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Hope, heritage and a sense of place – an English village in the Cowpastures

Camden Heritage Conservation Area

In 2006 Camden Council designated the Camden town centre as a  Heritage Conservation Area, and later incorporated it in the  2010 Local Environment Plan. A heritage conservation zoning, according to Camden Council, is :

 an area that has historic significance… [and]… in which historical origins and relationships between the various elements create a sense of place that is worth keeping.

Map Camden Town Centre HCA LEP 2010 CRAG
Map of the Camden Town Centre Heritage Conservation Area from 2010 Local Environment Plan. (Taken from 2016 Camden Residents Action Group Submission for State Listing)

 

Historic significance

Several writers have offered observations on Camden’s historical significance.

Historian Ken Cable argued in the 2004 Draft Heritage Report prepared by Sydney Architects Tropman and Tropman that: Camden town is a significant landmark in the LGA.  

In 2006 Sydney architect Hector Abrahams stated that Camden was ‘the best-preserved rural town in the entire Cumberland Plain’ (Camden Advertiser, 28 June 2006).

Hector Abrahams -best preserved- Camden Advertiser 2006 Jun28
Comment by architect Hector Abrahams that Camden was the best preserved country town rural town in the Cumberland Plain. Camden Advertiser 28 June 2006.

 

Historian Alan Atkinson has argued that Camden is ‘a profoundly important place’, while historian Grace Karskins maintains that ‘Camden is an astonishingly intact survival of early colonial Australia’.  

 

Sense of place

In the early 20th century poets, artists and writers waxed lyrical that the town was like ‘a little England’.

Camden Council documents stress the importance of rural nature of the town for the community’s sense of place and community identity.

Camden Aerial 1940 CIPP
An aerial view of Camden township in 1940 taken by a plane that took off at Camden airfield. St John’s Church is at the centre of the image (Camden Images)

 

This is quite a diverse range of views.

This blog post will look at the historical elements that have contributed to the town’s sense of place, and ultimately its historical significance.

While none of these elements is new, this is the first time they have been presented this way.

 

A private venture of Englishmen James and William Macarthur

The village was a private development of Englishmen James and William Macarthur on the family property of Camden Park Estate.

The Macarthur brothers had their private-venture village of Camden approved in 1835, the street plan drawn up (1836) and the first sale of land in 1841.  All within the limits of Camden Park Estate.

The Macarthur brothers had another private venture village at Taralga on Richlands and Menangle on Camden Park Estate.

Camden James Macarthur Belgenny
James Macarthur (Belgenny Farm)

Creation of a little English village

The notion of an English-style village on the family estate must have been an enticing possibility for the Macarthur brothers.

In the Camden village, James and William Macarthur named streets after themselves and their supporters. They include John Street, Macarthur Road, Elizabeth Street, Edward Street, Broughton Street, Exeter Street, Oxley Street, Mitchell Street. The Macarthur family and funded the construction of St John’s church on the hill and donated the surrounding curtilage.

St Johns Church
St Johns Church Camden around 1900 (Camden Images)

The Macarthur brothers created vistas from the family’s Georgian hilltop Georgian mansion across the Cowpastures countryside to their Gothic-style village church.

The Englishness of the Camden village entranced many visitors and locals, including artists and writers. On a visit in 1927, the Duchess of York claimed that the area was ‘like England.’

 

Strategic river crossing into the Cowpastures

The village was strategically located at the Nepean River ford where the first Europeans crossed the river. By the 1820s the river crossing was the main entry point to Macarthur brothers’ Camden Park Estate, the largest gentry property in the area.

The situation of the village on the Great South Road re-enforced the Macarthur brothers economic and social authority over the countryside.

The river crossing was one of the two northern entry points to their realm of Camden Park Estate, the other being at the Menangle.  Menangle later became another private estate village.

The Macarthur village of Camden would secure the northern entry to the family’s Camden Park estate where the Great South Road entered their property. By 1826 the river ford was the site of the first toll bridge in the area.

Camden Cowpastures Bridge 1842 Thomas Woore R.N. of Harrington Park CIPP
Camden Cowpastures Bridge 1842 Thomas Woore R.N. of Harrington Park CIPP

 

None of this was new as the river crossing had been the entry into the Cowpastures reserve declared by Governor King in 1803. The site was marked by the police hut in the government reserve at the end of the Cowpasture track from Prospect.

 

English place names, an act of dispossession

The Camden village was part of the British imperial practice of placing English names on the landscape. The name of the village is English as is the gentry estate within which it was located – Camden Park.

English place names were used in the area from 1796 when Governor Hunter names the site the Cow Pastures Plain. The Cowpastures was a common grazing land near a village.

Naming is a political act of possession, or dispossession, and is an active part of settler colonialism.

Camden Signage
The Camden sign on the entry to the town centre at Kirkham Reserve on Camden Valley Way formerly The Great South Road and Hume Highway. (I Willis)

 

The Cowpastures was a meeting ground in between the  Dharawal, the Dharug and the Gundungurra people. The area was variously known as ‘Baragil’ (Baragal)’ or Benkennie (dry land).

Indigenous names were generally suppressed by English placenames until recent decades.

Initially, the Wild Cattle of the Cowpastures that escaped from the Sydney colony in 1788 occupied the meadows of the Nepean River floodplain.

The Cowpastures became a contested site on the colonial frontier.

 

Dispossession in the English meadows of the Cowpastures

The foundation of the Macarthur private village venture was part of the British colonial settler project.

The first Europeans were driven by Britain’s imperial ambitions and the settler-colonial project and could see the economic possibilities of the countryside.

Under the aims of the colonial settler project, as outlined by Patrick Wolfe and later LeFevre, the new Europeans sought to replace the original population of the colonised territory with a new group of settlers.

Hunter’s naming of the Cowpastures was the first act of expropriation. Further dispossession occurred with the government reserve, and later Governor Macquarie created the government village of Cawdor in the centre of the Cowpastures.

Art Governor Macquarie SLNSW
Governor Macquarie SLNSW

 

The Europeans seized territory by grant and purchase and imposed more English place names in the countryside, and created a landscape that mirrored the familiarity of England.

The colonial settlers brought Enlightenment notions of progress in their search for some kind of utopia.

 

Cowpasture patriarchs

The Macarthur private venture village was located in a landscape of self-style English gentry, and their estates interspersed with several small villages.

The gentry estates and their homestead and farm complex were English style village communities. One of the earliest was Denbigh (1818).

denbigh-2015-iwillis
Denbigh Homestead Open Day 2015 IWillis

 

The oligarch-in-chief was Camden Park’s John Macarthur.

The Europeans used forced labour to impose English scientific farming methods on the country.

The Cowpasture colonial elite created a bunyip aristocracy and styled themselves on the English gentry.

On the left bank of the Nepean River were the gentry estates of Camden Park along with Brownlow Hill. On the right bank were the gentry properties of Macquarie Grove, Elderslie, Kirkham and Denbigh and several smallholders.

The ideal society for the colonial gentry included village communities. To foster their view of the world, the Europeans created the small village of Cobbitty around the Hassall family’s private Heber Chapel.

The village of Stonequarry was growing at the southern limits of the Cowpastures at the creek crossing on the Great South Road.  The village was located on the Antil’s Jarvisfield and later renamed Picton in the 1840s.

The picturesque Cowpastures countryside greeted the newly arrived Englishmen John Hawdon from County Durham. In 1828 Hawdon became the first person to put in writing that the Cowpastures area reminded him of the English countryside when he wrote a letter home.

 

The progress and development of the country town

The Enlightenment view of progress influenced the Macarthur’s vision for their Camden village. They sought to create an ideal village community of yeoman farmers and sponsored self-improvement community organisation including the School of Arts.

Camden School of Arts PReeves c1800s CIPP
Camden School of Arts PReeves c1800s CIPP

 

Within the Macarthur fiefdom, former estate workers became townsmen, took up civic duties and ran successful businesses.

The village of Camden prospered, became a thriving market town and the economic hub of a growing district.

The architectural styles of the town centre shine a light on the progress and development of the Macarthur village. The architectural forms include  Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian, Interwar moderne, Mid-20th century modern, and Post-modern.

The town centre served a host of functions for the community that are indicated by the types of land use in a country town. These include commercial, government, open space, industrial, transport, residential, religious, agricultural, amongst others.

 

The country town idyll and the appearance of heritage

Since the 1973 New Cities Structure Plan for Appin, Campbelltown and Camden there has been increased interest in the cultural heritage of the town centre. This is the first appearance of the influence of post-modernism in the Camden story.

The New Cities Plan 1973[1]
The New Cities Structure Plan Campbelltown Camden Airds 1973
John Wrigley conducted the first heritage study of the Camden town centre in 1985 for the Camden Historical Society.

Urban growth and the loss of rural countryside has encouraged a nostalgic desire for the past. This process had led to the evolution of the Camden, the country town idyll.

The heritage of the town centre is what the community values from the past that exists in the present. It is made up of tangible and intangible heritage, as well as multi-layered and multi-dimensional. The town centre story can is a timeline with many side shoots or a tree with the main stem and many branches.

 

Camden time traveller and the town centre

The living history of the town centre is evident at every turn. At every corner. A visitor can be a time-traveller into the past. A view along the main street is a view into the past.

There are many locations in our local area where a person can be a time-traveller into the past. The traveller can be a participant in the area’s living history, ‘simply by being present’.

One of these sites is the commanding view from the hilltop at St John’s church. Here the traveller can view the Cowpasture countryside that nestles the Camden town centre within its grasp.

Cover  Pictorial History Camden District Ian Willis 2015
Front Cover of Ian Willis’s Pictorial History of Camden and District (Kingsclear, 2015)
Agriculture · Attachment to place · Australia · British colonialism · Colonial frontier · Colonialism · Community identity · Convicts · Cowpastures · Cultural Heritage · Denbigh · Economy · Elderslie · England · Farming · Gothic · Heritage · Historical consciousness · Historical Research · Historical thinking · History · Living History · Local History · Local Studies · Macarthur · Memory · Place making · Radical history · Sense of place · Settler colonialism · Storytelling

Convicts in the Cowpastures, an untold story

The convict story in the Cowpastures

The story of European settlement in the Cowpastures is intimately connected to the story of the convicts and their masters. This story has not been told and there is little understanding of the role of the convicts in the Cowpastures district before 1840.  Who were they? What did they do? Did they stay in the district?

View near Woolwich in Kent shewing [sic] the employment of the convicts from the hulks, c. 1800 (State Library of NSW)
View near Woolwich in Kent shewing [sic] the employment of the convicts from the hulks, c. 1800 (State Library of NSW)

Part of a global story

The convicts were a form of forced labour, with a global history that goes back to Roman times. Amongst those who were landed were human souls who were part of the dark story of banishment and exile. The story of convicts and banishment is an integral part of the European colonialism from the 16th century and the rise of labour camps. The story parallels that of slavery. Convicts came to New South Wales after the British lost the American colonies in the revolutionary wars in the 1780s.

Convicts in the Australian colonies

The convicts that ended up the in Cowpastures district were part of the 160,000 who were transported to the Australian colonies from England, Wales, Ireland, and the British colonies. Convicts were usually employed in several ways by the colonial authorities: assignment; government work gangs; Tickets of Leave; Conditional Pardon; and an Absolute Pardon with complete freedom to do as they wished including returning to Britain.

Generally speaking, most convict women could be classified as domestic servants, while male convicts had a host of skills with town trades dominating over rural workers.  The literacy rates and skills of convicts were the same or better than the English and Irish working classes.

Map of Cowpastures SMH 13 August 1932
This is a map of the Cowpastures published in the Interwar period when then was an increased increase in the story of the cattle, John Macarthur and Camden Park Estate. Map of Cowpastures (SMH 13 August 1932)

 

The Cowpastures district

The Cowpastures district was an ill-defined area that included Governor Hunter’s government reserve from 1795.   The reserve covered an area that generally south of the Nepean River between Stonequarry Creek (Picton), The Oaks and Menangle to the east. By 1840 the Cowpastures district had become a general locality name that extended north of the Nepean River to include Narellan and Bringelly.

View upon the Nepean River, at the Cow Pastures New South Wales 1824-1825 Joseph Lycett
View upon the Nepean River, at the Cow Pastures New South Wales 1824-1825 Joseph Lycett

Stories of Convicts

The best short reference of the convicts in the Cowpastures is Ken Williams’ 1824 Cawdor Bench of Magistrates Population, Land and Stock Book (2011), where he lists the names and masters. Williams indicates that in the Cowpasture in 1824 there were 430 convicts and of them, 15 were women, who were listed as domestic servants.[1]  Elizabeth Villy indicates that the stock books indicate 29 landholders, who were mostly absentee landlords.[2]

The best account to date of the activities of the convicts in the Cowpastures is Elizabeth Villy’s The Old Razorback Road (2011). She states that in the 1820s in the last days of the Cowpastures Government Reserve there were around 550 convicts assigned to settlers including around 100 at Camden Park Estate. These men were employed as shepherds and labourers, who were clearing land, and preparing the ground for ploughing and growing pasture.[3]

Convicts and civil works in the Cowpastures

The Great South Road was one of the major civil engineering projects in the Cowpastures district that employed convicts. A major bridge (Cowpasture Bridge) was constructed by convicts across the Nepean River mid-way between the river crossings at the Home Farm at Belgenny and the Hassall’s at Macquarie Grove.  Villy details how the bridge was built by a team of convicts between 1824 and 1826. The construction was supervised by convict Samuel Wainwright, a Cheshire carpenter, who arrived on the Neptune in 1818. Villy lists 24 convicts who worked on the bridge construction between 1827 and 1829.[4]

The other major project was The Great South Road itself and in the Cowpastures section Villy estimates that around 400 men worked on the road. Her research indicates that they left no surviving records and many just ‘melted into society after their sentences’ (p.67).  The ethnography of the convicts up to 1828 was mainly English, with smaller numbers of Welsh and Scots. From this time as more Irish were sent out the ratio English to Irish was around half and half. If the convicts misbehaved they were punished by whipping and the Cawdor Bench imposed punishments up to 50 lashes. Mostly they involved insolence, absconding, drunkenness, and laziness. On the Camden-Stonequarry road section, there were no portable stockades or vans. Villy provides interesting accounts of the activities of individual convicts, their punishments and the convict lifestyle of the road gangs. [5]

John Hawdon Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW : 1870 - 1907), Saturday 18 January 1879, page 17
John Hawdon arrived in New South Wales with his family and servants in 1828. He took a six-year lease on John Oxley’s former grant of Elderslie and became a colonial identity. He later took up a grant in the Moruya area of the New South Wales South Coast and built Kiora homestead in 1836  (Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW: 1870 – 1907), Saturday 18 January 1879, page 17)

 

Elderslie

Convicts were part of the John Oxley’s Elderslie enterprise and when John Hawdon leased it in 1828 off Francis Irvine he was impressed with the range of trades amongst the 30 ‘government men’ who worked on Elderslie. He was not deterred by dark Gothic notions of the penal settlement and expressed his frustration with the attitude of his countrymen in a letter home.[6] Hawdon felt that the dark stories and fear about the colony were over-rated. He wrote:

‘I am aware of the feeling you all have at home about us having so many convicts around us. Your fears, I can assure you are most unfounded’.[7]

Elderslie according to Alan Atkinson supported 9 convicts when Oxley sold the grant to Francis Irvine in 1827.[8] At Macquarie Grove under Samual Hassall, there were 30 convicts with 3 families of children.[9]

Denbigh

Reverend Thomas Hassall who purchased Denbigh in 1826 on the death of Charles Hook had 20 convicts, according to his son James Hassall in his In Old Australia, Records, and Reminiscences from 1794. The worked from six in the morning in summer and from eight in winter until sundown. The convicts were managed by a Scottish overseer and they carried out the farming activities on the property. The rations included tea, sugar, meat, flour or when which they ground for themselves on a small steel mill.[10]

Denbigh Homestead Open Day 2015 IWillis
Denbigh Homestead is an important colonial farm complex in the Cowpastures. The original grant of 1812 was to Charles Hook and he built a single story dwelling on the site. The property was purchased by Thomas Hassall in 1827 and added a bedroom story to the house. The farm is significant because it contains a rare and remarkable group of the homestead and early farm buildings from colonial New South Wales. (Open Day 2015 I Willis)

 

Kirkham

At the time of the 1828 Census at ‘Kirkham’, which had 54 people including 44 convicts. (SRNSW NRS 1273 1828 Census).

Birling

Birling’ was a 1000 acre granted to Robert Lowe in 1812. According to the 1814 muster, Robert Lowe employed seven assigned convicts which had increased to 21 by the 1822 muster, while by 1828 this had dropped to 12 convicts. (SRNSW)

The Cowpastures Convict and Settler Database

Some members of the Camden Historical Society drew together a database of names of convicts and settlers in the Cowpastures in the early part of the 19th century in the 1990s. The data was drawn from a variety of sources including convict musters. On extracting the names of convicts the following information is now available for several gentry properties in the Cowpastures District before 1840 and include: Brownlow Hill  – 44 convicts between 1823 and 1828. In 1823 there were 11 convicts assigned to Peter Murdoch who had the Glendaural grant, which later became part of Brownlow Hill; Denbigh – 8 convicts in 1828; Kirkham – 103 convicts between 1814 and 1830 with a mix of skill including ploughman, shepherds, millers, and general labourers; Macquarie Grove – 28 convicts in 1828 with skills including ploughman, wheelwright, labourer, and house servants; Matavai (Cobbitty) – 14 convicts in 1828 who included blacksmith, sawyer, labourers and house servants; Wivenhoe – 6 convicts in 1828 who included a cooper and shoemaker. The database is located at the Camden Museum.

Notes

[1] Ken Williams, 1824 Cawdor Bench of Magistrates Population, Land and Stock Book, A Biographical Register of the Inhabitants residing in the Cowpastures, Picton & District Historical and Family History Society, Picton, 2011.

[2] Elizabeth Villy, The Old Razorback Road, Life on the Great South Road between Camden and Picton 1830-1930, Rosenberg, Dural, 2011. p. 35.

[3] Villy, The Old Razorback Road, pp. 34-35.

[4] Villy, The Old Razorback Road.pp. 62-65

[5] Villy, The Old Razorback Road.pp. 66-90.

[6] The Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 26 October 1929, p 13.

[7] The Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 26 October 1929, p 13.

[8] Alan Atkinson, Camden, Farm and Village Life in Early New South Wales, OUP, Melb, 1988, p.20. Peter Mylrea, Camden District, A History to the 1840s, Camden Historical Society, 2002, p.34.

[9]  Atkinson, Camden,  p.20

[10] James S Hassall, In Old Australia Records and Reminiscences from 1794, RS Hews,  Brisbane, 1902 (BiblioBazaar, 2015), pp. 4-5

The Cowpasture Project

More information about the Cowpastures can be found on the Cowpastures project blog page. Click here