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Public art and a mural

Mural art and the Camden pioneer mural

Camden Pioneer Mural with the Camden Hospital wishing well, and associated landscaping and gardens. (I Willis, 2020)

 

One of the most important pieces of public art In the Macarthur region is the Camden Pioneer Mural. The mural is located on the corner of the Old Hume Highway and Menangle Road, adjacent to Camden Hospital. Thousands of people pass-by the mural and few know its story.

Public art is an important part of a vibrant community and adds to its cultural, aesthetic and economic vitality. Public art promotes

‘a sense of identity, belonging, attachment, welcoming and openness, and strengthen community identification to place. [It creates] a tangible sense of place and destination’.

The pioneer mural does all these and more. The mural makes a public statement about Camden and the stories that created the community we all live in today.

Murals according to Stephen Yarrow of the Pocket Oz Sydney  

 reflect the social fabric of communities past and present – visual representations of their dreams and aspirations, social change, the cultural protests of an era, of emerging cultures and disappearing ones.

Public murals have recently gone through a revival in Australia and have turned into tourist attractions. Murals have become an important part of the urban landscape of many cities including Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney, Launceston and other cities around the world. Mural art in the bush has been used to promote regional tourism with the development of the Australian Silo Art Trail.

The Camden pioneer mural is visual representation of the dreams and aspirations of its creators.

The creators

The mural was originally the idea of the town elders from the Camden Rotary Club.  The club was formed in halcyon days of the post-war period (1947) when the club members were driven by a desire for community development and progress.  Part of that vision was for a tourist attraction on the town’s Hume Highway approaches, combined with a wishing well that would benefit the hospital.  (Clowes, 1970, 2012)

Camden Pioneer Mural with the ceramic artwork completed by Byram Mansell in 1962 (I Willis, 2020)

 

The next incarnation of the vision was a mural with a ram with a ‘golden fleece’ to ‘commemorate the development of the wool industry by the Macarthurs’.  The credit for this idea has been given to foundation Rotary president Ern Britton, a local pharmacist. (Clowes 1970, 2012)   

Club members were influenced by the mythology around the exploits of colonial identity and pastoralist John Macarthur of Camden Park and the centenary of his death in 1934. Macarthur was a convenient figure in the search for national pioneering heroes. The ‘golden fleece’ was a Greek legend about the adventures of a young man who returned with the prize, and the prize Macarthur possessed were merino sheep.

The ‘golden fleece’ was seared into the national psyche by Tom Roberts painting The Golden Fleece (1894), the foundation of the petrol brand in 1913 and Arthur Streeton’s painting Land of the Golden Fleece (1926).  

The Camden mural project gained momentum after  the success of the 1960 Camden festival, ‘The Festival of the Golden Fleece’,  celebrating the 150th anniversary of wool production in Australia.

By 1962 the project concept had evolved to a merino sheep and a coal mine, after the Rotary presidencies of Burragorang Valley coal-baron brothers Ern and Alan Clinton (1959-1961)  (Clowes, 2012)

The plaque on the mural wall commemorating the official opening in 1962 (I Willis, 2020)

 

The artist

Club secretary John Smailes moved the project along and found ceramic mural artist WA Byram Mansell. (Clowes, 2012)

Mansell was a well-known artist and designer, held exhibitions of his work in Australia and overseas and did commissioned mural works for businesses, local council and government departments. (ADB) He adopted what the Sydney Morning Herald art critic called a form realism that a synthesis of traditional European styles and ‘the symbolic ritual and philosophy of the Australian Aboriginal’. Mansell’s work was part of what has been called ‘Aboriginalia’ in the mid-20th century ‘which largely consisted of commodities made by nonindigenous artists, craftspeople and designers who appropriated from Aboriginal visual culture’.  (Fisher, 2014)

Mural themes

The scope of the mural project had now expanded and included a number of themes: the local Aboriginal tribe; local blackbirds – magpies; First Fleet arriving from England; merino sheep brought by the Macarthur family establishing Australia’s first wool industry; grapes for a wine making industry; dairy farming and fruit growing; and development of the coal industry. (Clowes, 2012)

Mansell created a concept drawing using these historic themes. (Clowes, 2012) The club accepted Mansell’s concept drawings and he was commissioned to complete the mural, creating the ceramic tiles and firing them at his studio. (Clowes, 2012)

The mural concept seems to have been an evolving feast, with Mansell refusing to supply the Rotary Club with his interpretation of his artwork. (Clowes, 1970)

The plaque with the inscription from the official programme of the opening in 1962. (I Willis, 2020)

 

The artist and the meaning of the mural

 To understand the meaning what the artist intended with the design this researcher has had to go directly to Mansell’s own words at the 1962 dedication ceremony.

 Mr Mansell said,

‘I was happy to execute the work for Camden and Australia. We are a great land, but we do not always remember the early pioneers. But when I commenced this work there came to me some influence and I think this was the influence of the pioneers.

Mr Mansell said,

‘The stone gardens at the base is the symbol of the hardships of the pioneers and the flowers set in the crannies denote their success.’

‘The line around the mural, represents the sea which surrounds Australia.

‘To the fore is Capt Cook’s ship Endeavour and the wheel in the symbol of advancement. The Coat-of-Arms of the Macarthur-Onslows, pioneered sheep, corn, wheat, etc are all depicted as are the sheep which were first brought to this colony and Camden by John Macarthur.

‘Aboriginals hunting kangaroos are all depicted and so on right through to the discovery of coal which has been to us the ‘flame of industry’. Incorporated in the central panel is the Camden Coat-of-Arms, and the Rotary insignia of the wheel highlights the panel on the left.

‘Colours from the earth have been used to produce the unusual colouring of the mural.  (Camden News, 20 June 1962)

Further interpretation

According to Monuments Australia the mural ‘commemorates  the European pioneers of Camden’ and the Australian Museums and Galleries Online database described the three panels:

There is a decorative border of blue and yellow tiles creating a grape vine pattern. The border helps define the triptych. The three panels depict the early history of Camden. The large central panel shows a rural setting with sheep and a gum tree in the top section. Below is a sailing ship with the southern cross marked on the sky above. Beside is a cart wheel and a wheat farm. There are three crests included on this panel, the centre is the Camden coat of arms bearing the date 1795, on the proper right is a crest with a ram’s head and the date 1797, and on the proper left is a crest with a bunch of grapes and the date 1805. The proper right panel of the triptych, in the top section depicts an Aboriginal hunting scene. Below this is an image miner’s and sheafs of wheat. The proper left panel depicts an ornate crest in the in the top section with various rural industries shown below. (AMOL, 2001)

Specifications

The mural has three panels is described as a ‘triptych’ constructed from glazed ceramic tiles (150mm square). The tiles were attached to wall of sandstone blocks supported by two side columns. The monument is 9.6 metres wide and 3 metres high and around 500mm deep. There is a paved area in front of the mural 3×12 metres, associated landscaping works and a wishing well. (AMOL, 2001; Clowes, 1970)

The official programme from the opening and dedication of the mural in 1962. (Camden Museum)

Tourists visit mural

Tourists would stop in front of the mural and have their picture taken as they travel along the Hume Highway.

The pioneer mural was a local tourist attraction and visitors stopped and had their picture taken in front of the artwork. Here Mary Tinlin, of Kurri Kurri, is standing in front of the mural and fountain. Mrs Tinlin is standing on the side of the Hume Highway that passed through Camden township. The prominent building at the rear on the right is the nurses quarters. Immediately behind the mural wall is Camden District Hospital before the construction of Hodge building in 1971. (George & Jeannie Tinlin, A Kodachrome slide, 1964))
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The mysteries of a photograph

How the layers of the past can be peeled back to reveal the mysteries from yesteryear

As I was scanning through my Facebook Newsfeed this morning I came across a pretty little picture that jumped out at me.

The image had been posted on the Lost Wollongong and Yesterday Stories Facebook page and also appeared on its Instagram and Tumbler social media.

The image attracted a host of likes and shares and comments like Phil HallWhat a delightful photo’ and Christine Mcmanus ‘It’s very charming’.

What is the appeal of the picture?

The picture has an aesthetic quality partly produced from the soft sepia tones of the image, and partly from the subject, which together gives the photograph a dreamy quality. 

The ethereal presence of the image is hard to describe in words and the camera is kind to the subjects, who are well-positioned in a nicely balanced frame.

Wollongong WCL Couple on Mount Pleasant Railway early 20th century near Stuart Park
A couple relaxing on the Mount Pleasant Colliery railway at Stuart Park, North Wollongong in the early 1900s (Lost Wollongong Facebook page, 3 July 2016) The Royal Australian Historical Society caption says: ‘Photographer Aileen Ryan Lynch taking a photograph of M. Carey at Stuart Park Wollongong, March 1919’ (J Scott/RAHS)

The viewer of the picture is a time traveler into another world based on the New South Wales South Coast and is given a snapshot of a moment frozen in time. The observer has a glimpse of a world after the First World World in the present. For the viewer it as a form of nostalgia, where they create a romanticised version of the past accompanied by feelings that the present is not quite as good as an earlier period.

The world in the picture, a mixture of pleasure and for others despair, apparently moved at a slower pace, yet in its own way no less complex than the present. The picture speaks to those who choose to listen and tells a nuanced, multi-layered story about another time and place. It was 1919 in the coastal mining town of Wollongong.

The viewer is told a story about a setting that is full of meaning and emotional symbolism wrapped up in the post-First World Years. The picture grabs the viewers who pressed a Like on their Facebook pages. These social media participants found familiarity and comfort in the past that is an escape from the complicated present.

The picture provides 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.

 

Escaping the Spanish flu pandemic?

The image is full of contrasts and unanswered questions. Why are the young couple in Wollongong? Why did they decide on Stuart Park for a photo-shoot? Are they escaping the outbreak of Spanish influenza at Randwick in January 1919? Does the NSW South Coast provide the safety of remoteness away from the evils of the pandemic in Sydney?

The female photographer is a city-girl and her male companion is a worldly reader of international news. They contrast with the semi-rural location in a coal mining area with its workman’s cottages and their dirt floors, and the hard-scrabble dairying represented by the post-and-rail fence in the distance.

The railway is a metaphor for the rest of a world outside Wollongong. The colliery railway is a link to the global transnational industrial complex of the British Empire at Wollongong Harbour where railway trucks disgorge their raw material.  On the other hand, the female photographer’s stylish outfit provides an entry into a global fashion world of women’s magazines, movies and newspapers.

The elegantly dressed couple in their on-trend fashion contrast with the poverty of the working class mining villages of the Illawarra coast. Photographer Aileen is described by local historian Leone Flay as ‘dressed for town’, contrasts with the post-and-rail fence on the railway boundary projects the hard-graft of its construction in a landscape of marginal dairy farming.

The remnants of the Illawarra Rainforest that border the railway point to the environmental destruction brought by British imperial policy and its industrial machinery. This contrasts with a past where the Dharawal Indigenous people managed the lush coastal forests that once covered the area along the banks of the nearby Fairy Creek.

Peeling back the layers of past within the picture reveals several parts to the story:  the photographer Aileen Ryan; the coastal location of Stuart Park; and the commercial world of the Mount Pleasant Colliery Railway, and ecology of the Illawarra Rainforest.

Aileen Ryan, photographer

The young female photographer in the picture is Aileen Ryan, a 21-year old city-girl, who spent time in and around the Wollongong area in February and March 1919. Aileen was born in Waverley, Sydney, and was educated at St Clare’s Convent.

At 19 years of age, Aileen gained paid work when most women were restricted to domestic duties. She joined the New South Wales Public Service in 1917 as a typist and shorthand writer. As an independent young working woman, she was worldly-wise and expressed herself through her ability to fund her relatively-expensive hobby of photography. The young Aileen’s hand-held bellows camera hints her grasp of the latest technology.

In 1927 she marries FW Lynch at Clovelly and in 1942 during the Second World War she was seconded to the Directorate of Manpower. She was appointed superintendent of the New South Wales division of the Australian Women’s Land Army, which was disbanded in 1945. She died childless at Waverton in 1983.

Stuart Park, the location

The site of the photo-shoot was located on the colliery railway which skirted the southern boundary of Stuart Park. The park, which was declared in 1885 under the Public Parks Act 1884 (NSW), lies between the railway, Fairy Creek to the north and  North Wollongong Beach to the east. The area was originally purchased from James Anderson and is an area of 22.27 hectares.

The park was named after colonial politician and Scotsman Sir Alexander Stuart who was the Member for Illawarra in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly at the time. The park was run by a trust until 1920 when control passed to the Municipality of Wollongong.

The popularity of Stuart Park, including many families from Camden, owed much to the presence near North Wollongong Beach, which was popular for swimming and surfing from the 1920s. The caravan park was unfortunately closed in 1964, but re-opened in 1966, due to public pressure. It eventually closed permanently in 1970. The park now has a sports oval, had a kiosk dating from the 1940s and was popular with day-trippers.

Illawarra Rainforest, the ecology

The site location of the photograph next to the railway was once completely covered by Illawarra Rainforest, remnants of which can be seen along the railway line.

The rainforest type is a rich ecological community characterised by bloodwoods, stinging trees, figs, flame trees, beech, cedar, and other species. The more complex rainforest communities were located along the creek boundaries and on the southern face of escarpment gorges protected the from the prevailing north-easterly winds.

J Bywater from University of Wollongong describes the rainforest community as:

the most complex (species rich) forest type in the Illawarra. A broad definition of this forest is a “Dense community of moisture loving trees, mainly evergreen, broadleaved species, usually with the trees arranged in several layers, and containing vines, epiphytes, buttressed stems, stranglers, and other Iifeforms” (Saur, 1973, p.l.).

Wollongong Illawarra Rainforest Sublime Point Walking Track Bulli 2000 NCubbin
Illawarra Rainforest on the Sublime Point Walking Track below Bulli Tops lookout 2000 (N Cubbin)

The Illawarra Rainforest extended along the coastal and up into the escarpment from the northern parts of the Illawarra south to Kiama, the Shoalhaven River and west to Kangaroo Valley.

The primary threats to the rainforest ecology have been clearing for farming, mining, urban development, and related activities.

Mount Pleasant Colliery Railway, a transnational conduit to the globe

The Mount Pleasant Colliery was opened by Patrick Lahiff in 1861 and was very successful. Two years later the company built a horse tramway with two inclines down the escarpment from the mine to Wollongong Harbour. They eventually upgraded the tramway to steel railway in the 1880s and to convert to standard gauge.

Wollongong Mount Kiera Mine Incline 1880 (WCL & IHS)
The Mount Pleasant Colliery Inclines were similar to the adjacent Mount Kiera Mine Incline of 1880 shown in this image (WCL & IHS)  The picture shows the remnant rainforest that was part of the ecology of the Illawarra escarpment.

The construction of the tramway raised the hackles of the locals and was only built after the state parliament passed the Mount Pleasant Tramroad Act 1862 (NSW).  The mining company went bankrupt in 1934 and the mine was taken over by Broken Hill Pty Ltd in 1937 and renamed the Kiera Pleasant Tunnels.

Wollongong Mount Pleasant Colliery Railway Workshop 1904 IHT
The locomotive shed at Mt Pleasant Colliery, 1904. Note the engine on the right, built-in Sydney that year. (Courtesy of JLN Southern Collection & Illawarra Heritage Trail)

The coal mine eventually closed in 1955.

Wollongong Mount Pleasant Colliery Railway Belmore Basin 1900s WCL&IHS
Mount Pleasant Colliery Railway near Brighton Beach approaching Belmore Basin in Wollongong NSW 1900s (WCL & IHS) Mount Kiera is shown in the background behind the mining town of Wollongong.

The tramway was closed in 1954.

Wollongong Mount Pleasant Colliery Railway below cliff line 1900s WCL&IHS lowres

In 2017 the Mount Pleasant Tramway walk was upgraded and the seawall rebuilt and renamed the Blue Mile Tramway Pathway.

Wollongong Mural Wollongong Harbour Blue Mile Walk 2020 ICW (2) lowres
A mural illustrating the history of the Blue Mile Tramway walk showing the village of Wollongong, coal handling port facilities at Belmore Basin and Brighton Beach adjacent to it with Wollongong Lighthouse on the harbour breakwater. The Mount Pleasant Tramway is clearly seen going off to the north along the coastline. (I Willis 2020)

The Blue Mile Pathway and other attractions of the Wollongong coast have proved popular with Camden families. They have been going to Wollongong and the South Coast for beach holidays for generations.

Updated 11 May 2021, 17 April 2020,  originally posted on 1 April 2020.

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The Not-So-Humble Fibro Cottage

Modern fibro cottages in Burrawong Crescent Elderslie built around the 1960s. (I Willis, 2005)

The Camden Fibro Cottage

The humble fibro cottage of the 1950s and 1960s in Camden is an important part of the town’s 20th century history. The fibro house is representative of the baby-boomer era, when drive-ins, Holdens, Chiko rolls, black & white TV, rock & roll, vinyl LPs were the norm. Fibro is evocative of long summer holidays by the beach, with adolescent love, boogie boards, zinc cream and paddle pops.  

Fibro was invented in Austria by Ludwig Hatschek in 1900, and within three years was imported to Australia. Fibro was made in Australia by 1916 and was only one of a few countries to use it for housing. Fibro was made and distributed in Australian primarily by Wunderlich and James Hardie. Fibro was cheap and easy to use, and it was modern.

In the 1950s as the Burragorang coal fields expanded the town suffered a housing shortage and fibro cottages provided one solution. A number of fibro cottages were built by the New South Wales Housing Commission. These housing types were recognized for features including hot-water systems, running water to the kitchen, and bathroom and power-points throughout the house.

Camden’s simple fibro cottages provided affordable accommodation for the working man and his family. Local farms have a host of fibro houses as they were a cheap to build, and fibro was an effective building material that in some cases replaced iron cladding.

Many Camden families have nostalgic memories of their summer holidays spent at a fibro beach shack getaway on the South Coast. They were loved for their low maintenance and were easy to repair.

Charles Pickett’s The Fibro Frontier (1997) describes the 1950s fibro home style as austerity modernism. Pickett states that fibro houses combined economy, ease of construction and buyer engagement. Fibro was a mass-produced manufactured building material that made housing construction cheaper.  Fibro offered the working family the chance to become a home owner through a cost-effective form of modern domestic architecture. Camden’s fibro houses had proud owners who kept well maintained front gardens and mowed the grass with their Victa mowers around the Hills hoist in the backyard.

The Powerhouse Museum and Sydney Living Museum have Wunderlich fibro catalogues that provide a valuable record of this style of architecture. Home owners and builders were offered lots of advice on the advantages of fibro in magazines like Australian Homemaker, Australian Home Beautiful and Australian House and Garden. Barry Humphries, the son of a builder, has stated that fibro houses were a little ‘declasse’ and sometimes they were not ‘nice’ homes, although some in the 1950s described them ‘as modern as tomorrow’. One characteristic of Camden fibro cottages is the rounded corners and walls, with its streamlined and modern lines, which were first manufactured in 1937.

Fibro was also used in commercial architecture in Camden and has been used in a number of retail and commercial properties in central Camden. Pickett maintains that the peak of fibro’s acceptance was the 1960s, and from there its popularity declined and it was replaced by other building materials, for example brick-veneer construction. Unfortunately fibro has poor insulation qualities and these cottages were cold in winter and hot in summer, and today there are the health risks of asbestos.

Fibro clad houses represent an important period in Camden’s historical development, and there are examples listed in Camden’s local heritage list. Interestingly filmmakers and artists have adopted the fibro house to signify as a form of ‘retro-dagginess’ and a re-evaluation of suburbia, according to Pickett. Compressed fibre board has been making a comeback in recent years as a successful building material.

Renovating a fibro cottage needs care with the dangerous asbestos fibres. For more information click here

Updated 18 March 2021. Originally posted 29 June 2014.