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Capturing the distance of the past

Camden Mileposts

On the Camden Town Centre edges, there are two white concrete posts with numbers and letters. What are they, and what do the letters mean?

These white concrete posts are mileposts from when the Hume Highway ran up the centre of Camden along Argyle Street. The letters indicate destinations, and the numbers are distance in miles. These items are part of Camden’s engineering heritage.

A concrete milepost on the southern end of the Camden Town Centre on the road verge of the former Hume Highway now the Old Hume Highway. (I Willis, 2021)

The letters: M is Mittagong, S is Sydney, L is Liverpool and C is Camden. The distance is a mile:  an imperial unit of measure from before the time of metric measurement. The mile here is a statute mile which is 5280 feet or 1.609 km, as opposed to a nautical mile used in air and sea transport and is different.

The English mile

Mileposts dated back to the Roman Empire and were placed alongside the Roman roads. Distances were measured from the city of Rome. The mile originated from the Roman mille passus, or “thousand paces,” which measured 5,000 Roman feet.

The first mileposts along English roads appeared in 1593 and were standardised in England under the reign of Elizabeth I. The English mile was a different length from the Scottish mile and the Irish mile.  These measures were not standardised in the British Commonwealth and the US until 1959. (Sydney Morning Herald, 22 August 1935. https://www.britannica.com/science/mile)

In the colony of New South Wales, the first sandstone milestones were located on the Parramatta, Liverpool and South Head Roads from 1816 on the instructions of Governor Macquarie. Milestones provided accurate reference marks along with the expanding public road system for travellers on coaches. (Crofts and Crofts, 2013)

Macquarie Obelisk

In the colonial period, Governor Macquarie’s Obelisk of Distances was erected in 1818 as the official starting point for all distances in NSW. It was located in what was then the centre of Sydney and is now Macquarie Place. The monument was also ‘a symbolic peg’ as the furthest extent of the British Empire in the early 1800s.

Obelisk of Distances in Macquarie Place Sydney designed by Francis Greenway and built-in 1818 under the orders of Governor Macquarie c1926 (SLNSW)

The placement of milestones in colonial NSW set a precedent. They were placed along the left hand or southern side of the roadway with the destination facing Sydney. The posts were meant to be seen by travellers coming from either direction for the benefit of stagecoach drivers to measure their distance from Sydney. They also ensured that the driver was on the correct road as many were just bush tracks. (Crofts and Crofts, 2013)

Concrete mileposts

The two concrete mileposts in Camden were part of the road improvements by the NSW Department of Main Roads in 1934.

The decision to implement a programme of mileposting followed the first annual conference of state road authorities in February 1934 held in Melbourne. The meeting decided to adopt uniform national procedures for mileposting and road warning signs for roadworks, among other matters. It was felt that uniformity of services would help interstate travellers. (DMR, 1934)

A concrete milepost on the northern entry to the Camden Town Centre on the roadside verge of the former Hume Highway that ran along Argyle Street Camden. (I Willis, 2021)

In 1934 the department allocated £134 to the program in the Sydney area. (DMR, 1934)

The DMR Main Roads magazine stated that

In the days before the advent of the motor vehicle, when travel by road was slow and was done on foot, on horseback, or in horse-drawn carriage, few things gave greater service, or were more eagerly looked for, than the mileposts. (DMR, 1934a)

According to the Department of Main Roads, mileposting before 1934 provided signs that gave direction and the distance of important towns. Mileposts had lost their importance to the traveller because the car speedometer gave ‘progressive mileage’ stated a departmental report. (DMR, 1934a)

Road maintenance

Mileposting in 1934 was implemented with one specific aim.

The purpose of the mileposts now is to provide a convenient system of reference marks along the road for the use of those whose responsibility is to maintain the roads in a proper state. (DMR, 1934a)

The stated purpose was for the milepost to be a reference point along the road to give a precise position for any roadwork that needed to be done. Information to travellers was only secondary. (DMR, 1934a)

Mileposting to 1934 had been haphazard, with much work generated at a  local level and many gaps. Road maintenance was a secondary consideration, with information for travellers paramount. Much work was ‘incomplete’. Groups of mileposts were only based around important towns, sometimes following main roads and sometimes not. (DMR, 1934a)

The 1934 mileposting project was partly triggered by the 1928 classification of all roads in NSW into state highways, trunk roads and ordinary roads.

The 1928 changes saw The Great Southern Road through Camden renamed the Hume Highway in 1928. The 1929 Razorback Deviation shifted the highway to the east away from the former Great South Road (now Cawdor Road). (DMR, 1934a)

Different types of mileposts were used in 1934 for different purposes.  Concrete posts were used in the Sydney area and country towns, like Camden, and elsewhere there were timber posts.

Specifications and drawings for mileposts as outlined in the Department of Main Roads journal Main Roads (May 1934) where the DMR mileposting project was detailed for all roads in NSW (Main Roads 1934a)

There was a strict protocol for the letters and numbers on the posts, with letters and numbers incised and painted black and distances measured from the post office, and sometimes not.  Posts were placed on the left-hand side of roadways leading from Sydney or the coast, as they were in colonial times.

Posts were located with a clear view from the roadway of 200 feet with specific instruction on distances from roadways and locations for cuttings and embankments. On bridges, the mileposts were be clamped to the handrails.

In mid-1934, the NRMA suggested the mileposts on the different highways should be painted in a variety of colours. (Kiama Reporter and Illawarra Journal, 20 June 1934) The suggestion was not taken up.

One supplier of the concrete mileposts was the Hume Pipe Coy (Aust) Ltd. (Main Roads, August 1938)

Wooden Mileposts

In the Camden area, the Camden Heritage Inventory states there were wooden mileposts along Cawdor Road, formerly The Great South Road. They pre-date the concrete mileposts.

Timber milepost c1927 on the road verge of The Great South Road now Cawdor Road. (2021 I Willis)

In a 2002 survey for the Heritage Inventory, the three Cawdor Road timber mileposts were intact.

The posts were local hardwood cut by a sawmill in Edward Street in the late 1920s and delivered to The Great South Road (Cawdor Road) site by Camden teamster Les Nixon. (NSWSHI)

In a recent search, I was only able to locate one intact timber milepost in a fairly poor condition.

This timber milepost c.1929-1934 is located on the former Hume Highway at South Camden now Remembrance Drive. This milepost is located on the 1929 Hume Highway Razorback deviation that moved the main road from the Great South Road now Cawdor Road. (I Willis, 2021)

This timber milepost c.1929-1934 is located on the former Hume Highway at South Camden now Remembrance Drive. This milepost is not on the Wollondilly Shire Council heritage inventory. The milepost is sited on the roadside verge adjacent to the Camden Valley Inn. (I Willis, 2021)

References

CROFTS, R. & CROFTS, S. 2013. Discovering Australia’s Historical Milemarkers and Boundary Stones, Sydney, Roberts and Sandra Crofts.

DMR 1934. Department of Main Roads Ninth Annual Report for the year ending 30th June 1934. Sydney: NSW Legislative Assembly.

DMR 1934a. The Mileposting on Main Roads. Main Roads, 5.

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Four bridges and the Nepean River crossing

The Cowpasture bridge

Walking over the Cowpastures bridge, you have a vista of the tranquil water of the Nepean River impounded behind the Camden weir. The tranquillity belies the raging torrent at flood times that can cover the bridge.

Plaque located in the Rotary Cowpasture Reserve in Argyle Street Camden adjacent to the Cowpasture Bridge commemorating the opening of the reconstructed bridge after the 1975 flood (I Willis 2021)

On the western end of the bridge is a small park where a plaque celebrates the 1976 re-construction of the bridge. Twelve months earlier, a flood had turned the timber bridge deck into a twisted mess.

The plaque states:

Cowpasture Bridge

Originally opened in 1901 this bridge was extensively damaged by flood in June 1975.

Following repair it was re-opened by The Hon J JC Bruxner MLA, Minister for Transport and Highways, 9th April 1976.

Ald RB Ferguson, Mayor. Camden Municipal Council.

REA Rofe Esq. MLA, Member for State Electorate of Nepean.

AF Schmidt Esq., Commissioner for Main Roads, New South Wales.

Plaque, Argyle Street, Camden.

The twisted Cowpasture bridge timber deck after the 1975 flood that closed access across the river for many months. (Camden Images)

Choke-point

The low-level Cowpasture bridge is a pinch point for the movement of goods and people across the river. Its closure at flood times has created a choke-point that disrupts daily life. Other low-level bridges in the local area at Menangle, Cobbitty, and Macquarie Grove Road have suffered the same problem.

The eastern approach to the Cowpastures Bridge on Camden Valley Way with signage for the Cowpasture Bridge in the early morning (I Willis, 2017)

The issue of access was only solved with the opening of the high-level Macarthur Bridge in 1973. The bridge is an important example of Camden’s engineering heritage and was built as part of the local region’s NSW Askin Governments New Cities structure plan.

Economic importance of access

Access to the southern side of the Nepean River has been an issue since European settlement and the discovery of the Wild Cattle in 1795. Governor Hunter named the area the Cowpastures in 1796, and it became a restricted reserve from 1803 to stop cattle poaching.

The issue of access across the river was illustrated in 1810 when a party led by Governor Macquarie visited the area.   Macquarie wrote in his journal on 16 November 1810:

There being very little Water in the River at this time, we crossed it at the usual Ford in our Carriage with great ease and safety.

A bridge at last – ‘a paltry affair’

As the colonial frontier moved beyond the Cowpastures, there was increased traffic across the Nepean River, sometimes reported as the Cowpastures River. (SMH, 2 October 1861). The frontier conflicts between Europeans and Indigenous people calmed on the Cowpastures after the 1816 massacre. (Karskens, 2015) The process of settler colonialism and its insatiable appetite for territory increased traffic through the Cowpastures in the 1820s.

The river crossing required a more permanent solution to deal with the increased traffic movement along the Great South Road. The first Cowpasture bridge was built in 1826, then new bridges followed in 1861, 1900 and 1976. Each was trying to solve the same problem of access (SMH, 2 October 1861).

This is a sketch of the 1826 Cowpasture Bridge attributed to Thomas Wore of Harrington Grove in 1842. The St John’s Church is on the hill, which was consecrated in 1849. Historic Sketch Discovered: Camden Village in 1842, The Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday, 10 June 1933, p.9 (illustrated is a previously unpublished sketch of an almost identical drawing to (Cowpastures) Bridge & Village of Camden.) http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/page/1151602

A low-level bridge was first raised in 1823 when Surveyor-General John Oxley of Kirkham objected to a bridge at Bird’s Eye Corner river crossing (Menangle). The final decision was to build a crossing halfway between the Belgenny Crossing and Oxley’s Macquarie Grove. (Villy, 62-63)

Work began on the low-level Cowpasture bridge in 1824 and finished in 1826. Construction was supervised by convict Samuel Wainwright and built below the crown of the riverbank. There was no shortage of sceptics, and a band of local ‘gentlemen’ thought the bridge would collapse in the 1826 flood. (Villy, 62-63) They were wrong.  

A convict was stationed at the bridge as a caretaker to remove the bridge rails in flood. In 1827 a toll was introduced on the bridge, with the right-to-collect sold for £70. It was forbidden to cross the bridge on a Sunday, offenders were fined and cattle impounded. (Starr, 16-17)

Repairs were carried out on the bridge after floods in 1835 (Starr: 17) and in the 1840s ‘landowners, carriers and mail contractors’ complained. They were concerned that the bridge was submerged by floodwater ‘on every occasion’ and in a recent deluge ‘the Bridge was sixteen feet underwater and the neighbouring flats, a complete sea for miles’. (Starr: 17)

In a number of memoirs, the bridge was described as ‘a very a paltry affair’ (Starr: 23) and a ‘primitive structure’ (Sydney Mail, 5 February 1913). 

In 1852 a portion of the bridge washed away, and there were terrible floods in February and April 1860. There was a need to replace the ‘dilapidated’ bridge. (SMH, 2 October 1861)

The timber truss Camden Bridge across the Nepean River with Thompson’s Woollen Mill on the right of the image in 1861. (Camden Images)

Tenders were called in early-1860 for a new five-span timber truss bridge (NSW Government Gazette, 6 April 1860), and it was under construction by September. The construction tender was won by Campbelltown building contractors Cobb and Bocking (SMH, 21 September 1860; SMH 2 October 1861), who also built the low-level timber truss bridge at Menangle in 1855. (RMSHC, 2019; Liston, 85)

A grand affair

There was much fanfare at the new bridge opening on Monday, 30 September 1861, at 3 pm. There was conjecture about the crowd size. The Empire claimed a crowd of 50 people while the Sydney Morning Herald boasted there was 200 present. (Empire, 3 October 1861; SMH 2 October 1861).

Whatever the crowd, there were a host of speeches and Mrs Bleecke, the wife of Camden doctor Dr Bleecke, christened the new bridge the ‘Camden bridge’ by breaking a bottle of Camden wine on the timbers. The crowd then let out three loud hearty cheers (SMH 2 October 1861).

At the end of the official proceedings, the men, 40 in number, adjourned to the Camden Inn, owned by Mr Galvin, for a ‘first-rate’ sit-down lunch. The meal was accompanied by a host of speeches and much imbibement. There was a series of toasts starting with ‘The Queen’ and ‘Prince Albert’. The ladies were left ‘to amuse themselves as best they could until the evening’ (SMH 2 October 1861).

The festivities at lunch were followed in the evening by a ‘grand’ ball held at Mr Thompson’s woollen mill. The floor had been cleared on orders of Mr Thompson, and the space decorated with ‘evergreens’ and ‘flowers’ and brilliantly lit by kerosene lamps. (SMH 2 October 1861)

The Camden populace had ‘seldom’ seen an event like it, according to the Sydney press. One hundred thirty-four people attended the ball. Festivities on into the night with a ‘great profusion’ of food and dancing winding up at 4 am the following day. Locals declared they ‘had never spent a happier or pleasanter day’ (SMH 2 October 1861).

The railway to Camden

In 1882 when the railway line was built between Campbelltown and Camden, the track was laid across the timber bridge deck. This reduced the width of the roadway to 15 feet and traffic had to stop when a train needed to cross the bridge.(Camden News, 27 June 1901)

According to the Camden press, passengers were regularly notified at Redfern Station (now known as Central Station) with a sign saying ‘traffic to Camden stopped at Camden bridge’ due to frequent flooding. The timber deck of the bridge was ‘well below the banks of the river’. (Camden News, 27 June 1901)

The existing 1860 timber truss bridge was constructed for light road traffic and continually posed problems for the railway. Only the lightest railway locomotives could use the bridge, and the heavy grades of the branch line at Kenny Hill meant that the train was restricted to a small number of cars. (Camden News, 27 June 1901).

In 1900 a new steel girder bridge was constructed to take the weight of two locomotives. The specifications for the bridge are:

  • five steel girder spans each of 45 feet on concrete piers;
  • 178 feet of timbers beam spans;
  • making a total length of 403 feet;
  • the bridge deck was seven feet higher than the 1860 timber truss bridge deck;
  • construction was supervised by the Bridge Branch of the NSW Public Works Department;
  • the bridge was built at a cost of £10,000;
  • construction used 126 tons of steel and 984 cubic yards of concrete. (Camden News, 27 June 1901)

An exciting boat ride

Flood time was an exciting time for rail passengers going to Camden. When the bridge closed, railway passengers got an exhilarating boat ride across the flooded Nepean River. The train would stop at Elderslie Railway Station, and they would climb aboard the railway rowing boat. Passengers would take their lives in their hands and be ferried across the flooded river by the boatman. The rowing boat was given the Camden Municipal Council in 1889 (Pictorial History Camden: 87)

This image shows the new 1900 Camden Bridge with concrete piers and steel girders which replaced the 1860 timber truss bridge. (SLNSW) The bridge was opened in June 1901 by the NSW Minister for Works the Hon EW O’Sullivan assisted by the Member for Camden, the Hon John Kidd, at a ceremony at Camden Railway Station. (CN, 20 June 1901) This was followed by an official lunch at the Camden School of Arts for around 70 guests who purchased tickets. (CN, 13 June 1901)

References

Willis, I 2015, Pictorial History Camden & District, Kingsclear Books, Sydney.

Road and Maritime Authority 2018, The Old Hume Highway, History begins with a road, 2nd edn, eBook, viewed 18 October 2021, <https://roads-waterways.transport.nsw.gov.au/documents/about/environment/protecting-heritage/hume-highway-duplication/history-begins-with-a-road.pdf>.

Villy, E 2011, The Old Razorback Road, Life on the Great South Road between Camden and Picton 1830-1930, Rosenberg Publishing, Sydney.

Starr, M 2002, Murder, Mayhem and Misdemeanours, Early settlers at the Cowpasture River, New South Wales, 1810-1830, Australian Horizon, Sydney.

Liston, C 1988, Campbelltown, The Bicentennial History, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Roads and Maritime Services Heritage Committee 2019, The Timber Truss Bridge Book, eBook, viewed 21 October 2021, <https://roads-waterways.transport.nsw.gov.au/about/environment/protecting-heritage/timber-truss-bridge/index.html>.

Karskens, Grace 2015, ‘Appin massacre’, Dictionary of Sydney, http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/appin_massacre, viewed 22 Oct 2021

Updated 19 November 2021; Originally posted as ‘Access Denied, flooding at the Cowpasture Bridge’ on 22 October 2021.

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Camden Airfield and the Bellman Hangars

Camden Airfield has a number of historic hangars from the Second World War. They are called Bellman hangars.

They are a British designed transportable hangar that were erected at the airfield. Camden had six Bellman hangars by mid-1942.

A Bellman Hangar at Camden Airfield built in 1941 and used by the RAAF Central Flying School as part of the Empire Air Training Scheme to train aircrew for the European war campaign. These remaining hangars are part the unique aviation archaeology and heritage at the existing Camden Airfield. (I Willis, 2014)

According to John Dunn’s Comeng, A History of Commonwealth Engineering, vol 1 1921-1955 (2006), they were originally designed in 1936 by NS Bellman, a structural engineer with the British Directorate of Works (UK). The hangars were meant to meet the needs of the Royal Air Force (UK) and the Empire Air Training Scheme (UK).

Australia had very close links with United Kingdom at the time as part of the British Empire. The country relied heavily on the UK for its defence needs and Camden airfield played a small part in that story.

The RAAF Central Flying School that was set up at Camden Airfield in 1940 was part of the Empire Air Training Scheme and Bellman hangars were supplied by Waddington’s Pty Ltd. According to Daniel Leahy’s ‘Aerodromes of Democracy, The Archaeology of Empire Air Training Scheme flying schools during World War II’ the training course duration for pilots was 14 weeks, air observers 12 weeks, and air gunners 8 weeks. All courses instructions were conducted at Camden RAAF CFS while based at the airfield.

The tenders for the of the supply of the hangars, according to Dunn, were called in mid-1940 by the Australian Government’s Department of Supply and Development. Overall 283 Bellman hangars were supplied to a variety of sites across Australia and New Guinea. The final cost to the Commonwealth Government for the supply of the hangars was around £1,500 each.

Over 85 per cent of the Bellman hangars in Australia were supplied by Waddingtons (Clyde). Waddingtons got into financial trouble with the Bellman supply contract and under the wartime regulations the Commonwealth Government took a controlling interest in the firm. The government discovered that there were all sorts problems with supplying the hangars, although they were a ‘simple product’. The problems were eventually sorted out and the hangars were all supplied.

RAAF Training Squadron at Camden Airfield with one of the main aircraft used for training at the time a Tiger Moth in 1942. The control tower is shown to the left of the image and the Bellman hangars behind.  (LG Fromm)

Under wartime regulations Waddington’s was a protected industry and supplied a variety of wartime contracts in the engineering field. They included railway wagons, ocean-going lighters, ‘Igloo‘ hangars, pontoons, landing barges, and buses. Waddingtons was completely taken over by the Commonwealth Government in 1946 and renamed Commonwealth Engineering Co Ltd. Interestingly, in the 1920s the principals of Waddingtons ran a business called Smith and Waddington which made ‘custom’ car bodies for imported chassis of Rolls Royce, Hudson, Wolseley and Fiat in a factory on Parramatta Road, Camperdown.

The Bellman hangars were only ever meant to be temporary, and they were supposed to be capable of being erected and dismantled by unskilled labour with simple equipment. Dunn maintains that the Bellman hangars were 95 feet wide (1 feet = 0.304 metres), 122 feet long, 17 feet high, covered an area of 10,000 square feet (1 square foot = 0.092 square metres), consisted of 60 tons of steel, at an average cost of £3,365 (erected), had 80 major components and could accommodate 5 Barracuda aircraft.

Waddingtons supplied Bellman hangars to around 25 airfields and other locations in New South Wales (from Camden to Temora), 15 in Queensland (from Cairns to Kingaroy), 17 in Victoria (including Ascot Vale and Port Melbourne), 4 in South Australia (including Mallala and Mt Gambier), 8 in WA (from Canarvon to Kalgoorlie), 3 in Tasmania (including Western Junction), 1 in the ACT (Kingston), 3 in the Northern Territory (including Gorrie and Wynellie) and Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea.

Initially Bellman hangars were designed in the United Kingdom with canvas panelled doors and canvas under the eaves, although steel-framed and clad doors were introduced after heavy snowfalls at Thornaby Airfield in the winter of 1937. The time taken to erect the UK hangar including levelling the ground, laying door tracks, erecting the steelwork and fitting the original oiled canvas Callender doors, was 500 man hours.

The British Ministry of Defence states that there are over 100 Bellman hangars still in existence in throughout the UK that were built around the Second World War in 2014. They were originally constructed by provide a fast, economical solution to a need for hangars. It is described as being a lightweight structure made from steel lattice frames, to form 14 bays giving an overall length of 53 metres and width of 29 metres.

The Airfields of Britain Conservation Conservation Trust states that Bellman hangars were only one type used in the United Kingdom during the war and between 1938 and 1940 over 400 were built for use. One of their disadvantages was their lack of roof height.

According to some reports there are 14 surviving Bellman hangars at RAAF Base Wagga, at least three at Point Cook (RAAF Williams), one at RAAF Base Fairbairn, Canberra Airport, four at HMAS Albatross, Nowra, a number at Auburn, Bankstown and Camden. For the enthusiast there is an interesting article on Bellman hangars on Wikepedia.

Updated 14 August 2021. Originally posted 15 July 2014.