The Blue Plaques program aims to capture public interest and fascination in people, events and places that are important to the stories of NSW.
The Blue Plaques program celebrates NSW heritage by recognising noteworthy people and events from our state’s history.
The aim of the program is to encourage people to explore their neighbourhood and other parts of NSW and connect with people of the past, historical moments and rich stories that matter to communities and have shaped our state.
The program is inspired by the famous London Blue Plaques program run by English Heritage which originally started in 1866, and similar programs around the world.
“Behind every plaque, there is a story.”
The essence of the Blue Plaques program is the storytelling. A digital story will be linked to each plaque.
The Blue Plaques should tell stories that are interesting, fun, quirky along with more sombre stories that should be not be forgotten as part of our history.
What is the Camden Red Cross story?
What is being recognised?
Camden Red Cross patriotic wartime sewing circles at the Camden School of Arts (later the Camden Town Hall now the Camden Library) – 1914-1918, 1940-1946.
What is the story?
The Camden Red Cross sewing circles were one of Camden women’s most important voluntary patriotic activities during World War One and World War Two. The sewing circles started at the Camden School of Arts in 1914, and due to lack of space, moved to the Foresters’ Hall in Argyle Street in 1918. At the outbreak of the Second World War, sewing circles reconvened in 1940 at the Camden Town Hall in John Street (the old School of Arts building – the same site as the First World War)
These sewing circles were workshops where Camden women volunteered and manufactured supplies for Australian military hospitals, field hospitals and casualty clearing stations. They were held weekly on Tuesdays, which was sale day in the Camden district.
Sewing circles were ‘quasi-industrial production lines’ where Camden women implemented their domestics skills to aid the war at home. Camden women cut out, assembled, and sewed together hospital supplies, including flannel shirts, bed shirts, pyjamas, slippers, underpants, feather pillows, bed linen, handkerchiefs, and kit bags. The workshops were lent a number of sewing machines in both wars.
The sewing circles also coordinated knitting and spinning for bed socks, stump socks, mufflers, balaclava caps, mittens, cholera belts (body binders) and other items. The women also made ‘hussifs’ or sewing kits for the soldiers. During the First World War, the sewing circles attracted between 80-100 women each week. The list of items was strikingly consistent for hospital supplies for both wars, with the only significant addition during the Second World War being the knitted pullovers and cardigans.
The production output of the Camden women was prodigious. Between 1914 and 1918, women from the Camden Red Cross sewing circle made over 20,300 articles tallied to over 40,000 volunteer hours. Between 1940 and 1946, during World War Two, women made over 25,000 articles, totalling over 45,000 voluntary hours.
The operation of the sewing circles was fully funded through the fundraising of Camden Red Cross and community donations. In 1917 alone, over 95% of branch fundraising was dedicated to these activities.
In World War One, other Red Cross sewing circles in the Camden district were located at The Oaks, Camden Park, Theresa Park, and Middle Burragorang. During World War Two, other centres across the local area included Bringelly-Rossmore, Menangle, Narellan, and The Oaks. Each group independently funded its activities.
These patriotic voluntary activities by Camden women were part of the war at home and have received little recognition at a local, state or national level. Wartime sewing and knitting have been kept in the shadows for too long. There needs to be a public acknowledgement of the patriotic effort of these women.
Where will the plaque be placed?
Camden School of Arts – later called the Camden Town Hall (1939-1945) and now the Camden Library.
What will the plaque say?
Camden Red Cross patriotic wartime sewing circles – 1914-1918, and 1940-1946.
English Heritage and Blue Plaques in the United Kingdom
London’s blue plaques scheme, run by English Heritage, celebrates the links between notable figures of the past and the buildings in which they lived and worked. Founded in 1866, it has inspired many similar schemes in the UK and around the world.
Reference for Camden Red Cross story
Ian Willis,Ministering Angels, The Camden District Red Cross 1914-1945. Camden Historical Society, Camden, 2014.
In 1919 Mowbray Park, five kilometres west of Picton, was handed over to the Commonwealth Government to be converted to a convalescent home for invalided soldiers from the First World War. The home was called Waley after its philanthropic benefactors.
From 1915 the Red Cross established a network of hospitals and convalescent homes due to the shortcomings of the Australian military medical authorities.
By the end of the World War One hundreds of invalided soldiers were returning to Australia, and they passed through medical facilities managed by the Red Cross, and Waley was one of them.
Local Red Cross branches and state-wide campaigns organised by New South Wales Red Cross divisional headquarters in Sydney provided funding for these efforts. The Commonwealth Department of Repatriation paid a fee of six shillings a day for each patient to cover running expenses. (Stubbings, ‘Look what you started Henry!’ 1992. pp. 13-14.)
The Waley Convalescent Home was created when Englishman FG Waley and his wife Ethel presented Mowbray Park and 180 acres (73 ha), to the Commonwealth Government as a “permanent home for shell-shocked and permanently incapacitated sailors and soldiers”. (SMH, 4 March 1920) These days it is called posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The Waleys had originally purchased Mowbray Park (800 acres, 324 ha) in 1905 from WM Barker, who had had the main house built in 1884. (Mowbray Pk History). Mowbray Park had been the Waley family country retreat – a gentleman’s country estate.
FG Waley was an executive member of the New South Wales Red Cross in 1919 when the family donated the farm to the Commonwealth. Several wealthy landowners donated homes and buildings for Red Cross use as convalescent homes, a philanthropic practice adopted in the United Kingdom.
Waley was a farm hospital with about 60 acres under cultivation and the main house supplied with vegetables, eggs, milk and butter from the farms 21 cows and 26 pigs.
Most patients at Waley Hospital stayed at the home between one and three months, with some up to 8 months for those suffering from neurasthenia or hysteria. It was reported that “the quiet, regular life, under good discipline, with a regular work period each day, is the best way of endeavouring to the fit these men for occupation again”.
Activities were general farm work to return the men “to their own occupation”. Major-General GM Macarthur Onslow chaired the farm committee. (Annual Report 1923-24, ARCS (NSW), p. 19.)
Opening in 1920
The home was officially opened in March 1920. The Waley donation of the house was expressed in noble terms as an act of patriotic nationalism. The Sydney Morning Herald stated that
As the cars swung through the broad entrance gates and traversed the winding drivethrough an avenue of pines to the beautifully situated homestead one realised the noblesentiment which prompted the owners – Mr. and Mrs. F. G. Waley – to hand over to thenation this rich possession. In order that those men whose nerves had suffered from theshock of Year might be given an opportunity of recuperating their health. (SMH, 4 March 1920)
The opening ceremony attracted a list of Sydney notables and the Australian Governor Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson and Lady Helen Munro-Ferguson, the founder of the British Red Cross in Australia. His Excellency accepted the house and land on behalf of the country. The press report stated:
The Governor-General expressed pleasure at being present to transfer the property fromtheir host and hostess to the nation. “It is,” he added, a noble gift, and I am indeed gladto find myself under this Hospitable roof tree.” (SMH 4 March 1920)
The home received considerable support from local Red Cross volunteers who provided entertainment in concerts, picnics, and library services from its inception.
For example, in November 1919, the Camden Red Cross organised a basket picnic and an outing for the soldiers from Waley ‘on the banks of the [Nepean] river at the weir’ at Camden. Red Cross voluntary workers provided cakes, scones and afternoon teas for soldiers. (Camden News, 4 September 1919, 6 November 1919)
In March 1920, the Camden News reported that the Narellan Red Cross donated three bookcases with over 600 books to fill them (Camden News, 18 March 1920)
The Red Cross staffed convalescent hospitals with voluntary aids (VAs) from detachments in localities adjacent to the home. In the Camden district, Waley’s opening triggered the foundation of voluntary aid detachments at Camden and The Oaks.
There were three dedicated staff positions for voluntary aids (VAs) at the home drawn from Camden, Picton, The Oaks, Menangle and Narellan voluntary aid detachments (VAD).
During 1919 six VAs from The Oaks VAD volunteered at Waley Hospital, and by 1921 this had increased to 10, with a further 10 VAs from the Camden VAD, who included Mary McIntosh, Miss Hall and Miss Gardiner.
In 1920 Narellan VAs Eileen Cross and Cory Wheeler were volunteering at the home. The Camden VAs put in 117 days in 1921 and 116 days in 1922 at the hospital. In 1922 the VAs relieved the cook and the ‘Blue Aids’ for their days off.
By 1923 there were 13 VAs, with one VA from Narellan Red Cross, who collectively worked 65 days. (NSW RC Annual Reports 1918-19 to 1923-24; Minutes, Camden Red Cross, 1915-1924.)
By 1924 the number of voluntary aids had dropped to only a ‘few’ making monthly visits to the patients.
Disposal of home
Waley was closed by 1925 and sold off at auction. The home operated from March 1920 to April 1925. Under the Waley deed of gift funds from the sale of the home by the Commonwealth of Australia were distributed to Royal Naval House in Sydney, the Rawson Institute for Seamen and the Sydney Mission for Seamen. (Sydney Morning Herald, 22 April 1925)
Groundbreaking medical care
Waley Convalescent Home was one of Red Cross medical activities that broke new ground in medical care and convalescence for ‘shell-shock’ now called PTSD.
By 1920 the New South Wales Red Cross managed 26 homes and rehabilitation centres, five field and camp hospitals, including Waley at Mowbray Park. (NSW RC AR) There were similar medical facilities in other states.
The Red Cross pioneered this area of clinical practice by providing a level of care and soldier welfare activities never seen before in Australia.
Sheila Murdoch was a rural woman who served her community and church and raised a family of five children. Her story, like a lot of other rural women, has remained in the shadows of history. She did not seek kudos and received little public acknowledgement of her role in the community.
Her story came to my attention through a picture of a medicine bottle from her granddaughter Nicole Comerford. Sheila had obtained a bottle of liquid paraffin from Camden pharmacist Colin Clark.
What is liquid paraffin?
According to The British Medical Journal, liquid paraffin was recommended as a treatment for constipation as a laxative, particularly with children. A Google search of the bottle’s image indicates it is probably around the middle of the 20th century.
The real story is not the bottle but an amazing woman who owned it.
Nicole tells us that Sheila lived on a dairy farm on Fallons Road Orangeville.
‘Grandma was born Sheila Rose Walsh and was one of seven children. Her parents were dairy farmers in Upper Kangaroo River (Kangaroo Valley).’
The Walshes were ‘a musical family’, according to Nicole.
Sheila had an interview with Kayla Osborne from the Camden Advertiser in 2018 (6 July 2018). She said, ‘I learnt to play the piano when I was about eight or nine years old, firstly from my mother, and then an old school teacher started teaching me during the 1930s when teachers were quite scarce.’
‘I am also self-taught, but my family has always been a musical one when I was growing up.
Sheila told Kayla Osborne that she was fond of music from an early age and recalled, ‘my father and mother always used to sing together, with my father playing the fiddle by ear.’
‘Most of my brothers and sisters also played an instrument or sang.’ Sheila was part of a well-known local band in the Shoalhaven area called ‘Walsh’s Orchestra’.
Nicole writes, ‘Grandma played the piano, and they played all over the Shoalhaven District over many years, including during WW2. She met my grandfather, Leslie Murdoch, after joining their orchestra when he was stationed at Nowra during the war. Grandad was a mechanic for the RAAF at Nowra.’
The South Coast country press reported the regular ‘gigs’ played by the Walsh Orchestra in the Shoalhaven area between the mid-1930s and the Second World War. In 1936 they performed at the St Michael’s Convent School Hall in Nowra (Nowra Leader, Friday 26 June 1936) and the Roman Catholic Ball at the Kangaroo Valley School of Arts in 1938. The ball drew loyal church supporters from Burrawang, Gerringong, Nowra and Berry for the jubilee celebrations for the Kangaroo Valley Roman Catholic Church.
Sheila and Leslie married in March 1945 at Berry [Nicole] and moved to Orangeville in 1946 (Camden Advertiser, 6 July 2018) after he was discharged from the RAAF.
Nicole writes, ‘They had little money when they moved there, really the only money they had saved from playing for dances and what Grandma had in war bonds. They grew peas until they had enough money to start dairying, and over the years, they purchased all of the farm from other family members; it was named “Thornhill”. The farm has been in the family since the 1850s and was a dairy farm.
‘The farm was an active dairy farm until the 1970s. They sold half of the farm, and it’s now about 92 acres. The half they sold is now Murdoch Road, Orangeville. Grandad (Les) lived on the farm until he died in 2001, and Grandma (Sheila) lived there on her own (with lots of support from her family) until at age 101. My parents, Jim and Judith Murdoch, still live on the farm, and my Dad runs about 15 beef cattle.
In her history of Orangeville, Nell Weir writes that the Thornhill grant was allocated to Thomas Fallon in 1856, with the farm having frontage to Clay Waterholes Creek. Thomas married Eliza Waller of Mulgoa in 1840, and they had ten children. Thomas died in 1879 and is buried in The Oaks Catholic Cemetery. According to Weir, Les Murdoch is a descendant of Thomas and Eliza’s son Thomas. [Weir, pp.32-33]
Nicole writes, ‘Sheila and Les had six children with the first being a stillborn daughter who we think are buried at the Catholic Cemetery in Camden. There are no records for this birth; I am pretty sure Grandma had this baby at what is now Neidra Hill’s house at Narellan.’
The house in question is the Edwardian architectural gem called Ben Linden. The house was built in 1919 by George Blackmore. Neidra Hill writes in her history of the house that EJ (Elizabeth) Stuckey, a trained midwife, purchased the house in 1944 conducted a maternity hospital until 1948. The hospital was then run by her daughter, JT (Jean) Stuckey, until 1959. The building was converted to a private hospital run by ME (Mavis) Halkett until it closed in 1971. (Hill, 2008, pp.27-37)
Nicole recalls that ‘my grandparents were very active in the community’.
‘Sheila and Leslie played at dances and weddings all over the community for many years and were very well known. Grandma and Grandad played in The Oaks, Orangeville, Camden and down to Bargo. I think they played at Bargo on New Year’s Eve several times. They also played at Camden High School socials.’
‘When I shared news of Grandma’s death on the “You know you’re from Camden if…” Facebook page, lots of people commented that they remember them playing at their weddings.’
‘Grandma also played the organ, firstly at St Pauls Catholic Church in Camden and then at St Aloysius Catholic Church at The Oaks when the parish boundaries changed. Grandma was still playing on her 101st birthday at The Oaks.
Sheila played the piano for The Oaks Debutante Balls until she retired in 1998. The ball committee have written that Sheila played piano for practice and presentation sessions for 23 years and they remember her ‘sitting at the piano for so many hours in freezing cold conditions’. (The Committee, p14)
She said, ‘It was lovely to see the young “hopefuls’ turn up – the boys mostly in “Nikes” or “Ugg” Boots – to learn dancing. We always found the young people very polite and happy when they got into the swing of the dances.’ (The Committee, p.14)
Myra Cowell recalls on Facebook that she ‘remembers them well playing at the Cobbitty dances’
Nicole said, ‘Grandma was a member of The Oaks Catholic Woman’s League and held various roles over the years, including president.
The Catholic Women’s League in NSW can trace its origins back to 1913, when the Catholic Women’s Association was founded in Sydney. The league aims to promote ‘the spiritual, cultural, intellectual and social development of women and promotes the role of laywomen in the mission of the Catholic Church’.
Camden Bowling Club
Nicole recalls, ‘Both my grandparents were involved in the Camden Bowling Club, and Grandma was a foundation member of the Camden Women’s Bowling Club. She also played the piano at many events there over the years.’
Frank Farrugia writes in the history of the Camden Bowling Club that Les was president from 1967 to 1969 after joining the club in 1961. He served on the committee for over 15 years and worked for the club for over 25 years. To acknowledge his service, he was made a life member. The new No 3 Green at the club was dedicated to Les, and at its opening in 1986, John Fahey said that Les gave ‘himself to his church, his family, to sporting bodies and local government’. (Farrugia, p. 146) Les was a councillor for A Riding on Wollondilly Shire Council for four terms from 1974 to 1987. (History of WSC) Frank McKay praised ‘Les’s loyalty, objectivity and dedication’. (Farrugia, p.146)
‘For over 50, maybe even 60 years, Grandma volunteered at Carrington Aged-Care complex every Friday morning and in later years was part of a group called the “Melody Makers” who played there. She continued to play the piano there while she was resident and even did so in the week before she died. We always used to laugh the way she would talk about playing for “the oldies” when most of them would have been younger than her!’ writes Nicole.
On Sheila’s 100th birthday in 2018, Kayla Osborne wrote in the Camden Advertiser (6 July 2018) that Sheila and the Melody Makers played weekly at Carrington Aged-Care. Sheila said she started volunteering at Carrington Aged-Care and the aged care facility to give back to her community. She said, ‘I started with the Pink Ladies, who were some of Carrington’s very first volunteers.’
‘I love playing the piano at Carrington Aged-Care Complex now, and I consider playing for the residents there just pure enjoyment. I particularly enjoy the company – nobody objects no matter how bad we play.’
Carrington Volunteer Coordinator Belinda said, ‘I was privileged enough to see them play a few times. Sheila was absolutely phenomenal with her piano skills, Laurie accompanied on sax, Richard (also now passed) played the keyboard and the singer and guitarist, Kevin. (Email, 30 August 2021)
A Carrington source tells me that the Melody Makers was made up of Laurie Martin on saxophone and clarinet, George Sayers on violin, Kevin Harris on guitar, Dick Eldred on clarinet, pianist Sheila and in the early days in late 1990s John Foster on trombone. Most of these talented folk sadly are no longer with us.
Melody Maker guitarist and vocalist Kevin Harris said, ‘I joined the group in the late 1990s. Sheila was “God’s gift to music”. She played at Carrington for 60 years.’
‘The group played at Carrington Aged-Care every Friday around each of the different facilities – Grasmere Terrace, Nursing home, Paling Court and so on. We had over 2000 regular songs. We would never practice. [The group] played for two hours from 10-12, then everyone would go to lunch ,’ he said.
Kevin recalled, ‘My favourite memory was just playing for over 20 years. I have wonderful memories. Playing each week made friendships. Just a love of music and we shared that love with other people. [The members of Melody Makers] were great troopers and there was so much love between all of us and our families.’
‘[Melody Makers] did jobs outside [of Carrington]. Macarthur War Widows and Legacy War Widows at Legacy House in Campbelltown. We played for the Over 50s at the Catholic Club, and Christmas Parties and Mothers’ Day in and around Campbelltown and Appin,’ he said.
Kevin said, ‘ Most of the group had a musical background. Laurie military bands, George came from a family of entertainers, Jack played in World War Two and I played around the Campbelltown area from the 1960s including a 19-piece swing band based at Wayne’s Music Shop.’
Nicole writes that ‘Leslie died in 2001 and is buried in the Catholic Cemetery at The Oaks. In September 2019, Sheila moved to Mary McKillop Hostel at Carrington Aged-Care Complex off the farm because of the increased level of care needed for her health.
Sheila became part of the Carrington family after she moved into aged-care.
Nicole said, ‘Grandma [Sheila] passed away at Mary McKillop on 29th May 2020.’
The surviving five children are Patricia, James (my Dad), Frances, Mary and Peter.’
Farrugia, F 2014, History of Camden Bowling Club, 75 Years, Camden Bowling Club, Camden.
Hill, N 2008, Ben Linden 1919-2008, A house with a story to tell, Typescript Camden Museum Archives, n.p.
The Oaks Debutante Ball Book Committee 2001, We Had a Ball, Twenty-five Debutante Balls in The Oaks 1973-1999, The Committee, The Oaks.
Weir, NR 1998, From Timberland to Smiling Fields, A History of Orangeville and Werombi, The Oaks Historical Society, The Oaks.
Wollondilly Shire Council 1988, A History of Local Government in the Wollondilly Shire 1895 to1988, Wollondilly Shire Council, Picton.
Ever wondered who volunteered across New South Wales to support the soldiers overseas in the First World War? Two hard working volunteers from the War Chest Fund, Eleanor Mackinnon and Constance Sly, organised a book that lists thousands of names of these war workers.
Mackinnon and Sly called their project The War Workers’ Gazette. It is a treasure trove for family historians and others interested in the First World War. Two Macarthur region organisations and their volunteers are listed in the book.
Wartime fundraising in New South Wales between 1914 and 1918 was carried in a host of ways by patriotic funds and voluntary organisations and included a host of activities from cash donations, to fetes, fairs, door-knocking and the list goes on.
The use of publications as wartime fundraising projects was not as common. In Great Britain there was The Way of the Red Cross with stories of wartime activities and in Australia there was the ‘trench publication’, the Anzac Book.
Eleanor Mackinnon and Constance Sly envisaged that their project would be a complete list of names of all volunteers of patriotic funds and other organisations that operated in New South Wales during the war. It was to include a short description of the activities of the organisation and their war work.
The gazette was also to include a list of Australian hospitals, field ambulances, and overseas depots. The authors wanted to include the colours of different battalions, regiments, AAMC and artillery. The organisers sent out over 10,000 letters seeking list of volunteers. There was extensive publicity with articles about the gazette in a host of country and city newspapers.
The print run of 10,000 was planned for the first edition and were to be sold at 1/- each for paper back 2/6 for hardback. Volunteers had to contribute 1d to have their names listed in the gazette. On publication the gazette was initially sold for 1/-, and then sold for 2/- and posted to purchasers for 2/3d. It was hoped that the gazette would be published for the 1918 War Chest Day.
Scope of gazette
Amongst the voluntary organisations listed in the Workers’ Gazette included the War Chest, YMCA, Red Cross, St John Ambulance, Repatriation Committee, Universal Service League, War Savings Committee, Lord Mayor’s , Patriotic Fund, Australia Day Committee, Belgian Relief Committee, Italian Red Cross, Patriotic Activities of the Churches, American- Australian League of Help, League off Honor, University Patriotic Committees, Polish Relief Committees, Hospital Entertainment Committees, Chamber of Commerce War Food Fund, Belgian Clothing Committees, Patriotic Musical Societies, VADs Battalions, Baby Kits, French-Australian League, Women’s Clerical War-workers’ League, Salvation Army, Soldiers’ Wives arid Mothers’ Centre, Recruits’ Comforts Fund, Win-the-War League, Sailors Wives’ League, Sock Fund (Mrs. Jopp), Queen Mary’s Sock Fund (Miss Jay), Old Gold and Silver Fund, Blue. Cross Fund. Soldiers’ Club.
Press reports of project
Reports in the Sydney press stated that the gazette served the dual purpose of firstly ‘a comprehensive record of war work’ which was mostly performed by women, and secondly, a fundraiser. The report stated that ‘an enormous amount of trouble’ had been taken in collating the information. (SMH, 14 Feb 1918)
More than this a Brisbane press report stated that the gazette was a permanent record of civilian war work ‘through their organisations’. The editors, Mrs McKinnon and Mrs Sly, observed that a number of wartime organisations had already fulfilled their aims by early 1918, and wound up their operations. Their volunteers moved onto other activities and their voluntary efforts had already been forgotten by the wider community. They noted that as the war effort wound down many other voluntary organisations would cease to exist and the efforts of their volunteers would suffer a similar fate. (Daily Std, 23 Feb 1918)
Shortcomings of publication
The Workers’ Gazette is an important publication from the war period, yet should not be taken at face value. The end result was exclusive to the better off who could pay the 1d to have their name registered, then the cost of buying the published book.
The editors list over 200 Red Cross brancheswho did not supply any names of their volunteers and members (p. 262). The branches who did supply names tended to be those from the more affluent Sydney suburbs and country towns.
Even for the Red Cross branches that were listed only those who could afford the Workers’ Gazette supplied their names and many branches are understated in their membership. For example, the membership list for the Camden Red Cross branch is under-stated by around 20 per cent (p. 160). The are no entries for the Campbelltown area.
Value of Workers Gazette
The Workers’ Gazette is a valuable publication for the war period, despite its shortcomings. It is treasure trove of names for family historians and anyone interested in local history and particularly the First World War.
Publications of this type are rare and its significance has not declined over the years. It is a valuable addition to the historiography of the First World War.
Even the advertisements, which help fund it, are an interesting insight into the war period and particularly 1918.
Ministering Angels, the Camden District Red Cross, 1914-1945.
Author Ian Willis
Publisher: Camden Historical Society
Ministering Angels ‘is an example of innovative and groundbreaking work in local history, and succeeds in demonstrating a new way of linking detailed local studies to larger themes in Australian history’. Dr Emma Grahame (Editor, Australian Feminism: A Companion, OUP, 1998. Editor, Dictionary of Sydneyhttp://www.dictionaryofsydney.org, 2007-2012)
Ministering Angels is a peer-review publication that tells the story of conservative country women doing their patriotic duty in an outpost of the British Empire. From 1914 Camden district women joined local Red Cross branches and their affiliates in the towns and villages around the colonial estate of the Macarthur family at Camden Park.
They sewed, knitted and cooked for God, King and Country throughout the First and Second World Wars, and during the years in-between. They ran stalls and raffles, and received considerable community support through cash donations from individuals and community organisations for Red Cross activities.
Using the themes of soldier and civilian welfare, patriotism, duty, sacrifice, motherhood, class and religion, the narrative explores how the placed-based nature of the Red Cross branch network provided an opportunity for the organisation to harness parochialism and localism for national patriotic purposes.
The work shows how a local study links the Camden district Red Cross with the broader issues within Australian history and debates involving local history, philanthropy, feminism, conservatism, religion and other areas, while at the same time illustrating the multi-layered nature of the issues that shape global, national and regional history that can impact rural volunteering.
The book delves into the story of how Camden’s Edwardian women, the Macarthur Onslows and others of their ilk, provided leadership at a local, state and national level and created ground-breaking opportunities that empowered women to exercise their agency by undertaking patriotic activities for the first time.
In their wake Camden women created the most important voluntary organisation in district history, a small part of the narrative of the Australian Red Cross, arguably the country’s most important not-for-profit organisation. Their stories were the essence of place, and the success of the district branches meant that over time homefront volunteering became synonymous with the Red Cross.
Ministering Angels is a local Red Cross study of volunteering in war and peace that provides a small window into the national and transnational perspectives of one of the world’s most important humanitarian organisations.
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 Camden community was galvanised by the emergency created by the entry of Japan into the Pacific War on 7 December 1941 and the US declaration of war on 8 December.
Wardens and Air Raid Precautions
Stan Kelloway, Camden’s chief warden and mayor, called a public meeting which was held on Tuesday night at the town hall, 18 December 1941. He made an urgent appeal for wardens and volunteers for air raid precaution work in the town area.
Camden women held a joint emergency meeting on the same night at the Camden CWA Rooms in Murray Street. The meeting was chaired by Rita Tucker, with Grace Moore, the secretary of the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) acting as the meeting’s secretary.
The Camden District Hospital Women’s Auxiliary was represented by its president, Emma Furner, and the CWA Younger Set by Mary Sparkes and Anita Rapley. Apologies were received from Zoe Crookston, Mary Davies, Albine Terry and Hilda Moore. Mary Davies was the treasurer of the Camden Red Cross and the vice-president of the Camden Hospital Women’s Auxiliary, Albine Terry, Camden WVS treasurer and Camden Hospital Women’s Auxiliary vice-president, and Hilda Moore, the secretary of the Camden Red Cross.
There was much discussion at the meeting and a decision was taken to concentrate on making camouflage nets. The CWA and Women’s Voluntary Service, which were conducting separate camouflage netting meetings, decided to combine their separate netting efforts. The combined effort would be located at the CWA rooms on Monday and Tuesday nights, and Friday afternoons.
These arrangements were organised so that they did not conflict with existing service commitments, particularly the WVS and Red Cross sewing circles at the town hall. Camden volunteers were requested to bring ‘a hank of string for practice’. The Camden press maintained in December 1941 that ‘anyone who possibl[y] can is urged to take this opportunity of rendering national service in a time of crisis’. The meeting also asked volunteers to fill out forms for the Women’s Voluntary National Register and to cooperate with local wardens of the National Emergency Services.
National Emergency Services
The Camden press maintained in December that the ‘National Emergency Services can provide a job for practically every woman’, and forms for the Women’s Voluntary National Register were obtainable from Nancy Freestone, the assistant secretary of the WVS, at the town hall library.
The Women’s Voluntary National Register was established in New South Wales in early 1939. It was part of a federal government scheme to determine how many women would be able to provide ‘manpower’ and national service, if required, when the nation went to war.
The most efficient means of doing this was to tap into the pre-existing network of women’s clubs and organizations, and call upon their membership to provide the information. Clubs that affiliated with the register would collect the details of (eligible) volunteers from within their membership base and forward that information to the central register. Women would then be classified according to the type of work available, and the type of work they were suited to do.
Women, according to the Australian Women’s Register, who weren’t members of an organization could still volunteer through the state council headquarters, but clearly, ‘outsourcing’ much of the work to the organizations was a cost and time efficient method of operation.
An affair at the CWA
From December 1941 the manufacture of netting in Camden turned into a CWA affair. Reports on netting production from the Camden centre were sent to the state CWA Handicrafts Committee in Sydney, which co-ordinated the state netting effort for the CWA and received all the completed nets from the Camden centre.
The central CWA netting centre co-ordinated all organisational details, issued instructions to branches on the packing, despatched nets to Sydney and acted as a clearinghouse for the Army, which supplied all the twine and collected all the finished nets.
The New South Wales CWA journal The Countrywoman in New South Wales reported that by January 1942 the handicraft committee was supplying 230 country branches and over 100 suburban circles with twine for making nets.
When compared to netting efforts in some other country towns Camden’s output was relatively small. Between February 1941 and February 1944 the Camden netting centre made 578 nets. Una Swan acted as netting secretary and roped all nets, while Mary Poole acted as demonstrator.
At Nowra netting centre, which was a joint effort between Nowra CWA and Red Cross, and made 1,320 nets in the 2½ years that their centre was operational from mid-1941 to December 1943. Camden netting centre was never able to sustain the same effort as Nowra.
To the end of 1942 the Nowra centre had made 875 nets, while Camden’s centre had manufactured 489 nets. While at the Quirindi CWA local women made 14 camouflage nets in one week in March 1942 and by the end of the war had sent away 565 nets. Most country towns had similar voluntary patriotic projects.
The Camden centre was kept abreast of statewide netting activity by the Countrywoman, which issued monthly tallies of nets supplied to the Sydney CWA depot by netting centres, as well as reporting other related, netting information.
Read more about the CWA and other conservative women’s organisations in wartime Camden @ UOW research
The Camden Country Women’s Association, formed in 1930, played an important role in wartime Camden between 1939 and 1945. The branch undertook a number of roles under the direction of its wartime president Mrs MS (Rita) Tucker.
Mrs Tucker was a lifelong member of the CWA and its president from 1939 until her death in 1961. She was driven by community service as were most of the Camden women that worked for the homefront war effort.
Mrs Tucker was a foundation member of the Camden CWA. She was an active member of the Camden Presbyterian church and played the organ on Sundays. She was a member of the Camden female elite and moved in influential circles in Sydney. She was very determined, intelligent and forthright. She did not suffer fools and said so, which could rub people up the wrong way. She was outspoken and a straight talker.
Mrs Marguerita Tucker (nee Blair) was born in 1894 in Finley NSW and attended Goulburn Presbyterian College. Her parents were William and Flora Blair, and she was one of three children, brother Douglas and sister Doreen. Her family moved to Narrabri in 1910, where she later worked as a journalist and part-time editor for the North West Courier as well as supporting her family’s pastoral interests in the area.
Rita Blair married Rupert Tucker in 1915, whose family owned Merila, a wheat and sheep property, between Narrabri and Boggabri. Rita and Rupert had a daughter Joanna (1920) and a son John (1938), after losing their first child. They moved their family to the Camden area in 1929 and purchased Nelgowrie near Macquarie Grove. They later purchased The Woodlands at Theresa Park, made some additions to the house, then moved the family there in 1935.
Rita Tucker joined the Camden CWA on its foundation in 1930. She was a modern independent woman at a time where there was changing aspirations for rural women. Tucker was vice-president of the Nepean Group of the CWA in 1931, worked tirelessly for the organisation and was New South Wales CWA treasurer in 1937.
Agency of country women
Tucker took advantage of the groundbreaking role of the Camden Red Cross which had empowered Camden women within the strict social confines of the town’s closed social order. She exercised her agency as a Camden conservative and carved out a space within Camden’s female voluntary landscape.
Rita Tucker was part of the New South Wales CWA which was founded in 1922 by the conservative wives of the rural gentry. The foundation president was Mrs Grace Munro from the New England area of New South Wales and was in the same mould as Tucker. Mrs Munro proceeded to implement policies that were aimed at empowering rural women who were confined by isolation, marriage, poor education, rural poverty, poor services and a lack of mothercraft support in the bush.
Munro was born at Gragin near Warialda NSW and educated at Kambala in Sydney. She lost a child in 1911 while away from home attending to medical matters for another of her children in Sydney. She had gained valuable experience during the First World War in the country Red Cross. Helen Townsend’s Serving the Country, the history of the New South Wales CWA, has described Grace Munro as a formidable energetic women who was totally dedicated to the CWA. Tucker and Munro were active agents of change for country women.
The conservatism of the NSW CWA founders was reflected in the women who established the Camden CWA. These women put matters of family, church and community at the forefront of their voluntarism and implemented policies within the CWA that reflected these values. The CWA founders in Camden and at a state level supported the status quo where patriarchy and class ruled daily interactions in country towns.
During the Second World War the women of the New South Wales and Camden CWA saw their role as a support organisations as part of the Australian family on the homefront. Townsend’s history states that in 1939 member’s patriotism was stirred by the promise of ‘action, excitement, purpose and drama’.
A woman’s part in this heroic struggle is to inspire our men, to cheer and to comfort and to sustain them through good and evil report, until we shall reach the Pisgah’s heights of victory and guarantee to our children and our children’s children that they may pursue honourable lives as free men and women along the paths of peace in the years to come.
During the war years the most important wartime activity undertaken by the CWA in Camden and across the state was making camouflage nets for the army. In Camden making camouflage nets was based at the CWA’s Murray Street headquarters, while the branch regularly sent finished camouflage nets to Sydney from 1940.
Over 70 years later the Camden CWA is still serving the local community and is part of Australia’s most powerful women’s organisation.
Read more about the CWA and other conservative women’s organisations in wartime Camden @ UOW research
By 1918 the war had been dragging on into its fourth year. Soldier casualties were large and still growing. Patriotic fundraising was a major focus for those at home and the Australia Day fundraisers had been important since their establishment in 1915.
The first Australia Day was held in 1915 on the 30 July as a fundraising for the Gallipoli casualties as they returned to Australia. January 26 was known as ‘Anniversary Day’, ‘Foundation Day’ and ‘Regatta Day’. Australia Day was not fixed on January 26 until 1935 when there was agreement of all states and territories and the imminent approach of the 1938 Sesquicentennial celebrations.
Australia Day in 1918 in Camden
In early 1918 Camden Red Cross workers supported the national Australia Day appeal, which aimed ‘to relieve the sufferings of Australia’s men who are suffering that Australia shall be free’. (Camden News 18 April 1918) Camden mayor George Furner called a public meeting on 23 March at a not so well attended meeting of the Camden Red Cross sewing circle. An organising committee was formed of the Camden Red Cross and council officers. The fundraising activities were to include the sale of badges and buttons, a Red Cross drive, a public subscription, a prayer service, a lecture and a door-knock of the town area.
The Australian Day activities started with the united prayer service (2 April) held at the Forester’s Hall in Camden run by the Protestant clergy. It started at 11.30am with Rev. Canon Allnutt from St Paul’s church at Cobbitty, Rev CJ King from St John’s church in Camden and Rev GC Percival from the Camden Methodist Church. All businesses in Camden were shut for the duration of the service and there was ‘an attentive and earnest gathering both town and country’. (Camden News, 4 April 1918)
A public lecture was presented by Senior Chaplain Colonel James Green (8 April) held at the Foresters’ Hall on his experiences on the Somme battlefield in France. The Red Cross ‘drive’ started the same week (9 April) and resulted in the sale of Red Cross badges to the value of £54 with only 200 left to be sold before the market day (23 April).
A Red Cross market day was held on 30 April and the Camden press maintained that ‘with so many gallant sons in the battlefields; her women folk have since the very outbreak of war have nobly done their part of war work’. Flags and bunting were draped around the bank corner and were supplemented with Allies’ flags and lines of Union Jacks in the ‘finest’ local display and music was provided by the Camden District Band. The displays were opened by Enid Macarthur Onslow and in her words touched a ‘solemn’ note when she spoke of the ‘sacrifices mothers and women’ towards the war effort and the responsibilities of those who stayed at home. The whole event was a huge success and raised £225, which made a cumulative total of £643 in the appeal to that point.
The Camden Red Cross branch then conducted a raffle, with first prize being an Australian Flag autographed by Earl Kitchener. The Camden press maintained
that if you haven’t got a ticket in the Kitchener Flag yet you will have one by the end of May unless you hide from the Red Cross ladies in town. They want to sell a lot and they are not going to let you go until they have extracted a two shilling piece from you. (Camden News, 9 May 1918)
And the reporter was not exaggerating. The total effort of the Camden Red Cross for the Australia Day appeal came to £748, which also included donations from Sibella Macarthur Onslow of £100, Mrs WH Faithfull Anderson of £25 and £100 from the Camden Red Cross. (Camden News, April and May 1918) [In todays worth that is about $100,000 from a population of around 1700]
Australia Day at Menangle and Narellan
The Menangle Red Cross decided that ‘a big effort’ was needed and a garden fete (18 May) was organised by Helen Macarthur Onslow, Enid’s daughter, at her home Gilbulla. The fete was opened in front of a large crowd by the wife of the New South Wales Governor, Lady Margaret Davidson. The New South Wales governor, Sir Walter Davidson, presented two engraved watches to two local returned soldiers. The fete raised a total of £85 and the total Menangle Red Cross collections were well over £100.
The Narellan Red Cross put on a concert at the Narellan Parish Hall (27 April) and tickets were 2/- and 1/- and raised £51. Together the sale of Red Cross Drive Badges and donations the branch raised £80. Out at the Douglas Park Red Cross the branch ran a social and raised £22. (Camden News, April and May 1918)
Learn more about local Red Cross activities during the First World War.
Young visitors to the Camden Museum love the model of the HMS Sirius, in the ground floor display area. HMS Sirius was the flagship of the First Fleet in 1788 under its commanding officer Captain John Hunter. He was later promoted to NSW Governor and in 1795 he visited the local area in search of the wild cattle and named the area the Cow Pastures Plains.
One of the key roles of GLAM sector organisations is to allow their visitors to learn things, in both formal (aka classroom) and informal settings. For the visitor this can come in a vast array of experiences, contexts and situations.
The Macarthur region has a number of galleries, museums and libraries. They are mostly small organisations, some with paid staff, others volunteer-run.
Local council galleries and libraries have the advantage of paid staff. The Alan Baker Art Gallery is located in the Camden historic town house Macaria. At Campbelltown there is the innovative Campbelltown Arts Centre and its futuristic styling.
The local council libraries and their collections fulfil a number of roles and provide a range of services to their communities.
On a larger scale the state government-run historic Belgenny Farm is Australia’s oldest intact set of colonial farm buildings in the Cowpastures established by John and Elizabeth Macarthur. A number of other colonial properties are also available for inspection.
Doing more with less
Doing more with less is the mantra of volunteer-run organisations. They all have collections of objects, artefacts, archives, paintings, books and other things. Collections of knowledge.
Collections are generally static and a bit stiff. There is a distance between the visitor and the collection. Visitor immersion in these knowledge collections is generally through storytelling of one sort or another.
The more dynamic the immersion the more memorable the visitor experience. An immersive experience will be informative, exciting and enjoyable.
This is certainly the aim of school visits. Teachers aim to immerse their school students in these collections in a variety of ways through storytelling. Hopefully making the student visit educational, memorable and enjoyable.
The learning framework
Local schools connect with local stories through the New South Wales History K-10 Syllabus. A rather formal bureaucratic beast with complex concepts and contexts. Local schools vary in their approach to the units of work within the syllabus.
Mrs Pesic said, ‘The students visit was integral in engaging the students and directing them to an area of interest’.
The school teachers posed a number of Key Inquiry Questions throughout the unit of work. The museum visit, according to Mrs Pesic, was the final part of the unit that started with a broad study of Sydney and narrowed to Camden. The students then had a ‘project’ to complete back at school.
Mrs Pesic reported that the teachers felt that they ‘had achieved the outcomes that they had set for their museum visit’.
Another local school Stage 2 group recently visited the museum, the gallery and had a walk around the Camden town centre. They too addressed the same unit of work from the History Syllabus.
Storytelling – the past in the present
The integration of local studies and inquiry-based learning by school students calls for imagination and creativity. What results is an opportunity to tell the Camden story through a narrative that gives a perspective on the past in the present.
There have been generations of story tellers in the Cowpastures and Camden district since the Dreamtime. Young people can have meaningful engagement with these folk through local GLAM organisations, ‘that cannot always be obtained in the classroom’, says Mrs Pesic.
The cows and more. So what do they offer?
All this activity takes place in the former Cowpastures named by Governor Hunter in 1795. This country was formerly Benkennie of the Dharawal people. The Cowpastures is one of Australia’s most important colonial sites.
Under European dispossession the Cowpastures became part of the Macarthur family’s Camden Park Estate from which the family carved out the private township of Camden with streets named after its founders – Macarthur, Elizabeth, John, Edward.
The Camden district (1840-1973) tells stories of hope and loss around farming and mining in the hamlets and villages across the region. New arrivals hoped for new beginnings in a settler society while the loss of the Burragorang Valley, the Camden Railway and a landscape aesthetic created sorrow for some.
The Macarthur region (1973 +) named after the famous family and the infamous Macarthur growth centre. The area is on Sydney’s rural-urban fringe and made up of Camden, Campbelltown and Wollondilly Local Government Areas.
The more things change the more they stay the same
The Cowpastures and Camden districts, now the Macarthur region, are some of the fastest changing landscapes in Australia. There is a need by the community to understand how the past created the present and today’s urban growth.
There is a need for creative and innovative solutions and ways to deliver the Camden and Macarthur stories. These are only limited by our imagination.