The Camden district can be hard to define and has changed over time. Dr Ian Willis conducted research in the mid-1990s to determine the extent of the Camden district at the outbreak of the Second World War. This was part of his post-graduate studies at the University of Wollongong on the effect of the Second World War in Camden.
The boundary of the Camden district could be: an arbitrary line on a map based on a political decision; a natural region; an idea in someone’s mind; the delivery round of a Camden business; the geographic circulation area of a Camden newspaper; the emotional attachment of a person to a general area called Camden; the catchment area of a special event in Camden; the membership of a Camden organisation; the social networks of people who live in the Camden area; or any combination of these.
From historical research I have conducted I have found the boundary of the Camden district to a moveable feast. By the 1930s it took in an area of 1180 square kilometres and a population of around 5000. The result is on the attached map. It is a combination of the factors outlined above.
Origins of the Camden district
The concept of the Camden district was set in motion by 1827 when the early pattern of the early land grants had determined the road network. This process was re-enforced by the arrival of the tramway in 1882, the road traffic along the Hume Highway going to Goulburn, and the movement of silver from Yerrandarie and coal from the Burragorang Valley to the Camden railhead. As a result, the town became an important transport interchange and centre for economic activity for a district, which extended out to Burragorang Valley and Yerrandarie.
By the 1930s the growth of the town had attracted additional businesses and the town had become the centre for government services and community organisations. The town was a meeting place for local people and acted as a stepping off point to the rest of the outside world.
The district’s population came together on Sale Day (still Tuesdays) to meet and do business. The livestock sales were the town’s busiest day of the week The annual Camden Show was (and still is) always a popular attraction and people came from a wide area to compete and exhibit their crafts, produce and livestock.
Daily life in the Camden district is recorded in the two local newspapers
District life was reported in detail in Camden’s two newspapers, the Camden News and the Camden Advertiser, which were widely circulated in the area. Camden businesses had customers from all over the local area. Some had regular delivery runs that reached to Burragorang Valley and beyond.
Since the 1930s many things have happened. The largest change has been the growth in population, and the town and district are now part of the Greater Metropolitan Area of Sydney. Despite this, the district still has a discernable identity in the minds of local people.
1973 New Cities Plan
The creation of The new cities of Campbelltown, Camden, Appin: structure plan(1973) was one of the most profound changes to the Camden district. The New Cities proposal was part of the 1968 Sydney Region Outline Plan developed by the State Planning Authority of the Askin Liberal government and became a developers’ dream.
Current planners, bureaucrats, businesses, and residents need to have an understanding of this local identity and build on the opportunities that it presents.
Today the Camden district is part of the Macarthur region.
Personal and family stories that family historians and genealogists seek out provide a broader perspective on local histories and local studies of an area. They allow a person to take a look at themselves in the mirror from the past. Insights into our ancestors provide a greater understanding of ourselves in the present. The past informs the present through family and personal histories and places the present us into context.
Family and personal histories allow us to see and understand that we are greater than just ourselves. We are all part of a continuum from the past. The present is only a transitory phase until tomorrow arrives.
Looking at the past through personal and family histories gives a context to our present location on the timeline within our own family. Our own family story is located within the larger story of our community. Personal and family stories remind us daily of our roots and our ancestors.
We all have a past and it is good to be reminded of it occasionally. This is a job that is well done by thousands of enthusiastic family historians and genealogists and their creation of family trees and our connections to our ancestors.
We all need an appreciation of the stories from the past to understand how they affect and create the present. The past has shaped the present and the present will re-shape the future. Our ancestors created us and who we are, and we need to show them due respect. We, in turn, will create the future for our children and their offspring.
One local family were the Pattersons of Elderslie and one of their descendants, Maree Patterson, to seeking to fill out their story. She wants your assistance. Can you help?
The Patterson family of Elderslie
Maree Patterson has written:
I moved from Elderslie in 1999 to Brisbane and I have tried unsuccessfully to find some history on the family.
I am writing this story as I have been trying to research some of my family histories on my father’s side of the family and I feel sad that I never got to know a lot about his family.
My father, Laurence James Henry Patterson, was a well-known cricketer in the Camden district. He was an only child and he didn’t really talk much about his aunts, uncles, and cousins.
My grandfather passed away when I was young. Back then I was not into family history and I’ve hit a stumbling block. I’m now in need of some assistance.
I would really like to find out some history on the Patterson family as I have no idea who I am related to on that side of my family and I would like to pass any family history down.
At the moment I am seeking any help as the following is the only information that I have on the Patterson family.
H Patterson arrives in Elderslie
My great grandfather was Henry Patterson (b. 16 July 1862, Kyneton, Victoria – d. 11th July 1919, Camden, NSW). Henry arrived in Elderslie from Victoria in the 1880s with his wife Catherine (nee Darby) and they became pioneers in the Camden district.
Henry Patterson was a carpenter by trade and worked around the Camden area for various businesses. He and his wife, Catherine had 7 children, all of whom were born in Camden.
They were Ethel Adeline (b. 9 June 1886), Clarice Mabel (b. 14 May 1888), Isabella (b. 2nd June 1890), William Henry (b. 8 May 1892), Stanley Dudley (b. 5 October 1894), Ruby Lillian (b. 24 March 1899 and who passed away at 5 months of age) and Percy Colin (b. 13 January 1903). [Camden Pioneer Register 1800-1920, Camden Area Family History Society, 2001]
Henry’s wife dies
Henry sadly lost his wife Catherine in 1910 at only 47 years of age, which left him to raise 6 children.
Henry remarried in 1912 to Martha Osmond (nee Boxall) from Victoria.
Henry died on 11 July 1929 in Camden District Hospital after pneumonia set in following an operation. Martha, who was well known and respected throughout the district passed away on 18 May 1950 at the age of 86 years of age. She broke her leg and had become bedridden for some months.
Henry’s son goes to war
Henry and Catherine’s 5th child, Stanley Dudley Patterson, was a farmer in Elderslie. He enlisted in the 1/AIF on 18 July 1915 and was sent off to war on 2 November 1915. He was wounded and as his health continued to decline he was sent back to Australia in February 1917.
Voluntary Workers Association helps local digger
Upon Stanley Patterson’s return to Elderslie, a meeting was held by the Camden Branch of the Voluntary Workers’ Association.
They approved the building of a three-roomed weatherboard cottage with a wide verandah front and back to be built at 7 Purcell Street, Elderslie. He was married to Maud Alice Hazell.
Construction of VWA cottage
The land on which the cottage was to be built was donated by Dr. F.W. and Mrs. West. Once the cottage was completed Stanley secured a mortgage to repay the costs of building the cottage. I believe that the construction of this cottage started in either late February or late March 1918.
Carpentering work had been carried out by Messrs. H.S. Woodhouse, A. McGregor, E. Corvan, and H. Patterson. The painters were Messrs. F.K. Brent, J. Grono, A.S. Huthnance. E. Smith, Rex May and A. May under the supervision of Mr. P.W. May. The fencing in front of the allotment was erected by Mr. Watson assisted by Messrs. J. E. Veness, C. Cross, and J. Clissold. [Camden News]
Official handing over of VWA cottage
Stanley Patterson’s cottage in Elderslie, which was the first cottage built by the Voluntary Workers’ Association was officially opened by Mr. J.C. Hunt, M.L.A. on Saturday 15 June 1918.
The Camden News reported:
A procession consisting of the Camden Band, voluntary workers, and the general public, marched from the bank corner to the cottage, where a large number of people had gathered.
Mr. Hunt, who was well received, said he considered it a privilege and an honour to be invited to a ceremony of this kind, for when those who had fought for us needed help it was our duty to give that help, for they had fought for us needed help it was our duty to give that help, for they had sacrificed so much for us. Although Private Patterson had returned from active service, he had offered his life for us. Mr. Hunt congratulated Pte. Patterson on responding to the call of duty; soldiers did not look for praise, the knowledge of having done their duty to their country was all they required. He hoped that Pte. and Mrs. Patterson would live long to enjoy the comforts of the home provided for them by the people of Camden.
[Camden News, Thursday 20 June 1918, page 1]
Appeal for photographs of VWA cottage by CE Coleman
CE Coleman took a few photos of the VWA cottage handed over to Pte. Patterson. These included: one in the course of construction; the official opening; the gathering that had assembled on the day; and a photo of Pte. Patterson. To date, I have searched high and low for these photos but to no avail. The only photo of a cottage built by the Voluntary Workers’ Association is a cottage at 49 Broughton Street, Camden for returned soldier Pt. B. Chesham. [Camden Images Past and Present] [Camden News, Thursday, 20 June 1918, page 4]
VWA cottage is a model farm for other returning soldiers
The Camden News reported:
MODEL POULTRY FARM
Stanley Patterson settled down in his new cottage on 1¼ acres and was determined to make good and earn a livelihood and cultivated the land and planting a small apple and citrus orchard and a vineyard. It wasn’t long before he purchased an adjoining piece of land of another 1¼ acres and within a few more years added another block, giving him 3 ¾ acres.
By 1935, Stanley Patterson owned 14 acres in the vicinity of Elderslie. With his apple and citrus orchard and vineyard, Stanley went into poultry farming as well with particular attention given to the production of good and profitable fowls and he had over 1,000 birds, mainly White Leghorns and Australorps with an extra run of the finest standard Minorca.
In 1935, the progeny test of Stanley Patterson’s birds held a record of 250 eggs and over and the distinctive productivity of these is in the fact that he collects eggs in an off period equal to numbers in flush periods. The marketing value is therefore enhanced. The pens are well divided into different sections, the buildings being on the semi-intensive system each with its own separate run. The brooder house is fitted with the Buckeye principle brooders, also has run for young chicks. The incubator house is a separate identity fitted with a Buckeye incubator of 2,000 eggs capacity, hot air is distributed by means of an electric fan. Feed storage and preparation shed and packing room are conveniently attached and the model poultry farm is one that stands out only to the credit to the industrious owner, but to the district in which it is worked.
In 1935 day old chicks were sold for 3 Pounds per 100 or 50 for 32/-. Day old Pullets were sold for 7 Pounds per 100, eggs for hatching sold for 25/- per 100 and Custom hatching 8/- per tray of 96 eggs. [Camden News, Thursday 20th June 1935, page 6]
My grandfather WH Patterson
My grandfather was William Henry Patterson, the 4th child born to Henry and Catherine Patterson. He was a carpenter like his father and following his marriage to Ruby Muriel Kennedy in 1918, he purchased some acreage in River Road, Elderslie. He had a vineyard, flower beds, fruit trees and other crops on a small farm.
William built his own home at 34 River Road, Elderslie in the early 1920s with some assistance from another builder. The home was a double brick home with a tin roof and consisted of two bedrooms, a bathroom, lounge room, kitchen, laundry and a verandah around 3 sides.
Inside the home, there were a lot of decorative timber and William had also made some furniture for his new home. This home has since gone under some extensive renovations but the front of the home still remains the same today and recently sold for $1.9 million.
As a carpenter William worked locally in the Camden district and on several occasions worked at Camelot. Unfortunately, I have no other information on William.
Contemporary developments at 34 River Road, Elderslie.
Jane reports she is the current owner of 34 River Road Elderslie and has loved finding out about the history of the house. She purchased the house two years ago (2018) and is currently renovating the house interior.
I have been working with Nathan Caines from Fernleigh Drafting & Melanie Redman Designs for the interior, coming up with some beautiful concepts. The original exterior of the house will not be changed, but there will be some amazing changes out the back.
Percy Colin Patterson, the 7th child born to Henry and Catherine Patterson married Christina N Larkin in 1932. In the early 1920s, Percy was a porter at Menangle Railway Station for about 5 months before he was transferred to Sydney Station.
Maree’s search continues
Maree Patterson concludes her story by asking:
I am particularly interested in information on the Camden Branch of the Voluntary Workers’ Association which was formed in 1918.
The WVA built the first cottage at 7 Purcell Street, Elderslie for returned World War 1 soldier Pte. Stanley Dudley Patterson, who was my great uncle.
The house still stands today but has had some modifications and I lived in this cottage for a few years after I was born with my parents.
I am particularly interested in trying to obtain copies of these photos if they exist somewhere. Any assistance you can offer would be greatly appreciated or perhaps point me in the right direction to find these photos.
Caylie writes that she had no idea of what she and her husband David Jeffrey would find when they decided to renovate the worst house on the busiest terrace in Milton, a Brisbane suburb. She says that they had no idea of the treasures they would find ‘secreted inside the house’.
A curious online community of amateur sleuths began a relentless quest for answers. As more clues were revealed, the ghosts of Old Brisbane started to rise from the depths of people’s memories.
One of the most popular memories of the Camden area by locals and visitors alike is the Camden tram, affectionately known as ‘Pansy’. It has always had an enthusiastic bunch of supporters. They positively drool about it and overlook its foibles. Old timers tell and retell Pansy stories to anyone who wants to listen.
Fans gloss over its short comings. All the stories are laced with a pinch of nostalgia and a touch of the romantic. It was a vital part of local life. So why does this old locomotive conjure up such a strident bunch of supporters?
Steam engines and locomotives bring back memories of the glory days of industrialisation and the great days of Australian nationalism in the late Victorian and early 20th century. Great monstrous engines that hissed, spat and groaned. They were mighty machines that were living beings. They had a life and soul of their own. They were responsible for creating the wealth of the British Empire. And Pansy is part of that story.
The Camden branch line was operated by the New South Wales Railways from 1882 to its closure in 1963. The Camden tram was one of a number of standard gauge light rail lines in the Sydney area. The tank locomotive worked a mixed service that took freight and passengers.
Local railway stations
The branch line was thirteen kilometres and had eight stations after leaving Campbelltown station, where it joined the Main Southern Railway. The stations were Maryfields, Kenny Hill, Curran’s Hill, Narellan, Graham’s Hill, Kirkham, Elderslie and finally arriving at Camden.
Most of the stations were no more than a short rudimentary wooden platform with a shelter shed that were unmanned. Others like Camden had a longer platform and an associated goods handling facility. Pansy 1963 on its last run Pansy was a regular part of daily life for those who lived near the line. Locals in the Camden township would listen for the loco’s whistle and know that the morning papers had arrived from Sydney. Legend has it that the engine driver would hold the train for regulars who were running late for work on their way to the city, especially local lasses.
Some of Camden’s better off families sent their children to high school at Parramatta and Homebush each morning on the train. Pansy would chug past the milk factory at the entry to Camden township as local dairy farmers were unloading their cans of milk from their horse and dray. Tourists from Sydney would be dropped off on Friday afternoon at Camden station to be bused to their holiday boarding houses in Burragorang Valley.
The first passenger service left Camden station left at 5.47am to connect with the Sydney service onthe Main Southern Line. On the return journey the last passenger service from Campbelltown left at 9.44pm. During the Second World War the tram provided transport for many servicemen (Army, RAAF) who were based at local military establishments.
Airmen from Camden airfield would catch the train to Sydney for weekend leave, and would be joined by soldiers from Narellan military base and Studley Park Eastern Command Training School. Camden station and good yards were located adjacent to Edward Street, with a siding to the Camden Vale milk factory. Coal from the Burragorang Valley mines was loaded at Camden yard from 1937, although this was transferred to Narellan in 1941 and eventually the Main Southern Line at Glenlee in the late 1950s. But even by the 1940s the limitations of the narrow gauge line for caring freight were showing cracks.
The writing was on the wall for a while
From its enthusiastic opening the tram never really lived up to its predictions. The mixed goods and passenger service was of limited value. Its light gauge restricted the loads and the grade of the line, particularly over Kenny Hill, severely limited its capabilities. Even in 1939 there were already signs of the eventual demise of the branch line with more coal leaving the district by road than rail.
Its days were numbered and the writing was on the wall. Its death blow was delivered by the Heffron ALP Government in 1963 as a cost cutting exercise and a drive from modernization of the railway system across the state. Diesel was the new god.
Railway heritage and archaeology
For current enthusiasts with a keen eye there are remnants of the embankments and cuttings for the narrow gauge line still visible in the area. As visitors leave the Camden township travelling north along Camden Valley Way (old Hume Highway) embankments, culverts and earthworks are still visible in the farm paddocks on the Nepean River floodplain.
You can make out the right of way as it crosses Kirkham Lane and heads towards Narellan before disappearing into a housing estate. For those with a sharp eye a cutting is still evident on the northern side of Narellan Road at Kenny Hill just as you take then entry ramp onto the freeway going to Sydney. It appears as a bench above the roadway and is evident for a short distance. (for details see Peter Mylrea, ‘Camden Campbelltown Railway’, Camden History March 2009, p. 254263).
A number of streets in Curran’s Hill are connected to the history of Pansy. Tramway Drive is close to the route of the train and a number of other streets are named after past railway employees, for example, Paddy Miller. The Camden Community Band celebrates the legend of Pansy in their repertoire. They play a tune called The Camden Tram written by Buddy Williams a Camden resident of the 1960s.
Visit the real thing
Are you interested in seeing the real deal? Do you want to see what all the fuss is about for yourself? Go and inspect the real Pansy: ‘the steam locomotive 2029 and a small composite multi-class 13/09/2015 The glory of steam, Pansy, the Camden tram carriage’. They are on display at the New South Wales Transport Museum and Trainworks, Barbour Rd Thirlmere NSW 2572 (02) 4681 8001
The Camden Community Band added the tune ‘The Camden Train’ to its repertoire. The lyrics tell an interesting story about Pansy, the locomotive. It was written by Camden local Buddy Williams about the time of the last run on of the train in 1963.
A popular TV drama ‘A Place to Call Home’ on Channel 7 has been set in and around the Camden district. Amongst the characters is the fictional 1950s matriarch of the Bligh family, Elizabeth (Noni Hazlehurst). This figure has a number of striking parallels with Camden’s own 20th century female patrician figures.
Camden’s matriarchs, just like Elizabeth, were formidable figures in their own right and left their mark on the community. The fictional Elizabeth Bligh lives on the family estate Ash Park (Camelot, formerly Kirkham) in the country town of Inverness during the 1950s.
Frances Faithful Anderson
Kirkham’s own Elizabeth Bligh was Frances Faithful Anderson, who moved to the Camden area with her husband, William, in the 1890s. She renamed James White’s fairytale castle Kirkham, Camelot, in 1900 after being reminded of the opening verse of Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott. Frances (d. 1948) lived in the house, with her daughter Clarice, until her death. Both women were shy and retiring and stayed out public gaze in Camden, unlike the domineering fictional character of Elizabeth Bligh. The Anderson women were supporters of the Camden Red Cross, Women’s Voluntary Services, the Country Women’s Association, Camden District Hospital and the Camden Recreation Room during the Second World War (DR, 29/3/13). Clarice willed Camelot to the NSW National Trust, according to Jonathan Chancellor. The NSW Supreme Court rule in 1981 that her mother’s 1938 will took precedence. Frances wanted the house to become a convalescent home, but this clashed with zoning restrictions.
Camden’s Edwardian period was dominated by the figure of Elizabeth Macarthur Onslow of Camden Park. She took control of Camden Park in 1882 when her husband Arthur died. Under her skilful management the family estate was clear of debt by 1890 and she subsequently re-organised the estate. She established the pastoral company Camden Park Estate Pty Ltd, with her children as shareholders. Heritage consultant Chris Betteridge states that she organised the estates co-operative diary farms, built creameries at Camden and Menangle, orchards and a piggery. Elizabeth was a Victorian philanthropist, a Lady Bountiful figure, and according to Susanna De Vries was a strong supporter of a number of local community organisations including the fore-runner of the Camden Show Society, the Camden AH&I Society. She died on one of her many trips to England and has dropped out of Australian history.
Sibella Macarthur Onslow
Elizabeth’s daughter, Sibella, was a larger than life figure during Camden’s Inter-war period and was quite a formidable figure in her own right. She grew up at Camden Park and moved to Gilbulla in 1931, which had been the home of her sister-in-law, Enid Macarthur Onslow. Sibella never married and fulfilled the role of a powerful Camden patrician figure. She was a true female matriarch amongst her brothers who took public positions of power in the New South Wales business community. She was one of the most powerful female figures in New South Wales and her personal contact network included royalty, politicians and the wealthy elite of Sydney and London. Macarthur Onslow possessed strong conservative Christian values and was an active figure in the Sydney Anglican Archdiocese. She was a Victorian-style philanthropist and was president of the Camden Red Cross from 1927 until her death in 1943.
The power vacuum in Camden’s women’s affairs left by the death of Sibella Macarthur Onslow was filled by Rita Tucker of The Woodlands, at Theresa Park. She had a high community profile in 1950s Camden and was well remembered by those who dealt with her. She became president of the Camden Country Women’s Association in 1939 and held the position until her death in 1961. She was a journalist and part-time editor of the North West Courier at Narrabri before she moved to Camden with her husband Rupert in 1929. She was an active member of the Camden Liberal Party in the 1950s, holding a number of positions, and was New South Wales vice-president of the CWA between 1947 and 1951. She was an accomplished musician and played the organ at the Camden Presbyterian Church in the early 1940s.
A contemporary of Tucker was Zoe Crookston, the wife of Camden surgeon, Robert Crookston. A shy retiring type, she lived in grand Victorian mansion at the top of John Street and was the wartime president of the Women’s Voluntary Services. She was a Presbyterian, a liberal-conservative and an active committee member of the United Australia Party in the 1930s. According to her daughter Jacqueline, ‘her mother was a no-nonsense person who always liked to get on with the job at hand’. She was a foundation member of the Camden Red Cross and was actively involved until 1949. Other community organisations occupied her time including being on the committee of the Camden District Hospital Women’s Auxiliary from 1933 to 1945.
The conference proceedings began on Day One with a traditional welcome to conference delegates at the Waipapa Marae within the grounds of the University of Auckland.
The conference covered a number of themes ranging from museums, to influenza, public health, medical research, women’s health, vaccination, biography, tropical disease, medicine and war, childbirth, non-western medicine, and others.
There were over 110 papers covering a range of challenging and stimulating topics that crossed the boundaries from clinical matters from the past to more general histories. Medical history attracts a cross-disciplinary cohort ranging from clinicians, practitioners, historians of various stripes, archivists, museum professionals and others. The discipline has a transnational following that was reflected in delegates from around the globe including Korea, UK, USA, Australia, Philippines, Canada, Russia, and the host New Zealand.
The keynote speakers represented the transnational nature of the conference and the cross-disciplinary following of the research area. From the University of Exeter there was Mark Jackson’s ‘Life begins at 40: the cultural and biological roots of the midlife crisis’ where he argued that this concept and experience is a product of the lifestyle of the 20th century. Nursing historian Christine Hallett’s ‘Between ivory tower and marketplace: the Nurses of Passchendaele project and the perils of public history’ argued that the desire of community engagement and university agendas has led to debates about the nature of public history. Yale University’s Naomi Rogers examined health activism in the USA in her paper ‘Between ivory tower and marketplace: the Nurses of Passchendaele project and the perils of public history’ and finally the University of Auckland’s Derek Dow reflected on evolution and revolution in the history of medicine since the 1960s in ‘Inert and blundering: one medical historian’s odyssey 1969-2019’.
I presented a paper called ‘A helping hand: Red Cross convalescent homes in New South Wales, 1914-1916. In this paper I argue that the military medical authorities and the patriotic funds were poorly prepared for the outbreak of war and failed to come to grips with the issue for months. The newly established Red Cross stepped into the breach and undertook groundbreaking work in the area of soldier convalescence, initially with homestays and then eventually establishing the first dedicated convalescent homes in New South Wales.
The power of the past in the present
The European past of New Zealand is front and centre within the grounds of the University of Auckland. There are a number of important heritage buildings linked to the period when Auckland was the nation’s capital. The outstanding example is the Old Government House at the bottom of the campus surrounded by pleasant gardens and lawns.
Walking around Auckland Harbour precinct I was struck by the vibrancy of the city. In part from the upcoming 2021 America’s Cup Challenge and the growth of Pacific rim cities like Sydney, Vancouver, San Francisco and Auckland. The city has a relaxed aesthetic with a dynamic youthfulness – just like a big country town. The huge cruise liners disgorge their passengers to spend up the high-end fashion outlets along Queen Street, all within sight of the longshore wharves and container terminal.
The city fathers have not lost sight of the past and have gone for adaptive re-use of old mercantile buildings in the Harbour precinct. There are some striking examples of heritage retention that could be models for town planners in Australian cities and towns.
Tourism can provide these benefits if handled with sensitivity and an understanding that the visitor is seeking evidence of authenticity and a genuine representation of the past. The city precinct demonstrates that heritage and history does not have to sacrificed in the search for economic prosperity and job creation.
Flooding of the Nepean River on the Camden floodplain
What is the Camden ‘bathtub effect’?
Not sure – well you are not on your own.
The ‘bathtub effect’ is part of the flooding effect created by the landform that makes up the Hawkesbury-Nepean River system. The river system has a unique floodplain system that creates particular problems for local residents and others along the river.
The natural characteristics of the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley make it particularly susceptible to significant flood risk. The combination of the large upstream catchments and narrow downstream sandstone gorges results in floodwaters backing up behind these natural ‘choke points’
The Hawkesbury-Nepean River system has four localised floodplains created by four choke points along the river. Each of these ‘choke points’ is created by a local gorge along with the river system – Bents Basin Gorge, Nepean Gorge, Castlereagh Gorge and the Sackville Gorge.
Each of the four localised floodplains upstream from the four gorges acts like a ‘bath tub’ in a period of high rainfall, with floodwater flow choked off by the gorges. The gorge restricts the floodwater flow and the river rises quickly behind the gorge at the end of the local floodplain.
Camden’s ‘bathtub effect’
The 2015 Nepean River Flood Plain Report and the flood maps clearly show how the Bents Basin Gorge acts as a ‘choke point’. The gorge creates a ‘bathtub’ upstream along with the Nepean River floodplain from the entrance of the gorge. The floodplain upstream from the gorge starts around Rossmore, then continues upstream to Cobbitty, to Camden and ends at Menangle.
While the Camden ‘bathtub effect’ is not as dramatic and dangerous as those created in the Penrith-Emu Plains area or the effect of the Sackville Gorge at Windsor and Richmond – it is real.
flows escaping from the Nepean River are known to inundate the low lying areas of Camden and certain sections within South Camden and Elderslie. Floodplain areas along many of the tributaries of the river (particularly Narellan Creek and Matahil Creek) are also known to be affected by backwater flooding from the Nepean River during flood events.
Floods are characterized by rapid river rises with flooding commencing as quickly as 6-12 hrs after the commencement of heavy rain if the catchment is already saturated. Under flood conditions, the Nepean River overflows its banks and commences to inundate the low lying floodplain around Camden during floods of 8.5m on the Cowpasture Bridge gauge. (Appendix, pp. A1-A3)
Causes of flooding along the Hawkesbury-Nepean River on the Camden floodplain
The headwaters of the Nepean River floodplain at Camden is the Upper Nepean Catchment. This geographic area drains the Avon, Cataract, Cordeaux and Nepean Rivers, with dams on each waterway.
The catchment of the Nepean River above the Warragamba River junction, below Warragamba Dam, is around 1800km2
The wettest conditions are usually created by low-pressure systems, called east coast lows, that form up off the South Coast of New South Wales. The low-pressure systems moving onshore and the Illawarra Escarpment’s orographic effect can produce heavy rainfall events.
Floods have occurred in all months of the year. The highest recorded flood at Camden occurred in 1873, when a height of 16.5m was recorded on the Camden gauge (approximately a 200yr ARI). [Cowpasture Bridge, Camden]
Other major floods occurred in 1860 (14.1m), 1867 (14.0m), and 1898 (15.2m). In recent times, major floods have occurred in 1964 (14.1m) and 1978 (13.5m) with moderate to major flooding occurring in 1975 (12.8m) and 1988 (12.8m). (Appendix, pp. A1-A3)
A report of the 1898 flood event at Camden taken from the Camden News 17 February 1898 gives clarity of how quickly the river can rise in the local area:
Near midnight on Saturday rain began to fall, at first with moderation, towards day break gusts of wind sprang up from the South East bringing heavy rain, lowering the crops in its passage, even majestic trees were torn up by their roots and in sheltered paddocks the trees were denuded of large limbs.
Sunday all day the wind blew with hurricane force; early on Monday morning the storm somewhat abated in its velocity.
Even on Sunday midnight no apprehension of a flood was anticipated by the Camden townspeople the continuous rain and boisterous weather, however made the more Cautious anxious, and one tradesman took the precaution to look after his horses in near paddock when the danger of a flood was manifested to him, the Nepean River had suddenly risen and was flooding the flats.
A report in the Camden News of the 1911 Camden flood event provides further clarity around the behaviour of the river:
The rain of Thursday, it may naturally be expected filled creeks, dams and watercourses to overflowing, but the climax came with a heavy storm between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., when some four inches [100mm] of rain fell. This brought the local water down from the adjoining hills in torrents, the Main Southern Road and Carrington Road were then covered with some two feet of fast rushing water, and on Druitt Road the local flood was then absolutely impassable..
In the early hours the Nepean River rose rapidly, and before the arrival of the first train the bridge was impassable ; the water continued to rise till about 3.15 in the afternoon, it having then reached it highest point, covering the new embankment between the town and the bridge, running through the Chinese quarters on the one side, and just into the pavilion on the show ground on the other. From near Druitt Road to Beard’s Lane was one long stretch of water….
“The Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley is throttled down by a narrow gorge down near what’s called Sackville, which is just upstream of Wiseman’s Ferry,” he said.
“The result of that is that the water can flow into the top of the system very, very rapidly, can’t get out, and so you get very dramatic rises in the level of the river.
“So normal river level might be two metres; if you’re at the town of Windsor and in the most extreme thought possible, that could rise up to 26 metres, which is a number that’s quite hard to comprehend.”
‘The enormous body of water rushing down with relentless force on its way to the sea could not be easily described, nor its effects conceived. About the neighbourhood of Windsor, now that the waters are fast subsiding, the scene is most dreary, and the destruction caused be -comes every day more apparent. The feeling of bitter anguish expressed not in words but in the blank look of utter despair would move the most hardened.
Flooding is a normal part of the cycle of the Hawkesbury-Nepean River system, as it is for any river basin in Australia.
The particular landform features of the Hawkesbury-Nepean with its four gorges along the river produce four localised floodplains that create a local ‘bathtub effect’ on the local floodplain.
This landform effect of the river gorges creates flooding severity in the local communities.
Updated 4 July 2022. First posted 29 November 2019.
On a balmy late spring afternoon in central Camden a group of local people were conducting a photoshoot.
The late afternoon provided a deep even light that was ideal for the whole venture.
None were professional filmmakers. But that did not stop anyone.
The filming dodged pedestrians and was occasionally drowned out by local buses.
Historic John Street precinct
The project centred around the historic John Street precinct.
The film venture involved storytelling, great yarns, interesting characters, old buildings and lots of making do.
The location provided a rich collection of old buildings that speak about the past for those who want to listen. History enthusiasts can immerse themselves in the past in the present by walking the ground – the same streets as local identities and characters have done for decades.
This motley group wandered around a number of Camden’s old buildings – Laura Jane acted as storyteller for the 1-2 minutes historic grabs. LJ was full of passion in her completely ad lib performances. Ian listened for any gaffs – which were few and far between.
Debbie followed Laura Jane around with her handheld – tripod held – iphone camera. If she was lucky a bus didn’t drown LJ’s monologue. The roadies held all the bits and pieces – then reviewed the take and ably provided all sorts of advice – most it wisely ignored by the camera operator and storyteller.
The most challenging story was that of Henry Thompson’s Macaria from the 1870s, the ghosts and Henry’s 16 children. This is next door to the 1840s Sarah Tiffin’s cottage, one of the oldest buildings in the local area and one time lockup.
The Cawdor court house ended up in Camden in 1841 much to chagrin of Picton and Campbelltown which missed out. Next door is the 1878 police barracks which was always a site of plenty of action where miscreants were locked up in the cells to cool off.
The 1916 fire station which was really opened in 1917 was an improvement from the pig-sty in Hill Street. Next door is the modern library once the centre of learning and speeches in the town as the 1866 Camden School of Arts set up by James Macarthur.
Our storyteller and camera operator filmed a street walk outside the 1936 Bank of New South Wales building and its neighbor the 1937 banking chamber for the Rural Bank – interwar masterpieces.
The festival draws on a rich history of community festivals in the local area going back into the 1800s. The heritage of festivals is drawn from the English tradition of the village fair that came with the European settlers.
The origins of these festivals, according to Peter Hampson Ditchfield’s Old English Sports (2007), lies in ancient Saxon customs, particularly in Devonshire and Sussex, associated with ‘wassailing’ (carousing and health-drinking) to ensure the thriving of orchard trees (mainly apples) and exchanging presents.
On New Years Day village youths undertook indoor and outdoor sport to keep out the cold by ‘wholesome exercise and recreative games’. Sports included bat-and-ball, wrestling, skittles, blind-man’s-bluff, hunt the slipper, sword dancing and mumming (play acting).
In the financial year 2017–18 Australia generated $57.3 billion in direct tourism GDP representing growth of 7 percent over the previous year – three times the national GDP growth of 2.3%. Tourism also directly employed 646,000 Australians (1 in 19) making up 5.2% of Australia’s workforce.
In Australia and around the world, cultural tourism is growing. In 2015 NSW hosted over 11.4 million ‘cultural and heritage visitors’,1 both international and domestic, who spent an estimated $11.2 billion in the state, an increase of 15.4% on the previous year.
Janice Johnson (ed), Camden Through a Poet’s Eyes, Charles Tompson (Jnr). Camden Historical Society, Camden, 2019. pp.126. ISBN 978-0-6485894-9-5
In 1854 Charles Tompson described that the ‘village of Camden’ had ‘the aspect and the attributes of an English village’ (p.118) In doing so he was probably the first European to describe Camden’s Englishness, an attribute that numerous writers have agreed with, particularly in the early 20th century. Tompson was not the first to note the Englishness of the Cowpasture district. That privilege belonged to John Hawdon in 1828.
These are some of the observations of the Cowpastures drawn from the pen of Charles Tompson in a new collection of his work, Camden Through a Poet’s Eye, Charles Tompson (Jnr). The Camden Historical Society has published a work that the late Janice Johnson had had been working on while she was alive. The book has been funded by a bequest Johnson estate.
Tompson was a prolific writer and observer of the Cowpastures under the byline ‘From our Correspondent – Camden’ for The Sydney Morning Herald between 1847 and 1852. He wrote about the ordinariness of the area, while occupying the position of Clerk of Petty Sessions and his reports are far from ordinary.
Tompson was an educated man by colonial standards, born on the Castlereagh and attending the local parish school run by Irish rebel Rev. Henry Fulton. His observations are full of colour and movement and provide an invaluable archive of data, descriptions and general goings-on across the area.
Tompson published regular reports on a host of topics including farming, the weather, cropping, local identities, police rounds, court proceedings and the movement of people through the area, amongst other topics. He was an astute observer and has provided the earliest detailed overview of the early years of the Camden village from his position at the local court house.
A detailed reading of Tompson’s work provides the patient and curious observer with a detailed description of rural life in the Cowpastures. In 1847 Tompson identified the area as the Cowpastures (p.23) as it was to remain into the late 19th century. He provided a useful descriptions of the area (p.23). For example, there was a constant shortage of farm labour in 1847 to cut hay by hand on ‘small scale’ farms across the area worked by smallholders. (p.28). Maize was planted in October (p.28), and wheat and hay were harvested by hand-sickle in November (p.33), although the drought restricted the harvest (p.32).
Market prices are provided for those who need to know about such things. Horses were worth between £8 to £10 in 1847 (p.29), wheat might get 4/6 a bushel, maize worth 2/- a bushel, and good hay was worth £10 per ton.(p.32). By March 1848 price of wheat had dropped to 3/6 to 4/- a bushel, while fine flour was worth £12 a ton, and vegetables were scarce with potatoes between 1d to 1½d per pound (p.42). Flour was ground at one of mills in the area.(p.23)
The local population and its growth (p.23) were detailed by Tompson along with the villages and hamlets in the immediate area including Narellan, Cobbitty (p.24), Picton and Menangle (p.25). Tompson could be effusive in his description and Cobbitty was a ‘diamond of the desert on the dead sea shore’ while he could be more grounded and just described Narellan as the ‘Government township’. (p. 24)
The local colonial grants are detailed for the reader and their links to each location. Cobbitty was surrounded by ‘Wivenhoe, Denbigh, Matavai and Brownlow Hill – all beautiful in their own way – from the homely milkmaid-like undecorated farm and the verandahed cottage, with group plantations, to the elegant Italian villa, embowered in orange groves, and the secluded chateau of dignified retirement’ (p.24). Similar descriptions were used by travel writers in the early 20th century.
The gentry estates were the same ones that reminded Englishman John Hawdon of his Durham homeland in the 1820s. The description of the landscape provided by Tompson reminds the reader how short the gap was in years between the original European settlement of the Cowpastures and his presence in the Camden village in the 1840s.
Camden Park was described by Tompson as ‘magnificent’, which had in the last few years had ‘been opened up and cultivated by a story of primitive pioneer who takes farms on clearing leases’ (pp24-25). The tenant farmers were not the yeoman farmer the British colonial authorities were trying to create at the time. They were closer to a peasant culture. Tompson likened Camden Park to a European ‘principality’ rather than the gentry ‘Estate’ it was and would remain for over the next 150 years. (p.26)
The Razorback Range was ‘scarcely…a mountain’ and was ‘in fact a tract of excellent arable land’. The Nepean River and Bent’s Basin was a ‘small lake of about a furlong’s diameter’ and it was ‘round and deep’. (p.27)
The weather was an ever-constant in Tompson’s travails of the Cowpastures as were the constant dry spells that are all part of the Australian environment. He laments ‘how sadly the rain keeps off’ in October 1847 (p.27) A month later he left his thermometer in the sun and it rose to 1200F when left on the ground on his way home from church (p.28). He observed that the continued dry spell of 1847 had ‘driven’ the smallholders ‘to despair’ (p.28).
Thunderstorms unsurprisingly were typical of a summer’s afternoon across the Cowpastures. In December 1847 a ‘heavy thunder storm passed over, without much rain’ (p.33) as it still happens today. Thunderstorms could be the cause of bush fires that burnt throughout the hotter months of the year (p.30). Fire was been an ever-present part of the Cowpasture’s ecology – both natural and man-managed – by Indigenous Australians.
Tompson was not a fan of the Indigenous people and possessed the British attitude to the inferior nature of the Australian Aborigine that was the basis the settler society colonial project. In March 1848 ‘the blacks [Dharawal] from the south country always visit the Cowpasture…in great numbers’. Reminiscent that the colonial frontier could be violent site and a male domain. Tompson reported that there was a woman of a lonely farm hut ‘scarcely considers her safe’ as the Indigenous people moved through the area ‘in the absence of her husband’.(p.44)
The newbies to the local area in the 21st century could do themselves a favour and read the description of the 1848 flood at Camden. The flood was caused by an east-coast-low-pressure-system as they are in eastern Australia’s today. The 1848 flood event was over after three days with its peak reached within 24 hours of the river starting to rise. Tompson witnessed an ‘expanse of water several miles in circumference’ that had previously ‘dry land’. (p.43)
Disease was a problem with influenza (p.31) prevalent in 1847 and ‘everybody is wrapped up, pale, coughing and wearing a certain indescribable dreamy appearance’. (p.31) Tompson reported the presence of scarlet fever in 1848 (p.61) and called it scarlatina (p.61) as it was also known. Even as early as 1848 the Camden village was regarded by many Sydney ‘invalid refugees’ as a type of health resort with many staying at Lakeman’s Camden Inn. (p.61)
The very English activity of hunting made an appearance in 1849 and the Sydney gentry brought their ‘dingo hounds’ with them. Tompson reported that they were joined by some local ‘gentlemen’ and went deer hunting ‘in the bosky glens of the Razorback’. It was reported that some hounds ‘ran down a fine kangaroo’ and the party returned drenched ‘by heavy rain’. The following day the party moved to Varroville.(p.79)
Janice Johnson’s collection of Tompson’s musings and sometimes whimsical commentary on life in the Cowpastures is a convenient summary of work published in the Sydney Morning Herald. The researcher does not have to wade through hundreds of pages looking for a short descriptive paragraph as Alan Atkinson did for his work on Camden.
Johnson has done the hard graft by extracting these snippets of Cowpasture life using the National Library’s wonderful database Trove. This is a treasure trove of information for any researcher complemented by a useful index. For those interested in colonial New South Wales this book should be a standard reference of the colonial period in any library.
The CHN blogger attended an informative and interesting talk at Belgenny Farm in the Home Farm meeting hall. The presentation was delivered by Peter Watson from the Howell Living History Farm in Lambertville, New Jersey, USA.
Mr Watson, an advocate of the living history movement, was the guest of the chairman of the Belgenny Farm Trust Dr Cameron Archer. Mr Watson was on a speaking tour and had attended a living history conference while in Australia.
Mr Watson said, ‘The 130 acre farm was gifted to the community in 1974 by a state politician with the aim of showing how farming used to be done in New Jersey.
Howell Living History Farm is located within a one hour of around 15 million and the far has 65,000 visitors per year and 10,000 school children.
Mr Watson said,
‘We took about 10 years to get going and deal with the planning process, which was tenuous for the government authorities who own the farm.
Mr Watson said,
‘The main aim at the farm is the visitor experience. The farm represents New Jersey farming between 1890 and 1910 – a moment in time.’
Mr Watson says,
‘We do not want to allow history to get in the way of an education experience for the visitor. The farm visitors are attracted by nostalgia which is an important value for them.
Most historic farms are museums, according to Mr Watson and he said, ‘At Howell Living History Farm visitors become involved in activities.’
The farm uses original equipment using traditional methods and interpretation with living history.
The Living History Movement
Historian Patrick McCarthy considers that living history is concerned with (1) ‘first person’ interpretation or role play (2) adopting authentic appearance (3) re-creating the original historic site of the event.
Living historian Scott Magelssen maintains that living history museums ‘engage strategies in their performance of the past’, claiming to be ‘real history by virtue of their attention to detail’. Living history museums ‘do not merely represent the past; they make historical ‘truth’ for the visitor’. (pp. xii-xv)
According to Magelssen living history museums ‘produce history’ like textbooks, films or a lecture. Under the influence of post-modernism history ‘is on longer to be seen as the reconstruction of the past through scientific analysis’. Living history is a research tool. (pp. xii-xv) There are various interpretations on the way this is constructed, configured and delivered amongst the theorists.
Origins of living history museum movement
One of the early influencers of the living history movement in North America was Henry Ford who established his indoor and outdoor living museum experience in the Detroit suburb of Dearbourn in Michigan USA. It is the largest indoor-outdoor museum complex in the USA and attracts 1.6 million visitors. Ford opened the Greenfield Village to the public in 1933 as the first outdoor living museum in the USA and has over 100 buildings moved to the site dating from the 1700s. Henry Ford said of his museum
I am collecting the history of our people as written into things their hands made and used…. When we are through, we shall have reproduced American life as lived, and that, I think, is the best way of preserving at least a part of our history and tradition…
Living history @ Belgenny
Belgenny Farm is an authentic collection of colonial farm buildings that were once part of the Macarthur family’s Camden Park Estate.
The Belgenny Farm website states that its education program adopts the principles of the living history movement. It states:
Schools enjoy a diverse range of hands-on curriculum based programs including the new Creamery Interpretative Centre. The Creamery showcases the dairy industry over the last 200 years and is supported by a virtual tour and online resources.
And more to the point:
Belgenny Farmwas established by John and Elizabeth Macarthur in 1805 and contains the earliest collection of colonial farm buildings in Australia. The property is a major educational centre with direct links to Australia’s agricultural history.
Sydney Living Museums
Sydney Living Museums is part of the living history museum movement and manages 12 historic properties across NSW. The stated role of SLM is to:
enrich and revitalise people’s lives with Sydney’s living history, and to hand the precious places in our care and their collections on to future generations to enjoy.
to refresh and unify our diverse range of properties and highlight our role and relevance for current and future generations.
Living history is storytelling
Living history is walking the ground of an historical event or place or building. Walking the ground shows the layers of meaning in history in a place or building.
Walking the ground is an authentic real experience.
Participants absorb the past that is located in the present of a place or a site. The past is the present and the past determines the present. It shapes, meaning and interpretation. It is the lived experience of a place.
Living history allows participants to be able to read: the layers of history of an area; the layers of meaning in a landscape; or the layers of history in a building.
It is like peeling off layers of paint from a wall when viewers peel back the layers of history of a site, building or place. Each layer has a special meaning – a special presence.
Lived experience leads to storytelling which is real and authentic.
Storytelling creates the meaning of the past and creates the characters of the past in the present. It allows the past to speak to the present.
An enthusiastic crowd gathered on a balmy evening in Camden’s John Street historic precinct anticipating the opening of a new art gallery. The twilight evening event provided just the right atmosphere for this once in a generation event for the town centre.
The event was the opening of the Alan Baker Art Collection which is housed in the fully restored grand Gothic-inspired town residence of Henry Thompson (1860) called Macaria. Even today after 150 years Macaria is still an important architectural statement as part of Camden’s John Street colonial streetscape and historic precinct. The precinct includes the police barracks, the old school of arts building and temperance hall, the commercial bank building, the Tiffin cottage all topped off by the magnificent vista of St John’ Church rising above the town centre.
Alan Baker, the artist and a life story
Alan Baker was a true local identity and he, his wife Majorie and the family had a profound influence shaping the art scene in the Camden district in the second half of the 20th century. Alan Baker helped shape the lives of a host of Camden artists including Patricia Johnson, Nola Tegel, Olive McAleer and Gary Baker. Baker also contributed to the broader art world through his vice-presidency of the Royal Art Society of New South Wales.
Baker’s artwork and ‘the collection tells the story of life…and the journey of the artist’, according to his son Gary. The exhibition highlights the two identifiable periods in Alan’s artistic career. Divided by the tragic drowning death of Alan and Marjorie’s two sons in a Georges River boating accident in 1961.
Alan’s work after the tragedy has a more contemplative approach. The paintings have a ‘zen’ quality, according to Gary, and reflect the ‘stories of love, family, community, war, beauty, darkness and tragedy’.
The literal meaning of zen is a Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism emphasizing the value of meditation and intuition. Applied to artwork it might mean that Alan Baker was inspired by the contemplative aesthetic of the house garden and bush surroundings at his home at The Oaks.
Gary Baker maintains that there is a ‘purity’ to Alan’s work and it was centred on Alan’s studio and the way the light played with it. Gary explains the process his father used to create his artworks:
My father’s studio was located under his house at Belimba Park. It had one south window and it was cool dark and silent. There was a large sandstone rock over which dripped water. The water seeped from underground and was all around where he sat to work. The light was pure without any other sources and then went to total darkness further into the room, which was rather like a cellar.
In the morning he would pick fresh flowers that he grew with my mother’s help. He would choose them from their extensive garden. Hundreds of camellias, roses, Japonica, peaches and all sorts blossom trees, annuals and perennials. He would arrange them with great care. Aware he only had time to paint them for the life of the flower. Sometimes one or two days.
The flowers would move to the light as the day passed. They were truly living. Some would fall to the table. They constantly changed. After arranging them he would cut a board that fitted the composition. Not being restricted to stock size he made his own frames.
During the process of painting, I felt he was in a state of meditation. He often with classical music playing. There was a rhythm to his work leading to this state of mind. His technical skill learned over decades enabled him to get to this heightened state.
He didn’t have to focus on the difficulties of drawing colour tone, instead used his intuition. Sitting in an upright position close to his board he would spend hours or days completing the painting until done. He never over painted and rarely moved away from his easels to view his work during the painting stage.
The flowers had a stability and calmness. They are asymmetric in design. The reflections on the glass table show a sort of purity calmness. The delicate flowers capture a purity or truthfulness. The flowers were almost textured, the way the paint is applied.
His brush strokes are simplified. Directly confident. Almost abstract. I see a likeness to Chinese ink painting techniques. The designs with the vase in the middle. Most art teachers say that it should not be done this way.
I see some of his paintings as being perfect! I see how they are living, not still. I see the air flow around them. Even viewing at different angles the texture of the paint changes the look of each painting. They are so complex and yet so simple. The brush strokes are very pronounced on board enhancing a textured feel. He did not use canvas.
Flowers themselves are universal symbols of remembrance love. I feel that he was chasing perfection in beauty. His paintings of flowers seem to speak to people with this. Many a man has said to me that they do not look like flower paintings. His are different. You can appreciate that! His floral work is from the heart not intellectual. I feel it’s spiritual.
Alan and Marjorie made The Oaks their home after the 1961 tragedy and maybe Baker was searching for the truth through the subject material he chose for his work. Certainly Alan’s still-life paintings absorbed a large of amount of his artistic effort and possibly account for Gary labelling his work as a form of ‘realism’.
Realism was an artistic movement that appeared in France in the mid-19th century when Realists rejected Romanticism and its exotic subject matters and emotional influences. Romanticism had dominated French art from the mid-18th century. Realism, as an art movement, sought to portray the truth and accuracy of daily life and growing in parallel with the new visual source of photography.
Alan Baker certainly does not pander to sentimentalism or heroic depiction of subjects as 19th century Romantic might have done. The Realists, as Alan’s work represents, rejected the sentimental and heroic and they the later tradition of the moderne. Alan was not a fan of modernist abstract and avant-garde styles of painting. Alan was a technician which was the basis of his commercial art commissions during the Interwar period for Tooths Hotels and others.
Gary goes on about his father’s artwork:
This is the other side of his work. When you walk back and see his work from a distance. It comes into focus. You see a realist painting, the simple brush strokes disappear. He was so well trained in the art skills of tone, drawing and colour. He found modern art to be “the refuse of the incompetent”.
Alan learnt his trade at the J.S. Watkins Art School where he studied drawing at 13 years of age. Watkins had set up his art school after returning to Australia after studying in Paris in 1898 above the Julian Ashton’s art school in King Street. By 1927 when Alan Baker was attending it had moved to 56 Margaret Street Sydney.
At the Watkins art school Alan was trained in tonal drawing in pencil charcoal, pen and washes and later oils, according to Gary’s biography of his father. The art school provided a competitive environment and Alan thrived in it. His mentors included Henry Hanke, Normand Baker (his brother ) and William Pidgen and Alan later became a teacher at the school.
In 1936 at 22 years of age Alan had a self-portrait accepted in the Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Alan’s brother Normand won the Archibald prize in 1937 with his Self Portrait and the travelling scholarship in 1939. Between 1932 and 1972, according to Gary Baker, Alan entered the Archibald Prize with 35 separate paintings and made the finals 26 times. In 1969 he submitted a portrait of Camden surgeon Gordon Clowes which made the final selection that year.
The Alan Baker Art Collection is representative of the art genres that Alan practised his career. They are portraiture, still life, landscape, seascape, life drawing and life painting. These artistic genres have long history in Western art and Alan drew on these traditions.
The exhibitions has a number of examples of Baker’s commercial hotel posters, pencil drawings and portraits. Some were completed during his war service in New Guinea and the Pacific where he painted Papuans, fellow diggers and others. Alan enlisted in 1942 in the Australian Army with the rank of private and served in New Guinea. On discharge in 1945 he was with the 2 Australian Watercraft Workshop AEME (Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers).
After the war he met Marjorie Whitchurch (formerly Kingsell) who had taken up art classes at the Watkins art school. Alan worked an instructor at the school after he was demobbed from the army. Marjorie fled Singapore in 1942 when the Japanese invaded the city, and in the process she lost her husband, who died on the Burma Railway, her home and her possessions.
After Alan dated Marjorie for a year they married in 1946. They lived in primitive accommodation at Moorebank with few facilities. Their first child was born in 1947. Alan’s career started to prosper and he had a painting of his wife Marjorie accepted in the 1953 Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and was one of the finalists with his Artists Wife.
After the tragic loss of their sons Alan and Marjorie were suffering profound grief and moved to the isolation of The Oaks. Here they established a house and garden and Alan established studio in a bush setting. The garden might have provided some light in these dark days. Alan used many of the garden flowers for Still Life paintings. Some of these are in the exhibition. Baker maintained that
An artist must arrange his own composition by any means…the value of the shadow being thrown from one flower thrown from one flower to the other…I spend hours arranging till I am satisfied the result will be successful.
Alan was a fan of plein air painting, a tradition which goes back to the French Impressionists in the mid-19th century with the introduction of paints in tubes. Before this artists made their own paints by grinding and mixing dry pigments powder with linseed oils. This genre is illustrated by a number of landscape paintings in the exhibition, some of local area which capture Alan’s ‘commitment to the natural and man-made environment’. Baker’s landscapes reflect naturalism and the avoidance of stylisation.
Baker lived at The Oaks until his death in 1987 and across those years had a prolific output of work. The Australian Art Sales Digest lists 708 works by Baker across his lifetime, of which 77 are on display at the new gallery. Alan’s artwork is exhibited in numerous galleries and private collections and he held many shows across Australia,
Camden Mayor Lara Symkowiak gave the keynote address at the gallery opening. She outlined the gestation of the project and those who supported it along the way. She was full of praise and said that she has been a strong supporter of the project.
Others who spoke at the opening included local Camden MLA Chris Patterson, Alan’s son Gary Baker and philanthropist Max Tegel. These speakers explained how the project required patience and perseverance and that the initial inspiration came from Gary Baker and Max Tegel.
The conservation and re-adaptation of the building was supervised by Sydney architect Ashley Dunn of firm Dunn and Hillan Architects. The original interior joinery has been highlighted with Australian red cedar architraves, skirtings and window frames. Wide original floor boards of Baltic Pine have been polished and provide a warm ambiance to the gallery rooms.
Dunn has designed bespoke gallery furniture in a mid-20th modernism style that works well with the gallery aesthetic. Dunn drew his inspiration from a number of sources and he has stated:
We wanted to ensure that the furniture was readily identifiable as a contemporary addition. I have always admired the work of artist and architect Max Bill who practiced in Switzerland during the mid 20th century and was educated at the Bauhaus. We are also inspired by the work of artists such as Donald Judd, Richard Serra, Joseph Beuys and Gordon Matta-Clarke, all of whom worked during the later part of the mid 20th C.
Modern joinery is treated differently to highlight the contemporary phase in the life of the building and in the process creates a distinct separation from the joinery of the colonial period. Dunn has stated:
Our approach to the building was to use a consistent material for all new additions that was sympathetic to but different from the original fabric. We chose 40mm Blackbutt which is much blonder with a tighter grain than the reds and browns of the Australian Cedar and Baltic Pine. The new openings are framed in 40mm Blackbutt and the furniture has 40mm Blackbutt tops. The carcasses all have Blackbutt veneer and are edged in solid Blackbutt. The leather upholstery was chosen to mediate between the different browns and work with the floor colour.
After the official proceedings had finished the crowd of 180 milled around under the marques that lined the exterior front lawns of the gallery. Appetizers, canapes, hors d’oeuvres and other delicacies were served to the guests.
The town residence of Macaria is representative of the Picturesque Tudor Gothic style. It is brick town residence of the colonial Victorian period and originally had a shingle roof. For a house of its scale it is one of the best examples of the architectural style in Australia. Originally there were similarly designed cottage and stables around the house that were demolished long ago.
Natural and man-made things were attractive to look at – houses, gardens, open spaces…gazebos…-were seen as elements in a huge, three-dimensional picture which needed to be artfully composed by a designer possessed of finely tuned judgement.(p.90)
Macaria is representative of the some of the design characteristics of the Picturesque movement included ‘prettiness, quaintness and old-world charm’. Expatriate Englishmen in the colony of New South Wales, according to Apperly, were seeking the known similarities with home in England that provided a degree of comfort in the strange environment of the antipodes. Pattern books of these type of designs were published by JC Loudon (1833) and Calvert Vaux (1857).
In New South Wales one adaptation from Victorian English designs was the addition of a verandah as illustrated by Macaria. There are a number of other residences across Australia of a similar style. One can be found in Vaucluse where Sydney architect John Hilly designed Greycliffe House in Neilsen Park in 1852.
Macaria the history
The Macaria building can be treated as a historical document and primary source. The story of the building can be revealed by the diligent researcher. The layers of its history can be peeled back to reveal previous uses and stories of people who lived and worked within it.
Macaria was originally built by Sydney Congregationalist businessman Henry Thompson who came to Camden with his brother Samuel in the early 1840s. They established a general store and a steam flour mill. Thompson was part of a Sydney based retailing family which set up a chain of stores including Yass and Camden.
The land that Macaria was built on was originally purchased in 1846 by Sarah Tiffin who was a housekeeper for the Macarthur family of Camden Park. Henry Thompson purchased the land from the estate of Sarah Tiffin in 1854. Tiffin has constructed a small Georgian brick cottage on the site in the 1840s, now 39 John Street.
Henry Thompson, who had several school-age sons, became a patron of William Gordon’s Classical and Commercial Academy in 1857. Thompson built Gordon ‘a very handsome house of elegant design’ as a schoolhouse which was known as Macaria. In 1861 Gordon had moved his school to Macquarie Grove, which had been vacated by the Hassalls, where he took a seven year lease. The school closed before the end of the lease. (Atkinson, Camden: 188-189)
Macaria was a substantial town residence and was statement by Thompson to demonstrate his status and importance as a local businessman. Henry’s Thompson’s large family of sixteen children lived in Macaria until 1870. Henry died in 1871 after falling from his horse.
Macaria was a residence for the Milford family, after which the house was leased by Dr George Goode in 1875, an outspoken Irishman of ill-temper. GB Crabbe leased the house in 1886 and converted it to the Camden Grammar School for young boys. The school closed in 1894.
Dr FW West used the house as the surgery for his medical practice and a home for his family from 1901 to 1932, when Francis West died. A series of medical practitioners occupied the house: LB Heath (1932 1938); RE & JT Jefferis (1938-1955); GF Lumley (1955-1975)
Macaria was purchased by Camden Municipal Council from Dr Lumley, and the building was used as the Camden Library, and then the Camden mayor’s offices.
The restoration of Macaria is part of Council’s strategy to invest in the historical Camden Town Centre and create a landmark tourist attraction for residents and visitors to enjoy.
This creative vision was made a reality by Camden Council, which showed its support and commitment to the promotion of arts in the region, by investing in and restoring historical Macaria as Camden’s revitalised home of the arts the community.
So what does all this mean?
The opening of Macaria and the Alan Baker Art Gallery is ground-breaking for the Camden Local Government Area.
It is the first time an important historic town residence has been conserved and re-adapted by Camden Council and opened to the public.
It is the first time a major art gallery in the Camden Local Government Area has been supported by public funds.
It is the first time that private philanthropic interests have donated an art collection to create a public art space and gallery.
It is the first time that a notable local identity has been acknowledged in a public space in this fashion.
It is, according to his son Gary Baker, one of the one of the few collections across the global art community that embraces ‘the complete life of the artist, their family and their place with the community’.