In late 2022 the Camden Show Society announced that Rubey Williams had been named the Camden Show 2023 Young Woman of the Year.
Ms Williams is the first Camden Show Young Woman of the Year after the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW (RAS) changed the branding of the former Showgirl competition in 2019.
The competition had been rebranded earlier from the Miss Showgirl competition, which began in 1962. The name of the competition changed in 1979 by dropping ‘Miss’ from the title, indicating the competition moving with the times. (Canberra Times, 21 February 2019) And as Kate Darian-Smith has argued, changes in the competition have reflected changing representations of rural life and country towns, and the success of country shows (Darian-Smith, 2002, 17)
Yet there were supporters of the old name and the traditions it represented. In 2019 the Agricultural Societies Council of NSW (ASC) showgirl committee spokesperson Peter Gooch said, ‘We don’t want to change the name.’
‘Why change what’s not broken? It’s tradition and means so much to the show.’ (Canberra Times, 21 February 2019)
Dissatisfaction with Showgirl
Yet there was dissatisfaction with the marketing of the Showgirl concept.
Camden 2009 Showgirl Lauren Elkins, who came third in Sydney 2009, said there needed to be improved marketing for the competition at a grassroots level.
“The calibre of young women going to Sydney far exceeds what it was ten years ago,” she said.
“We need to look at how it is marketed and tell the stories of the girls of where they are and how they are developing.
“We are losing so many traditions; it would be a real shame to change the name, it’s tradition.” (Canberra Times, 21 February 2019)
Ms Elkins, the 2009 Camden Showgirl Lauren Elkins, certainly had an eye on tradition when she prepared the 2009 Royal Agricultural Society Guide for Showgirl. The guide stressed etiquette, grooming, manners, dress sense, presentation and socialising skills – a solid list of skills for any aspiring job applicant. The competition even offered deportment lessons for entrants.
The Showgirl competition, formerly Miss Showgirl, has been an enduring anachronism and has withstood the assault of various forces and speaks well for its resilience.
While the aims of the competition have not changed, part of its resilience has been its ability to cope with changes in the representation of rural life and women themselves. It expresses the agency of the young women who enter, whether university students or shop assistants, and provides personal development opportunities.
These sentiments align with the feelings of Camden Show 2023 entrant Emily Perry who said she entered the competition because ‘she enjoys being involved in community activities, and wants to challenge herself and improve her own self-confidence’. (TDR, 21 October 2022)
Yet problems have persisted, and there have been concerns about the longevity of the competition.
Melanie Groves and Kemii Maguire have written, ‘ Nowadays, some view [the competition] as outdated pageantry from a bygone era at best, or the objectification of women at worst.’ (ABC News, 13 July 2019)
The popularity of the competition has waned in recent years, with only NSW and Queensland retaining the pageant. In Queensland, the entrants must be single, childless and under 28 years of age. (ABC News, 13 July 2019)
In Victoria, the competition stopped in 1995 after running for 38 years. (Darian-Smith, 2001)
RAS Young Woman of the Year
RAS Showgirl councillor Susan Wakefield has argued that changing the branding of the pageant to Young Woman of the Year has refreshed the program. (The Land, 19 October 2021)
‘The new title will continue to foster and encourage the fundamental building blocks of the competition through involvement in local shows and communities while also resonating better with younger generations’, said Ms Wakefield. (The Land, 19 October 2021)
2020 Cowra Showgirl Beatrice Patterson said her fellow showgirls supported the name change. Ms Patterson said that the RAS showgirl had received derogatory comments around ‘Miss Universe’ and beauty competition-related remarks earlier in the year. (Cowra Guardian, 30 June 2021)
Ms Patterson says that the Showgirl Competition is linked to the local show, yet others see Showgirl meaning ‘beauty’ and other negative connotations.
“I think this will be really good to get rid of that negative connotation.”
She hoped the name change would encourage more entrants. She said there were 15-20 entrants a few years ago, whereas in 2019, there were two or three.
She encouraged young women to enter the competition. ‘It’s a great program. You learn so much and develop as a person. You become more mindful of the world and agriculture’. (Cowra Guardian, 30 June 2021)
Ms Wakefield said that the professional development program within the competition encouraged young women to become community leaders. (The Land, 19 October 2021)
This was undoubtedly the Camden Show 2023 Young Women Rubey Williams situation. She said, ‘I want to become a bit of a role model in the community’. (TDR, 4 November 2022)
The District Reporter stated that Ms Williams had impressive agricultural credentials. She was the youngest ever Australian Alpaca Association Halter and Fleece Judge. (TDR, 4 November 2022)
She said she wanted to be a role model in the community and inspire young women to pursue careers in agriculture. (TDR, 4 November 2022)
Ms Williams felt strongly about the show movement and was keen to give women a pivotal role in shaping the future of rural Australia. (TDR, 4 November 2022)
Kate Darian-Smith has argued that a sense of community shown by entrants was the result of long-standing family connections to the town, the agricultural society and other community organisations. (Darian-Smith, 2001)
Ms Williams certainly felt that her role as the 2015 Camden Show Junior Rural Ambassador ‘gave her a good grounding of how the show worked. I have a lot of good memories of the Camden Show; it still has a country feel.’ (TDR, 4 November 2022)
Camden Country Quilters Guild Cowpastures Heritage Quilt
Hanging on the wall in the Camden Library is a quilt, but no ordinary quilt. It is a hand-made quilt that had previously hung in the foyer of the Camden Civic Centre for many years. The quilt celebrated the Cowpastures Bicentenary (1995) and was made by members of the Camden Country Quilters Guild.
The Cowpastures Quilt is a fascinating historical document and artefact and tells an interesting story of the district.
The Cowpastures Review stated:
The Cowpastures Heritage Quilt, which is featured on the front page, is unique. It is a product of the Camden Country Quilters Guild. It was unveiled by His Excellency, The Governor of New South Wales, Rear Admiral Peter Sinclair on the 19th of February 1995, as part of the opening of the Cowpastures Bicentennial. It was given by the Guild to the Camden Council, which has it displayed in the Camden Civic Centre.
The Cowpastures Bicentennial Committee created postcards and notepaper featuring the quilt that was sold at Gledswood Homestead and the Camden Library.
Quilts were practical items with social value
Quilts have sentimental or commemorative value and are examples of needlework skills and techniques, and the use of specific fabrics used in their designs.
As a technique, quilting has been used for a diverse range of objects, from clothing to intricate objects such as pincushions. Along with patchwork, quilting is most often associated with its use for bedding.
Quilting first appeared in England in the 13th century, reached a peak in the 17th century and can be traced back to 3000BCE. The word quilt means a ‘bolster or cushion’.
According to the V&A museum, a quilt is usually a bedcover of two layers of fabric with padding or wadding in between held together by lines of stitching based on a pattern or design. Very fine decorative quilts often become family heirlooms and are passed down through generations. In a domestic situation, women made quilts to celebrate ‘life occasions’ like births and weddings.
The V&A states that quilts are often quite large and associated with social events where people share the sewing. In North America quilting was a popular craft amongst Dutch and English settlers and quilts were made as part of marriage dowry for a young woman.
Quilting is often associated with patchwork where the quilt was made of scraps of fabric or ‘extending the life of working clothing’.
The textile is called the Rajah Quilt and was organised as part of the scheme organised by prison reformer Elizabeth Fry’s British Ladies Society for promoting the reformation of female prisoners. The quilt is made up of over 2000 pieces of fabric and it has been described as
a patchwork and appliquéd bed cover or coverlet. It is in pieced medallion or framed style: a popular design style for quilts in the British Isles in the mid 1800’s. There is a central field of white cotton decorated with appliquéd (in broderie perse) chintz birds and floral motifs. This central field is framed by 12 bands or strips of patchwork printed cotton. The quilt is finished at the outer edge by white cotton decorated with appliquéd daisies on three sides and inscription in cross stitch surrounded by floral chintz attached with broderie perse on the fourth…
On the Rajah’s arrival in Hobart, the quilt was presented to the governor’s wife Lady Jane Franklin by the 29 women who sewed it on the voyage to Van Dieman’s Land. Lady Franklin sent the quilt back to England to Elizabeth Fry and then it was lost. It was rediscovered in a Scottish attic and returned to Australia in 1989 and placed in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia.
The quilt’s story is one of hope at a time of despair and disempowerment from a group of women hidden in the shadows of history. A type of radical history.
Cowpastures Quilt tells a story
Quilts often told a story and in the V&A collection, there are a number of significant quilts telling Biblical stories, scenes from world events and the 1851 Great Exhibition.
The Cowpasture Quilt tells the story of the Cowpastures on its Bicentenary. The story was represented in the different panels in the quilt created by the Guild members who were part of the project. The quilt’s construction was a community effort and each sewer has their name sewn into the quilt.
The significance of the individual panels in the quilt was explained by the Cowpastures Review and it stated:
The central pane – the discovery of the Hottentot cow. The left pane – The Aboriginal influence, mining, the map of the ‘Cow Pastures’, representing flora and fauna and the Stonequarry Bridge at Picton. The right panel – St John’s Church, John and Elizabeth Macarthur, Camden Park Estates, Belgenny Farm, Gledswood Homestead and merino sheep and vineyards. The bottom panel – John Street, Camden, including ‘Macaria’ and representations of horticulture venture in the area. Not visible in the photograph in the names of the ‘quilters’ and some surprise ‘first family’ names.
According to the V&A quilting fell into decline in the early 20th century under the influence of modernism. It found a revival in the 1960s as part of the hippie culture and the art community and is firmly part of the art space.
Quilts’ inherent associations with warmth, nostalgia, and community make them particularly appealing now, in the midst of the pandemic and widespread division and inequity. Perhaps this fraught reality can account for, at least in part, why contemporary artists are drawn to quilting as a means to express themselves. The tactility of quilted fabric inevitability conjures domesticity, and every stitch—every precisely placed patchwork—brings us back to that feeling of the comfort and safety of home
Davis-Marks writes that contemporary American artists are engaging with the craft of quilting and building on the ‘enduring and complex history of quiltmaking’. In the US context quilting was practised by slaves, Indigenous Americans and other marginalised peoples as a form of expression and craftwork for the everyday.
Davis-Marks writes that the ancient craft of quiltmaking has resonance for contemporary artists in the age of social media and illustrates a broader appeal of working with traditional mediums of textiles, ceramics, knitting and other crafts.
In a January 2020 article for Artsy, writer and curator Glenn Adamson reflected “At a time when our collective attention is dangerously adrift,” Adamson wrote, “trapped in the freefall of our social-media feeds and snared in a pit of fake facts, handwork provides a firm anchor. It cannot be spun. It gives us something to believe in.”
Artists are using quilts as a lens to look into the dark history of the past. Sometimes these are called ‘story quilts’ where they tell a story in a narrative and figures. Artist Faith Ringgold‘s work often explores notions of ‘community and ancestry’ and said that she bonded through the experience of jointly sewing quilts with her mother.
The Cowpastures Quilt is a ‘story quilt’ and tells the story of our past as part of a settler society and the dispossession of Indigenous peoples. The quilt uses figures and narrative to examine the past through the lens of the women who constructed the quilt in 1995. More than this the Cowpasture quilt is a public statement and an affirmation of community through the collective efforts of local women who undertook the sewing project. The collaborative efforts of the Camden Quilters created a significant piece of public art and a narrative statement of who we are through the use of history.
Updated 26 August 2022; originally posted 16 August 2022
Jeff McGill, Rachel. Allen & Unwin 2022, Sydney. ISBN 9781760879983.
Tonight I had the privilege of attending the book launch for local author and raconteur Jeff McGill’s Rachel at Mary Sheil Centre, St Patrick’s College at Campbelltown.
McGill’s Rachel tells the story of Jeff’s great-great-grandmother from the Coonabarabran area of NSW. Rachel Inglis (Kennedy) was known as Rachel of the Warrumbungles.
McGill’s Rachel had been brewing for about 40 years and it was only in the 2020 lockdown when Jeff’s freelance work dried up that he got mobile on writing the book.
A friend advised him to send a couple of chapters to two publishers. He sent the work to Allen and Unwin and a small publisher in Melbourne. Allen & Unwin got back to him in two days and wanted to know if he had more material, so he sent off chapters 3 & 4. The rest is history.
Jeff often visited Rachel Kennedy’s farm at Box Ridge and listened to local storytellers at Coonamble and Coonabarabran. He is the sort of writer who walks the ground and soaks up the ghosts of the past. He allowed the landscape to talk to him and embedded himself in the spirit of place.
The late Mrs. Inglis was one who rarely gave a thought to herself, her one object in life being to help others. She was always to be found at the bedside of almost every sick person in the Warrumbungle district, and has been known to have ridden as far as 20 miles in the middle of the night to reach some sufferer, even when far from well herself. Considering that all her grand efforts were done in an age when motor cars were unknown, it stamps this fine old pioneer as one of the world’s best — a race that is fast vanishing from our midst. The deceased lady had reached the great age of 85 years. (MG&NWR, 11 April 1930)
At the time of Rachel’s death, it was usual for the country press to publish any sort of obituary of a woman unless she was white and from an influential rural family. The country press was a very white-male institution.
The obituary published in the Mudgee press was an acknowledgement that Rachel was a true local identity and bush character well known in the area. A rare feat indeed. The bush was a male-dominated landscape where women remained in the shadows.
Rachel did not fit the stereotypical 19th-century woman. Yet, she did not seek recognition for her community work and never received it in any public fashion.
The local community understood Rachel’s contribution to their lives and when she was buried in the Presbyterian section of the Gulargambone Cemetery, it was
in the presence of one of the largest gatherings, ever seen at the cemetery. The Rev. G. Innes Ritter, of Coonamble, performed the last sad rites at the graveside. (MG&NWR, 11 April 1930)
Rachel Kennedy stood out on a wild frontier dominated by men… her extraordinary and unputdownable pioneering story is told for the first time
‘Just a girl, but when it came to chasing wild horses nobody questioned Rachel Kennedy’s skill in a saddle. What raised the eyebrows was the type of saddle she used: a man’s.
Rachel Kennedy was a colonial folk hero.
She also built rare friendships with Aboriginal people, including a lifelong relationship with her ‘sister’ Mary Jane Cain.
Meticulously researched and written with compelling energy, this is a vivid and at times heartbreaking story of a pioneering woman who left a legacy that went well beyond her lifetime.
Emerging from the shadows of history
The book is a ripping yarn about the colonial frontier and the role of women in early New South Wales. Another woman emerges from the shadows of history and we are allowed to understand their true contribution to the settler story of our nation.
Updated 2 June 2022. Originally posted 1 June 2022.
The Blue Plaques program aims to capture public interest and fascination in people, events and places that are important to the stories of NSW.
The Blue Plaques program celebrates NSW heritage by recognising noteworthy people and events from our state’s history.
The aim of the program is to encourage people to explore their neighbourhood and other parts of NSW and connect with people of the past, historical moments and rich stories that matter to communities and have shaped our state.
The program is inspired by the famous London Blue Plaques program run by English Heritage which originally started in 1866, and similar programs around the world.
“Behind every plaque, there is a story.”
The essence of the Blue Plaques program is the storytelling. A digital story will be linked to each plaque.
The Blue Plaques should tell stories that are interesting, fun, quirky along with more sombre stories that should be not be forgotten as part of our history.
What is the Camden Red Cross story?
What is being recognised?
Camden Red Cross patriotic wartime sewing circles at the Camden School of Arts (later the Camden Town Hall now the Camden Library) – 1914-1918, 1940-1946.
What is the story?
The Camden Red Cross sewing circles were one of Camden women’s most important voluntary patriotic activities during World War One and World War Two. The sewing circles started at the Camden School of Arts in 1914, and due to lack of space, moved to the Foresters’ Hall in Argyle Street in 1918. At the outbreak of the Second World War, sewing circles reconvened in 1940 at the Camden Town Hall in John Street (the old School of Arts building – the same site as the First World War)
These sewing circles were workshops where Camden women volunteered and manufactured supplies for Australian military hospitals, field hospitals and casualty clearing stations. They were held weekly on Tuesdays, which was sale day in the Camden district.
Sewing circles were ‘quasi-industrial production lines’ where Camden women implemented their domestics skills to aid the war at home. Camden women cut out, assembled, and sewed together hospital supplies, including flannel shirts, bed shirts, pyjamas, slippers, underpants, feather pillows, bed linen, handkerchiefs, and kit bags. The workshops were lent a number of sewing machines in both wars.
The sewing circles also coordinated knitting and spinning for bed socks, stump socks, mufflers, balaclava caps, mittens, cholera belts (body binders) and other items. The women also made ‘hussifs’ or sewing kits for the soldiers. During the First World War, the sewing circles attracted between 80-100 women each week. The list of items was strikingly consistent for hospital supplies for both wars, with the only significant addition during the Second World War being the knitted pullovers and cardigans.
The production output of the Camden women was prodigious. Between 1914 and 1918, women from the Camden Red Cross sewing circle made over 20,300 articles tallied to over 40,000 volunteer hours. Between 1940 and 1946, during World War Two, women made over 25,000 articles, totalling over 45,000 voluntary hours.
The operation of the sewing circles was fully funded through the fundraising of Camden Red Cross and community donations. In 1917 alone, over 95% of branch fundraising was dedicated to these activities.
In World War One, other Red Cross sewing circles in the Camden district were located at The Oaks, Camden Park, Theresa Park, and Middle Burragorang. During World War Two, other centres across the local area included Bringelly-Rossmore, Menangle, Narellan, and The Oaks. Each group independently funded its activities.
These patriotic voluntary activities by Camden women were part of the war at home and have received little recognition at a local, state or national level. Wartime sewing and knitting have been kept in the shadows for too long. There needs to be a public acknowledgement of the patriotic effort of these women.
Where will the plaque be placed?
Camden School of Arts – later called the Camden Town Hall (1939-1945) and now the Camden Library.
What will the plaque say?
Camden Red Cross patriotic wartime sewing circles – 1914-1918, and 1940-1946.
English Heritage and Blue Plaques in the United Kingdom
London’s blue plaques scheme, run by English Heritage, celebrates the links between notable figures of the past and the buildings in which they lived and worked. Founded in 1866, it has inspired many similar schemes in the UK and around the world.
Reference for Camden Red Cross story
Ian Willis,Ministering Angels, The Camden District Red Cross 1914-1945. Camden Historical Society, Camden, 2014.
I have just finished watching online a critical discussion on the practice of history held at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.
In these times of fake news, misleading information, and conspiracy theories. Whom do you trust? What is the truth? Social media is all-encompassing.
This discussion on the practice of history is a dose of hope when political interest groups seek to rewrite the past on their terms.
Maybe this discussion was not a complete cure, but it certainly seems like a ray of sunshine into the swamp of the abyss.
So what did I see?
I watched a panel of learned historians and museum directors discussing launching the Reframing History report by the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH).
The promotional email I received boasted:
This new initiative provides the field with a set of evidence-backed recommendations to communicate history more convincingly and to build a wider understanding of what inclusive history looks like and why it is important for all of us.
The discussion lived up to the hype.
I highly recommend this lively and challenging discussion to anyone involved in the practice of history. I do not think it matters whether you are from the academy, practise public history, or just like popular history. This discussion should interest you if you are concerned about the long term health of history as a discipline.
Panel Discussion Details
John Dichtl, president and CEO of AASLH, started the conversation by providing an overview of the project.
That was followed by a discussion by Anthea Hartig, Elizabeth MacMillan, Director of the National Museum of American History.
Martha S. Jones, author and professor of history at Johns Hopkins University
Clint Smith, staff writer at The Atlantic and author of How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with Slavery Across America
Jorge Zamanillo, director of HistoryMiami and incoming founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Latino
The panellists expand on the Reframing History Report and Toolkit by talking about their personal experiences of communicating about history and sharing their recommendations for how history organizations can create environments for positive and productive conversations.
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.
In the mid-20th century it was not unusual for local Camden women to travel overseas by ship. They were part of an exodus seeking adventure and new horizons. They wanted to see the world and they did.
The story of two of these young women, Shirley Dunk and her best friend Beth Jackman, has been told in a recently published article in Anglicaby the University of Warsaw.
The article is titled: “My box of memories”: An Australian Country Girl Goes to London’.
The article abstract is:
In 1954 a young country woman from New South Wales, Shirley Dunk, ex- ercised her agency and travelled to London. This was a journey to the home of her fore- fathers and copied the activities of other country women who made similar journeys. Some of the earliest of these journeys were undertaken by the wives and daughters of the 19th-century rural gentry. This research project will use a qualitative approach in an examination of Shirley’s journey archive complemented with supplementary interviews and stories of other travellers. Shirley nostalgically recalled the sense of adventure that she experienced as she left Sydney for London by ship and travelled through the United Kingdom and Europe. The article will address questions posed by the journey for Shirley and her travelling companion, Beth, and how they dealt with these forces as tourists and travellers. Shirley’s letters home were reported in the country press and reminiscent of soldier’s wartime letters home that described their tales as tourists in foreign lands. The narrative will show that Shirley, as an Australian country girl, was exposed to the cosmopolitan nature of the metropole, as were other women. The paper will explore how Shirley was subject to the forces of modernity and consumerism at a time when rural women were often limited to domesticity.
To read the article about Shirley Dunk and Beth Jackman click here
The article was originally presented at a conference at the University of Warsaw in 2019. To read about the conference click here.
In 2002 the Sydney press commemorated the life and times of Camden identity Colin Clark, a successful pharmacist who served his community, church and family. (SMH 20 May 2002) Colin married Dorothy, and together, they shaped ‘a vision for their future’ in Camden.
My interest in the Clarks was partly prompted by a photograph of a bottle of liquid paraffin sent to me by local resident Nicole Comerford. Colin had dispensed the paraffin to Nicole’s grandmother, Sheila Murdoch of Orangeville.
Colin Clark ran a pharmacy in Argyle Street for over 35 years. He trained as a pharmacist at the Melbourne College of Pharmacy, and met Dorothy in Stroud. They married in 1933 at Malvern Hill Methodist Church (Clark, Fix Ears, p.72) before moving to Camden in 1934.
Dorothy was an accomplished musician and an artist. In the mid-1920s, she received a scholarship to the Sydney Art School (Julian Ashton Art School) (Clark, Fix Ears, p.71), which trained several notable Australian artists.
The Clarks planned to stay in Camden for seven years (Mylrea, Interview) and as things turned out, they stayed a lifetime. (Camden News, 6 August 1981) Their Methodist faith shaped their worldview and they how fitted into Camden’s rich social fabric and became part of the ‘backbone of the community’. (Camden News, 6 August 1981). They mixed with other Methodist families who amongst others included the Whitemans, the Sidmans and the Stuckeys.
Colin became a well-regarded businessman and Dorothy, a stay-at-home mother. They were respected in all strata of society and mixed with people ‘of so-called high and low estate’. (Clark, Eulogy)
John Kearns argues that John Wesley ‘was an active citizen, concerned with people’s physical, mental and economic welfare as well as their spiritual well-being and he did many good works’. As were the Clarks.
Community service – ‘the backbone of the community’
Colin and Dorothy were community-minded active citizens who constantly devoted their ‘energies to the gentle pursuit of shaping their community’s lifestyle and character’ through several local organisations. (Camden News, 6 August 1981)
Colin was president of the Camden Historical Society from 1968 to 1970 and was made a life member in 1994. He was a foundation member of the Camden Rotary Club and served the club for 33 years. He was a member of the Carrington Hospital Board from 1967 to 1981, made a trustee in 1975 (Camden News 6 August 1981) and to honour his service, the board room was named after him (Clark Eulogy). He was president of the Camden Central School P&C in the early 1950s, a member of the Camden Masonic Lodge and a board member of the Camden Uniting Church. (Clark, Eulogy).
Colin was an active sportsman and participated in tennis, cricket, golf and lawn bowls. He was a foundation member of the Camden Golf Club, an early committee member of the Camden Bowling Club and instrumental in the foundation of the Camden CWA Rooms building.
Dorothy – musician, artist and mother
Dorothy was a musician and an artist with an appreciation of the arts. She was an accomplished pianist, and in 1936 played the piano at a Methodist ladies ‘towel afternoon’ (Camden News, 6 August 1936). In 1942 she was the pianist for a concert for the troops at the Narellan Military Base (Camden News, 5 February 1942), and in 1952 she played the piano at a fashion parade fundraiser for the Camden Hospital Ladies Auxiliary (Camden News, 2 October 1952). Dorothy was the pianist for the first Camden Musical Society performance. (Camden News 6 August 1981)
Dorothy Clark was an active member of the Camden Red Cross, Camden District Hospital Auxiliary, and the Camden Country Women’s Association.
Camden Museum – ‘a vision for the future’
In the mid-1960s, Colin and Dorothy had a vision for a local history museum in Camden where a collection of objects and things could tell the local story. (Mylrea, Interview) The Clark’s view of the world would have seen a museum providing an educational experience based on authentic objects and stories taken from Camden’s cultural traditions and values, and the individuals who created them. (Willis, Stories and Things)
The Clark’s vision and enthusiasm encouraged support after initial scepticism. With the help of Camden Rotary Club Colin eventually secured the old council rooms at the rear of the Camden School of Arts and opened a museum in 1970. (Wrigley, Camden Museum)
John Wrigley writes
Colin Clark was the president of the Camden Historical Society at the founding of the Camden Museum in 1970. Colin became a member of the society in 1963 and president in 1968. He was the fourth president of the society. (Wrigley, 2021)
Colin recalled, ‘In the 1930s it was quite common to be called upon to dispense a prescription mixture. There were no prepared medicines and it took around 20 minutes to put a script together. There were very few cosmetic preparations.’ (The Crier, 14 November 1979)
Colin’s pharmacy was initially located in the Whiteman building at 90 Argyle Street when he purchased Niddries business. The pharmacy opened at 8.30am, with half-an-hour for lunch to 8.30pm. The local doctors always ran a night surgery and Colin would be dispensing mixtures for the patients. On Saturday he opened at 8.30am to 1.00pm, then back at 6.00pm to 8.30pm and then Sundays and after-hours calls. ‘It was a very hard life.’ (Mylrea, Interview)
Kearns, Adrian J. “Active Citizenship and Urban Governance.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol. 17, no. 1, 1992, pp. 20–34. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/622634. Accessed 4 Sept. 2021.
Mylrea, Peter 1994. Transcript of an Interview with CC, Camden, 12 November, 19 November, 10 December 1993, 19 January 1994, Camden Museum Archives.
Mylrea, Peter 2001. ‘Camden Historical Society, Its First 25 Years, 1957-1982’. Camden History, Vol 1, No 1, March 2001, p.11.
Mylrea, Peter 2001. ‘Glimpses of Camden, Interview with Colin Clark’. Camden History, Vol 1, no 2, September 2001, pp.24-28.
Urick, B. Y., & Meggs, E. V. (2019). Towards a Greater Professional Standing: Evolution of Pharmacy Practice and Education, 1920-2020. Pharmacy (Basel, Switzerland), 7(3), 98. https://doi.org/10.3390/pharmacy7030098
Sheila Murdoch was a rural woman who served her community and church and raised a family of five children. Her story, like a lot of other rural women, has remained in the shadows of history. She did not seek kudos and received little public acknowledgement of her role in the community.
Her story came to my attention through a picture of a medicine bottle from her granddaughter Nicole Comerford. Sheila had obtained a bottle of liquid paraffin from Camden pharmacist Colin Clark.
What is liquid paraffin?
According to The British Medical Journal, liquid paraffin was recommended as a treatment for constipation as a laxative, particularly with children. A Google search of the bottle’s image indicates it is probably around the middle of the 20th century.
The real story is not the bottle but an amazing woman who owned it.
Nicole tells us that Sheila lived on a dairy farm on Fallons Road Orangeville.
‘Grandma was born Sheila Rose Walsh and was one of seven children. Her parents were dairy farmers in Upper Kangaroo River (Kangaroo Valley).’
The Walshes were ‘a musical family’, according to Nicole.
Sheila had an interview with Kayla Osborne from the Camden Advertiser in 2018 (6 July 2018). She said, ‘I learnt to play the piano when I was about eight or nine years old, firstly from my mother, and then an old school teacher started teaching me during the 1930s when teachers were quite scarce.’
‘I am also self-taught, but my family has always been a musical one when I was growing up.
Sheila told Kayla Osborne that she was fond of music from an early age and recalled, ‘my father and mother always used to sing together, with my father playing the fiddle by ear.’
‘Most of my brothers and sisters also played an instrument or sang.’ Sheila was part of a well-known local band in the Shoalhaven area called ‘Walsh’s Orchestra’.
Nicole writes, ‘Grandma played the piano, and they played all over the Shoalhaven District over many years, including during WW2. She met my grandfather, Leslie Murdoch, after joining their orchestra when he was stationed at Nowra during the war. Grandad was a mechanic for the RAAF at Nowra.’
The South Coast country press reported the regular ‘gigs’ played by the Walsh Orchestra in the Shoalhaven area between the mid-1930s and the Second World War. In 1936 they performed at the St Michael’s Convent School Hall in Nowra (Nowra Leader, Friday 26 June 1936) and the Roman Catholic Ball at the Kangaroo Valley School of Arts in 1938. The ball drew loyal church supporters from Burrawang, Gerringong, Nowra and Berry for the jubilee celebrations for the Kangaroo Valley Roman Catholic Church.
Sheila and Leslie married in March 1945 at Berry [Nicole] and moved to Orangeville in 1946 (Camden Advertiser, 6 July 2018) after he was discharged from the RAAF.
Nicole writes, ‘They had little money when they moved there, really the only money they had saved from playing for dances and what Grandma had in war bonds. They grew peas until they had enough money to start dairying, and over the years, they purchased all of the farm from other family members; it was named “Thornhill”. The farm has been in the family since the 1850s and was a dairy farm.
‘The farm was an active dairy farm until the 1970s. They sold half of the farm, and it’s now about 92 acres. The half they sold is now Murdoch Road, Orangeville. Grandad (Les) lived on the farm until he died in 2001, and Grandma (Sheila) lived there on her own (with lots of support from her family) until at age 101. My parents, Jim and Judith Murdoch, still live on the farm, and my Dad runs about 15 beef cattle.
In her history of Orangeville, Nell Weir writes that the Thornhill grant was allocated to Thomas Fallon in 1856, with the farm having frontage to Clay Waterholes Creek. Thomas married Eliza Waller of Mulgoa in 1840, and they had ten children. Thomas died in 1879 and is buried in The Oaks Catholic Cemetery. According to Weir, Les Murdoch is a descendant of Thomas and Eliza’s son Thomas. [Weir, pp.32-33]
Nicole writes, ‘Sheila and Les had six children with the first being a stillborn daughter who we think are buried at the Catholic Cemetery in Camden. There are no records for this birth; I am pretty sure Grandma had this baby at what is now Neidra Hill’s house at Narellan.’
The house in question is the Edwardian architectural gem called Ben Linden. The house was built in 1919 by George Blackmore. Neidra Hill writes in her history of the house that EJ (Elizabeth) Stuckey, a trained midwife, purchased the house in 1944 conducted a maternity hospital until 1948. The hospital was then run by her daughter, JT (Jean) Stuckey, until 1959. The building was converted to a private hospital run by ME (Mavis) Halkett until it closed in 1971. (Hill, 2008, pp.27-37)
Nicole recalls that ‘my grandparents were very active in the community’.
‘Sheila and Leslie played at dances and weddings all over the community for many years and were very well known. Grandma and Grandad played in The Oaks, Orangeville, Camden and down to Bargo. I think they played at Bargo on New Year’s Eve several times. They also played at Camden High School socials.’
‘When I shared news of Grandma’s death on the “You know you’re from Camden if…” Facebook page, lots of people commented that they remember them playing at their weddings.’
‘Grandma also played the organ, firstly at St Pauls Catholic Church in Camden and then at St Aloysius Catholic Church at The Oaks when the parish boundaries changed. Grandma was still playing on her 101st birthday at The Oaks.
Sheila played the piano for The Oaks Debutante Balls until she retired in 1998. The ball committee have written that Sheila played piano for practice and presentation sessions for 23 years and they remember her ‘sitting at the piano for so many hours in freezing cold conditions’. (The Committee, p14)
She said, ‘It was lovely to see the young “hopefuls’ turn up – the boys mostly in “Nikes” or “Ugg” Boots – to learn dancing. We always found the young people very polite and happy when they got into the swing of the dances.’ (The Committee, p.14)
Myra Cowell recalls on Facebook that she ‘remembers them well playing at the Cobbitty dances’
Nicole said, ‘Grandma was a member of The Oaks Catholic Woman’s League and held various roles over the years, including president.
The Catholic Women’s League in NSW can trace its origins back to 1913, when the Catholic Women’s Association was founded in Sydney. The league aims to promote ‘the spiritual, cultural, intellectual and social development of women and promotes the role of laywomen in the mission of the Catholic Church’.
Camden Bowling Club
Nicole recalls, ‘Both my grandparents were involved in the Camden Bowling Club, and Grandma was a foundation member of the Camden Women’s Bowling Club. She also played the piano at many events there over the years.’
Frank Farrugia writes in the history of the Camden Bowling Club that Les was president from 1967 to 1969 after joining the club in 1961. He served on the committee for over 15 years and worked for the club for over 25 years. To acknowledge his service, he was made a life member. The new No 3 Green at the club was dedicated to Les, and at its opening in 1986, John Fahey said that Les gave ‘himself to his church, his family, to sporting bodies and local government’. (Farrugia, p. 146) Les was a councillor for A Riding on Wollondilly Shire Council for four terms from 1974 to 1987. (History of WSC) Frank McKay praised ‘Les’s loyalty, objectivity and dedication’. (Farrugia, p.146)
‘For over 50, maybe even 60 years, Grandma volunteered at Carrington Aged-Care complex every Friday morning and in later years was part of a group called the “Melody Makers” who played there. She continued to play the piano there while she was resident and even did so in the week before she died. We always used to laugh the way she would talk about playing for “the oldies” when most of them would have been younger than her!’ writes Nicole.
On Sheila’s 100th birthday in 2018, Kayla Osborne wrote in the Camden Advertiser (6 July 2018) that Sheila and the Melody Makers played weekly at Carrington Aged-Care. Sheila said she started volunteering at Carrington Aged-Care and the aged care facility to give back to her community. She said, ‘I started with the Pink Ladies, who were some of Carrington’s very first volunteers.’
‘I love playing the piano at Carrington Aged-Care Complex now, and I consider playing for the residents there just pure enjoyment. I particularly enjoy the company – nobody objects no matter how bad we play.’
Carrington Volunteer Coordinator Belinda said, ‘I was privileged enough to see them play a few times. Sheila was absolutely phenomenal with her piano skills, Laurie accompanied on sax, Richard (also now passed) played the keyboard and the singer and guitarist, Kevin. (Email, 30 August 2021)
A Carrington source tells me that the Melody Makers was made up of Laurie Martin on saxophone and clarinet, George Sayers on violin, Kevin Harris on guitar, Dick Eldred on clarinet, pianist Sheila and in the early days in late 1990s John Foster on trombone. Most of these talented folk sadly are no longer with us.
Melody Maker guitarist and vocalist Kevin Harris said, ‘I joined the group in the late 1990s. Sheila was “God’s gift to music”. She played at Carrington for 60 years.’
‘The group played at Carrington Aged-Care every Friday around each of the different facilities – Grasmere Terrace, Nursing home, Paling Court and so on. We had over 2000 regular songs. We would never practice. [The group] played for two hours from 10-12, then everyone would go to lunch ,’ he said.
Kevin recalled, ‘My favourite memory was just playing for over 20 years. I have wonderful memories. Playing each week made friendships. Just a love of music and we shared that love with other people. [The members of Melody Makers] were great troopers and there was so much love between all of us and our families.’
‘[Melody Makers] did jobs outside [of Carrington]. Macarthur War Widows and Legacy War Widows at Legacy House in Campbelltown. We played for the Over 50s at the Catholic Club, and Christmas Parties and Mothers’ Day in and around Campbelltown and Appin,’ he said.
Kevin said, ‘ Most of the group had a musical background. Laurie military bands, George came from a family of entertainers, Jack played in World War Two and I played around the Campbelltown area from the 1960s including a 19-piece swing band based at Wayne’s Music Shop.’
Nicole writes that ‘Leslie died in 2001 and is buried in the Catholic Cemetery at The Oaks. In September 2019, Sheila moved to Mary McKillop Hostel at Carrington Aged-Care Complex off the farm because of the increased level of care needed for her health.
Sheila became part of the Carrington family after she moved into aged-care.
Nicole said, ‘Grandma [Sheila] passed away at Mary McKillop on 29th May 2020.’
The surviving five children are Patricia, James (my Dad), Frances, Mary and Peter.’
Farrugia, F 2014, History of Camden Bowling Club, 75 Years, Camden Bowling Club, Camden.
Hill, N 2008, Ben Linden 1919-2008, A house with a story to tell, Typescript Camden Museum Archives, n.p.
The Oaks Debutante Ball Book Committee 2001, We Had a Ball, Twenty-five Debutante Balls in The Oaks 1973-1999, The Committee, The Oaks.
Weir, NR 1998, From Timberland to Smiling Fields, A History of Orangeville and Werombi, The Oaks Historical Society, The Oaks.
Wollondilly Shire Council 1988, A History of Local Government in the Wollondilly Shire 1895 to1988, Wollondilly Shire Council, Picton.
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)
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