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.
It is not often that the historian can get a view into the past through the lens of the present in real time. I was able to this in Camden New South Wales recently at a photo shoot for the History Magazine for the Royal Australian Historical Society.
Photographer Jeff McGill and author Laura Jane were the participants in this activity. We all walked along Camden’s historic main thoroughfare, Argyle Street, which still echoes of the Victorian period. Our little group made quite a splash and drew a deal of attention from local women who swooned over the ‘gorgeous’ vintage dress worn by Laura Jane.
Mid-20th century enthusiast Laura Janes lives the lifestyle in dress, makeup and hairstyle and made the perfect foil for her History article on Sydney fashion, the David Jones store and their links to the fashion house of Dior. Laura Jane modelled her 1950s Dior style vintage dress in front of Camden’s storefronts that were reminiscent of the period. With matching handbag, gloves, hat, hairstyle, stiletto heels, and makeup she made a picture to behold captured by Campbelltown photographer Jeff.
Laura Jane encompasses the experience of the country woman going to town when Camden women would dress-up in their Sunday best to shop in Camden or catch the train to the city.
A city shopping expedition would entail catching the Pansy train at Camden Railway Station, then change steam trains at Campbelltown Railway Station, then another change at Liverpool Railway Station from steam train to the electric suburban service for Central Railway Station in Sydney. The suburban electric trains did not arrive at Campbelltown until 1968.
City outings for country women often happened around the time of the Royal Easter Show when the whole family would go to the city. The family would bring their prized horses and cattle to compete with other rural producers for the honour and glory of winning a sash. While the menfolk were busy with rural matters their women folk would be off to town to shop for the latest fashions for church and show balls or to fit out the family for the upcoming year.
Country women from further away might stay-over at swish city hotels like the up-market elegant Hotel Australia near Martin Place. These infrequent city outings were a treat and a break from the drudgery of domesticity and women would take the opportunity to combine a shopping trip with a visit to see a play or the Tivoli theatre.
The intrinsic nature of the city outings for country women were captured by the Sydney street photographers. They operated around the Martin Place, Circular Quay, Macquarie and Elizabeth Street precincts and are depicted in an current photographic exhibition at the Museum of Sydney.
The images of the Sydney street photographer captured of moment in time and their most prolific period was during the 1930s to the 1950s. The country woman would be captured on film as she and a friend wandered along a city street. They would be given a token and they could purchase a memento of their city visit in a postcard image that they could purchase at a processing booth in a city-arcade. The Sydney street photographer captured living history and has not completely disappeared from Sydney street.
Laura Jane, whose lifestyle encompasses the mid-20th century, in an expression of the living history movement in motion. The living history movement is a popular platform for experiencing the past and incorporates those who want to live the past in the present, aka Laura Jane, or relive it on a more occasional basis as re-enactors who relive the past for a moment. There are many examples of the latter at historic sites in Australia, the USA, and the UK.
The Camden photo shoot was an example how a moment in time can truly be part of living history where the photographer captures a glimpse of the past in the present. An example of how the present never really escapes the past.
Located in the upper reaches of the Williams River valley is the sleepy little town of Dungog nestled between the ridges that run through the town centre. A picturesque country setting.
The town is characterised by its wide streets, a legacy from the colonial days when it was necessary to be able to turn around a bullock wagon.
An interesting and colourful collection of Colonial, Edwardian and Interwar buildings dot the town centre that make the commercial precinct of the town.
The blacksmith was one of the key trades in Dungog as it was in most rural settlements in colonial Australia and in the homeland of rural England. Dungog’s 300 dairyfarmers certainly made use of the local smithy.
The motor car made an appearance in the early 20th century and the local blacksmiths turned their hand to car maintenance. The smithy repaired farmer’s wagons and ploughs then moved to look after motor cars.
Some blacksmith’s shops turned into the local garage with a petrol pump on the footpath and service workshop out the back. Dungog has a number of garages and one of these is the Ford dealership and NRMA representative at Davey and Olsen.
The Davey and Olsen garage is found at 160-168 Dowling Street Dungog and is part of the 19th century commercial precinct made up of traditional trades and services along Dowling Street.
The family business acquired the Ford dealership in 1925 and the garage grew to serve the growing number of car owners which was encouraged by the construction of the Chichester Dam (op. 1926).
As the number of dairy farmers in the area declined the pressures of development passed the town by and the local garages and other buildings in the town centre have retained many of their original features.
The morphology of the Dowling Street business precinct is similar to the town of the early 20th century. The streetscape has changed little in over 80 years.
While I was visiting a historical contact at Menangle I was shown a framed photograph of a winning display in the district exhibition at the 1937 Camden Show. The photograph was bordered by the prize winning ribbon from the Camden AH&I Society awarded to the Menangle Agriculture Bureau. The photograph peaked my interest as I was not familiar with the local agricultural bureaux. A search in the archive files at the Camden Historical Society including those the Camden Show Society yielded light on the matter either.
So what happened at the 1937 Camden Show.
The Menangle Agricultural Bureau took out a first prize at the 1937 Camden Show in the district exhibit. The bureau had entered its agricultural display of fruit, vegetables and other produce. The Camden News reported the display was constructed with over 3000 apples. The Menangle Agricultural Bureau won against stiff competition from the Mount Hunter Agricultural Bureau. The only other competitor in that category.
So what is an agricultural bureau? When did they appear in the Camden district?
Agricultural bureaus were established in New South Wales in 1910 as an initiative of the New South Wales Department of Agriculture, according to the State Archives and Records of NSW.
The aims of the agricultural bureaux were to ‘connect with young rural people’. They were ‘to deliver lectures and demonstrations and special instructions to farmers, and to promote fellowship and social networks within rural communities’.
The bureaux appear to be one of a number of organisations that were part of an organised youth movement within the British Empire set up during the Edwardian period.
The State Archives maintains that the stated aims of the agricultural bureau movement fitted the general imperial youth movement of the time. In NSW ‘the main functions of the Bureau were to promote rural and adult education, to organise co-operative group effort to improve facilities, to train people in citizenship, leadership, and community responsibility’.
There was an anxiety amongst the ruling elites of the British Empire about the state of youth and there was a concerted campaign to inculcate the values of thrift, diligence and obedience. During the Edwardian period the youth movement spawned a number of youth organisations including Boy Scouts, Boys Brigade, Girl Guides, and a host of others. These organisations have been seen by some historians like Michael Childs Labour’s Apprentices as agents of patriotism, obedience and social passivity.
The agricultural bureaux were a farmer-controlled self-governing body which could received extension services from the NSW Department of Agriculture. They were apolitical and non-sectarian.
The state government kept firm control of the new organisation through the NSW Department of Agriculture initially provided lectures through the Department’s District Inspectors of Dairying and Agriculture. The state government went further and provided a subsidy to the bureaux members at the rate of 10/- per pound. In addition council members were reimbursed their expenses for attending meetings.
The activities of the early agricultural bureaus on the Camden district seem to indicate that the bureaus were less of a youth organisation and more of an adult farming group and included activities for the entire family.
One of the earliest agricultural bureaus to be established in the Camden area was at Orangeville around 1913.
The Camden News reported in April that members of the bureau were keen to gain all the scientific knowledge to develop their orchards. They had tried explosives in their orchards as a means of improving ‘sub-soiling’, initially under the trees and then next to the trees. The results of the experiment would not be known, it was reported, until the trees started to bare fruit.
In October 1913 the Orangeville Agriculture Bureau organised a picnic. Mr J Halliday organised the festivities for the ‘ladies and children’. There were 70 children present and prizes were organised for a number races and a competition amongst the ladies organised by Mr RH Taylor. The proceedings were livened up by Mr Joseph Dunbar on the gramophone. A tug-of-war was organised between the single and married men. Councillor CG Moore captained the married men and Mr AL Bennett ‘led the bachelors’. The married men won. Both men were candidates in the upcoming Nepean Shire elections. A short political address was given by Mr WG Watson, which was followed by games until sunset. Mr Taylor, the vice-chairman, thanked everyone for coming and stressed the advantages of becoming a member of the bureau.
A women’s extension service was organised within the body. The bureaus organised farmer training courses, while the women’s extension service organised domestic training courses. The agricultural bureaus were affiliated with a range of other rural organisations including the Bush Nursing Associations, The Rural Youth Organisation and a number of farming organisations.
The local agricultural bureaux disappeared after the Second World War, while the organisation carried on at a state level into the 1970s.
The next prominent owner was Sydney banker and philanthropist Thomas Walker acquiring the property from Nichols sons in the 1840s. He commissioned Sydney architect Edmund Blacket to design a large two-storey Victorian mansion called Yaralla house. Walker died in 1886 and left the estate in trust to his only daughter Eadith.
Sydney architect Sir John Sulman was commissioned to extend the house to extend the house in the 1890s. He extended the second floor of the house and designed a number outbuildings including the dairy and stable buildings.
Yaralla House and the grounds are strikingly English-in-style and layout. The Arts and Crafts influenced Sulman buildings are set in idyllic setting of an English estate garden and park.
were sub-divided in 1908, 1912, and 1922, becoming estates of Federation and Californian bungalow homes built for soldiers after World War I.
Yaralla House was the ‘hub of Sydney society’ in the Interwar period, according to the Dictionary of Sydney. Eadith Walker who lived at the house during this period was a famous Sydney philanthopist and held many charity events on the property.
Yaralla House was a convalescent hospital after the Second World War and then fell into dis-repair. Much conservation work has been carried out in recent decades.
The property had many important visitors over the years from royalty to the vice-regal.
A ‘secret’ walking trail
The area has a ‘secret’ walking trail along the Sydney Harbour Foreshore. Well known to locals. Little known to outsiders. The walkway includes the Kokoda Track Memorial Walkway from Rhodes Railway Station to Concord Hospital (800 metres). It is all part of the Concord Foreshore Trail. This walk is described this way on the City of Canada Bay walks website:
This historic and peaceful walk stretches from McIlwaine Park in the Rhodes to Majors Bay Reserve in Concord. The route encircles the mangrove-fringed Brays Bay, Yaralla Bay and Majors Bay on the Parramatta River and goes around the former Thomas Walker Hospital ( a heritage listed building), Concord Repatriation General Hospital and the historically significant Yaralla Estate (one of the oldest estates in Sydney dating back to the 1790’s).
Produce fanciers can indulge the pleasure at the weekly produce markets in Camden and talk to local growers. While you are there you can wander next door and view the volunteer’s garden plots at the community garden.
Both the produce market and community garden are part of the larger town farm complex. The town farm was gifted to Camden Council by Miss Llewella Davies in 1999 on her death at 98 years of age.
The town farm was formerly a dairy farm and has an extensive frontage to the Nepean River. The area is part of the Nepean River floodplain and has rich fertile soils. From time to time the river shows its anger and the whole are is subject to flooding.
A masterplan was developed Camden Council for the town farm in 2007 outlining future directions for the farm.
The stall holders are producers from within the Sydney Basin growing or producing their own products for sale.
The markets are managed by Macarthur Growers Pty Ltd and operate from 7.00am to 12 noon.
The markets have been operating for a number of years. The produce market website states:
Camden Fresh Produce Market evolved from a MACROC (Macarthur Region of Councils) initiative called “Macarthur Agri Tourism Project” which was funded by GROW a NSW government initiative to promote sustainable agriculture in the Macarthur Region. The first market was held in Lower John Street on 3rd of November 2001.
Next door is the Camden Community Garden.
Camden Community Garden
The Camden Community Garden is set on the idyllic Nepean River floodplain within the Camden Town Farm, formerly a dairy farm of the Davies family.
The Camden Council website states about the garden:
Camden Community Garden is a place for gardeners to meet and exchange ideas, bringing together gardeners across a range of ages, abilities and a diverse cultural background.
Volunteers lease plots and grow their own produce for personal consumption.
Each volunteer tends their own plot and is responsible for it. There are around 50 active gardeners.
The community garden is managed by a voluntary committee of members who meet monthly.
There are regular working bees for general maintenance on the 3rd Sunday of each month.
Visitors are welcome to attend if they would like to find out more information.
Yellow gold flows from Flow Beehive for the first time
Yellow golden honey from the Camden Community Garden flows for the first time at the garden when Steve and Justin crack open the Flow Beehive. The bees took 3 years to adopt their new home and 3 months to fill it with honey. Cracking one row yielded over 3 kgs of genuine Camden yellow gold.
Cover photograph: Stall produce at the Camden Produce Market (I Willis, 2018)
Beulah is an historic farm property on Sydney south-west rural-urban fringe. Beulah has a frontage to Sydney’s notorious Appin Road and is an area of Sydney’s ever increasing urban sprawl. The property is caught in a pincer movement between two new land releases at Appin and Mount Gilead. These developments threaten to strangle the life out of Beulah is a vast sea of homogenised suburbia by swallowing up local farmland.
In 2015 NSW Planning Minister Stokes declared that Sydney’s ‘urban sprawl is over’ with the land release for 35,000 new homes at Mount Gilead, Wilton and Menangle Park. On the other hand planning Professor Peter Phibbs, from the University of Sydney, stated that the land release meant that there was ‘urban sprawl plus’.  Needless to say these sentiments are not new and were expressed in the Macarthur region in 1973, meanwhile urban sprawl continues.
Beulah is a heritage gem and possesses stories about local identities and events that add to a sense of place and construction of a local identity. Beulah was purchased by the Sydney Living Museums in 2010 as part of its endangered houses fund project.
The Beulah estate is located on the eastern edge of the clay soils of the Cumberland Plain abutting the Sydney sandstone of the Georges River catchment. The property contains an 1830s stone farm cottage with a number of out-buildings, a stone bridge and 60 hectares of critically endangered woodland.
Beulah’s sense of place is constructed around stories associated with the Campbelltown’s pioneering Hume family best known for Hamilton Hume and his overland journey to the Port Phillip area in 1824-1825 with William Hovell. Hamilton Hume was granted 300 acres at Appin for this work, which he named ‘Brookdale’, and in 1824 the Hume and Hovell expedition to Port Phillip left from this property on the Appin Road north of the village, near where the Hume and Hovell Monument now stands. The Hume Monument was erected in 1924 by the Royal Australian Historical Society to commemorate Hume’s 1824 expedition.
The earliest European occupation of the Beulah site, according to Megan Martin from Sydney Living Museums, were emancipated Irish convict Connor Bland who constructed the farm cottage around 1835-1836.
Boland put the property up for sale in 1836 and called it Summerhill. The Hume family purchased the property in 1846 and then leased it out. In 1884 the property was renamed Beulah and members of the Hume family lived there until 1936 when it was left to the RSPCA while Hume family associates were given occupancy rights and lived in the house until the 1960s.
Ellen Hume and Beulah were featured in “The Australian Home Beautiful” in 1934 in an article by Nora Cooper, photographs by Harold Cazneaux and descriptions of Hume family furniture. The forest which Miss Hume treated as a private sanctuary The Hume Sanctuary received special attention. It was Ellen’s wish that her trees be left to the nation….
The Beulah estate was purchased by developers in the 1970s who anticipated land re-zoning linked with the 1973 New Cities Structure Plan for Campbelltown, Appin and Camden. The state government released the New Cities Plan as part of the 1968 Sydney Region Outline Plan. The plan was based on the utopian dream of British New Towns like Milton Keynes and plans for the development of Canberra.
Some of the new Campbelltown suburbs that appeared in the 1970s followed the Radburn model developed in the United States, which had houses facing a shared green space with no back fences. They turned out to be a disaster and the state government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars reversing these houses so they face the street in suburbs like Macquarie Fields, Minto and Ambarvale.
The original New Cities Plan turned into a developers dream and created the notion of ‘Ugly Campbelltown’ in the Sydney press by the end of the 1970s around public housing . Camden and Appin escaped the worst of the housing releases of the 1970s. Sydney’s urban sprawl reached the Camden LGA in the 1980s at Mount Annan and Currans Hill, while Appin has only seen extensive land releases in recent years. The 1973 Macarthur Growth Centre failed to materialise in its planned form and in the process cannibalised Campbelltown’s main street and left it a shell of its former country town self.
In 1973 the State Planning Authority, according to the State Heritage Inventory, conducted a survey of significant 19th buildings in 1973 and identified Beulah and Humewood as significant. The National Trust of Australia (NSW) did a study on the property and classified it in 1980.
In 1983 Campbelltown City Council proposed an interim conservation order and a permanent conservation order was placed on the 19th century cottage in 1987. The owners were ordered to make repairs to the property in the early 2000s, and the in 2010 the NSW Office of Heritage and Environment acquired the property as part of the state government’s Biodiversity Offset program.
The State Heritage Inventory considers the estate to an important example of early conservation planning that resulted in the retention of an ‘entire cultural landscape’ containing a homestead group, stone bridge and garden layout. Sydney Living Museums have undertaken considerable conservation and restoration work on the farmhouse and the stone bridge on the access road to the farm house.
New land releases around Beulah
Beulah and its heritage curtilage is potentially threatened by Sydney’s urban sprawl with new land releases in 2013 at Appin to the south along the Appin Road, while to the north there is the Mount Gilead land release adjacent to Campbelltown’s southern suburbs. Both of these land releases are a repeat of the 1973 housing releases. They are low density horizontal developments that add to urban sprawl. They are problematic and fail to add to the existing identity of the area and take decades to develop their own sense of place.
The urban sprawl that is encroaching on Beulah from the south is part of the NSW State Governments 2013 The Metropolitan Strategy for Sydney to 2031. A structure plan developed for the Appin area states that there will 18,300 housing lots release over a 25 year period from around 17,000 hectares. Walker Corporation stated that there is a strong demand for new housing releases in the Appin area and in 2013 26 lots were sold within 2 days of the June land release. There low density houses were similar to in nature to the planned housing developments of 1973 that failed to eventuate.
On the northern approaches to Beulah are the Mount Gilead land releases on a property formerly owned by Lady Dorothy Macarthur Onslow who died in 2013. Mount Gilead is proposed to have 1700 housing lots from 210 hectares which Campbelltown City Council endorsed in 2012. The property contains the historic tower-mill believed the last one in New South Wales along with a homestead, stone stable, and granary dating from the early 19th century.
Appin Road a deadly lifeline
The issue of urban sprawl is complicated by the inadequate road access. Beulah and the Appin and Mount Gilead land releases all front the Appin Road one of Sydney’s most dangerous stretches of road. A major unresolved issue in the area around Beulah and land releases at Appin and Mount Gilead is the upgrading of the Appin Road.
The Sydney Morning Herald stated in early 2016 that the Appin Road was Sydney’s deadliest road. Between 2015 and 2000 23 people were killed on the Appin Road with the latest fatality in January 2016. While the state government has plans for road improvements this will take a number of years meanwhile there is increased traffic generated by new land releases and general population growth of the Campbelltown area.
The Appin Road has always been an important access route between the Illawarra and the Campbelltown area. Before the South Coast railway was extended to Wollongong in 1887 the Appin Road was used as the main access route to the Main Southern Railway at Campbelltown, which opened in 1858. There was a daily coaching service running between Campbelltown Railway Station and Wollongong. There is still is daily coach service between Campbelltown and the Illawarra via Appin, although tese days it mainly caters to university students.
The poor state of the Appin Road is just one of the issues created by Sydney’s urban sprawl. Other issues include fire risks, urban runoff and food security, public transport, waste, water supply, loss of prime farm land, community facilities, pollution, energy, social cohesion, and equity challenges. Beulah is part of story of the Sydney’s rural urban fringe which has been a landscape of hope and loss for new arrivals and local alike. It will be interesting to see the part this important heritage asset plays in this narrative and how the construction of sense will effect new residents surrounding it.
In 2019 Sydney historian Stephen Gapps has written about the defensive structures in buildings in the Appin area including Beulah. These buildings were part of the colonial frontier of New South Wales where there were violent clashes between Europeans and Indigenous people. There is evidence that rifle slits and gun loops were were of the colonial architecture at Beulah and the Vines near Appin.
Alan Gilpin, An Inquiry pursuant to Section 41 of the Heritage Act 1977 into objections to the making of a permanent conservation order in respect of the buildings and site known as “Beulah”, Appin Road, Appin. Sydney : Office of the Commissioners of Inquiry for Environment and Planning, 1987.