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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fresh air was the order of the day for patients at the newly opened Carrington Centennial Hospital for Convalescents and Incurables at Camden in 1890. The hospital followed the latest methods in medical practice and building architecture from Victorian England based on the writings and approach advocated by Florence Nightingale.
Victorian England hospitals
By the late 19th century Victorian England had over 300 Convalescent hospital. They were one of a variety of specialist hospitals that appeared in Victorian England. They included consumptive hospitals, fever hospitals, ophthalmic hospitals, lying-in hospitals, venereal disease hospitals, orthopaedic hospitals, lunatic asylums, fistula infirmary, invalid asylums, as well as those catering for different groups of people for instance seamen’s hospitals, German hospital, children’s hospitals and others.
British historian Eli Anders states that in England convalescent homes were built as the seaside or in the countryside away from the dirty polluted cities. They were to be places of rest, nourishment and recuperation where there was plenty of fresh and healthy air. Medical practices dictated that fresh air and exercise were the order of the day.
Camden’s fresh country air
The location of Carrington fitted this model. It was located in the picturesque countryside with views over the Nepean River floodplain on a hill to catch lots of fresh country air. Camden was considered a healthy site away from the pollution and evils of industrial Sydney and the increased public health risks of the urban environment and issues with sanitation.
Carrington Hospital was the first major convalescent facility in New South Wales and followed design principles espoused by Florence Nightingale. Historian Eli Anders states that Nightingale wrote in her Notes on Nursing and Notes on Hospitals that she was an advocate for ventilation and proper site selection. She promoted the ‘healthfulness’ of convalescent hospitals in the countryside and on the edge of towns where they took advantage of fresh country air. Similar advantages could be achieved by a seaside location.
At the heart of this idea was miasma theory which stated that some diseases such as cholera, chlamydia or Black Death were cause by ‘bad air’. The theory stated that epidemics were due to a miasma started from rotting organic matter. The theory originated from the ancients in places like China, India and Europe and was only displaced by germ theory in the 1880s, which stated that germs caused diseases. Despite this popular culture retained a belief in ‘bad air’ and stated the urban areas had to clean up waste and get rid of bad odours. These ideas had encouraged Florence Nightingale’s activities in the Crimean War where she worked to make hospitals sanitary and fresh smelling. These ideas also had a major influence on Sydney and the outbreak of Black Death (bubonic plague) in 1900 after urban renewal process that followed in suburbs like The Rocks and Millers Point.
Convalescent homes were often built by philanthropists and charitable organisations. Carrington Hospital was built by Sydney philanthropist and businessman WH Paling (1825-1895), who immigrated with his family to Sydney in 1853. Paling ran a music business importing pianofortes and sheet music, and was an entertainment promotor and composer during the heyday of the gold rushes. His business success allowed him to pursue his political and philanthropic interests. Paling was an alderman on Petersham Municipal Council and mayor, a member of the Royal Society and a director the Mercantile Mutual Insurance Company. The Australian Dictionary of Biography states
His far-sighted preoccupation with questions of sanitation, health and hospital accommodation culminated in his presentation to the colony on 23 April 1888 of his 450-acre (182 ha) model farm Grasmere at Camden, valued at £20,000, to be used as a hospital for convalescents and incurables; he also donated £10,000 for the erection of suitable buildings. A public committee led by Sir Henry Parkes raised a further £15,000 for equipment and development at the Carrington Convalescent Hospital on the site.
The hospital site was purchased in 1881 from Camden Park by a syndicate of WH Paling, AH McCullock, Benjamin James Jnr and W Stimson containing 5100 acres. It was part of the North Cawdor Farms sale which also included a number of Camden Town blocks. The sale had a number of conditions and was not finalised until 1888. In the meantime Paling developed his Grasmere Estate farms. He established a Deed of Gift in 1888 with Lord Carrington was president of the hospital and chair of the general committees and himself as vice president.
The hospital was named after Lord Carrington, Governor of New South Wales (1885-1890), who served from on the centenary of the foundation of the colony.
Late Victorian Queen Anne Revival
The 89 bed hospital (49 male, 40 female) was designed by Sydney architect HC Kent and constructed by building contractor P Graham. The NSW State Heritage Inventory states:
It is representative of a late Victorian institutional building and is also representative of hospital building techniques (including setting) of the time. Main building of late Victorian eclectic style is brick on concrete foundations with cement dressings in the super structure and tower.
The main building is considered to be an excellent example of a Late Victorian Queen Anne Revival style. There were also additional buildings which included gardeners cottage, Masonic cottage, morgue, and Grassmere Cottage. There were extensive landscape gardens in a general Victorian layout with a carriage loop and flower bed.
In England convalescent facilities were very good and were better than home life conditions for many poor people. The idea with convalescent hospital were that the patients spent weeks recovering away from their home. Rich people who hired their own doctors to treat them during illness or convalescence. They paid to recuperate in a seaside health resort or travel to a spa centre. Convalescent homes were seen as superior to hospitals because they were different from dreary wards. Supporters advocated their calming and home-like qualities with libraries, games rooms and sitting rooms.
Ventilation and fresh air
The Illustrated Sydney News stated that the Carrington Hospital is located on a hill overlooking Camden to take advantage of ‘fresh air’ with ‘ventilation in the sleeping and living rooms’. The ventilation in the buildings was planned by Sir Alfred Roberts and based on Prince Alfred Hospital. The convalescence patients will be able to ‘sit outside and enjoy the lovely view and balmy health giving air’. The garden had ‘comfortable shady seats, where patients can wander about and rest at will, is of great importance, as also the verandahs where they can obtain exercise in wet weather, and the large sitting or day rooms’. There is the pleasant ‘park-like appearance’ of the countryside around Camden which ‘is very English in its character’. Patients will be able to recuperate for ‘two or three weeks’ rest and proper food that would mean so very much to them just at this stage…They are free to revel in the country scenes and sounds and rest awhile from the bustle of life’.
The Sydney press stated that the aims of the hospital
are, that persons recovering from acute illness may benefit by a short residence in the healthful climate of Camden, and a plentiful use of the farm products from the estate ; and further, that persons suffering from incurable diseases may have their lives prolonged and their sufferings alleviated by the above-named advantages. (Illust Syd News)
Lord Carrington lays foundation stone
The Governor of New South Wales Lord Carrington laid a foundation stone in February 1889 in front of a crowd of over 2000 people. A special train came from Redfern and was met at Camden Railway Station by well over 1000 people. The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River Gazette reported that Camden Station was ‘gaily decorated’ with a string of flags. Lord Carrington arrived by train from Moss Vale and he was met at the home by Sydney dignatories who were members of the management committee and trustees. The report noted that hot and cold running water would be laid on throughout the building.
Carrington Convalescent Hospital opened on 20 August 1890 and the first matron was Miss McGahey who resigned in 1891 to take a position as matron at Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. She was followed by Matron Kerr, then Matron Blanche Bricknell in 1897 who served until 1907.
The 1898 7th annual report in the Camden News stated that the hospital had treated 1153 in the previous 12 months with the annual cost of each bed being £35/8/9d. The meeting discussed the reluctance of patients to contribute the cost of their stay. During the year Sister Elenita Williams had been succeeded by Sister Edith Carpendale. Nurses Bertha Davidson and Eva Thomson had been succeeded by Nurses Lily BanfieId and Theresa Richardson. Mr JR Fairfax and Major JW Macarthur Onslow were elected the management committee by subscribers.
The 1900 annual report in the Camden News stated that the hospital had treated 1040 patients in the previous year with the average number of patients 75. The average patient stay was 28 days at a cost of £2/10/11d. The hospital shut its emergency section when the Camden Cottage Hospital opened during the year and Camden medical officers acted in an honorary capacity.
First major convalescent hospital
Carrington Hospital was the first major convalescent hospital in New South Wales and its surrounding buildings and gardens are list on the Camden Local Environment Plan Heritage Inventory (Item 118). Carrington Hospital is significance in that it is, along with Thomas Walker Convalescent Hospital, one of only two remaining functional purpose built late 19th century convalescent hospitals in New South Wales.