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Local girls goes to London

Local women travel the world

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 Anglica by the University of Warsaw.

Clintons Motors Showroom with sales assistants Shirley Dunk and Beth Jackman in 1953. The business sold electrical goods as well as motor cars, accessories and tyres. (S Rorke)

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.

Letters from home were always in demand by anyone who travelled overseas. They would bring news of home and what the latest gossip from the family. These letters were sent by Shirley Dunk to her family in Camden when she went to London in 1954. (I Willis)

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.

The full citation of the article is:

Ian Willis 2021, “My box of memories”: An Australian Country Girl Goes to London. Anglica,  2021; 30 (1): 53-66. DOI: 10.7311/0860-5734.30.1.04 GICID: 01.3001.0015.3447 Online @ https://anglica-journal.com/resources/html/article/details?id=222778

Shirley Dunk and Beth Jackman travelled to London in 1954 on the RMS Orcades. The ship passage was a time to make new friends and make useful contacts for their time in England. It was a time to relax and have a good time and see the sights of Aden, Colombo, Naples and other exotic spots. (S Dunk)
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Fiona’s story

Memories of hope

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.

Airds Fiona Woods School sisters
Airds Fiona Woods School sisters (F Woods)

 

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.

There are linkages between memory and storytelling.  Each is full of meaning.

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

Fiona Woods

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.

Airds Fiona Woods and brother
Fiona Woods and brother (F Woods)

 

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.

Airds Fiona Woods Kids Airds
Fiona Woods Kids Airds (F Woods)

 

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.

Airds Shopping Centre Interior3 2020 Aust247
Airds Shopping Centre 2020 (I Willis)

 

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.

Airds Fiona Woods Family pic
Airds Fiona Woods Family pic (F Woods)

 

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.


Comments to re-publication of the post on South West Voice Facebook page  5 May 2020

  • Daniel Draper Fantastic 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 Ward What 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 Egan Love 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.
    1 reply
  • Leonie Chapman What 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

Comments on Fiona’s Facebook page

Fiona Woods  writes

30 April

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 

Comments

Tracey Seal Wagstaff Thank 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 Pink Great story and well deserved recognition Fi. Congratulations mate.

Linda Hunt Oh 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.
Congratulations. X

Jowen Hillyer How clever are you? Gorgeous words xx
Patricia O’Brien Absolutely 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.
Stephen Chomicz Inspiring
Jen Nay Beautiful story Fiona Woods
Jowen Hillyer Aww lovely. Great job xxx
Deborah Littlewood Oh 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 Littlewood Fiona 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 Neville Naw, that was beautiful x
I was a housing commission kid too! I remember that we had a blue fridge!
Merrideth McGregor Beautifully written ❤️ love it x
Jeff Williams Pretty 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 Spratford Jeff 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 😉
Judi Wood Wonderful story; thanks for sharing 🏆
Ann Hawkins Beautiful Fiona
Cass Bien Beautiful! 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 Airs Great story showing what family, community and education can achieve.
Melissa Salter Beautiful 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
Jeffrey R Williams Well done. Mum and I are so proud 😤 of you. Love 😍 ya heaps.
Fiona Woods Jeffrey 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 😂
Kim Pike Inspiring and great story 🏅👏
Noleen Spencer Great 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 .
Christine Quensell Loved reading your story Fiona. Thank you for sharing.
Shane Campbell Great story and great family …
Bec Brown This is wonderful Fi. Beautifully told and very inspiring. Love you my friend x
Kristy Sorouni Awesome. 👏
Very powerful and inspiring, love you xx
Cam Maber Beautiful story Fiona. Thankyou so much for sharing..♥️
Julie Douglas Love this, Fiona ❤️
Louise Counsell That was moving. Your family was so rich in the things that mattered
Cathy Harle Fiona, 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 Ian Beautiful 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 Borg I 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 Axe Will 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 Lou Thank you for sharing this. An inspiring story with some aspects that remind me of my own childhood. ❤️
Michelle Halloran Love 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 Compton That 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
Fiona Maureen That was such a nice read. Good to get to know you more. ☺️
Yvette Underwood Torr That is wonderful. Your parents did an amazing job.

Originally posted 30 April 2020

Updated 19 June 2020
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Crisis relief in wartime and the peace

Book Review

Ministering Angels, the Camden District Red Cross, 1914-1945.

Author Ian Willis

Publisher: Camden Historical Society

ISBN 978-0-9803039-6-4

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 Sydney http://www.dictionaryofsydney.org, 2007-2012)

Ministering Angels, the Camden District Red Cross, 1914-1945 Ian Willis Camden Historical Society Inc ISBN 978-0-9803039-6-4
Book Cover for Ministering Angels (2014)

 

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.

Read the book here (free)

For more information contact the publisher:

secretary@camdenhistory.org.au

Secretary, Camden Historical Society Inc. PO Box 566, 40 John St, Camden NSW 2570

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Going to London

Going to London

Thousands of young single Australian born women travelled to London and beyond from the mid-to-late 19th century.  This pilgrimage, as historian Angela Woollacott has called it, was a life-changing journey for these women. They were both tourist and traveller and many worked their passage throughout their journey.

Suters Archive Travel Diary5 2019 SSuters lowres
A typical trip diary kept by the young women who travelled to London in the 1950s as they explored the world. They were both tourist and travellers as they broke stereotypes and gender expectations in Australian and the UK. (S Suters)

 

Their travels illustrate the links between metropole and the periphery, between the settler societies and the imperial centre that have been little explored by scholars of history. These young women were both insiders and outsiders, both colonials and part of the heritage of colonizers. The dichotomy of their position provides an interesting position as they explored the transnational relationship between Australia and the UK.

These women occupied a space between metropolitan centre of London and their shared British heritage and notions of England as ‘home’ yet at the same time they were outsiders in England and other parts of the British Empire that they visited in Colombo and Aden.

There has been some recent scholarship that explores the Australian diaspora in the United Kingdom around issues of imperialism, expatriation, globalisation, national identity and overseas citizenship.

London Tower of London 2006 PPikous-Flckr
The Tower of London was a popular tourist attraction for young Australian born women who travelled to London and beyond. These women acted as both tourist and traveller in their journey of exploration.  (P Pikous, 2006)

 

In the 19th century colonial born women from well-off families went husband-hunting in England. By the early 20th century the list of women travelling to the United Kingdom started to include creative-types including actors, writers, artists, musicians, and singers. One of the most famous being Dame Nellie Melba.

In the mid-20th century following the Second World War young working women from modest backgrounds started to explore the world and head for London.  There were a number of Camden women who undertook this journey during the 1950s that are the subject of a history project.

Travelling to London

Dr Ian Willis explores the transnational journey undertaken by these in paper accepted at the 2019 Australian Historical Asssociation conference in Toowoomba and the 2019 Redefining Australia and New Zealand at the University of Warsaw.

38th Australian Historical Association Conference 2019, Local Communities, Global Networks, University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, 8-12 July 2019.

Title of Paper

Tourist or traveller: the journey of an Australian country girl to London in 1954.

Abstract

In 1954 Shirley Dunk, a young country woman from the small community of Camden in New South Wales, exercised her agency and travelled to the United Kingdom with her best friend and work colleague, Beth Jackman. This was a journey to the home of their forefathers and copied the activities of other Camden women. Some of the earliest of these journeys were undertaken by Camden’s elite women in the late 19th century when they developed imperial networks that functioned on three levels – the local, the provincial and the metropole.

This research project will use a qualitative approach where there is an examination of Shirley’s journey archive complimented with supplementary interviews. The archive consisted of personal letters, diaries, photographs, scrapbooks, ship menus and other ephemera and was recently presented to me. It was a trove of resources which documented Shirley’s 12 months away from home and, during interviews, allowed her to vividly relive her memories of the journey.   Shirley nostalgically recalled the sense of adventure that she and Beth experienced as they left Sydney for London by ship and their travels throughout the United Kingdom and Europe.

The paper will attempt to address some of the questions posed by the journey and how she reconciled these forces as an actor on a transnational stage through her lived experience as a tourist and traveller. Shirley’s letters home were reported in the country press and were reminiscent of soldier’s wartime letters when they acted as tourists in foreign lands.

The narrative will show that Shirley was exposed to the cosmopolitan nature of the metropole, as were earlier generations of local women who journeyed to London. The paper will explore how Shirley was subject to the forces of urbanism, modernity and consumerism at a time when rural women were presented with representations of domesticity and other ‘ideal’ gender stereotypes.

 

Camden Shirley Rorke Beth Jackman 1953 Clintons SRorke_adjusted
Two Camden women who headed for London in the mid-1950s were Shirley Dunk and her best friend Beth Jackman. This image  shows their workplace in the Clintons Motors Showroom at 16 Argyle Street, Camden where they both worked at sales assistants in 1953.   (S Rorke)

 

2nd Biennial International Conference on Redefining Australia and New Zealand, Changes, Innovations, Reversals, University of Warsaw, Warsaw, Poland, 16-17 September 2019.

Title of Paper

An Australian country girl goes to London.

Abstract

In 1954 a young country woman from New South Wales, Shirley Dunk, exercised her agency and travelled to London. This was a journey to the home of their forefathers 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 rural gentry in the 19th century when they developed imperial networks that functioned on three levels – the local, the provincial and the metropole.

This research project will use a qualitative approach where there is an examination of Shirley’s journey archive complimented with supplementary interviews. The archive consisted of personal letters, diaries, photographs, scrapbooks, ship menus and other ephemera and was recently presented to me. It was a trove of resources which documented Shirley’s 12 months away from home and, during interviews, allowed her to vividly relive her memories of the journey.   Shirley nostalgically recalled the sense of adventure that she experienced as she left Sydney for London by ship and her travels throughout the United Kingdom and Europe.

The paper will attempt to address some of the questions posed by the journey and how she reconciled these forces as an actor on a transnational stage through her lived experience as a tourist and traveller. Shirley’s letters home were reported in the country press and were 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 earlier generations of women. The paper will explore how Shirley was subject to the forces of urbanism, modernity and consumerism at a time when rural women were presented with representations of domesticity and other ‘ideal’ gender stereotypes.

 

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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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London women in the colonies

Book Cover Carolines Diary
Cover Caroline’s Diary

Book Review

Anne Philp, Caroline’s Diary, A Woman’s World in Colonial Australia, Anchor Books Australia, NSW, 2015, x + 269 pages; ISBN 9780992467135.

This is a book where Anne Philp has created a narrative around the personal diaries of English woman Caroline Husband who came to New South Wales in the mid-19th century.  Her father, lawyer James Husband, fell on hard times and fled his Hampstead Hill house in England with debt-collectors in pursuit, and was followed to Australia by his wife and seven children.   Caroline has documented her thoughts, her experiences and her feelings of her life adventure from England to Sydney, and then the Wellington District, Armidale and finally Camden. She has provided a window into the world where imperial linkages have intersected with the life of her family, her husband, her church and her community.

Discover of diaries

Caroline’s diaries were discovered by chance lying in the back of a drawer at the historic Camden property, Brownlow Hill, by Joan Downes, the wife of one of Caroline’s descendants in the 1980s. The strong Camden connections are set from beginning of Caroline’s story on the voyage out from England  in 1852 when one shipboard companion was a Mr Downes of Brownlow Hill.  In early 1883 Caroline’s daughter May married Fred Downes of Brownlow Hill and had four children, one of whom gave birth to John, Joan’s husband. Caroline had originally moved into the Camden District with her family and household staff in 1875 when Henry purchased the Georgian style Wivenhoe from politician Sir Charles Cowper.  Using her agency Caroline quickly re-established a social network  after her move from Saumarez  (137) and commenced calling on the Barkers of Maryland, the Macarthurs of Camden Park, the Chisholms of Gledswood and the Downes of Brownlow Hill.  Local folklore has it that the Thomas’s Camden move was to ensure that Caroline’s daughters were married off to appropriate Sydney bachelors.

Flippant young girl

Caroline’s voice is heard in Philp’s use of extensive diary extracts which are organised chronologically beginning with the 1851 Great Exhibition in London. The nineteen year old Caroline,   an educated writer, is a party animal with a constant round of outings accompanied by her younger sister, Cordy, in and around London. She has a rather indulgent, flippant manner which upsets some of her elders and is reflected in her immaturity. Author Anne Philp remarks about the apparent ease ‘with which the Husband girls are able to move around unchaperoned’  (18) even on visits to family relatives and friends.  The whirlwind of actors in Caroline’s life-story are clarified for the reader by Philp by the provision a number of appendices including  Cordy’s scrapbook, family trees, a list of who’s who, index and images of family and houses. Caroline has used cross-writing, sometimes called cross-hatching, where she wrote across the page at 900 from earlier text in her diaries, presumably to save paper which was expensive. For the historian it makes deciphering these writings difficult and time consuming. Philps notes her ‘writing became almost unreadable, particularly when she crosswrote’ (103) with excitement at the impending marriage to squatter Henry Arding Thomas.

Voyage Out

The chapters mark out Caroline’s life and provide an insight into how English society dealt with those who fell out and their sudden collapse of good fortune. Some fled and  Caroline’s voyage out to Sydney in 1852 aboard the General Hewitt, a former convict ship of 961 tons, under Captain Gatenby, which took four months and ten days and sailed directly from Plymouth to Sydney.  Caroline’s Diary joins around 800 other diarists’ accounts of the 19th century voyages to Australia. Many were written by educated well-off women and for them writing a diary was a way of normalising the deprivations and uncertainties of the journey. (a)  Although for Caroline the worst of the voyage seemed to be boredom and dull company, ‘Very dull & stupid – dread the breakfasts & dinners – Mr Hay is so dull.’ (46)  Yet a fellow ship passenger, Catherine Roxburgh, had a rather different view of the Husband girls. She stated in a letter to her sister that they possessed ‘no depth’, they were ‘deficient in judgement and prudence’ and she described Cordelia as ‘rather fond of being admired, [and] likes society’. Catherine felt that her shipmates viewed the journey out as a time to   ‘eat’, ‘drink and be merry’. (48-49) This contrasted with the early weeks of the voyage where Caroline felt that it was ‘A dreadful life. No wind in our sails. The mankind exceedingly disagreeable…’ (46).

Fresh commentary of colonial Sydney

Caroline’s fresh commentary of colonial Sydney, a small Victorian outpost of the British Empire, through her youthful eyes is unencumbered by the town’s dark history and brutal heritage. The value of the diaries are the sharp witty observations of social life and the comparisons the reader can draw between metropolitan London and young colony of Sydney. Her positive outlook on life combined with Sydney’s Englishness presented a not unfamiliar place for Caroline and she soon started re-creating a life as a social butterfly. The Husband girls, Caroline, Cordy and Fanny, attracted the cream of Sydney’s eligible bachelors as a string of would-be suitors. Sydney’s shortage of suitable women made the family’s modest lodgings at Woolloomooloo a honey pot, a coterie of potential wives. The sisters had a busy schedule of excursions, opera, theatre, balls, parties and social callings in Sydney, topped off with regular church attendances. Even later in life Caroline enjoyed a rich social life based around the church in Armidale, with constant rounds of calling, (163) playing the church harmonium and working at the church bazaar. While Henry undertook magistrate duties in Armidale and constant business and social visitors. The Thomases were leading citizens in the Armidale District reflecting their wealth and status.

Diary impulsive and frank

‘Refreshingly frank’ is how Anne Philp describes Caroline’s comments on her ‘middle-class’ life, written as they were ‘from a woman’s point of view’ (1). Caroline’s diary entries are short and lively. Her thoughts are impulsive, expressive and reflect her youth and zest for life. ‘We had supper and he walked home. Do like him very much.’ (105) ‘We had a splendid breakfast dinner & tea enjoyed ourselves extremely.’ (98)   Caroline provides glimpses of the rituals of middle class courtship in Victorian Sydney relatively unencumbered by chaperones or prying parents. ‘J.M. spooney with me again!’ (102) and around the same time in February 1856 she ‘Went to the South Head & did not get home till 11 at night – enjoyed it so much.’ (102)

Adventures around Sydney

Caroline’s and Cordy’s adventures around Sydney read like a whimsical colonial travelogue. Their were regular excursions with young men to Bondi, Coogee, Parramatta, and Manly Beach and frequent mentions of boating and yachting excursions on Sydney Harbour, cricket matches (121) and Regattas on Port Jackson (57). Sydney was like a new suitor for the Husband girls, to be wined, dined and enjoyed. Like England the girls enjoyed a considerable degree of freedom in Sydney given the strictures and formality of Victorian society, and walked considerable distances around the town – up to 16 miles (69).  There is a rich sense of the landscape in Caroline’s writing as it passes before her like the pages of her diaries. As her journey through life grows her commentary on her world matures with it.   She has sharp observations of early townships, the trials of coach travel, and the challenges and risks encountered on  the frontier. She records her movements throughout the colony, on the steamers between Sydney and Morpeth, the long overland coach journey through Bathurst into the Wellington District and her frequent trips from Maitland to Saumarez in the New England District. In 1882 even a family holiday to Manly Beach for her six children and nursemaid (235).

Women’s life-writing

Caroline’s Diary touches the primary discourses of the nineteenth century including imperialism, religion, the frontier, separate spheres and others, and is typical of other Victorian female diarists  who explore women’s emotions, privacy and domesticity.(b)  Gender and the separate spheres of men and women, which are often hidden, are revealed in Caroline’s subjectivity and her identity.  There is Henry’s public role as squatter pastoralist and public official while Caroline has her private domestic world organising her family and household. Caroline’s Diary is typical of the  genre of women’s life-writing that was popular in the Victorian period in England, including Queen Victoria.   Her  writing gives insights into how she negotiated her space in society, her possession of knowledge, her inter-personal relationships and how her writing helped the healing process in the face of loss. Life for Caroline in colonial New South Wales provided many challenges and she used the agency she enjoyed within the strictures of society to effectively exercise her power within her domestic space. Religiosity is important to Caroline and she is a regular church goer throughout her life. Sydney’s St James Church, one of the oldest in Australia, is central to her story, as it was the colony. Familial links are a constant theme, along with women’s health issues, that were particularly problematic for colonial women. Historian Anne Philp has provided a view how an English family fitted into colonial New South Wales, with its transnational linkages between the bush, provincial Sydney and metropolitan London.

Silences and interruptions

The diaries also have silences and interruptions  that in their own way have as much to say as Caroline’s extensive diary notes. Silence and knowledge re-enforce each other. These speak to  the hardships and challenges that women faced on the colonial frontier where life was precarious, male dominated and sometimes violent. Henry’s close affection for his ‘city-bred’ wife and her welfare indicate a depth of feeling not often found in colonial narratives. Her diaries provide a clear picture of the  dangers faced during pregnancy and birth, the trials of the chronic illness of her husband and the death of her sister, Cordy at age 23, during the Siege of Lucknow in India in 1858 (149). The family regularly returned to Sydney during Caroline’s confinements, a privilege working class women in rural New South Wales did not have or could afford. Rural patriarchy is clearly demonstrated in the moves that Henry forced on Caroline and her growing family, often at short notice, when he sells the family pastoral holdings. Caroline is moved to Saumarez Station at Armidale with a three-month old baby and a young nursemaid Ellen. Henry then moved the family again to the grand home of Wivenhoe, near Camden New South Wales.

 A lack of communication

Communication, or the lack of it, were a constant of theme of colonial existence at a time when there was no Facebook or Instagram. During the colonial period the thirst for knowledge about family and friends was no less intense or urgent than it is today.  Caroline’s writing demonstrated the hunger by all for news from home and elsewhere including England, Sydney and her sister in India. Caroline and her family had to wait months for any news of the fate of her sister after the Siege of Lucknow during the 1857 Indian Rebellion (149). Distance was relative and the country and city divide was as large a psychological divide as the gap between London and Sydney. The actors in Caroline’s story where eager for news, any news, of family and friends about births, deaths, marriages and other celebrations.  Visits to town from the pastoral station, whether Sydney or Armidale, to catch up on business, news, and gossip were just as important as news from England or India. Isolation was the curse of the bush, and could be particularly burdensome on young city born women with small children.  ‘Very miserable. Got up early in the hopes dear Henry would come but he didn’t.’ (113).

Service and governesses

Domestic service was the most common form of employment for single working class women for decades during the 19th century. Caroline grew up in a household with domestic staff and on the voyage out: ‘Very uncomfortable without a servant’ (52) After Caroline was married had certain expectations about her own household staff. At Wivenhoe Caroline engaged three live-in staff and a children’s nursemaid and her daughters were educated at home by a governess. The diaries illustrate how she negotiated hiring governesses for her own children as well as other household staff, including nursemaids and general servants. Caroline provides commentary on how her mother hired servants from amongst the Irish immigrant girls who arrived at  Hyde Park Barracks in the 1850s (71). Caroline’s story even explores the experiences  the colonial governess because of her family’s poor financial standing on arrival in Sydney in 1852.  Caroline’s had a short and unsuccessful engagement as a governess for Reverend WM Cowper, colonial born and Oxford educated, at Stroud in northern New South Wales, the settlement for the Australian Agricultural Company.

Settler colonialism

It is an interesting question to ask how this diary is placed in relation to the current debate around settler colonialism. On another level the diaries can be read as an exposition of the story of a settler society where the Indigenous Australians have disappeared from the landscape. There is a fleeting mention of Caroline and Henry attending a ‘corrobbero’ (117) at Buckinbah in the Wellington District, like attending an English country fair. By the 1850s the ‘black problem’ had been resolved and squatters wives like Caroline had little if any interaction with Aborigines, even in rural areas. The dispossession of territory underwrote the type of rural capitalism practiced by the Thomases at Buckinbah in the Wellington District, at Saumarez in the New England and Wivenhoe at Camden. The diaries give hints of the issues surrounding squatting and raising sheep without fences. At Buckinbah in 1856 there were thirteen outstations with shepherds in charge (113) that had to be re-supplied with lambing and station work (114). Shepherd supervised flocks of a thousand without a horse. The owner on his horse would search for lost sheep and much time was spent looking for stray sheep (117). Much the same routine existed at Saumarez in 1858. By the time the Thomas’s turn up at Wivenhoe pastoralism is regulated by fences.

Fresh view of her world

Caroline’s Diary provides fresh view on the colonial world of New South Wales from the eyes of an English woman that contrasts with the dark tales of death and misery of frontier violence, or the hagiographic views of the explorers, pioneers and nationalism. The story weaves through the ins and outs of the daily goings on for the rural elite, while providing an exploration of life between the city and country giving intimate personal details of family life.  Women’s diaries from the Camden District are rare and this type of exposition is even less common. This is a valuable addition to these types of works and in the process Caroline’s Diary has created a great read for any fan of colonial stories.

 

Notes