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Camden Theatre Group

Camden Theatre Group Programme Quasiville 1960
Camden Theatre Group Programme Quasiville 1960

The Camden Theatre Group was one of a number of community organisations that existed in the Camden area in the post-war period. It mounted a host of productions over 20 years, mostly by non-professional members of the community.

The term community theatre refers to theatrical performance within and by the community. It can fit within the area of community arts which is wide and varied. Sometimes the community group works with professional actors and production teams. Community theatre helps build community development and community participation and engagement, which all contributed to the development of social capital.

Arts historian Katherine Knight reports that other active community theatre groups were the Castle Hill Players (1954) and the Henry Lawson Players (1969), both still active. In the local area the Campbelltown Theatre Group started in 1976 and is still very active.

The Camden Theatre Group was originally formed in Camden in 1953 and was extremely active from the beginning. In its first year the company staged three shows. It launched its first season 1954 with ‘Fresh Fields’, followed later in the year with ‘Gypsy Story’ and ‘Trial By Jury’. This was followed up in 1955 with ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ and ‘Maid of the Mountain’, with the highlight of 1956 ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’ and ‘Our Miss Gibbs’.

One of the early presidents was local novelist and dramatist Charles Inglis.

Productions were held in the AH&I Hall in Central Camden and in 1966 the company mounted Irving Berlin’s famous musical ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ in October. The leading roles for Annie was played by Christine de Looze and Frank Butler by Frank Armstrong. Christine de Looze debuted for the theatre group in ‘The Drunkard’ in 1965, and followed this up in 1966 playing the part of ballet dancer Essie Sycamore in ‘You Can’t Take it with You’. Frank Armstrong was one of the most experienced members of the company and had experience with JC Williamsons for some years appearing in a variety of musicals including ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘Kiss Me Kate’. In 1964 he entertained Camden audiences as Curly in ‘Oklahoma’.

In early 1968 the Camden press reported that Liz Kernohan was elected president at the AGM of the theatre group with co-patrons Dr RM Crookston, W Clifton, EC Britton, B Ferguson and W Sidman. The secretary was M Ferguson and B Clark, with vice-presidents C Manners and C Inglis, supported by general committee of eleven. It was reported that the group looked forward ‘to a full and rewarding programme with increased social activities and many opportunities for people who may be afraid of the footlights’.

Joyce Thorn recalled that Liz Kernohan was Bloody Mary in the company’s 1962 musical ‘South Pacific’ and says that she was ‘really spot on and the best Bloody Mary I’ve ever seen’. Joyce remembers that ‘she had confidence that she could do it’. Joyce and two car loads of friends would regularly come into Camden for theatre group productions and felt that the ‘theatre group did quite well’.

In 1969 the committee under the direction of president Liz Kernohan stated the theatre group enjoyed bringing forward their production and appealed for audience support by telling their friends. Local supporters could become an associate member for one dollar that entitled the holder to preferential bookings and inclusion in theatre parties. Productions were moved to the Camden High School hall in John Street, Camden.

The company kept up a busy production schedule from its foundation and between 1953 and 1971 there were 29 separate productions, and from 1972 and to 1981 there were 21.

In early 1974 the Stables Theatre Group got under way when the Camden Theatre Group signed an eight year lease on The Stables at Camden Park Estate. The signatories were the president Liz Kernohan, secretary Richard Echin and Quentin Macarthur Stanham of Camden Park.

In 1975 the theatre group was re-structured as the Camden Theatre Group Co-operative Society Ltd. The aim of the re-structuring was the establishment of the Stables Theatre under the chairmanship of Camden Mayor Bruce Ferguson. The co-ordinator of the Stables Theatre Group was Jean Burton, and secretary Janice McDonnell. The co-operative’s board was made up of 14 representatives made up of eight directors from shareholders and six representatives from the organisations. Amongst board members were representatives from a number of community groups which were the Arts Society, Chamber of Commerce and Macarthur Apex. The chairman of the board was F Hibble from Tahmoor.

In 1980 the theatre group was suffering financial difficulties and had revival plans in place. The restoration of The Stables had put the company under financial pressure.

The last production mounted by the theatre group at The Stables was the three act ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’ was put on in 1981 in the round. Diana Sharpe played Burra, Sally Hogan took the role of Pearl, Jeff Ballinger played Barney, ably supported by a number of other local identities.

Joyce Thorn, Interview with Ian Willis, Camden, 7 September 2014

Read more about community theatre at The Association of Community Theatre here

Read about Arts activism in Western Sydney with Katherine Knight @ Western Sydney Frontier and her excellent history of the Arts in Western Sydney Passion Purpose Meaning, Arts Activism in Western Sydney (2007)


Australian Women’s Land Army at Orangeville NSW

1996 AWLA Reunion at Orangeville Hall
1996 AWLA Reunion at Orangeville Hall

The Women’s Land Army was active in the Camden area between 1942 and 1945. They were located at camps in the local area and the largest was at Orangeville.

The role of the Australian Women’s Land Army was to fill the manpower shortages in the agricultural sector as Australia was tasked with supplying food and materials to the Allies in the Pacific. The women performed farming work, as well as working in canneries and packing houses. Girls as young as 16 years of age could join the land army with parental approval so long as they were not already engaged in farming work.

Farmers in the Camden area had contracts to supply food stuffs to military authorities and suffered from a general shortage of labour. One of the largest groups of land army women was at Orangeville.

Mrs Kath Took was the matron in-charge of the Orangeville camp from April 1943. She was 25 years old at the time recalls that Orangeville held ‘some of her favourite memories’ of the land army after joining in 1942.

During 1943 Orangeville camp had 18 young women and two staff billeted at the church and its associated halls. The staff were located in the cloak room and on the stage.

Nell Weir’s history of Orangeville states that in 1942 there were 40 land army girls at the camp. The young women worked a 48 hour week and wore green overalls. They picked peas, beans and fruit as well as pruning fruit trees, harvesting potatoes, chipping weeds in the orchards and working on the dairy farms.

Facilities were basic in the Orangeville camp. The kitchen and dining room were purpose-built with toilets at the back of the mess rooms. A young fellow would chop firewood for the women, whereas a lot of other camps the women had to chop their own firewood.

The local farmers who employed the girls at Orangeville were reportedly very good to the young women. They picked them up in the morning after breakfast and return them to the camp at the end of the day. Other land army camps were not so lucky. Mr Jim Kennedy was responsible for allocating the young women to various farms in the area.

If the young women wanted to go to Camden they had to go by mail car which ran three times a week. Mrs Took stated that the mail car brought ‘all goods to us’ on its regular mail run. If any of the girls wanted to go to town for anything in an emergency they could always get a lift with the coal trucks from The Oaks. Weir states that weekend leave was focused on Sydney and they travelled to Camden Railway Station after piling into a taxi or would ride on the back of Noake’s milk truck.

If any of the young women were injured or became sick they were taken into Camden for medical treatment. Some were treated by Dr Crookston, ‘a lovely old man up on the hill near the lovely old Church’, Mrs Took recalls.

The land army girls at Orangeville were a group of highly desirable attractive young women. They were a magnet for any young farmer and coalminer in the district who were in essential reserved occupations. They always had escorts to the movies in Camden at the Paramount Movie Theatre or to local dances that were regularly held at The Oaks’ School of Arts and Camden’s Royal Foresters’ Hall. Music was provided by the Mrs Minnie Kelloway and her band. Romance was in the air for some and Weir states that five of these young women married local farmers. In 1998 two of these young women, Mrs Kit Kelly and Mrs Barbara Small, were still living at Orangeville.

The service of these young women was finally recognised by the Federal authorities in 1994 when they were awarded a service medal. Mrs Took and a number other women decided that they needed to get together and hold a re-union. They decided on April 1996 at Orangeville.

Roundabout, the magazine of the Australian Women’s Land Army, reported that there was perfect weather for the re-union weekend. The Saturday lunch was an occasion for the formalities, speeches and lots of memories. There were 10 land army girls present and about 30 others who attended the lunch, with the key address given by Mr Allan Small.

There was a Sunday morning church service at Orangeville, followed by lunch at the Camden Valley Inn with music supplied by the Camden Rugby Big Band (now the Camden Community Band).

Mrs Took fondly remembers the ‘the warmth of hospitality that was extended to us by all and in particular the farmers. It was a very heart-warming experience for all present and a weekend of nostalgia and reminiscences from which we will all retain present memories’.

Read more about the Australian Women’s Land Army click here and consult Wikipedia

Research the Australian Women’s Land Army click here  and the Australian homefront click here