Camden Gasworks · Camden High School · Contamination · Gas · Heritage · Historical Research · history · Local History · Place making · sense of place · Utilities

The phoenix rises from the ashes at the old Camden High site

As the old Camden High School disappears under a cloud of dust and rubble a new precinct called Camden Central will rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the past.

 

Camden High demo 29Nov2017 MWillis
What goes up must come down and so it is with the old Camden High School building. This image captures the essence of rise and fall of the high school that served Camden for over 50 years. It met its demise from its location. Yet it will rise from the ashes as a retirement village. Like a rebirth from the womb of the disaster that has been the contamination of the site from the gasworks. (MWillis, 2017)

 

The original Camden High School was moved off its in John Street site due to concerns around contamination from the old Camden gasworks.

A disaster in the making

A New South Wales Government Fact Sheet stated in 2013 that an investigation of the old Camden High School site in 1995 found piping from the gasworks and identified contaminated waste the following year. The school had been located on this particular patch of ground from 1970 to 2001 after being purchased earlier by the state government.

In July 2013 ABCTV reported that there were three cases of cancer in former students attending Camden High School. A follow-up report included further details of former students and a teacher with cancers or tumours. There have a number of other media stories. 

The NSW Environmental Protection Authority states:

Over 60 former gasworks sites have been identified in NSW. The gasworks produced ‘town gas’ for heating, lighting and cooking. Most ceased operating in the early- to mid- 1900s and the last of the known gasworks was decommissioned in 1985. They were often also close to the centre of the city, to minimise the size of the network of pipes used for gas distribution. The soil and groundwater at these former gasworks sites are invariably contaminated by materials produced during the gas-making process even though operations ceased many years ago.  

 

Camden Gasworks 1900s CIPP
Camden Gasworks in the early 1910s (CIPP)  Mr Murray the gasworks manager reported that construction at the gasworks had been completed, the retort had been lit and he anticipated full supply by the end of the month. (Camden News, 4 January 1912) Throughout 1912 there an ongoing dispute between Mr Alexander, the managing director of the Camden Gas Company, and Camden Municipal Council over damage to Argyle Street while laying gas pipes and who was going to pay for it. (Camden News, 12 September 1912)

 

A New South Wales Government Fact Sheet about the Camden gasworks stated in 2013

The operation of gasworks has left a legacy of soil and groundwater contamination, in some cases extending to adjoining sites. The major contaminants include tars, oils, hydrocarbon sludges, spent oxide wastes, and ash. While many of these materials were recycled or reused, it was common for some to be buried on or near the gasworks site (for instance in underground tar wells, liquor wells, pipes and purifier beds) and not removed when the gasworks were decommissioned.

Some of these contaminants are carcinogenic to humans and toxic to aquatic ecosystems and so may pose a risk to human health and the environment if significant exposure were to occur. As a result, many former gasworks sites require remediation before they can be put to other uses.

 

The Camden Gas Company

The former Camden gasworks started in private ownership as the Camden Gas Company in 1911. In 1946 Camden Municipal Council purchased the gasworks and started operating the facility. The gasworks closed in 1965 according the fact sheet from the state government.

 

Gas Cover Durham Camden1
Gas Utility Cover Durham Argyle Street Camden 2016 (I Willis)  The Durham cover is for the Camden gas supply which was installed in 1912 by the Camden Gas Company.The gasworks was built in Mitchell Street and made gas from coal. There were a number of gas street lights in Argyle Street which were turned on in early 1912. The Camden News reported in January 1912 that many private homes and businesses had been connected to the gas supply network and were fitted for gas lighting.

 

The Department of Education purchased land next to the gasworks for a school in 1934. Enrolments at the  Camden Central School had grown beyond its site capacity in the early 1950s. The state government built a new high school and it opened in 1956 at 2 John Street, adjacent to the still then operating gasworks.

Finding the making of  a disaster

In 1970 the state government built a library and science laboratory block on former gasworks land it purchased from Camden Municipal Council.

The Department of Education then purchased additional land off AGL which had acquired the site from Camden Municipal Council.

When the Department of Education started preliminary investigations in 1995 for new building works at the school workers uncovered pits and pipes from the old gasworks.

During 1996 as additional demountable classrooms were being installed in the school grounds strong odours were detected from disturbed soil on the site. The contaminated area was sealed off and further examinations were conducted by the NSW Environmental Protection Authority.

 

Camden High School 2004 CIPP
Camden High School at 2 John Street Camden as it appeared in 2004 (PMylrea, CIPP)  The first headmaster was John Brownie in 1956 and served in that position until 1967. Before coming to Camden High he had been deputy headmaster at Sydney Boys High School. He had an emphasis on providing academic opportunities for students for the 300 students enrolled at the school.

 

These concerns about the John Street site contamination led to the action by state government to look for a new location for the school.

Other factors that contributed to the state government’s decision to move Camden High School were the predicted growth of the school population to twice 1996 enrolments and the school’s flood-prone site.

Together these factors prompted the state government to build a new school away from the John Street site. The new Camden High opened at Cawdor Road in 2001.

The makings of a rebirth from the womb

The John Street site was sold in 2007 to a development firm, the AEH Group, which proposed decontaminating the soil and building apartments.

According to the AEH 2017 fact sheet:

AEH Group  and has secured approval from Camden Council to develop the site into a mixed-use facility focused on seniors living. Camden Central Lifestyle Estate (Camden Central) will be located right in the heart of historic Camden and will revitalise a site that has been unused for more than 15 years.

The AEH Group website states that in 2016 the development of the retirement complex was being pre-sold off the plan. The AEH website states:

Situated in the heart of the historic township, Camden Central Lifestyle Estate is soon to commence construction.   AEH Group is sensitive to Camden’s proud heritage, its beauty and its unique town atmosphere. Camden Central Lifestyle Estate will enhance the site with a new vitality and energy and deliver more housing and economic benefits to the Camden community.  

A bucolic paradise

The AEH Group is offering the first stage for sale with 54 apartments. The Camden Central website boasts about the towns history and heritage and the town’s special character. The ‘tranquillity of the landscape’ is evident to AEH copywriters who have maintained that the town ‘retains a peaceful rural feel’.

 

Camden Aerial View 1990s CIPP
The AEH Group is using images like this to promote their development at Camden Central. This image was taken in the early 1990s by PMylrea and shows the town with Argyle Street to the right of the photo. St John’s Anglican Church is in the left of the image. The old Camden High site is to right of the town centre. This image clearly shows how the town centre is surrounded by the Nepean River floodplain. (CIPP)

 

The developer is using the bucolic scenes from the local countryside, the town centre and the vibrant café culture to promote the development. Let’s hope it stays that way for a while.

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