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.
The story of the construction of the history of the Camden area. There are many versions and they are all correct. They all put their own spin on the way they want to tell the Camden story. Some good, some indifferent, some just plain awful.
(Facebook, 23 November 2015)
Tourist history of Camden
The official story of the township as told to tourists is shared in the brochure for a historic walk around the Camden town centre published by Camden Council. It is reflective of the pioneer legend that has pervaded the Camden story and the legitimising narrative that is part of the nation-building story of a settler society. In many ways, it hides as much as it reveals. It states:
The historic town of Camden, less than an hours drive south-west of Sydney, is the cultural heart of a region that enjoys a unique place in our nation’s history.
The earliest developments of the Australian wool, wheat and wine industries are associated with the town following the original land grant from Lord Camden to John Macarthur in 1805.
The town is home to a large number of heritage listed attractions that reflect its strong links with the history of colonial settlement in Australia. Camden is rich in rural heritage with live stock sale yards, vineyards, Equestrian Park and dairy facilities.
The township reveals in its built heritage an interesting and varied range of architectural styles that reflect the town’s evolution from the earliest days of European settlement through to the modern era.
The walking tour brochure portrays Camden’s rich historical and cultural legacy and affords a valuable opportunity to both visitors and the local community to experience the town’s unique character and charm and appreciate some of its history first hand.
(Camden Heritage Walking Tour Brochure)
A similar heritage walking brochure exists for the Narellan area, which tells the story of European settlement of a planned government village that pre-dates Camden. Here there is also silence on many aspects of the past that are yet to be revealed to readers.
This short historiography is one of the few that has been attempted to illustrate the construction of the history of a rural community. One that has been recently published is included in the history of the gold-mining community of Linton in Victoria (2015). The author, Jill Wheeler, examines the broad range of influences that shaped the writing of that community’s history.
This paper should be read in conjunction with the Camden Bibliography, which is a list of published and other sources on the Camden District. It was my first attempt at compiling an authoritative list of sources on the local area and it has been pleasing to note that a host of researchers have found it to be a useful start.
This construction of the story of Camden history can be divided into a number of identifiable stages. Each stage reflects the values and attitudes of those who created the writing of the period, and the social and cultural filters that shaped their version of the story.
The Cowpastures frontier
From the beginning of European settlement in Australia curiosity drew those with an interest in wider issues to the local area. The first expeditionaries were naval and military officers who were trained to observe the landform and surroundings and record the detail in their logs and diaries. While providing a detailed account of their journeys they also recorded their observations and contact with Indigenous people. They recorded their observations of a managed landscape that was regularly burnt by the local Indigenous people. Prominent amongst these were Englishmen Watkin Tench (1790), Governor John Hunter (1795), David Collins (1795), George Bass (1796) and Lachlan Macquarie (1810, 1815, 1820), and Frenchmen Francis Louis Barrallier (1802) and Louis Antoine de Bougainville (1826).
Then there are the letters of settlers like John Hawdon of Elderslie in the 1820s who wrote back to England of his experiences in the Cowpastures and dealing with ‘the government men’. [convicts]
Amongst other writings, there are the reminiscences of Barron Field (1825), Thomas Mitchell (1836) and William Pridden (1843), while there are the journals of colonial women such as those of Annabella Boswell (1848).
Naming landform features gave the new arrivals a legitimacy of possession. For example on Governor King’s excursion to the area, he named the locality the Cowpastures because of the escaped cattle.
Villages and beyond
The earliest records of settlement in the Cowpastures describe the conditions in the villages that were scattered across the area – Cawdor, Cobbitty, Elderslie, Narellan and then later Camden (1840).
The earliest accounts of Camden village, its planning, its establishment and development are carried in the Sydney newspapers – particularly The Sydney Morning Herald. During the 1840s the Camden Clerk of Petty Sessions Charles Tompson was a regular correspondent to the newspaper.
Even by the 1880s the changing nature of the Camden village and the district prompted nostalgia for the pioneering days of the early colonial period. The Camden Times and Camden News printed reminiscences of the town and district of JB Martin in the early 1880s and 1890s and RH Antill in the late 1890s, Richard Todd (1895 and 1896) as well as the stories from Obed West in the 1884 and 1885 in The Sydney Morning Herald. These stressed the progress and development of the town. Martin, the Camden Clerk of Petty Sessions for a period, made the point in his 1883 (Camden Times) reminiscences that the history of several English counties had been written by local history associations and he felt that a similar venture was worthwhile in the Camden district.
Further reminiscences were Thomas Herbert (1909) in the Town and Country Journal and Samuel Hassall’s (1902) In Old Australia and there are the unpublished reminiscences of Camden businessman Samuel Thompson (1905).
The Boer War, then the First and later the Second World Wars provide a period of reflection for local folk who are away soldiering in foreign lands. They are amongst the first to write about the Camden District as home in nostalgic terms from far away places where they are under traumatic conditions.
These letters were published in the Camden News and during the Second World War the Camden Advertiser. Some have found their way into recent publications particularly on the centenary of the First World War.
An important theme in the Camden story is the development of a Camden aesthetic based on romantic notions surrounding the colonial properties of the landed gentry and the landscapes that were created by the Cowpasture patriarchs.
This first appeared in Andrew Garran’s highly successful Picturesque Atlas of Australasia (1886) and portrayed an idyllic English village at Camden surrounded by an ordered farming landscape. The engraving was accompanied by GB Barton’s account of the exploits of John Macarthur and the foundation of the colonial wool industry. This was a narrative that evolved into local and national mythology and was further advanced by Sibella Macarthur Onslow’s Some Early Records of The Macarthurs of Camden (1914), a collection of family papers.
The legend of John Macarthur gained further momentum in the 1930s on the centenary of John Macarthur’s death in 1934 when Australia was in search of national heroes. He was the subject of stories in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society (1929) and biographies. His image appeared on a series of postage stamps and later on the new decimal currency in the 1960s. His character was the subject of a novel (1941) and a new Federal electorate of Macarthur (1949) was named after him. In 1960 the Camden community held a four-day celebration of the legend of the John Macarthur and the 150th anniversary of wool production in Australia called the Festival of the Golden Fleece (22-30 October).
The early 20th century also witnessed a shift in history writing identified by Graeme Davison from ‘pioneer’ to ‘patriarchal’ history writing and the development of the Camden aesthetic was part of that agenda.
There was William Hardy Wilson’s The Cow Pasture Road (1920) and Ure Smith’s watercolours and etchings in his Old Colonial By Ways (1928). Whimsical descriptions of Camden’s Englishness were published in Eldrid Dyer’s ‘Camden, The Charm of an Old Town’ (1926) and articles in The Sydney Morning Herald like ‘The Beauty of Age’ (1934).
The Royal Australian Historical Society published articles on the Camden District in its journal. The first appeared in 1928 on the Cowpastures, Cawdor and Cobbitty, which were followed by the Burragorang Valley (1934), Camden (1935), Narellan (1936), and the Cowpastures again in 1939.
Newcastle based journalist JJ Moloney, a former Menangle resident, published his reminiscences of Early Menangle in 1929. In Camden two local journalists, George Sidman and Arthur Gibson, each separately marked the golden jubilee of the foundation of the Municipality of Camden (1889). Sidman, the owner of the Camden News, published the memoirs of J. B. Martin in a series of newspaper columns. While Gibson, owner of the Camden Advertiser, commissioned James Jervis from the Royal Australian Historical Society to write The Story of Camden.
The end of the Second World War created an air of confidence in the Camden District, which by this stage was prospering from the wealth created by the Burragorang Valley coalfields. In 1948 the newly formed Rotary Club and Camden Community Centre commissioned the University of Sydney to conduct a sociological survey of the town to provide a foundation for ‘future development’. This was followed up in 1952 by an American sociologist from the University of Kansas City, ML ‘Jack’ Mason and his wife Elizabeth ‘Beth’. They surveyed the town and established that there was a five-tier social structure, which had its origins in the colonial period and the Cowpasture patriarchs. Both studies were suppressed from public gaze by vested interests until recent times.
Memorials of loss
As historians Graeme Davison and Gail Griffiths have noted the loss of local icons and ‘loved places’ creates a deep sense of insecurity and a desire by some for the ‘good old days’. The grieving process was triggered in the Camden District community from the loss of Burragorang Valley after the state government decided to build a dam in the 1930s. In the early 1960s, the New South Wales Government closed the Campbelltown to Camden rail link as part of a state-wide rationalisation process.
There were five seminal events during this period, firstly, in 1957 the number of teachers from the newly established Camden High School formed the Camden Historical Society and held lectures, conducted field trips and outings.
Secondly, there was the erection of civic monuments celebrating the Burragorang Valley. The first monument, erected in 1962, was the Camden Rotary mural at the southern entrance to the town. The mural has designs celebrating Indigenous culture as well as the area’s farming and mining heritage. The stone for the wall came from the St Paulinos Catholic Church in ‘the Valley’.
Thirdly, a wagon wheel was erected by the Camden Historical Society outside the council chambers in 1977 to celebrate the teamsters who brought silver ore from Yerranderie through ‘the Valley’ to the Camden railhead. A heavy horse-drawn farm wagon was located outside the council chambers in 1978 to memorialise farmer workers and the horse. Each of these monuments recalled the values of the frontier; tenacity, stoicism, ruggedness, individualism, adaptability and Britishness. An 1899 water trough was added to these civic monuments in 1979 celebrating the town’s modernity when the town was connected to reticulated water; a sign of progress and development.
In 1970 the Camden Historical Society opened a folk museum in a room in the old council chambers encouraged by the Royal Australian Historical Society. The museum used simple displays of local ephemera, artefacts and other collectables supplemented with rudimentary signage to tell the Camden story.
The memorials of loss across the district extended to the numerous war memorials scattered throughout the Camden District that mourned the loss of men who never came home after the Great War. These monuments were added after the Second World War and in recent times with the centenary of the First World War, and have shaped and re-shaped the Camden story in ways that are still hard to identify. Their meaning is a statement of collective memory that is expressed in April and November every year by local communities.
Elsewhere in the district, The Oaks Historical Society was formed in 1979. It has contributed much material to the storytelling of the western part of the Camden District, particularly the Burragorang Valley and the silver mining fields of Yerranderie.
The rural-urban fringe and other threats
The role of loss in the Camden story acquired new meaning after 1973 when there was an identifiable shift in the interpretation and representation of ruralness in Camden. The release in 1973 of The New Cities of Campbelltown Camden Appin Structure Plan as part of the 1968 Sydney Regional Outline Plan triggered a wave of invaders from the city. Urban planners envisaged three regional centres on Sydney’s outskirts at Camden, Campbelltown and Appin with the ambitious idea of stopping the city’s urban sprawl.
These events strengthened the role of the Camden aesthetic. There was the re-making of place centred on the decline of the country town of Camden as the hub of a thriving rural economy to an idealised country town, a country town of the imagination.
Romantic representations of Camden’s rurality, especially St John’s church, became an important part of the contemporary consciousness. They found their way into official council policy and have been used in literature, publications, tourist and business promotions, websites, artwork, music, museum displays and a host of other places. In 1999 Camden Council’s strategic plan Camden 2025 adopted the language and imagery of Camden’s rurality when it outlined ‘the traditional qualities of a rural lifestyle’, ‘the historic nature’ of the area and the ‘unique rural landscapes and vistas’ in a country town atmosphere.
There was also the influence of the national bicentennial celebrations in 1988 and the publication in the same year of Alan Atkinson’s Camden, Farm and Village Life in Early New South Wales (1988) which examined the early decades of the township. The dust jacket used a romantic watercolour (1850s) attributed to Emily Macarthur which looks ‘across Camden Park to the north-west, with St John’s Church and the distant Blue Mountains closing the view’, with the Nepean River flowing across the vista, similar to the 1886 Garran engraving.
This period also the emergence of the local histories of the area written by keen amateurs with the most notable example being John Wrigley, who has put together several publications the first published in 1980 called A History of Camden. The Camden Historical Society started a small journal in 2001 called Camden History, which the society continues to successfully publish specialist local histories for a local audience.
The 21st century saw the evolution in the Camden story to a new generation of writers, most notable amongst them was this author. My work started with a local wartime study of a women’s voluntary organisation and has extended across a range of local themes including the rural-urban fringe, urban history, place, identity, philanthropy, the wartime homefront and local government. Most recently I have told the Camden story in a publication of a pictorial history of the district.
During the First World War, the Camden News’s editorial policy expressed strong cultural connections with France, especially around Bastille Day. The News carried reports of patriotic celebrations around the French National Day, visits by French soldiers and the personal reminiscences of Paris by Camden identity and owner of the News, William Sidman.
The Franco-Prussian war
In September 1914, the Camden News published a series of six articles written by William Sidman. They documented his personal experiences of the chaotic events of Paris at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. (Camden News, 27 August, 3 Sept, 10 Sept 1914, 17 Sept, 24 Sept, 1 Oct 1914)
Sidman had been sent to Paris in mid-1869 to ‘take charge ‘of The European News by the owners of Hull’s The Eastern Morning News, where he worked as a ‘junior reporter’. (CN, 27 August) The European News was large circulation bi-lingual, English-French, daily with a weekly edition. (CN, 3 Sept 1914)
In his memoirs, Sidman wrote about the chaos that broke out in Paris in mid-1870. There were large mobs of people roaming the streets after a national vote supporting the bellicose policies of Napoleon III towards Prussia. Sidman recalled that the ‘ends of streets were made impassable, omnibuses overturned’, resulting in ‘a political crisis’ with a ‘simmering discontent by the masses’. (CN, 10 Sept 1914)
Sidman wrote that eventually, the French government declared war on Prussia. The situation in Paris deteriorated, foreign nationals were told to leave, and Sidman left for London (CN, 24 Sept 1914). He was later told by an English compositor who fled Paris that the lead-type of The European News had been ‘melted down for bullets’ during the Prussian siege of the city in late 1870. (CN, 1 October 1914)
Sidman felt guilty leaving France and recalled that he felt sorry for ‘all my French friends’ during the conflict. The following year, he returned to Paris and found that the old newspaper office had been re-built by French authorities after its destruction by Prussian forces. (CN, 1 October 1914)
William’s articles were published under George Sidman’s editorship of the Camden News and were put on the front page. GV (George) Sidman was William’s son, took control of the Camden News in 1912, and continued William’s support for the French.
Support for French patriotic causes was not unique to Camden. Historian Alexis Bergantz in his book French Connections, Australia’s Cosmopolitan Ambitions, writes that Bastille Day celebrations in Melbourne in 1915 were prevalent. He reports that ‘hundreds of women spilled onto the streets selling flowers and cockades and flags in the colours of France’ according to the Melbourne Argus. The Marseillaise was played and funds raised for the French Red Cross on 14 July. The day was topped out with a ‘great concert of French music’ at the Melbourne Town Hall. (Bergantz, p136)
Camden’s first celebration of Bastille Day and French nationalism occurred on Friday, 14 June 1916. The Camden News published Marcus Clarke’s patriotic French poetry as the story’s lead item (see the beginning of this article) and then reported on a town hall meeting called by Camden Mayor GF Furner. Press reports stated that a ‘very enthusiastic’ crowd celebrated the ‘French National Day’ by listening to patriotic speeches from the mayor and Rev Hogan and ended with ‘three hearty cheers’ for France. (Camden News, 20 July 1916)
In 1917 the Camden Red Cross organised a fancy dress procession and sports day for France’s Day on 14 July and raised £374. The aim of the appeal was to assist French widows and children after the defence of Verdun. France’s Day started with a ‘hearty’ fancy dress procession along the main street, ending up at the showground, led by the Camden District Band and the fire brigade.
The procession along Argyle Street was followed by a sports day where the Camden Red Cross conducted a ‘tea tent’. The whole event attracted an ‘enormous crowd of people’ and entry was 1/-. The ‘younger members’ of the Camden Red Cross organised a concert (9 July) and raised £23 with entertainment provided by the Guild of St Faith and the Camden District Band. (Camden News, 5 July 1917, 12 July 1817, 19 July 1917.)
New Caledonian garrison visits Camden
These Red Cross activities were followed later in 1917 (Monday, 15 October) with a visit by a group of 20 French soldiers from the New Caledonia garrison. Sibella Macarthur Onslow hosted the soldiers in the ‘famous gardens’ at Camden Park after a planned visit to Gilbulla had been cancelled. The soldiers were part of a group of nearly 300 French troops welcomed in Sydney by the military, the Red Cross and Sydney’s French residents. They were entertained at a variety of functions around the city.
After their morning visit at Camden Park, the soldiers were driven into Camden, where they were entertained at a garden party on the lawn at the Commercial Bank in Camden’s main street. They took afternoon tea and were introduced to Camden’s mayor, WF Peters, his wife, over 25 members of the Camden Red Cross and other local identities by Sibella Macarthur Onslow. Several toasts and speeches were followed by rousing cheers of thanks, after which they boarded the train for Sydney. (Sydney Morning Herald 15 October 1917; Camden News, 18 October 1917.)
Sidman and French nationalism
The country press is a store of knowledge around cultural heritage and powerful local political interests especially in wartime.
Sidman was an identity of some weight in the Macarthur family strong-hold of Camden and his newspaper was a powerful voice in the town and district. He well understood the impact of the provincial press after working on a number of local mastheads in the United Kingdom and his time in Paris. So what was he up to? What was he trying to achieve with his French memoirs of war?
I would argue that while Sidman’s memoirs were really just a recollection of events at the time, their publication had a very pointed political agenda in a New South Wales country town at the outbreak of the First World War.
Sidman whimsically opened his memoirs of Paris with these comments:
memory is our only friend and true in thought and as long as a man’s memory lasts it becomes a treasure of unknown intrinsic value’
(Camden News, 27 August 1914)
What was Sidman really trying to say in his memoirs? Who was he trying to influence?
Disappointingly George Sidman did not provide insight or editorial comment in the Camden News at the time of William’s memoirs of Paris to help answer my questions.
Part of the answer might be provided by William Sidman in 1898. He wrote of his despair at the cost of warfare, the loss of resources in the nations which took part in them and the threat to world stability. (Camden News, 9 June 1898)
Development proposal for 80 John Street and dunny demolition
In the backyard of an historic cottage at 80 John Street there is a funny little dunny that dates from the 1890s. In 2011 it created a great deal of fuss when there was a proposal for a two-storey commercial development at the rear of the cottage site and the demolition of the dunny for parking.
A funny little dunny goes by a host of names
The funny little dunny is an example of a building that has gone by a host of names over the years. According to Margaret Simpson from the Powerhouse Museum they have variously been called a
Lav, privy, loo, thunderbox, WC, outhouse, toot, throne, restroom, powder room, washroom, john, kharsi, bog, comfort station, and even twinkle-palace, are just some of the euphemisms used for toilets. If you were in the military you’d be using the latrines, on a sailing ship going to the heads, but in country Australia it’d be the dunny.
This line of simple, neat, and pleasing four cottages (74-80 John Street) along the eastern side of John Street, leading up to the view of St Johns Church spire, are representative of late nineteenth-century country town cottages. They are remarkably consistent in quality and form a good group.
The cottage at No 80 where the loo is located is described as a weatherboard cottage had a ‘corrugated iron hipped roof’ with a ‘brick chimney, timber-posted corrugated-iron bullnose verandah and four-pane double-hung windows with timber shutters’ enclosed by a front picket-fence.
The development drew community concern at a number levels: obstructed views from Broughton Street; the bulk and height of the proposed new building; and the demolition of the loo.
The Camden Historical Society lodged an objection with the consent authority, Camden Council, and then published an article in the 2011 Winter Newsletter.
This was followed by a front-page story in the Macarthur Chronicle under the headline DE-THRONED, with a full-page picture of society member Robert Wheeler with the loo in the background.
The report stated that the loo was
‘One of the few in remaining buildings in the town area which were common before the town was connected to the sewer in 1938.
The Chronicle reported that ‘former Camden town planner Robert Wheeler [was] leading calls for the loo to be preserved due to its historic significance.
‘Mr Wheeler said the proposed building was not ‘sympathetic’ to the heritage of the surrounding area and the outdoor toilet should not be demolished’.
(Macarthur Chronicle, 28 June 2011).
[Camden Historical Society] vice-president John Wrigley said, ‘The society was concerned about the ‘block-like’ look to the new building and the demolition of the outside toilet’.
The little dunny is special
The Macarthur Chronicle posed the question:
‘Is this Camden’s oldest toilet?’
(Macarthur Chronicle, 28 June 2011).
The Development Conservation and Landscape Plan noted the special architectural feature of the outhouse. It had a ‘custom-rolled roof’ that ‘mayhave been by half a water tank’, unlike standard outhouse roofs which were ‘gables or skillion’.
(Source: Stedinger Associated, 78-80 John St, Camden, Conservation Schedule of Works and Landscape Plan, Unpublished, 2011, Camden).
The pan system
The Landscape Plan detailed how the ‘outhouse, which dated from the 1890s, was part of the Camden’s pan toilet system. Cottage residents who used the outhouse walked along a narrow path leading from the loo to the cottage kitchen.
The toilet had a pan for ‘nightsoil’ which was collected by a Camden Council contractor. The contractor accessed the pan through a small opening in the rear wall of the outhouse, and replaced the full pan with an empty can.
The cottage outhouse was not built over a pit or ‘long drop’ for the excrement and urine like those built on local farms.
(Source: Stedinger Associated, 78-80 John St, Camden, Conservation Schedule of Works and Landscape Plan, Unpublished, 2011, Camden).
A vivid description of the experience of using a pan system has been provided by Margaret Simpson from the Powerhouse Museum.
I grew up in a small New South Wales rural town before the sewer was connected. Ours was an outside toilet in the backyard. Underneath the seat plank was a removable sanitary pan (dunny can). About once a week the full pan was taken away and replaced with a clean empty one. This unfortunate task was the job of the sanitary carter (dunny man) with his horse and wagon and later a truck. Going to the dunny, especially in summer towards the end of the collection week, was a breath-holding, peg-on-nose experience.
Modern commercial toilet paper was not part of the pan system experience. She says:
In Australia, newspapers were cut into sheets by the householder and held together with a piece of fencing wire or string and hung on a nail inside the dunny. Another source of paper were the thick department store catalogues like Anthony Horderns sent out to householders.
Sewer gas was a big problem in the nineteenth century when knowledge of how to trap the gas and prevent its return back into homes and city streets was scarce and workmanship in sewer construction often cheap and shoddy.
Air pollution was a particularly damning accusation since it was believed that ‘miasmas’ were responsible for many of the life-threatening diseases around at that time.
A 1914 advertisement for a contract to collect nightsoil (excrement) at Picton gives an idea of how nightsoil was disposed of in our local area. The contractor used a sanitary cart pulled by a horse to collect the pans from outhouses in the town area. The contractor was then expected to dispose of the nightsoil by dig trenches at the depot which was one mile from the town centre. At the time there were 270 pans in the Picton town area.
Before World War One Camden Municipal Council had considered the installation of a septic tank sewerage system for the town area. (Camden News, 24 August 1911)
In 1938 the council was given permission to proceed with a sewerage scheme for the town managed by Sydney Metropolitan, Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board and town sewerage scheme was completed in 1939. (Camden News, 29 June 1939)
A related story about disposal of nightsoil and long drops in goldrush Melbourne in the mid-19th century can be found here.
The Fall of Singapore in February 1942 was a disastrous military defeat for the British Imperial forces and a defining point of the Second World War for Camden.
Tensions in the district had been rising for weeks during late 1941.
At the beginning of December the Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbour, Royal Air Force facilities on the Malayan coast (7 December 1941) and other locations. Shortly after this the Japanese navy sank the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser HMS Repulse (10 December 1941).
Camden resident Donald Howard wrote that the town ‘like the rest of Australia knew that sooner or later we would be “for it”‘. (Howard, The Hub of Camden, p. 25.) Earlier in the year the Camden area had been declared a ‘vulnerable area’ (August) and the town had its first blackout test.
Singapore had been on the minds of Australia’s strategic thinkers since the end of the First World War. The Australian Government felt that the country’s greatest military threat came from Japan, and Australia joined forces with Britain in what became known as the Singapore Strategy. British naval facilities were strengthened at Singapore and a string of conservative Australian governments reduced spending on defence across the Interwar years.
‘A black month’
Historian Michael McKernan in his book All in! Australia during the second world war has called December 1941 a ‘black month for Australians’ and Prime Minister Curtin told the nation ‘We are at war’. (McKernan, All In!, pp. 96-97.)
Things were heating up and the Japanese Imperial Army landed forces on the Malayan peninsula on 8 December and started their land-based push towards Singapore.
TheCamden News ran an editorial with the headline ‘Japan – According to Plan’. The News stated:
‘The feeling has been that war with the crafty and ambitious Japanese, rapidly rising to power, was bound to come sooner or later. For years the ‘Yellow Peril’ has provided an incalculable element in all Australian political thinking. Put bluntly, the traditional ascendancy of the white race might well be at stake if Japan were enabled to gather strength from this war in anything like the same proportion as she took it from the last.’
The warning of a threat to European exceptionalism advanced by the Camden News was not new. The ascendancy of the white man was a long-held belief by Europeans across the world and the defeat of the British Empire troops in Singapore came at the hands of an Asian power came as a complete shock. According to many in the late 19th and early 20th century, it was Europeans’ duty—the “white man’s burden“—to bring civilisation to non-white peoples through beneficent imperialism. In Australia, this found expression in the White Australia policy.
We are getting worried!
There were signs that the Camden community were seriously worried by the progress of the war. The Camden National Emergency Services jumped into action: there was an urgent call for wardens; civil defence meetings were held with training sessions; sand dumps were established in case of incendiary bombs; street lighting was reduced; sandbagging was increased at Camden Hospital; and police strictly enforced fuel regulations.
The Japanese advance down the Malay peninsula continued and units from the Australian 8th Infantry Division saw action in mid-January. By the end of month the Malaya campaign was going badly for the British forces.
The Camden News ran an editorial headed ‘The Jap is not a Super-man’:
‘The Japanese continue their rapid advance through the islands of the north until they are now within striking distance of the biggest island of all — our own homeland. That is cause for anxiety enough, but don’t let us help the enemy by crediting him with powers and capacities. he does net possess. The Jap, good fighter though he is, is not yet a superman.’
On 8 February 1942 the Imperial Japanese Army landed on Singapore island. Within a week the British forces had surrendered. The Fall of Singapore on 15 February to the Japanese forces was a profound shock to Australia and other parts of the British Empire.
‘was the scene of the largest surrender of British-led forces ever recorded in history’. The British considered Singapore as their ‘Gibraltar in the Far East’ and it was assumed to be just as impregnable’.
The Camden News editorialised the defeat as Australia’s Total War— And Its Implications. The News warned that Australia was under direct threat of invasion:
Official pronouncements made last week, and again this week, should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that the ‘battle of Australia’ has now definitely begun. We face total war — possibly on our own soil. The events of the last week — one of the blackest weeks of the whole war — have shattered our complacency, and he is a foolish man indeed who still faces the immediate future with light-hearted abandon.We must rid ourselves of our comfortable beliefs that Australia is too far from Japan for successful invasion.
Camden’s civil defence authorities drew up plans for the town’s evacuation, and formed a scorched earth policy committee. Helen Stewardson wrote to her brother, Harry, an airman in England, ‘I guess you hear the news the same as we do, it is rather disheartening, but we hope for the best’. (Vernon, ‘Letters to an Airmen’, Grist Mills, Dec. 1999, p. 56.)
The failure of the British Imperial Forces at Singapore was profound.
Terry Stewart maintains that the arrogance of the British led to underestimate the ability of the Japanese forces. She writes:
In the 1930s and 1940s, the British forces stationed in Singapore epitomised the British military idea of officers and gentlemen. The atmosphere was very much one of colonial sociability.
Oliver Steward writes that the British High Command left Singapore vulnerable, with a lack of equipment including tanks and aircraft, without proper kit to be worn by troops in a jungle environment. This situation was complicated by Churchill’s attitude who ordered Empire forcesunder the command of General Percival to “stand their ground to the last man standing”.
When the British commander Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival surrendered on 15 February 1942 more than 130,000 British Imperial troops were taken prisoner.
The National Museum of Australia states that for Australia, the fall of Singapore was a disaster. More than 15,000 Australian soldiers were taken captive. Of these, more than 7000 would die as prisoners of war. Controversially, the commander of Australian forces on the island, Major General Gordon Bennett, escaped the island with two staff officers on the night of the surrender. (NMA)
One Camden soldier, Private Robert J Auld, served with the 2/20 Australian Infantry Battalion and was taken prisoner at the Fall of Singapore. In 1940 Auld enlisted and married Camden girl Phyllis Kerswell. The 2/20th saw action in the Malayan peninsular campaign and withdrew under the Japanese advance in December 1941 and arrived in Singapore at the end of January 1942. Imprisoned in Changi after the surrender, Auld and others were transferred to Sandakan. Auld died in June 1945 aged 30. (Camden Remembers)
The imprisonment of Australian troops created the POW as the dominant stereotype for Australia during the Second World War. Craig Barrett writes in his PhD titled Remembering Captivity: Australian Prisoners of War of the Japanese that the POWs have become ‘an integral part of Anzac Day and the Anzac legend’.
Updated 1 February 2021. Originally posted 29 January 2021.
‘Flappers of the 1920s were young women known for their energetic freedom, embracing a lifestyle viewed by many at the time as outrageous, immoral or downright dangerous’, says the History.com website.
If you read the pages of the Camden News you might have agreed.
In 1920 the Camden News reported ‘flappers’ were ‘running wild’ on the streets of Sydney, or so it seemed to the casual reader. The press report stated:
A straggling procession of boisterous, well dressed young fellows, with pipe or cigarette in hand, and headed by a number of bold looking females of the ‘flapper’ type, paraded George and Pitt streets on Thursday (last week). (Camden News, 25 November 1920)
The same event was reported in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and other Sydney newspapers with less colourful language. Apparently there had been a lunchtime marchof office workers along George Street numbering around 3000, with ‘200 ladies’, supporting the basic wage case in Melbourne.
The news story that appeared in the Camden News had originally been run in the Crookwell Gazette. (Crookwell Gazette, 17 November 1920) and then re-published by the News the following week. The News and the Gazette were the only New South Wales newspapers that that ran this particular account of the Sydney march, where female office workers were called ‘flappers’.
The correspondent for the Gazette and News was offended by the effrontery young female office workers being part of an industrial campaign march. In the years before 1920 there had been a number of controversial industrial campaigns taken across New South Wales taken by workers. The Camden News had opposed these actions.
The editorial position of the Camden News was that these young women should fit the conservative stereotype of women represented by the Mothers’ Union. Here women were socialised in Victorian notions of service, ideals of dependence, and the ideology of motherhood where mothering was seen as a national imperative. (Willis, Ministering Angels:20-21)
The modern girl
The Sydney ‘flappers’ were modern girls who participated in paid-work, dressed in the latest fashions, cut their hair short, watched the latest movies, bought the latest magazines and used the latest cosmetics.
The term flapper linked Camden to international trends concerned with fashion, consumerism, cosmetics, cinema – primarily visual media.
The modern girl in Camden
The ‘modern girl’ in Camden appeared in the early 1920s and was shaped by fashion, movies, cosmetics and magazines.
These two photographs illustrate that young women in Camden were modern.
The young women in this 1919 pic have short hair sitting next local returned men from the war.
Another group of the young modern women appeared in Camden in 1920s. Trainee teachers shown in the photograph taken by local Camden photographer Roy Dowle. The group of 49 young single women from Sydney stayed at the Camden showground hall in 1921 along with 15 men. In following years hundreds of young female teachers stayed at the Camden showground and did their practical training at local schools.
The flapper at the movies
The most common place to the find the ‘flapper’ in Camden was at the movies – the weekly picture show at the Forrester’s Hall in Camden main street. The world on the big screen.
The movies were a visual medium, just like fashion, cosmetics, advertising, and magazines, that allowed Camden women to embrace the commodity culture on the Interwar period.
The Camden News used the language of latest fashions and styles when it reported these events or ran advertisements for the local picture show.
One example was the advertisement for the ‘Selznick Masterpiece’ the ‘One Week of Love’ in 1923. The was first time that the term ‘flapper’ appeared in a Camden movie promotion and it was announced it to the world this way:
‘Every man, woman, flapper, bride-to-be and eligible youth in Australia is crazy-to-see its stupendous wreck scene, thrilling aeroplane crash, strong dramatic appeal, lifting humour, intoxicating love scenes, bewildering beauty, lavishness, gripping suspense, heart-toughing pathos, which all combing to make it the biggest picture of the year’. (Camden News, 9 August 1923)
According to country press reports the movie was the ‘passion play of 1923’ and showed at PJ Fox’s Star Pictures located in the Foresters’ Hall, which had opened in 1914. Starring silent film beauty Elaine Hammerstein and female heart-throb Conway Tearle the movie had enjoyed ‘a sensational long-run season’ at Sydney’s Piccadilly Theatre. (Kiama Reporter and Illawarra Journal, 7 March 1923)
Foreign movies blew all sorts of ideas, trends and fashions into the Camden district including notions about flappers.
Young Camden women were influenced by images and trends generated by modernism at the pictures, in magazines, in advertising, in cosmetics, and in fashion.
While Camden could be a small closed community it was not isolated from the rest of the world.
Blooming jacarandas are regularly featured on the front page of local newspapers. (Macarthur Chronicle (Camden Edition), 5 November 2013)
Blooming jacarandas provide a purple carpet after a November shower and in 2006 caused an unholy fuss in the local press.
What is all the fuss about?
The Camden Chamber of Commerce proposed the removal and replacement of 33 jacaranda trees in Argyle Street with Manchurian pear trees in 2006. The chamber suggested that shopkeepers ‘take responsibility for their maintenance’. (Macarthur Chronicle, 24 October 2006)
The Argyle Street jacarandas, which were planted in 1927, were showing the effects of age, pollution, compaction and other problems.
The Camden mayor Chris Patterson and Deputy Mayor David Funnell wanted to know if the community supported their replacement. He posed the question in the press: Should Camden Council replace Argyle Street’s jacaranda trees?
The answer was loud and swift.
Mayor Patterson said, ‘People stopped me on the street, rang council and my mobile phone, to give me their views’.
‘The overwhelming response has been the jacarandas should stay but people want council to give them some more love and care’.
A flood of letters
The Camden press was ‘flooded with letters’ and 90% of ‘our internet poll’ wanted to trees to stay.
Letter writer M Goodwin felt the removal of the trees was ‘frivolous and unnecessary’, and Ian Turner did approve of their removal. Bob Lester had mixed views on the matter, Mrs B Thompson said the council should attend to their health and Kylie Lyons agreed. The sentiment of many was best summarised by L Jones of Cobbitty who said, ‘The jacaranda trees are stunning in full bloom and they should not be replaced’. (Macarthur Chronicle, 31 October 2006)
Camden resident Irene Simms started a petition and council commissioned a report on the state of the trees by arborist David Potts. Maryann Strickling felt that the trees were part of town’s cultural heritage and wrote, ‘The jacarandas in Argyle Street are integral to retaining the heritage of Camden’s landscape’ (Camden Advertiser, 7 November 2006).
The letters in the local press kept coming and a letter from Elizabeth Paparo was headed ‘Purple rain is a part of our history’ and felt ‘When the bloom of the Jacaranda tree is here, Christmas time is near!’. (Macarthur Chronicle, 14 November 2006)
The Potts report was presented to council in 2007 and stated that the trees were ‘expected to live long and healthy lives’. (Camden Advertiser, 15 August 2007)
The fuss over the trees has continued on and off and in 2018 the a number of local business people organised the Jacaranda Festival that has gained considerable attention in the media.
What is the appeal of jacarandas?
The appeal of the mauve coloured jacaranda was best summarised by the 1868 correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald.
This most beautiful flowering tree is a native of Brazil, and no garden of any pretensions can be said to be complete without a plant of it. The specimen in the Botanic garden is well worth a journey of 50 miles to see. Its beautiful rich lavender blossoms, and its light feathery foliage, render it the gem of the season. (SMH 5 December 1868)
The jacaranda first appeared in Sydney around the mid-1860s. The Guardian newspaper has provided a quote from the Sydney Morning Herald of 1865
An account of the Prince of Wales’ birthday celebrations in the Sydney Morning Herald from 10 November 1865 describes admirers observing well-established trees: “Many enjoyed a stroll through the botanic gardens, which show the beneficial effects of the late rain; some of the most beautiful trees are now in luxuriant blossom, in particular the lilac flower of the Jacaranda mimosifolia is an object of much admiration.”
Sydney’s love of Jacaranda mimosifolia
Sydney Living Museum curator Helen Curran writes that the specimens of Jacaranda mimosifolia, the most common variety in Sydney,
was collected and returned to the Royal Gardens at Kew, England, in about 1818. One early source gives the credit to plant hunter Allan Cunningham, who was sent on from Rio de Janiero to NSW, where he would later serve, briefly, as colonial botanist.
Sydney Living Museum curator Helen Curran writes that the popular of the jacaranda in the Sydney area owes much to the success of landscape designer Michael Guilfoyle ‘solved the problem of propagation’. He gave a paper at the Horticultural Society in 1868 and outlined the lengths he went to solve the problems around growing the trees in Sydney. Guilfoyle’s Exotic Nursery at Double Bay supplied jacarandas to the ‘city’s most fashionable gardens’ and ‘many gardens in the Eastern Suburbs’. The trees became particularly popular by the Interwar period and were flourishing in harbourside gardens across Sydney.
One story credits November’s purple haze to the efforts of a hospital matron who sent each newborn home with a jacaranda seedling. A less romantic explanation lies in the fact the trees were a popular civic planting in the beautification programs of the early 20th century and interwar years, right up to the 1950s and 1960s.
the first jacaranda was planted in the city gardens in 1864 by Walter Hill. He says, ‘Plants grown from seeds [or] seedlings from this tree were later sent to Rockhampton and Maryborough Botanic Gardens (Queens Park).
Cultivation of the jacaranda is relatively easy in the climate of Eastern Australia. Wikipedia states
Jacaranda can be propagated from grafting, cuttings and seeds, though plants grown from seeds take a long time to bloom. Jacaranda grows in well-drained soil and tolerates drought and brief spells of frost and freeze.
This genus thrives in full sun and sandy soils, which explains their abundance in warmer climates. Mature plants can survive in colder climates down to −7 °C (19 °F); however, they may not bloom as profusely. Younger plants are more fragile and may not survive in colder climates when temperatures drop below freezing.
Jacarandas (Jacaranda mimosifolia) species is native to Argentina and Bolivia but can survive and perform well in most temperate parts of Australia. Jacarandas are readily grown from freshly fallen seed and can be considered weedy in some areas.
Not so friendly
Yet a word of warning about the lovely and popular purple tree.
In Queensland the jacaranda can escape into the bush and become a weed. It out-competes local native plants and forms thickets below planted species.
Brisbane City Council has listed Jacaranda mimosifolia as one of the top 200 weeds in the city area. In Queensland it was considered naturalised in 1987 escaping domestic gardens.
The species Jacaranda mimosifolia is considered a weed in many part of New South Wales and is hard to eradicate once established in an area.
The future of the Jacaranda
University of Melbourne botanist Gregory Moore argues that the Jacaranda has a rosy bluey, or maybe indigo, or just purple future in urban Australia. Jacaranda mimosifolia is likely to do particularly under the influence of climate change as it gets ‘warmer and drier in place’. He just urges a little caution in rural areas where they have the potential to become ‘weedy’.
UOW historian Dr Ian Willis has recently published an article in Media History (UK) about the role of local newspapers in the creation of Macarthur regional identity and the mythology surrounding New South Wales colonial identity John Macarthur.
The three New South Wales market towns of Campbelltown, Camden and Picton made up the Macarthur region where several local town-based newspapers emerged in the 1880s. Local newspapers used local history to enable their readers to reflect on their past by storytelling and creating an understanding of their cultural heritage. The local press lionised the historical legacy of John Macarthur and contributed to the construction of a regional identity bearing his name through the creation of regional newspaper mastheads. The key actors in this narrative were newspaper owner-editors, their mastheads and the historical figure of Macarthur. This article uses a qualitative approach to chart the growth and changes of newspaper mastheads, their owner-editors and Macarthur mythmaking and regionalism.
The article explains the role of the local press in the creation of the Macarthur mythology and included local newspapers like the Camden News,Camden Advertiser, Macarthur Advertiser, Macarthur Chronicle, Picton Post, The District Reporter and the Campbelltown Herald.
Local newspaper editor-owners were an important part of this story and notable names included William Webb, William Sidman, George Sidman, Arthur Gibson, Syd Richardson, Jeff McGill, Lee Abrahams and Mandy Perin.
The Macarthur regional press had its own press barons most notably Syd Richardson and George Sidman who had significant influence and power across the Macarthur region.
Then there is the New South Wales colonial identity of John Macarthur who was a great self-publicist, opportunist, rogue and local land baron. Over the last 200 years his exploits have been exaggerated into a local mythology that has become part of Australian national identity.
John Macarthur has become a local legend, a regional identity, and his name has been applied to a regional name, electoral division and lots of local business and community organisations.
For over a century, the Anzac story has been a central part of the Australian cultural identity. The contradictions that have emerged around it have shown no sign of going away. Historians have been unpacking the meaning of Anzac for decades and seem to no closer to any absolute sense.
In a packed auditorium on 20 April 2017, University of Wollongong historian Dr Jen Roberts gave the inaugural public lecture in the Knowledge Series of the University of Wollongong Alumni. Robert’s presentation called ‘Men, myth and memory’ explored the meaning of Anzac and how it is part of Australia’s cultural identity. The attentive audience was a mix of ages and interests, including past military personnel.
One old gentleman in the audience stood up in question time and announced to the audience that he felt that Dr Roberts was ‘a brave lady’ to ‘present the truth’ about the Anzac story in her evocative lecture.
Robert’s compelling presentation left none of the alumnus present in any doubt about the contested nature of Anzac and that there is far from just one truth. Anzac is a fusion of cultural processes over many decades, and it has grown into something bigger than itself.
The Anzac acronym, meaning Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, was first used by General Sir William Birdwood, and its legal status was confirmed by the Australian Government in 1916.
The Anzac story needs to be inclusive and not exclusive, and while the current service personnel are the custodians of the Anzac mythology, it can sometimes be a heavy responsibility.
Tensions and contradictions
The Anzac story is ubiquitous across Australia. It is embedded in the heart and soul of every community in the country. Within this narrative, there are contradictions and tensions.
The war that spawned the notion of Anzac was a product of industrial modernism. While the Anzac shrines of commemoration and remembrance across Australia were a product of Interwar modernism, some were the work of Rayner Hoff. Yet these same artists and sculptors were supporters of Sydney bohemianism and its anti-war sentiments.
There are a host of other contradictions that range across issues that include gender, militarism, nationalism, racism, violence, trauma, and homophobia.
Jen Roberts argued in her lecture that the Anzac mythology and iconography point to Australian exceptionalism. She then detailed how this was not the situation. She analysed the horrors of war and how this is played out within the Anzac story.
According to Roberts, the tension within the meaning of Anzac is represented by the official state-driven narrative that stresses honour, duty and sacrifice through commemoration, remembrance and solemnity.
On the hand, the digger mythology’s unofficial story is about a man who is not a professional soldier, egalitarian, loyal to mates and a larrikin – an excellent all-around Aussie bloke.
The official/digger binary highlights the contradictions with the Anzac tradition and its meaning for the military personnel, past and present.
Gunner Bruce Guppy
In 1941 an 18-year-old country lad called Bruce Guppy from the New South Wales South Coast volunteered for service with the 7th Australian Light Horse. Guppy volunteered because his brothers had joined up, and the military looked to have better prospects than working as a dairy hand. Gunner BW Guppy had little time for jingoism or nationalism as a laconic fellow and stated, ‘life is what you make it’.
Bruce Guppy was a yarn-spinning, non-drinking, non-smoking, non-gambling larrikin who saw action in the 1942 Gona-Buna Campaign in New Guinea and later trained as a paratrooper. His anti-war views in later years never stopped him from attending every Sydney Anzac Day March with his unit, 2/1 Australian Mountain Battery, and the camaraderie they provided for him. A lifetime member of the New South Wales Returned and Services League of Australia, he never discussed his wartime service with his family until I married his daughter.
Guppy had five brothers who saw active service in the Pacific conflict, with one brother’s service in British Commonwealth Occupation Forces in Japan cited in Gerster’s Travels in Atomic Sunshine. Guppy would not call himself a hero, yet he willingly participated in Huskisson’s Community Heroes History Project in 2007. Guppy was something of a bush poet and, in 1995, wrote a poem called ‘An Old Soldier Remembers’, which in part says:
So it surprised no one when Bruce Guppy made the national media in 2013 when he handed Alice Guppy’s Mother’s Badge and Bar to the Australian War Memorial. Australian War Memorial director Brendan Nelson was moved by his death in 2014 and personally thanked the family for his ‘wonderful’ contribution to the nation.
For Guppy, Anzac Day embraced both meanings expressed by Roberts: The official commemorative remembering; and the larrikin enjoying the company of his mates. The purpose of the Anzac story has changed during Bruce Guppy’s lifetime and the experiences of his digger mates who served in the Second World War.
While many lay claims ownership of the cultural meaning of Anzac, Roberts contends that the organic growth of the Dawn Service is an example of the natural development of Anzac and its sensibilities for different parts of Australian society.
The site and the myth
Roberts examined the two aspects of Anzac mythology – the site and the myth. She maintained that there are many claims to the ownership of the cultural meaning of Anzac. Roberts then pondered the meaning of the slaughter on the Western Front. She asked the audience to reflect on the words of Eric Bogle’s song, And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda covered by an American Celtic band, the Dropkick Murphys.
The Gallipoli peninsula is a site of pilgrimages from Australia while being the only locality in modern Turkey with an English name.
Pilgrims and memory
Roberts contrasted the small group of military pilgrims who went to the 1965 50th anniversary with the lavish all expenses tour of the 1990 75th anniversary sponsored by the Hawke Labor Federal Government. She maintains this was the start of the modern pilgrimage industry.
Roberts drew on personal experience and related anecdotes from her five visits to Gallipoli peninsular with University of Wollongong students. These young people undertook the UOW Gallipoli Study Tour, organised by her mentor, friend and sage UOW Associate-Professor John McQuilton (retired).
Widespread interest in Gallipoli pilgrimages has grown in recent times. Family historians have started searching for their own digger-relative from the First World War. They seek the kudos derived from finding a connection with the Gallipoli campaign and its mythology.
The Howard Federal Government started by promoting soft patriotism, followed by the Abbott Government promoting official celebrations of the Centenary of Anzac.
Official government involvement has unfortunately increased the jingoism of these anniversaries and the noise around the desire by some to acquire the cultural ownership of the Gallipoli site.
For example, the Australian Howard Government attempted to direct the Turkish Government on how to carry out the civil engineering roadworks on the Gallipoli peninsular.
Roberts dislikes the Brand Anzac, which has been used to solidify the Australian national identity. Anzacary, the commodification of the Anzac spirit, has been an area of marketing growth, with the sale of souvenirs and other ephemera. Jingoism and flag-flapping have proliferated with the rise of Australian exceptionalism from the national level to local communities.
Anzac mythology and memory tend to forget the grotesque side of war and its effects. First World War servicemen suffered shell shock (PTSD) and took to alcohol, gambling, domestic violence, divorce and suicide. They became the responsibility of those on the homefront.
The Anzac mythology disempowers and marginalises people. The legend is about nationalism, jingoism, racism, and stereotypes while at the same time offering hope, glory and answers for others. The Guppy brothers and their comrades felt they understood the meaning of Anzac.
Roberts maintains that the ideas around the Anzac story belong to everyone and offer contradictions for some and realities for others.
The members of the Australian community are the ones who will make a choice about the meaning of Anzac.
Updated on 23 April 2022, 16 April 2021. Updated on 27 April 2020 and re-posted as ‘Brand Anzac – meaning and myth’. Originally posted on 24 April 2017 as ‘Anzac Contradictions’
You must be logged in to post a comment.