The 2023 Camden Show proves its resilience and came alive after the disasters of Covid and the 2022 floods when the show was postponed and cancelled.
The arts and crafts pavilion is a good place to start, the must-see at all country shows. On display are the hidden talents of the local area.
A staple at all country shows are local farmers and producers who display their animals and produce. The cattle are always an interesting area to watch, and dairying has a rich history in the Camden area going back to the 1880s.
The produce exhibit is a snapshot of what can be grown and produced locally. Each of these products has been a vital part of the local farming scene over previous decades and in the present. For example, the apple industry was very important in The Oaks for most of the 20th century, and viticulture or growing grapes occurred across the Elderslie area for most of the last 100 years.
The flower exhibits are always popular with show visitors, and 2023 is no exception. The flowers have moved out of the main pavilion to a more compact area and the number of exhibitors is down on previous years.
An often overlooked part of the show is the show ball and the announcement of the winner of the Camden Show 2023 Young Woman of the Year. The competition started in 1962 as the Camden Miss Showgirl and was rebranded in 1979 as the Showgirl competition. It is an excuse for the young, and not so young, folk of the area to get frocked up and enjoy themselves.
The winner of the Camden Show 2023 Young Woman of the Year competition was announced on the front page of The District Reporter.
There is much literature produced at show time, and one of the most important is the show catalogue. The schedule lists all categories that competitors might want to enter with their animals, produce or crafts, the entry fees, the winning prizes and lots of other details of show time.
Then there is the showground map which details all the exhibitors, events, show rings, entertainment, show bags, conveniences, parking and lots of other information.
One innovation this year has been the Agricultural Discovery Booklet for children. The booklet is full of puzzles, quizzes, colouring in, find-a-word, crosswords and other stuff. A great thing for the kids.
The 2023 Camden Show has many exhibitors including commercial enterprises, the show guild members who provide rides and entertainment, government information services, community organisations and many others.
Community groups are regular exhibitors at the Camden Show and including the Country Women’s Association, Camden Historical Society, Camden Area Family History Society, Camden Hospital Women’s Auxiliary, Girl Guides, the Camden Show Society itself and many others.
Promoting the show is always important and The District Reporter has had their show liftout for many years. The liftout is part of the only print edition of a newspaper that still circulates in the local area and has the show history and many stories about show personalities, events and exhibitors.
The private English-style estate village of James and William Macarthur
The establishment of Camden, New South Wales, the town in 1840, was a private venture of James and William Macarthur, sons of colonial patriarch John Macarthur, at the Nepean River crossing on the northern edge of the family’s pastoral property of Camden Park. The town’s site was enclosed on three sides by a sweeping bend in the Nepean River and has regularly flooded the surrounding farmland and lower parts of the town.
The site of Camden was within the 5000 acres granted to John Macarthur by the 2nd Earl Camden [3.2], the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, in 1805, while Macarthur was in England on charges for duelling. Macarthur was a fractious quarrelsome self-promoter who arrived in NSW with his wife Elizabeth and family in 1790 as paymaster of the New South Wales Corps. The Corps (sometimes called The Rum Corps) was formed in England in 1789 as a permanent regiment of the British Army to relieve the New South Wales Marine Corps, which had accompanied the First Fleet to Australia in 1788 to fortify the colony of NSW.
The town’s site, as part of the Macarthur grants, was located on some of the finest farming country in the colony in the government Cowpastures reserve on the colonial frontier. The grants were part of the dispossession of traditional lands of the Dharawal people by the British settler colonial project and inevitably led to conflict and violence. Macarthur claimed that the town’s establishment threatened the security of his landholdings at Camden Park and opposed it during his lifetime. On his death in 1834, his sons had a different worldview and moved to establish an English-style estate village dominated by a church.
A fine Gothic-style church
The ridge-top location of St John’s Church (1840) on the southern end of the town meant that it towered over the town centre and had a clear line of sight to the Macarthur family’s Georgian mansion at Camden Park 2.6 miles to the southwest. The fine English Gothic-style church was funded mainly by the Macarthur family and has been the basis of the town’s iconic imagery. There were a number of large gentry estates built on convict labour in the surrounding farmland, the largest being the Macarthur family’s Camden Park of over 28,000 acres.
Many immigrant families came to the area under Governor Bourke’s 1835 plan and settled on the gentry estates as tenant farmers, some establishing businesses in Camden. The first land sales in the village occurred in 1841, which stifled the growth of the existing European settlements in the area. The population of Camden grew from 242 in 1846 to 458 in 1856, although the gentry’s estates still dominated the village. Camden Park, for example, had a population of 900 in 1850.
The English-style gentry practised philanthropy in Camden to maintain its moral tone. Elizabeth Macarthur Onslow, John Macarthur’s granddaughter, encouraged the maintenance of the proprieties of life, moral order and good works, as well as memorialising her family by donating a clock and bells to St John’s Church in 1897. She also marked the memory of her late husband, Captain Onslow, by providing a public park in 1882 named after her husband (Onslow Park), which is now the Camden showground.
Camden became the district’s transport hub at the centre of the road network, primarily set by the pattern of land grants from the 1820s. The earliest villages in the district predated Camden and then looked to Camden for cultural and economic leadership as the district’s major centre. The arrival of the Camden tramway in 1882 meant that silver ore west of the district (1871) was shipped through the Camden railhead to the Main Southern Railway from Sydney.
Combined with rail access to markets, the town’s prosperity was assured by a series of technical and institutional innovations that transformed the dairy industry in the 1890s. In the 1920s, the Macarthur family set up the Camden Vale Milk Company and built a milk processing plant at the eastern end of the main street adjacent to the rail line. Whole milk was railed to Sydney and bottled under its label until the mid-1920s. Milk was delivered daily to the factory by horse and cart until the 1940s from local dairy farms.
Camden’s progress saw the construction of a new bank (1878), the commencement of weekly stock sales (1883), the formation of the Camden Agricultural, Horticultural and Industrial Society and the first Camden Show (1886), a new post and telegraph office (1898), the foundation of two weekly newspapers (Camden Times, 1879, Camden News, 1880), a new cottage hospital (1898), the formation of a fire brigade (1900), the opening of a telephone exchange (1910), the installation of reticulated gas (1912), electricity (1929), town water (1899) and the replacement of gas street lighting with electric lights (1932), and a sewerage scheme (1939). By 1933 the population of the town had grown to 2394.
First local council
The first attempt at local government in 1843 was unsuccessful. A meeting of local notables formed the municipality of Camden at a public meeting in 1883. Still, it was not until 1889 that the municipality was proclaimed, covering 7,000 acres and including Camden and the neighbouring village of Elderslie. Nine townsmen were elected aldermen at the first election that year, and the first meeting was held at the School of Arts. In 1993 the Camden Municipal Council eventually became the Council of Camden.
Camden’s 1840 street grid is still intact today, with streets named after members of the Macarthur family – John Street, Elizabeth, Edward Street – and NSW colonial notables – Oxley Street, Broughton Street, Mitchell Street. The main highway between Sydney and Melbourne (the Hume Highway) passed along the main street (Argyle Street), until it was re-routed in 1976. The town’s business centre still has several Victorian and Art Deco shopfronts.
Some charming Federation and Californian bungalows in the church ridge-top precinct were the homes of the Camden elite in the early 20th century. The precinct is the site of Macarthur Park (1905), which was dedicated to the townsfolk by Elizabeth Macarthur Onslow and contained the town’s World War One cenotaph (donated by the Macarthur family).
John Street heritage precinct
John Street runs north-south downhill to the floodplain from the commanding position of St John’s church. Lower John Street is the location of the Italianate house Macaria (c1842), St Paul’s Catholic church and the government buildings associated with the Camden police barracks (1878) and courthouse (1857), and Camden Public School (1851). This area also contains the oldest surviving Georgian cottage in the town area, Bransby’s Cottage (1842). Lower John Street has the Camden Temperance Hall (1867), which later served as Camden Fire Station (1916–1993), and the School of Arts (1866), which served as the Camden Town Hall, while the rear of the building was occupied for a time by Camden Municipal Council.
Community voluntary organisations have been part of Camden’s life from the town’s foundation. In the late 1800s, they were male-dominated, usually led by the landed gentry, and held informal political power through patronage. James Macarthur sponsored the Camden School of Arts (1865) and Agricultural, Horticultural & Industrial Society (1886), later called the Camden Show Society, while the non-conformists sponsored various lodges and the temperance movement. A small clique of well-off local women established several conservative women’s organisations after Federation. Their social position supported their husbands’ political activities, and the influence of the Macarthur family was felt in these organisations, for example, the Camden Red Cross and Country Women’s Association.
Many men and women from Camden and the district saw military service in the Boer War and later World War One and Two when residents set up local branches of national patriotic funds and civil defence organisations. On the outskirts of the town, there were active defence establishments during World War II, including an airbase, army infantry, and training camps.
Economic prosperity from coal mining in the district’s western part challenged old hierarchies in the postwar years, replacing the old colonially-based rural hegemony. New community organisations like Rotary and later the Chamber of Commerce fostered business networks in the town. The Camden Historical Society (1957) promoted the town’s past and later opened a local museum (1970).
The New South Wales state government decreed that the town would become part of a growth area in the form of ‘new cities’ under the Macarthur Growth Centre Plan (1973), modelled on the British Garden City concept. Increasing urbanisation threatened the town’s identity and the number of community members formed by the Camden Residents’ Action Group (1973).
In 2007 Camden was the administrative centre of the Camden Local Government Area, which had a population of over 51,000 (2006) and an area of 201 square kilometres. The Camden LGA became part of the state government’s Sydney South West Growth Centre, planned to house 500,000 new residents, and is one of Australia’s fastest-growing urban areas.
Wave of nostalgia
Increasing levels of Sydney’s urbanisation have continued, threatened the loss of rural landscapes around the town, and awakened a wave of nostalgia. The NSW state government created the Camden Town Conservation Area (2008) based on the mid-20th century country town that aimed at preserving the town’s integrity and material fabric.
In 2002 the Sydney press commemorated the life and times of Camden identity Colin Clark, a successful pharmacist who served his community, church and family. (SMH 20 May 2002) Colin married Dorothy, and together, they shaped ‘a vision for their future’ in Camden.
My interest in the Clarks was partly prompted by a photograph of a bottle of liquid paraffin sent to me by local resident Nicole Comerford. Colin had dispensed the paraffin to Nicole’s grandmother, Sheila Murdoch of Orangeville.
Colin Clark ran a pharmacy in Argyle Street for over 35 years. He trained as a pharmacist at the Melbourne College of Pharmacy, and met Dorothy in Stroud. They married in 1933 at Malvern Hill Methodist Church (Clark, Fix Ears, p.72) before moving to Camden in 1934.
Dorothy was an accomplished musician and an artist. In the mid-1920s, she received a scholarship to the Sydney Art School (Julian Ashton Art School) (Clark, Fix Ears, p.71), which trained several notable Australian artists.
The Clarks planned to stay in Camden for seven years (Mylrea, Interview) and as things turned out, they stayed a lifetime. (Camden News, 6 August 1981) Their Methodist faith shaped their worldview and they how fitted into Camden’s rich social fabric and became part of the ‘backbone of the community’. (Camden News, 6 August 1981). They mixed with other Methodist families who amongst others included the Whitemans, the Sidmans and the Stuckeys.
Colin became a well-regarded businessman and Dorothy, a stay-at-home mother. They were respected in all strata of society and mixed with people ‘of so-called high and low estate’. (Clark, Eulogy)
John Kearns argues that John Wesley ‘was an active citizen, concerned with people’s physical, mental and economic welfare as well as their spiritual well-being and he did many good works’. As were the Clarks.
Community service – ‘the backbone of the community’
Colin and Dorothy were community-minded active citizens who constantly devoted their ‘energies to the gentle pursuit of shaping their community’s lifestyle and character’ through several local organisations. (Camden News, 6 August 1981)
Colin was president of the Camden Historical Society from 1968 to 1970 and was made a life member in 1994. He was a foundation member of the Camden Rotary Club and served the club for 33 years. He was a member of the Carrington Hospital Board from 1967 to 1981, made a trustee in 1975 (Camden News 6 August 1981) and to honour his service, the board room was named after him (Clark Eulogy). He was president of the Camden Central School P&C in the early 1950s, a member of the Camden Masonic Lodge and a board member of the Camden Uniting Church. (Clark, Eulogy).
Colin was an active sportsman and participated in tennis, cricket, golf and lawn bowls. He was a foundation member of the Camden Golf Club, an early committee member of the Camden Bowling Club and instrumental in the foundation of the Camden CWA Rooms building.
Dorothy – musician, artist and mother
Dorothy was a musician and an artist with an appreciation of the arts. She was an accomplished pianist, and in 1936 played the piano at a Methodist ladies ‘towel afternoon’ (Camden News, 6 August 1936). In 1942 she was the pianist for a concert for the troops at the Narellan Military Base (Camden News, 5 February 1942), and in 1952 she played the piano at a fashion parade fundraiser for the Camden Hospital Ladies Auxiliary (Camden News, 2 October 1952). Dorothy was the pianist for the first Camden Musical Society performance. (Camden News 6 August 1981)
Dorothy Clark was an active member of the Camden Red Cross, Camden District Hospital Auxiliary, and the Camden Country Women’s Association.
Camden Museum – ‘a vision for the future’
In the mid-1960s, Colin and Dorothy had a vision for a local history museum in Camden where a collection of objects and things could tell the local story. (Mylrea, Interview) The Clark’s view of the world would have seen a museum providing an educational experience based on authentic objects and stories taken from Camden’s cultural traditions and values, and the individuals who created them. (Willis, Stories and Things)
The Clark’s vision and enthusiasm encouraged support after initial scepticism. With the help of Camden Rotary Club Colin eventually secured the old council rooms at the rear of the Camden School of Arts and opened a museum in 1970. (Wrigley, Camden Museum)
John Wrigley writes
Colin Clark was the president of the Camden Historical Society at the founding of the Camden Museum in 1970. Colin became a member of the society in 1963 and president in 1968. He was the fourth president of the society. (Wrigley, 2021)
Colin recalled, ‘In the 1930s it was quite common to be called upon to dispense a prescription mixture. There were no prepared medicines and it took around 20 minutes to put a script together. There were very few cosmetic preparations.’ (The Crier, 14 November 1979)
Colin’s pharmacy was initially located in the Whiteman building at 90 Argyle Street when he purchased Niddries business. The pharmacy opened at 8.30am, with half-an-hour for lunch to 8.30pm. The local doctors always ran a night surgery and Colin would be dispensing mixtures for the patients. On Saturday he opened at 8.30am to 1.00pm, then back at 6.00pm to 8.30pm and then Sundays and after-hours calls. ‘It was a very hard life.’ (Mylrea, Interview)
Kearns, Adrian J. “Active Citizenship and Urban Governance.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol. 17, no. 1, 1992, pp. 20–34. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/622634. Accessed 4 Sept. 2021.
Mylrea, Peter 1994. Transcript of an Interview with CC, Camden, 12 November, 19 November, 10 December 1993, 19 January 1994, Camden Museum Archives.
Mylrea, Peter 2001. ‘Camden Historical Society, Its First 25 Years, 1957-1982’. Camden History, Vol 1, No 1, March 2001, p.11.
Mylrea, Peter 2001. ‘Glimpses of Camden, Interview with Colin Clark’. Camden History, Vol 1, no 2, September 2001, pp.24-28.
Urick, B. Y., & Meggs, E. V. (2019). Towards a Greater Professional Standing: Evolution of Pharmacy Practice and Education, 1920-2020. Pharmacy (Basel, Switzerland), 7(3), 98. https://doi.org/10.3390/pharmacy7030098
A popular TV drama ‘A Place to Call Home’ on Channel 7 has been set in and around the Camden district. Amongst the characters is the fictional 1950s matriarch of the Bligh family, Elizabeth (Noni Hazlehurst). This figure has a number of striking parallels with Camden’s own 20th century female patrician figures.
Camden’s matriarchs, just like Elizabeth, were formidable figures in their own right and left their mark on the community. The fictional Elizabeth Bligh lives on the family estate Ash Park (Camelot, formerly Kirkham) in the country town of Inverness during the 1950s.
Frances Faithful Anderson
Kirkham’s own Elizabeth Bligh was Frances Faithful Anderson, who moved to the Camden area with her husband, William, in the 1890s. She renamed James White’s fairytale castle Kirkham, Camelot, in 1900 after being reminded of the opening verse of Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott. Frances (d. 1948) lived in the house, with her daughter Clarice, until her death. Both women were shy and retiring and stayed out public gaze in Camden, unlike the domineering fictional character of Elizabeth Bligh. The Anderson women were supporters of the Camden Red Cross, Women’s Voluntary Services, the Country Women’s Association, Camden District Hospital and the Camden Recreation Room during the Second World War (DR, 29/3/13). Clarice willed Camelot to the NSW National Trust, according to Jonathan Chancellor. The NSW Supreme Court rule in 1981 that her mother’s 1938 will took precedence. Frances wanted the house to become a convalescent home, but this clashed with zoning restrictions.
Camden’s Edwardian period was dominated by the figure of Elizabeth Macarthur Onslow of Camden Park. She took control of Camden Park in 1882 when her husband Arthur died. Under her skilful management the family estate was clear of debt by 1890 and she subsequently re-organised the estate. She established the pastoral company Camden Park Estate Pty Ltd, with her children as shareholders. Heritage consultant Chris Betteridge states that she organised the estates co-operative diary farms, built creameries at Camden and Menangle, orchards and a piggery. Elizabeth was a Victorian philanthropist, a Lady Bountiful figure, and according to Susanna De Vries was a strong supporter of a number of local community organisations including the fore-runner of the Camden Show Society, the Camden AH&I Society. She died on one of her many trips to England and has dropped out of Australian history.
Sibella Macarthur Onslow
Elizabeth’s daughter, Sibella, was a larger than life figure during Camden’s Inter-war period and was quite a formidable figure in her own right. She grew up at Camden Park and moved to Gilbulla in 1931, which had been the home of her sister-in-law, Enid Macarthur Onslow. Sibella never married and fulfilled the role of a powerful Camden patrician figure. She was a true female matriarch amongst her brothers who took public positions of power in the New South Wales business community. She was one of the most powerful female figures in New South Wales and her personal contact network included royalty, politicians and the wealthy elite of Sydney and London. Macarthur Onslow possessed strong conservative Christian values and was an active figure in the Sydney Anglican Archdiocese. She was a Victorian-style philanthropist and was president of the Camden Red Cross from 1927 until her death in 1943.
The power vacuum in Camden’s women’s affairs left by the death of Sibella Macarthur Onslow was filled by Rita Tucker of The Woodlands, at Theresa Park. She had a high community profile in 1950s Camden and was well remembered by those who dealt with her. She became president of the Camden Country Women’s Association in 1939 and held the position until her death in 1961. She was a journalist and part-time editor of the North West Courier at Narrabri before she moved to Camden with her husband Rupert in 1929. She was an active member of the Camden Liberal Party in the 1950s, holding a number of positions, and was New South Wales vice-president of the CWA between 1947 and 1951. She was an accomplished musician and played the organ at the Camden Presbyterian Church in the early 1940s.
A contemporary of Tucker was Zoe Crookston, the wife of Camden surgeon, Robert Crookston. A shy retiring type, she lived in grand Victorian mansion at the top of John Street and was the wartime president of the Women’s Voluntary Services. She was a Presbyterian, a liberal-conservative and an active committee member of the United Australia Party in the 1930s. According to her daughter Jacqueline, ‘her mother was a no-nonsense person who always liked to get on with the job at hand’. She was a foundation member of the Camden Red Cross and was actively involved until 1949. Other community organisations occupied her time including being on the committee of the Camden District Hospital Women’s Auxiliary from 1933 to 1945.
The Camden story is an ongoing project that aims to tell the untold stories of the Camden, Cowpastures and Macarthur districts. There is the telling, the learning and the showing of the story.
The project is constantly evolving and changing direction. It is centred around the construction of place and the meaning of landscape. These are culturally derived concepts from both Indigenous and European experiences.
There are the natural ecologies that make up the environment as well as atmospheric and geological elements. The natural elements are just as important as the cultural.
Complexities of the Camden story
The Camden story has its own complexities. There is no one single dominant narrative. There are many voices in the story and each has a right to be heard.
There are many threads to the Camden story and when woven together make a coherent story with many voices. The weave of the cloth represents the warp and weft of the daily lives of the actors on the stage. Together they create a vibrant design that can capture the imagination of many and inspire others.
There are many actors in the constantly evolving narrative, each with their own agenda. The story is played on a stage that is located on Sydney’s rural-urban fringe, a dynamic movable frontier on the city’s edge. It is a constantly changing and evolving cultural landscape.
There are many layers to the Camden story each with its own particularities. As each layer is peeled back it reveals memories and meanings from the past that influence the present. Those who are interested can dive into the many layers and help unravel the entangled threads of the web and give some clarity to their meaning within the story.
The Camden story is a journey that is constantly evolving with many signposts along the way. There are a lot of fellow travellers who have their own stories. There are many pathways and laneways to go down, each with its own meaning and memories to the travellers who come along for the journey.
The Camden story has its own road map of sorts with signposts and markers of significant places along the journey for those who want to look. There are many opportunities for those who want embark on this journey and uncover many of the undiscovered mysteries of the Camden story.
It is in the interests of those who want to tell the story that they walk the ground in which the story is embedded. The landscape speaks to those who want to listen. The experience is enriching and fulfilling and shapes the telling of the story.
Some parts of the Camden story
The Camden story has many parts and some are listed below:
This is a short history of the town, which is situated on the floodplain of the Nepean River, on the traditional land of the Dharawal people in an area known as the Cowpastures. The Camden area’s distinctive landscape has moulded the community’s identity and sense of place. From the earliest days of European settlement class and social networks ordered daily life in the village with the local gentry at the top of the social hierarchy.
The Camden district ran from the Main Southern Railway around the estate village of Menangleinto the gorges of the Burragorang Valley in the west. It was a concept created by the links between peoples’ social, economic and cultural lives across the area. The district became the centre of people’s daily lives for well over a century and the basis of their sense of place and community identity.
This short historiography is one of the few that has been attempted to illustrate the construction of the history of a rural community. It is an attempt to examines the broad range of influences that shaped the writing of the Camden community’s history.
Movie makers have always had an eye on the Camden district’s large country houses, rustic farm buildings, quaint villages and picturesque countryside for film locations. From the 1920s the area has been used by a series of film makers as a setting for their movies. It coincided was an increasing interest in the area’s Englishness from poets, journalists and travel writers.
The Camden bibliography is an attempt to highlight some of the research that addresses the notion of Camden as a country town and the subsequent urbanisation of the local government area. The sources listed in the bibliography cover the geographic area of the Camden district.
The Cowpastures emerged as a regional concept in the late 18th century starting with the story of the cattle of the First Fleet that escaped their captivity at the Sydney settlement. The region was a culturally constructed landscape that ebbed and flowed with European activity. It grew around the government reserve established by Governors Hunter and King. It then developed into a generally used locality name centred on the gentry estates in the area.
The story of European settlement in the Cowpastures is intimately connected to the story of the convicts and their masters. This story has not been told and there is little understanding of the role of the convicts in the Cowpastures district before 1840. Who were they? What did they do? Did they stay in the district?
Kirkham is a picturesque, semi-rural locality on Sydney’s rural-urban fringe between the historic township of Camden, with its inter-war and colonial heritage and the bustling commercial centre of Narellan. The arrival of the rural-urban fringe at Kirkham in recent decades has created a contested site of tension and constant change, resulting in an ever-evolving landscape. This is an example of a short locality history within the local area published by the Dictionary of Sydney.
Early European settlers were the key actors in a place-making exercise that constructed an English-style landscape aesthetic on the colonial stage in the Cowpastures district of New South Wales. The aesthetic became part of the settler colonial project and the settlers’ aim of taking possession of territory involving the construction of a cultural ideal from familiar elements of home in the ‘Old Country’. The new continent, and particulaly the bush, had the elements of the Gothic with its grotesque and the demonic, and the landscape aesthetic was one attempt to counter these forces. Settlers used the aesthetic to assist the creation of a new narrative on an apparenty blank slate and in the process dispossessed and displaced the Indigenous occupants. The new colonial landscape was characterised by English place-names, English farming methods and English settlement patterns, with only cursory acknowledgement of Indigenous occupation.
The rural-urban fringe is a dynamic frontier, an ever expanding zone of transition on the edges of Australia’s major cities and regional centres. This paper examines the proposition that Sydney’s urban growth has pushed the city’s rural-urban fringe into the countryside and unleashed the contested nature of place-making in and around the
country town of Camden. It will be maintained that the dynamic forces that characterise the rural-urban frontier have resulted a collision between the desires and aspirations of ‘locals’ and ‘outsiders’ and prompted a crisis in the identity of place. Community icons
and rituals have become metaphors for the continuity of values and traditions that are embedded in the landscapes of place. The actors have used history and heritage, assisted by geography and aesthetics, to produce a narrative that aims to preserve landscape identity, and has created a cultural myth based on a romantic notion of an idealised
country town drawn from the past, ‘a country town idyll’.
What’s in a name? Quite a lot if you live in the fringe urban communities of Campbelltown, Camden or Picton in the Macarthur district on Sydney’s rural-urban fringe. In the past these communities have been fiercely parochial country towns with clearly identifiable differences based on history, heritage, traditions, mythology, rituals, demographics, local government and a host of other factors. With the encroachment of Sydney’s urban sprawl they have been wrapped up by the tentacles of the metropolitan octopus and faced challenges on a variety of fronts. The questions that this article raises concern Macarthur regionalism. Is it authentic? How representative is it of the former country towns that are now incorporated within it?
The Nepean River is one of the most important waterways in the Sydney basin and has particular significance for Sydney’s southwestern rural-urban fringe. The Nepean River catchment extends south and east of the Sydney Basin to take in areas near Robertson and Goulburn. West of Wollongong the tributaries includng Cataract Creek, Avon River, Cordeaux River that flow north-west and then into the deep gorges of Pheasants Nest and Douglas Park. The river opens up into a floodplain and flows past Menangle and crosses the Cowpastures and southern Cumberland Plain past Camden and Cobbitty. The river then flows north through the gorge adjacent to Wallacia and enters Bents Basin before it is joined by the Warragamba River and changes its name to the Hawkesbury River.
Camden is a country town whose history and development has been influenced by war. The town was part of Australia’s homefront war effort, and from the time of the Boer War the most important part of this for Camden was volunteering. The Second World War was no exception, and the most influential voluntary organisation that contributed to the town’s war effort was the Womens Voluntary Services [WVS]. The Camden WVS was part of a strong tradition of Victorian female philanthropy in the town, which attracted, and depended on, middle class women socialised in Victorian notions of service, ideals of dependence, a separatedness of spheres, patriarchy, the status quo, and by the inter-war period, modernity.
On 21 October 2004 the former Member for Camden, Dr Elizabeth (Liz) Kernohan, died after suffering a heart attack. She was sixty- five. Thousands of people lined Argyle Street in Camden to see the cortege and pay their last respects, I and compliments flowed from both sides of New South Wales politics. There were over 1850 column centimetres devoted to her death and subsequent funeral in the local press. Kernohan was a popular, larger than life figure in Camden. She held the seat of Camden for the Liberal party for over 11 years in an area that some have claimed is the key to the success of the Howard Government. How was Kernohan able to gain this type of support? This paper will try to address this question, although initially it is useful to give a brief overview of the electorate.
A notable part of Camden modernism that has disappeared is the drive-in movie theatre. The Narellan Gayline Drive-in Movie Theatre was one of the notable attractions in the local area between the 1960s and 1980s located on Morshead Road, Narellan (now Narellan Vale). Along with rock ‘n roll, transistor radios, the bikini, the mini-skirt, it marked the lifestyle of the baby boomers. Always popular with teenagers and young families. The drive-in movie theatre was a defining moment in the district for a 20th century culture that was based around the icons of the period: cars and movies.
Catherine Fields once boasted a national tourist facility which attracted thousands of visitors a year to the local area, the El Caballo Blanco entertainment complex. The El Caballo Blanco complex opened in April 1979 at Catherine Fields. The main attraction was a theatrical horse show presented with Andalusian horses, which was held daily in the large 800-seat indoor arena.
The Camden Country Women’s Association made camouflage nets during the Second World War and was the largest netting centre in the area. The Camden CWA camouflage netting centre was assisted by sub-branches at Campbelltown and Narellan, which were established after the joint CWA-WVS meeting in December 1941.
One of the most popular memories of the Camden area by locals and visitors alike is the Camden branch line and its famous locomotive Pansy. It has a truly dedicated and enthusiastic bunch of supporters who positively drool about it and overlook its foibles. Old timers tell and retell stories to anyone who wants to listen, all laced with a pinch of exaggeration and the romantic. A part of local nostalgia. The Camden branch line was operated by the New South Wales Railways from 1882 to its closure in 1963.
Oran Park Raceway was doomed in 2008 to be part of history when it was covered with houses in a new suburb with the same name. It was also the name of a former pastoral property that was part of the story of the settler society within the Cowpastures. The locality is the site of hope and loss for both locals and new arrivals. The Oran Park Motor Racing Circuit was located in the south-western and western part of the original Oran Park pastoral estate. The main grand prix circuit was 2.6 km long with a mixture of slow, technical and fast sweeping corners as well as changes in elevation around the track.
This post was prompted by an item in the Oran Park Gazette, an A4 newsletter newspaper. Gazette journalist Lisa Finn-Powell asked: What is the future of the community newspaper? The local ‘rag’ in our suburb is a free tabloid newspaper thrown onto our front driveway each week. Actually there are two of them, the Camden Narellan Advertiser and the Macarthur Chronicle. Where I live some of these newspapers stay on the neighbour’s driveway for weeks and disintegrate into a mess. Other neighbours just put them in the bin. So not everyone is a fan of the local ‘rag’ in the age of Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook.
The members of 32 Squadron arrived in Camden Airfield in September 1942 after seven months of hazardous operational duties supporting Allied Forces in New Guinea and the surrounding area, including New Britain. The squadron had been ‘hastily formed in the field’ in February 1942 with personnel drawn from other units. The squadron’s operational duties at Camden Airfield included reconnaissance and sea patrols off the east coast of Australia.
Once the army moved into Narellan Military Camp it commenced operation and became part of the wartime scene during WW2. Men were seen marching all over the district, there were mock raids and the men practiced firing small arms. The camp is an important part of the story of Narellan during war as thousands of men, and some women, moved through the camp on their way to somewhere in the theatre that was the Second World War.
Supermarkets are one of the ultimate expressions of modernism. The township of Camden was not isolated from these global forces of consumerism that originated in the USA. The Camden community was bombarded daily with American cultural influences in the form of movies, motor cars, drive-in, motels, TV, and radio. Now consumerism was expressed by the appearance of self-service retailing and the development of the supermarket.
The local milk bar is a largely unrecognized part of Camden modernism where the latest trends in American food culture made their way into the small country town by Australian-Greek immigrants. The design, equipment and fit-out of local cafes and milk bars was at the cutting edge of Interwar fashion. The cafes were a touch of the exotic with their Art Deco style interiors, where fantasy met food without the social barriers of daily life of the Interwar period. Camden milk bars rarely just sold milk shakes unlike their counterparts in the city. To make a living and ensure that their businesses paid their way the cafes and milk bars also sold fruit and vegetables, meals, sandwiches, lollies, sweets and chocolates.
The interwar period in Camden was a time of economic development and material progress. The prosperity of the period was driven by the local dairy industry and the emerging coal industry. During the interwar period one of the most important economic arteries of the town was the Hume Highway (until 1928 the Great South Road). For a country town of its size the town had modern facilities and was up-to-date with the latest technology. The interwar years were a period of transition and increasingly the motor car replaced the horse in town, and on the farm the horse was replaced by the tractor, all of which supported the growing number of garages in the town.
The Camden community was galvanised by the emergency created by the entry of Japan into the Pacific War on 7 December 1941 and the US declaration of war on 8 December.
Wardens and Air Raid Precautions
Stan Kelloway, Camden’s chief warden and mayor, called a public meeting which was held on Tuesday night at the town hall, 18 December 1941. He made an urgent appeal for wardens and volunteers for air raid precaution work in the town area.
Camden women held a joint emergency meeting on the same night at the Camden CWA Rooms in Murray Street. The meeting was chaired by Rita Tucker, with Grace Moore, the secretary of the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) acting as the meeting’s secretary.
The Camden District Hospital Women’s Auxiliary was represented by its president, Emma Furner, and the CWA Younger Set by Mary Sparkes and Anita Rapley. Apologies were received from Zoe Crookston, Mary Davies, Albine Terry and Hilda Moore. Mary Davies was the treasurer of the Camden Red Cross and the vice-president of the Camden Hospital Women’s Auxiliary, Albine Terry, Camden WVS treasurer and Camden Hospital Women’s Auxiliary vice-president, and Hilda Moore, the secretary of the Camden Red Cross.
There was much discussion at the meeting and a decision was taken to concentrate on making camouflage nets. The CWA and Women’s Voluntary Service, which were conducting separate camouflage netting meetings, decided to combine their separate netting efforts. The combined effort would be located at the CWA rooms on Monday and Tuesday nights, and Friday afternoons.
These arrangements were organised so that they did not conflict with existing service commitments, particularly the WVS and Red Cross sewing circles at the town hall. Camden volunteers were requested to bring ‘a hank of string for practice’. The Camden press maintained in December 1941 that ‘anyone who possibl[y] can is urged to take this opportunity of rendering national service in a time of crisis’. The meeting also asked volunteers to fill out forms for the Women’s Voluntary National Register and to cooperate with local wardens of the National Emergency Services.
National Emergency Services
The Camden press maintained in December that the ‘National Emergency Services can provide a job for practically every woman’, and forms for the Women’s Voluntary National Register were obtainable from Nancy Freestone, the assistant secretary of the WVS, at the town hall library.
The Women’s Voluntary National Register was established in New South Wales in early 1939. It was part of a federal government scheme to determine how many women would be able to provide ‘manpower’ and national service, if required, when the nation went to war.
The most efficient means of doing this was to tap into the pre-existing network of women’s clubs and organizations, and call upon their membership to provide the information. Clubs that affiliated with the register would collect the details of (eligible) volunteers from within their membership base and forward that information to the central register. Women would then be classified according to the type of work available, and the type of work they were suited to do.
Women, according to the Australian Women’s Register, who weren’t members of an organization could still volunteer through the state council headquarters, but clearly, ‘outsourcing’ much of the work to the organizations was a cost and time efficient method of operation.
An affair at the CWA
From December 1941 the manufacture of netting in Camden turned into a CWA affair. Reports on netting production from the Camden centre were sent to the state CWA Handicrafts Committee in Sydney, which co-ordinated the state netting effort for the CWA and received all the completed nets from the Camden centre.
The central CWA netting centre co-ordinated all organisational details, issued instructions to branches on the packing, despatched nets to Sydney and acted as a clearinghouse for the Army, which supplied all the twine and collected all the finished nets.
The New South Wales CWA journal The Countrywoman in New South Wales reported that by January 1942 the handicraft committee was supplying 230 country branches and over 100 suburban circles with twine for making nets.
When compared to netting efforts in some other country towns Camden’s output was relatively small. Between February 1941 and February 1944 the Camden netting centre made 578 nets. Una Swan acted as netting secretary and roped all nets, while Mary Poole acted as demonstrator.
At Nowra netting centre, which was a joint effort between Nowra CWA and Red Cross, and made 1,320 nets in the 2½ years that their centre was operational from mid-1941 to December 1943. Camden netting centre was never able to sustain the same effort as Nowra.
To the end of 1942 the Nowra centre had made 875 nets, while Camden’s centre had manufactured 489 nets. While at the Quirindi CWA local women made 14 camouflage nets in one week in March 1942 and by the end of the war had sent away 565 nets. Most country towns had similar voluntary patriotic projects.
The Camden centre was kept abreast of statewide netting activity by the Countrywoman, which issued monthly tallies of nets supplied to the Sydney CWA depot by netting centres, as well as reporting other related, netting information.
Read more about the CWA and other conservative women’s organisations in wartime Camden @ UOW research
The Camden Country Women’s Association, formed in 1930, played an important role in wartime Camden between 1939 and 1945. The branch undertook a number of roles under the direction of its wartime president Mrs MS (Rita) Tucker.
Mrs Tucker was a lifelong member of the CWA and its president from 1939 until her death in 1961. She was driven by community service as were most of the Camden women that worked for the homefront war effort.
Mrs Tucker was a foundation member of the Camden CWA. She was an active member of the Camden Presbyterian church and played the organ on Sundays. She was a member of the Camden female elite and moved in influential circles in Sydney. She was very determined, intelligent and forthright. She did not suffer fools and said so, which could rub people up the wrong way. She was outspoken and a straight talker.
Mrs Marguerita Tucker (nee Blair) was born in 1894 in Finley NSW and attended Goulburn Presbyterian College. Her parents were William and Flora Blair, and she was one of three children, brother Douglas and sister Doreen. Her family moved to Narrabri in 1910, where she later worked as a journalist and part-time editor for the North West Courier as well as supporting her family’s pastoral interests in the area.
Rita Blair married Rupert Tucker in 1915, whose family owned Merila, a wheat and sheep property, between Narrabri and Boggabri. Rita and Rupert had a daughter Joanna (1920) and a son John (1938), after losing their first child. They moved their family to the Camden area in 1929 and purchased Nelgowrie near Macquarie Grove. They later purchased The Woodlands at Theresa Park, made some additions to the house, then moved the family there in 1935.
Rita Tucker joined the Camden CWA on its foundation in 1930. She was a modern independent woman at a time where there was changing aspirations for rural women. Tucker was vice-president of the Nepean Group of the CWA in 1931, worked tirelessly for the organisation and was New South Wales CWA treasurer in 1937.
Agency of country women
Tucker took advantage of the groundbreaking role of the Camden Red Cross which had empowered Camden women within the strict social confines of the town’s closed social order. She exercised her agency as a Camden conservative and carved out a space within Camden’s female voluntary landscape.
Rita Tucker was part of the New South Wales CWA which was founded in 1922 by the conservative wives of the rural gentry. The foundation president was Mrs Grace Munro from the New England area of New South Wales and was in the same mould as Tucker. Mrs Munro proceeded to implement policies that were aimed at empowering rural women who were confined by isolation, marriage, poor education, rural poverty, poor services and a lack of mothercraft support in the bush.
Munro was born at Gragin near Warialda NSW and educated at Kambala in Sydney. She lost a child in 1911 while away from home attending to medical matters for another of her children in Sydney. She had gained valuable experience during the First World War in the country Red Cross. Helen Townsend’s Serving the Country, the history of the New South Wales CWA, has described Grace Munro as a formidable energetic women who was totally dedicated to the CWA. Tucker and Munro were active agents of change for country women.
The conservatism of the NSW CWA founders was reflected in the women who established the Camden CWA. These women put matters of family, church and community at the forefront of their voluntarism and implemented policies within the CWA that reflected these values. The CWA founders in Camden and at a state level supported the status quo where patriarchy and class ruled daily interactions in country towns.
During the Second World War the women of the New South Wales and Camden CWA saw their role as a support organisations as part of the Australian family on the homefront. Townsend’s history states that in 1939 member’s patriotism was stirred by the promise of ‘action, excitement, purpose and drama’.
A woman’s part in this heroic struggle is to inspire our men, to cheer and to comfort and to sustain them through good and evil report, until we shall reach the Pisgah’s heights of victory and guarantee to our children and our children’s children that they may pursue honourable lives as free men and women along the paths of peace in the years to come.
During the war years the most important wartime activity undertaken by the CWA in Camden and across the state was making camouflage nets for the army. In Camden making camouflage nets was based at the CWA’s Murray Street headquarters, while the branch regularly sent finished camouflage nets to Sydney from 1940.
Over 70 years later the Camden CWA is still serving the local community and is part of Australia’s most powerful women’s organisation.
Read more about the CWA and other conservative women’s organisations in wartime Camden @ UOW research
A Camden netting volunteer, Elaine, remembered volunteering for duty at the Camden netting centre when she was 15 years old. She recalled that the netting effort was organised and supervised by Rita Tucker. She stated that she had left school and attended the centre on a weekly basis with a group of friends.
Elaine maintained that Camden men ‘were away and we were doing our bit’ for the war effort. She stated that Camden women ‘all had to do something to help our boys’ and they took up netting as part of their civic and patriotic duty. Elaine reported that, for her, netting was not hard work and she enjoyed going with her friends. She maintained that they worked ‘long hours’ and ‘didn’t really worry about it’.
Another net making volunteer, Ida, recalls that netting was ‘hard work’, but ‘she went with her friends, and it was her bit for the war effort’. She helped at a netting circle located above a shop in Campsie, attending on a Wednesday nights after work, but could not recall who organised it.
Ida maintains that at around eighteen years of age, ‘there was not much else to do’ and all the boys ‘were either too old or too young’. Another netter, Kerry worked during the day as a clerk and attended the Nowra netting centre after work at the age of eighteen. The Nowra centre was located above a shop in the main street and she considered that netting was her ‘patriotic duty’.
Another Nowra netter, Grace, lived at home on a dairy farm. In 1942, when she was seventeen years old, she went with a friend to the Nowra netting centre for ‘a couple of hours’ a week on a Tuesday afternoon. She would catch the train from Berry to Nowra, attend classes at Nowra Technical College, then attend netting where there would be between ’10-15 other women’.
Grace recalls that as the netters had ‘to be careful making [the] knots’, she found them ‘hard and difficult to make… as they had to be stable and couldn’t move’. In hindsight, she ‘didn’t think [that she] ever got very proficient at it’, but she still went along ‘to help the war effort, for company and a chat’. Rita, a volunteer at the Armidale Teacher’s College netting centre in 1941, maintained that ‘we were expected to do our bit for the war effort – it all helped’.
Netting Centres at Campbelltown and Narellan
The Camden CWA camouflage netting centre was assisted by sub-branches at Campbelltown and Narellan, which were established after the joint CWA-WVS meeting in December 1941. These sub-branches provided a small but steady stream of nets to add to the Camden effort. By February 1942 the Campbelltown News reported that the ‘sub-centres’ were providing ’24 nets a month’ to the ‘urgent’ appeals from the military authorities for nets.
In June 1942 Mrs Una Swan reported that thirty-four nets had been sent from Campbelltown, and Narellan was working well. By late 1942 ‘Campbelltown was [still] keeping our end up’ according to Mrs Swan, and in March 1943 supplied sixteen nets. The Narellan netting effort was under the leadership of Eliza Byrne, who was the wife of the local publican at Narellan, and president of the Narellan Red Cross.
Camden was the largest netting centre in the area, and the only CWA branch, and following directives from the CWA Handicrafts Committee, distributed netting twine to the smaller netting centres at Campbelltown, Narellan and Buxton.
Net making finishes
The enthusiasm in Camden for netting waned and in 1943 the output was ‘negligible’ according to Tucker, but Swan made ‘herself responsible to complete all unfinished nets by the end of the year’. The winding down of netting activity started in September 1943 and Dorothy Inglis of the State Handicrafts Committee advised branches ‘to complete all on hand as quickly as possible’.
Mrs Swan reported at the October CWA meeting that ‘no official word had been received to cease making nets’. In October, Francis Forde, the Minister for the Army announced the end of net making, which sent ‘shock waves’ throughout the CWA. The Camden netting centre eventually closed in February 1944, after operating for over two and half years, with Una Swan finishing the last of the nets.
With the cessation of netting the New South Wales CWA Handicrafts Committee looked for alternative ways to hold the netting groups together. The Army requested that the New South Wales CWA branches assist in the re-conditioning of Army clothing. In November 1943 the Camden CWA received a request from the Army at Liverpool and the women considered the request at their December meeting.
By the end of 1943 no arrangements for sewing had been made with the Liverpool Army Camp authorities, although the women expected to make a start early in 1944. Camden CWA president Rita Tucker felt that the ‘matter… must be discussed thoroughly at a branch meeting, when it will be seen if it is possible to rise to the occasion’.
In the end the Camden CWA did not proceed with the project. According to the New South Wales Women’s Voluntary Services reconditioning military clothing ‘did not attract the same enthusiasm’ as making camouflage nets.
By 1944 women who undertook wartime volunteering started looking ahead to the time after the war when their communities would need their time and effort.
CWA and other women’s organisations in wartime Camden @ UOW research
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