The Blue Plaques program aims to capture public interest and fascination in people, events and places that are important to the stories of NSW.
The Blue Plaques program celebrates NSW heritage by recognising noteworthy people and events from our state’s history.
The aim of the program is to encourage people to explore their neighbourhood and other parts of NSW and connect with people of the past, historical moments and rich stories that matter to communities and have shaped our state.
The program is inspired by the famous London Blue Plaques program run by English Heritage which originally started in 1866, and similar programs around the world.
“Behind every plaque, there is a story.”
The essence of the Blue Plaques program is the storytelling. A digital story will be linked to each plaque.
The Blue Plaques should tell stories that are interesting, fun, quirky along with more sombre stories that should be not be forgotten as part of our history.
What is the Camden Red Cross story?
What is being recognised?
Camden Red Cross patriotic wartime sewing circles at the Camden School of Arts (later the Camden Town Hall now the Camden Library) – 1914-1918, 1940-1946.
What is the story?
The Camden Red Cross sewing circles were one of Camden women’s most important voluntary patriotic activities during World War One and World War Two. The sewing circles started at the Camden School of Arts in 1914, and due to lack of space, moved to the Foresters’ Hall in Argyle Street in 1918. At the outbreak of the Second World War, sewing circles reconvened in 1940 at the Camden Town Hall in John Street (the old School of Arts building – the same site as the First World War)
These sewing circles were workshops where Camden women volunteered and manufactured supplies for Australian military hospitals, field hospitals and casualty clearing stations. They were held weekly on Tuesdays, which was sale day in the Camden district.
Sewing circles were ‘quasi-industrial production lines’ where Camden women implemented their domestics skills to aid the war at home. Camden women cut out, assembled, and sewed together hospital supplies, including flannel shirts, bed shirts, pyjamas, slippers, underpants, feather pillows, bed linen, handkerchiefs, and kit bags. The workshops were lent a number of sewing machines in both wars.
The sewing circles also coordinated knitting and spinning for bed socks, stump socks, mufflers, balaclava caps, mittens, cholera belts (body binders) and other items. The women also made ‘hussifs’ or sewing kits for the soldiers. During the First World War, the sewing circles attracted between 80-100 women each week. The list of items was strikingly consistent for hospital supplies for both wars, with the only significant addition during the Second World War being the knitted pullovers and cardigans.
The production output of the Camden women was prodigious. Between 1914 and 1918, women from the Camden Red Cross sewing circle made over 20,300 articles tallied to over 40,000 volunteer hours. Between 1940 and 1946, during World War Two, women made over 25,000 articles, totalling over 45,000 voluntary hours.
The operation of the sewing circles was fully funded through the fundraising of Camden Red Cross and community donations. In 1917 alone, over 95% of branch fundraising was dedicated to these activities.
In World War One, other Red Cross sewing circles in the Camden district were located at The Oaks, Camden Park, Theresa Park, and Middle Burragorang. During World War Two, other centres across the local area included Bringelly-Rossmore, Menangle, Narellan, and The Oaks. Each group independently funded its activities.
These patriotic voluntary activities by Camden women were part of the war at home and have received little recognition at a local, state or national level. Wartime sewing and knitting have been kept in the shadows for too long. There needs to be a public acknowledgement of the patriotic effort of these women.
Where will the plaque be placed?
Camden School of Arts – later called the Camden Town Hall (1939-1945) and now the Camden Library.
What will the plaque say?
Camden Red Cross patriotic wartime sewing circles – 1914-1918, and 1940-1946.
English Heritage and Blue Plaques in the United Kingdom
London’s blue plaques scheme, run by English Heritage, celebrates the links between notable figures of the past and the buildings in which they lived and worked. Founded in 1866, it has inspired many similar schemes in the UK and around the world.
Reference for Camden Red Cross story
Ian Willis,Ministering Angels, The Camden District Red Cross 1914-1945. Camden Historical Society, Camden, 2014.
I have just finished watching online a critical discussion on the practice of history held at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.
In these times of fake news, misleading information, and conspiracy theories. Whom do you trust? What is the truth? Social media is all-encompassing.
This discussion on the practice of history is a dose of hope when political interest groups seek to rewrite the past on their terms.
Maybe this discussion was not a complete cure, but it certainly seems like a ray of sunshine into the swamp of the abyss.
So what did I see?
I watched a panel of learned historians and museum directors discussing launching the Reframing History report by the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH).
The promotional email I received boasted:
This new initiative provides the field with a set of evidence-backed recommendations to communicate history more convincingly and to build a wider understanding of what inclusive history looks like and why it is important for all of us.
The discussion lived up to the hype.
I highly recommend this lively and challenging discussion to anyone involved in the practice of history. I do not think it matters whether you are from the academy, practise public history, or just like popular history. This discussion should interest you if you are concerned about the long term health of history as a discipline.
Panel Discussion Details
John Dichtl, president and CEO of AASLH, started the conversation by providing an overview of the project.
That was followed by a discussion by Anthea Hartig, Elizabeth MacMillan, Director of the National Museum of American History.
Martha S. Jones, author and professor of history at Johns Hopkins University
Clint Smith, staff writer at The Atlantic and author of How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with Slavery Across America
Jorge Zamanillo, director of HistoryMiami and incoming founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Latino
The panellists expand on the Reframing History Report and Toolkit by talking about their personal experiences of communicating about history and sharing their recommendations for how history organizations can create environments for positive and productive conversations.
In the mid-20th century it was not unusual for local Camden women to travel overseas by ship. They were part of an exodus seeking adventure and new horizons. They wanted to see the world and they did.
The story of two of these young women, Shirley Dunk and her best friend Beth Jackman, has been told in a recently published article in Anglicaby the University of Warsaw.
The article is titled: “My box of memories”: An Australian Country Girl Goes to London’.
The article abstract is:
In 1954 a young country woman from New South Wales, Shirley Dunk, ex- ercised her agency and travelled to London. This was a journey to the home of her fore- fathers and copied the activities of other country women who made similar journeys. Some of the earliest of these journeys were undertaken by the wives and daughters of the 19th-century rural gentry. This research project will use a qualitative approach in an examination of Shirley’s journey archive complemented with supplementary interviews and stories of other travellers. Shirley nostalgically recalled the sense of adventure that she experienced as she left Sydney for London by ship and travelled through the United Kingdom and Europe. The article will address questions posed by the journey for Shirley and her travelling companion, Beth, and how they dealt with these forces as tourists and travellers. Shirley’s letters home were reported in the country press and reminiscent of soldier’s wartime letters home that described their tales as tourists in foreign lands. The narrative will show that Shirley, as an Australian country girl, was exposed to the cosmopolitan nature of the metropole, as were other women. The paper will explore how Shirley was subject to the forces of modernity and consumerism at a time when rural women were often limited to domesticity.
To read the article about Shirley Dunk and Beth Jackman click here
The article was originally presented at a conference at the University of Warsaw in 2019. To read about the conference click here.
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.
Once again, country show societies are gearing up for the annual New South Wales Miss Showgirl competition. In 2008 500 young women entered the pageant at a local level representing 120 show societies, with the Sydney Royal Easter Show finals. The 2011 Camden Miss Showgirl has attracted seven young local women – four of the seven are university students, two business owners and one business manager.
The competition has come a long way since its beginnings in 1962. It has seen off a variety of other pageants and successfully competes with several others. In these days of television celebrity fashion competitions, the Miss Showgirl competition is a bit of an anachronism. Rather quaint, yet with an underlying strength that is endearing to supporters.
Miss Showgirl is a complex mix of paradoxes and apparent contradictions, just like other aspects of rural life: it is very traditional while accommodating the aspirations of young women; it is staid yet has had an underlying strand of commodification of young women as objects of display; it is conservative yet encourages sexualisation of young women through good times at balls and the like; it avoids the stereotypes of other beauty pageants, yet it promotes a version of a stereotypical young rural woman; it is part of the town and country divide yet brings the country to the city; and more.
The showgirl competition is a relic of a time when rural women were confined by home and family. The foundation sponsor was the racy tabloid, The Daily Mirror, which commodified womanhood images on page three. Later competition sponsors, The Daily Telegraph and then The Women’s Weekly, used different representations of womanhood, and today The Land newspaper takes a newsworthy approach to rural affairs.
The values expressed in the Royal Agricultural Society Guide for Showgirl entrants prepared by 2009 Camden Showgirl Lauren Elkins are a little bit old fashioned. The guide stresses etiquette, grooming, manners, dress sense, presentation and socialising skills – a solid list of skills for any aspiring job applicant. The competition even offers deportment lessons for entrants – An echo from the past.
While the aims of the competition have not changed, part of its resilience has been its ability to cope with changes in the representation of rural life and rural women themselves. It expresses the agency of the young women who enter, whether they are university students or shop assistants, and provides personal development opportunity.
Showtime, the show ball and Miss Showgirl, are representative of notions of rurality. Miss Showgirl is part of the invocation of rural nostalgia. People use the competition as a lens through which they can view the past, including the young women who enter it. In 2009 Camden Showgirl Lauren Elkins ‘was keen’, she said, ‘to get into the thick of promoting the town and its rural heritage’.
Organising committees select entrants who have a sense of belonging to and identify with the local area. According to Suzie Sherwood, a member of the 2004 Camden organising committee, the winning showgirl projects the values and traditions of the local community..
In a historical analysis by Kate Darian-Smith and Sara Wills (2001), they see the current response to Miss Showgirl as ‘an embodiment of meaningful and rural belonging’. Miss Showgirl entrants indeed embrace parochialism and the interests of local show societies as part of the competition. These forces have long shaped rural identity and its response to city-based decision making.
Rural New South Wales faces constant challenges, and Miss Showgirl’s success is a rural showcase in the ‘big smoke’. The competition embraces the experience of showtime in Sydney when the country comes to town, and there are social engagements, cocktail parties and pictures in the social pages. Miss Showgirl draws on rural traditions surrounding debutante balls, bachelor and spinsters balls and similar community gatherings that express a sense of place. The essence of localism.
Glamour and style are back, and Miss Showgirl has an element of ‘fashions on the field’. Young women have an opportunity to ‘frock up’. Something authentic. It harks back to the days of the country race meeting and the local polo match. The exclusivity that was once the rural gentry’s domain when deference and paternalism ruled the bush. Press photographs of ‘glammed up’ Miss Showgirls sashing 1st place in the dairy-cow-section recall days of the ‘Lady of the Manor’ and the English village fair.
Miss Showgirl competitions have not been without their critics. The competition has survived in New South Wales and Queensland while not in Victoria. Understandably entrants passionately defend the competition.
None of these issues have been a problem for 2011 Camden Showgirl winner Hilary Scott, a 22-year-old horse-loving university student from The Oaks. She appeared on the front page of The District Reporter, all glammed up in the paddock, under the banner headline ‘Showgirl Hilary supports agriculture’. Hilary is a confident young rural woman that projects the contemporary vibrancy and complexities of Miss Showgirl.
Camden Showgirl Winners
1962 Helen Crace 1963 Helen Crace 1964 Sue Mason 1965 Barbara Duck 1966 Dawn Dowle 1967 Jenny Rock 1968 Heather Mills 1969 Michelle Chambers 1970 Joyce Boardman 1971 Anne Macarthur-Stanham 1972 Kerri Webb 1973 Anne Fahey 1974 Sue Faber
1975 Janelle Hore 1976 Jenny Barnaby 1977 Patsy Anne Daley 1978 Julie Wallace 1979 Sandra Olieric 1980 Fiona Wilson 1981 Louise Longley 1982 Melissa Clowes 1983 Illa Eagles 1984 Leanne Reily 1985 Rebecca Py 1986 Jenny Rawlinson 1987 Jayne Manns
1988 Monique Mate 1989 Linda Drinnan 1990 Tai Green 1991 Toni Leeman 1992 Susan Lees 1993 Belinda Bettington 1994 Miffy Haynes 1995 Danielle Halfpenny 1996 Jenianne Garvin 1997 Michelle Dries 1998 Belinda Holyoake 1999 Lyndall Reeves 2000 Katie Rogers
2001 Kristy Stewart 2002 Margaret Roser 2003 Sally Watson 2004 Danielle Haack 2005 Arna Daley 2006 Victoria Travers 2007 Sarah Myers
2008 Fiona Boardman 2009 Lauren Elkins 2010 Adrianna Mihajlovic 2011 Hilary Scott 2012 April Browne 2013 Isabel Head 2014 Jacinda Webster
The Competition aims to find a young female Ambassador for rural NSW and the agricultural show movement.
The Showgirl Competition is definitely not a beauty pageant. Entrants must have a genuine interest in, and knowledge of, rural NSW. The Competition encourages the participation and awareness of issues faced by women in rural NSW.
In Camden the ideology of motherhood expressed itself in the foundation of the St John’s Mother’s Union in 1900 which saw that mothers were an integral part of women’s service role to the British Empire. (Ministering Angels, p19) and later the Red Cross in 1914 and Camden Country Women’s Association in 1930. (Ministering Angels, 21)
In the early 20th century the Red Cross was variously described as the ‘Greatest Mother in the World’, and the ‘Mother of all Nations’ (Ministering Angels, 6) The CWA were concerned with motherhood and infant mortality and of their main activities in the early 20th century was the foundation of baby health centres across the country.
Around the turn of the century a direct link was made between infant welfare, motherhood, patriotism and nationalism. Motherhood and mothering were expressed in terms of patriotism and a national priority. All driven by European exceptionalism, expressed in Australia as the White Australia policy. There was anxiety around falling birth rates, whiteness and the strength of the British Empire.
Motherhood as national building
Sociologist Karen Swift writes that from the around the middle of the 18th century the state became interested in motherhood where ‘the state’s interest in controlling and using female fertility for nation building and economic purposes’. Biological determinism stated that motherhood was a natural state for women and that is should be a national priority.
The ‘master narratives’ governing European motherhood in earlier centuries was that of nation building, especially in the colonies. The creation of new nations required a growing, healthy population, with women’s roles focused on producing and rearing soldiers and laborers. Once nation-building efforts became established, mothers were called upon to contribute to the development of a large and prosperous white middle class needed to perpetuate and grow capitalism. For this purpose, white mothers were needed to learn, teach, and demonstrate the moral authority the middle class required to dominate those below in the social, economic, and racial hierarchies.
The metaphor of the Red Cross as mother and guardian angel was extended in the post-war environment and incorporated a concern for mothers and infants. The terrible losses of the First World War, and declining birth rate made the welfare of mothers and infants a national defence priority. There were calls to repopulate the country (The Maitland Weekly Mercury, 30 November 1918.) and a developing national anxiety around motherhood. Some of Sydney’s conservative elite had expressed concern about the issue of infant welfare, and set up the Kindergarten Union and Free Kindergartens in the 1890s.
Support from the National Council of Women of NSW, of which Sibella Macarthur Onslow of Camden Park was a member, and others who were concerned about the welfare of mothers and infants led to the establishment of day nurseries, supervised playgrounds and other initiatives in inner Sydney in the early 1920s. There were high rates of infant mortality in inner Sydney and social conditions for single mothers with children were less than desirable. There had been the Royal Commission on the Decline of the Birth Rate and the Mortality of Infants in New South Wales in 1904 and the Edwardian period was characterised by a nationalistic concern over the moral decline of the British race. (Ministering Angels, 65-66)
‘Perfect Motherhood is Perfect Patriotism’
‘Perfect Motherhood is Perfect Patriotism’ according to Sydney’s Daily Telegraph in 1926. The article was a part of the publicity associated with a fundraising campaign for the Karitane-Sydney Mothercraft Centre at Coogee operated by the Australian Mothercraft Society. The society had been established in Australia in 1923 modelled on the Royal New Zealand Society for Health of Women and Children, commonly called the Plunket Society, established by New Zealand doctor Sir Truby King in 1907.
You should have a white Australia. But if you find the Eastern nations more moral more noble to make more sacrifices for the continuity of the race, you know the result must be the same as has been the case with the great civilisations of the past. Greece and Rome went down, not through any failure in the valour or courage of their young men, but because of the increase in luxury, the repugnance to rearing families, followed by decadence and sterility and eventually extinction. If the population of Australia do not do their duty to the race there cannot be any resistance to other races coming in and populating this fair land.
In 1920 the women of the Camden Red Cross were concerned about these issues and donated £14 to the Society for Welfare of Mothers and Babies. The society had been formed in 1918 in Sydney, aimed to teach mothercraft and eventually set up the Tresillian training school at Petersham in 1922.
Red Cross Baby Day became an important part of the district Red Cross child welfare agenda in the post-war years. The Red Cross coordinated the first Baby Week in 1920 in the first week of April and encouraged the formation of local committees.
The Baby Week was supported by Lady Helen Munro Ferguson and had its origins in England with the National Baby Week Council in 1900. Its objects were to foster child welfare by decreasing infant mortality, to promoting the health of mothers, and to encouraging motherhood and maternal nursing(The Braidwood Dispatch and Mining Journal, 27 February 1920) (Ministering Angels, 66).
The 1920 Red Cross Baby Day in Camden was held on 30 March and the Camden branch had two street stalls, while the Narellan Red Cross had an afternoon tea stall at the Bank of New South Wales. (Minutes, Camden Red Cross, 9 March 1920 )
The support continued in 1925 when the Camden Red Cross was assisted on the dip stalls by Miss Gardner from Camden Public School and her kindergarten class. The total raised by Camden was £23 and Narellan Red Cross raised £9. Camden News, 1 April 1920)
The funds were donated to the Camden District Cot at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children. In 1925 Camden Red Cross members sought the assistance of the girls from Camden Superior Public School, with the girls helping out on one of the dip stalls. This practice continued until 1940. The Camden Red Cross branch made a regular donation and it generally varied between £20 and £50, with a peak in 1922 of £53. The overall average donation between 1921 and 1939 was £34, while during the Furner presidency the average donation was £37 and Macarthur Onslow’s presidency £32. The Camden Red Cross made a number of donations to nursery movement groups during the 1920s and they included: Nursery Association (1924, £10); Sydney Day Nurseries (1925, £10); Infant Home, Ashfield (1925, £7, and 1926, £10); and the Forest Lodge Day Nursery (1927, £6). (Ministering Angels, 66)
‘Flappers of the 1920s were young women known for their energetic freedom, embracing a lifestyle viewed by many at the time as outrageous, immoral or downright dangerous’, says the History.com website.
If you read the pages of the Camden News you might have agreed.
In 1920 the Camden News reported ‘flappers’ were ‘running wild’ on the streets of Sydney, or so it seemed to the casual reader. The press report stated:
A straggling procession of boisterous, well dressed young fellows, with pipe or cigarette in hand, and headed by a number of bold looking females of the ‘flapper’ type, paraded George and Pitt streets on Thursday (last week). (Camden News, 25 November 1920)
The same event was reported in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and other Sydney newspapers with less colourful language. Apparently there had been a lunchtime marchof office workers along George Street numbering around 3000, with ‘200 ladies’, supporting the basic wage case in Melbourne.
The news story that appeared in the Camden News had originally been run in the Crookwell Gazette. (Crookwell Gazette, 17 November 1920) and then re-published by the News the following week. The News and the Gazette were the only New South Wales newspapers that that ran this particular account of the Sydney march, where female office workers were called ‘flappers’.
The correspondent for the Gazette and News was offended by the effrontery young female office workers being part of an industrial campaign march. In the years before 1920 there had been a number of controversial industrial campaigns taken across New South Wales taken by workers. The Camden News had opposed these actions.
The editorial position of the Camden News was that these young women should fit the conservative stereotype of women represented by the Mothers’ Union. Here women were socialised in Victorian notions of service, ideals of dependence, and the ideology of motherhood where mothering was seen as a national imperative. (Willis, Ministering Angels:20-21)
The modern girl
The Sydney ‘flappers’ were modern girls who participated in paid-work, dressed in the latest fashions, cut their hair short, watched the latest movies, bought the latest magazines and used the latest cosmetics.
The term flapper linked Camden to international trends concerned with fashion, consumerism, cosmetics, cinema – primarily visual media.
The modern girl in Camden
The ‘modern girl’ in Camden appeared in the early 1920s and was shaped by fashion, movies, cosmetics and magazines.
These two photographs illustrate that young women in Camden were modern.
The young women in this 1919 pic have short hair sitting next local returned men from the war.
Another group of the young modern women appeared in Camden in 1920s. Trainee teachers shown in the photograph taken by local Camden photographer Roy Dowle. The group of 49 young single women from Sydney stayed at the Camden showground hall in 1921 along with 15 men. In following years hundreds of young female teachers stayed at the Camden showground and did their practical training at local schools.
The flapper at the movies
The most common place to the find the ‘flapper’ in Camden was at the movies – the weekly picture show at the Forrester’s Hall in Camden main street. The world on the big screen.
The movies were a visual medium, just like fashion, cosmetics, advertising, and magazines, that allowed Camden women to embrace the commodity culture on the Interwar period.
The Camden News used the language of latest fashions and styles when it reported these events or ran advertisements for the local picture show.
One example was the advertisement for the ‘Selznick Masterpiece’ the ‘One Week of Love’ in 1923. The was first time that the term ‘flapper’ appeared in a Camden movie promotion and it was announced it to the world this way:
‘Every man, woman, flapper, bride-to-be and eligible youth in Australia is crazy-to-see its stupendous wreck scene, thrilling aeroplane crash, strong dramatic appeal, lifting humour, intoxicating love scenes, bewildering beauty, lavishness, gripping suspense, heart-toughing pathos, which all combing to make it the biggest picture of the year’. (Camden News, 9 August 1923)
According to country press reports the movie was the ‘passion play of 1923’ and showed at PJ Fox’s Star Pictures located in the Foresters’ Hall, which had opened in 1914. Starring silent film beauty Elaine Hammerstein and female heart-throb Conway Tearle the movie had enjoyed ‘a sensational long-run season’ at Sydney’s Piccadilly Theatre. (Kiama Reporter and Illawarra Journal, 7 March 1923)
Foreign movies blew all sorts of ideas, trends and fashions into the Camden district including notions about flappers.
Young Camden women were influenced by images and trends generated by modernism at the pictures, in magazines, in advertising, in cosmetics, and in fashion.
While Camden could be a small closed community it was not isolated from the rest of the world.
These memories are a moving personal account of a childhood growing in Airds in the 1970s and 1980s.
This story from former Airds’ resident Fiona Woods acts a counterpoint to stories of despair and loss from these suburbs. In many ways, Airds was a suburb on the fringe of the world. Many residents were living on the edge and faced many challenges.
At the moment many Australian’s have felt a heightened sense of anxiety and need a little hope. Since the bushfires on Australia’s East Coast from September 2019 there are many grim stories.
The uncertainty and lack of control have continued into the Covid crisis, and many feel despair and at a loss. Fiona’s story provides a ray of sunshine in today’s shadows.
Fiona uses memory as a way of explaining the meaning of past events and peoples involvement in them. She has not created a meaningless collection of unrelated facts.
Fiona says, ‘Everyone has a story. It’s easy to think of our ancestors as names on a page or a black and white photograph of well-dressed, ‘serious people’.
‘But behind those images is a life that has been lived through both adversity and celebration. With love and pain and all that goes with being human. So many stories that have been untold’.
Fiona’s memories are about a suburb where some residents succeeded and others did not.
This is Fiona’s story and how hope can win through in the end.
Growing up in Airds
Growing up in a housing commission estate is not something that traditionally elicits feelings of pride and success. But for me, it does just that. I moved into Airds in 1977, when I was three years old.
My dad had suffered a traumatising work accident, one that would leave him with debilitating, lifelong injuries. My parents already had three small children and were expecting a fourth.
I can only imagine how difficult it would have been for them – Dad was in and out of the hospital, and Mum didn’t drive. Here was where their neighbours stepped in, and my earliest memories of the community began.
Back then, neighbours weren’t just people you waved to from the driveway. They were people you could count on, whether it be for food or childcare or even a simple chat over a cup of tea.
I grew up as part of a village, where a lady in my street took my sisters and me to our first gymnastics lessons. I developed friendships that have stood the test of time. I have even taught alongside my closest childhood friend, an experience that is something I treasure.
I laugh with my siblings that we can never shop with Mum in Campbelltown – she remembers everyone who lived remotely near us. But for her, it was the friendship she struck up with her new neighbour the day they both moved in that is the most special.
A friendship that has lasted for over 43 years. It still involves daily coffee catch-ups and phone calls.
I started Kindergarten at John Warby Public School, where I learned more than just academics. It was during this time that I experienced how the love of a teacher extends beyond the classroom.
I truly believe it was these experiences that led me to join the profession. I had so much to give back. I remember some of these teachers visiting our home to check in on our parents and even drive them to appointments.
They really took the home-school connection to a new level! I will be forever grateful for the investment they made in us and their belief that we would all succeed.
Living in Airds during the late 70s and early 80s was a time where friendships were built, and people stuck together. It was the freedom of riding bikes with friends until the street lights came on, building makeshift cubbies and performing concerts for the neighbours.
I can still remember the excitement of walking to the local shops with my sisters to buy a few groceries for Mum. The constant search for ‘bargains’ in the hope there would be twenty cents leftover to buy some mixed lollies.
To this day, I still can’t resist a markdown and resent paying full price for anything. Lollies aside, the mere act walking to the shops was an adventure. Teetering along with the giant concrete snake and pretending we were on a secret journey.
Our simple life ensured we had opportunities to use our imagination and explore the world around us, creating memories with our neighbours and friends.
But life wasn’t always easy. I remember eating dinner and seeing my parents eat toast because there wasn’t enough to go around.
By this stage, they were raising five children, including my youngest brother, who rarely slept for more than an hour each night. He became a case study for professors looking into hyperactivity disorders.
That was little comfort to my mum, who was also Dad’s primary carer, living on minimal sleep and a frugal budget. Yet she showed up every day, always reminding us about the power of education and instilling a true love of learning in us all.
What we lacked for in material possessions was made up by so much more. We learned to be resilient and grateful, and we learned to be kind. We continue to work hard in our chosen fields, always considering how we can help others.
One of the proudest moments for our parents was seeing all five children graduate from university. That and the ongoing pride they feel for their thirteen grandchildren, who love their Nan and Pop like no one else.
The roots that were planted back in those early days have been tended with such love and care.
Those trees continue to flourish, branching out into wonderful opportunities. I am forever grateful for the foundations my childhood was built upon.
And I proudly tell everyone about where it is I came from.
Daniel DraperFantastic story Eric Kontos, I am also a Proud Airds Boy moving their in 1977. My mother still lives in the same house. I always said growing up in Airds built character. We had a fantastic childhood and explored every part of the George’s River bushland. They where great days!
Frank WardWhat a great story and I have come across so many great similar accounts of growing up in Campbelltown and the estates.
Noting Fiona’s record that she and all her siblings got to go to University makes me particularly proud of the work my late sister Joan M Bielski AO AM who was a teacher but she devoted her life to the promotion of equal opportunity for women in education, politics and society. Her main work was to change the education system so that women got access as when she started at Uni only 25% of women got to Uni and then mainly in teaching now ove 56% of all graduates are women and more women are in political powerful positions This pandemic has been another example of the value of an educated female workforce as they have been on the frontline of this war on the virus so we can only hope that the government will give them equal pay instead of empty words that usually flow from the PM
Sam EganLove this, my family moved to airds in the late 70s, I started at John warby public, we moved when I was 7 or 8 to St Helens park, changed schools. 30+ years later after ending a long relationship i was set up on a date, who just so happened to be the boy who lived across the road from us at airds, who I used to walk to school with every day. His mom still lives in the same street. 15 years later and our own little boy we love going to visit, after all those years you realize how strong that little community is.
Leonie ChapmanWhat a fabulous article and account of the old days.
I grew up there from about 1978 and went to Briar Rd PS and then St Pats.
I have so many fond memories and close bonds that I made back then and still am lucky to have today
I have always been proud of my roots, especially the early beginnings of growing up in housing commission. You don’t need riches to be surrounded by love, hope and a desire to succeed.
I am honoured that my story was shared on the blog of local historian, Dr Ian Willis. I thought I’d share it with you all ❤
Tracey Seal WagstaffThank you for sharing this beautiful story Fiona Woods. I also grew up in Airds in the 70’s & 80’s I can honestly say that your story is just the same as many of us. Your words reflect the same community spirit of my upbringing in Airds where everyone had each others back. My mums house was like a halfway house everyone was welcome and the front door was always open to all. Those where the days. Riding in the streets, building jumps, having dance concerts, this was the way of life. We still have longtime friends from our neighbourhood that we still have contact with today after 40 years…
Wilfred J PinkGreat story and well deserved recognition Fi. Congratulations mate.
Linda HuntOh Fiona. This bought a tear to my eye. Beautiful words that ring so true. Life growing up in this neighbourhood is truly one to remember. Thank you. I’m happy I was able to read this on this day.
Patricia O’BrienAbsolutely gorgeous. What an outstanding view of the many children grew up in Airds. Two of my own children were brought up in Airds and also went to John Warby and they are both school teachers. So proud of how all my children grew up to be people who respect their families and friends.
Deborah LittlewoodOh Fiona, what an amazing story. Brings back so many wonderful memories with your beautiful family. I love so much that our friendship is as close as it was all those years ago. Us ‘Airds chicks’ certainly did ok for ourselves.
Deborah LittlewoodFiona Woods my favourite part of your story ❤️.
I always remember your mum did so much for everyone else and now you and your daughters are exactly the same. Always putting everyone else before yourselves.
Raylene NevilleNaw, that was beautiful x
I was a housing commission kid too! I remember that we had a blue fridge!
Jeff WilliamsPretty good writing for a teacher! 🙂 I love waiting for people bagging out housing commission and then letting it be known I grew up there!
Valeska SpratfordJeff Williams the classic old John Warby PS uniform. Little do people know that this low-socioeconomic school gave us free dental and some of the best memories of our lives. C’town represents. . . . .Airds 4Eva 😉
Cass BienBeautiful! I also grew up in Housing Commission, we had great neighbours too and I met my best friend at 8 yrs old, still besties today. So grateful for these times. xx Your story is lovely. 😊
Caf AirsGreat story showing what family, community and education can achieve.
Melissa SalterBeautiful words Fiona, it is a true depiction of many of us “Airds” kids of that era, great community and John Warby was definitely a major part of all of our success
Fiona WoodsJeffrey R Williams thanks Dad. And thanks for always believing in us and for never giving up on us, even when we made mistakes and stupid decisions in our lives.
We knew we could always count on you and Mum.
I can even laugh now about how you joked about karma when I cried to you about the horror of having 3 teenage girls 😂
Noleen SpencerGreat job , we also came from humble beginnings, not much money but plenty of love to go around , we appreciated every little blessing and was always taught it cost nothing to smile and to lend a helping hand. I’ve always said to my children , you don’t have to be the best , you just have to try your best .
Louise CounsellThat was moving. Your family was so rich in the things that mattered
Cathy HarleFiona, you had the very great privilege of growing up in a home full of love and values with your sisters and brothers, and each one of you have instilled those values in your own children – you can all be very proud of yourselves 💕
Harder Karen IanBeautiful and well written Fiona and as auntie Noleen said, we also come from a large family, one income earner, little money and a lot of bad health issues but there was also plenty of love and we always appreciated what little we had. I am so grateful for everything and for how all of our beautiful children turned out, I am I only very sad our dear mum and dad didn’t live long enough to see how all their beautiful grandchildren turned out. Your mum and dad did such a good job raising such a beautiful family and I can clearly see you are all doing the same with your own families. Much love 😘😘❤❤
Salome Mariner BorgI love this so much! 💙
So well articulated that I could just feel the love and could picture everything as if it were a movie..actually, why not turn it into a movie ☺️👌
Thanks for sharing xx
JoJo AxeWill always be thankful for our humble beginnings and everything our families have done for each other. That beautiful special friendship like no other that our Mum’s have, the joy and support they give to one another is amazing. Something to be very grateful for 😘
Amy LouThank you for sharing this. An inspiring story with some aspects that remind me of my own childhood. ❤️
Michelle HalloranLove your story Fiona. Thank you so much for sharing! Eplains why you are such an amazing teacher and person 🤗 We moved into a housing commission place at Ambarvale in 1981 when I was 6, the neighbours were awesome their too! So many great memories growing up there. Freedom to roam the neighbourhood on our bikes, visiting 5 or 6 friends on a Saturday, Mum and Dad having no idea where I was until I arrived home before dark! Sadly it’s a different world now.
Stephanie ComptonThat story is beautifully written. I can really feel your heat’s journey and the feel of family and community… which has helped make you the amazing woman and mother you are today! xoxo
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.