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Blue Plaque recognises Camden Red Cross sewing circle in wartime

Camden Red Cross sewing circles during the First and Second World Wars

The wartime efforts of Camden women have been recognised by the successful nomination for a New South Wales Blue Plaque with Heritage NSW.

The announcement appeared in the Sydney press with a list of 17 other successful nominations for a Blue Plaque across the state. They include notable people and events in their local area.

What is a Blue Plaque?

The Heritage NSW website states:

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.

The Sidman women volunteer their time and effort during the First World War for the Camden Red Cross. Patriotic fundraising supporting the war at home was a major activity and raised thousands of pounds. This type of effort was quite in all communities across Australia and the rest of the British Empire. (Camden Images and Camden Museum)

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.

Camden School of Arts PReeves c1800s (CIPP)

Camden Museum Library building in John Street Camden where the Blue Plaque will be located recognising the efforts of the Camden Red Cross sewing circles in both World War One and World War Two. (I Willis, 2008)

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

The English Heritage website states:

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.

Unveiling a Blue Plaque in the United Kingdom (English Heritage)

Reference for Camden Red Cross story

Ian Willis, Ministering Angels, The Camden District Red Cross 1914-1945. Camden Historical Society, Camden, 2014.

1920s · 20th century · Anzac · Convalescent Home · Convalescent hospital · Cultural Heritage · First World War · Heritage · Medical history · Military history · Patriotism · Picton · Red Cross · Sense of place · Shell Shock · Storytelling · Uncategorized · VAD · Voluntary Aid Detachment · Volunteering · Volunteerism · War · War at home · Wartime · World War One

Waley Convalescent Home at Mowbray Park

Waley Home for Returned Soldiers

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.)

Foundation

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.

(Courtesy Mowbray Park)

The Farm

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.)

The main entrance to Waley Convalescent Home in the early 1920s with some of the Red Cross staff in the background. (Mowbray Park)

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 drive through an avenue of pines to the beautifully situated homestead one realised the noble sentiment which prompted the owners – Mr. and Mrs. F. G. Waley – to hand over to the nation this rich possession. In order that those men whose nerves had suffered from the shock 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 from their host and hostess to the nation. “It is,” he added, a noble gift, and I am indeed glad to find myself under this Hospitable roof tree.” (SMH 4 March 1920)

Plaque commemorating the hand-over to the Commonwealth of Australian by the Waley family in 1920 (Courtesy Mowbray Park)

Entertainment

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)

(Courtesy Mowbray Park)

Staffing

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.

Ward Waley Home which was managed by the Red Cross (Courtesy Mowbray Park)

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.

Red Cross duty room with staffing by Voluntary Aids from the Camden District Detachments (Courtesy Mowbray Park)
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An amazing woman, Sheila Murdoch

Community worker, musician and mother.

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.

Sheila with her granddaughter Nicole (N Comerford, 2021)

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.

Liquid Paraffin medicine that Sheila Murdoch purchased from Camden pharmacist Colin Clark in Argyle Street. The bottle dates from the mid-20th century. This is the bottle that led to this story about Sheila. (N Comerford, 2021)

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.

Sheila

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).’

Musical family

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’.

Sheila Murdoch played the piano from an early age. She regularly played at Carrington Aged-Care Complex with the Melody Makers. I was told by one member of the group that she could play any tune in any key. Now that is quite an achievement. (Camden Advertiser, 2018)

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.’ 

Les was from the Newcastle area, born at Adamstown in 1922, and in 1941 enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force. On discharge in 1946 he had the rank of corporal.

Les played the saxophone [Weir, p. 33]

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.

Reports of the dance said that the stage was ‘tastefully decorated with streamers and clusters of balloons’ surrounded by a vase of chrysanthemums and maidenhair ferns’. The orchestra was under the baton of Jack Butler. (Shoalhaven News, 1 June 1938). The band played at the annual ball and euchre party of the Kangaroo Valley RSS&AILA in 1939 (Shoalhaven News, 13 September 1939) and the Gerringong Football Club’s dance and euchre party at Gerringong in 1944. (Kiama Independent, and Shoalhaven Advertiser, 17 June 1944).

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.

Sheila with her great-grandchildren at the farm (N Comerford, 2020)

Thornhill, Orangeville

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]

Sheila in the centre of the image with the rest of her family. All generations. (N Comerford, 2021)

Family

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)

Community

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)

Les Murdoch (N Comerford)

Melody Makers

‘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. 

The Melody Makers at Carrington Aged-Care in 2018 on Sheila’s 100th Birthday with Laurie on Sax, George on violin, and Kevin on guitar (Camden Advertiser, 2018)

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)

The Melody Makers here with Laurie on sax, Kevin on guitar and George on violin. Laurie had a fine career as military bandsman. (c.2017, Carrington Care)

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.’

Carrington Aged-Care

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.

Sheila Murdoch loved children and joined in activities at Carrington, Her she is participating with the ‘littlies’ in Carrington’s Intergenerational Playgroup March 2020 (Carrington Care, 2020)

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.’

References

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.

Agricultural heritage · Agriculture · Attachment to place · Camden Show · Cultural Heritage · Heritage · History · Lifestyle · Living History · Local History · Local Studies · Macarthur · Miss Showgirl · Modernism · Myths · Pageant · Ruralism · Sense of place · Stereotypes · Storytelling · Uncategorized · Volunteering · Volunteerism · Women's history

The enduring appeal of a rural pageant

Miss Showgirl

 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 RAS Miss Royal Easter Showgirl for 1978 in the Australian Women’s Weekly. The winner is an 18-year-old trainee nurse from Mungindi in rural New South Wales. (AWW 29 March 1978)

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.

Miss Camden Showgirl for 2018 in the Australia Day Parade on the float for the Camden Show. (I Willis)

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. 

2011 Camden Show Girl and Camden’s first Sydney Royal Showgirl, Hilary Scott. (The District Reporter 3 October 2011)

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  2015 Kate Boardman 2016 Danielle Rodney 2017 Tess Madeley 2018 Corinne Fulford 2019 Nicole Sandrone 2020 Tiarna Scerri  

These women have come from diverse backgrounds and acted as a rural ambassador for the Camden Show.

The Land Sydney Royal Show Girl Competition for 2022 website states:

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.

https://www.camdenshow.com/members/itemlist/category/133-show-ball

Originally published as ‘Miss Showgirl, an enduring anachronism’ in The District Reporter 3 October 2011

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Motherhood and nation-building in the early 20th century

Infant mortality and the ideology of motherhood.

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.

This First World War poster is a lithograph by American artist Foringer, A. E. (Alonzo Earl) and is titled ‘The greatest mother in the world’ (1917). The poster is showing a monumental Red cross nurse cradling a wounded soldier on a stretcher.

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.

The story of the Camden District Red Cross 1914-1945 is published by the Camden Historical Society. It tells the story of Red Cross branches at Camden, Menangle, The Oaks, Bringelly, Mount Hunter, Oakdale and the Burragorang Valley.

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.

Swift writes:

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. 

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/social-sciences/motherhood#:~:text=Motherhood%20as%20Ideology&text=A%20well%2Dknown%20summary%20of,67).

Developing national anxiety around motherhood

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.  

Sibella Macarthur Onslow in the library at Camden Park House in 1922. Sibella known affectionately ‘Sib’ was a philanthropist, church woman, pastoralist, a woman of independent means and intensely private. She was a member of influential conservative women’s organisations during the Edwardian and Interwar periods including Sydney’s influential Queen’s Club and National Council of Women and the imperial Victoria League. (Camden Images)

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.

King  visited Australian in 1917 on a lecture tour and warned Australia:

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.

(Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Friday 11 February 1938)

Red Cross Baby Day in Camden

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.

The women of the Camden Red Cross at their weekly street stall in Argyle Street Camden in the 1920s. The women ran the stall for decades and raised thousands of pounds for local and national charities. (Camden Images)

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 )  

Camden RHS Adeline West with baby Kathleen LHS Adeline’s sister Ethel Jones & baby Edwin 1908 (Camden Images)

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)

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Formidable women from the past

Camden’s formidable women

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.

A Place to Call Home DVD
A Place to Call Home was a hit TV series produced in Australia that premiered in 2013. The series used the John Horbury Hunt designed Victorian mansion Camelot located at Kirkham on the edge of Camden as the location setting for the TV show. (Amazon)

 

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.

Camelot House formerly known at Kirkham, Camden NSW
Camelot house, originally known as Kirkham, was designed by Canadian-born architect John Horbury Hunt for James White. The house was built in 1888 on the site of colonial identity John Oxley’s Kirkham Mill. Folklore says that James White financed the house from the winnings of the 1877 Melbourne Cup by his horse Chester. Under White’s ownership the property became a horse-racing stud and produced a number of notable horses. (Camden Images)

 

Elizabeth Macarthur Onslow

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.

Elizabeth Macarthur Onslow lived at Camden Park house and garden.
This image of Elizabeth Macarthur Onslow is from a portrait painting at Camden Park House. Elizabth was the daughter of James Macarthur. She married Captain Arthur Onslow in 1867 and had 8 children. (Camden Park)

 

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.

enid macarthur onslow
Enid Macarthur Onslow (CPH)

 

Rita Tucker

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.

Rita Tucker, Camden NSW
Rita Tucker, Camden NSW (J Tucker)

 

Zoe Crookston

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.

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Notable women in Camden

International Women’s Day 2019

On International Women’s Day in 2019 it is worthwhile reflecting on some of Camden’s prominent women over the decades. Camden elite women were formidable figures and matriarchs in their own right and left their mark on the community.

Kirkham’s own  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 (The District Reporter, 29 March 2013). 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.

 

Elizabeth Macarthur Onslow Portrait lowres
(Eliza) Elizabeth Macarthur Onslow of Camden Park NSW (L Abraham)

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.

 

rosa sibella macarthur onslow
Sibella Macarthur Onslow (CPH)

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.

 

Rita_Tucker1
Wartime president of the Camden branch of the Country Women’s Association Mrs Rita Tucker. (J Tucker)

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.

 

1935_Murch Susan Crookston_Portrtait
This portrait is of Zoe Crookston’s daughter Miss Suzanne Crookston painted by Arthur Murch of Sydney in 1935 (AGNSW)

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. She was married to Camden medical practitioner Robert Crookston, and had two daughter Suzanne and Jaqueline.

A more recent woman of note was Elizabeth Kernohan.  Elizabeth (Liz) Kernohan was the first woman in Camden to be elected as an alderman on council (1973), to the hospital board (1974) and subsequently as deputy mayor (1974), mayor (1980) and finally as a member of parliament (1991). She was a popular local identity until her death in 2004.

Elizabeth Kernohan 1994 Camden Images
Elizabeth Kernohan 1994 (Camden Images)

Kernohan, like earlier Camden women (Sibella Macarthur Onslow and Rita Tucker), combined female agency and active citizenship, and developed a ‘parallel path’ for herself where she acquired considerable social, moral and political authority. She combined her conservatism with civic duty and an ethic of selfless service.

Kernohan’s political success was based on her aggressive use of localist politics in an area that was proud of its rural traditions and heritage.  She was plain speaking to the point where ‘What you see is what you get…(and) I call a spade a bloody shovel’. An approach that endeared her to the local community.

Kernohan was a fierce advocate of Camden’s rural identity in the face of the New Cities Plan (1973) which planned massive urban growth  on the metropolitan fringe.  She maintained in 1981 that Camden should become the ‘Double Bay of Sydney’s southwest’, an exclusivity that is still recognizable in the area’s identity and sense of place. This identity of difference drove her popularity and appealed to the ‘aspirationals’ who moved to the area from the ‘burbs’. The new arrivals were looking for a place where the ‘country still looked like the country’ and were ready converts to her cause.  Above all she proved that all politics is local, to the detriment of her career.

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Camden CWA leads way in wartime

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.

CamNetMaking_AWM007671
Australian women making camouflage nets during the Second World War. These volunteering efforts greatly assisted the war effort. (AWM007671) cc

 

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.

Camouflages Nets

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.

Countrywoman of NSW 1941 July CWA Sheepskin Vests
The Countrywoman in New South Wales for July 1941 which was a special handicraft issue with patterns and designs for making soldier comforts. The Countrywoman had lots of advice on wartime activities including instructions on making camouflage nets by local branches. Sheepskin vests were made for servicemen during the winter cold of Europe. (CWA)

 

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.

Learn more

Read more about the CWA and other conservative women’s organisations in wartime Camden @ UOW research

 

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Camden CWA wartime president, Rita Tucker

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.

Rita_Tucker1
Wartime president of the Camden branch of the Country Women’s Association Mrs Rita Tucker. (J Tucker)

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.

 

Change Agents

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’.

 

The CWA’s The Countrywoman stated in 1942 that:

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.

 

Learn more

Read more about the CWA and other conservative women’s organisations in wartime Camden  @  UOW research

 

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CWA Camouflage Netting Volunteers

Stories of netting volunteers

A Camden netting volunteer, Elaine, remembered volunteering for duty at the Camden netting centre when she was 15 years old. She recalled that the netting effort was organised and supervised by Rita Tucker. She stated that she had left school and attended the centre on a weekly basis with a group of friends.

Elaine maintained that Camden men ‘were away and we were doing our bit’ for the war effort. She stated that Camden women ‘all had to do something to help our boys’ and they took up netting as part of their civic and patriotic duty. Elaine reported that, for her, netting was not hard work and she enjoyed going with her friends. She maintained that they worked ‘long hours’ and ‘didn’t really worry about it’.

CamNetMaking_AWM007671
Australian women making camouflage nets during the Second World War. These volunteering efforts greatly assisted the war effort. (AWM007671) 

Another net making volunteer, Ida, recalls that netting was ‘hard work’, but ‘she went with her friends, and it was her bit for the war effort’. She helped at a netting circle located above a shop in Campsie, attending on a Wednesday nights after work, but could not recall who organised it.

Ida maintains that at around eighteen years of age, ‘there was not much else to do’ and all the boys ‘were either too old or too young’. Another netter, Kerry worked during the day as a clerk and attended the Nowra netting centre after work at the age of eighteen. The Nowra centre was located above a shop in the main street and she considered that netting was her ‘patriotic duty’.

Another Nowra netter, Grace, lived at home on a dairy farm. In 1942, when she was seventeen years old, she went with a friend to the Nowra netting centre for ‘a couple of hours’ a week on a Tuesday afternoon. She would catch the train from Berry to Nowra, attend classes at Nowra Technical College, then attend netting where there would be between ’10-15 other women’.

Grace recalls that as the netters had ‘to be careful making [the] knots’, she found them ‘hard and difficult to make… as they had to be stable and couldn’t move’. In hindsight, she ‘didn’t think [that she] ever got very proficient at it’, but she still went along ‘to help the war effort, for company and a chat’. Rita, a volunteer at the Armidale Teacher’s College netting centre in 1941, maintained that ‘we were expected to do our bit for the war effort – it all helped’.

Netting Centres at Campbelltown and Narellan

The Camden CWA camouflage netting centre was assisted by sub-branches at Campbelltown and Narellan, which were established after the joint CWA-WVS meeting in December 1941. These sub-branches provided a small but steady stream of nets to add to the Camden effort. By February 1942 the Campbelltown News reported that the ‘sub-centres’ were providing ’24 nets a month’ to the ‘urgent’ appeals from the military authorities for nets.

In June 1942 Mrs Una Swan reported that thirty-four nets had been sent from Campbelltown, and Narellan was working well. By late 1942 ‘Campbelltown was [still] keeping our end up’ according to Mrs Swan, and in March 1943 supplied sixteen nets. The Narellan netting effort was under the leadership of Eliza Byrne, who was the wife of the local publican at Narellan, and president of the Narellan Red Cross.

Camden was the largest netting centre in the area, and the only CWA branch, and following directives from the CWA Handicrafts Committee, distributed netting twine to the smaller netting centres at Campbelltown, Narellan and Buxton.

Net making finishes

The enthusiasm in Camden for netting waned and in 1943 the output was ‘negligible’ according to Tucker, but Swan made ‘herself responsible to complete all unfinished nets by the end of the year’. The winding down of netting activity started in September 1943 and Dorothy Inglis of the State Handicrafts Committee advised branches ‘to complete all on hand as quickly as possible’.

Mrs Swan reported at the October CWA meeting that ‘no official word had been received to cease making nets’. In October, Francis Forde, the Minister for the Army announced the end of net making, which sent ‘shock waves’ throughout the CWA. The Camden netting centre eventually closed in February 1944, after operating for over two and half years, with Una Swan finishing the last of the nets.

With the cessation of netting the New South Wales CWA Handicrafts Committee looked for alternative ways to hold the netting groups together. The Army requested that the New South Wales CWA branches assist in the re-conditioning of Army clothing. In November 1943 the Camden CWA received a request from the Army at Liverpool and the women considered the request at their December meeting.

By the end of 1943 no arrangements for sewing had been made with the Liverpool Army Camp authorities, although the women expected to make a start early in 1944. Camden CWA president Rita Tucker felt that the ‘matter… must be discussed thoroughly at a branch meeting, when it will be seen if it is possible to rise to the occasion’.

In the end the Camden CWA did not proceed with the project. According to the New South Wales Women’s Voluntary Services reconditioning military clothing ‘did not attract the same enthusiasm’ as making camouflage nets.

By 1944 women who undertook wartime volunteering started looking ahead to the time after the war when their communities would need their time and effort.

Learn more

CWA and other women’s organisations in wartime Camden @ UOW research