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Camden’s carpenters

A local traditional trade

Carpentry was an essential craft in all communities and has been practised for centuries. In the Camden area, the traditional trade of carpentry as it was practised had a variety of forms.  Traditional trades were part of the process of settler colonialism on the colonial frontier in the Cowpastures.

In pre-settlement times, the first form of bush carpentry was practised by the Aborigines. They stripped bark from trees and used it for shelters that kept them from the natural elements and made weapons.

At the time of European settlement, many on the frontier had no formal trades skills and learnt bush carpentry from watching the Aboriginal people or experimenting themselves. The bush carpenter was a practical make-do pioneer who innovated with naturally occurring products from their local environment. They practised sustainability in a period when it was a necessity for their very survival and relied on their ingenuity, adaptability and wit.

A rudimentary vernacular domestic style architecture typical of frontier settlement constructed from available local materials. The farmhouse Illustrated here is the home of V Kill and his family in the Burragorang Valley in 1917 with some intrepid bushwalkers. The cottage is slab construction with a dirt floor and no electricity. The cottage is surrounded by the vegetable garden which is carefully tended by the family. (Camden Images)

Some of the bush carpenter’s spirit and tradition arrived with the early European settlers and owed some of its origins to the English tradition of green woodworking. This traditional practice dates back to the Middle Ages and is linked with coppicing, a traditional form of woodland management.  The craftsmen led a solitary existence in the woods and made a host of items from unseasoned green timber, including furniture, tools, fencing, kitchenware and other things.

The bush carpenters were amongst the first in the Camden area to erect building structures. Like other rural areas of Australia, the Camden area’s landscape has been defined by the bush carpenter’s huts and sheds. One example was illustrated in Peter Mylrea’s Camden District (2002), the so-called Government Hut erected at the Cowpastures in 1804.

This view of the Government Hut in the Cowpastures at the Nepean River crossing illustrates the rudimentary form of construction on the colonial frontier in 1804. (State Library of NSW SSV1B / Cowp D / 1)

The early settlers who built these basic shelters did so without the manufactured products of the Industrial Revolution. Either through cost or just a make-do attitude, they built rudimentary vernacular buildings that lasted for decades. In later times settlers’ structures were improved with the introduction of galvanised iron after the 1820s.

There were many examples of huts and farm sheds being erected in other parts of the Camden district, remote from major centres, like the Burragorang Valley. Post-and-rail fencing and a host of other structures put a defining character on the rural landscape. There is still evidence of bush carpentry in and around Camden.

The former farm shed c1900-1910 apply renamed the barn is popular with weddings and other activities at the Camden Community Garden. This farm shed illustrates the rudimentary type of construction practiced as a form of bush carpentry in the local area. (I Willis, 2018)

The bush carpenter’s tool kit usually did not have specialised tools and would have included saws, axes, adze, chisels, augers, hammers, wedges, spade, and other items. Their kit was meant to cope with all the contingencies of the rural frontier that were typical of the remote parts of the Camden district.

The formal trade of carpentry and joinery has a long history going back centuries centred on the guilds. Guilds appeared in England in the Middle Ages, and according to the website London Lives 1690-1800, their purpose was to

 defend the interests of the trade, regulate the quality of workmanship and the training of new members, and provide support and welfare for their members.

https://www.londonlives.org/static/Guilds.jsp

In London, they were established by charter and regulated by the City authorities. Guilds in London had considerable political power and were one of the largest charitable institutions in the City. Carpenters were organised in the Carpenter’s Company, one of 12 powerful London guilds. Guilds were a mixture of apprentices, journeymen and master craftsmen, with no women.

In the colony of New South Wales, carpenters were formally trained artisans have examples of their work in colonial mansions of the grand estates and the many local towns and villages across the Camden district. These artisans used milled timber and other manufactured products of the Industrial Revolution that were readily available and that their clients could afford.

Camden’s carpenters were a mixture of journeymen and master craftsmen, who had served their apprenticeship in Camden and elsewhere. John Wrigley’s Historic Buildings of Camden (1983) lists 38 carpenters/builders who worked in Camden between the 1840s and 1980s.

The pre-WW2 tradesmen used hand tools and traditional construction methods, which is evident in any of the town’s older buildings and cottages. Take particular notice when you walk around central Camden of the fine quality of artistry that has stood the test of time from some of these traditional tradesmen.

The hand tools used by the Camden carpenter changed little in centuries of development and refinement. The tool kit of the mid-1800s would have included hammers, chisels, planes, irons, clamps, saws, mallet, pincers, augers and a host of other tools. It would be very recognisable by a 21st-century tradesman. Master carpenter, Fred Lawton’s tool kit, is on display at the Camden museum (TDR 19/12/11)

A display of hand tools at the Camden Museum. This display illustrates the range of tools that made up the carpenter’s toolkit for his job. Shown here is a range of saws, hammers, augers, planes, adze, and other tools. (2021 KHolmquist)

Hand tools were utilitarian, and some had decorated handles and stocks, particularly those from Germany and British makers. By the early 19th century, many hand tools were being manufactured in centres like Sheffield, UK, and these would have appeared in the Camden area. Carpenters traditionally supplied their own tools and would mark on their hand tools to clearly identify them. Many of the hand tools became highly specialised, especially for use by cabinet-makers, joiners and wood-turning. 

The Camden carpenters listed in the 1904 New South Wales Post Office Directory were JP Bensley, John Franklin, Joseph Packenham and Thomas Thornton, while at Camden Park, there was Harry ‘Herb’ English.  According to Herb’s nephew Len English, Herb English was one of a number of generations of the English family who were carpenters in the early years of the 20th century in the Camden area. It was a family tradition for the sons to be apprenticed in the trade to their father and work at Camden Park.  This practice followed the training principles of English carpentry guilds under a system of patrimony.

Camden carpenter Herbert English working at Camden Park in the 1920s. This image illustrates the use of hand tools here showing the use of the chisel, mallet, handsaw and square. English is cutting a rebate with the chisel after marking the cut out with his square. He would have supplied his own tools and kept them sharpened at the end of the working day. (Camden Images)

Len English’s grandfather, William John English,e was apprenticed to his father, James, and worked at Camden Park between the 1890s and 1930s. William lived in Luker Street, Elderslie, where he built his house and had his workshop, where Len recalls playing as a lad. William’s son, Jack Edward English, was apprenticed to his father (William) in the family tradition, also worked at Camden Park and later in Camden and Elderslie during the 1930s and 1940s. During this period, Jack and his brother, Sidney, both worked with local Camden builders Mark Jenson and Mel Peat (TDR19/12/11).

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Living history in southern Queensland

Out and about in southern Queensland

The CHN blogger was out and about in southern Queensland recently and investigated some of the local aspects of living history.

The CHN blogger was drawn to southern Queensland by the Australian Historical Association Conference held at Toowoomba in early July. The conference was stimulating and challenging and the hosts provided a great venue at the Empire Theatre complex.

Toowoomba

The Toowoomba area provided a number of  examples of living history starting with the Cobb & Co Museum complex. Apart from the displays there is training in traditional trades for the more than curious and there are a number of special days during the year. The blogger was there during the school holidays and there was a motza of stuff for the littlies to do – all hands on. The kids seemed to be having lots of fun, followed around their Mums and Dads. The coffee was not bad either.

Toowoomba Cobb&Co Museum Windmills 2019
These windmills are outside the Cobb & Co Museum in Toowoomba. The museum has one of the best collections of carriages and horse transport in the country. (IWillis 2019)

 

The generous conference hosts organised some activities for conference goers. I tagged along on a town tour one evening led by the president of the local historical society – very informative. ‘Town by night’ was a great way to see the sights of the city centre from a new perspective.

Toowoomb Empire Theatre 2019 IW
Toowoomba’s Empire Theatre is one of Australia’s best examples of an art-deco style theatre in a regional area. (IWillis 2019)

 

The Toowoomba Visitor Information Centre publishes a number of self-guided walking tours around historic precincts of the town area. This history nut would particularly recommend the Empire Theatre complex, the railway station, Masonic temple, court housepolice stationpost office precinct, and Harris House.

Harris House

One property that particularly took the fancy of this blogger was the Federation Queen Anne style Harris House. The cottages was bequeathed to the National Trust of Australia (Queensland) in 2017. The 1912 Edwardian villa residence demonstrates the development of Toowoomba in the early 20th century and the place wealthy members of the local society within it.

Toowoomba Harris House 2109
Harris House is an Edwardian Queen-Anne style villa town residence that was owned by some of Toowoomba’s wealthy social elite. (I Willis, 2019)

 

The single storey red brick dwelling has a Marseilles tiled roof and wide verandahs with bay windows. The concrete ornamentation contrasts with the face red brick and the hipped-roof has decorative finials and ridge capping. The house is in a visually prominent position on a corner block and is described by the Queensland Heritage Register as ‘a grand, Federation-era suburban villa residence’. It is quite an asset to the area.

The Woolshed

After the conference this nerdy blogger found himself at The Woolshed at Jondaryan. Originally built in 1859 the woolshed is one of the largest in Australia and today is an example of an extensive living history attraction. The European history of the woolshed illustrates the frontier story of the settler society of southern Queensland and the Darling Downs.

Toowoomba Jondaryan Woolshed 2019
The Jondaryan Woolshed complex is a good example of an extensive living history attraction. The woolshed was one of the largest in Australia and was an important part of story of 1890s shearers strikes and the conflict with pastoralists. (I Willis 2019)

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Living history at a country festival

Camden’s European living history on show

An example of living history has been on display recently at the Camden Show, the annual celebration of the rural heritage of the Camden district.

The show is an immersive experience for participants and observers alike in the real smells, sounds and sights of a sample of the farm in rural Australia.

Camden Show collage 2019 IW
The 2019 Camden Show provided an immersive experience for participants and observers alike in a host of farming activities. The authentic sights, sounds and smells of the show ring and surrounds enlightened and entertained in a feast for the senses. (I Willis, 2019)

 

The show represents the authentic real life of country people. It is a performance bringing history to life by storytelling through a host of demonstrations, events and displays.

The show is historical representation of the past in the present  illustrating a host of aspects of rural heritage through experiential learning.

Living history reveals layers from the past

The show reveals itself in a multi-layered story of continuity and change on the edge of the Camden township. What was once a small isolated rural village at the Nepean River crossing and is now a thriving Sydney suburb on the city’s metropolitan fringe.

Competitive sections of the show have come and gone with changes in the farming economy. Livestock, produce, craft and cooking sections each tell a story of different aspect of rural life. What was once an integral part of the rural economy is now a craft activity and completely new sections have appeared over the decades.

Camden Show Sandra Dodds 2019 IW
Camden resident and artist Sandra D entered her creation in the Bush Cuppa Tray competition and won first prize. Her entry provided a feast for the sense with scones, cup of tea, a copy of the Bulletin magazine, a story of painting ‘en plein air’ in the 1890s, gum leaves. All this activity taking place on 21 December 1889 at Montrose in Victoria. (I Willis, 2019)

 

Where once rural artisans were part of the local economy their activities are now demonstrations of heritage and lost trades. Show patrons once used to arrive in a horse and cart today’s show-goers watch competitive driving of horse and sulkies in the show ring.

Camden Show Marily Willis 2019 IW
This excited first timer won second place for a group of zucchinis in the produce section of the 2019 Camden Show. Marilyn Judith W grew her entry on her plot at the Camden Community Garden where a number of other gardeners also entered their produce. Marilyn had an immersive experience at the show and volunteered her time at the community garden stall giving away seedlings to adults and children alike. (I Willis, 2019)

 

Sideshows and carnies continue show  traditions that have their origins in English village fairs and carnivals of the past and even a hint of the Roman Empire and their circuses.

The success of the show illustrates a yearning by those attending to experience and understand elements of the traditions of a rural festival in the face of urban growth and development.

History

The Camden Show is a rural festival that is part of the modern show movement that emerged from the Industrial Revolution.  The first series of agricultural shows in the early 19th century demonstrated modern British farming methods and technology.

The first agricultural shows in New South Wales were in the early 19th century and the first Camden Show in 1886. The 19th century agricultural show movement set out to  demonstrate the latest in British Empire know-how and innovation in farming.

The site of the show on the Nepean River floodplain is one of the first points of contact between European and Indigenous people and the cows that escaped from the Sydney settlement in 1788 former the Cowpasture Reserve in 1795. For living history it is material culture which grounds the audience in time and place.

Camden Show 2019 IW
All good farmers had a reliable truck to cart stock and hay to the market from the farm and to take trips into town. This one dates from the mid-20th century at Bringelly NSW on display at the Camden Show with a friendly passenger. (I Willis, 2019)

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The historic Bennett wagon

One of the larger items in the collection of the Camden museum is an item that few of the current members are aware of or would know the history. It is the Percival wagon that was located next to Macaria for a number of decades, the former headquarters of Camden Council.

In 2012 a group of schoolboys got the opportunity to pull it to bits and put it back together again. They did a lot of work but were unable to finish the project. The wagon has been fully restored and conserved and is now located at the Wollondilly Heritage Centre in a new blacksmith’s display.

Camden Percival Wagon_0003
The historic Camden (Percival) wagon is probably a Bennett construction and was placed in the forecourt area next to Macaria by the Camden Historical Society in 1977. Where is stayed for a number of decades until 2012. (Camden Historical Society)

 

Bennetts Wagon Works at St Marys

The Percival wagon is likely to have been built at the Bennetts Wagon Works at St Marys which   started in 1858 and eventually closed down in 1958. The Western Plains Cultural Centre at Dubbo states:

Bennett coach and Wagon works were operated by brothers James and George T. Bennett. Their tabletop wagons became famous throughout Australia; they were capable of carrying from 10 to 20 tonnes, and were regarded as the best heavy transport wagons to be bought. They were used in both rural and urban areas.

The Bennett wagon works at St Marys employed around 25 men at the end of the 19th century, with its wagons selling for between £150 to £250. The wagons were usually painted green and red, or red and blue and some had nick names, like ‘The Maxina’ (in South Creek Park now), ‘King of the Road’, and ‘The Pioneer’.

st-marys-bennett-wagon-works-1910-penrithcitylibrary-e1499829672934.jpg
George T. Bennett’s Wagon Works, St Marys. The photograph, taken in 1910, shows George Bennett’s wheelwright and blacksmith’s workshop in Queen Street, St Marys which was built in about 1875. The business was on the western side of Queen Street, a short distance north of King Street. George’s brother James joined him in the business but after a disagreement, James built his own workshop closer to the highway. George closed his business in 1920. (Penrith City LIbrary)

 

The Penrith City Regional Library states the Bennett wagons were used by teamsters to haul silver from the Burragorang Valley. In 1904 there were 15 teams of horses and bullocks plying the road between Yerranderie and Camden railhead from the silver field which lasted from around 1900 to 1925.

The silver ore was originally forwarded to Germany for smelting, and after the First World War it went to Port Pirie in South Australia and then Newcastle. The story of the teamsters who worked out the Burragorang is celebrated in a monument outside Macaria in John Street, which was installed in 1977 by the Camden Historical Society.

 

Wagon finds a home at Camden

The historical society’s wagon was one of the last in the Macarthur area. It was around 70 years old when the society purchased it from Sydney Percival of Appin in 1977 using a public fundraising appeal organised by society president Owen Blattman and Dick Nixon for $200. Once the society secured the funds and purchased the wagon it was then restored by retired Camden carpenter Ern Howlett and painted red and blue.

Deidre Percival D’Arcy says:

 My father, Norman Dyson Percival, owned the wagon and the property Northampton Dale. He first offered the wagon to Campbellltown & Airds Historical Society where Norman”s brother, Sydney Rawson Percival, was a member. He assisted in the move to Camden Historical Society. 

Northampton Dale

The original owner of the society’s wagon was Sydney’s father Norm Percival who died in 1942 with the wagon passing to his son. Norm lived on the property called Northampton Dale which was part of William Broughton 1000 acre grant of Lachlan Vale.

John Percival purchased Northampton Dale when Broughton’s grant was subdivided 1856 and named it after his home in England. The Percival property was used for horse breeding, then beef cattle and later as a dairy farm. During the First World War the farm was a popular venue with local people for playing tennis. (Anne-Maree Whitaker, Appin, the story of a Macquarie Town)

Campbelltown Percival Wagon_0001

 

Typical of Bennett wagons the society’s Percival wagon was used to cart wheat at Junee in 1913 while around 1900 it had previously been used to cart chaff from Campbelltown Railway Station to the Cataract Dam construction site.

Wagon at Appin

The wagon was also used to cart coal in Wollongong and then around the Percival Appin farm of ‘Northampton Dale’ and the Appin district. The Percival wagon had been restored by the Percivals in 1905 and was fitted with new front wheels, and plied for business around with Appin area. The signage along the side of wagon was ‘EN Percival, Appin’.

The Percival wagon was placed adjacent to Macaria in John Street in 1977 and by 1992 was a little the worse for wear. A team of society members took to the task with gusto and contributed over 200 hours to the restoration, with Camden Council contributing $600 to the total cost of $1200.

Another decade passed and the weather and the elements again took their toll on the wagon. Repainting was needed in 2001.

Camden HS Teamsters Wagon
The Percival wagon in Argyle Street Camden driven by Mr Biffin before being located next to Macaria in John Street in 1977 (Camden Museum)

 

Restoration by Macarthur Anglican School students

In 2012 the Dean of Students at Macarthur Anglican School Tim Cartwright suggested that the wagon become a restoration project for the school boys. Cartwright, who had retrained as a teacher, had been a master carpenter in Europe before coming to Australia. The wagon was taken out to the school later in that year and the students completed some work on it.

Tim Cartwright stated in 2018

When the School took possession of the Wagon, the entire sub structure was affected by white-ant and dry rot. This became evident when the front wheels folded under themselves unable to steer or take their own weight.

A small team of enthusiastic Year 7 and Year 9 boys with no practical carpentry experience gathered every Friday afternoon and sometimes through School holidays, with the intention of renovating and replacing all parts of the Wagon to bring it to a point where it could be used rather than just as a display.

Over the four year period the boys learnt essential Carpentry skills often producing work that demanded great attention to detail and a skill level that would be demanding even for modern practice.

The boys included Adam Ebeling, Jack Jansen, Richard Cartwright, Henry Cartwright
Tom Oliver, Daniel Pearce.

The boys took great pride in their work and were always concerned to replicate original parts instead of compromising on easier or more convenient solutions. This project has been rich in learning in many aspects and I am thrilled to have led the boys on this pathway of preserving our local heritage and introducing them to skills they will be able to revisit in years to come.

Restoration and conservation by The Oaks Historical Society

The latest restoration of the wagon has been completed by volunteers at The Oaks Historical Society.

The Oaks Cover Newsletter 2019 Wagon Restoration

 

Camden HS Wagon SoS Cover
Camden Museum, Teamsters’ Wagon, Statement of Significance, Item No 1995.423.

 

 

Read more about Bennett Wagons

http://www.stmarysstar.com.au/story/2590835/historic-wagons-coming-home/

http://www.penrithcitygazette.com.au/story/3331875/historic-wagons-roll-into-town/

Originally posted 7 December 2017. Updated 24 July 2020

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Miss Showgirl, an enduring anachronism

A rural pageant

The Miss Showgirl competition is in many ways an anachronism from the past. It has survived for over 45 years under the onslaught of feminism, post-modernism, globalization and urbanisation. A worthy feat indeed.

The competition is still popular and the local press are always strong supporters. The 2010 Miss Camden Showgirl competition  attracted seven young women.

Camden Show Signage 2018
The Camden Show attracts over 40,000 people to the two day festival in the country town of Camden. (I Willis)

So what has been the continuing appeal of the competition? Probably the most important criteria has been that it has been true to its aims of promoting rural interests. The competition has always been associated with the major rural festival, the country show, a celebration of rural life.

Show time, the show ball and Miss Showgirl are representative of notions around Camden’s rurality. People use the competition as a lens through which they can view the past, including the young women who enter it. In 2008 Showgirl Lauren Elkins ‘was keen’, she said, ‘to get into the thick of promoting the town and its rural heritage’. Camden people yearn for a past when the primary role of town was to service the surrounding farmers and their needs. Miss Showgirl is part of the invocation of rural nostalgia.

The winning showgirl projects the values and traditions of the local community according to Suzie Sherwood, a member of the organizing committee in 2004. She said that ‘the winner will have a strong connection with the community and be aware of rural issues’.

The organising committee seems to be successful at identifying entrants who have a sense of belonging to the local area. After winning the 2009 Camden showgirl competition, Adriana Mihajlovic said, ‘I will tell people that Camden is a beautiful rural country town with a wonderful community’. 2004 Miss Camden Showgirl Danielle Haack said, ‘Camden is a lovely country town and I am proud that I can be involved in promoting it to other districts’. The showgirl competition connects the country town to the city. The entrant acts a publicity agent for the Camden Show, which is one of the largest regional shows in Australia.

The resilience of the showgirl competition can also be put down to its representation of the changes of rural life and rural women themselves. It is a mirror to the expectations and aspirations of young women. 2010 entrant Karina Ralstan said, ‘She sees it as an opportunity to raise issues concerning rural women’. 2004 Miss Camden Showgirl Danielle Haack felt the competition was an opportunity to raise rural issues and all 2010 entrants were concerned about the promoting the importance of agriculture.

Part of the success of the competition in Camden has been its ability to attract young women who want to make a living in the agricultural sector. University of Sydney veterinary science student Danielle Haack said she wanted to ‘improve the quality of cattle’ and her studies will help her in animal genealogy and herd health. 2010 entrant Brooke Mulholland is an owner/manager of a Suffolk sheep stud.

The showgirl competition is a relic of a time when gender expectations stated that rural women were confined by home and family. Today’s young women want a career and travel. Something that the Miss Showgirl competitions have supplied. In 2004 the grand prize at the Royal Easter Show was a world trip for two, and Camden’s representative Danielle Haack certainly felt that, ‘a world trip would be a lovely end-of-year treat for me once I finish my degree’.

Miss Camden Showgirl for 2018 in the Australia Day Parade on the float for the Camden Show. (I Willis)

The competition has given entrants the opportunity to fully experience showtime in Sydney. The annual city visit can be a big deal for those who experience it. 2002 Miss Showgirl Margie Roser stated that staying is Sydney ‘was one of the best times of her life’. She said that her time is Sydney was ‘full of social engagements, media coverage and cocktail parties’. At a local level the party element is not ignored and the annual Camden show ball is an occasion to ‘frock up’. 2004 Camden Miss Showgirl Sally Watson said, ‘The ball in itself was great fun’.

Over the years showgirls have found that the competition has been good for making friends, personal development and new experiences. 2003 Camden Showgirl Sally Watson said, ‘the experience was rewarding. It is a wonderful chance to network and meet many other like-minded young women’.

Yet showgirl competitions have not been without their critics. The competition has survived in New South Wales and Queensland while not in Victoria. Some have seen it as daggy, while some have seen it as the commodification of women. The entrants defend the competition. Danielle Haack maintained that the contest ‘was anything but a beauty pageant. Some of my friends have asked me how the swimsuit category was going, but its nothing like that’.

The competition and the strong field of entrants  is a testament to the ongoing popularity of the Camden Show and its representation of Camden’s rurality.

Originally published 28 February 2014. Updated 6 April 2021.