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).
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Carpentry was an essential craft in all communities and has been practised for centuries. In the Camden area, the traditional trade of carpentry as it was practised had a variety of forms. Traditional trades were part of the process of settler colonialism on the colonial frontier in the Cowpastures.
In pre-settlement times, the first form of bush carpentry was practised by the Aborigines. They stripped bark from trees and used it for shelters that kept them from the natural elements and made weapons.
At the time of European settlement, many on the frontier had no formal trades skills and learnt bush carpentry from watching the Aboriginal people or experimenting themselves. The bush carpenter was a practical make-do pioneer who innovated with naturally occurring products from their local environment. They practised sustainability in a period when it was a necessity for their very survival and relied on their ingenuity, adaptability and wit.
Some of the bush carpenter’s spirit and tradition arrived with the early European settlers and owed some of its origins to the English tradition of green woodworking. This traditional practice dates back to the Middle Ages and is linked with coppicing, a traditional form of woodland management. The craftsmen led a solitary existence in the woods and made a host of items from unseasoned green timber, including furniture, tools, fencing, kitchenware and other things.
The early settlers who built these basic shelters did so without the manufactured products of the Industrial Revolution. Either through cost or just a make-do attitude, they built rudimentary vernacular buildings that lasted for decades. In later times settlers’ structures were improved with the introduction of galvanised iron after the 1820s.
There were many examples of huts and farm sheds being erected in other parts of the Camden district, remote from major centres, like the Burragorang Valley. Post-and-rail fencing and a host of other structures put a defining character on the rural landscape. There is still evidence of bush carpentry in and around Camden.
The bush carpenter’s tool kit usually did not have specialised tools and would have included saws, axes, adze, chisels, augers, hammers, wedges, spade, and other items. Their kit was meant to cope with all the contingencies of the rural frontier that were typical of the remote parts of the Camden district.
The formal trade of carpentry and joinery has a long history going back centuries centred on the guilds. Guilds appeared in England in the Middle Ages, and according to the website London Lives 1690-1800, their purpose was to
defend the interests of the trade, regulate the quality of workmanship and the training of new members, and provide support and welfare for their members.
In London, they were established by charter and regulated by the City authorities. Guilds in London had considerable political power and were one of the largest charitable institutions in the City. Carpenters were organised in the Carpenter’s Company, one of 12 powerful London guilds. Guilds were a mixture of apprentices, journeymen and master craftsmen, with no women.
In the colony of New South Wales, carpenters were formally trained artisans have examples of their work in colonial mansions of the grand estates and the many local towns and villages across the Camden district. These artisans used milled timber and other manufactured products of the Industrial Revolution that were readily available and that their clients could afford.
Camden’s carpenters were a mixture of journeymen and master craftsmen, who had served their apprenticeship in Camden and elsewhere. John Wrigley’s Historic Buildings of Camden (1983) lists 38 carpenters/builders who worked in Camden between the 1840s and 1980s.
The pre-WW2 tradesmen used hand tools and traditional construction methods, which is evident in any of the town’s older buildings and cottages. Take particular notice when you walk around central Camden of the fine quality of artistry that has stood the test of time from some of these traditional tradesmen.
The hand tools used by the Camden carpenter changed little in centuries of development and refinement. The tool kit of the mid-1800s would have included hammers, chisels, planes, irons, clamps, saws, mallet, pincers, augers and a host of other tools. It would be very recognisable by a 21st-century tradesman. Master carpenter, Fred Lawton’s tool kit, is on display at the Camden museum (TDR 19/12/11)
Hand tools were utilitarian, and some had decorated handles and stocks, particularly those from Germany and British makers. By the early 19th century, many hand tools were being manufactured in centres like Sheffield, UK, and these would have appeared in the Camden area. Carpenters traditionally supplied their own tools and would mark on their hand tools to clearly identify them. Many of the hand tools became highly specialised, especially for use by cabinet-makers, joiners and wood-turning.
The Camden carpenters listed in the 1904 New South Wales Post Office Directory were JP Bensley, John Franklin, Joseph Packenham and Thomas Thornton, while at Camden Park, there was Harry ‘Herb’ English. According to Herb’s nephew Len English, Herb English was one of a number of generations of the English family who were carpenters in the early years of the 20th century in the Camden area. It was a family tradition for the sons to be apprenticed in the trade to their father and work at Camden Park. This practice followed the training principles of English carpentry guilds under a system of patrimony.
Len English’s grandfather, William John English,e was apprenticed to his father, James, and worked at Camden Park between the 1890s and 1930s. William lived in Luker Street, Elderslie, where he built his house and had his workshop, where Len recalls playing as a lad. William’s son, Jack Edward English, was apprenticed to his father (William) in the family tradition, also worked at Camden Park and later in Camden and Elderslie during the 1930s and 1940s. During this period, Jack and his brother, Sidney, both worked with local Camden builders Mark Jenson and Mel Peat (TDR19/12/11).
In the Camden village, James and William Macarthur named streets after themselves and their supporters. They include John Street, Macarthur Road, Elizabeth Street, Edward Street, Broughton Street, Exeter Street, Oxley Street, Mitchell Street. The Macarthur family and funded the construction of St John’s church on the hill and donated the surrounding curtilage.
The village was strategically located at the Nepean River ford where the first Europeans crossed the river. By the 1820s the river crossing was the main entry point to Macarthur brothers’ Camden Park Estate, the largest gentry property in the area.
The situation of the village on the Great South Road re-enforced the Macarthur brothers economic and social authority over the countryside.
The river crossing was one of the two northern entry points to their realm of Camden Park Estate, the other being at the Menangle. Menangle later became another private estate village.
The Macarthur village of Camden would secure the northern entry to the family’s Camden Park estate where the Great South Road entered their property. By 1826 the river ford was the site of the first toll bridge in the area.
None of this was new as the river crossing had been the entry into the Cowpastures reserve declared by Governor King in 1803. The site was marked by the police hut in the government reserve at the end of the Cowpasture track from Prospect.
English place names, an act of dispossession
The Camden village was part of the British imperial practice of placing English names on the landscape. The name of the village is English as is the gentry estate within which it was located – Camden Park.
English place names were used in the area from 1796 when Governor Hunter names the site the Cow Pastures Plain. The Cowpastures was a common grazing land near a village.
Under the aims of the colonial settler project, as outlined by Patrick Wolfe and later LeFevre, the new Europeans sought to replace the original population of the colonised territory with a new group of settlers.
Hunter’s naming of the Cowpastures was the first act of expropriation. Further dispossession occurred with the government reserve, and later Governor Macquarie created the government village of Cawdor in the centre of the Cowpastures.
The Europeans seized territory by grant and purchase and imposed more English place names in the countryside, and created a landscape that mirrored the familiarity of England.
The colonial settlers brought Enlightenment notions of progress in their search for some kind of utopia.
The Macarthur private venture village was located in a landscape of self-style English gentry, and their estates interspersed with several small villages.
The gentry estates and their homestead and farm complex were English style village communities. One of the earliest was Denbigh (1818).
The oligarch-in-chief was Camden Park’s John Macarthur.
The Europeans used forced labour to impose English scientific farming methods on the country.
On the left bank of the Nepean River were the gentry estates of Camden Park along with Brownlow Hill. On the right bank were the gentry properties of Macquarie Grove, Elderslie, Kirkham and Denbigh and several smallholders.
The village of Stonequarry was growing at the southern limits of the Cowpastures at the creek crossing on the Great South Road. The village was located on the Antil’s Jarvisfield and later renamed Picton in the 1840s.
The picturesque Cowpastures countryside greeted the newly arrived Englishmen John Hawdon from County Durham. In 1828 Hawdon became the first person to put in writing that the Cowpastures area reminded him of the English countryside when he wrote a letter home.
The progress and development of the country town
The Enlightenment view of progress influenced the Macarthur’s vision for their Camden village. They sought to create an ideal village community of yeoman farmers and sponsored self-improvement community organisation including the School of Arts.
The architectural styles of the town centre shine a light on the progress and development of the Macarthur village. The architectural forms include Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian, Interwar moderne, Mid-20th century modern, and Post-modern.
The town centre served a host of functions for the community that are indicated by the types of land use in a country town. These include commercial, government, open space, industrial, transport, residential, religious, agricultural, amongst others.
The country town idyll and the appearance of heritage
Urban growth and the loss of rural countryside has encouraged a nostalgic desire for the past. This process had led to the evolution of the Camden, the country town idyll.
The heritage of the town centre is what the community values from the past that exists in the present. It is made up of tangible and intangible heritage, as well as multi-layered and multi-dimensional. The town centre story can is a timeline with many side shoots or a tree with the main stem and many branches.
Camden time traveller and the town centre
The living history of the town centre is evident at every turn. At every corner. A visitor can be a time-traveller into the past. A view along the main street is a view into the past.
There are many locations in our local area where a person can be a time-traveller into the past. The traveller can be a participant in the area’s living history, ‘simply by being present’.
As visitors approach the Camden town centre along Camden Valley Way at Elderslie they pass Curry Reserve which has a quaint late 19th-Century workman’s cottage and next to it a ship’s anchor. What is not readily known is that the anchor disappeared for 34 years. What happened? How did it become lost for 34 years? How did it end up in a park on Camden Valley Way?
The cottage is known as John Oxley Cottage and is the home of the local tourist information office The anchor is a memorial which was gifted to the Camden community from British naval authorities on the anniversary of the death of noted Englishman and New South Wales colonial identity John Oxley. So who was John Oxley and why is there a memorial anchor?
This tale could also be viewed as a celebration of European invaders displacing and dispossessing the Indigenous Dharawal people from their country. Englishman and colonial identity John Oxley was 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.
Whichever view of the world you want to take this tale is an example of how the past hides many things, sometimes in plain view. This story is one of those hidden mysteries from the past and is also part of the patina of the broader Camden story.
Pioneer, Explorer and Surveyor General of New South Wales.
This Navel Anchor marks the site of the home and original grant of 1812 to John Oxley RN.
The anchor was relocated to Curry Reserve in Elderslie in 2015 by Camden Council from a privately-owned site in Kirkham Lane adjacent to the Kirkham Stables. The council press release stated that the purpose of the move was to provide
greater access for the community and visitors to enjoy this special piece of the past.
Mayor Symkowiak said:
The anchor represents an important part of our history and [the council] is pleased that the community can now enjoy it in one of Camden’s most popular parks.
We are pleased to work with Camden Historical Society in its relocation to Curry Reserve. The society will provide in-kind support through the provision of a story board depicting the history of the anchor.
The anchor had originally been located in Kirkham Lane adjacent to Kirkham Stables in 1963. According to The Australian Surveyor, there had been an official ceremony where a descendant of John Oxley, Mollie Oxley, of Cremorne Point, NSW unveiled the plaque. The report states that there were around 20 direct descendants of John Oxley present at the ceremony organised by the Camden Historical Society.
British naval authorities had originally handed over the anchor to the Camden community in 1929. So what had happened between 1929 and 1963?
[had] languished in the council yard all but forgotten.
In 1929 the British Admiralty had presented the anchor to the Camden community to commemorate the centenary of the death of Englishman and New South Wales colonial identity John Oxley.
The British Admiralty actually had presented three commemorative anchors to Australia to serve as memorials. The Sydney Morning Herald reported:
One anchor, from the destroyer Tenacious, is to be sent to Wellington, where Oxley heard of the victory at Waterloo. A second anchor, from the minesweeper Ford, will to Harrington, to mark the spot where Oxley crossed the Manning River. The third anchor is from the destroyer Tomahawk, and will go to Kirkham, near Camden, where the explorer died.
The Australian Surveyor noted that Oxley came to New South Wales on the HMS Buffalo in 1802 as a midshipman, returned in England in 1807, gained his lieutenancy and came back to New South Wales in 1809. Oxley returned to England in 1810 and was then appointed as New South Wales Surveyor-General in 1812 and returned to the colony.
Oxley was born in Kirkham Abbey in Yorkshire England and enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1802 aged 16 years old.
The sculpture of Oxley’s profile had been originally erected in John Oxley Reserve in Macquarie Grove Road at Kirkham in 2012 after lobbying by the Camden Historical Society. The metal cut-out silhouette was commissioned by Camden Council at the instigation of Robert Wheeler of the society. The sculpture commemorated the bi-centennial anniversary of Oxley’s appointment as surveyor-general to the New South Wales colony.
Mayor Greg Warren said:
John Oxley was a major part of Camden’s history. The signage and silhoutte will be a continual reminder of [his] significant contribution to the Camden area. (Camden Narellan Advertiser 20 June 2012)
John Oxley Cottage
The John Oxley Cottage is only remaining building from a row of workman’s cottages built in the 1890s along what was the Great South Road, later the Hume Highway (1928) and now the Camden Valley Way.
The Visitor Information Centre was opened in 1989 after the cottage, and its surrounding curtilage was purchased by Camden Council in 1988 and added to Curry Reserve. The cottage was originally owned by the Curry family and had been occupied until the late 1970s, then became derelict.
The four-room cottage had a shingle roof that was later covered in corrugated iron. There were several outbuildings including a bathroom and toilet, alongside a well.
Curry Reserve is named after early settler Patrick Curry who was the Camden waterman in the 1840s. He delivered water he drew from the Nepean River to townsfolk for 2/- a load that he transported in a wooden barrel on a horse-drawn cart.
John Oxley is remembered in lots of places
There is Oxley Street in the Camden Town Centre which was named after Oxley at the foundation of the Camden township in 1840.
An obelisk has been erected by the residents of Redcliffe that commemorates the landing of Surveyor-General Lieutenant John Oxley. In 1823, John Oxley, on instructions from Governor Brisbane, was sent to find a suitable place for a northern convict outpost.
There are more monuments to the 1824 landing of John Oxley and his discovery of freshwater at North Quay and Milton in the Brisbane area.
An anchor commemorates the route taken by John Oxley in his exploration of New South Wales in 1818 and marks the spot where Oxley crossed the Peel River in 1818 outside Tamworth. In 2017 the anchor was targeted as a symbol of settler colonialism and the European invasion of the lands of the Wiradjuri people. The anchor was obtained from the Australian Commonwealth Naval Department and came off the British survey ship HMS Sealark.
A monument, the anchor from the HMS Ford from British naval authorities, was erected at Harrington NSW in honor of explorer John Oxley who explored the area from Bathurst to Port Macquarie. Oxley and his 15 men crossed the Manning River on 22 October 1818 having stayed here from 19 October in the lands of the Biripi people.
There is John Oxley Park in Wellington NSW on the Macquarie River on the land of the Wiradjuri people. Wellington was named by the explorer John Oxley who, according to the popular story, unable to cross the Lachlan River because of dense reeds, climbed Mount Arthur in 1817 and named the entire landscape below him Wellington Valley, after the Duke of Wellington who, only two years earlier, had defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.
The Oxley Historical Museum is housed in the old Bank of New South Wales, on the corner of Warne and Percy Streets, in a glorious 1883 Victorian-era two-story brick building designed by architect J. J. Hilly. Wellington’s Oxley anchor memorial is today found in the grounds of the Wellington Public School.
Updated 4 July 2020; original posted 27 March 2020
There are examples of this style in most of villages and hamlets across the local area and many isolated ones on local farms.
The name Edwardian is loosely attached to cottages and buildings erected during the reign of Edward VII from 1901 to 1910. This period covers the time after the Federation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 when the six self-governing colonies combined under a new constitution. They kept their own legislatures and combined to form a new nation.
The housing style was evidence of the new found confidence of the birth of a new nation that borrowed overseas trends and adopted them to suit local conditions. These style of houses were a statement of the individualism and the national character.
The Edwardian style of housing also includes a broad range of styles including Queen Anne, Federation, Arts and Crafts and Early Bungalow. These styles often tend to be asymmetrical with a projecting from gable, can be highly decorated with detailed work to gables, windows and verandahs. Edwardian style cottages often fit between 1900 and 1920, although the style extends beyond this period influencing the Interwar style housing.
Typical Edwardian colour schemes range from apricot walls, gables and barge boards, with white lattice panelling, red roofing and green coloured windows, steps, stumps, ant caps.
A number of Camden Edwardian cottages have a projecting from room with a decorated gable. A number of been restored while others have been demolished.
Edwardian country cottages are not unique to the Camden area. Toowoomba has a host of these type of homes and published the local council publishes extensive guides explaining the style of housing and what is required for their sympathetic restoration in the online publication The Toowoomba House (2000).
Examples of Edwardian style cottages, including in and around Camden, were an Australian version of English Edwardian houses. Houses were plainer in detail, some with lead lighting in the front windows. Australian architecture was a response to the landscape and climate and the building style tells us about the time and the people who built them, how they lived and other aspects of Camden’s cultural heritage.
In the most March 2014 edition of Camden History Joy Riley recalls the Edwardian cottages in John Street. She stated:
‘I lived at 66 John Street for the first 40 years of my life before moving to Elderslie with my husband Bruce Riley. The two rooms of 66 John Street were built by the first John Peat, Camden builder, to come to Camden. In the 1960s I had some carpet put down in my bedroom, the floor boards were so hard, as they only used tacks in those days to hold carpet, the carpet just kept curling up.’ She says, ‘The back of the house was built by my grandfather, William Dunk. They lived next door at 64 John Street. He also built the Methodist Church at Orangeville or Werombi.
This housing style is often characterised by a chimney that was a flue for a kitchen fuel stove and chip copper in an adjacent laundry. In some houses plaster cornices were common, sometimes there were ceiling roses, skirting and architraves. A number of been restored while unfortunately many others have been demolished.
Some Camden Edwardian homes had walls of red brickwork, sometimes with painted render in part. While there are many examples in the local area of timber houses with square-edged or bull-nosed weatherboards. Sunshades over windows supported by timber brackets are also common across the local area.
The RANZ conference covered several themes related to national identities ranging across cultural, feminine, environmental, transnational and linguistic perspectives with a particular emphasis on memory, trauma and the image. Many of the papers would not have been out of place at the annual Australian Historical Association Conference.
The ‘Australian western’ and its display in the film was an interesting theme that appeared in several papers. There was a strong interest in Pacific Islander, Maori and Aboriginal literature, art and performance across a range of presentations.
I presented my paper ‘An Australian country girl goes to London’ about the travels of Shirley Dunk in 1954, followed by a lively discussion with some conference delegates. My presentation raised several questions about this type of counter-migration story and what were these young women were seeking in their lives through their journeys. Were they searching for a greater truth about the forces that drove their ancestors to Australia?
Polish migrants came to Australia after the Second World War seeking a utopia in a new land and sometimes it failed to materialise. Their own dark clouds created ghosts that have haunted later generations of their family. One delegate suggested to me that this was also an issue from some families in Poland.
A less than flattering critique of the Australia migration story emerged at the conference in the form of a special issue of Anglica. The journal editor argues that Australia’s image as a successful model of multiculturalism has been destroyed by increasing intolerance and nationalism. A rather ‘disturbing and ugly face’ of Australia has emerged in a ‘semi-mythical multicultural paradise’.
Dark history and the power of the past
Poland’s deep past and dark history manifested itself in unexpected ways during my visit. The overwhelming presence of the Second World War, particularly in Warsaw, was a new experience for me. It brought into sharp focus the contested nature of my subjectivity and the need for objectivity in this personal reflection. It is a conundrum that has exercised my mind here, as it has done for many other historians on other occasions.
The Second World War lays over Poland like a blanket and its presence is everywhere. The city of Warsaw is like a field of monuments and the city’s dark history is ever-present in the view of the visitor. The past haunts the present in ways that are hard to understand without walking the city streets. Yet paradoxically the city’s dark history is invisible in the mind of many tourists as they walk around the reconstructed old city.
The rebuilt city is a metaphor for the resilience of the Polish people and their ability to be able to redefine themselves in the face of adversity. Polish cultural identity that has been shaped by the war is fundamental to the construction of place in Warsaw, Krakow and elsewhere.
I should note that one conference delegate requested that I ‘be kind to the city’ in my reflections of Warsaw. I would suggest that the city needs to be kinder to itself.
For those in the English-speaking world, there are numerous silences in the stories of wartime Poland and its reconstruction. Some of these silences are the result of the hegemony around the ownership of the wartime narrative. The shape and conduct of 20th century German and Russian colonialism are not widely understood in Australia. There is a similar lack of understanding surrounding the role of European modernism and particularly Russian constructivism in the reconstruction of Polish cities.
The horrors of the past haunt the present
The consequences of 20th-century German colonialism are plain for all to see at Auschwitz and Birkenau with their industrial-scale slaughter. For this Australian, the ghosts of these Polish wartime memorials reminded me of the convict ruins at Norfolk Island and other sites.
Yet paradoxically the sacredness of Auschwitz and Birkenau are smothered by industrial-scale tourism that typifies many European tourist attractions. There is a feel of a theme park with the lengthy queues, crowded displays, and constant shoving. The memorial is loved to death.
Like travellers of old new experiences are one of the benefits of my journey to Poland. There are parallels with the story of young Australian women who travelled to London including new perspectives, new experiences, and new challenges. Like these young Australian women it has hopefully resulted in: greater empathy; greater understanding; and greater ability to cope with life’s challenges.
Janice Johnson (ed), Camden Through a Poet’s Eyes, Charles Tompson (Jnr). Camden Historical Society, Camden, 2019. pp.126. ISBN 978-0-6485894-9-5
In 1854 Charles Tompson described that the ‘village of Camden’ had ‘the aspect and the attributes of an English village’ (p.118) In doing so he was probably the first European to describe Camden’s Englishness, an attribute that numerous writers have agreed with, particularly in the early 20th century. Tompson was not the first to note the Englishness of the Cowpasture district. That privilege belonged to John Hawdon in 1828.
These are some of the observations of the Cowpastures drawn from the pen of Charles Tompson in a new collection of his work, Camden Through a Poet’s Eye, Charles Tompson (Jnr). The Camden Historical Society has published a work that the late Janice Johnson had had been working on while she was alive. The book has been funded by a bequest Johnson estate.
Tompson was a prolific writer and observer of the Cowpastures under the byline ‘From our Correspondent – Camden’ for The Sydney Morning Herald between 1847 and 1852. He wrote about the ordinariness of the area, while occupying the position of Clerk of Petty Sessions and his reports are far from ordinary.
Tompson was an educated man by colonial standards, born on the Castlereagh and attending the local parish school run by Irish rebel Rev. Henry Fulton. His observations are full of colour and movement and provide an invaluable archive of data, descriptions and general goings-on across the area.
Tompson published regular reports on a host of topics including farming, the weather, cropping, local identities, police rounds, court proceedings and the movement of people through the area, amongst other topics. He was an astute observer and has provided the earliest detailed overview of the early years of the Camden village from his position at the local court house.
A detailed reading of Tompson’s work provides the patient and curious observer with a detailed description of rural life in the Cowpastures. In 1847 Tompson identified the area as the Cowpastures (p.23) as it was to remain into the late 19th century. He provided a useful descriptions of the area (p.23). For example, there was a constant shortage of farm labour in 1847 to cut hay by hand on ‘small scale’ farms across the area worked by smallholders. (p.28). Maize was planted in October (p.28), and wheat and hay were harvested by hand-sickle in November (p.33), although the drought restricted the harvest (p.32).
Market prices are provided for those who need to know about such things. Horses were worth between £8 to £10 in 1847 (p.29), wheat might get 4/6 a bushel, maize worth 2/- a bushel, and good hay was worth £10 per ton.(p.32). By March 1848 price of wheat had dropped to 3/6 to 4/- a bushel, while fine flour was worth £12 a ton, and vegetables were scarce with potatoes between 1d to 1½d per pound (p.42). Flour was ground at one of mills in the area.(p.23)
The local population and its growth (p.23) were detailed by Tompson along with the villages and hamlets in the immediate area including Narellan, Cobbitty (p.24), Picton and Menangle (p.25). Tompson could be effusive in his description and Cobbitty was a ‘diamond of the desert on the dead sea shore’ while he could be more grounded and just described Narellan as the ‘Government township’. (p. 24)
The local colonial grants are detailed for the reader and their links to each location. Cobbitty was surrounded by ‘Wivenhoe, Denbigh, Matavai and Brownlow Hill – all beautiful in their own way – from the homely milkmaid-like undecorated farm and the verandahed cottage, with group plantations, to the elegant Italian villa, embowered in orange groves, and the secluded chateau of dignified retirement’ (p.24). Similar descriptions were used by travel writers in the early 20th century.
The gentry estates were the same ones that reminded Englishman John Hawdon of his Durham homeland in the 1820s. The description of the landscape provided by Tompson reminds the reader how short the gap was in years between the original European settlement of the Cowpastures and his presence in the Camden village in the 1840s.
Camden Park was described by Tompson as ‘magnificent’, which had in the last few years had ‘been opened up and cultivated by a story of primitive pioneer who takes farms on clearing leases’ (pp24-25). The tenant farmers were not the yeoman farmer the British colonial authorities were trying to create at the time. They were closer to a peasant culture. Tompson likened Camden Park to a European ‘principality’ rather than the gentry ‘Estate’ it was and would remain for over the next 150 years. (p.26)
The Razorback Range was ‘scarcely…a mountain’ and was ‘in fact a tract of excellent arable land’. The Nepean River and Bent’s Basin was a ‘small lake of about a furlong’s diameter’ and it was ‘round and deep’. (p.27)
The weather was an ever-constant in Tompson’s travails of the Cowpastures as were the constant dry spells that are all part of the Australian environment. He laments ‘how sadly the rain keeps off’ in October 1847 (p.27) A month later he left his thermometer in the sun and it rose to 1200F when left on the ground on his way home from church (p.28). He observed that the continued dry spell of 1847 had ‘driven’ the smallholders ‘to despair’ (p.28).
Thunderstorms unsurprisingly were typical of a summer’s afternoon across the Cowpastures. In December 1847 a ‘heavy thunder storm passed over, without much rain’ (p.33) as it still happens today. Thunderstorms could be the cause of bush fires that burnt throughout the hotter months of the year (p.30). Fire was been an ever-present part of the Cowpasture’s ecology – both natural and man-managed – by Indigenous Australians.
Tompson was not a fan of the Indigenous people and possessed the British attitude to the inferior nature of the Australian Aborigine that was the basis the settler society colonial project. In March 1848 ‘the blacks [Dharawal] from the south country always visit the Cowpasture…in great numbers’. Reminiscent that the colonial frontier could be violent site and a male domain. Tompson reported that there was a woman of a lonely farm hut ‘scarcely considers her safe’ as the Indigenous people moved through the area ‘in the absence of her husband’.(p.44)
The newbies to the local area in the 21st century could do themselves a favour and read the description of the 1848 flood at Camden. The flood was caused by an east-coast-low-pressure-system as they are in eastern Australia’s today. The 1848 flood event was over after three days with its peak reached within 24 hours of the river starting to rise. Tompson witnessed an ‘expanse of water several miles in circumference’ that had previously ‘dry land’. (p.43)
Disease was a problem with influenza (p.31) prevalent in 1847 and ‘everybody is wrapped up, pale, coughing and wearing a certain indescribable dreamy appearance’. (p.31) Tompson reported the presence of scarlet fever in 1848 (p.61) and called it scarlatina (p.61) as it was also known. Even as early as 1848 the Camden village was regarded by many Sydney ‘invalid refugees’ as a type of health resort with many staying at Lakeman’s Camden Inn. (p.61)
The very English activity of hunting made an appearance in 1849 and the Sydney gentry brought their ‘dingo hounds’ with them. Tompson reported that they were joined by some local ‘gentlemen’ and went deer hunting ‘in the bosky glens of the Razorback’. It was reported that some hounds ‘ran down a fine kangaroo’ and the party returned drenched ‘by heavy rain’. The following day the party moved to Varroville.(p.79)
Janice Johnson’s collection of Tompson’s musings and sometimes whimsical commentary on life in the Cowpastures is a convenient summary of work published in the Sydney Morning Herald. The researcher does not have to wade through hundreds of pages looking for a short descriptive paragraph as Alan Atkinson did for his work on Camden.
Johnson has done the hard graft by extracting these snippets of Cowpasture life using the National Library’s wonderful database Trove. This is a treasure trove of information for any researcher complemented by a useful index. For those interested in colonial New South Wales this book should be a standard reference of the colonial period in any library.
The CHN blogger was out and about in southern Queensland recently and investigated some of the local aspects of living history.
The CHN blogger was drawn to southern Queensland by the Australian Historical Association Conference held at Toowoomba in early July. The conference was stimulating and challenging and the hosts provided a great venue at the Empire Theatre complex.
The Toowoomba area provided a number of examples of living history starting with the Cobb & Co Museum complex. Apart from the displays there is training in traditional trades for the more than curious and there are a number of special days during the year. The blogger was there during the school holidays and there was a motza of stuff for the littlies to do – all hands on. The kids seemed to be having lots of fun, followed around their Mums and Dads. The coffee was not bad either.
The generous conference hosts organised some activities for conference goers. I tagged along on a town tour one evening led by the president of the local historical society – very informative. ‘Town by night’ was a great way to see the sights of the city centre from a new perspective.
One property that particularly took the fancy of this blogger was the Federation Queen Anne style Harris House. The cottages was bequeathed to the National Trust of Australia (Queensland) in 2017. The 1912 Edwardian villa residence demonstrates the development of Toowoomba in the early 20th century and the place wealthy members of the local society within it.
The single storey red brick dwelling has a Marseilles tiled roof and wide verandahs with bay windows. The concrete ornamentation contrasts with the face red brick and the hipped-roof has decorative finials and ridge capping. The house is in a visually prominent position on a corner block and is described by the Queensland Heritage Register as ‘a grand, Federation-era suburban villa residence’. It is quite an asset to the area.
After the conference this nerdy blogger found himself at The Woolshed at Jondaryan. Originally built in 1859 the woolshed is one of the largest in Australia and today is an example of an extensive living history attraction. The European history of the woolshed illustrates the frontier story of the settler society of southern Queensland and the Darling Downs.
Thousands of young single Australian born women travelled to London and beyond from the mid-to-late 19th century. This pilgrimage, as historian Angela Woollacott has called it, was a life-changing journey for these women. They were both tourist and traveller and many worked their passage throughout their journey.
Their travels illustrate the links between metropole and the periphery, between the settler societies and the imperial centre that have been little explored by scholars of history. These young women were both insiders and outsiders, both colonials and part of the heritage of colonizers. The dichotomy of their position provides an interesting position as they explored the transnational relationship between Australia and the UK.
These women occupied a space between metropolitan centre of London and their shared British heritage and notions of England as ‘home’ yet at the same time they were outsiders in England and other parts of the British Empire that they visited in Colombo and Aden.
There has been some recent scholarship that explores the Australian diaspora in the United Kingdom around issues of imperialism, expatriation, globalisation, national identity and overseas citizenship.
In the 19th century colonial born women from well-off families went husband-hunting in England. By the early 20th century the list of women travelling to the United Kingdom started to include creative-types including actors, writers, artists, musicians, and singers. One of the most famous being Dame Nellie Melba.
In the mid-20th century following the Second World War young working women from modest backgrounds started to explore the world and head for London. There were a number of Camden women who undertook this journey during the 1950s that are the subject of a history project.
38th Australian Historical Association Conference 2019, Local Communities, Global Networks, University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, 8-12 July 2019.
Title of Paper
Tourist or traveller: the journey of an Australian country girl to London in 1954.
In 1954 Shirley Dunk, a young country woman from the small community of Camden in New South Wales, exercised her agency and travelled to the United Kingdom with her best friend and work colleague, Beth Jackman. This was a journey to the home of their forefathers and copied the activities of other Camden women. Some of the earliest of these journeys were undertaken by Camden’s elite women in the late 19th century when they developed imperial networks that functioned on three levels – the local, the provincial and the metropole.
This research project will use a qualitative approach where there is an examination of Shirley’s journey archive complimented with supplementary interviews. The archive consisted of personal letters, diaries, photographs, scrapbooks, ship menus and other ephemera and was recently presented to me. It was a trove of resources which documented Shirley’s 12 months away from home and, during interviews, allowed her to vividly relive her memories of the journey. Shirley nostalgically recalled the sense of adventure that she and Beth experienced as they left Sydney for London by ship and their travels throughout the United Kingdom and Europe.
The paper will attempt to address some of the questions posed by the journey and how she reconciled these forces as an actor on a transnational stage through her lived experience as a tourist and traveller. Shirley’s letters home were reported in the country press and were reminiscent of soldier’s wartime letters when they acted as tourists in foreign lands.
The narrative will show that Shirley was exposed to the cosmopolitan nature of the metropole, as were earlier generations of local women who journeyed to London. The paper will explore how Shirley was subject to the forces of urbanism, modernity and consumerism at a time when rural women were presented with representations of domesticity and other ‘ideal’ gender stereotypes.
2nd Biennial International Conference on Redefining Australia and New Zealand, Changes, Innovations, Reversals, University of Warsaw, Warsaw, Poland, 16-17 September 2019.
Title of Paper
An Australian country girl goes to London.
In 1954 a young country woman from New South Wales, Shirley Dunk, exercised her agency and travelled to London. This was a journey to the home of their forefathers and copied the activities of other country women who made similar journeys. Some of the earliest of these journeys were undertaken by the wives and daughters of the rural gentry in the 19th century when they developed imperial networks that functioned on three levels – the local, the provincial and the metropole.
This research project will use a qualitative approach where there is an examination of Shirley’s journey archive complimented with supplementary interviews. The archive consisted of personal letters, diaries, photographs, scrapbooks, ship menus and other ephemera and was recently presented to me. It was a trove of resources which documented Shirley’s 12 months away from home and, during interviews, allowed her to vividly relive her memories of the journey. Shirley nostalgically recalled the sense of adventure that she experienced as she left Sydney for London by ship and her travels throughout the United Kingdom and Europe.
The paper will attempt to address some of the questions posed by the journey and how she reconciled these forces as an actor on a transnational stage through her lived experience as a tourist and traveller. Shirley’s letters home were reported in the country press and were reminiscent of soldier’s wartime letters home that described their tales as tourists in foreign lands.
The narrative will show that Shirley, as an Australian country girl, was exposed to the cosmopolitan nature of the metropole, as were earlier generations of women. The paper will explore how Shirley was subject to the forces of urbanism, modernity and consumerism at a time when rural women were presented with representations of domesticity and other ‘ideal’ gender stereotypes.
The show is an immersive experience for participants and observers alike in the real smells, sounds and sights of a sample of the farm in rural Australia.
The show represents the authentic real life of country people. It is a performance bringing history to life by storytelling through a host of demonstrations, events and displays.
The show is historical representation of the past in the present illustrating a host of aspects of rural heritage through experiential learning.
Living history reveals layers from the past
The show reveals itself in a multi-layered story of continuity and change on the edge of the Camden township. What was once a small isolated rural village at the Nepean River crossing and is now a thriving Sydney suburb on the city’s metropolitan fringe.
Competitive sections of the show have come and gone with changes in the farming economy. Livestock, produce, craft and cooking sections each tell a story of different aspect of rural life. What was once an integral part of the rural economy is now a craft activity and completely new sections have appeared over the decades.
Where once rural artisans were part of the local economy their activities are now demonstrations of heritage and lost trades. Show patrons once used to arrive in a horse and cart today’s show-goers watch competitive driving of horse and sulkies in the show ring.
Sideshows and carnies continue show traditions that have their origins in English village fairs and carnivals of the past and even a hint of the Roman Empire and their circuses.
The success of the show illustrates a yearning by those attending to experience and understand elements of the traditions of a rural festival in the face of urban growth and development.
The Camden Show is a rural festival that is part of the modern show movement that emerged from the Industrial Revolution. The first series of agricultural shows in the early 19th century demonstrated modern British farming methods and technology.
The first agricultural shows in New South Wales were in the early 19th century and the first Camden Show in 1886. The 19th century agricultural show movement set out to demonstrate the latest in British Empire know-how and innovation in farming.
The site of the show on the Nepean River floodplain is one of the first points of contact between European and Indigenous people and the cows that escaped from the Sydney settlement in 1788 former the Cowpasture Reserve in 1795. For living history it is material culture which grounds the audience in time and place.