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.
The Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley consists of a sequence of floodplains interspersed with incised meanders in sandstone gorges. (ERM Mitchell McCotter, 1995).[p.6] [ERM Mitchell McCotter, (1995). Proposed Warragamba Flood Mitigation Dam Environmental Impact Statement, Sydney Water, July 1995.]
The Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley has a long history of dangerous and damaging floods. Since records began in the 1790s, there have been over 130 moderate to major floods in the valley, including 6 major and 21 other serious floods since Warragamba Dam was completed in 1960.
So local people have a right to be worried when the BOM issues flood warnings,
Flood trauma is real.
Floods cause a considerable amount of anxiety in the local area.
We anticipate that Australians living in areas affected by the current New South Wales and Queensland floods are likely to experience psychological distress. While some level of distress is a normal and understandable response to these events, we know from previous disasters that for many this may lead to more chronic mental health problems.
Looking after yourself during and following a flood event is an important part of the flood recovery process. If you have lost someone during a recent flooding event, or been rescued, it is especially important to check in with your support network and identify steps to help you get the additional support you may need. Everyone processes grief differently, and there is no one ‘right’ way to grieve, but we all need help in difficult times.
For the nerds
There is a lot of nerdy technical stuff around flooding in the river valley.
One local sage, community gardener and flood watcher, Steve, commented on Facebook:
There has been some discussion about the possible rain event on its way [1/7/22]. Happy to report that all upstream dams are below capacity as per the Bureau of Meteorology. The [community] gardens are not affected till 8.5 metres, upstream inflows will be monitored and in the event of water reaching 8 metres livestock will be moved to higher ground within the garden where applicable or externally if required under the guidance of any relevant authorities.Note that the lagoon fills slowly from the river via the old creek line. However, if the river reaches 11 metres Macquarie Road floods over.Flooding has typically peaked in Camden 9 hours after Avon Dam Road peaked and 3 hours after Menangle. The last floods #3 peaked @ 20 metres at Avon Dam Road. The previous #2 at close to 17 metres. Note the last flood 12.2 metres in Camden occurred after all dams were also full.
Steve was disappointed in his predictions about the size of the weather event affecting the New South Wales East Coast.
The rainfall at Robertson is a good indicator of what might happen in the Upper Nepean River river valley. Up to 9.00am today (3/7/22), Robertson had received 258mm of rainfall; at Menangle Bridge, there had been 185mm of rain. The Upper Nepean River valley is saturated and partly explains the behaviour of the Nepean River at Camden.
Walking over the Cowpastures bridge, you have a vista of the tranquil water of the Nepean River impounded behind the Camden weir. The tranquillity belies the raging torrent that can cover the bridge at flood times.
On the western end of the bridge is a small park where a plaque celebrates the 1976 re-construction of the bridge. A flood had turned the timber bridge deck into a twisted mess twelve months earlier.
The plaque states:
Originally opened in 1901 this bridge was extensively damaged by flood in June 1975.
Following repair it was re-opened by The Hon J JC Bruxner MLA, Minister for Transport and Highways, 9th April 1976.
Ald RB Ferguson, Mayor. Camden Municipal Council.
REA Rofe Esq. MLA, Member for State Electorate of Nepean.
AF Schmidt Esq., Commissioner for Main Roads, New South Wales.
Plaque, Argyle Street, Camden.
The low-level Cowpasture bridge is a pinch point for the movement of goods and people across the river. Its closure at flood times has created a choke-point that disrupts daily life. Other low-level bridges in the local area at Menangle, Cobbitty, and Macquarie Grove Road have suffered the same problem.
The access issue was only solved with the opening of the high-level Macarthur Bridge in 1973. The bridge is an important example of Camden’s engineering heritage and was built as part of the local region’s NSW Askin Governments New Cities structure plan.
Economic importance of access
Access to the southern side of the Nepean River has been an issue since European settlement and the discovery of the Wild Cattle in 1795. Governor Hunter named the area the Cowpastures in 1796, and it became a restricted reserve from 1803 to stop cattle poaching.
The issue of access across the river was illustrated in 1810 when a party led by Governor Macquarie visited the area. Macquarie wrote in his journal on 16 November 1810:
There being very little Water in the River at this time, we crossed it at the usual Ford in our Carriage with great ease and safety.
A bridge at last – ‘a paltry affair’
As the colonial frontier moved beyond the Cowpastures, there was increased traffic across the Nepean River, sometimes reported as the Cowpastures River. (SMH, 2 October 1861). The frontier conflicts between Europeans and Indigenous people calmed on the Cowpastures after the 1816 massacre. (Karskens, 2015) The process of settler colonialism and its insatiable appetite for territory increased traffic through the Cowpastures in the 1820s.
The river crossing required a more permanent solution to deal with the increased traffic movement along the Great South Road. The first Cowpasture bridge was built in 1826, then new bridges followed in 1861, 1900 and 1976. Each was trying to solve the same access problem (SMH, 2 October 1861).
A low-level bridge was first raised in 1823 when Surveyor-General John Oxley of Kirkham objected to a bridge at Bird’s Eye Corner river crossing (Menangle). The final decision was to build a crossing halfway between the Belgenny Crossing and Oxley’s Macquarie Grove. (Villy, 62-63)
Work began on the low-level Cowpasture bridge in 1824 and finished in 1826. Construction was supervised by convict Samuel Wainwright and built below the crown of the riverbank. There was no shortage of sceptics, and a band of local ‘gentlemen’ thought the bridge would collapse in the 1826 flood. (Villy, 62-63) They were wrong.
A convict was stationed at the bridge as a caretaker to remove the bridge rails in flood. In 1827 a toll was introduced on the bridge, with the right-to-collect sold for £70. It was forbidden to cross the bridge on a Sunday, offenders were fined and cattle impounded. (Starr, 16-17)
Repairs were carried out on the bridge after floods in 1835 (Starr: 17) and in the 1840s ‘landowners, carriers and mail contractors’ complained. They were concerned that the bridge was submerged by floodwater ‘on every occasion’ and in a recent deluge ‘the Bridge was sixteen feet underwater and the neighbouring flats, a complete sea for miles’. (Starr: 17)
In a number of memoirs, the bridge was described as ‘a very a paltry affair’ (Starr: 23) and a ‘primitive structure’ (Sydney Mail, 5 February 1913).
In 1852 a portion of the bridge washed away, and there were terrible floods in February and April 1860. There was a need to replace the ‘dilapidated’ bridge. (SMH, 2 October 1861)
Tenders were called in early-1860 for a new five-span timber truss bridge (NSW Government Gazette, 6 April 1860), and it was under construction by September. The construction tender was won by Campbelltown building contractors Cobb and Bocking (SMH, 21 September 1860; SMH 2 October 1861), who also built the low-level timber truss bridge at Menangle in 1855. (RMSHC, 2019; Liston, 85)
A grand affair
There was much fanfare at the new bridge opening on Monday, 30 September 1861, at 3 pm. There was conjecture about the crowd size. The Empire claimed a crowd of 50 people while the Sydney Morning Herald boasted there was 200 present. (Empire, 3 October 1861; SMH 2 October 1861).
Whatever the crowd, there were a host of speeches and Mrs Bleecke, the wife of Camden doctor Dr Bleecke, christened the new bridge the ‘Camden bridge’ by breaking a bottle of Camden wine on the timbers. Then, the crowd let out three loud hearty cheers (SMH 2 October 1861).
At the end of the official proceedings, the men, 40 in number, adjourned to the Camden Inn, owned by Mr Galvin, for a ‘first-rate’ sit-down lunch. The meal was accompanied by a host of speeches and much imbibement. There were many toasts starting with ‘The Queen’ and ‘Prince Albert’. The ladies were left ‘to amuse themselves as best they could until the evening’ (SMH 2 October 1861).
The festivities at lunch were followed in the evening by a ‘grand’ ball held at Mr Thompson’s woollen mill. The floor had been cleared on orders of Mr Thompson, and the space decorated with ‘evergreens’ and ‘flowers’ and brilliantly lit by kerosene lamps. (SMH 2 October 1861)
According to the Sydney press, the Camden populace had ‘seldom’ seen an event like it. One hundred thirty-four people attended the ball. Festivities on into the night with a ‘great profusion’ of food and dancing winding up at 4 am the following day. Locals declared they ‘had never spent a happier or pleasanter day’ (SMH 2 October 1861).
The railway to Camden
In 1882 when the railway line was built between Campbelltown and Camden, the track was laid across the timber bridge deck. This reduced the width of the roadway to 15 feet, and traffic had to stop when a train needed to cross the bridge.(Camden News, 27 June 1901)
According to the Camden press, passengers were regularly notified at Redfern Station (now known as Central Station) with a sign saying ‘traffic to Camden stopped at Camden bridge’ due to frequent flooding. The bridge’s timber deck was ‘well below the banks of the river’. (Camden News, 27 June 1901)
The existing 1860 timber truss bridge was constructed for light road traffic and continually posed problems for the railway. Only the lightest railway locomotives could use the bridge, and the heavy grades of the branch line at Kenny Hill meant that the train was restricted to a small number of cars. (Camden News, 27 June 1901).
In 1900 a new steel girder bridge was constructed to take the weight of two locomotives. The specifications for the bridge are:
five steel girder spans each of 45 feet on concrete piers;
178 feet of timbers beam spans;
making a total length of 403 feet;
the bridge deck was seven feet higher than the 1860 timber truss bridge deck;
construction was supervised by the Bridge Branch of the NSW Public Works Department;
Flood time was an exciting time for rail passengers going to Camden. When the bridge closed, railway passengers got an exhilarating boat ride across the flooded Nepean River. The train would stop at Elderslie Railway Station, climbing aboard the railway rowing boat. Passengers would take their lives in their hands and be ferried across the flooded river by the boatman. The rowing boat was given the Camden Municipal Council in 1889 (Pictorial History Camden: 87)
The Macarthur Bridge across the Nepean River is one of the most critical parts of the economic and social infrastructure in the Macarthur area on Sydney’s south-western rural-urban fringe.
The bridge can also be regarded as one of the most items of engineering heritage in the Camden Local Government Area. The bridge provides a high-level flood-free crossing of the Nepean River which can isolate the township of Camden when the numerous low-level bridges in the area are flooded.
The low-level bridges are the Cowpasture Bridge (Camden), the Cobbitty Bridge and the Menangle Bridge.
History and Description
The Macarthur Bridge is named after one of the Camden district’s first land grantees John Macarthur and their pastoral holding of Camden Park, which the family still occupy. There are many descendants of the Macarthur family in the Camden district.
These were exciting plans that were never fully realized by the planners. The New Cities Plan turned into a developer’s dream and hastened Sydney’s urban sprawl into the southern reaches of the Cumberland Plain. The Macarthur Region is one of those legacies.
The Macarthur bridge guaranteed flood free access from the Burragorang Valley coalfields to the Main Southern Railway at Glenlee for American shipping magnate Daniel Ludwig’s Clutha Development Corporation.
This development was considered important given the defeat of the Askin Liberal Government’s support for a proposal by Clutha for a rail link between the Burragorang coalfields and the Illawarra coastline. The Askin government passed special enabling legislation, which turned into one of the first environmental disputes in the Sydney basin in the early 1970s.
The high-level Macarthur Bridge allowed the diversion of coal trucks from the Burragorang Valley coalfields away from Camden’s main street, passing across the low-level Cowpasture Bridge from 1973. Coal trucks then travelled along Druitt Lane and over the Macarthur Bridge to the Glenlee Washery at Spring Farm.
The flooding by the Nepean River of the road access to the township of Camden at the low-level Cowpasture Bridge had been a perennial problem since the town’s foundation in 1840.
In 2002 the NSW Minister for Transport replied to a question in parliament from Dr Elizabeth Kernohan, Member for Camden, about the bridge. The Minister stated
I am advised that Macarthur Bridge was built in the early 1970’s on the basis that most of the long distance traffic would use the F5. I am advised that the primary function of the Macarthur Bridge was for use as a flood relief route. It was built parallel to the Cowpasture Bridge at Camden to take the full traffic load when the Cowpasture Bridge is impassable.
I am advised by the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) that the bridge referred to was not specifically designed to be widened at a later date. (NSW Parliament, 8 May 2002)
The Macarthur Bridge is a 26-span, 3380 feet (approximately 1.12 km) long concrete structure that carries the Camden Bypass across the Nepean River and its flood plain. The bridge was built between 1971 and 1973, originally to carry Hume Highway traffic, on a flood-free alignment around Camden.
The Camden Bypass
The Camden Bypass is the former Hume Highway alignment between the localities of Cross Roads and Camden. It is marked as State Route 89. The proper route is from Cross Roads, skirting Camden via the Camden Bypass and ending at Remembrance Drive, another part of the former Hume Highway near Camden South.
The Camden Bypass was in turn bypassed in December 1980 when the section of what was then called the South Western Freeway (route F5) from Campbelltown to Yerrinbool was opened. It has grown in importance as a major arterial road linking the Hume Motorway, WestLink M7 and M5 South Western Motorway interchange at Prestons, near Liverpool, with Camden.
Open to traffic and construction details
The official plaque on the bridge states:
The bridge was designed by the staff of the Department of Main Roads and is the longest structure built by the Department since its inception in 1925. Length (Overall) 3380 feet comprising 26 spans each of 130 feet long. Width between kerbs 30 feet with one footway 5 feet wide. Piled foundations (max 90 feet deep) were constructed by the Department’s Bridge construction organisation. Piers and superstructure by contact by John Holland (Constructions) Pty Ltd. Total cost of bridge £2,600,000.
RJS Thomas Commissioner for Main Roads
AF Schmids Assistant Commissioner for Main Roads
GV Fawkner Engineer-in-Chief
FC Cook Engineer (Bridges)
Department of Main Roads, New South Wales
Open to traffic on 26 March 1973
Facebook 30 June 2021
Annette DingleI remember the day it opened, the school ( Camden south) walked to it . I lived in the street under it ( it was a dead end back then ) we use to play in the “tunnels “ under the bridge. You could only go so far before there was no air . Fun times
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.
Flooding of the Nepean River on the Camden floodplain
What is the Camden ‘bathtub effect’?
Not sure – well you are not on your own.
The ‘bathtub effect’ is part of the flooding effect created by the landform that makes up the Hawkesbury-Nepean River system. The river system has a unique floodplain system that creates particular problems for local residents and others along the river.
The natural characteristics of the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley make it particularly susceptible to significant flood risk. The combination of the large upstream catchments and narrow downstream sandstone gorges results in floodwaters backing up behind these natural ‘choke points’
The Hawkesbury-Nepean River system has four localised floodplains created by four choke points along the river. Each of these ‘choke points’ is created by a local gorge along with the river system – Bents Basin Gorge, Nepean Gorge, Castlereagh Gorge and the Sackville Gorge.
Each of the four localised floodplains upstream from the four gorges acts like a ‘bath tub’ in a period of high rainfall, with floodwater flow choked off by the gorges. The gorge restricts the floodwater flow and the river rises quickly behind the gorge at the end of the local floodplain.
Camden’s ‘bathtub effect’
The 2015 Nepean River Flood Plain Report and the flood maps clearly show how the Bents Basin Gorge acts as a ‘choke point’. The gorge creates a ‘bathtub’ upstream along with the Nepean River floodplain from the entrance of the gorge. The floodplain upstream from the gorge starts around Rossmore, then continues upstream to Cobbitty, to Camden and ends at Menangle.
While the Camden ‘bathtub effect’ is not as dramatic and dangerous as those created in the Penrith-Emu Plains area or the effect of the Sackville Gorge at Windsor and Richmond – it is real.
flows escaping from the Nepean River are known to inundate the low lying areas of Camden and certain sections within South Camden and Elderslie. Floodplain areas along many of the tributaries of the river (particularly Narellan Creek and Matahil Creek) are also known to be affected by backwater flooding from the Nepean River during flood events.
Floods are characterized by rapid river rises with flooding commencing as quickly as 6-12 hrs after the commencement of heavy rain if the catchment is already saturated. Under flood conditions, the Nepean River overflows its banks and commences to inundate the low lying floodplain around Camden during floods of 8.5m on the Cowpasture Bridge gauge. (Appendix, pp. A1-A3)
Causes of flooding along the Hawkesbury-Nepean River on the Camden floodplain
The headwaters of the Nepean River floodplain at Camden is the Upper Nepean Catchment. This geographic area drains the Avon, Cataract, Cordeaux and Nepean Rivers, with dams on each waterway.
The catchment of the Nepean River above the Warragamba River junction, below Warragamba Dam, is around 1800km2
The wettest conditions are usually created by low-pressure systems, called east coast lows, that form up off the South Coast of New South Wales. The low-pressure systems moving onshore and the Illawarra Escarpment’s orographic effect can produce heavy rainfall events.
Floods have occurred in all months of the year. The highest recorded flood at Camden occurred in 1873, when a height of 16.5m was recorded on the Camden gauge (approximately a 200yr ARI). [Cowpasture Bridge, Camden]
Other major floods occurred in 1860 (14.1m), 1867 (14.0m), and 1898 (15.2m). In recent times, major floods have occurred in 1964 (14.1m) and 1978 (13.5m) with moderate to major flooding occurring in 1975 (12.8m) and 1988 (12.8m). (Appendix, pp. A1-A3)
A report of the 1898 flood event at Camden taken from the Camden News 17 February 1898 gives clarity of how quickly the river can rise in the local area:
Near midnight on Saturday rain began to fall, at first with moderation, towards day break gusts of wind sprang up from the South East bringing heavy rain, lowering the crops in its passage, even majestic trees were torn up by their roots and in sheltered paddocks the trees were denuded of large limbs.
Sunday all day the wind blew with hurricane force; early on Monday morning the storm somewhat abated in its velocity.
Even on Sunday midnight no apprehension of a flood was anticipated by the Camden townspeople the continuous rain and boisterous weather, however made the more Cautious anxious, and one tradesman took the precaution to look after his horses in near paddock when the danger of a flood was manifested to him, the Nepean River had suddenly risen and was flooding the flats.
A report in the Camden News of the 1911 Camden flood event provides further clarity around the behaviour of the river:
The rain of Thursday, it may naturally be expected filled creeks, dams and watercourses to overflowing, but the climax came with a heavy storm between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., when some four inches [100mm] of rain fell. This brought the local water down from the adjoining hills in torrents, the Main Southern Road and Carrington Road were then covered with some two feet of fast rushing water, and on Druitt Road the local flood was then absolutely impassable..
In the early hours the Nepean River rose rapidly, and before the arrival of the first train the bridge was impassable ; the water continued to rise till about 3.15 in the afternoon, it having then reached it highest point, covering the new embankment between the town and the bridge, running through the Chinese quarters on the one side, and just into the pavilion on the show ground on the other. From near Druitt Road to Beard’s Lane was one long stretch of water….
“The Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley is throttled down by a narrow gorge down near what’s called Sackville, which is just upstream of Wiseman’s Ferry,” he said.
“The result of that is that the water can flow into the top of the system very, very rapidly, can’t get out, and so you get very dramatic rises in the level of the river.
“So normal river level might be two metres; if you’re at the town of Windsor and in the most extreme thought possible, that could rise up to 26 metres, which is a number that’s quite hard to comprehend.”
‘The enormous body of water rushing down with relentless force on its way to the sea could not be easily described, nor its effects conceived. About the neighbourhood of Windsor, now that the waters are fast subsiding, the scene is most dreary, and the destruction caused be -comes every day more apparent. The feeling of bitter anguish expressed not in words but in the blank look of utter despair would move the most hardened.
Flooding is a normal part of the cycle of the Hawkesbury-Nepean River system, as it is for any river basin in Australia.
The particular landform features of the Hawkesbury-Nepean with its four gorges along the river produce four localised floodplains that create a local ‘bathtub effect’ on the local floodplain.
This landform effect of the river gorges creates flooding severity in the local communities.
Updated 4 July 2022. First posted 29 November 2019.
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.
It is hard to imagine now but in days gone by the township of Camden was the centre of a large district. The Camden 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.
The district grew to about 1200 square kilometre with a population of more than 5000 by the 1930s with farming and mining. Farming started out with cereal cropping and sheep, which by the end of the 19th century had turned to dairying and mixed farming. Silver mining started in the late 1890s in the Burragorang Valley and coalmining from the 1930s.
The district was centred on Camden and there were a number of villages including Cobbitty, Narellan, The Oaks, Oakdale, Yerranderie, Mt Hunter, Orangeville and Bringelly. The region was made up of four local government areas – Camden Municipal Council, Wollondilly Shire Council, the southern end of Nepean Shire and the south-western edge of Campbelltown Municipality.
Cows and more
Before the Camden district was even an idea the area was the home for ancient Aboriginal culture based on dreamtime stories. The land of the Dharawal, Gundangara and the Dharug.
The Europeans turned up in their sailing ships. They brought new technologies, new ideas and new ways of doing things. The First Fleet cows did not think much of their new home in Sydney. They escaped and found heaven on the Indigenous managed pastures of the Nepean River floodplain.
The Nepean River was at the centre of the Cowpastures and the gatekeeper for the wild cattle. The Nepean River, which has Aboriginal name of Yandha, was named by Governor Arthur Phillip in 1789 in honour of Evan Nepean, a British politician.
The Nepean River rises in the ancient sandstone country west of the Illawarra Escarpment and Mittagong Range around Robertson. The shallow V-shaped valleys were ideal locations for the dams of the Upper Nepean Scheme that were built on the tributaries to the Nepean, the Cordeaux, Avon, and Cataract.
The rivers catchment drains in a northerly direction and cuts through deep gorges in the Douglas Park area. It then emerges out of sandstone country and onto the floodplain around the village of Menangle. The river continues in a northerly direction downstream to Camden then Cobbitty before re-entering sandstone gorge country around Bents Basin, west of Bringelly.
The river floodplain and the surrounding hills provided ideal conditions for the woodland of ironbarks, grey box, wattles and a groundcover of native grasses and herbs. The woodland ecology loved the clays of Wianamatta shales that are generally away from the floodplain.
The ever changing mood of the river has shaped the local landscape. People forget that the river could be an angry raging flooded torrent, set on a destructive course. Flooding shaped the settlement pattern in the eastern part of the district.
A village is born
The river ford at the Nepean River crossing provided the location of the new village of Camden established by the Macarthur brothers, James and William. They planned the settlement on their estate of Camden Park in the 1830s and sold the first township lots in 1840. The village became the transport node for the district and developed into the main commercial and financial centre in the area.
Rural activity was concentrated on the new village of Camden. There were weekly livestock auctions, the annual agricultural show and the provision of a wide range of services. The town was the centre of law enforcement, health, education, communications and other services.
The community voluntary sector started under the direction of mentor James Macarthur. His family also determined the moral tone of the village by sponsoring local churches and endowing the villagers with parkland.
Manufacturing had a presence with a milk factory, a timber mill and a tweed mill in Edward Street that burnt down. Bakers and general merchants had customers as far away as the Burragorang Valley, Picton and Leppington and the town was the publishing centre for weekly newspapers.
The Hume Highway, formerly the Great South Road, ran through the town from the 1920s and brought the outside forces of modernism, consumerism, motoring, movies and the new-fangled-flying machines at the airfield. This re-enforced the centrality of the market town as the commercial capital of the district.
In the western extremities of the district there were the rugged mountains that made up the picturesque Burragorang Valley. Its deep gorges carried the Coxes, Wollondilly and Warragamba Rivers.
Access was always difficult from the time that the Europeans discovered its majestic beauty. The Jump Up at Nattai was infamous from the time of Macquarie’s visit in 1815. The valley became an economic driver of the district supplying silver and coal that was hidden the dark recesses of the gorges. The Gothic landscape attracted tourists to sup the valley’s hypnotic beauty who stayed in one of the many guesthouses.
The outside world was linked to the valley through the Camden railhead and the daily Camden mail coach from the 1890s. Later replaced by a mail car and bus.
The valley was popular with writers. In the 1950s one old timer, an original Burragoranger, Claude N Lee wrote about the valley in ‘An Old-Timer at Burragorang Look-out’. He wrote:
Yes. this is a good lookout. mate,
What memories it recalls …
For all those miles of water.
Sure he doesn’t care a damn;
He sees the same old valley still,
Through eyes now moist and dim
The lovely fertile valley
That, for years, was home to him.
By the 1980s the Sydney urban octopus had started to strangle the country town and some yearned for the old days. They created a country town idyll. In 2007 local singer song-writer Jessie Fairweather penned ‘Still My Country Home’. She wrote:
When I wake up,
I find myself at ease,
As I walk outside I hear the birds,
They’re singing in the trees.
Any then maybe
Just another day
But to me I can’t have it any other way,
Cause no matter when I roam
I know that Camden’s still my country home.
The end of a district and the birth of a region
The seeds of the destruction of the Camden district were laid as early as the 1940s with the decision to flood the valley with the construction of the Warragamba Dam. The Camden railhead was closed in the early 1960s and the Hume Highway moved out of the town centre in the early 1970s.
Today Macarthur regionalism is entrenched with government and business branding in a area defined as by the Camden, Campbelltown and Wollondilly Local Government Areas. The Camden district has become a distant memory with remnants dotting the landscape and reminding us of the past.
Camden has hosted 32 Squadron RAAF since the time of the Second World War. The members of the squadron have developed a special relationship with the local community that has been marked by tragedy and celebrations.
The members of 32 Squadron arrived in Camden 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.1
Large scale air attacks on Rabaul in January 1942 had resulted in the virtual elimination of the 24 Squadron, and this was followed by the invasion of New Britain by the Japanese forces (23 January 1942). The war was not going particularly well for the Allied Forces.
There was the loss of Singapore (15 February), the commencement of an air campaign against Darwin, the country’s major northern port city (19 February) and the Japanese invasion of Timor (20-23 February).2
These events led to the formation of 32 Squadron. It was drawn from the survivors of 24 Squadron, who had reformed at Port Moresby with a flight of Hudson bombers. Two more flights of Hudsons, one from 6 Squadron, Richmond (New South Wales) and 23 Squadron, Archerfield (Queensland) were flown in to add to the strength. At this point the squadron had a strength of 12 Hudsons and crews and 124 maintenance staff.3
The duties of the squadron included bombing and reconnaissance against Japanese bases at Rabaul and Gasmata bases, landings at Lae and Salamaua, the Gona-Buna and Milne Bay campaigns, the Coral Sea battle, as well as anti-submarine and convoy patrols and supply drops to ground forces. During the eight months of combat operations the squadron flew over 400 missions lost 10 aircraft, with 54 killed in action.4
Lyle Abraham claims that 32 Squadron was the only Australian squadron to be formed ‘in the field’.5
Tour of Duty in New Guinea
After their tour of duty in New Guinea the squadron was initially posted to Pokolbin, New South Wales, but were then moved to Camden in late 1942.6 DK Saxelby, an electrician from the Camden base maintenance group, recalled on their arrival that the squadron were
‘a much battered battered band of men. Their clothes were the worst for wear having literally rotted off their backs from the humid climate and replacements destroyed by the enemy. Their footwear was falling to pieces’.7
On their arrival the squadron was equipped with 4 Lockheed Hudsons and 6 Avro Ansons under the command of DW Kingwell. The Hudsons were a 5-crew medium bomber. They were the main Australian bomber in New Guinea until 1943.
The aircraft were considered slow with a top speed of 246mph. They were a ‘relatively easy’ target for Japanese gunners and Zero fighters, but they were the only aircraft available at the time.8
Commanding Officers 32 Squadron RAAF
21 February 1942
W/C DW Kingwell
4 February 1943
W/C JF Lush
10 May 1943
W/C PA Parker
30 August 1943
W/C IH Smith
9 December 1943
S/L CA Loneragan (Temporary)
30 May 1944
S/L OF Barton
28 August 1944
W/C R Homes
28 February 1945
W/C DW Campbell
29 August 1945
F/L LG Brown
Source: WA Paull, 32 Squadron 60th Anniversary
Operational Duties at Camden Airfield
The squadron’s operational duties at Camden included reconnaissance and sea patrols off the east coast of Australia. The squadron did night patrols covering the east coast of Australia from Bundaberg to Mallacootta, Queensland. The Bristol Beauforts, which the squadron was using from March 1943, were fitted with radar and was a ‘very closely guarded at the time’. There were also detached flights at Coffs Harbour and Bundaberg.9
PJ Squires recalls that during his time at Camden between May and December 1943 the role of the squadron was anti-submarine protection for coastal convoys using depth charges. Air cover was given from Bega to Bundaberg by moving aircraft.10
Harry Simpson recalls that his Beaufort crew undertook anti-submarine patrols at night using radar protecting convoys sailing off the east coast. The crew escorted convoys off the east coast. His crew also took part in general training including ‘fighter cooperative attacks’ and high and low level bombing practice.11
The crews were constantly flying between Camden, Mascot, Bundaberg, Coffs Harbour, Amberly, Richmond, Williamtown, Evan’s Head and Moruya12 as well as Nabiac, Southport, Hervey Bay, Archerfield, Tocumwal and Canberra.13
The log book of John Murphy shows that on 26 February 1943 the squadron did anti-submarine patrol while convoying the Queen Mary, the Acquatania and the Ile de France.14 Another member of the squadron recalled that the squadron did convoy duty for the Queen Elizabeth when it brought he 6th Division back from Africa.15
Leo Reid recalls one mission undertaken by his crew that took place on 16 May 1943 (two nights after the Centaur hospital ship was sunk off Brisbane) when their Beaufort made contact with a submarine five miles off Coffs Harbour.
The plane dropped 6 bombs on and around the submarine. They were credited with a ‘D’ assessment (damaged and possibly unable to reach base). The Beaufort was crewed by pilot F/S G Liddell, Navigator F Westphalen, WAGs E Shipley & L Reid.16
Jock Sharpe’s Beaufort crew was: F/O Harry Kemp, F/S Peter Bowers, F/S Colin Sinclair, F/O JM (Jock) Sharpe (WAG).17 Harry Simpson’s Beaufort crew was: F/L WJ (Bill) Hoddinott, Pilot, F/O Peter King, Navigator, F/O HB (Bill) Simpson, Gunnery Leader, Wireless and Radar Operator, F/O CJ (Chuck) Owens, Wireless Airgunner, Tail Gunner.18
While a part of B Flight at Coffs Harbour, Bill Paull recalls that the crew of a Beaufort, pilotted by F/L Harrison, while on night patrol disabled a Japanese submarine with depth charges. The crew returned to Coffs Harbour and asked for a 250lb anti-submarine bomb to sink the disabled submarine.
They tried to skip the bomb into the submarine as they did in the Bay of Biscay. On inspection of the area the next morning they found the submarine had disappeared but there was an oil slick 1/2 mile wide and 3 miles long and the crew was credited with a possible sinking.19
Alan Wailes recalls training exercise with military units. One exercise with a searchlight company involved flying over Port Kembla at around 5000 feet so that the searchlight crews could practice homing in on an approaching aircraft. ‘We went back and forth for almost 2 hours with the searchlight beams tracking all over the sky but nowhere near us’.
In the end the crew had to turn on their landing lights so that the searchlights could find them. Another exercise involved flying over Dover Heights and giving the ack-ack units some practice. ‘We spent 3 hours flying in from all directions to really keep these chaps on their toes’.
Wailes claims that after a pre-dawn patrol ‘there was nothing more relaxing than to be coming in right over Sydney Harbour just on sunrise and to be able to take in the scenic wonders’.20
By the end of May 1943 the squadron was re-equipped with a total of seven Beaufort.21 PJ Squires recalls that eventually the squadron had 12 aircraft. The Beauforts were used for night cover using radar, while day cover was given by Avro Ansons.22
Lindsay Fromm notes that he wrote in his diary that an Airacobra landed at Camden in April 1943, and in May the CO (Lush) took the Boomerang out for a flight. A Spitfire squadron arrived at Camden in May 1943 and later in the month flew to out Darwin.23 By late 1943 Jock Sharpe recalls there were 24 Beaufort aircraft on the base.24
Accommodation at Camden Airfield
While stationed at Camden the squadron’s accommodation consisted of eight huts that were located on the rise on the eastern side of the current carpark, which was then the parade ground.
There was also an operations rooms in the same area of the airfield. At the same time the Macarhur Onslow family, who lived in Hassall Cottage, had their small plane in a hanger located slightly north of the Bellman hangars.
The squadron’s officer’s mess was in Macquarie Grove house, while the sergeant’s mess was located in a building on the rise east of the officer’s mess. The airfield tower was located west of the Bellman hangars on the grass verge adjacent to the taxi-ing areas.25
The huts were standard arrangements for RAAF personnel. The officers had individual rooms and the ranks were accommodated ‘barrack style’. There was a small hospital staffed by several male orderlies. Jock Sharpe does not recall any female personnel on the base during his posting at the airfield in 1943.26
Not everyone lived on the base, particularly the married men, and Leo Reid recalls that he and his wife lived in a flat in John opposite Dr Crookston’ house.27 (Letter, Reid, 30/12/86)
Harry Simpson recalls that after his marriage to wife Marjorie that lived off the station when he was not flying. They lived in flat supplied by Matron Berry of Camden Hospital and then for many months with Mrs Dickenson, who lived at 10 Chellaston Street. His wife, Marjorie, worked with Yvonne Dickenson at the local dentist, Campbell Graham.28
Free Time and Recreation
Recreation provided a release from the constant stress of operations. Shortly after their arrival in Camden the squadron held a dinner in the big hanger and entertainment was provided by Chips Rafferty and a magician.
Everyone enjoyed themselves and ‘a lot of beer was drunk’. In late in 1942 a number of the squadron assembled a Gypsy Minor, [Fromm photograph] while the Christmas dinner was held in camp. The officers and sergeants waited on the lower ranks and ‘helped us drink our Christmas cheer’.29
The men usually went to Sydney when they were given leave traivelling by train and staying at Air Force House in Sydney. Allan Diprose recalls that he went with other airmen to local dances and he attended the Presbyterian Church and the local Masonic Lodge.30
PJ Squires maintains that 70% of the squadron’s time was away from Camden consquently the men had little or no interaction with the local community. Any leave they were given they spent in Sydney.31
DK Saxelby recalls that he was given the duty of looking after the base switchboard at night. He slept beside the board and took messages that came in at night. He remembers that ‘this was good’ because in quiet periods he was to have a chat the girls at the telephone exchange in Camden.32
Harry Simpson recalls that he and his wife spent most of Harry’s leave in Sydney and on one occasion spent several weeks with Mrs King at Thirroul.33
Alan Wailes recalls that while he was at Camden he flew a Tiger Moth aircraft and had ‘an enjoyable time skithering around the sky’. (he was a WAG). They played golf, which according to Wailes, was ‘ a great way to relax as the course bordered the bushland countryside of the Macarthur-Onslow sheep property’.
He took part in ‘organised clay pigeon shooting which, apart from being a sporting outing, enabled us gunners to keep our eye in with moving targets. Then when we felt a need to vary the Base menu we would venture into Camden town to enjoy a good steak followed by a dessert of honeydew melon, which they thought were green ‘rockies’.34
Many members of the squadron made friends with local people during the war years.35 Lyle Abraham claimed that Camden people ‘were so warm and friendly that we felt like being back at home’.36
Most airmen who corresponded with the author do not recall a great level of interaction with the local community. Alan Wailes maintains that this was not really the fault of the aircrews. Most airmen had little contact with local residents because of the varying flying times that most crews had to put up with, especially when undertaking night patrols.37
The weather always played an influential role in the conduct of operations. On 20 May 1943 the airfield was flooded and cut-off from the town for a week and no-one could get in or out of the camp.38
Reid remembered that their Beaufort became bogged after leaving the runway when taxi-ing to the hangers.39
Photographs of the flooded airfield show floodwater stretching from the bottom of Exeter Street across the river to the lower part of the airfield adjacent to the fuel dumps. The flood water also came up to the sentry boxes on the gravel entrance road to the airfield, which the constant rain had made almost impassible. (PHOTO, Camden Museum)
Bill Paul remembers the 1943 flood and how their way along Kirkham Lane to the station at Elderslie. They had to put their clothes over their heads and hold onto the fence wire to get to the station.40
The ‘peaceful and beautiful surroundings of the cowpasture country [sic]’ contrasted with the ‘grim’ days of aerial combat in New Guinea, and while at Camden a member of the squadron recalled that
it took a long time flying in the near serenity of Camden to diminish or erase in the squadron’s memory the desparation and frustration of those grim eight months in New Guinea – if ever they will be erased.41
But the tranquility ‘of this lovely area’ of rural countryside surrounding the town could be deceptive, and flying out of Camden airfield was not without its own risks.42
Three crews were lost in accidents while on operations at Camden and ten of the airmen were buried in the Camden war cemetery.
Loss of Aircraft
The first accident occurred on 3 November 1942 and resulted in the loss of all five crew. Two Hudsons had been despatched from Camden airfield to investigate a report of a Japanese submarine 480 km east of Sydney around 5pm. At the time there were atrocious weather conditions and the pilot of one aircraft abandoned the mission after a short search and landed safely at Mascot.
The pilot of the second Hudson became disoriented and crossed the coastline near Port Kembla. It was sighted by personnel on duty at the Windang searchlight battery. They estimated the height of the aircraft at 250-300 metres. The aircraft proceeded across the Lake, and was spotted again, this time by the searchlight battery at Koonawarra Bay.
The aircraft flew on and then crashed in to Bong Bong Mountain west of Dapto around 9.15pm. A number of local residents in the area heard the plane pass overhead and then heard the explosion of the crash. Local residents reached the crash site aroung midnight and found no survivors.43
Lindsay Fromm recalled that duty personnel from Camden left the base the following day and arrived early the next morning to Dapto and made their way to the crash sight after a long climb through through the rainforest.
The bodies were removed that afternoon. The wings of the aircraft were slide down the mountain to be taken away by truck. ‘The rest of the place was piled on the four bombs and the army detonated them after notifying the wide area’. The loss of the crew was a ‘sad event’ for the squadron.44
An inquest was held in Wollongong four weeks later. The squadron’s commanding officer suggested at the inquest that in the bad weather the pilot may have become lost and confused Lake Illawarra with Botany Bay and hence not realised that he was headed toward the Illawarra Enscarpment at a low altitude.45
The second accident occurred on 26 January 1943 at Camden airfield. It involved the crash of a Hudson and the loss of all five crew members. The accident report stated that the aircraft crashed shortly after take off in wooded country south-west of Camden around the middle of the day.
The aircraft was apparently in ‘an inverted position when it struck the ground’. The third accident occurred on 17 November 1943 with the crash of a Beaufort the death of all five crew members. The aircraft had crashed into the side of Saddleback Mountain, west of Kiama, around midnight while on a night cross-country training exercise.46
Other minor incidents also kept ground crews busy. A Hudson overshot the runway on 8 January 1943 hitting the bank and collapsing the undercarriage, another crashed on take off and was moved into the hangar by the Rescue and Salvage Unit, while another crashed into a gutter and was taken away by road.
On 13 May 1943 a Beaufort crashed on take-off and hit a number of stumps on the hill at the end of the runway. The plane was a complete write-off, but the crew were able to walk away with minor scratches after getting out through a hole torn in the fuselage.47
Anxious Night Patrols
Alan Wailes remembers some anxious moments on a night patrol off the coast in bad weather. ‘We were making our way back to the coast at the conclusion of a patrol when we ran into an extremely heavy sea fog – perhaps we would be through it in a short while.
I was on wireless/radar watch at the time and ‘glued’ myself to the radar screen hoping for a landfall recording at any time – the screen was blank, was it working alright? (In those early days the equipment was barely adequate and with limited range.)
My thought momentarily wanded to a week or so earlier when one of our aircraft returning under similar circumstances, slammed into the coastal mountain range at Foxground near Gerrigong. Military secrecy at the time kept the public unaware of the crash until a timber cutter stumbled on the wreck days later.
I was one of the pall bearers at the funeral of the crew of four’. Wailes laconically recalls that there was ‘a strange thing about many mainland bases we used (including Camden) there always seemed to be a cemetery just over the fence at the end of the runway’. He stated that ‘we didn’t really need a reminder of our ‘precarious occupation’.48
On another occasion their aircraft had a hydraulic failure. Their undercarriage would not come down, the wing flaps would not operate and there were no wheel brakes. After circling Camden airfield for an hour and trying a number of attempts to lower the undercarriage the pilot successfully put the aircraft on the runway, just clearing the fence and cruising to a stop at the end of the runway.49
In January 1944 Harry Simpson recalls that the squadron was relocated to Menangle Park, where they were involved in extensive training, before moving to Gould Airfield in the Northern Territory in February.50 By May the remainder of the squadron was transferred to Lowood, Queensland where the squadron was eventually disbanded in November 1945.51
Squadron Reunions at Camden
In the postwar period many airmen from the squadron got together for regular reunions, with a number were held in Camden. Postwar reunions have had an important social and theraputic event for members of the squadron. They would rekindled the camaraderie and ‘strong bonds forged by ordeal and comradeship’ between the men that made up the squadron.52
The reunions allowed the men to relive the glory days of the war. They also provided a theraputic role in that the veterans understood each other and did not have to explain or justify themselves to others.
The war played a pivotal role in the lives of these airmen and its played an important focus for their memories which are played in their reunions. The reunsion allows the veterans to relive their unique experiences amongst who were there. They relived times and events in their lives that they often have not even spoken about to their families. Stephen Garton has maintained in The Cost of War that
the traditional war narrative of men is one of self-realisation. War represented the attainment of an ideal of manliness – in physical action, bravery, self-control, courage, and, more importantly for many, male comradeship.’53
According to Garten this ideal was fostered at school, in sport and in the boy scouts and as the homefront was constructed as ‘a feminised space’ the reunion allowed the airmen to relive their warrior days. Many veterans found that return to civilian life created feelings of restlessness and dissatisfaction, where they missed the ‘vibrancy of war’. They felt that those on the homefront did not ‘comprehend the enormity of their experiences’ and they craved the company of their former colleagues.54
The reunion provided this experience and rekindled bonds. For the airmen of the 32 Squadron their annual get together and five yearly reunions fulfilled these requirements.55 Keith Nelson felt that there was always ‘a lot to talk about’.56
The squadron held their 45th anniversary reunion in Camden in May 1987. Their program included a welcome by the Mayor, Dr Elizabeth Kernohan, on the Saturday, followed by a tour of Camden Airfield, a tour of the Camden Museum of Aviation at Narellan and a visit to Gledswood. On the Sunday there was a remembrance address at the Camden Cenotaph and an ecumenical service at St John’s Anglican Church. The organisers of the reunion stated that the Sunday program had been arranged as a special ‘thank you’ to Camden townsfolk.57
Around 70 squadron members and their families attended the 50th anniversary in Camden in February 1992. This was the largest and most successful reunion held in Camden. Reunion organiser Colin Butterworth stated that the celebrations commenced on the Friday with a civic reception followed by the reunion dinner.
On Saturday the veterans marched along Argyle Street and took part in a flag-raising ceremony at the John Street intersection, with a fly-over by the RAAF Roulettes. Mayor Theresa Testoni granted the squadron membership of the muncipality and presented the squadron with a citation.
Led by the Campbelltown-Camden band playing ‘The 32 Squadron March’ the party moved onto the Camden RSL Bowling Club for the squadron luncheon. Celebrations on Sunday commenced with an address at the Camden Cenotaph with a fly-over by four Hawker Siddley aircraft from the new 32 Squadron RAAF (based at Sale, Victoria) and a tree planting. This was followed by an ecumenical service at St John’s Anglican Church.
An editorial in the Camden Crier maintained that the squadron’s choice of Camden for its reunion was a ‘high compliment’. Colin Butterworth felt that members of squadron regarded themselves at the unofficial ‘City of Camden’ Squadron because of the close affiliation between the townsfolk and the squadron.
The squadron held its 55th anniversary in Camden in 1997 and was attended by 20 members. On the Sunday a remembrance ceremony was held at the Camden cenotaph in Macarthur Park. In 2002 the 60th anniversary of the squadron was remembered with a tree planting ceremony in Macarthur Park.58 It was the last anniversary to be held in Camden.
1 ’32 Squadron’, Online at here, Accessed on 28 October 2005.
2 Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought, The Encyclopaedia of Australia’s Battles, St Leonards: Allen & Unwin,1998, pp. 199, 202-207.
3 Camden Crier, 13 May 1987.
4 Macarthur Advertiser 13 May 1987; Camden Crier 12 February 1992; Camden-Wollondilly Advertiser 26 February 2002.
5 LJ Abraham, Correspondence, 22 June 1999
6 Macarthur Advertiser 13 May 1987
7 DK Saxelby, Correspondence, 5 May 1999
8 Peter Dennis, Jeffrey Grey, Evan Morris, Robin Prior & John Connor, The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 297.
9 L Reid, Correspondence, 30 December 1986; J Sharpe, Corresponence, 23 June 1999.
10 PJ Squires, Corresponence, 23 September 1999.
11 HB Simpson, Correspondence, 20 July 1999.
12 HB Simpson, Correspondence, 20 July 1999.
13 AF Wailes, Correspondence, 21 March 2002.
14 J Murphy, Correspondence, 30 September 1992.
15 Camden Crier 13 May 1987
16 L Reid, Correspondence, 30 December 1986.
17 J Sharpe, Correspondece, 23 June 1999.
18 HB Simpson, Correspondece, 20 July 1999.
19 W Paull, Correspondece, 20 September 1999.
20 AF Wailes, Correspondence, 3 March 2002.
21 Camden Crier 12 February 1992, 26 February 1992; F Ellem, Correspondence, 14 November 1986; LG Fromm, Correspondence, 10 August 1999.
22 PJ Squires, Correspondence, 23 September 1999.
23 LG Fromm, Correspondence, 10 August 1999.
24 J Sharpe, 23 June 1999.
25 L Reid, Correspondence, 30 December 1986.
26 J Sharpe, Correspondence, 23 June 1999.
27 L Reid, Correspondence, 30 December 1986.
28 HB Simpson, 20 July 1999.
29 LG Fromm, Correspondence, 10 August 1999.
30 AR Diprose, Correspondence, 21 June 1999.
31 PJ Squires, Correspondence, 23 September 1999.
32 DK Saxelby, Correspondence, 5 May 1999.
33 HB Simpson, Correspondence, 20July 1999.
34 AF Wailes, Correspondence, 3 March 2002
35 Camden Crier 12 February 1992.
36 Camden – Wollondilly Advertiser 26 February 2002
37AF Wailes, Correspondence, 26 Septembe 1999.
38 LG Fromm, Correspondence, 10 August 1999
39 L Reid, 30 December 1986.
40 WA Paull, Correspondence, 20 September 1999
41 Camden Crier 13 May 1987
42 Camden Crier 13 May 1987, 12 February 1992
43 B Tate, ‘Fire on the Mountain, Illawarra Mercury, 30 December 1995.
44 LG Fromm, 10 August 1999
45 B Tate, ‘Fire on the Mountain, Illawarra Mercury, 30 December 1995.
46 RAAF Historical, Canberra.
47 LG Fromm, Correspondence, 10 August 1999
48 AF Wailes, Correspondence, 3 March 2002
49 AF Wailes, Correspondence, 3 March 2002
50 HB Simpson, Correspondence, 23 July 1999
51 Camden Crier 12 February 1992
52 Camden Crier 13 May 1987
53 Stephen Garton, The Cost of War, Australians Return, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 20
55 Camden Crier 12 February 1992
56 Macarthur Chronicle 18 February 1992
57 Macarthur Advertiser 13 May 1987
58 Camden Crier 12 February 1992, 19 February 1992, 26 February 1992, 19 February 1997; Camden – Wollondilly Advertiser 26 February 2002
The history of the area is told in pictures and text. The images are another way to look into the past. They are a snapshot of a moment in time. They are full of meaning on a number of levels and provide a different perspective than just text. Pictorial histories satisfy a curiosity about local history and the way places and things change over time.
The book has the honour of a number of firsts. The book is the first time a complete of the local history of the Camden area has been attempted by any author. The book is the first time a collection of images like this has been put together on the local area.
The images are primarily taken from the collection of the Camden Museum which is managed by the Camden Historical Society. Other images are drawn from the Camden Library, The Oaks Historical Society, State Library of NSW, Royal Australian Historical Society, National Library, Australian Railway Historical Society and elsewhere. A host of people assisted with the publication and they are listed in the acknowledgements.
The book has been received well locally and has met a need and a thirst by the community for a collection and story of the past of this type. The publisher has had trouble keeping up with sales during the run-up to Christmas and there is still strong demand. Congratulations of been coming in from a variety of quarters. The author have been told stories of a number of people walking away from sales outlets with up to five copies of the book.
The text of the Camden story starts with the First Australians then moves on the Cowpastures, the establishment of local villages and gentry properties, particularly the Macarthurs and Camden Park. The description follows the founding of Camden from estate village to market town, and the dairy revolution of the 1890s then into the 20th century when the story was rudely interrupted by the First World War. Modernism catches up with district in the Interwar period which is book ended with the Second World War. In the post war era coal is king, and the country town is eventually over-run by Sydney’s urban growth. All the while there has been the constancy of the river and its moods, particularly regularly its flooding.
The books is available from a number of local outlets including the Camden Museum.The good folk at the Camden Museum will supply a copy by post $24.95 plus $7 handling and postage. Contact the Camden Historical Society: firstname.lastname@example.org or contact the publisher.
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