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Camden, the best preserved country town on the Cumberland Plain

A country town on Sydney’s fringe

The cultural heritage of the local area makes the historic town of Camden, according to Sydney architect Hector Abrahams, the best preserved country town on the Cumberland Plain (Camden Advertiser, 28 June 2006).

Comment by architect Hector Abrahams that Camden was the best preserved country town rural town in the Cumberland Plain. Camden Advertiser 28 June 2006.

The town was established in 1840 on the Macarthur family estate of Camden Park Estate in the Cowpastures on the banks of the Nepean River.

Vista of St Johns Church from Macarthur Park in 1910. Postcard. (Camden Images)

The township provides a glimpse of life from times gone past with the charm and character with its Victorian style built heritage and early 20th century cottages and commercial buildings.


The visitor can experience Camden’s historic charm by walking around the town’s heritage precinct by following the Camden Heritage Walk.

Camden Heritage Walk (Camden Council)

A free booklet can be obtained from Oxley Cottage (c1890), the Camden Visitor Information Centre, which is located on Camden Valley Way on the northern approaches to Camden. Oxley Cottage is a farmer’s cottage built on land that was granted to John Oxley in 1816.

St Johns Church at the top of John Street overlooking the village of Camden around 1895 C Kerry (Camden Images)

Camden’s heritage precinct is dominated by the church on the hill, St John’s Church (1840) and the adjacent rectory (1859). Across the road is Macarthur Park (1905), arguably one of the best Victorian-style urban parks in the Sydney area. In the neighbouring streets there are a number of charming Federation and Californian bungalows.

Stuckey Bros Building Bakers Argyle Street Camden c1941 (I Willis 2012)
Stuckey Bros Building Bakers Argyle Street Camden c1941 (I Willis 2012)

A walk along John Street will reveal the single storey police barracks (1878) and court house (1857), the Italianate style of Macaria (c1842) and the Commercial Bank (1878). Or the visitor can view Bransby’s Cottage (1842) in Mitchell Street, the oldest surviving Georgian cottage in Camden. A short stroll will take the visitor to the Camden Museum, which is managed by the Camden Historical Society. The museum is located in John Street in the recently redeveloped Camden Library and Museum Complex.

Camden Library Museum in John Street Camden 2016 (I Willis)

The visitor can take in Camden’s rural past when they enter the northern approaches of the town along Camden Valley Way. They will pass the old Dairy Farmer’s Milk Depot (1926) where the farmers delivered their milk cans by horse and cart and chatted about rural doings.

A 1915 view of Commercial Banking Co building at corner of Argyle and John Street Camden
A 1915 view of Commercial Banking Co building at corner of Argyle and John Street Camden (Camden Images)

The saleyards (1867) are still next door and the rural supplies stores are indicative that Camden is still ‘a working country town’. As the visitor proceeds along Argyle Street, Camden’s main street, apart from the busy hum of traffic, people and outdoor cafes, the casual observer would see little difference from 70 years ago.

Local people still do their shopping as they have done for years and stop for a chat with friends and neighbours. At the end of Argyle Street the visitor can stroll around Camden Showground (1886). A country style show is held here every year in March and the visitor can take in local handicrafts in the show hall (1894) or watch the grand parade in the main arena.

The 2019 Camden Show provided an immersive experience for participants and observers alike in a host of farming activities. The authentic sights, sounds and smells of the show ring and surrounds enlightened and entertained in a feast for the senses. (I Willis, 2019)

The picturesque rural landscapes that surround Camden were once part of the large estates of the landed gentry and their grand houses. A number of these privately owned houses are still dotted throughout the local area. Some examples are Camden Park (1835), Brownlow Hill (1828), Denbigh (1822), Oran Park (c1850), Camelot (1888), Studley Park (c1870s), Wivenhoe (c1837) and Kirkham Stables (1816). The rural vistas are enhanced by the Nepean River floodplain that surrounds the town and provides the visitor with a sense of the town’s farming heritage.

Pansy Nepean River Bridge 1900 Postcard Camden Images
Pansy Nepean River Bridge 1900 Postcard (Camden Images)

The floodplain also reveals to the railway enthusiast the remnants of railway embankments that once carried the little tank engine on the tramway (1882-1963) between Camden and Campbelltown. The locomotive, affectionately known as Pansy, carried a mixture of freight and passengers. It stopped at a number of stations, which included Camden, Elderslie, Kirkham, Graham’s Hill and Narellan. The stationmaster’s house can still be found in Elizabeth Street in Camden, and now operates as a restaurant.

For the aviation buffs a visit to the Camden Airfield (1924) is a must. It still retains its wartime character and layout. As you enter the airfield view the privately owned Hassall Cottage (1815) and Macquarie Grove House (1812) and think of the RAAF sentry on guard duty checking the passes of returning airmen on a cold July night.

Camden Airfield 1930s Camden Images
Camden Airfield 1930s (Camden Images)

The visitor can then relive the days when RAAF airmen (32 Squadron, 1943) flew out of the base chasing Japanese submarines on the South Coast, or when the RAF (1944) occupied the still existing hangers and runways flying transport missions to the South Pacific.

There are also a number of historic villages in the Camden area. Amongst them is the quaint rural village of Cobbitty where the visitor can find Reverand Thomas Hassall’s Heber Chapel (1815), St Paul’s Church (1840) and rectory (1870). Narellan (1827), which is now a vibrant commercial and industrial centre, has the heritage precinct surrounding the St Thomas Church (1884) and school house (1839). The buildings are now used for weddings and receptions.

View along Cobbitty Road in 1928
View along Cobbitty Road in 1928 (Camden Images)

There is also the Burton’s Arms Hotel (c1840) now operating as a real estate agency and the Queen’s Arms Hotel (c1840), which is now the Narellan Hotel. A visit to Cawdor will reveal a real country church that has been functioning continuously for over for over 100 years, the Cawdor Uniting Church (c1880). Cawdor is the oldest village in the Camden area.

Front Cover of Ian Willis's Pictorial History of Camden and District (Kingsclear, 2015)
Front Cover of Ian Willis’s Pictorial History of Camden and District (Kingsclear, 2015)
The last day of the Camden Campbelltown train running in 1963. Keen fans watching the train climb Kenny Hill at Campbelltown. (ARHS)
Rear Cover Ian Willis’s Pictorial History of Camden & District. The last day of the Camden Campbelltown train running in 1963. Keen fans watching the train climb Kenny Hill at Campbelltown. (ARHS)

Updated 24 May 2021. Originally posted on Camden History Notes 18 December 2016. This post was originally published on Heritage Tourism as ‘Camden: the best preserved country town on the Cumberland Plain’ in 2010.

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Old Photographs

Old photographs provide an entry to a world that was apparently more authentic than the present.  As Harriet Richards from the University of Melbourne writes:

In response to today’s COVID-19 crisis, we are turning to old movies, letter writing and vintage fashion trends more than ever. Nostalgia is a defence mechanism against upheaval.

 

Roy Dowle glassplate negative print (Roy Dowle Collection The Oaks Historical Society)
A glass plate negative from the Roy Dowle Collection at The Oaks Historical Society. (TOHS)

 

The viewer of an old photograph is a time traveller into another world and is given a snapshot of a moment frozen in time. The observer has a glimpse of a world before the present.   For the viewer, it as a form of nostalgia, where they create a romanticized version of the past accompanied by feelings that the present is not quite as good as an earlier period.

The History Skills website argues that photographs are excellent sources.

Photographs provide a rare glimpse of a particular second in time, which will never again be repeated. This is especially true for events that occurred before the development of television or digital technologies.

Peter Mylrea wrote an article about Camden photographers in 2005 for the Camden History Journal. He lists some of the districts photographers from the 1860s, and they have included: W Macarthur; JB Mummery; HP Reeves; HT Lock; W Norton; J Donnellan; C Kerry; W Jackson; W Thwaites; CA Sibert; OV Coleman; AE Cash; R Cash; HE Perkins; R Dowle; J Driscoll.

More recent photographers have included: J Burge; R Herbert; J Kooyman; P Mylrea; J Wrigley; B Atkins and others.

The work of these Camden photographers can be viewed on the photographic database Camden Images Past and Present.

The photographic work of Roy Dowle is a collection of glass plates found their way to The Oaks Historical Society and have recently been digitized by the society.

 

Digitizing The Roy Dowle Photographic Collection

Trish Hill and Allen Seymour

Roy William Dowle was born in 1893, the first child to Charles and Madeline Dowle (nee Dominish) and his siblings were Frank (1896), Edgar (1898) and Leonard (1904).  Charles Dowle purchased their “Collingwood” property in Quarry Road, at The Oaks around the time of Roy’s birth. It is presumed that Roy lived there until his marriage to Emily J Smith in 1915.

Portrait Roy Dowle 1920s Camden TOHS
Portrait of Roy and Emily Dowle in the 1920s. Roy was a keen photographer in the Camden district, and his collection of glass plate negatives is now with The Oaks Historical Society at the Wollondilly Heritage Centre. (TOHS)

 

Roy & Emily’s home was in Camden at the top of Barsden Street. Roy was a photographer and the Camden News of March 26th, 1914 records that he received an award for photography in the amateur section at the Camden show.

In 1937 he supplied photographs of Camden to the Council for use by the railways in their passenger carriages. Roy worked for Whitemans, and in 1943 he was called on to make a presentation to Charles Whiteman when the latter retired. The Dowle’s also had a holiday home at Erowal Bay – St George’s Basin.

Roy died in 1955, but fortunately, a large number of his glass and film negatives survived. These were donated to the Wollondilly Heritage Centre in 2016 by Roy’s grand-daughter. An index book came with the collection, but unfortunately, a lot of the negatives were not in their original boxes, making identification of the people difficult. The photographs range in age from around 1910 to the 1940s.

The Wollondilly Heritage Centre was successful in obtaining a New South Wales Community Heritage grant in 2019 to digitize the collection which consists of 1100 glass plate negatives and a further 120 plastic film negatives.

There was considerable work in preparing the negatives for digitizing, as they all had to be cleaned and numbered. This was done by volunteers from the centre over several weeks, and they were then transported in batches to Digital Masters at Balgowlah for digitizing. Most were still in excellent condition, and the quality of the scanned images is superb.

Roy photographed a lot of people, with weddings, babies and young children being popular subjects. He also photographed local buildings and houses, views, animals, local events such as parades or sporting events.

Buildings photographed include St Johns church (inside also), Camden Hospital (even inside shots), Camden Inn, Plough & Harrow Hotel, Narellan Hotel, Oakdale wine shop, Maloney’s store, Narellan school, Mt Hunter school, Camden railway station, Camden Milk Depot, Mater Dei and others.

The unveiling of the Mt Hunter war memorial (pictured) was also covered by Roy, along with Mt Hunter School and some beautiful interior shots which show honour boards with photos of local soldiers.

Mount Hunter Unveiling of War memorial 1920s R Dowle TOHS
The opening of the Mount Hunter Soldier’s War Memorial, opposite the public school took place on Saturday, 24 September 1921, at 2.30pm. The official unveiling ceremony was carried out by Brigadier-General GM Macarthur Onslow. The memorial listed 40 names of local servicemen. Afternoon tea was provided by ‘the ladies’ at 1/- with all money going to the memorial fund. (Camden News, 15 September 1921, 22 September 1921. Image Roy Dowle Collection)

 

Some really fascinating photos are of children in fancy dress, and two that stand out, are of the same girl dressed firstly as a wedding cake, and then as a lampshade!!   A number of the houses have been identified as still being in Camden, and other more easily identified homes include “Edithville” in Mitchell street, the former Methodist parsonage in Menangle Road and Harrington Park house.

Among the groups photographed are St John’s Choir, returned servicemen, cricket teams, football teams, Masonic dinner, the Royal Forrester’s, staff and children from Macquarie House, visiting school teachers and Sunday school groups. One photograph of a group of three male cyclists picnicking may be one of the first selfies, as we believe the centre one is Roy himself, holding a string which runs to the camera. Soldiers were another popular subject, and there are also some women dressed as soldiers. Roy also copied photos. This was done by photographing it, and a lot of the soldier photos have been copied this way.

Some of the views are of Wollongong, Bulli, Burragorang, Douglas Park, Theresa Park, Chellaston Street and some great shots taken from St Johns steeple. There are also numerous flood scenes around Camden. Animals didn’t escape Roy’s camera, and there are shots of cattle, horses, poultry, dogs. Even a camel. Some other remarkable photos are of a shop window display featuring Persil washing powder. Some of these have been dated to 1910.

 

Mount Hunter Davy Nolans bullock team at Mt Hunter 1920s TOHS
The bullock team of Davy Nolan at Mount Hunter with a load of produce. (Roy Dowle Collection)

 

A lot of the film negatives show his holidays, with some taken at their holiday home, while others are taken whilst on a trip to the north, and scenes have been identified as Cessnock, Dungog, Taree, Kew & Paterson. There are some photos of Warragamba Dam in the very early stages before any concrete was poured, and a magnificent shot of the winding drums of the overhead cableway.

Several Roy’s photos have already appeared on the Back Page and in numerous publications on local history because his subjects were local and numerous copies of them have survived in private collections.

The scanned photos can be viewed either on a computer or in albums at the Wollondilly Heritage Centre & Museum, open on Saturdays, Sundays & public holidays.

Check out old photographs from the Roy Dowle Collection at the Wollondilly Heritage Centre Website Click here.  

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Brand Anzac – meaning and myth

An historian grapples with the meaning of Anzac?

The Anzac story has been a central part of the Australian cultural identity for over a century. The contradictions that have emerged around it have shown no sign of going away. Historians have been unpacking the meaning of Anzac for decades and seem to no closer to any absolute sense.

Anzac Day Leaflet listing local services in the Federal electorate of Hume (AG)

In a packed auditorium on 20 April 2017 University of Wollongong historian Dr Jen Roberts gave the inaugural public lecture in the Knowledge Series of the University of Wollongong Alumni. Robert’s presentation called ‘Men, myth and memory’ explored the meaning of Anzac and how it is part of Australian’s cultural identity. The attentive audience were a mix of ages and interest, including past military personnel.

One old gentleman in the audience stood up in question time announced to the audience that he felt that Dr Roberts was ‘a brave lady’ to ‘present the truth’ about the Anzac story in her evocative lecture. 

The camp administration block with A Bailey in the foreground at the Narellan Military Camp in 1942. The camp was operation between 1940 and 1944 (A Bailey).

Robert’s compelling presentation left none of the alumnus present in any doubt about the contested nature of  Anzac and that there is far from just one truth.  Anzac is a fusion of cultural processes over many decades, and it has been grown into something bigger than itself.

The Anzac acronym, meaning Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, was first used by General Sir William Birdwood and its legal status was confirmed by the Australian Government in 1916.

Shifts in meaning

The term Anzac has survived its 1914 imperial connotations and the 1960s social movements. Its supporters have successfully broadened its meaning to embrace all Australian conflicts, including peace missions. Some argue that this has created a dark legacy for currently serving military personnel, while others have chosen to take cheap potshots at those who question the orthodoxy.

The Anzac story needs to be inclusive and not exclusive, and while the current service personnel are the custodians of the Anzac mythology, it can sometimes be a heavy responsibility.

The tented lines at the Narellan Military Camp in 1941. Thousands of troops passed through the camp during its operation between 1940 and 1944 (A Bailey).

Tensions and contradictions

The Anzac story is ubiquitous across Australia. It is embedded in the heart and soul of every community in the country. Within this narrative, there are contradictions and tensions.

The war that spawned the notion of Anzac was a product on industrial modernism. While the Anzac shrines of commemoration and remembrance across Australia were a product of Interwar modernism, some the work of Rayner Hoff. Yet these same artists and sculptors were supporters of  Sydney bohemianism and its anti-war sentiments.

There are a host of other contradictions that range across issues that include gender, militarism, nationalism, racism, violence, trauma, and homophobia.

Jen Roberts argued in her lecture that the Anzac mythology and iconography point to Australian exceptionalism. She then detailed how this was not the situation. She analysed the horrors of war and how this is played out within the Anzac story.

WW1 Memorial Gates at Macarthur Park erected in 1922 and funded by public subscription from the Camden community with the cenotaph in the rear (Camden Remembers)

According to Roberts, the tension within the meaning of Anzac is represented by the official state-driven narrative that stressed honour, duty and sacrifice through commemoration, remembrance and solemnity.

On the hand, there is the unofficial story of the digger mythology about a man who is not a professional soldier, who is egalitarian, loyal to mates and a larrikin – an excellent all-round Aussie bloke.

The official/digger binary highlights the contradictions with the Anzac tradition and its meaning for the military personnel, past and present.

Gunner Bruce Guppy

In 1941 an 18-year-old country lad called Bruce Guppy from the New South Wales South Coast volunteered for service with the 7th Australian Light Horse. Guppy volunteered because his brothers had joined up, and the military looked to have better prospects than working as a dairy hand. Gunner BW Guppy had little time for jingoism or nationalism as a laconic sort of fellow and stated ‘life is what you make it’.

Bruce Guppy was a yarn-spinning non-drinking, non-smoking, non-gambling larrikin, who saw action in the 1942 Gona-Buna Campaign in New Guinea and later trained as a paratrooper. His anti-war views in later years never stopped him from attending every Sydney Anzac Day March with his unit, 2/1 Australian Mountain Battery, and the camaraderie they provided for him. A lifetime member of the New South Wales Returned and Services League of Australia he never discussed his wartime service with his family, until I married his daughter.

Bruce Guppy and his unit, the 2/1st Australian Mountain Battery AIF, at the 2003 Sydney Anzac Day March. Guppy is in the front row fourth from the left (I Willis).

Guppy had five brothers who saw active service in the Pacific conflict, with one brother’s service in British Commonwealth Occupation Forces in Japan cited in Gerster’s Travels in Atomic Sunshine. Guppy would not call himself a hero, yet willing participated in Huskisson’s Community Heroes History Project in 2007. Guppy was something of a bush poet and in 1995  wrote in a poem called ‘An Old Soldier Remembers’, which in part says:

An Old Soldier Remembers

‘Memories of those dark days

Come floating back through the haze.

My memory goes back to my mother’s face

Saddened, yes – but filled with grace.

The heartache for mothers – we will never know

For it was for them we had to go.’

Bruce Guppy, Bruce’s Ballads by the Bard from Berry. Guppy/Willis, Berry, 1996.

So it surprised no-one when Bruce Guppy made the national media in 2013 when he handed Alice Guppy’s Mother’s Badge and Bar to the Australian War Memorial. Australian War Memorial director Brendan Nelson was moved on his death in 2014 and personally thanked the family for his ‘wonderful’ contribution to the nation.

For Guppy, Anzac Day embraced both meanings expressed by Roberts: The official commemorative remembering; and the larrikin enjoying the company of his mates. The purpose of the Anzac story has changed during Bruce Guppy’s lifetime and the experiences of his digger mates who served in the Second World War.

A Red Cross poster used for patriotic fundraising purposes in 1918 during World War One. (Australian Red Cross).

While many lay claims ownership of the cultural meaning of Anzac, Roberts contends that the organic growth of the Dawn Service is an example of the natural growth of Anzac and its sensibilities for different parts of Australian society.

The site and the myth

Roberts examined the two aspects of Anzac mythology – the site and the myth. She maintained that there are many claims to the ownership of the cultural meaning of Anzac. Roberts then pondered about the meaning of the slaughter on the Western Front. She asked the audience to reflect on the words of Eric Bogle’s song, And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda covered by an American Celtic band the Dropkick Murphys.

These comments contrasted with the opening address by an ex-military Alumni organiser. He maintained that the outstanding achievements of the 1/AIF celebrated in military training in Australia today are: the withdrawal of troops at Gallipoli; and the last mounted cavalry charge at Beersheba.

These views contrast with recent research about Gallipoli POWs from Turkish sources that have shown a different side of the story of the conflict.

Camden Airfield has used a training ground for the early years of the Empire Training Scheme and used  Tiger Moth aircraft. The trainee pilots then went on to serve with RAF and RAAF squadrons in Europe during World War 2  (1942 LG Fromm).

The Gallipoli peninsula is a site of pilgrimages from Australia while being the only locality in modern Turkey with an English name.

Pilgrims and memory

Roberts contrasted the small group of military pilgrims who went to the 1965 50th anniversary with the lavish all expenses tour of the 1990 75th anniversary sponsored by the Hawke Labor Federal Government. She maintains this was the start of the contemporary pilgrimage industry.

Roberts drew on personal experience and related anecdotes from her five visits to Gallipoli peninsular with University of Wollongong students. These young people undertook the UOW Gallipoli Study Tour, which was organised by her mentor, friend and sage UOW Associate-Professor John McQuilton (retired).

Widespread interest in Gallipoli pilgrimages has grown in recent times. Family historians have started searching for their own digger-relative from the First World War. They are seeking the kudos derived from finding a connection with the Gallipoli campaign and its mythology.

The Howard Federal Government started by promoting soft patriotism, and this was followed by the Abbott Government promoting official celebrations of the Centenary of Anzac.

Official government involvement has unfortunately increased the jingoism of these anniversaries and the noise around the desire by some to acquire the cultural ownership of the Gallipoli site.

For example, the Australian Howard Government attempted to direct the Turkish Government how to carry out the civil engineering roadworks on the Gallipoli peninsular.

RAAF CFS Camden 1941
RAAF Camden and the Central Flying School at Camden Airfield in 1941. Some of these young men went on to serve with RAF and RAAF squadrons in the European theatre during World War 2 (RAAF Historical).

Brand Anzac

Roberts dislikes the Brand Anzac, which has been used to solidify the Australian national identity. Anzacary, the commodification of the Anzac spirit, has been an area of marketing growth, with the sale of souvenirs and other ephemera. Jingoism and flag-flapping have proliferated with the rise of Australian exceptionalism from the national level to local communities.

Anzac mythology and memory tend to forget the grotesque side of war and its effects. First World War servicemen suffered shell shock (PTSD) and took to alcohol, gambling, domestic violence, divorce and suicide. They became the responsibility of those on the homefront.

The Anzac mythology disempowers and marginalises people. The legend is about nationalism, jingoism, racism, and stereotypes, while at the same time offering hope, glory and answers for others. The Guppy brothers and their comrades felt they understood the meaning of Anzac.

Roberts maintains that the ideas around the Anzac story belong to everyone and offering contradictions for some and realities for others.

The members of the Australian community are the ones will make a choice about the meaning of Anzac.

Updated on 16 April 2021. Updated on 27 April 2020 and re-posted as ‘Brand Anzac – meaning and myth’. Originally posted on 24 April 2017 as ‘Anzac Contradictions’

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Living history on your doorstep

There is the opportunity to experience real living history on your own doorstep.

Living history is all around you. You just need to take a deep breath, pause for a moment and listen to the history around speak to you.

camden st johns vista from mac pk 1910 postcard camden images
Vista of St Johns Church from Macarthur Park in 1910. Postcard. You can still view this vista from the town’s fringe near the showground. (Camden Images)

 

Camden living history

In the town centre of Camden the buildings and the ambience of the historic precinct speak to you if you pause and listen.

They are all part of the Camden story.

The Camden living history reveals the intricacies of telling the Camden story.

The Camden town centre and its multi-layered history are evident in the many different building styles evident as you walk along the main street.

If walls could talk they would tell an interesting story that would immerse you in the past in the present. They would provide a gripping account of the characters that were central to the stories.

Camden CHS 231 Macaria c. 1890
The Camden Grammar School which was located in Macaria in the 1890s.  Macaria is open to the public and is the home of the Alan Baker Art Gallery located at 37 John Street, Camden. (Camden Images)

Living history is storytelling

Living history allows participants to be able to read the layers of history of an area.

Living history is like peeling off layers of paint from a wall when viewers peel back the layers of history of a site, building or place. Each layer has a special meaning – a special presence.

Lived experience leads to storytelling which is real and authentic.

Storytelling creates the meaning of the past and creates the characters of the past in the present. It allows the past to speak to the present. Storytelling and stories at the essence of place.

 

The living history movement

Living historian Scott Magelssen maintains that living history museums ‘engage strategies in their performance of the past’, claiming to be ‘real history by virtue of their attention to detail’.   (pp. xii-xv)

One of the early influencers of the living history movement in North America was Henry Ford who established his indoor and outdoor living museum experience in the Detroit suburb of Dearbourn in Michigan USA.  Henry Ford said of his museum

I am collecting the history of our people as written into things their hands made and used…. When we are through, we shall have reproduced American life as lived, and that, I think, is the best way of preserving at least a part of our history and tradition…

camden st_johns_church02
St Johns Anglican Church Camden 2018. You can visit the historic St John’s church and precinct in central Camden. The church was built in the 1840s and funded by the Macarthur family. (I Willis)

 

The Camden story

The Camden story is the tale of the local area.

Camden storytellers peel back the layers of the history of the town and district and reveal the tales of local identities, larrikans, characters, rascals, ruffians and ratbags.

There are a number of layers to the Camden story and they are

  • Pre-European period of the Indigenous Dharawal people when they called the area Benkennie
  • The Cowpastures were named by Governor Hunter in 1795 and the establishment of the Cowpastures Government Reserve. Under European control the Indigenous Dharawal people dispossession and displacement of their country. The Macarthur family’s Camden Park Estatestarted with the 1805 grant to John Macarthur.
  • The Camden township was established as a private venture of the Macarthur family in 1840. The streets were named after its founders – Macarthur, Elizabeth, John, Edward.
  • The English-style Camden town centrehas evolved and is represented by a number of historical architectural styles since 1840 – Victorian, EdwardianInter-war, Mid-20th century. The town was the hub of the Camden District between 1840 and 1970s
  • The Macarthur region (1970s +), named after the famous local Macarthur family, grew as part of   Sydney’s rural-urban fringe. It is made up of Camden, Campbelltown and Wollondilly Local Government Areas.

Camden Show Bullock Team 2018 MWillis
The bullock team walking up John Street for the 2018 Camden Show. Bullock teams were once a common sight in the Camden area before the days of motorised transport. The teamster monument in John Street celebrates their role in the history of the district. Visit the Camden Show. (M Willis)

 

Immerse your imagination in the past at the Camden Museum through living history.

The Camden museum tells the Camden story through displays of artefacts, objects, memoriabilia and other ephemera by using a living history approach.

The displays tell a story of an earlier period and allows visitors to immerse themselves in the past in the present.

Map Camden District 1939[2]

Map of the Camden district in 1939 showing the extent of the area with Camden in the east. The silver mining centre of Yerranderie is in the west. (I Willis, 1996)

 

Walking the past through living history

Visitors to Camden can walk the streets of the town centre and imagine another time. A time past that can be recalled through living history.

A self-guided walking tour lets visitors explore the living history of the Camden town centre. There is a pdf brochure here. 

Check out Camden’s main street with its Victorian, Edwardian and interwar ambience and charm. See where the local met on sale day at the Camden saleyards or the annual country festival at the Camden show.

Camden Show 2018 promo
The Camden Show is an annual celebration of things rural in the township of Camden for over 100 years. The show is held each year in the Onslow Park precinct. (Camden Show)

 

The Heritage Tourism website boasts that Camden – The best preserved country town on the Cumberland Plain NSW.

The mysteries of the cute little locomotive that used to run between Camden and  Campbelltown via Currans Hill, Narellan, Elderslie, Kirkham and Graham’s Hill are also explored in a post called  The glory of steam, Pansy, the Camden tram.

Maybe you would like to revisit the farming glory days of the 1800s at one of Australia’s most important living history farms at Belgenny Farm.

Camden Belgenny Farm 2018 sign
The signage at the entrance to the Belgenny Farm complex at Camden NSW. Visitors are welcome.  (I Willis, 2018)

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A contested sacred site in the historic landscape of the Cowpastures

Place and St John’s Anglican Church

St John’s church is a contested site where there is competition around the ownership of the dominant narrative surrounding a former horse paddock. The paddock in question lies between St John’s Anglican Church and the former Rectory, all part of the St John’s Church precinct.

St Johns Church
St Johns Church Camden around 1900 (Camden Images)

Church authorities want to sell the horse paddock to fund a new worship centre.

There has been a chorus of objection from some in the Camden community over the potential sale. Community angst has been expressed at public meetings, protests, placards, and in articles in the press.

camden st johns church paddock 1907 cipp
Camden Rectory & Horse Paddock 1907 with Menangle Road on right hand side of image (Des & Pru Fowles/Camden Images)

 

The principal actors (stakeholders) have taken up positions around the issue include: churchgoers, non-churchgoers (residents, outsiders, ex-Camdenites, neighbours), the parish, local government, state government, and the Macarthur family.

The former horse paddock looks like an unassuming vacant block of land in central Camden. So why has there been so much community angst about is possible sale?

camden st johns fjoss image 7 (5)
St Johns Anglican Church showing former horse paddock in front of the church (2018 C Cowell)

 

The simple answer is that the community ascribes representations of a church beyond the building being a place of worship. Yet this raises a paradox for the owners of these religious sites. Generally speaking different faiths put worship and the spiritual interests of their followers ahead of their property portfolio.

This paradox has created angst in some communities when the owners of religious buildings and sites want to sell them, for example, in Tasmania in 2018 or other examples discussed by Graeme Davison.

 

Unraveling a paradox

Historian Graeme Davison in his book The Use and Abuse of Australian History has highlighted the different representations that a communities have ascribed to local churches. They have included:

  • a symbol of the continuity and community rather than a relic of their faith;
  • a local shrine where the sense of family and local piety are given tangible form;
  • ‘a metaphor of the postmodern condition’;
  • a ‘kind of absent present, a site now unoccupied but irreplaceable and unable to be rebuilt;
  • a transcendence and spiritual continuity in a post-Christian society. (pp. 146-161)

So the question here is, are any of Davison’s representations applicable to Camden’s St Johns Church?

camden st_johns_church02
St Johns Anglican Church Camden 2018 (I Willis)

 

Cultural landscape

St John’s church is the centre of Camden’s cultural landscape, its cultural heritage and the narrative around the Camden story. I wrote in the Sydney Journal in 2008 that

 St John’s church is the basis of the town’s iconic imagery and rural mythology and remains the symbolic heart of Camden.

In 2012 I extended this and said that community icons, including St John’s, have

 have become metaphors for the continuity of values and traditions that are embedded in the landscapes of place.

In this dispute the actors, as others have done,

have used history and  heritage, assisted by geography and aesthetics, to produce a narrative that aims to preserve landscape identity.

The actors in the dispute want to preserve the landscape identity of the area  by preserving the church precinct including the horse paddock.

 

A world long gone

The church precinct is  a metaphor for a world long gone, an example of the past in the present. In Davison’s eyes ‘a symbol of continuity and community’.

St John’s Anglican Church is part of an English style landscape identity, that is, Camden’s Englishness. This is not new and was first recognised in 1828 by Englishman John Hawdon.

Hawdon saw a familiar landscape and called it a ‘little England’.  A type of English exceptionalism.

The colonial oligarchs had re-created an English-style landscape in the Cowpastures  that mirrored ‘home’ in England. The English took control of territory in a settler society.

The local Indigenous  Dharawal people were dispossessed and displaced by the English through the allocation of  land grants in the area.

The English subdued the frontier with violence as they did other part of the imperial world.

The Hawdon allegory was present when the town was established by the Macarthur family as a private venture on Camden Park Estate in 1840. The construction and foundation of St John’s church was part of the process of the building of the new town.

The first pictorial representation of this was  used in Andrew Garran’s 1886 Picturesque Atlas of Australasia where there is

an enduring image within the socially constructed concept of Camden’s rurality has been the unparalleled vista of the Camden village from the Macarthur’s hilltop Georgian mansion.  (Image below) The romantic image portrayed an idyllic English pastoral scene of an ordered farming landscape, a hive of industrious activity in a tamed wilderness which stressed the scientific and the poetic.

camden park 1886 garran
Engraving showing vista of Camden village from Camden Park House. Aspect is north-east with Cawdor centre distance and St John’s church right hand distance.  (Andrew Garran’s 1886 Picturesque Atlas of Australasia)

 

The hilltop location of the church was no accident.  St John’s church is ‘the moral heart’ of English-style ‘idyllic representations as the

 ‘citadel on the hill’ at the centre of the ‘village’. It acts as a metaphor for order, stability, conservatism and a continuity of values of Camden’s Anglophile past. The Nepean River floodplain keeps Sydney’s rural-urban fringe at bay by being the ‘moat around the village’ which occasionally was the site of a torrent of floodwater.

The hilltop location has spiritual significance with Biblical references to love, peace and righteousness.

 

A sense of place

St John’s church has had a central role in the construction of place and community identity in the town.

camden_johnst_chs0083
St John’s Anglican Church in its hilltop location at the top of John Street Camden. This image is by Charles Kerry in the 1890s (Camden Images)

 

The church and its hilltop location is an enduring colonial legacy and a representation of the power of the colonial gentry,  particularly the position of Camden Park Estate and the Macarthur family within the narrative of the Camden story.

Camden Park 1906 (Camden Images)
Camden Park House and Garden in 1906 is the home of the Macarthur family. It is still occupied by the Macarthur family and open for inspection in spring every year. (Camden Images)

 

Many Camden folk feel a sense of belonging to the church expressed by  memory, nostalgia, customs, commemorations, traditions, celebrations, values, beliefs and lifestyles.

The community feel that the church belongs to them as much as it belongs to the churchgoers within the church community.

Belonging is central to placeness. It is home and a site where there is a sense of acceptance, safety and security. Home as a place is an important source of stability.

An extension of this is the role of the church as a loved place  in terms laid out by Peter Read in his book, Returning to Nothing, The Meaning of Lost Places. As Veronica Strang writes, Read’s book:

makes it plain that the feelings engendered by the loss of place can be equated with those experienced in the loss of a close relative, friend or partner. This straightforward analogy helps to make visible the symbolic role of place in enabling human beings to confront issues of mortality.

camden st johns vista from mac pk 1910 postcard camden images
Vista of St Johns Church from Macarthur Park in 1910. Postcard. (Camden Images)

 

The church buildings and precinct are a shrine to a lost past and considered by many to be  sacred land. The sale of the former horse paddock has caused a degree community grief over the potential loss of sacred land.

St John’s church is an important architectural statement in the town centre and is one Australia’s earliest Gothic style churches.

 

So what does all this mean?

The place of St John’s church in the Camden community is a complex one. The story has many layers and means different things to different people, both churchgoers and non-churchgoers.

The church is a much loved place and the threatened loss of part of the church precinct generates feeling of grief and loss by many in community.

The legacy of the English landscape identity from the early 19th century and the establishment of the Cowpastures is very real and still has a strong presence in the community’s identity and sense of place. The English style Gothic church is a metaphor for the Hawdon’s ‘Little England’ allegory.

The Cowpastures was the fourth location of European settlement in Australia and the local area still has a strong Anglo-demographic profile. These contribute to re-enforce the iconic imagery projected by St John’s church combined with the story of a settler society and its legacy.

Check out this publication to read more about the Camden district.

Cover  Pictorial History Camden District Ian Willis 2015
Front Cover of Ian Willis’s Pictorial History of Camden and District (Kingsclear, 2015)

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The local church as a centre of place

A centre of place

In Camden the local non-going church community has resisted the sale by the Anglican Church of a horse paddock between St John’s Anglican Church and the former Rectory, all part of the St John’s Church precinct.

Community angst has been expressed at public meetings, protests, placards, and in articles in the press.

St Johns Church
St Johns Church Camden around 1900 (Camden Images)

 

The purpose of this blog post is to try and unravel some of the broader issues underpinning community angst around the sale of church property. The post will look at the case study of the sale of churches in Tasmania and the resultant community anxiety.

The local church in place

The local church is an important part of a local community. It has a host of meanings for both churchgoers and non-churchgoers alike.

The local church is a central part of the construction of place and people’s attachment to a cultural landscape and locality.

Place is about a sense of belonging and a sense of groundedness. It is expressed by cultural heritage, memory, nostalgia, customs, commemorations, traditions, celebrations, values, beliefs and lifestyles.

Belonging is central to placeness. It is home. A site where there is a sense of acceptance, safety and security. Home as a place is  an important source of stability in a time of chaos. Home is part of a community.

LM Miller from the University of Tasmania states that people are involved fundamentally with what constitutes place and places are involved fundamentally in the construction of persons. Place wraps around and envelopes a person. People are holders of place (Miller: 6-8)

There is a shared sense of belonging in a community where being understood is important and part of a beloved collection. A sense of belonging acts as an all encompassing set of beliefs and identity. . It enriches our identity and relationships and leads to acceptance and understanding.

A church is one of these communities.

Cobbitty St Pauls 1890s CKerry 'EnglishChurch' PHM
This Charles Kerry Image of St Paul’s Anglican Church at Cobbitty is labelled ‘English Church Cobbitty’. The image is likely to be around the 1890s and re-enforces the notion of Cobbity as an English-style pre-industriral village in the Cowpastures (PHM)

 

When a person’s sense of place is threatened then their sense of self, identity, safety, stability, and security are challenged. Where there is a loss of a person’s sense of place and belonging to a place they go through a grieving process.

The closure, sale and de-consecration of the local church are a threat to a person’s sense of place.

Local churches are part of a community’s cultural heritage.

Local churches are part of a community’s cultural heritage.

Cultural heritage consists of two parts. Firstly, tangible heritage which is made up, for example, buildings, art, objects and artefacts.

Secondly there is intangible cultural heritage which includes customs, practices, places, objects, artistic expressions and values.  This can be extended to include traditional skills and technologies, religious ceremonies, performing arts and storytelling.

 

Churchgoers and a sense of place

The link between local churches and a community’s sense of place  has been explored  by Graeme Davison in his book The Use and Abuse of Australian History. He says that churchgoers are often faced with unsustainable maintenance costs for a church. Eventually when churchgoers are forced to sell the property they:

often seemed less reluctant to give up their church than the rest of the community…and faced with the prospect of its loss, [the non-churchgoers] were often prepared to fight with surprising tenacity to save it.’ (Davision:149)

Enmore Church of Christ Tabernacle
The Enmore Church of Christ Tabernacle in the early 20th century where Frank and Ethel were married in 1925. (Jubilee Pictorial History of the Church of Christ)

 

These churches have a strong emotional attachment for their communities. These churches are loved places for their community and Davison suggests:

It is in losing loved places, as well as loved persons, that we come to recognise the nature and depth of our attachment to our past. (Davison: 150)

Davison argues that churchgoers often have a loyalty to their local place well beyond their sense of faith in Christianity.

Sale of churches in Tasmania

These issues came to the fore in Tasmania in 2018 when there was  public outrage around the sale of local churches in Tasmania.

The Hobart press ran a story with the headline ‘Emotions run high, communities vow to fight after Anglican Church votes to sell off 76 churches’. (Sunday Tasmanian, 3 June 2018)

tasmania st john's anglican church-ross-tasmania wikimedia lowres
St John’s Anglican Church Ross Tasmania (Wikimedia 2017)

The Anglican Church in Tasmania was attempting to fund the ‘redress commitment’ to the victims of clerical abuse by selling church property.

In response Central Tasmanian Highlands churchgoer Ron Sonners said that  ‘his ancestors [were] buried in the graveyard associated with St Peter’s Church at Hamilton’…and he ‘struggled with his emotions as he dealt with the fallout from his community church being listed for sale’.  (Sunday Tasmanian, 3 June 2018)

Tasmania Anglican Bishop Richard Condie says that most of opposition to the sale of churches

 is primarily people in the broader community who oppose the sales, with the potential loss of heritage and family history, including access to graveyards, their main concern. (The Mercury, 15 September 2018)

There have been protest meetings and some effected parishes started fundraising campaigns to keep their churches.  The Hobart Mercury reported that

The Parish of Holy Trinity Launceston, which wants to keep St Matthias’ Church at Windermere, has raised the funds, with the help of its local community, to meet its redress contribution. (The Mercury, 15 September 2018)

Cultural historian and churchgoer Dr Caroline Miley said that:

the churches are an important part of Australian history… It is unconscionable that such a massive number of buildings, artefacts and precincts should be lost to the National Estate in one fell swoop…These are buildings built and attended by convicts and their jailers. They were built on land donated by early state governors, notable pioneers and state politicians, with funds donated by these colonials and opened by the likes of Sir John Franklin…As well, she says, they contain the honour boards, memorials and graves of those who fought and died in conflicts from the 19th century onwards…Some are in the rare (in Australia) Georgian style or in idiosyncratic Tasmanian Carpenter Gothic. (The Mercury, 15 September 2018)

Amanda Ducker of the Hobart Mercury summarises of the whole fuss surrounding the sale of churches in Tasmania this way:

Condie’s use-it-or-lose-it approach clashes with the keep-it-at-all-costs mentality. But while some opponents of the bishop’s plan refuse to sell their church buildings, neither do they want to go to church regularly. They rather prefer just to gather on special occasions: baptisms, weddings, funerals and perhaps at Christmas and Easter if they are leaning towards piety. But the rest of the year? Well, a sleep-in, potter at home or cafe brunch of eggs benedict (but sans ministering) are pretty tempting on Sunday morning. (The Mercury, 15 September 2018)

Others Anglicans in Tasmania see the whole argument differently. Emeritus Professor and Anglican Peter Boyce AO see it as fight over the spiritual traditions linked to the low and high Anglican traditions in Tasmania.   (The Mercury, 15 September 2018)

All these arguments are characteristic of how people, their traditions, their values, their past, their memories are all rooted in a location and in particular a building like a church.

 

Other dimensions to the argument

The dualism expressed in the sale of church land and buildings can be likened to the difference between sacred and secular. These two polar opposites are explored in popular culture in the form of music by Nick Cave and others on The Conversation.

Another perspective on this area was aired on ABC Radio Local Sydney in December 2018 by Dr David Newheiser. In the discussion he examined  the differences between Christians and aethiests.  He maintained that there are strong sentiments in the community around tradition and ritual in the community and if you lose a church you lose all of this.

The binary position of churchgoers and non-churchgoers can also be expressed in ethical terms as the difference between good and evil, or right and wrong, or moral and immoral, just and unjust and so on. This dichotomy has ancient roots dating back to pre-Biblical times across many cultures.

So what does all this mean?

Churches have an important role to play in the construction of place in communities. This role is played out in different ways for different actors in the story.

As far as the dichotomy presented here in the story of the sale of church property and land, there is really no conclusion that satisfies all stakeholders.

There is no right or wrong position to the opposing views between churchgoers and non-churchgoers. The differences remain an unresolved ethical dilemma.

An iconic Camden image of St Johns Anglican Church in the 1890s.

Cover Pictorial History Camden District Ian Willis 2015
Front Cover of Ian Willis’s Pictorial History of Camden and District (Kingsclear, 2015)