Camden Heritage Conservation Area
In 2006 Camden Council designated the Camden town centre as a Heritage Conservation Area, and later incorporated it in the 2010 Local Environment Plan. A heritage conservation zoning, according to Camden Council, is :
an area that has historic significance… [and]… in which historical origins and relationships between the various elements create a sense of place that is worth keeping.
Several writers have offered observations on Camden’s historical significance.
Historian Ken Cable argued in the 2004 Draft Heritage Report prepared by Sydney Architects Tropman and Tropman that: Camden town is a significant landmark in the LGA.
In 2006 Sydney architect Hector Abrahams stated that Camden was ‘the best-preserved rural town in the entire Cumberland Plain’ (Camden Advertiser, 28 June 2006).
Historian Alan Atkinson has argued that Camden is ‘a profoundly important place’, while historian Grace Karskins maintains that ‘Camden is an astonishingly intact survival of early colonial Australia’.
Sense of place
In the early 20th century poets, artists and writers waxed lyrical that the town was like ‘a little England’.
Camden Council documents stress the importance of rural nature of the town for the community’s sense of place and community identity.
This is quite a diverse range of views.
This blog post will look at the historical elements that have contributed to the town’s sense of place, and ultimately its historical significance.
While none of these elements is new, this is the first time they have been presented this way.
A private venture of Englishmen James and William Macarthur
The village was a private development of Englishmen James and William Macarthur on the family property of Camden Park Estate.
The Macarthur brothers had their private-venture village of Camden approved in 1835, the street plan drawn up (1836) and the first sale of land in 1841. All within the limits of Camden Park Estate.
The Macarthur brothers had another private venture village at Taralga on Richlands and Menangle on Camden Park Estate.
Creation of a little English village
The notion of an English-style village on the family estate must have been an enticing possibility for the Macarthur brothers.
In the Camden village, James and William Macarthur named streets after themselves and their supporters. They include John Street, Macarthur Road, Elizabeth Street, Edward Street, Broughton Street, Exeter Street, Oxley Street, Mitchell Street. The Macarthur family and funded the construction of St John’s church on the hill and donated the surrounding curtilage.
The Macarthur brothers created vistas from the family’s Georgian hilltop Georgian mansion across the Cowpastures countryside to their Gothic-style village church.
The Englishness of the Camden village entranced many visitors and locals, including artists and writers. On a visit in 1927, the Duchess of York claimed that the area was ‘like England.’
Strategic river crossing into the Cowpastures
The village was strategically located at the Nepean River ford where the first Europeans crossed the river. By the 1820s the river crossing was the main entry point to Macarthur brothers’ Camden Park Estate, the largest gentry property in the area.
The situation of the village on the Great South Road re-enforced the Macarthur brothers economic and social authority over the countryside.
The river crossing was one of the two northern entry points to their realm of Camden Park Estate, the other being at the Menangle. Menangle later became another private estate village.
The Macarthur village of Camden would secure the northern entry to the family’s Camden Park estate where the Great South Road entered their property. By 1826 the river ford was the site of the first toll bridge in the area.
None of this was new as the river crossing had been the entry into the Cowpastures reserve declared by Governor King in 1803. The site was marked by the police hut in the government reserve at the end of the Cowpasture track from Prospect.
English place names, an act of dispossession
The Camden village was part of the British imperial practice of placing English names on the landscape. The name of the village is English as is the gentry estate within which it was located – Camden Park.
English place names were used in the area from 1796 when Governor Hunter names the site the Cow Pastures Plain. The Cowpastures was a common grazing land near a village.
Naming is a political act of possession, or dispossession, and is an active part of settler colonialism.
The Cowpastures was a meeting ground in between the Dharawal, the Dharug and the Gundungurra people. The area was variously known as ‘Baragil’ (Baragal)’ or Benkennie (dry land).
Indigenous names were generally suppressed by English placenames until recent decades.
Initially, the Wild Cattle of the Cowpastures that escaped from the Sydney colony in 1788 occupied the meadows of the Nepean River floodplain.
The Cowpastures became a contested site on the colonial frontier.
Dispossession in the English meadows of the Cowpastures
The foundation of the Macarthur private village venture was part of the British colonial settler project.
The first Europeans were driven by Britain’s imperial ambitions and the settler-colonial project and could see the economic possibilities of the countryside.
Under the aims of the colonial settler project, as outlined by Patrick Wolfe and later LeFevre, the new Europeans sought to replace the original population of the colonised territory with a new group of settlers.
Hunter’s naming of the Cowpastures was the first act of expropriation. Further dispossession occurred with the government reserve, and later Governor Macquarie created the government village of Cawdor in the centre of the Cowpastures.
The Europeans seized territory by grant and purchase and imposed more English place names in the countryside, and created a landscape that mirrored the familiarity of England.
The colonial settlers brought Enlightenment notions of progress in their search for some kind of utopia.
The Macarthur private venture village was located in a landscape of self-style English gentry, and their estates interspersed with several small villages.
The gentry estates and their homestead and farm complex were English style village communities. One of the earliest was Denbigh (1818).
The oligarch-in-chief was Camden Park’s John Macarthur.
The Europeans used forced labour to impose English scientific farming methods on the country.
The Cowpasture colonial elite created a bunyip aristocracy and styled themselves on the English gentry.
On the left bank of the Nepean River were the gentry estates of Camden Park along with Brownlow Hill. On the right bank were the gentry properties of Macquarie Grove, Elderslie, Kirkham and Denbigh and several smallholders.
The ideal society for the colonial gentry included village communities. To foster their view of the world, the Europeans created the small village of Cobbitty around the Hassall family’s private Heber Chapel.
The village of Stonequarry was growing at the southern limits of the Cowpastures at the creek crossing on the Great South Road. The village was located on the Antil’s Jarvisfield and later renamed Picton in the 1840s.
The picturesque Cowpastures countryside greeted the newly arrived Englishmen John Hawdon from County Durham. In 1828 Hawdon became the first person to put in writing that the Cowpastures area reminded him of the English countryside when he wrote a letter home.
The progress and development of the country town
The Enlightenment view of progress influenced the Macarthur’s vision for their Camden village. They sought to create an ideal village community of yeoman farmers and sponsored self-improvement community organisation including the School of Arts.
Within the Macarthur fiefdom, former estate workers became townsmen, took up civic duties and ran successful businesses.
The village of Camden prospered, became a thriving market town and the economic hub of a growing district.
The architectural styles of the town centre shine a light on the progress and development of the Macarthur village. The architectural forms include Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian, Interwar moderne, Mid-20th century modern, and Post-modern.
The town centre served a host of functions for the community that are indicated by the types of land use in a country town. These include commercial, government, open space, industrial, transport, residential, religious, agricultural, amongst others.
The country town idyll and the appearance of heritage
Since the 1973 New Cities Structure Plan for Appin, Campbelltown and Camden there has been increased interest in the cultural heritage of the town centre. This is the first appearance of the influence of post-modernism in the Camden story.
John Wrigley conducted the first heritage study of the Camden town centre in 1985 for the Camden Historical Society.
Urban growth and the loss of rural countryside has encouraged a nostalgic desire for the past. This process had led to the evolution of the Camden, the country town idyll.
The heritage of the town centre is what the community values from the past that exists in the present. It is made up of tangible and intangible heritage, as well as multi-layered and multi-dimensional. The town centre story can is a timeline with many side shoots or a tree with the main stem and many branches.
Camden time traveller and the town centre
The living history of the town centre is evident at every turn. At every corner. A visitor can be a time-traveller into the past. A view along the main street is a view into the past.
There are many locations in our local area where a person can be a time-traveller into the past. The traveller can be a participant in the area’s living history, ‘simply by being present’.
One of these sites is the commanding view from the hilltop at St John’s church. Here the traveller can view the Cowpasture countryside that nestles the Camden town centre within its grasp.
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