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Nepean River, more than a water view

 

Nepean River near Cobbitty 1900 (Camden Images)
Nepean River near Cobbitty 1900 (Camden Images)

The Nepean River is one of the most important waterways in the Sydney basin and has particular significance for Sydney’s southwestern rural-urban fringe. Its catchment extends south and east of the Sydney Basin to take in areas near Robertson and Goulburn. West of Wollongong the tributaries includng Cataract Creek, Avon River, Cordeaux River that flow north-west and then into the deep gorges of Pheasants Nest and Douglas Park.

The river opens up into a floodplain and flows past  Menangle and crosses the Cowpastures and southern Cumberland Plain past Camden and Cobbitty. The river then flows north through the gorge adjacent to Wallacia  and enters Bents Basin before it is joined by the Warragamba River and changes its name to the Hawkesbury River.

The Nepean River is economically important to the Sydney Basin and is used for mining, irrigation, recreation and other activities. It is ecologically significant to the area and has a number of rare and endangered species of plants.

Cultural importance

The river  has an important meaning in terms of its intangible cultural heritage to the local landscape. It defines the landscape and the construction of place in the localities along the river including Menangle, Camden, and Cobbitty. One locality is special significance is Little Sandy at Camden.

Little Sandy

Little Sandy on the Nepean River at Camden has been a popular spot with locals for many decades for swimming, picnicing, boating and fishing. It is rich in the memories of local folk played out their childhoods, experienced the pangs of  youth and enjoyed time with their families.

Little Sandy has been an important part of Camden cultural heritage for generations. It is a locality with a strong sense of place and identity with people’s memories. It has layers of meaning that can be peeled back and reveal a landscape of diverse dimensions. Its story has meaning across the generations.

The site and the pondage was created on the Nepean River with the construction of the Camden Weir in 1907. It is a culturally created landscape.

Today thousands of local residents enjoy the same rituals at Little Sandy on their jaunts along the Nepean River bike path with the friends and family.

Little Sandy with footbridge across the Nepean River at Camden c.1950. Diving board in foreground. (Camden Images)
Little Sandy with footbridge across the Nepean River at Camden c.1950. Diving board in foreground. (Camden Images)

Swimming carnivals

Nepean River swimming carnival 1917 Little Sandy (Camden Images)
Nepean River swimming carnival 1917 Little Sandy (Camden Images)

 

In the early 20th century Little Sandy was a favourite swimming spot. In the 1920s the Camden Swimming Club built galvanised iron dressing sheds painted green in an area now known at Kings Bush Reserve.

Swimming became one of Elderslie’s earliest organised sporting activities, after the Nepean River was dammed in 1907 with the construction of the Camden Weir. Water backed up behind the weir for four kilometres through the Elderslie area, and provided relatively deep water suitable for swimming. The Camden Aquatic Sports carnival was organised in 1909 and attracted over 1000 spectators, and was the location of the Camden Swimming Club in the 1920s.

The area was divided into Big Sandy, which was a deep hole, near Kings Bush Reserve. About 100 metres upstream was Little Sandy where the water was shallower. Learn to swim classes where held for a short time and Boy Scouts would go swimming there, according to Milton Ray.

Len English says

“In the 1950s the area was used for swimming by pupils from Camden Public School’,  ‘The girls went with the female teachers to Little Sandy, while the male teachers and boys went downstream to Camden Weir.’

Olive McAleer says

‘Little Sandy was a popular spot for family picnics between the 1920s and 1940s’.

The river stopped being a swimming spot when it was condemned because of pollution by medical authorities in the early 1960s. It was replaced by Camden Memorial Swimming Pool in 1964. (P Mylrea, ‘Swimming in the Nepean River at Camden’, Camden History, March 2006)

Read more @ Ian Willis, ‘Elderslie’, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008,

Footbridge built 1943

Little Sandy footbridge over Nepean River at Camden in 1943 (Camden Images)
Little Sandy footbridge over Nepean River at Camden in 1943 (Camden Images)

In  1943 military authorities from the Narellan Military Camp were anxious to undertake a practical training exercise for engineers. In September they sought the view of Camden Municipal Council on erecting a footbridge and the council immediately agreed with the proposal.

The council  covered the cost of some of the timber so that the bridge remained the property of council. The  Australian Military Forces Engineers supplied the labour, supervision, transport vehicles and operators for the transport of stores and construction material.

The site at the bottom Chellaston Street connected two reserves on either side of the Nepean River. One on the Chellaston Street side and the other at River Road Elderslie.

In late September 1943 40 troops started building a wooden footbridge 120 feet long and 4 feet wide. Construction took around four weeks and was finished by 28 October.

Observers commented on a

‘fine piece of workmanship…that would be much appreciated’ by the local community.

(Camden News, 16 September 1943, 23 September 1943, 28 October 1943).

Nepean River 1900

Nepean River below Cowpasture Bridge 1900  (Camden Images/CA Poole)
Nepean River below Cowpasture Bridge 1900 (Camden Images/CA Poole)

 

This image of the Nepean River is taken in the vicinity of  the Camden Weir. It gives an indication of the degraded state of the river around 1900. Sedimentation, streambank erosion casued by hard hooved animals trampling river banks were   evident. These issues were typical of Australia’s inland waterways in the late 19th century after extensive clearing of the catchments for forestry, farming and other activities.

Sue Rosen in her book on the environmental history of the Nepean River quotes from James Atkinson’s 1826  An Account of the State of Agriculture and Grazing in New South Wales. Atkinson states that even by the mid-1820s the river banks were undermined and collapsing into the stream. There were deposits of sand in the river channel and clearing practices had caused increased run-off,  accelerated the degradation of the river channel and increased obstruction in the river bed. All evident in the 1900  photograph of the river channel at Camden. Atkinson felt that the original European settlers had failed to ‘improve’ the land for farming and that its farming potential had been compromised. The settlers had in Atkinson’s terms failed to fulfil the original objectives of opening up the land and favoured, according to Rosen, ‘the cultivation of a landscape reminiscent of British romantic pastoral scenes’.

The earliest reports of the Nepean River date from 1795 and Alan Atkinson’s Camden reports that after a wet spring early Europeans, David Collins’s impression in his An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales (London, 1798) were a picture of

‘large ponds, covered with ducks and the black swan, the margins of which were fringed with shrubs of the most delightful tints’.

After a dry spell the river at Menangle was  reported by George Caley in his ‘Report of a Journey to the Cowpastures’ (1804, ML) to be ‘reduced to a small compass’ and the water having ‘the foul appearance of a pond in a farmyard’.

Read more @ Sue Rosen Losing Ground An Environmental History of the Hawkesbury-Nepean Catchment, Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1995.

Alan Atkinson, Camden, Farm and Village Life in Early New South Wales, Melbourne, OUP, 1988.

 Camden Weir 1907

Picturesque scene at the Camden Weir on the Nepean River c.1917 (Camden Images)
Picturesque scene at the Camden Weir on the Nepean River c.1917 (Camden Images)

 

The Camden Weir pondage created an aesthetic water feature that runs through the Camden township and took in the Little Sandy. The aesthetic has moral, experiential, spiritual and well-being aspects to it.

The Camden Weir was constructed by New South Wales Public Works Department after the completion of the Cataract Dam from 1907.

The compensation weir was one of number constructed along the Nepean River to safeguard the ‘riparian rights’ of landowners affected by the interruption of flow to the river, according to John Wrigley.

A riparian right is the ability to take water from the river. The water supply dams of the Upper Nepean  Scheme reduced the flow of the tributaries of the Nepean River, and the weirs were to ‘compensate’ for the loss of water flow. The other weirs near Camden were Menangle, Bergins, Thurns, Camden Sharpes and Cobbitty. The weirs were eventually transferred to the management to the Metropolitan Water Sewerage and Drainage Board as part of the Sydney Water Supply systerm.

Read more @ John Wrigley,’ Nepean River Weirs’, The District Reporter 3 August 2001

Water has a calming effect on the mind and takes the mind to a quiet, tranquil and peaceful place. Some say it has the ability to dim our internal chatter and calm some people. Water provides a degree of serenity and the purifying effect it can have on the soul. Water can have a soothing meditative effect on some people. People need to re-charge and re-vitalise in the tranquility of the environment provided by the tranquility and serenity of the pool provided by the weir. For others, a visually pleasant water feature can also be a source of healing and relaxing in a man-mad environment.

Those that went swimming at Little Sandy had an experiential relationship the water. Water is used to nourish and replenish man after exertion. Swimming carnivals were a time of community celebration and strengthening community resilience.

The pondage at Little Sandy also has a scientific value for the marine ecosystem it supports. It supports a range of life from eels, to perch, birds, reptiles and other life.

The Little Sandy pondage creates a pleasant water feature that circles the township. The beauty of the scene with the trees along the water’s edge framing the quiet of the pond. People doing simple tasks like fishing, picnicing, walking and re-engaging with nature on the water’s edge.    The surface of the water is a mirror that reflects the images of the trees and bushes on the water’s edge.

At dawn on a cold frosty morning the vapours of steam rise of the water’s surface as the walkers feet crackle under the frozen grass on the water’s edge.  There is a splash as a kingfisher dives into the water after a fish, that breaks the silence of the space. The world disappears momentarily as you sit on the water’s edge taking in the serine quiet suroundings of the pond.

A new footbridge

Little Sandy Footbridge after completion of work 2014 (I Willis)
Little Sandy Footbridge after completion of work 2014 (I Willis)

The Little Sandy footbridge was officially opened on 4 May 2014 with another community event.

The weather gods were kind, and while there was a cool breeze and an overcast start the sun came out and the crowd turned up with families of mums and dads and the kids.

Camden Council organised a family fun day in Chellaston Reserve where there were stalls, a free train ride along the bike track and information stands.

The day opened at 11.00am and wound up in the afternoon at 3.00pm. Camden Rotary provided a sausage sizzle which sold out early in the day. An information stand was provided by Camden Historical Society which was staffed by volunteers John and Julie Wrigley, Bob Lester and Rene Rem, while others turned up later.

This was another community event that has been typical of the popularity of the site for the Camden community.

 Pre-cast concrete

The new pre-cast concrete 43 metre footbridge at Little Sandy on the Nepean River was completed in April 2014. Camden Council let contracts for the completion of  a new footbridge in September 2013.  The new structure replaced a wooden footbridge that was damaged in the a flood in 2012. The new footbridge was jointly funded by council and the state government.

The finished footbridge is part of the Nepean River cycleway that joins Camden with Elderslie, South Camden and Narellan. Local resident Kevin Browne stated in  2012 (Camden Narellan Advertiser 31 July) that:

the bridge was part of the unique attraction of living in a rural area [and] the availability of serene, natural beauty.

After the 2012 damage to the footbridge and its closure local residents started to campaign for its replacement. This culminated in  a community meeting in the mayor’s office in August 2013 when 19 local residents attended an information session with the mayor, the Member for Camden,  and the council’s general manager and engineering staff.

The original footbridge was constructed in 1943 as a military training exercise by the AMF Engineering Corps stationed at Narellan Military Camp. Camden Council agreed to fund the cost of the materials while the engineers provided the labour (40 men), supervision and vehicles. The original footbridge was 120 feet long and 4 feet wide.

Read more in The District Reporter 17 August 2012.

Kings Bush

King’s Bush is the reserve adjacent the river’s edge at Little Sandy and  is named after Cecil J King, the rector of St John’s Church between 1893 and 1927. According to John Wrigley, King kept his horse in the paddock next to the river and swam at the same spot in the river.  Reverend King was a keen sports fan and played for the Camden Cricket Club and was the teams wicket keeper for a number of years. In 1927 he was the patron of the Camden Golf Club  and president of the Union and St John’s tennis club. King was ordained at St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney in 1887 by the Bishop Barry of the Sydney Archdiocese. (Camden Advertiser 2 June 1949)

Read more  @ John Wrigley, Place Names on the Camden Area, Camden, CHS, 2005.

Chellaston Street

Chellaston Street ends at the Nepean River in Chellaston Reserve in the vicinity of Little Sandy. Chellaston was a single storey brick residence at 38 Menangle Road built by Camden builder John Peat and used as his family home. Chellaston Street was part of land releases on the south side of the township in the 1920s. There were a number of land releases in the area during the Inter-war period including Victory Ave and Gilbulla Ave that run off Menangle Road.

Read more  @ John Wrigley, Place Names on the Camden Area, Camden, CHS, 2005.

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Cobbitty Village Sports Day Benefits War Effort

 

Cobbity's St Paul's Anglican Church 1910 (Camden Images)
Cobbitty’s St Paul’s Anglican Church 1910 (Camden Images)

A major event on the social calendar of a number of picturesque villages in the Camden district were the annual New Year’s Day Sports Carnivals. They were part of the English traditions brought to the area by colonial immigrants, and in 1915 they were held in the villages of Cobbitty and The Oaks. Sports carnivals were wonderful community events that included all classes of villagers regardless of their station in life and during the First World War they held special appeal for patriotic fundraising.

1915 Cobbitty Sports Day Schedule
1915 Cobbitty Sports Day Schedule (Camden News)

These social and cultural traditions were not isolated to the Camden district and have been held in many other parts of Australia. They are still carried on today in some localities, for example, Glenlyon in Victoria (started in 1857) and Perlubic Beach in South Australia (started in 1914).

English village sports

The origins of these festivals, according to Peter Hampson Ditchfield’s Old English Sports (2007), lies in ancient Saxon customs, particularly in Devonshire and Sussex, associated with ‘wassailing’ (carousing and health-drinking) to ensure the thriving of orchard trees (mainly apples) and exchanging presents. On New Years Day village youths undertook indoor and outdoor sport to keep out the cold by ‘wholesome exercise and recreative games’. Sports included bat-and-ball, wrestling, skittles, blind-man’s-bluff, hunt the slipper, sword dancing and mumming (play acting).

Cobbitty Sports Day  starts in 1866

The New Year Sports Day in the village of Cobbitty was a hallowed community event which started in 1866. The day included a variety of athletic and novelty events and finished with a gala concert in the evening. . It was one of the premier events on the social calendar, and local resident Donald Howard, maintains in his Cobbitty’s Finest Hour (2010), that spectators and participants came in their ‘droves from miles around’.

Prize purse for main event ‘Narellan and Cobbitty Handicap’

The Camden News reported that there was a ten event programme starting with the major event of the day the ‘Narellan and Cobbitty Handicap Footrace’ over 125 yards for male competitors. The running track, according to Donald Howard, was on the village green between the parish hall and St Paul’s Church. Entries had to be in by Boxing Day with an entry fee of 1/- and an acceptance fee of 1/6. There was fierce competition from the young men of the village for the handsome first prize of £5, which was twice the weekly wage for a rural labourer. Quite an amount for any villager, and first place attracted quite a bit of status and prestige for the winner. Even the second prize was a respectable 25/- and third prize 5/-.
Dress regulations for competitors in the ‘Handicap’ were strictly enforced with ‘trousers to the knee, or amateur trunks and singlets’ that had to be approved by two male members of the local gentry, Mr FWA Downes of Brownlow Hill and Mr TC Barker of Maryland. Race organizers conveniently started the programme of events after lunch for competitors, which allowed village revellers to recover from the New Year’s celebrations. The ‘Handicap’ was put in the hands of the starters at 2.00pm.

Nail driving for women

Village youth were not left out of the story and were able to get a feel for the main event by entering their own footraces, one for youths (14-18 years) and another for boys (under 14). Here they rehearsed the tactics that they might employ in main event when they were old enough.
Other events on the programme catered for those locals not able to qualify for the footraces, and included high jump, ‘stepping’, and ‘throwing at wickets’, while the village women were allowed to take part in ‘nail driving’.

Village elders held positions of importance as starters, judges and referees and supported their social status by donating appropriate cash prize for races. The Camden Brass Band was located in the ‘grounds’ and provided rousing patriotic tunes throughout the day. These tunes were enjoyed by the village ladies who entertained themselves during the day with tea in the parish hall.

Red Cross support

Village women sold their cooking, sewing, knitting and other ‘fancies’ at the sports day bazaar. The bazaar raised significant amounts of money for village causes, particularly the St Paul’s Church missions. The bazaar auxiliary was made up of village women who were good organizers, but never sort the limelight that was bestowed on the male race organizers. During the First World War the village women’s fundraising efforts, which were considerable, were directed to patriotic purposes, including the local branches of the Red Cross.

Evening Grand Concert

The sports day festivities were closed in the evening with the Grand Concert held in the parish hall. The concert started at 8.00pm and the front seats were sold for 2/- while those less financially able bought seats at the back of the hall for 1/-. Local personalities and school children performed a variety musical items for the entertainment of the assembly, and occasionally a ‘big name celebrity’ was hired from the city. Donald Howard sadly recalls that the last Cobbitty Sports Day was held in 1941, due to a combination of petrol rationing, material costs and a general pre-occupation by villagers with the war effort.

1915 The Oaks Sports Day Schedule
1915 The Oaks Sports Day Schedule (Camden News)

1915 The Oaks New Year Sports Day

Another district sports day was organized on New Year’s Day 1915 in the village of The Oaks. While not as prestigious as the sports day at Cobbitty, it did attract an enthusiastic crowd. It was organized by the Literary Institute and held in ‘Mr WS William’s paddock’, just outside the village. There was a 15 event programme starting with the premier event, ‘The Oaks Handicap’ over 130 yards. Prizes were awarded to the first 4 place-getters, with the winner receiving £2. The sports day was more inclusive of the wider village community than Cobbitty and included a tug-o-war, guessing competitions and a number of horse events. The horse events were a village specialty and the village even had its own race track. Refreshments were sold on the grounds by local women and the day was topped off by a night-time social which had ‘first class music’ from a local band.

1915 Mount Hunter Boxing Day Carnival

District sports day was not confined to The Oaks and Cobbitty. The village of Mount Hunter had earlier held a sports carnival on Boxing Day 1914, while the Camden Cycling Club was to hold a major gala day on Anniversary Day (Australia Day) 26 January 1915 at the Camden Showground, with a range of ‘bicycle, athletic and military events’.