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Hope, heritage and a sense of place – an English village in the Cowpastures

Camden Heritage Conservation Area

In 2006 Camden Council designated the Camden town centre as a  Heritage Conservation Area, and later incorporated it in the  2010 Local Environment Plan. A heritage conservation zoning, according to Camden Council, is :

 an area that has historic significance… [and]… in which historical origins and relationships between the various elements create a sense of place that is worth keeping.

Map Camden Town Centre HCA LEP 2010 CRAG
Map of the Camden Town Centre Heritage Conservation Area from 2010 Local Environment Plan. (Taken from 2016 Camden Residents Action Group Submission for State Listing)

 

Historic significance

Several writers have offered observations on Camden’s historical significance.

Historian Ken Cable argued in the 2004 Draft Heritage Report prepared by Sydney Architects Tropman and Tropman that: Camden town is a significant landmark in the LGA.  

In 2006 Sydney architect Hector Abrahams stated that Camden was ‘the best-preserved rural town in the entire Cumberland Plain’ (Camden Advertiser, 28 June 2006).

Hector Abrahams -best preserved- Camden Advertiser 2006 Jun28
Comment by architect Hector Abrahams that Camden was the best preserved country town rural town in the Cumberland Plain. Camden Advertiser 28 June 2006.

 

Historian Alan Atkinson has argued that Camden is ‘a profoundly important place’, while historian Grace Karskins maintains that ‘Camden is an astonishingly intact survival of early colonial Australia’.  

 

Sense of place

In the early 20th century poets, artists and writers waxed lyrical that the town was like ‘a little England’.

Camden Council documents stress the importance of rural nature of the town for the community’s sense of place and community identity.

Camden Aerial 1940 CIPP
An aerial view of Camden township in 1940 taken by a plane that took off at Camden airfield. St John’s Church is at the centre of the image (Camden Images)

 

This is quite a diverse range of views.

This blog post will look at the historical elements that have contributed to the town’s sense of place, and ultimately its historical significance.

While none of these elements is new, this is the first time they have been presented this way.

 

A private venture of Englishmen James and William Macarthur

The village was a private development of Englishmen James and William Macarthur on the family property of Camden Park Estate.

The Macarthur brothers had their private-venture village of Camden approved in 1835, the street plan drawn up (1836) and the first sale of land in 1841.  All within the limits of Camden Park Estate.

The Macarthur brothers had another private venture village at Taralga on Richlands and Menangle on Camden Park Estate.

Camden James Macarthur Belgenny
James Macarthur (Belgenny Farm)

Creation of a little English village

The notion of an English-style village on the family estate must have been an enticing possibility for the Macarthur brothers.

In the Camden village, James and William Macarthur named streets after themselves and their supporters. They include John Street, Macarthur Road, Elizabeth Street, Edward Street, Broughton Street, Exeter Street, Oxley Street, Mitchell Street. The Macarthur family and funded the construction of St John’s church on the hill and donated the surrounding curtilage.

St Johns Church
St Johns Church Camden around 1900 (Camden Images)

The Macarthur brothers created vistas from the family’s Georgian hilltop Georgian mansion across the Cowpastures countryside to their Gothic-style village church.

The Englishness of the Camden village entranced many visitors and locals, including artists and writers. On a visit in 1927, the Duchess of York claimed that the area was ‘like England.’

 

Strategic river crossing into the Cowpastures

The village was strategically located at the Nepean River ford where the first Europeans crossed the river. By the 1820s the river crossing was the main entry point to Macarthur brothers’ Camden Park Estate, the largest gentry property in the area.

The situation of the village on the Great South Road re-enforced the Macarthur brothers economic and social authority over the countryside.

The river crossing was one of the two northern entry points to their realm of Camden Park Estate, the other being at the Menangle.  Menangle later became another private estate village.

The Macarthur village of Camden would secure the northern entry to the family’s Camden Park estate where the Great South Road entered their property. By 1826 the river ford was the site of the first toll bridge in the area.

Camden Cowpastures Bridge 1842 Thomas Woore R.N. of Harrington Park CIPP
Camden Cowpastures Bridge 1842 Thomas Woore R.N. of Harrington Park CIPP

 

None of this was new as the river crossing had been the entry into the Cowpastures reserve declared by Governor King in 1803. The site was marked by the police hut in the government reserve at the end of the Cowpasture track from Prospect.

 

English place names, an act of dispossession

The Camden village was part of the British imperial practice of placing English names on the landscape. The name of the village is English as is the gentry estate within which it was located – Camden Park.

English place names were used in the area from 1796 when Governor Hunter names the site the Cow Pastures Plain. The Cowpastures was a common grazing land near a village.

Naming is a political act of possession, or dispossession, and is an active part of settler colonialism.

Camden Signage
The Camden sign on the entry to the town centre at Kirkham Reserve on Camden Valley Way formerly The Great South Road and Hume Highway. (I Willis)

 

The Cowpastures was a meeting ground in between the  Dharawal, the Dharug and the Gundungurra people. The area was variously known as ‘Baragil’ (Baragal)’ or Benkennie (dry land).

Indigenous names were generally suppressed by English placenames until recent decades.

Initially, the Wild Cattle of the Cowpastures that escaped from the Sydney colony in 1788 occupied the meadows of the Nepean River floodplain.

The Cowpastures became a contested site on the colonial frontier.

 

Dispossession in the English meadows of the Cowpastures

The foundation of the Macarthur private village venture was part of the British colonial settler project.

The first Europeans were driven by Britain’s imperial ambitions and the settler-colonial project and could see the economic possibilities of the countryside.

Under the aims of the colonial settler project, as outlined by Patrick Wolfe and later LeFevre, the new Europeans sought to replace the original population of the colonised territory with a new group of settlers.

Hunter’s naming of the Cowpastures was the first act of expropriation. Further dispossession occurred with the government reserve, and later Governor Macquarie created the government village of Cawdor in the centre of the Cowpastures.

Art Governor Macquarie SLNSW
Governor Macquarie SLNSW

 

The Europeans seized territory by grant and purchase and imposed more English place names in the countryside, and created a landscape that mirrored the familiarity of England.

The colonial settlers brought Enlightenment notions of progress in their search for some kind of utopia.

 

Cowpasture patriarchs

The Macarthur private venture village was located in a landscape of self-style English gentry, and their estates interspersed with several small villages.

The gentry estates and their homestead and farm complex were English style village communities. One of the earliest was Denbigh (1818).

denbigh-2015-iwillis
Denbigh Homestead Open Day 2015 IWillis

 

The oligarch-in-chief was Camden Park’s John Macarthur.

The Europeans used forced labour to impose English scientific farming methods on the country.

The Cowpasture colonial elite created a bunyip aristocracy and styled themselves on the English gentry.

On the left bank of the Nepean River were the gentry estates of Camden Park along with Brownlow Hill. On the right bank were the gentry properties of Macquarie Grove, Elderslie, Kirkham and Denbigh and several smallholders.

The ideal society for the colonial gentry included village communities. To foster their view of the world, the Europeans created the small village of Cobbitty around the Hassall family’s private Heber Chapel.

The village of Stonequarry was growing at the southern limits of the Cowpastures at the creek crossing on the Great South Road.  The village was located on the Antil’s Jarvisfield and later renamed Picton in the 1840s.

The picturesque Cowpastures countryside greeted the newly arrived Englishmen John Hawdon from County Durham. In 1828 Hawdon became the first person to put in writing that the Cowpastures area reminded him of the English countryside when he wrote a letter home.

 

The progress and development of the country town

The Enlightenment view of progress influenced the Macarthur’s vision for their Camden village. They sought to create an ideal village community of yeoman farmers and sponsored self-improvement community organisation including the School of Arts.

Camden School of Arts PReeves c1800s CIPP
Camden School of Arts PReeves c1800s CIPP

 

Within the Macarthur fiefdom, former estate workers became townsmen, took up civic duties and ran successful businesses.

The village of Camden prospered, became a thriving market town and the economic hub of a growing district.

The architectural styles of the town centre shine a light on the progress and development of the Macarthur village. The architectural forms include  Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian, Interwar moderne, Mid-20th century modern, and Post-modern.

The town centre served a host of functions for the community that are indicated by the types of land use in a country town. These include commercial, government, open space, industrial, transport, residential, religious, agricultural, amongst others.

 

The country town idyll and the appearance of heritage

Since the 1973 New Cities Structure Plan for Appin, Campbelltown and Camden there has been increased interest in the cultural heritage of the town centre. This is the first appearance of the influence of post-modernism in the Camden story.

The New Cities Plan 1973[1]
The New Cities Structure Plan Campbelltown Camden Airds 1973
John Wrigley conducted the first heritage study of the Camden town centre in 1985 for the Camden Historical Society.

Urban growth and the loss of rural countryside has encouraged a nostalgic desire for the past. This process had led to the evolution of the Camden, the country town idyll.

The heritage of the town centre is what the community values from the past that exists in the present. It is made up of tangible and intangible heritage, as well as multi-layered and multi-dimensional. The town centre story can is a timeline with many side shoots or a tree with the main stem and many branches.

 

Camden time traveller and the town centre

The living history of the town centre is evident at every turn. At every corner. A visitor can be a time-traveller into the past. A view along the main street is a view into the past.

There are many locations in our local area where a person can be a time-traveller into the past. The traveller can be a participant in the area’s living history, ‘simply by being present’.

One of these sites is the commanding view from the hilltop at St John’s church. Here the traveller can view the Cowpasture countryside that nestles the Camden town centre within its grasp.

Cover  Pictorial History Camden District Ian Willis 2015
Front Cover of Ian Willis’s Pictorial History of Camden and District (Kingsclear, 2015)
Aesthetics · Agriculture · Attachment to place · Australia · Australian Historic Themes · Belonging · Camden · Camden Town Farm · Colonial Camden · community identity · Cowpastures · Cultural Heritage · Cultural icon · Dairying · Dharawal · Economy · Education · Farming · Heritage · Historical consciousness · Historical Research · Historical thinking · history · Landscape · Landscape aesthetics · Leisure · Lifestyle · Living History · Local History · Local Studies · Macarthur · Nepean River · Place making · Recreation · Ruralism · sense of place · Settler colonialism · Storytelling · Tourism

A walk in the meadows of the past

Walkway at the Camden Town Farm

I was recently walking across the Nepean River floodplain past meadows of swaying waist-high grass on a local walkway that brought to mind the 1805 description of the Cowpastures by Governor King. Atkinson writes

The first Europeans looked about with pleasure at the luxuriant grass that covered both the flats and the low hills. The flats seemed best for cattle…the trees were sparse.

The trees were certainly sparse on my walk, yet the cattle in the adjacent paddock proved the fulfillment of the observations of the early Europeans.

Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway Cattle 2020 IW lowres
Black cattle graze on the waist-high grass just as the wild cattle of the Cowpastures did over 200 years ago. Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway (2020 IW)

 

The cattle I saw were polled hornless black cattle which were markedly different from the horned-South African cattle which made the Nepean River floodplain their home in 1788 after they escaped from Bennelong Point in Sydney Town. They became the wild cattle of the Cowpastures.

The beauty of the landscape hints at the management skills of the original inhabitants the area -the Dharawal – who understood this country well.

This is the landscape that characterises the recently opened Miss Lewella Davies Memorial Walkway which weaves its way across the Nepean River flats on the western side of Camden’s township historic town centre.

Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway Pond fog 2020 IW lowres
The aesthetics of the Nepean River floodplain caught the attention of the early Europeans in a landscape managed by the local Dharawal people for hundreds of years. Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway Pond (2020 IW)

 

Layers of meaning within the landscape

Walking the ground is an important way for a historian to empathise the subtleties of the landscape and the layers of meaning that are buried within it.

The walkway is located in the original Cowpastures named Governor Hunter in 1796, which was then declared a government reserve in 1803 by Governor King. Just like an English reserved King banned any unauthorised entry south of the Nepean River to stop poaching of the wild cattle. Just like the ‘keep out’ signs in the cattle paddocks today.

According to Peter Mylrea, the area of the town farm was purchased by colonial pioneer John Macarthur after the government Cowpasture Reserve was closed and sold off in 1825. It is easy to see why John Macarthur wanted this part of the country for his farming outpost of Camden Park, centred at Elizabeth Farm at Parramatta.

Although this does not excuse European invaders displacing and dispossessing the Indigenous Dharawal people from their country.  Englishman and colonial identity John Oxley and John Macarthur were part of the colonial settler society which, according to LeFevre, sought to replace the original population of the colonized territory with a new society of settlers.

Today all this country is part of the Camden Town Farm, which includes the walkway.

Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway Nepean River Rest Stop 2020 IW lowres
A rest stop on the walkway adjacent to the Nepean River. Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway Nepean River (2020 IW)

 

Llewella Davies – a colourful local character

Llewella Davies was a larger than life colourful Camden character and a truly notable Camden identity. On her death in 2000 her estate bequeathed 55 acres of her family’s dairy farm fronting Exeter Street to the Camden Council. Llewella wanted the site was to be used as a functional model farm for educational purposes or passive recreational use.

Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway Information Sign 2020 IW lowres
An information sign at the beginning of the walkway explains the interesting aspects of the life of Miss Llewella Davies. Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway (2020 IW)

 

The Davies dairy farm

The Davies family purchased their farm of 130 acres in 1908. They appeared not to have farmed the land and leased 20 acres on the corner of Exeter and Macquarie Grove Road to Camden Chinese market gardener Tong Hing and others for dairying.

Llewella was the youngest of two children to Evan and Mary Davies. She lived all her life in the family house called Nant Gwylan on Exeter Street, opposite the farm. Her father died in 1945, and Llewella inherited the house and farm on her mother’s death in 1960.

The house Nant Gwylan was surrounded by Camden High School which was established in 1956 on a sporting reserve. Llewella steadfastly refused to sell-out to the Department of Education for an extension to the high school despite being approached on several occasions.

Llewella, who never married, was born in 1901 and educated at Sydney Church of England Girls’ Grammar School (SCEGGS) in Darlinghurst. The school educated young women in a progressive liberal curriculum that included the classics, scientific subjects as well as female accomplishments.

Llewella undertook paid work at the Camden News office for many years and volunteered for numerous community organisations including the Red Cross, and the Camden Historical Society. In 1981 she was awarded the Order of Australia medal (OAM) for community service.

 

The Camden Town Farm

In 2007 Camden Council appointed a Community Management Committee to examine the options for the farm site that Llewella Davies had gifted to the Camden community. The 2007 Camden Town Farm Masterplan outlined the vision for the farm:

The farm will be developed and maintained primarily for agricultural, tourism and educational purposes. It was to be operated and managed in a sustainable manner that retains its unique character and encourages and facilitates community access, participation and visitation.

Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway Shoesmith Yards 2020 IW lowres
The walkway has several historic sites and relics from the Davies farm. Here are the Shoesmith Cattle yards… Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway (2020 IW)

 

The masterplan stated the farm was ‘ideally place to integrate itself with the broader township’ and the existing Camden RSL Community Memorial Walkway that had been established in 2006.

It is against this background that the Camden Town Farm management committee moved forward with the development of a walkway in 2016.

The Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway

The walkway was constructed jointly by Camden Council and the Town Farm Management Committee through the New South Wales Government’s Metropolitan Greenspace Program. The program is administered by the Office of Strategic Lands with funding for the program comes from the Sydney Region Development Fund and aims to improve the regional open space in Sydney and the Central Coast. It has been running since 1990.

Camden Mayor Theresa Fedeli opened the walkway on 17th August 2019 to an enthusiastic crowd of locals. The walkway is approximately 2.4 kilometres and it has been estimated that by January 2020 around 1000 people per week are using it.

Invite for Miss Llewella Davies Walkway 2019Aug17

 

The walkway is part of Camden’s Living History where visitors and locals can see, experience and understand what a farm looks like, what it smells like and its size and extent. Located on Sydney’s urban fringe it is a constant reminder of the Indigenous Dharawal people and the area’s farming heritage of grazing, cropping, and dairying

If the walker is patient and perceptive the path reveals the layers of the past, some of which have been silenced for many years.

Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway Walkers 2020 IW lowres
Some enthusiastic walkers on the path getting in some exercise on the 2.4 km long track. Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway (2020 IW)

 

Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway Highlights   (on map)

  1. Chinese wishing wells
  2. Seismic monitoring station
  3. Views of Nepean River
  4. Views to Macquarie House
  5. Shoesmith livestock yard.
  6. Heritage precinct
Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway Seismic Instruments 2020 IW lowres
The seismic station is adjacent to the walkway path on the Nepean River floodplain. Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway (2020 IW)

 

 Additional highlights

  1. Nepean River floodplain
  2. Dam
  3. Camden Community Garden
  4. Camden Fresh Produce Markets
  5. Worker’s cottage
  6. Onslow Park and Camden Showground
  7. Bicentennial Equestrian Park
  8. Camden Town Centre Heritage Conservation Area
  9. Camden RSL Community Memorial Walkway
Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway Warning Do Not Sign 2020 IW lowres
There are information signs at the beginning and the end of the walkway. This one highlights the warnings and the things that walkers and visitors are not allowed to do. Camden Town Farm Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway (2020 IW)

 

The value of the walkway

  1. Tourism
  2. Education
  3. Memorial
  4. Commemoration
  5. Fitness and wellbeing
  6. Ecological
  7. Sustainability
  8. Working farm
  9. Living history
  10. Community events and functions
  11. Commercial business – farmers markets
  12. Aesthetics and moral imperative
  13. Storytelling
  14. Community wellness
  15. Food security

 

Camden Town Farm Walkway Signage No Dogs2 2020 lowres

Australian Historic Themes

The Miss Llewella Davies Pioneers Walkway fits the Australian Historic Themes on several levels and the themes are:

  1. Tracing the natural evolution of Australia,
  2. Peopling Australia
  3. Developing local, regional and national economies
  4. Building settlements, towns, and cities
  5. Working
  6. Educating
  7. Governing
  8. Developing Australia’s cultural life
  9. Marking the phases of life

 

Updated 17 April 2020; Originally posted 14 April 2020