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A walk in the meadows of the past

Walkway at the Camden Town Farm

I was recently walking across the Nepean River floodplain past meadows of swaying waist-high grass on a local walkway that brought to mind the 1805 description of the Cowpastures by Governor King. Atkinson writes

The first Europeans looked about with pleasure at the luxuriant grass that covered both the flats and the low hills. The flats seemed best for cattle…the trees were sparse.

The trees were certainly sparse on my walk, yet the cattle in the adjacent paddock proved the fulfillment of the observations of the early Europeans.

Black cattle graze on the waist-high grass just as the wild cattle of the Cowpastures did over 200 years ago. Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway 2020 (I Willis)

The cattle I saw were polled hornless black cattle which were markedly different from the horned-South African cattle which made the Nepean River floodplain their home in 1788 after they escaped from Bennelong Point in Sydney Town. They became the wild cattle of the Cowpastures.

The beauty of the landscape hints at the management skills of the original inhabitants the area -the Dharawal – who understood this country well.

This is the landscape that characterises the recently opened Miss Lewella Davies Memorial Walkway which weaves its way across the Nepean River flats on the western side of Camden’s township historic town centre.

Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway Pond fog 2020 IW lowres
The aesthetics of the Nepean River floodplain caught the attention of the early Europeans in a landscape managed by the local Dharawal people for hundreds of years. Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway Pond (2020 I Willis)

Layers of meaning within the landscape

Walking the ground is an important way for a historian to empathise the subtleties of the landscape and the layers of meaning that are buried within it.

The walkway is located in the original Cowpastures named Governor Hunter in 1796, which was then declared a government reserve in 1803 by Governor King. Just like an English reserved King banned any unauthorised entry south of the Nepean River to stop poaching of the wild cattle. Just like the ‘keep out’ signs in the cattle paddocks today.

According to Peter Mylrea, the area of the town farm was purchased by colonial pioneer John Macarthur after the government Cowpasture Reserve was closed and sold off in 1825. It is easy to see why John Macarthur wanted this part of the country for his farming outpost of Camden Park, centred at Elizabeth Farm at Parramatta.

Although this does not excuse European invaders displacing and dispossessing the Indigenous Dharawal people from their country.  Englishman and colonial identity John Oxley and John Macarthur were part of the colonial settler society which, according to LeFevre, sought to replace the original population of the colonized territory with a new society of settlers.

Today all this country is part of the Camden Town Farm, which includes the walkway.

Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway Nepean River Rest Stop 2020 IW lowres
A rest stop on the walkway adjacent to the Nepean River. Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway Nepean River (2020 IW)

Llewella Davies – a colourful local character

Llewella Davies was a larger than life colourful Camden character and a truly notable Camden identity. On her death in 2000 her estate bequeathed 55 acres of her family’s dairy farm fronting Exeter Street to the Camden Council. Llewella wanted the site was to be used as a functional model farm for educational purposes or passive recreational use.

Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway Information Sign 2020 IW lowres
An information sign at the beginning of the walkway explains the interesting aspects of the life of Miss Llewella Davies. Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway (2020 I Willis)

The Davies dairy farm

The Davies family purchased their farm of 130 acres in 1908. They appeared not to have farmed the land and leased 20 acres on the corner of Exeter and Macquarie Grove Road to Camden Chinese market gardener Tong Hing and others for dairying.

Llewella was the youngest of two children to Evan and Mary Davies. She lived all her life in the family house called Nant Gwylan on Exeter Street, opposite the farm. Her father died in 1945, and Llewella inherited the house and farm on her mother’s death in 1960.

The house Nant Gwylan was surrounded by Camden High School which was established in 1956 on a sporting reserve. Llewella steadfastly refused to sell-out to the Department of Education for an extension to the high school despite being approached on several occasions.

Llewella, who never married, was born in 1901 and educated at Sydney Church of England Girls’ Grammar School (SCEGGS) in Darlinghurst. The school educated young women in a progressive liberal curriculum that included the classics, scientific subjects as well as female accomplishments.

Llewella undertook paid work at the Camden News office for many years and volunteered for numerous community organisations including the Red Cross, and the Camden Historical Society. In 1981 she was awarded the Order of Australia medal (OAM) for community service.

The Camden Town Farm

In 2007 Camden Council appointed a Community Management Committee to examine the options for the farm site that Llewella Davies had gifted to the Camden community. The 2007 Camden Town Farm Masterplan outlined the vision for the farm:

The farm will be developed and maintained primarily for agricultural, tourism and educational purposes. It was to be operated and managed in a sustainable manner that retains its unique character and encourages and facilitates community access, participation and visitation.

Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway Shoesmith Yards 2020 IW lowres
The walkway has several historic sites and relics from the Davies farm. Here are the Shoesmith Cattle yards… Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway (2020 I Willis)

The masterplan stated the farm was ‘ideally place to integrate itself with the broader township’ and the existing Camden RSL Community Memorial Walkway that had been established in 2006.

It is against this background that the Camden Town Farm management committee moved forward with the development of a walkway in 2016.

The Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway

The walkway was constructed jointly by Camden Council and the Town Farm Management Committee through the New South Wales Government’s Metropolitan Greenspace Program. The program is administered by the Office of Strategic Lands with funding for the program comes from the Sydney Region Development Fund and aims to improve the regional open space in Sydney and the Central Coast. It has been running since 1990.

Camden Mayor Theresa Fedeli opened the walkway on 17th August 2019 to an enthusiastic crowd of locals. The walkway is approximately 2.4 kilometres and it has been estimated that by January 2020 around 1000 people per week are using it.

Invite for Miss Llewella Davies Walkway 2019Aug17

The walkway is part of Camden’s Living History where visitors and locals can see, experience and understand what a farm looks like, what it smells like and its size and extent. Located on Sydney’s urban fringe it is a constant reminder of the Indigenous Dharawal people and the area’s farming heritage of grazing, cropping, and dairying

If the walker is patient and perceptive the path reveals the layers of the past, some of which have been silenced for many years.

Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway Walkers 2020 IW lowres
Some enthusiastic walkers on the path getting in some exercise on the 2.4 km long track. Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway (2020 I Willis)

Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway Highlights   (on map)

  1. Chinese wishing wells
  2. Seismic monitoring station
  3. Views of Nepean River
  4. Views to Macquarie House
  5. Shoesmith livestock yard.
  6. Heritage precinct
Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway Seismic Instruments 2020 IW lowres
The seismic station is adjacent to the walkway path on the Nepean River floodplain. Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway (2020 I Willis)

 Additional highlights

  1. Nepean River floodplain
  2. Dam
  3. Camden Community Garden
  4. Camden Fresh Produce Markets
  5. Worker’s cottage
  6. Onslow Park and Camden Showground
  7. Bicentennial Equestrian Park
  8. Camden Town Centre Heritage Conservation Area
  9. Camden RSL Community Memorial Walkway
Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway Warning Do Not Sign 2020 IW lowres
There are information signs at the beginning and the end of the walkway. This one highlights the warnings and the things that walkers and visitors are not allowed to do. Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway (2020 I Willis)

The value of the walkway

  1. Tourism
  2. Education
  3. Memorial
  4. Commemoration
  5. Fitness and wellbeing
  6. Ecological
  7. Sustainability
  8. Working farm
  9. Living history
  10. Community events and functions
  11. Commercial business – farmers markets
  12. Aesthetics and moral imperative
  13. Storytelling
  14. Community wellness
  15. Food security
Camden Town Farm Walkway Signage No Dogs2 2020 lowres

Australian Historic Themes

The Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway fits the Australian Historic Themes on several levels and the themes are:

  1. Tracing the natural evolution of Australia,
  2. Peopling Australia
  3. Developing local, regional and national economies
  4. Building settlements, towns, and cities
  5. Working
  6. Educating
  7. Governing
  8. Developing Australia’s cultural life
  9. Marking the phases of life

Updated on 17 April 2021; Originally posted on 14 April 2020

Adaptive Re-use · Aesthetics · Agricultural heritage · Agriculture · Architecture · Attachment to place · Australia · Australian Historic Themes · Camden Story · Colonial Camden · Colonialism · community identity · Convicts · Cultural Heritage · Cultural icon · Elizabeth Farm · Elizabeth Macarthur · England · Families · gardening · Georgian · Heritage · Historical consciousness · Historical Research · Historical thinking · history · History of a house · House history · Landscape · Landscape aesthetics · Living History · Local History · Macarthur · Memory · Parramatta · Place making · sense of place · Settler colonialism · Storytelling · Victorian

Elizabeth Farm, the foundation story of the Macarthur rural empire

Elizabeth Farm

Elizabeth Farm was the home of John and Elizabeth Macarthur and the centre of their mercantile and farming empire for over 35 years.  The homestead is regarded as both the oldest and most historic building in Australia and is an important site in the development of the wool industry.

John Macarthur (Wikimedia)

 

Elizabeth Farm was the site of political intrigue around Australia’s only coup d’etat and the personal struggles of John’s incredible mood swings suffering depression. The house is an important centre in the Camden story and many decisions made here that effected the family’s holdings at Camden Park in the Cowpastures district.

The house was lucky not to be demolished and lay derelict for a period.  Once when architect William Swann’s family rescued it in 1904 and again the mid-20th century.  Elizabeth Farm is currently a house museum opened in 1984 and owned by Sydney Living Museums, formerly the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales.

Elizabeth Macarthur SLNSW

 

Background

Elizabeth Veale, who became the first lady of the colony of New South Wales, married the fractious John Macarthur, an ambitious officer on half-pay, in England in 1788 in the village of Bridgeule in Devonshire. Macarthur joined the 68th Regiment just before his marriage as an ensign and after the birth of his son transferred as a lieutenant in the New South Wales Corps.[1]

Parramatta Elizabeth Macarthur 1785 SLNSW
Elizabeth Macarthur 1785 SLNSW

 

The couple travelled to New South Wales in the Second Fleet on the Neptune, before transferring to the Scarborough arriving in 1790. John’s reputation and ill-temper was a constant source of frustration, which Elizabeth bore with patience and forbearance.

In 1793 John Macarthur was granted 100 acres at Rosehill of some of the best land on the  Parramatta River which he named after his wife. The family with three children moved to Elizabeth Farm in 1793. By 1794 the farm had expanded to 250 acres with 100 under crops, 20 acres of wheat, 80 acres of corn and potatoes. His livestock included horses, cows, goats, and pigs and with additional grants and purchases, the farm expanded to over 500 acres.

Elizabeth Farm J Lycett 1825 SLNSW

 

 Building Elizabeth Farm

The house was constructed in 1793 as a single level building of four rooms with adjoining kitchen and servants quarters built on a low ridge overlooking the Parramatta River. James Broadbent describes the house as a simple late 18th century English vernacular cottage, with a shingle hardwood roof. From this design evolved a characteristic form of the colonial cottage.[2]

JM Freeland describes the house as a simple rectangle. built of hand-made English-size bricks set in clay and shell-lime mortar. The steeply pitched roof was formed of massive balks of pit-sawn timber held together with wooden pegs, sheathed with cedar planks and covered with split swamp-oak shingles.[3]

Parramatta Elizabeth Farm 2016 IWillis[3]
Elizabeth Farm northern verandah (2016 I Willis)
 

 

Sydney Living Museums states:

The cottage… resembled countless farmhouses seen in southern England. The balanced, symmetrical design of paired windows placed to either side of a central doorway was typical of the Georgian style then popular in England.[4]

An extra bedroom was added along with a verandah. James Broadbent maintains that the addition of the verandah was influenced by Colonel Grose’s addition of a verandah on Government House, which Grose had seen while serving during the American War of Independence.[5]

John was exiled from the colony in 1809 for his part in the Rum Rebellion with Governor Bligh. During his absence Elizabeth ran the household and the family’s pastoral interests at Camden and Seven Hill, from Elizabeth Farm. The house was possibly shaded from the north and east by verandahs. Elizabeth had little interest in redesigning the homestead.

Macarthur returned to New South Wales in 1817. The Macarthurs were successful selling wool in London and pressed for another grant at Camden. With good fortunes, John Macarthur sought to build a house appropriate to his wealth. He began home building and planning. Elizabeth Farm was remodeled.   He added new stables, and a new cottage, called Hambledon, and building at Camden under the influence of Sydney architect Henry Kitchen.

From 1821 the house was remodeled under the supervision of stonemason and bricklayer John Norris from a Georgian house to a Regency style that better suited colonial taste. Elizabeth was turned out of the house in 1826 due to renovations when the dining room, drawing rooms, and library bedroom were extended into the verandah area completed by 1827.[6]

Macarthur’s depressed state of mind meant that his building frenzy subsided. He recovered by 1828 and put his time into the Australian Agricultural Company. In 1831 he was again planning building additions, mainly at Camden. In 1832 he was declared insane and confined to Elizabeth Farm. Macarthur’s insanity worsened and he was moved to Camden in 1833, where he died in 1834.

Elizabeth returned to Elizabeth Farm in 1833 and with the assistance of architect John Verge had it habitable with needed repairs. She did not make any further changes to the house.[7]

Elizabeth Farm 2010 Australian Travel

 

Life at Elizabeth Farm

Elizabeth Farm was a mixture of town and country life. The house was about half-a-days travel by boat from Sydney and a short walk from Parramatta.

In 1794 the house was surrounded by a vineyard and garden of three acres, including fruit trees and vegetables. The fruit trees included almonds, apricots, pear and apple trees. There were between 30 and 40 staff at the farm – 13 as stockmen, gardeners or stable hands and female servants in the house.

Elizabeth had nine children, with seven surviving. Elizabeth learned to play the piano in her first days in the colony. The Macarthurs were well-read with books, magazines, and albums from England. Elizabeth was part of the Sydney social set and was on cordial terms with the governor’s wives.

James Broadbent reports that the house was elegantly fitted out with fine china and silver from England. Furnishings were never opulent[8] and the house was never a centre of the colony’s social life.

Parramatta Elizabeth Macarthur 1845 SMOMacofCP1912
Elizabeth Macarthur 1845 SMO SomeRecords (1912)

 

After Macarthur’s death, the farm was managed by her sons, while Elizabeth and her daughters lived in a comfortable style. In Elizabeth’s last years she visited her daughter Emmeline and husband Henry at Watson’s Bay.

After Elizabeth died in 1850, aged 83 years, Emmeline and Henry lived at Elizabeth Farm until 1854. Edward Macarthur inherited the house and leased it out. On his death in 1872 the house was inherited by his niece Elizabeth Macarthur, James’ daughter. The house standing on 1000 acres was sold in 1881 for £50,000.[9]

Elizabeth Farm G Marler 1925 Private Collection

 

The table at Elizabeth Farm

John Macarthur was an early riser, usually, 4am and breakfast, served around 10.00am, might have consisted of ham, boiled eggs, bread and butter, and perhaps mutton. The table would have been set symmetrically which was typical of Georgian order and decorum.[10]

Parramatta Elizabeth Farm 2016 IWillis[2]
Elizabeth Farm Dining Room (2016 I Willis)
 

The family would probably have been waited on by the butler, a convict named James Butler, who arrived in 1818 with convictions for forgery and started work at Elizabeth Farm in 1825. In the 1828 Census, the household staff consisted of 13 staff: a gardener, a coachman, a butler, two grooms, a cook, four labourers, two maidservants, and a footman – all convicts.

The cook was Thomas Blake, two maidservants, Jane Mead and Margaret Shepherd, a footman, John Bono, an Indian.  The staff were reported to have been well treated and returned this with loyalty during times of difficulty with John’s incredible mood swings.[11]

Elizabeth Farm 1910 WH Broadhurst

 

Garden at Elizabeth Farm

Scott Hill makes the observation that little remains of the original garden, while paintings and sketches of the period only give an idealised view of things. Conrad Martin’s works were completed after Elizabeth’s death and only give a glimpse of what was present in the garden.[12]

Parramatta Elizabeth Farm 2016 IWillis[1]
Elizabeth Farm Garden (2016 I Willis)
 

There was an ‘extensive’ kitchen garden that was to the east of the house although some hoop pines survive. From Hill’s research, an 1816 letter from Elizabeth states that the kitchen garden had 23 fruit trees, oranges, peaches, pomegranates, loquats, shaddock, and guava.[13]

Parramatta ElizabethFarm CMartin 1859 Pencil SLNSW
Garden Sketch Elizabeth Farm by Conrad Martins 1859 in preparation for his painting of the house in pencil SLNSW

 

Hill notes that the famous ‘waratah’ camelia at Camden Park was first planted at Elizabeth Farm in 1831 and later transplanted to their country property, where it still prospers.

The garden also had roses, foxgloves, aloes, agaves, and bulbs. It is thought the garden had the first olive tree in the country which is described by Thomas Mitchell.[14]

Parramatta Elizabeth Farm 2016 IWillis[4]
Elizabeth Farm Garden (2016 I Willis)
 

Elizabeth fostered a botanical interest in the next generation, particularly William, who managed a successful nursery at Camden Park for many years. She valued the local vegetation of the Parramatta River area and 1795 she wrote home to her friend Miss R Kingdon from Elizabeth Farm at Parramatta:

The greater part of the country is like an English park, and the trees give it the appearance of a wilderness or shrubbery, commonly attached to the habitations of people of fortune, filled with a variety of native plants, placed in a wild irregular manner.[15]

On Elizabeth’s carriage trips out and about she noted that in spring:

The native shrubs are also in flower and the whole country gives a grateful perfume.[16]

Recent Ownership

The Historic Houses Trust acquired the property in 1983 and opened it as a house museum in 1984. Before this the house had fallen into disrepair.

The house was purchased in 1968 by the Elizabeth Farm Management Trust from the Swann family, who had previously lived in it The house was placed on a list of historic buildings by 1949 Cumberland County Council.

Parramatta Elizabeth Farm 2016 IWillis[5]

 

Management of the house passed to the State Planning Authority, then the Heritage Council of New South Wales continued restoration.

The HHT was established in 1980, and rebranded as Sydney Living Museums in 2013, and is part of the NSW Office of Heritage and Environment within the state government.

 

Significance

The NSW State Heritage Inventory states that:

The Elizabeth Farm house is part of the oldest surviving construction in Australia and a rare survival of the earliest period of colonial architecture. The house is one of the most evocative houses relating to the earliest period of Australian European history and is one of the most aesthetically pleasing of colonial bungalows.

The garden contains remnants of some of the earliest European plantings in Australia, including the European Olive. Older indigenous species include kurrajong and bunya bunya and hoop pines. [17]

Further reading

Michelle Scott Tucker, Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World. Sydney: Text Publishing, 2018.

Michelle Scott Tucker shines a light on an often-overlooked aspect of Australia’s history in this fascinating story of a remarkable woman.

Kate Grenville, A Room Made of Leaves. (Novel). Sydney: Text Publishing, 2020.

What if Elizabeth Macarthur—wife of the notorious John Macarthur, wool baron in the earliest days of Sydney—had written a shockingly frank secret memoir? And what if novelist Kate Grenville had miraculously found and published it? That’s the starting point for A Room Made of Leaves, a playful dance of possibilities between the real and the invented.

Notes

[1] James Broadbent, Elizabeth Farm Parramatta, A History and a Guide. Historic Houses Trust, Sydney, 1984, pp. 5-11.

[2] Broadbent, 18-22.

[3] JM Freeland, ‘Elizabeth Farm, New South Wales’, in Historic Homesteads of Australia Vol One, Australian Council of National Trusts Heritage Reprints 1985.

[4] Hill, ‘A Turbulent Past’.

[5] Broadbent, 18-19.

[6] Broadbent, 24-26

[7] Broadbent, 35.

[8] Broadbent, 38-39.

[9] Broadbent, 44-48

[10] Scott Hill, ‘At the Macarthurs’ table’, The Cook and the Curator (Blog), Sydney Living Museums, 10 January 2013. Online @ http://blogs.sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/cook/at-the-macarthurs-table/ Accessed 14 April 2017

[11] Scott Hill, ‘Mr Butler: The Macarthurs’ Butler’, Elizabeth Farm, Sydney Living Museums. Online @ http://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/stories/mr-butler-macarthurs-butler Accessed 14 April 2017.00

[12] Scott Hill, ‘Abundance & Curiosity At Elizabeth Farm’, Elizabeth Farm, Sydney Living Museums, 2014. Online @ http://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/stories/abundance-curiosity-elizabeth-farm Accessed 14 April 2017.

[13] Letter from Mrs Elizabeth Macarthur to Eliza Kingdon, March 1816. State Library of NSW (SLNSW): ML A2908 in Scott Hill, ‘Abundance & Curiosity At Elizabeth Farm’, Elizabeth Farm, Sydney Living Museums, 2014. Online @ http://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/stories/abundance-curiosity-elizabeth-farm Accessed 14 April 2017.

[14] Hill, ‘Abundance and Curiosity’.

[15] S. Macarthur Onslow, Early Records of the Macarthurs of Camden (Syd, 1912) Online http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks13/1302011h.html Viewed 10 February 2017

[16] Letter from Elizabeth to Miss Kingdon, September 1795, Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta in Sibella Macarthur Onslow, Some Early Records of the Macarthurs of Camden. Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1914. Online @ http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks13/1302011h.html  Accessed 10 Feb 2017

[17] Office of Heritage and Environment, Elizabeth Farm, NSW Government, 2014. Online @ http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/heritageapp/ViewHeritageItemDetails.aspx?ID=5051394  Accessed 14 April 2017

Originally posted 14 April 2017. Updated 25 July 2020.