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Camden, the best preserved country town on the Cumberland Plain

A country town on Sydney’s fringe

The cultural heritage of the local area makes the historic town of Camden, according to Sydney architect Hector Abrahams, the best preserved country town on the Cumberland Plain (Camden Advertiser, 28 June 2006).

Comment by architect Hector Abrahams that Camden was the best preserved country town rural town in the Cumberland Plain. Camden Advertiser 28 June 2006.

The town was established in 1840 on the Macarthur family estate of Camden Park Estate in the Cowpastures on the banks of the Nepean River.

Vista of St Johns Church from Macarthur Park in 1910. Postcard. (Camden Images)

The township provides a glimpse of life from times gone past with the charm and character with its Victorian style built heritage and early 20th century cottages and commercial buildings.


The visitor can experience Camden’s historic charm by walking around the town’s heritage precinct by following the Camden Heritage Walk.

Camden Heritage Walk (Camden Council)

A free booklet can be obtained from Oxley Cottage (c1890), the Camden Visitor Information Centre, which is located on Camden Valley Way on the northern approaches to Camden. Oxley Cottage is a farmer’s cottage built on land that was granted to John Oxley in 1816.

St Johns Church at the top of John Street overlooking the village of Camden around 1895 C Kerry (Camden Images)

Camden’s heritage precinct is dominated by the church on the hill, St John’s Church (1840) and the adjacent rectory (1859). Across the road is Macarthur Park (1905), arguably one of the best Victorian-style urban parks in the Sydney area. In the neighbouring streets there are a number of charming Federation and Californian bungalows.

Stuckey Bros Building Bakers Argyle Street Camden c1941 (I Willis 2012)
Stuckey Bros Building Bakers Argyle Street Camden c1941 (I Willis 2012)

A walk along John Street will reveal the single storey police barracks (1878) and court house (1857), the Italianate style of Macaria (c1842) and the Commercial Bank (1878). Or the visitor can view Bransby’s Cottage (1842) in Mitchell Street, the oldest surviving Georgian cottage in Camden. A short stroll will take the visitor to the Camden Museum, which is managed by the Camden Historical Society. The museum is located in John Street in the recently redeveloped Camden Library and Museum Complex.

Camden Library Museum in John Street Camden 2016 (I Willis)

The visitor can take in Camden’s rural past when they enter the northern approaches of the town along Camden Valley Way. They will pass the old Dairy Farmer’s Milk Depot (1926) where the farmers delivered their milk cans by horse and cart and chatted about rural doings.

A 1915 view of Commercial Banking Co building at corner of Argyle and John Street Camden
A 1915 view of Commercial Banking Co building at corner of Argyle and John Street Camden (Camden Images)

The saleyards (1867) are still next door and the rural supplies stores are indicative that Camden is still ‘a working country town’. As the visitor proceeds along Argyle Street, Camden’s main street, apart from the busy hum of traffic, people and outdoor cafes, the casual observer would see little difference from 70 years ago.

Local people still do their shopping as they have done for years and stop for a chat with friends and neighbours. At the end of Argyle Street the visitor can stroll around Camden Showground (1886). A country style show is held here every year in March and the visitor can take in local handicrafts in the show hall (1894) or watch the grand parade in the main arena.

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 picturesque rural landscapes that surround Camden were once part of the large estates of the landed gentry and their grand houses. A number of these privately owned houses are still dotted throughout the local area. Some examples are Camden Park (1835), Brownlow Hill (1828), Denbigh (1822), Oran Park (c1850), Camelot (1888), Studley Park (c1870s), Wivenhoe (c1837) and Kirkham Stables (1816). The rural vistas are enhanced by the Nepean River floodplain that surrounds the town and provides the visitor with a sense of the town’s farming heritage.

Pansy Nepean River Bridge 1900 Postcard Camden Images
Pansy Nepean River Bridge 1900 Postcard (Camden Images)

The floodplain also reveals to the railway enthusiast the remnants of railway embankments that once carried the little tank engine on the tramway (1882-1963) between Camden and Campbelltown. The locomotive, affectionately known as Pansy, carried a mixture of freight and passengers. It stopped at a number of stations, which included Camden, Elderslie, Kirkham, Graham’s Hill and Narellan. The stationmaster’s house can still be found in Elizabeth Street in Camden, and now operates as a restaurant.

For the aviation buffs a visit to the Camden Airfield (1924) is a must. It still retains its wartime character and layout. As you enter the airfield view the privately owned Hassall Cottage (1815) and Macquarie Grove House (1812) and think of the RAAF sentry on guard duty checking the passes of returning airmen on a cold July night.

Camden Airfield 1930s Camden Images
Camden Airfield 1930s (Camden Images)

The visitor can then relive the days when RAAF airmen (32 Squadron, 1943) flew out of the base chasing Japanese submarines on the South Coast, or when the RAF (1944) occupied the still existing hangers and runways flying transport missions to the South Pacific.

There are also a number of historic villages in the Camden area. Amongst them is the quaint rural village of Cobbitty where the visitor can find Reverand Thomas Hassall’s Heber Chapel (1815), St Paul’s Church (1840) and rectory (1870). Narellan (1827), which is now a vibrant commercial and industrial centre, has the heritage precinct surrounding the St Thomas Church (1884) and school house (1839). The buildings are now used for weddings and receptions.

View along Cobbitty Road in 1928
View along Cobbitty Road in 1928 (Camden Images)

There is also the Burton’s Arms Hotel (c1840) now operating as a real estate agency and the Queen’s Arms Hotel (c1840), which is now the Narellan Hotel. A visit to Cawdor will reveal a real country church that has been functioning continuously for over for over 100 years, the Cawdor Uniting Church (c1880). Cawdor is the oldest village in the Camden area.

Front Cover of Ian Willis's Pictorial History of Camden and District (Kingsclear, 2015)
Front Cover of Ian Willis’s Pictorial History of Camden and District (Kingsclear, 2015)
The last day of the Camden Campbelltown train running in 1963. Keen fans watching the train climb Kenny Hill at Campbelltown. (ARHS)
Rear Cover Ian Willis’s Pictorial History of Camden & District. The last day of the Camden Campbelltown train running in 1963. Keen fans watching the train climb Kenny Hill at Campbelltown. (ARHS)

Updated 24 May 2021. Originally posted on Camden History Notes 18 December 2016. This post was originally published on Heritage Tourism as ‘Camden: the best preserved country town on the Cumberland Plain’ in 2010.

Aesthetics · Argyle Street · Attachment to place · Belonging · Camden · Cultural Heritage · Cultural icon · festivals · Heritage · Historical consciousness · Historical thinking · history · Jacaranda · Living History · Local History · Local newspapers · Local Studies · Macarthur · Macarthur Park · sense of place · Streetscapes · Trees · Urbanism

Camden’s purple haze

A lavender haze – jacarandas in Camden

As you walk around Camden streets you will come across the current flush of purples, mauves, lilac and lavender along Argyle Street, Broughton Street, John Street, and in Macarthur Park.

Jacaranda tree in bloom in Argyle Street Camden outside colonial Commercial Bank building (I Willis, 2020)

People are entranced by the magic of the town’s ‘sea of lavender’ as Peter Butler from Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens has described the lavender haze at the Sydney gardens.

Jacarandas cause excitement amongst locals (Macarthur Chronicle, 5 November 2013)

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’.

Jacaranda blooms in Argyle Street in November (2019 I Willis)

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.”

Jacaranda trees in bloom in Macarthur Park (I Willis 2017)

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.

The hospital matron

Curator Helen Curran says that the tree’s popularity is partly explained by Sydney Living Museums

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. 

There are a host of Sydney Living Museum properties that feature a purple and lilac haze in November and they include Vaucluse House, Elizabeth Farm and at Nowra, Meroogal.

Parts of Sydney attract considerable numbers of visitors when the local jacarandas are in bloom.

The Guardian claims that Australia’s love of the jacaranda was an unlikely affair. The ultimate expression of love for the jacaranda is in Grafton NSW and the annual Jacaranda Festival.  

Australia’s first jacarandas

The first jacarandas planted in Australia were grown in Brisbane. Dale Arvidsson from the Brisbane Botanic Garden’s states

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).  

Jacaranda trees in bloom in Menangle Road Camden (I Willis 2017)

Cultivation

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.

Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens states:

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’.

Updated 2 December 2020