show attracts over 40,000 people to the two-day festival in the country town of Camden. (I Willis)

So what has been the continuing appeal of the competition? Probably the most important criteria have been that it has been faithful to its aims of promoting rural interests. The competition has always been associated with the significant rural festival, the country show, celebrating rural life.

Showtime, the show ball and Showgirl are representatives of notions around Camden’s rurality. People use the competition as a lens through which they can view the past, including the young women who enter it. In 2008 Showgirl Lauren Elkins ‘was keen’, she said, ‘to get into the thick of promoting the town and its rural heritage’. Camden people yearned for a past when the primary role of the town was to service the surrounding farmers and their needs. Miss Showgirl is part of the invocation of rural nostalgia.

The winning showgirl projects the values and traditions of the local community, according to Suzie Sherwood, a member of the organizing committee in 2004. She said, ‘the winner will have a strong connection with the community and be aware of rural issues’.

The organising committee seems successful at identifying entrants who have a sense of belonging to the local area. After winning the 2009 Camden showgirl competition, Adriana Mihajlovic said, ‘I will tell people that Camden is a beautiful rural country town with a wonderful community’. 2004 Miss Camden Showgirl Danielle Haack said, ‘Camden is a lovely country town and I am proud that I can be involved in promoting it to other districts’. The showgirl competition connects the country town to the city. The entrant acts as a publicity agent for the Camden Show, one of Australia’s largest regional shows.

The resilience of the showgirl competition can also be put down to its representation of the changes in rural life and rural women themselves. It is a mirror of the expectations and aspirations of young women. 2010 entrant Karina Ralstan said, ‘She sees it as an opportunity to raise issues concerning rural women’. 2004 Miss Camden Showgirl Danielle Haack felt the competition was an opportunity to raise rural issues, and all 2010 entrants were concerned about promoting the importance of agriculture.

Part of the success of the competition in Camden has been its ability to attract young women who want to make a living in the agricultural sector. University of Sydney veterinary science student Danielle Haack said she tried to ‘improve the quality of cattle’ and her studies will help her in animal genealogy and herd health. 2010 entrant Brooke Mulholland is an owner/manager of a Suffolk sheep stud.

The showgirl competition is a relic of a time when gender expectations stated that rural women were confined by home and family. Today’s young women want a career and travel. Something that the Miss Showgirl competitions have supplied. In 2004 the grand prize at the Royal Easter Show was a world trip for two, and Camden’s representative Danielle Haack certainly felt that ‘a world trip would be a lovely end-of-year treat for me once I finish my degree’.

Miss Camden Showgirl for 2018 in the Australia Day Parade on the float for the Camden Show. (I Willis)

The competition has allowed entrants to fully experience showtime in Sydney. The annual city visit can be a big deal for those who experience it. 2002 Miss Showgirl Margie Roser stated that staying in Sydney was one of her life’s best times. She said her time in Sydney was ‘full of social engagements, media coverage and cocktail parties’. The party element is not ignored at a local level, and the annual Camden show ball is an occasion to ‘frock up’. 2004 Camden Miss Showgirl Sally Watson said, ‘The ball was great fun’.

Over the years, showgirls have found that the competition has been good for making friends, personal development and new experiences. 2003 Camden Showgirl Sally Watson said, ‘the experience was rewarding. It is a wonderful chance to network and meet many other like-minded young women’.

Yet showgirl competitions have not been without their critics. The competition has survived in New South Wales and Queensland while not in Victoria. Some have seen it as daggy, while some have seen it as the commodification of women. The entrants defend the competition. Danielle Haack maintained that the contest ‘was anything but a beauty pageant. Some of my friends have asked me how the swimsuit category was going, but it’s nothing like that’.

The competition and the strong field of entrants are a testament to the ongoing popularity of the Camden Show and its representation of Camden’s rurality.

Updated 17 March 2023. Originally published 28 February 2014.


Menangle, estate village

St James Church Menangle (I Willis)

The village of Menangle is one of the Camden district’s examples of an English-style private estate village. It evolved as a closed estate village over the last 150 years within the limits of the Macarthur family’s Camden Park estate. The English-style aesthetics of the Camden Park countryside have only served to re-enforce the cultural mythology that has developed around the village and its hinterland.

The Menangle village parallels the ups and downs of the private estate villages of early 19th century England. Today these English villages have turned into the picture postcard rural village that tourists love to visit. Menangle still has the essence of its rural Englishness with the Anglican church on the hill, the common and general store. It even has the elements of rural decline in its midst typical of English villages, as it comes under pressure from city-based developers.

The story of the village is the story of Camden Park estate itself. Both are intimately tied up with each other. The village is sited on the Walter Davidson 1805 2000 acre land grant ‘Belmont’ near a crossing on the Nepean River. The Macarthur family worked the Belmont grant after Davidson left the colony in 1809. James and William Macarthur purchased Davidson’s grant of Belmont for £4000 acres in 1837.

The influence of the Macarthur squirocracy of James and William was consolidated after the railway arrived in 1863. The rail bridge was extended over the Nepean River and brought world markets to the village’s doorstep. The railway provided cheap and reliable transport to the Sydney market for the first time. It gave Camden Park estate overnight delivery of milk to the Sydney market, a shot in the arm for its dairy production. The railway hurried the growth of the village and increased its importance within the infrastructure of the Camden Park estate. Heritage consultant Graham Brooks (2009) reports that the estate headquarters was moved to the village after the arrival of the railway.

Camden Park estate provided land for a village school (opened in 1867), the Anglican and Catholic churches and assisted the construction of St James Anglican church. The foundation of St James Anglican Church was laid in 1876 and built to the design of architect John Horbury Hunt, while a lecturn was added in 1878. The bells were not installed in the church tower until 2005. The local Catholic community was served by the building of St Patrick’s Catholic Church built in 1895, to a design by RT Dennehy of Sydney, and a small school run by the Josephite nuns. For James and William Macarthur these institutions provided moral order and stability within the village and the village acted as a focal point of economic activity within the confines of Camden Park.

Industrialisation arrived in the village under the influence of the combination of the dairy revolution of the 1890s, the rail link and the re-organisation of the dairy activities of Camden Park estate by Elizabeth Macarthur Onslow. The estate constructed a central creamery adjacent to the railway line where cream was separated and processed to supply the Sydney market. An article in Beautiful Sydney (1895-1896) commented on the modern facilities at the Menangle creamery with steam and water reticulated throughout the factory. It stated milk was supplied by over 1,000 Ayrshire and Jersey dairy cows daily across Camden Park worked on a share-farming system.

The dairying period was a time of prosperity for the village. There was the construction of the Arts and Crafts styled Gilbulla, designed by Sulman & Power and built by James W Macarthur Onslow in 1899. This was followed by the construction of the Menangle Store, also designed by Sulman & Power in a similar style in 1904.

There was additions to Central Creamery in 1920 and the Camden Park dairy herd was the only one tested for tuberculosis in 1924. By the late 1920s the Menangle factory was the receiving depot for a number of dairies in the area and whole milk was despatched by rail to Dairy Farmers Co-operative Milk Co in Sydney. The expanding workforce was supplied with housing within the village by Camden Park estate. The dominance of the estate within village was clearly evident even as late as 1950. The estate owned 23 of the 35 cottages within the village limits.

The modernization of milk production occurred in 1952 under the stewardship of Edward Macarthur Onslow. He was responsible for building the Rotolactor adjacent to the Creamery based on a design he saw in USA. Heritage consultant Chris Betteridge (2012) states that the Rotolactor was part of an integrated system of cattle breeding and feed, fodder production and manure collection. In its heyday during the 1960s it was a huge tourist attraction for the village and had up to 2000 visitors a week. It was operated with a staff of nine and could milk up to 300 cows an hour.

The sale of Camden Park Estate Pty Ltd in 1973 was the end of the period for Menangle as a closed estate village. It marked the surrender of the Macarthur family and the end of the economic, social and cultural dominance of Camden Park estate. The village was pushed out into the cold against the winds of change brought by Sydney’s urban growth.