Camden · Carrington Hospital · Cobbitty · Colonial Camden · Colonialism · Farming · Floods · history · Local History · Place making · Railway

Camden: Sydney’s best preserved country town

Dunk House, Argyle Street, Camden c.1937 (I Willis 2013)
Dunk House, Argyle Street, Camden c.1937 (I Willis 2013)

The township of Camden on the banks of the Nepean River south-west of Sydney provides a glimpse of life from times gone past. The town was established in 1840 on the Macarthur family estate of Camden Park. The charm and character of the town comes from the many 19th century colonial buildings and early 20th century cottages.

Carrington Convalescent Hospital c1890s Camden Images
Carrington Convalescent Hospital c1890s Camden Images

The heritage of the local area makes Camden, according to some expert sources, the best preserved country town on the Cumberland Plain.
The visitor can experience Camden’s historic charm by walking around the town’s heritage precinct by following the Camden Heritage Walk.

A free booklet can be obtained from Oxley Cottage (c1890), the Camden Visitor Information Centre, which is located on Camden Valley Way on the northern approaches to Camden. Oxley Cottage is a farmer’s cottage built on land that was granted to John Oxley in 1816.

Camden’s heritage precinct is dominated by the church on the hill, St John’s Church (1840) and the adjacent rectory (1859). Across the road is Macarthur Park (1905), arguably one of the best Victorian-style urban parks in the country. In the neighbouring streets there are a number of charming Federation and Californian bungalows.

Stuckey Bros Building Bakers Argyle Street Camden c1941 (I Willis 2012)
Stuckey Bros Building Bakers Argyle Street Camden c1941 (I Willis 2012)

A walk along John Street will reveal the single storey police barracks (1878) and court house (1857), the Italianate style of Macaria (c1842) and the Commercial Bank (1878). Or the visitor can view Bransby’s Cottage (1842) in Mitchell Street, the oldest surviving Georgian cottage in Camden. A short stroll will take the visitor to the Camden Museum, which is managed by the Camden Historical Society. The museum is located in John Street in the recently redeveloped Camden Library and Museum Complex.

Camden Library Museum in John Street Camden 2016 (I Willis)
Camden Library Museum in John Street Camden 2016 (I Willis)

The visitor can take in Camden’s rural past when they enter the northern approaches of the town along Camden Valley Way. They will pass the old Dairy Farmer’s Milk Depot (1926) where the farmers delivered their milk cans by horse and cart and chatted about rural doings.

A 1915 view of Commercial Banking Co building at corner of Argyle and John Street Camden
A 1915 view of Commercial Banking Co building at corner of Argyle and John Street Camden (Camden Images)

The saleyards (1867) are still next door and the rural supplies stores are indicative that Camden is still ‘a working country town’. As the visitor proceeds along Argyle Street, Camden’s main street, apart from the busy hum of traffic, people and outdoor cafes, the casual observer would see little difference from 70 years ago.

Local people still do their shopping as they have done for years and stop for a chat with friends and neighbours. At the end of Argyle Street the visitor can stroll around Camden Showground (1886). A country style show is held here every year in March and the visitor can take in local handicrafts in the show hall (1894) or watch the grand parade in the main arena.

The picturesque rural landscapes that surround Camden were once part of the large estates of the landed gentry and their grand houses. A number of these privately owned houses are still dotted throughout the local area. Some examples are Camden Park (1835), Brownlow Hill (1828), Denbigh (1822), Oran Park (c1850), Camelot (1888), Studley Park (c1870s), Wivenhoe (c1837) and Kirkham Stables (1816). The rural vistas are enhanced by the Nepean River floodplain that surrounds the town and provides the visitor with a sense of the town’s farming heritage.

Pansy Nepean River Bridge 1900 Postcard Camden Images
Pansy Nepean River Bridge 1900 Postcard Camden Images

The floodplain also reveals to the railway enthusiast the remnants of railway embankments that once carried the little tank engine on the tramway (1882-1963) between Camden and Campbelltown. The locomotive, affectionately known as Pansy, carried a mixture of freight and passengers. It stopped at a number of stations, which included Camden, Elderslie, Kirkham, Graham’s Hill and Narellan. The stationmaster’s house can still be found in Elizabeth Street in Camden, and now operates as a restaurant.

For the aviation buffs a visit to the Camden Airfield (1924) is a must. It still retains its wartime character and layout. As you enter the airfield view the privately owned Hassall Cottage (1815) and Macquarie Grove House (1812) and think of the RAAF sentry on guard duty checking the passes of returning airmen on a cold July night.

Camden Airfield 1930s Camden Images
Camden Airfield 1930s Camden Images

The visitor can then relive the days when RAAF airmen (32 Squadron, 1943) flew out of the base chasing Japanese submarines on the South Coast, or when the RAF (1944) occupied the still existing hangers and runways flying transport missions to the South Pacific.

There are also a number of historic villages in the Camden area. Amongst them is the quaint rural village of Cobbitty where the visitor can find Reverand Thomas Hassall’s Heber Chapel (1815), St Paul’s Church (1840) and rectory (1870). Narellan (1827), which is now a vibrant commercial and industrial centre, has the heritage precinct surrounding the St Thomas Church (1884) and school house (1839). The buildings are now used for weddings and receptions.

View along Cobbitty Road in 1928
View along Cobbitty Road in 1928 (Camden Images)

There is also the Burton’s Arms Hotel (c1840) now operating as a real estate agency and the Queen’s Arms Hotel (c1840), which is now the Narellan Hotel. A visit to Cawdor will reveal a real country church that has been functioning continuously for over for over 100 years, the Cawdor Uniting Church (c1880). Cawdor is the oldest village in the Camden area.

Written by Ian Willis member of Professional Historians Association NSW.

Previously published on Heritage Tourism at Camden: The best preserved country town on the Cumberland Plain NSW

Front Cover of Ian Willis's Pictorial History of Camden and District (Kingsclear, 2015)
Front Cover of Ian Willis’s Pictorial History of Camden and District (Kingsclear, 2015)
The last day of the Camden Campbelltown train running in 1963. Keen fans watching the train climb Kenny Hill at Campbelltown. (ARHS)
Rear Cover Ian Willis’s Pictorial History of Camden & District. The last day of the Camden Campbelltown train running in 1963. Keen fans watching the train climb Kenny Hill at Campbelltown. (ARHS)
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Attachment to place · Historical consciousness · Historical Research · Historical thinking · history

Academic snobbery: local historians need more support

St James Anglican Church Menangle a Horbury Hunt design build 1876 (I Willis)
St James Anglican Church Menangle a Horbury Hunt design build 1876 (I Willis)

Ian Willis, University of Wollongong

Local history is one of the most popular forms of history in Australia. Yet there is a yawning gap between the enthusiastic amateur and the academic historian.

While some academic historians engage with local history, sadly there is an entrenched snobbery from the academy. From the other side, the enthusiastic amateur is too wound up with a parochial approach to local history and often doesn’t see the bigger picture.

If both sides can engage with each other, the result would be a better type of history practise and a greater contribution to the story of Australia.

Democratic history

Local history is one of the democratic forms of history practice, drawing on a variety of disciplines. These include community history, family history, genealogy and oral history. It also incorporates local aspects of cultural and social history. Done well, local history also engages in both national and transnational themes.

There is a host of local history societies and local museums across the country. But academic historians are rarely involved with them.

For the enthusiastic amateur of local history, the academic historian is in a different world. Academics are often at a city-based university. Their journals are remote, guarded by a peer-review process. And their conferences beyond the resources of the amateur.

This world is not readily entered by the amateur who, unlike professional historians who receive a regular salary, are volunteers with limited means.

Expert history

One of the key issues the divides these two groups revolves around the idea of authority. The university-trained historian has expertise based on the rigour and discipline of thought and word. The local history enthusiast often has only the lived experience of the past.

Keen amateurs have their own historical sensibilities and history mindedness. This often means they are interested solely in the affairs of their community. Sometimes they are the custodian of the stories of a place. That is, they are the keepers of the community’s sacred knowledge. The collective memory and cultural traditions of a local community.

As a collector of stories, the amateur practises a form of antiquarianism often concerned with lists of facts. Unfortunately this provides no commentary on the past or present, no argument, and no analysis of sources and assessment of methods.

Dealing with the past without interpretation and context is a source of continuing frustration for academics.

Arrogance and cynicism

Some academic historians think they are the only ones with the keys to the past. This is a form of professional arrogance. It creates a perception of aloofness.

This creates a cynical attitude amongst enthusiastic amateurs. Many feel that the academic historian is remote and distant. Amateurs therefore have little time or enthusiasm for academics.

Yet it need not be so.

The academic historian has so much to offer. Successful and meaningful engagement is possible.

The academic historian is the discipline expert. They therefore have a responsibility to provide leadership. They should inspire amateur historians to increase their standards of scholarship. This needs understanding, trust and encouragement from academics. Not paternalism.

Academic and amateur alike need a nuanced understanding of the needs and aspirations of both sides. Academic historians can act as mentors in the practice of local history. Enthusiast amateurs are keen to learn how to do it better, if given sympathy and understanding.

Even the crudest attempt by the local history enthusiast provides in their own way an archive which the thoughtful, patient and persistent academic can mine. And likewise even the densest writing by academics offers something to the amateur.

A recipe for success

Successful engagement between academic historians and the enthusiastic amateur is a win-win situation for both sides.

Some examples include the ever popular annual Penrith Local History Conference, community history projects such as the Dictionary of Sydney and the recent Crime, Cameras Action! local history conference at the University of Wollongong.

There are many good examples of local history as written by academic historians, including Atkinson’s Camden, Ferry’s Colonial Armidale and McQuilton’s Rural Australian and the Great War.

A number of academic historians give popular public lectures and seminars in Sydney at History House, the Mechanics Institute, the State Library, Powerhouse Museum and other venues.

Some historical societies are even able to bridge the gap. They provide a stimulating environment that interests academic historians.

Joint projects and activities can strengthen community connections and social cohesion. The social connections created by local history increase the meaning, purpose and satisfaction in people’s lives.

Local history can build community resilience and break down social exclusion especially in communities under pressure. Some are found on the edges of our large cities, while others in remote and regional Australia.

The practice of local history has a lot to gain from the successful interaction between academic and amateur historians.

The Conversation

Ian Willis, Honorary Fellow, University of Wollongong

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.