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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.