The Burragorang Valley is one of those lost places that people fondly remember from the past. A place of the imagination and dreaming where former residents fondly re-tell stories from their youth. These places create powerful memories and nostalgia for many people and continue to be places of interest. They are localities of myths and legends and imminent danger yet at the same time places of incredible beauty.
One of these people is artist Robyn Collier who tells her story this way:
The Burragorang Valley is the picturesque valley that was flooded in the 1950s to make way for a permanent water supply for the growing city of Sydney. What was once a thriving valley of guest houses, farms and other small industries no longer exists. Residents were forced to leave their precious valley, livelihoods were lost, people dispossessed with only a small compensation. The homes and buildings were demoloshed the land stripped of vegetation. That Valley is now called Lake Burragorang. I have been fortunate enough to have had a very long history with what is left of this beautiful area – a history I thought I had left behind 30 years ago.
Robyn Collier was taken on a journey back to the valley in recent years and this prompted to create a number of works of arts. She writes that it is a
It has been a journey I never thought I would ever make again – and yet, here it is.
Robyn created an exhibition of her works in 2018 and her memories of the valley.
In 2006 Radio National examined the loss of the valley to the Europeans who had settled there over the decades. The notes that support the radio programme state:
In the 1930s and 40s, NSW was experiencing a bad drought, and during the war years planning began in earnest for the building of Warragamba Dam. The site of the dam meant that the 170 residents who called the Burragorang Valley their home would need to leave, either because their properties would be submerged by the dam’s waters or because they would be cut off from road access.
Although protest meetings, petitions and deputations to local members of parliament called for the dam to be stopped, it went ahead regardless. Throughout the 1950s, the Sydney Water Board bought up properties in the area or resumed land that was needed for the catchment area. Houses were pulled down and the valley cleared of trees and vegetation in preparation for the completion of the dam in 1960.
The Burragorang was also a popular holiday spot and was renowned for its guesthouses, where Sydneysiders could come for a weekend to go horse-riding and bushwalking and attend the many dances that were on offer. However, by the 1940s, city planners were already talking about one of the most pressing issues facing Sydney – the provision of a secure water supply – and the Burragorang Valley was earmarked as the site for a new dam.
The Gothic nature of the Burragorang Valley
Gothic is a term that has been applied to many things from art to landscape to architecture. The Gothic novel is one expression of this genre and Lauren Corona has written that
The Gothic novel was the first emergence of Gothic literature, and was sometimes referred to as the Gothic romance. These kinds of novels were characterized by elements of horror, suspense and mystery. Gothic novels attempted to find understanding through exploring the darker side of life. They often contained ruined old buildings, wild landscapes, good and handsome heroes, terrified heroines and, of course, an evil character. Arguably the most famous Gothic novel is Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein.’
Gothic architecture usually refers to the large medieval cathedrals that were build across Europe between 12th and 16th centuries. These imposing and grand buildings have special religious and spiritual meaning to the history of Christianity. Gothic architecture usually includes abbeys, churches, castles, palaces, town halls, guild halls, universities and smaller buildings. The style appeals to the emotions and the powerful grandeur of these buildings.
Gothic places possess a duality of beauty and grandeur combined with evil and danger. That is their attraction. Mountain areas are typical of this with their soaring grandeur and risk of imminent death.
It is these characteristics that can be drawn out in the wild grandeur of the Burragorang Valley with its soaring cliffs and breath-taking vistas that create a magnificent natural landscape. There is also the sense of danger from frequent floods, secret gorges, isolation and difficulty of access.
The Burragorang Valley has captured the hearts of many folk over the years and stories have been told about the area from the Dreamtime.
Some of the early photographs of the Valley hint at the Gothic nature of the area. Here one image that expresses some of these characteristic of the Gothic – the picturesque and the dangerous:
The many visitors to the Valley were attracted by the Gothic elements within the landscape. One example from 1941:
It is these characteristics that made the area a popular tourist destination during the Interwar years of the 20th century. Many of the Europeans settlers built guesthouses and accommodation for visitors from Sydney and beyond.
One of the largest tourist attractions to the local area in the mid-20th century was a local milking marvel known at the Rotolactor.
The Rotolactor was truly a scientific wonder that captured the imagination of people at a time when scientific marvels instilled excitement in the general public.
In these days of post-modernism and fake news this excitement seems hard to understand.
What was the Rotolactor?
The Rotolactor was an automated circular milking machine with a rotating platform introduced into the Camden Park operation in 1952 by Edward Macarthur Onslow from the USA.
The Rotolactor was part of the process of agricultural modernism that the Macarthur family had implemented on their colonial property of Camden Park Estate to improve their dairying operations in the mid-20th century.
The idea of a rotating milking platform was American and first introduced in New Jersey in the mid-1920s.
The 1940s manager of Camden Park Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Macarthur Onslow inspected an American Rotolactor while overseas on a business trip and returned to Australia full of enthusiasm to build one at Camden Park.
The Menangle Rotolactor was the first in Australia and only the third of its kind in the world.
The rotating dairy had a capacity to milk of 1,000 cows twice a day. It held 50 cows a time and were fed at as they were milked. The platform rotated about every 12 minutes.
The Rotolactor was a huge tourist attraction for the Menangle village and provided a large number of local jobs.
In 1953 it was attracting 600 visitors on a weekend in with up to 2000 visitors a week at its peak. (The Land, 1953Mar27)
Town planning disruption
In 1968 town planning disrupted things. The Askin state government released the Sydney Regional Outline Plan, followed by the 1973 the New Cities of Campbelltown, Camden and Appin Structure Plan, which later became the Macarthur Growth Centre in 1975.
The structure plan did recognise the importance of the Rotolactor and the cultural heritage of the Menangle village. (The State Planning Authority of New South Wales, 1973, p. 84)
These events combined with declining farming profits encouraged the Macarthur family to sell out of Camden Park including the Rotolactor and the private village of Menangle.
The Rotolactor continued operations until 1977 and then remained unused for several years. It was then purchased by Halfpenny dairy interests from Menangle who operated the facility until it finally closed in 1983. (Walsh 2016, pp.91-94)
Community festival celebrates the Rotolactor
In 2017 the Menangle Community Association organised a festival to celebrate the history of the Rotolactor. It was called the Menangle Milk-Shake Up and was a huge success.
The Festival exceeded all their expectations of the organisers from the Menangle Community Association when it attracted over 5000 of people to the village from all over Australia. (Wollondilly Advertiser, 18 Sept 2017)
The Menangle Community Association Facebook page described it this way:
‘A true country event like in the old days. So many visitors came dressed up in their original 50s clothes, and all those wonderful well selected stall holders. It was pure joy.’
Despite these sentiments the event just covered costs (Wollondilly Advertiser 5 April 2018)
The festival’s success was a double-edged sword for the organisers from the Menangle Community Association.
The festival’s success demonstrated to local development interests that Rotolactor nostalgia could be marketized and had considerable commercial potential.
The Menangle Community Association attempted to lift the memory of the Rotolator and use it as a weapon to protect the village from the forces of urban development and neo-liberalism
The success of the festival was also used by Menangle land developers to further their interests.
Developer Halfpenny made numerous public statements supporting the restoration of the Rotolactor as a function centre and celebrating its past. (The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 December 2017).
The newspaper article announced that the owner of the site, local developer Ernest Dupre of Souwest Developments, has pledged to build a micro brewery, distillery, two restaurants, a farmers market, children’s farm, vegetable garden, and a hotel with 30 rooms.
In 2017 the state government planning panel approved the re-zoning of the site for 350 houses and a tourist precinct. Housing construction will be completed by Mirvac.
Mr Dupre stated that he wanted to turned the derelict Rotolactor into a function with the adjoining Creamery building as a brewery, which is next to the Menangle Railway Station.
He expected the development to cost $15 million and take two years. The plan also includes an outdoor concert theatre for 8000 people and a lemon grove.
The Camden story is an ongoing project that aims to tell the untold stories of the Camden, Cowpastures and Macarthur districts. There is the telling, the learning and the showing of the story.
The project is constantly evolving and changing direction. It is centred around the construction of place and the meaning of landscape. These are culturally derived concepts from both Indigenous and European experiences.
There are the natural ecologies that make up the environment as well as atmospheric and geological elements. The natural elements are just as important as the cultural.
Complexities of the Camden story
The Camden story has its own complexities. There is no one single dominant narrative. There are many voices in the story and each has a right to be heard.
There are many threads to the Camden story and when woven together make a coherent story with many voices. The weave of the cloth represents the warp and weft of the daily lives of the actors on the stage. Together they create a vibrant design that can capture the imagination of many and inspire others.
There are many actors in the constantly evolving narrative, each with their own agenda. The story is played on a stage that is located on Sydney’s rural-urban fringe, a dynamic movable frontier on the city’s edge. It is a constantly changing and evolving cultural landscape.
There are many layers to the Camden story each with its own particularities. As each layer is peeled back it reveals memories and meanings from the past that influence the present. Those who are interested can dive into the many layers and help unravel the entangled threads of the web and give some clarity to their meaning within the story.
The Camden story is a journey that is constantly evolving with many signposts along the way. There are a lot of fellow travellers who have their own stories. There are many pathways and laneways to go down, each with its own meaning and memories to the travellers who come along for the journey.
The Camden story has its own road map of sorts with signposts and markers of significant places along the journey for those who want to look. There are many opportunities for those who want embark on this journey and uncover many of the undiscovered mysteries of the Camden story.
It is in the interests of those who want to tell the story that they walk the ground in which the story is embedded. The landscape speaks to those who want to listen. The experience is enriching and fulfilling and shapes the telling of the story.
Some parts of the Camden story
The Camden story has many parts and some are listed below:
This is a short history of the town, which is situated on the floodplain of the Nepean River, on the traditional land of the Dharawal people in an area known as the Cowpastures. The Camden area’s distinctive landscape has moulded the community’s identity and sense of place. From the earliest days of European settlement class and social networks ordered daily life in the village with the local gentry at the top of the social hierarchy.
The Camden district ran from the Main Southern Railway around the estate village of Menangleinto the gorges of the Burragorang Valley in the west. It was a concept created by the links between peoples’ social, economic and cultural lives across the area. The district became the centre of people’s daily lives for well over a century and the basis of their sense of place and community identity.
This short historiography is one of the few that has been attempted to illustrate the construction of the history of a rural community. It is an attempt to examines the broad range of influences that shaped the writing of the Camden community’s history.
Movie makers have always had an eye on the Camden district’s large country houses, rustic farm buildings, quaint villages and picturesque countryside for film locations. From the 1920s the area has been used by a series of film makers as a setting for their movies. It coincided was an increasing interest in the area’s Englishness from poets, journalists and travel writers.
The Camden bibliography is an attempt to highlight some of the research that addresses the notion of Camden as a country town and the subsequent urbanisation of the local government area. The sources listed in the bibliography cover the geographic area of the Camden district.
The Cowpastures emerged as a regional concept in the late 18th century starting with the story of the cattle of the First Fleet that escaped their captivity at the Sydney settlement. The region was a culturally constructed landscape that ebbed and flowed with European activity. It grew around the government reserve established by Governors Hunter and King. It then developed into a generally used locality name centred on the gentry estates in the area.
The story of European settlement in the Cowpastures is intimately connected to the story of the convicts and their masters. This story has not been told and there is little understanding of the role of the convicts in the Cowpastures district before 1840. Who were they? What did they do? Did they stay in the district?
Kirkham is a picturesque, semi-rural locality on Sydney’s rural-urban fringe between the historic township of Camden, with its inter-war and colonial heritage and the bustling commercial centre of Narellan. The arrival of the rural-urban fringe at Kirkham in recent decades has created a contested site of tension and constant change, resulting in an ever-evolving landscape. This is an example of a short locality history within the local area published by the Dictionary of Sydney.
Early European settlers were the key actors in a place-making exercise that constructed an English-style landscape aesthetic on the colonial stage in the Cowpastures district of New South Wales. The aesthetic became part of the settler colonial project and the settlers’ aim of taking possession of territory involving the construction of a cultural ideal from familiar elements of home in the ‘Old Country’. The new continent, and particulaly the bush, had the elements of the Gothic with its grotesque and the demonic, and the landscape aesthetic was one attempt to counter these forces. Settlers used the aesthetic to assist the creation of a new narrative on an apparenty blank slate and in the process dispossessed and displaced the Indigenous occupants. The new colonial landscape was characterised by English place-names, English farming methods and English settlement patterns, with only cursory acknowledgement of Indigenous occupation.
The rural-urban fringe is a dynamic frontier, an ever expanding zone of transition on the edges of Australia’s major cities and regional centres. This paper examines the proposition that Sydney’s urban growth has pushed the city’s rural-urban fringe into the countryside and unleashed the contested nature of place-making in and around the
country town of Camden. It will be maintained that the dynamic forces that characterise the rural-urban frontier have resulted a collision between the desires and aspirations of ‘locals’ and ‘outsiders’ and prompted a crisis in the identity of place. Community icons
and rituals have become metaphors for the continuity of values and traditions that are embedded in the landscapes of place. The actors have used history and heritage, assisted by geography and aesthetics, to produce a narrative that aims to preserve landscape identity, and has created a cultural myth based on a romantic notion of an idealised
country town drawn from the past, ‘a country town idyll’.
What’s in a name? Quite a lot if you live in the fringe urban communities of Campbelltown, Camden or Picton in the Macarthur district on Sydney’s rural-urban fringe. In the past these communities have been fiercely parochial country towns with clearly identifiable differences based on history, heritage, traditions, mythology, rituals, demographics, local government and a host of other factors. With the encroachment of Sydney’s urban sprawl they have been wrapped up by the tentacles of the metropolitan octopus and faced challenges on a variety of fronts. The questions that this article raises concern Macarthur regionalism. Is it authentic? How representative is it of the former country towns that are now incorporated within it?
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. The Nepean River 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.
Camden is a country town whose history and development has been influenced by war. The town was part of Australia’s homefront war effort, and from the time of the Boer War the most important part of this for Camden was volunteering. The Second World War was no exception, and the most influential voluntary organisation that contributed to the town’s war effort was the Womens Voluntary Services [WVS]. The Camden WVS was part of a strong tradition of Victorian female philanthropy in the town, which attracted, and depended on, middle class women socialised in Victorian notions of service, ideals of dependence, a separatedness of spheres, patriarchy, the status quo, and by the inter-war period, modernity.
On 21 October 2004 the former Member for Camden, Dr Elizabeth (Liz) Kernohan, died after suffering a heart attack. She was sixty- five. Thousands of people lined Argyle Street in Camden to see the cortege and pay their last respects, I and compliments flowed from both sides of New South Wales politics. There were over 1850 column centimetres devoted to her death and subsequent funeral in the local press. Kernohan was a popular, larger than life figure in Camden. She held the seat of Camden for the Liberal party for over 11 years in an area that some have claimed is the key to the success of the Howard Government. How was Kernohan able to gain this type of support? This paper will try to address this question, although initially it is useful to give a brief overview of the electorate.
A notable part of Camden modernism that has disappeared is the drive-in movie theatre. The Narellan Gayline Drive-in Movie Theatre was one of the notable attractions in the local area between the 1960s and 1980s located on Morshead Road, Narellan (now Narellan Vale). Along with rock ‘n roll, transistor radios, the bikini, the mini-skirt, it marked the lifestyle of the baby boomers. Always popular with teenagers and young families. The drive-in movie theatre was a defining moment in the district for a 20th century culture that was based around the icons of the period: cars and movies.
Catherine Fields once boasted a national tourist facility which attracted thousands of visitors a year to the local area, the El Caballo Blanco entertainment complex. The El Caballo Blanco complex opened in April 1979 at Catherine Fields. The main attraction was a theatrical horse show presented with Andalusian horses, which was held daily in the large 800-seat indoor arena.
The Camden Country Women’s Association made camouflage nets during the Second World War and was the largest netting centre in the area. The Camden CWA camouflage netting centre was assisted by sub-branches at Campbelltown and Narellan, which were established after the joint CWA-WVS meeting in December 1941.
One of the most popular memories of the Camden area by locals and visitors alike is the Camden branch line and its famous locomotive Pansy. It has a truly dedicated and enthusiastic bunch of supporters who positively drool about it and overlook its foibles. Old timers tell and retell stories to anyone who wants to listen, all laced with a pinch of exaggeration and the romantic. A part of local nostalgia. The Camden branch line was operated by the New South Wales Railways from 1882 to its closure in 1963.
Oran Park Raceway was doomed in 2008 to be part of history when it was covered with houses in a new suburb with the same name. It was also the name of a former pastoral property that was part of the story of the settler society within the Cowpastures. The locality is the site of hope and loss for both locals and new arrivals. The Oran Park Motor Racing Circuit was located in the south-western and western part of the original Oran Park pastoral estate. The main grand prix circuit was 2.6 km long with a mixture of slow, technical and fast sweeping corners as well as changes in elevation around the track.
This post was prompted by an item in the Oran Park Gazette, an A4 newsletter newspaper. Gazette journalist Lisa Finn-Powell asked: What is the future of the community newspaper? The local ‘rag’ in our suburb is a free tabloid newspaper thrown onto our front driveway each week. Actually there are two of them, the Camden Narellan Advertiser and the Macarthur Chronicle. Where I live some of these newspapers stay on the neighbour’s driveway for weeks and disintegrate into a mess. Other neighbours just put them in the bin. So not everyone is a fan of the local ‘rag’ in the age of Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook.
The members of 32 Squadron arrived in Camden Airfield in September 1942 after seven months of hazardous operational duties supporting Allied Forces in New Guinea and the surrounding area, including New Britain. The squadron had been ‘hastily formed in the field’ in February 1942 with personnel drawn from other units. The squadron’s operational duties at Camden Airfield included reconnaissance and sea patrols off the east coast of Australia.
Once the army moved into Narellan Military Camp it commenced operation and became part of the wartime scene during WW2. Men were seen marching all over the district, there were mock raids and the men practiced firing small arms. The camp is an important part of the story of Narellan during war as thousands of men, and some women, moved through the camp on their way to somewhere in the theatre that was the Second World War.
Supermarkets are one of the ultimate expressions of modernism. The township of Camden was not isolated from these global forces of consumerism that originated in the USA. The Camden community was bombarded daily with American cultural influences in the form of movies, motor cars, drive-in, motels, TV, and radio. Now consumerism was expressed by the appearance of self-service retailing and the development of the supermarket.
The local milk bar is a largely unrecognized part of Camden modernism where the latest trends in American food culture made their way into the small country town by Australian-Greek immigrants. The design, equipment and fit-out of local cafes and milk bars was at the cutting edge of Interwar fashion. The cafes were a touch of the exotic with their Art Deco style interiors, where fantasy met food without the social barriers of daily life of the Interwar period. Camden milk bars rarely just sold milk shakes unlike their counterparts in the city. To make a living and ensure that their businesses paid their way the cafes and milk bars also sold fruit and vegetables, meals, sandwiches, lollies, sweets and chocolates.
The interwar period in Camden was a time of economic development and material progress. The prosperity of the period was driven by the local dairy industry and the emerging coal industry. During the interwar period one of the most important economic arteries of the town was the Hume Highway (until 1928 the Great South Road). For a country town of its size the town had modern facilities and was up-to-date with the latest technology. The interwar years were a period of transition and increasingly the motor car replaced the horse in town, and on the farm the horse was replaced by the tractor, all of which supported the growing number of garages in the town.
The beginning of a new phase of Camden’s motoring history created much excitement and anticipation in March 1948 with the opening of the new ultra-modern car showroom for Clintons Motors at 16 Argyle Street.
The year 1948 was a landmark in Australian motoring history with the launch of first Australian made mass produced motor car – the FX Holden sedan – in November. The National Museum of Australia states that
The Holden transformed suburban Australia, boosted national pride and quickly become a national icon. The car was economical, sturdy and stylish and was immediately popular with the public.
Clinton Motors announced in September 1948 that it would sell the new Holden motor car (Camden News, 23 September 1948). The first Holden car was displayed in the new streamlined showroom in December 1948 and sold for £675. (Camden News, 16 December 1948)
The new showroom displays motoring modernism
The former Clintons Motor building was an iconic stylish Art Deco Interwar influenced building with its clean streamlined appearance drawn from American and French influences.
A blue and white building with modernistic streamlined front and wide plate glass fittings. Inside, behind imposing doors set between giant white pillars, are to be seen a range of colourful displays that glistened beneath batteries of flourescent lights. Big placards mounted on plastic coated display stands illustrate the advice which Goodyear gives motorists in obtaining tyres. Other plastic and glass tables hold an unexpectedly large variety of accessories for cars and trucks. (Camden News, 18 March 1948).
The new premises were constructed by Camden builder Jim Bracken on the former site of the Camden tweed mill which burnt down in 1899 and left a standing chimney for many years. During the Interwar period the site was used a horse paddock.
The new premises sold tyres, motor accessories and electrical goods including refrigerators. The showroom ‘combined all the features that modern merchants in America have developed to improve their service to their customers’. (Camden News, 18 March 1948).
Tourism and motoring modernism
The former Clintons Motors showroom is one of the first buildings that visitors encounter as they enter the town centre after crossing the Cowpastures Bridge and the Nepean River floodplain on the former Hume Highway (now Camden Valley Way).
Clintons Motors at 16 Argyle Street Camden in 1983. The business was the Holden dealership for the Camden area. The premises opened in 1948. (Camden Images)
The former car showroom is just one of a number of Interwar buildings that visitors can find in the charming town centre. There is the former Bank of New South Wales (Westpac) building, the brick front of the show hall pavilion, the Dunk building car showroom, the former Rural Bank building, the former Stuckey Bakery building, the milk depot. Tucked around the corner is the former Paramount Movie palace and the Presbyterian church. Scattered in and around the town centre are a number of Californian bungalows which add to the atmospherics of the former country town.
The Clinton Group has a long history
The Clinton group has a long history in the Macarthur region starting out a mobile theatre then moving into the Burragorang coalfields. In the 1930s they had a transport business moving coal from the valley to the Camden and Narellan railhead. The family formed Clinton Distributions which became an agent for General Motors Holden on 8 March 1945. Trading at Clinton Motors on the Hume Highway at Narellan the business sold Chevrolets, Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, Vauxhalls, Bedfords and Maple Leaf trucks. The family incorporated the business in 1946 (Clinton Motor Group) and moved into Camden in February, (Camden News, 21 February 1946) opening the new showroom in 1948. The business operated on this site until 1992 then moved to the former site of Frank Brooking car yard and motor dealership at the corner of Cawdor Road and Murray Streets.
The Camden town centre and its multi-layered history are evident in the many different building styles evident as you walk along the main street.
If walls could talk they would tell an interesting story that would immerse you in the past in the present. They would provide a gripping account of the characters that were central to the stories.
Living history is storytelling
Living history allows participants to be able to read the layers of history of an area.
Living history is like peeling off layers of paint from a wall when viewers peel back the layers of history of a site, building or place. Each layer has a special meaning – a special presence.
Lived experience leads to storytelling which is real and authentic.
Storytelling creates the meaning of the past and creates the characters of the past in the present. It allows the past to speak to the present. Storytelling and stories at the essence of place.
The living history movement
Living historian Scott Magelssen maintains that living history museums ‘engage strategies in their performance of the past’, claiming to be ‘real history by virtue of their attention to detail’. (pp. xii-xv)
One of the early influencers of the living history movement in North America was Henry Ford who established his indoor and outdoor living museum experience in the Detroit suburb of Dearbourn in Michigan USA. Henry Ford said of his museum
I am collecting the history of our people as written into things their hands made and used…. When we are through, we shall have reproduced American life as lived, and that, I think, is the best way of preserving at least a part of our history and tradition…
Camden storytellers peel back the layers of the history of the town and district and reveal the tales of local identities, larrikans, characters, rascals, ruffians and ratbags.
There are a number of layers to the Camden story and they are
Pre-European period of the Indigenous Dharawal people when they called the area Benkennie
The Cowpastures were named by Governor Hunter in 1795 and the establishment of the Cowpastures Government Reserve. Under European control the Indigenous Dharawal people dispossession and displacement of their country. The Macarthur family’s Camden Park Estatestarted with the 1805 grant to John Macarthur.
The Camden township was established as a private venture of the Macarthur family in 1840. The streets were named after its founders – Macarthur, Elizabeth, John, Edward.
The Macarthur region (1970s +), named after the famous local Macarthur family, grew as part of Sydney’s rural-urban fringe. It is made up of Camden, Campbelltown and Wollondilly Local Government Areas.
Immerse your imagination in the past at the Camden Museum through living history.
The Camden museum tells the Camden story through displays of artefacts, objects, memoriabilia and other ephemera by using a living history approach.
The displays tell a story of an earlier period and allows visitors to immerse themselves in the past in the present.
Map of the Camden district in 1939 showing the extent of the area with Camden in the east. The silver mining centre of Yerranderie is in the west. (I Willis, 1996)
Walking the past through living history
Visitors to Camden can walk the streets of the town centre and imagine another time. A time past that can be recalled through living history.
There has been a chorus of objection from some in the Camden community over the potential sale. Community angst has been expressed at public meetings, protests, placards, and in articles in the press.
The principal actors (stakeholders) have taken up positions around the issue include: churchgoers, non-churchgoers (residents, outsiders, ex-Camdenites, neighbours), the parish, local government, state government, and the Macarthur family.
The former horse paddock looks like an unassuming vacant block of land in central Camden. So why has there been so much community angst about is possible sale?
The simple answer is that the community ascribes representations of a church beyond the building being a place of worship. Yet this raises a paradox for the owners of these religious sites. Generally speaking different faiths put worship and the spiritual interests of their followers ahead of their property portfolio.
This paradox has created angst in some communities when the owners of religious buildings and sites want to sell them, for example, in Tasmania in 2018 or other examples discussed by Graeme Davison.
The Hawdon allegory was present when the town was established by the Macarthur family as a private venture on Camden Park Estate in 1840. The construction and foundation of St John’s church was part of the process of the building of the new town.
an enduring image within the socially constructed concept of Camden’s rurality has been the unparalleled vista of the Camden village from the Macarthur’s hilltop Georgian mansion. (Image below) The romantic image portrayed an idyllic English pastoral scene of an ordered farming landscape, a hive of industrious activity in a tamed wilderness which stressed the scientific and the poetic.
‘citadel on the hill’ at the centre of the ‘village’. It acts as a metaphor for order, stability, conservatism and a continuity of values of Camden’s Anglophile past. The Nepean River floodplain keeps Sydney’s rural-urban fringe at bay by being the ‘moat around the village’ which occasionally was the site of a torrent of floodwater.
The hilltop location has spiritual significance with Biblical references to love, peace and righteousness.
A sense of place
St John’s church has had a central role in the construction of place and community identity in the town.
The church and its hilltop location is an enduring colonial legacy and a representation of the power of the colonial gentry, particularly the position of Camden Park Estate and the Macarthur family within the narrative of the Camden story.
Many Camden folk feel a sense of belonging to the church expressed by memory, nostalgia, customs, commemorations, traditions, celebrations, values, beliefs and lifestyles.
The community feel that the church belongs to them as much as it belongs to the churchgoers within the church community.
Belonging is central to placeness. It is home and a site where there is a sense of acceptance, safety and security. Home as a place is an important source of stability.
makes it plain that the feelings engendered by the loss of place can be equated with those experienced in the loss of a close relative, friend or partner. This straightforward analogy helps to make visible the symbolic role of place in enabling human beings to confront issues of mortality.
The church buildings and precinct are a shrine to a lost past and considered by many to be sacred land. The sale of the former horse paddock has caused a degree community grief over the potential loss of sacred land.
St John’s church is an important architectural statement in the town centre and is one Australia’s earliest Gothic style churches.
So what does all this mean?
The place of St John’s church in the Camden community is a complex one. The story has many layers and means different things to different people, both churchgoers and non-churchgoers.
The church is a much loved place and the threatened loss of part of the church precinct generates feeling of grief and loss by many in community.
The legacy of the English landscape identity from the early 19th century and the establishment of the Cowpastures is very real and still has a strong presence in the community’s identity and sense of place. The English style Gothic church is a metaphor for the Hawdon’s ‘Little England’ allegory.
The Cowpastures was the fourth location of European settlement in Australia and the local area still has a strong Anglo-demographic profile. These contribute to re-enforce the iconic imagery projected by St John’s church combined with the story of a settler society and its legacy.
Check out this publication to read more about the Camden district.
In Camden the local non-going church community has resisted the sale by the Anglican Church of a horse paddock between St John’s Anglican Church and the former Rectory, all part of the St John’s Church precinct.
Community angst has been expressed at public meetings, protests, placards, and in articles in the press.
The purpose of this blog post is to try and unravel some of the broader issues underpinning community angst around the sale of church property. The post will look at the case study of the sale of churches in Tasmania and the resultant community anxiety.
The local church in place
The local church is an important part of a local community. It has a host of meanings for both churchgoers and non-churchgoers alike.
The local church is a central part of the construction of place and people’s attachment to a cultural landscape and locality.
Place is about a sense of belonging and a sense of groundedness. It is expressed by cultural heritage, memory, nostalgia, customs, commemorations, traditions, celebrations, values, beliefs and lifestyles.
Belonging is central to placeness. It is home. A site where there is a sense of acceptance, safety and security. Home as a place is an important source of stability in a time of chaos. Home is part of a community.
LM Miller from the University of Tasmania states that people are involved fundamentally with what constitutes place and places are involved fundamentally in the construction of persons. Place wraps around and envelopes a person. People are holders of place (Miller: 6-8)
There is a shared sense of belonging in a community where being understood is important and part of a beloved collection. A sense of belonging acts as an all encompassing set of beliefs and identity. . It enriches our identity and relationships and leads to acceptance and understanding.
A church is one of these communities.
When a person’s sense of place is threatened then their sense of self, identity, safety, stability, and security are challenged. Where there is a loss of a person’s sense of place and belonging to a place they go through a grieving process.
The closure, sale and de-consecration of the local church are a threat to a person’s sense of place.
Local churches are part of a community’s cultural heritage.
Cultural heritage consists of two parts. Firstly, tangible heritage which is made up, for example, buildings, art, objects and artefacts.
Secondly there is intangible cultural heritage which includes customs, practices, places, objects, artistic expressions and values. This can be extended to include traditional skills and technologies, religious ceremonies, performing arts and storytelling.
Churchgoers and a sense of place
The link between local churches and a community’s sense of place has been explored by Graeme Davison in his book The Use and Abuse of Australian History. He says that churchgoers are often faced with unsustainable maintenance costs for a church. Eventually when churchgoers are forced to sell the property they:
‘often seemed less reluctant to give up their church than the rest of the community…and faced with the prospect of its loss, [the non-churchgoers] were often prepared to fight with surprising tenacity to save it.’ (Davision:149)
These churches have a strong emotional attachment for their communities. These churches are loved places for their community and Davison suggests:
It is in losing loved places, as well as loved persons, that we come to recognise the nature and depth of our attachment to our past. (Davison: 150)
Davison argues that churchgoers often have a loyalty to their local place well beyond their sense of faith in Christianity.
Sale of churches in Tasmania
These issues came to the fore in Tasmania in 2018 when there was public outrage around the sale of local churches in Tasmania.
The Hobart press ran a story with the headline ‘Emotions run high, communities vow to fight after Anglican Church votes to sell off 76 churches’. (Sunday Tasmanian, 3 June 2018)
The Anglican Church in Tasmania was attempting to fund the ‘redress commitment’ to the victims of clerical abuse by selling church property.
In response Central Tasmanian Highlands churchgoer Ron Sonners said that ‘his ancestors [were] buried in the graveyard associated with St Peter’s Church at Hamilton’…and he ‘struggled with his emotions as he dealt with the fallout from his community church being listed for sale’. (Sunday Tasmanian, 3 June 2018)
Tasmania Anglican Bishop Richard Condie says that most of opposition to the sale of churches
is primarily people in the broader community who oppose the sales, with the potential loss of heritage and family history, including access to graveyards, their main concern. (The Mercury, 15 September 2018)
There have been protest meetings and some effected parishes started fundraising campaigns to keep their churches. The Hobart Mercury reported that
The Parish of Holy Trinity Launceston, which wants to keep St Matthias’ Church at Windermere, has raised the funds, with the help of its local community, to meet its redress contribution. (The Mercury, 15 September 2018)
Cultural historian and churchgoer Dr Caroline Miley said that:
the churches are an important part of Australian history… It is unconscionable that such a massive number of buildings, artefacts and precincts should be lost to the National Estate in one fell swoop…These are buildings built and attended by convicts and their jailers. They were built on land donated by early state governors, notable pioneers and state politicians, with funds donated by these colonials and opened by the likes of Sir John Franklin…As well, she says, they contain the honour boards, memorials and graves of those who fought and died in conflicts from the 19th century onwards…Some are in the rare (in Australia) Georgian style or in idiosyncratic Tasmanian Carpenter Gothic. (The Mercury, 15 September 2018)
Amanda Ducker of the Hobart Mercury summarises of the whole fuss surrounding the sale of churches in Tasmania this way:
Condie’s use-it-or-lose-it approach clashes with the keep-it-at-all-costs mentality. But while some opponents of the bishop’s plan refuse to sell their church buildings, neither do they want to go to church regularly. They rather prefer just to gather on special occasions: baptisms, weddings, funerals and perhaps at Christmas and Easter if they are leaning towards piety. But the rest of the year? Well, a sleep-in, potter at home or cafe brunch of eggs benedict (but sans ministering) are pretty tempting on Sunday morning. (The Mercury, 15 September 2018)
Others Anglicans in Tasmania see the whole argument differently. Emeritus Professor and Anglican Peter Boyce AO see it as fight over the spiritual traditions linked to the low and high Anglican traditions in Tasmania. (The Mercury, 15 September 2018)
All these arguments are characteristic of how people, their traditions, their values, their past, their memories are all rooted in a location and in particular a building like a church.
Other dimensions to the argument
The dualism expressed in the sale of church land and buildings can be likened to the difference between sacred and secular. These two polar opposites are explored in popular culture in the form of music by Nick Cave and others on The Conversation.
Another perspective on this area was aired on ABC Radio Local Sydney in December 2018 by Dr David Newheiser. In the discussion he examined the differences between Christians and aethiests. He maintained that there are strong sentiments in the community around tradition and ritual in the community and if you lose a church you lose all of this.
The binary position of churchgoers and non-churchgoers can also be expressed in ethical terms as the difference between good and evil, or right and wrong, or moral and immoral, just and unjust and so on. This dichotomy has ancient roots dating back to pre-Biblical times across many cultures.
So what does all this mean?
Churches have an important role to play in the construction of place in communities. This role is played out in different ways for different actors in the story.
As far as the dichotomy presented here in the story of the sale of church property and land, there is really no conclusion that satisfies all stakeholders.
There is no right or wrong position to the opposing views between churchgoers and non-churchgoers. The differences remain an unresolved ethical dilemma.
An iconic Camden image of St Johns Anglican Church in the 1890s.