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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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A scholarly visit to the harbour city

The 2019 ANZSHM Conference

I recently had the privilege of being a delegate at the 2019 Australian New Zealand Society of the History of Medicine (ANZSHM) 16th Biennial Conference Beyond Borders: Health and Medicine in Historical Context at the University of Auckland. The aim of the conference was  to view the history of health and medicine in a broad international perspective, with ideas and systems taking on different forms in different contexts.

The conference

The conference proceedings began on Day One with a traditional welcome to conference delegates at the Waipapa Marae within the grounds of the University of Auckland.

ANZHSM 2019 Conference Uni of Auckland Screenshot

 

The conference covered a number of themes ranging from museums, to influenza, public health, medical research, women’s health, vaccination, biography, tropical disease, medicine and war, childbirth, non-western medicine, and others.

There were over 110 papers covering a range of challenging and stimulating topics that crossed the boundaries from clinical matters from the past to more general histories. Medical history attracts a cross-disciplinary cohort ranging from clinicians, practitioners, historians of various stripes, archivists, museum professionals and others. The discipline has a transnational following that was reflected in delegates from around the globe including Korea, UK, USA, Australia, Philippines, Canada, Russia, and the host New Zealand.

Auckland University of Auckland Signage 2019 UoA

 

The keynote speakers represented the transnational nature of the conference and the cross-disciplinary following of the research area. From the University of Exeter there was Mark Jackson’s ‘Life begins at 40: the cultural and biological roots of the midlife crisis’ where he argued that this concept and experience is a product of the lifestyle of the 20th century. Nursing historian Christine Hallett’s ‘Between ivory tower and marketplace: the Nurses of Passchendaele project and the perils of public history’  argued that the desire of community engagement and university agendas has led to debates about the nature of public history. Yale University’s Naomi Rogers examined health activism in the USA in her paper ‘Between ivory tower and marketplace: the Nurses of Passchendaele project and the perils of public history’ and finally the University of Auckland’s Derek Dow reflected on evolution and revolution in the history of medicine since the 1960s in ‘Inert and blundering: one medical historian’s odyssey 1969-2019’.

Red Cross Sidman women work for Red Cross causes 1917
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)

 

I presented a paper called ‘A helping hand: Red Cross convalescent homes in New South Wales, 1914-1916. In this paper I argue that the military medical authorities and the patriotic funds were poorly prepared for the outbreak of war and failed to come to grips with the issue for months. The newly established Red Cross stepped into the breach and undertook groundbreaking work in the area of soldier convalescence, initially with homestays and then eventually establishing the first dedicated convalescent homes in New South Wales.

 

The power of the past in the present

The European past of New Zealand is front and centre within the grounds of the University of Auckland. There are a number of important heritage buildings linked to the period when Auckland was the nation’s capital. The outstanding example is the Old Government House at the bottom of the campus surrounded by pleasant gardens and lawns.

Auckland Old Government House Dining Room 2019
The Old Government House built in 1856 is located in the grounds of the University of Auckland. Its classical architectural style has much timber its facade cut to resemble stone. It had an important place in New Zealand government until the capital was moved from Auckland to Wellington in 1865. This image shows the dining room and the influence of interwar design. (I Willis, 2019)

 

Walking around Auckland Harbour precinct I was struck by the vibrancy of the city. In part from the upcoming 2021 America’s Cup Challenge and the growth of Pacific rim cities like Sydney, Vancouver, San Francisco and Auckland. The city has a relaxed aesthetic with a dynamic youthfulness – just like a big country town. The huge cruise liners disgorge their passengers to spend up the high-end fashion outlets along Queen Street, all within sight of the longshore wharves and container terminal.

The city fathers have not lost sight of the past and have gone for adaptive re-use of old mercantile buildings in the Harbour precinct. There are some striking examples of heritage retention that could be models for town planners in Australian cities and towns.

Auckland Tiffany Building 2019 Customs St
This image shows the building occupied by Tiffany & Co at 33 Galway Street, Auckland. The building is the former Australis House and was restored over an 18 month period in 2015. This is a fine example of adaptive re-use of a heritage building and is part of the larger restoration and conservation work taking place in the Britomart precinct. (I Willis, 2019)

 

Tourism can provide these benefits if handled with sensitivity and an understanding that the visitor is seeking evidence of authenticity and a genuine representation of the past. The city precinct demonstrates that heritage and history does not have to sacrificed in the search for economic prosperity and job creation.