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.
Such a pretty tree-lined streetscape, full of old-world charm. I’ve often stood at that green paddock next to the church, with its views across the valley… locals are up in arms as online rumours swirl about moves by the church to sell the land…Right next to Camden’s most famous heritage landmark, an 1840s gem described by one government website as “a major edifice in the history of Australian architecture”.
Cr Banasik said this development opposed the shire’s ethos of rural living. The heritage of the area is amazing – there is Camden Park, Gilbulla, Menangle Store and the rotolactor site,” he said. This development just ain’t rural living.
Journalist Kayla Osborne reported the views of town planning consultant Graham Pascoe on heritage and the Vella family’s new commercial horticulture venture at Elderslie in the Camden Narellan Advertiser in May.
Mr Pascoe said the heritage nature of the site and its proximity to Camden had been well-considered by the Vella family…the land was ideal for farm use…the land has been farmed in the past…We believe we will provide a model…farm at the entrance to the Camden town centre.
The views on heritage expressed in these stories do not actually define heritage.
There is an assumption or a presumption that the reader understands the intended meaning of the word heritage in each of these contexts.
So what was the intended meaning of the word heritage in each of these articles?
To answer that question another must be asked: What is Camden’s heritage?
What is heritage?
The term heritage is not that straight forward. There are a range of definitions and interpretations. The term is not well understood and can raise more issues than it addresses. Jana Vytrhlik, Manager, Education and Visitor Services, Powerhouse Museum (Teaching Heritage, 2010) agrees and says:
To start with it is a useful exercise to say what heritage is not. Heritage is not history. Historian David Lowenthal says that
Heritage should not be confused with history. History seeks to convince by truth… Heritage exaggerates and omits, candidly invents and frankly forgets, and thrives on ignorance and error… Prejudiced pride in the past… is its essential aim. Heritage attests our identity and affirms our worth.
The word ‘history’ comes from the Latin word ‘historia’, which means ‘inquiry’, or ‘knowledge gained by investigation’.
History tells the stories of the past about people, places and events. History is about what has changed and what has stayed the same. History provides the context for those people, places and events.
History is about understanding, analysing and interpreting the past based on evidence. As new evidence is produced there is a re-examination and re-interpreting of the past. History is about understanding the why about the past.
Meaning of heritage
The meaning of heritage is not fixed and historian Graeme Davison maintains that the history of the word heritage has changed over the decades.
Initially heritage referred to what was handed down from one generation to the next and could include property, traditions, celebrations, commemorations, myths and stories, and memories. These were linked to familial and kinship groups, particularly in traditional societies, through folkways and folklore.
In the 19th century the creation of the nation-state, capitalism and modernism led to the creation of national myths, national stories and national heritage.
ln the 1970s, the new usage was officially recognised. A UNESCO Committee for the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage adopted the term ‘heritage’ as a shorthand for both the ‘built and natural remnants of the past’.
(in Davison, G. & McConville C. (eds) ‘A Heritage Handbook’, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards NSW,1991)
Heritage can be categorized in a binary fashion: cultural heritage/natural heritage; tangible heritage/intangible heritage; my heritage/your heritage; my heritage/our heritage.
What is significant about Camden’s heritage?
In 2016 the Camden Resident Action Group attempted to have the Camden town centre listed on the state heritage register. The group obtained statements of support which outlined the significance Camden’s heritage. Statements of support were from Dr Ian Willis (UOW), Associate Professor Grace Karskens (UNSW) and Emeritus Professor Alan Atkinson.
The wonderful Victorian colonial building that was once the Whiteman’s General Store has had a new lease of life through the Burra Charter principle of adaptive re-use. There are has been a continuous retail shopping presence on the same site for over 135 years.
While the building has also had new work and restoration it is a good example of how a building can be adaptively re-used for commercial activities without destroying the integrity of the buildings historic character and charm.
Adaptive re-use maintains the historic character of the streetscape and the sense of place that is so important to community identity, resilience and sustainability.
Adaptive re-use is not new and has been going on for a long time. In Europe buildings that are hundreds of years old continual go through the process of re-use century after century.
The Tower of London – a building with an amazing history of adaptive re-use
The Tower of London has been re-used over the centuries since the White Tower was constructed by William the Conqueror in 1066 as a fortress and gateway to the city.
Over the centuries the Tower of London complex has been a royal residence, military storehouse, a prison, place of royal execution, parliament, treasury, a menagerie, the home of the Royal Mint, a public record office, storage of crown jewels, royal armoury, regimental headquarters, and most recently a centre of tourism.
Adaptive re-use in Australia
In Australia adaptive re-use of historic buildings comes under the Burra Charter which defines the principles and procedures followed in the conservation in Australian heritage places.
The Burra Charter has been adopted by heritage authorities across Australia – Heritage Council of NSW (2004).
Adaptive re-use is covered by Article 21 of the Burra Charter and states:
Article 21. Adaptation 21.1 Adaptation is acceptable only where the adaptation has minimal impact on the cultural significance of the place. 21.2 Adaptation should involve minimal change to significant fabric, achieved only after considering alternatives.
The explanatory notes says:
Adaptation may involve additions to the place, the introduction of new services, or a new use, or changes to safeguard the place. Adaptation of a place for a new use is often referred to as ‘adaptive re-use’ and should be consistent with Article 7.2.
In Irish planning, a conservation ensemble is known as an Architectural Conservation Area (ACA). ACA status provides statutory protection to existing building stock and urban features, and applies strict design and materials standards to new developments. Protections prohibit works with negative impacts on the character of buildings, monuments, urban design features, open spaces and views.
Seasoned building materials are not even available in today’s world. Close-grained, first-growth lumber is naturally stronger and more rich looking than today’s timbers. Does vinyl siding have the sustainability of old brick?
The process of adaptive reuse is inherently green. The construction materials are already produced and transported onto the site.
Architecture is history. Architecture is memory.
[Craven, Jackie. “Adaptive Reuse – How to Give Old Buildings New Life.” ThoughtCo, May. 22, 2018, thoughtco.com/adaptive-reuse-repurposing-old-buildings-178242]
Whiteman commercial building
The Whiteman family conducted a general store in Argyle Street on the same site for over 100 years.
In 1878 CT (Charles Thomas) Whiteman, who operated a family business in Sydney, brought produce to Camden. He purchased a single storey home at the corner of Argyle and Oxley Street and ran his store from the site. (SHI) In 1878 a fire destroyed the business.
CT Whiteman was previously a storekeeper in Goulburn and Newtown and later married local Camden girl Anne Bensley in 1872. Whiteman, was a staunch Methodist, and was an important public figure in Camden and served as the town’s first mayor from 1892 to 1894.
CT Whiteman moved to premises in Argyle Street in 1889 occupied by ironmonger J Burret. Whiteman modified the building for a shopfront conversion. (SHI) The store was later leased to the Woodhill family from 1903 to 1906.
From 1889 to 1940 the building was known as the Cumberland Stores. The store supplied groceries, drapery, men’s wear, boots and shoes, farm machinery, hardware, produce and stationery. (Gibson, 1940)
The original Argyle Street building was an early timber verandahed Victorian period store.
The building was a two-storey rendered masonry building with hipped tile roof, projecting brick chimneys. The second storey had painted timber framed windows which were shaded by a steeply pitched tile roof awning supported on painted timber brackets.(SHI)
A two-storey addition was constructed in 1936 and the verandah posts were removed in 1939 when this policy was implemented by Camden Municipal Council.
There were later shopfront modifications to the adjacent mid-20th century façade street-frontage which included wide aluminium framed glazing and awning to the ground level of the building. (SHI)
The Whiteman’s General Store sold a variety of goods and became one of the longest-running retail businesses in Camden.
The Whiteman’s Store was trading as Argyle Living when it closed in 2006 under the control of Fred Whiteman. On the store’s closure the Whiteman family had operated on the same site in Camden for 123 years.
On the closure of Argyle Living the store sold homewares, clothing, furniture and a range of knickknacks and was the largest retail outlet in Camden with 1200 square metres of space.
Current usage of the Whiteman’s commercial building
After 2007 the building was converted, through adaptive re-use, to an arcade with several retail outlets and professional rooms on the ground floor, with a restaurant and other businesses upstairs.
The building has largely retained its integrity, and its historic character and delight in the town’s business centre.
The Whiteman’s commercial building adds to the mid-20th century streetscape that still largely characterises the Camden town centre and attracts hordes of day-trippers to the area.
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).
A 2010 meeting of Camden Council on Sydney’s southern outskirts voted five to four to demolish a simple 1890 Federation farm cottage known as Carinya at Harrington Park. The owner, Nepean Pastoral Company, wants to develop a 97-residential lot subdivision on the farm site.
The decision illustrates a wider malaise that has enveloped heritage in this state — a worrying trend that is seeing our past disappear.
Demolition of Carinya
Camden Council’s decision to approve Carinya’s demolition was based on reports written by heritage consultants, Urbis. Urbis stated that, while the cottage was intact and in reasonable condition, it was not of local significance. In their view Federation cottages, while rare in the Narellan area, are not rare in the Camden local government area (LGA). Secondly, Carinya has little associative value with the Cross and Paxton families who lived there.
Many people do agree with these conclusions. In the past Carinya has been overlooked in heritage surveys of the Camden LGA and had not been included on any local lists of historic houses. While not a reason for demolition, it is a contributing factor.
Even more damming, ”heritage listing at the local level does not provide much protection at all”, wrote Graeme Aplin, from Macquarie University, in Australian Quarterly (May-June 2009).
”What we have witnessed over the last five years is the systematic dismantling of heritage protection,” stated Sylvia Hale, Greens spokeswoman on planning (”Heritage at risk”, National Trust Magazine, February-April 2010).
More than this the imminent loss of Carinya reflects wider problems in heritage affairs across New South Wales. There is a blatant disregard of the importance of simple cottages of historic value especially at a local level. They represent the lives of ordinary folk. Simple salt of the earth people who struggled to make a living from the soil.
The story of Carinya fits within the Australian Historic Themes identified by the Australian Government (Australian Heritage Commission 2001). These are common national standards for idenfication and conservation of heritage places. Yet this does not qualify Carinya for recognition of local significance.
Even examples of Australia’s important early colonial houses on Sydney’s urban fringe, which are of national significance, such as like Oran Park House and Maryland suffer from indecision and dithering by the authorities.
Conflict of interest in heritage
There is a real, or at least a perceived, conflict of interest for some by heritage consultants in the assessment process. Consultants are a gun for hire. There needs to be a separation of roles in the assessment process of historic houses. The judgment concerning the assessment of significance should be conducted by an independent third party. Heritage consultants should not be judge, jury and hangman. There is a need for due diligence.
The assessment process needs the expertise of professional historians to examine the appropriate historical evidence. There were no historians engaged in the assessment process of Carinya. Urbis has largely relied on a cursory examination of documents at the local library and museum.
Council planning and development officers are under incredible pressure to meet timely decisions for development applications. This particularly applies in the Camden LGA, which is a designated growth area for Sydney.
Council officers and their elected councilors rely on reports written by heritage consultants. Officers and councilors may have had little or no specific training assessing heritage significance, local or otherwise. They are not experts in history and heritage.
One of the casualties in the assessment process is the thorough and considered assessment of historic houses.
Loss of interest in heritage
The current political climate in NSW is not conducive to the protection of historic houses. Heritage is not a high priority. Crowded Sydney and a shortfall in housing stock are political priorities. For this read new estates on the urban fringe, like the approved Carinya farm subdivision.
The developers of Carinya farm housing estate are selling a dream that is just that, a dream. The new estates create a bland homogenised suburban streetscape with little charm or character.
The Carinya farm sub-division is part of Sydney’s urbanisation. An octopus that devours all in its path — including ethical standards, community identity, sense of place and apparently local heritage and history.
The destruction of simple charming 19th century cottages is unnecessary. There is a demand from house buyers who want to live in historic cottages. These buyers restore the cottages to their former glory.
What have we come to in the new century? We have certainly not come to appreciate our past, our inheritance.
Young visitors to the Camden Museum love the model of the HMS Sirius, in the ground floor display area. HMS Sirius was the flagship of the First Fleet in 1788 under its commanding officer Captain John Hunter. He was later promoted to NSW Governor and in 1795 he visited the local area in search of the wild cattle and named the area the Cow Pastures Plains.
One of the key roles of GLAM sector organisations is to allow their visitors to learn things, in both formal (aka classroom) and informal settings. For the visitor this can come in a vast array of experiences, contexts and situations.
The Macarthur region has a number of galleries, museums and libraries. They are mostly small organisations, some with paid staff, others volunteer-run.
Local council galleries and libraries have the advantage of paid staff. The Alan Baker Art Gallery is located in the Camden historic town house Macaria. At Campbelltown there is the innovative Campbelltown Arts Centre and its futuristic styling.
The local council libraries and their collections fulfil a number of roles and provide a range of services to their communities.
On a larger scale the state government-run historic Belgenny Farm is Australia’s oldest intact set of colonial farm buildings in the Cowpastures established by John and Elizabeth Macarthur. A number of other colonial properties are also available for inspection.
Doing more with less
Doing more with less is the mantra of volunteer-run organisations. They all have collections of objects, artefacts, archives, paintings, books and other things. Collections of knowledge.
Collections are generally static and a bit stiff. There is a distance between the visitor and the collection. Visitor immersion in these knowledge collections is generally through storytelling of one sort or another.
The more dynamic the immersion the more memorable the visitor experience. An immersive experience will be informative, exciting and enjoyable.
This is certainly the aim of school visits. Teachers aim to immerse their school students in these collections in a variety of ways through storytelling. Hopefully making the student visit educational, memorable and enjoyable.
The learning framework
Local schools connect with local stories through the New South Wales History K-10 Syllabus. A rather formal bureaucratic beast with complex concepts and contexts. Local schools vary in their approach to the units of work within the syllabus.
Mrs Pesic said, ‘The students visit was integral in engaging the students and directing them to an area of interest’.
The school teachers posed a number of Key Inquiry Questions throughout the unit of work. The museum visit, according to Mrs Pesic, was the final part of the unit that started with a broad study of Sydney and narrowed to Camden. The students then had a ‘project’ to complete back at school.
Mrs Pesic reported that the teachers felt that they ‘had achieved the outcomes that they had set for their museum visit’.
Another local school Stage 2 group recently visited the museum, the gallery and had a walk around the Camden town centre. They too addressed the same unit of work from the History Syllabus.
Storytelling – the past in the present
The integration of local studies and inquiry-based learning by school students calls for imagination and creativity. What results is an opportunity to tell the Camden story through a narrative that gives a perspective on the past in the present.
There have been generations of story tellers in the Cowpastures and Camden district since the Dreamtime. Young people can have meaningful engagement with these folk through local GLAM organisations, ‘that cannot always be obtained in the classroom’, says Mrs Pesic.
The cows and more. So what do they offer?
All this activity takes place in the former Cowpastures named by Governor Hunter in 1795. This country was formerly Benkennie of the Dharawal people. The Cowpastures is one of Australia’s most important colonial sites.
Under European dispossession the Cowpastures became part of the Macarthur family’s Camden Park Estate from which the family carved out the private township of Camden with streets named after its founders – Macarthur, Elizabeth, John, Edward.
The Camden district (1840-1973) tells stories of hope and loss around farming and mining in the hamlets and villages across the region. New arrivals hoped for new beginnings in a settler society while the loss of the Burragorang Valley, the Camden Railway and a landscape aesthetic created sorrow for some.
The Macarthur region (1973 +) named after the famous family and the infamous Macarthur growth centre. The area is on Sydney’s rural-urban fringe and made up of Camden, Campbelltown and Wollondilly Local Government Areas.
The more things change the more they stay the same
The Cowpastures and Camden districts, now the Macarthur region, are some of the fastest changing landscapes in Australia. There is a need by the community to understand how the past created the present and today’s urban growth.
There is a need for creative and innovative solutions and ways to deliver the Camden and Macarthur stories. These are only limited by our imagination.
Victorian librarian with attitude or a ghostly presence in the Camden Museum.
Who is the ghostly presence in the archive room at the Camden Museum.? Is it the ghostly presence of some Victorian matron who used to roam the site? Is it the ghost of some former Camden librarian who has come back in a different life?
The lady in question displays a certain attitude towards the visitors that is a bit disconcerting. She looks over your shoulder while you are busy reading some newspaper from a bygone time.
The lady makes you feel guilty that you have not contacted your long lost aunt in months. Maybe she just touches your guilt complex.
The images of the lady were taken by museum volunteer Anne who has an eye for a moving photo or two after a society meeting recently. She has made the hairs stand up on the neck of quite a few people recently.
The Camden Museum is full of objects with lots of stories to tell. An object will speak to you if take the time and patient to unlock the story of its last owner.
Where did it come from? Who owned it? What is their story? What was the object used for? When was it used? Where was it used? Who used it?
What events surround the object? What is the story linked to those events? Who attended the events?
Objects are full of stories. The stories are often hidden in plain view. You just need the patience to unlock the story.
What is the story of our lady? Where did she come from? Who is she? Why is she dressed this way? What does all this mean? What are the memories of people linked to her?
Recently I was told by a local person interested in local history that they only wanted the facts. Everything else is just fake news. What does that mean? What is a fact?
That question is simple enough.
Well is it?
Some will say the facts are in the newspaper. Well are they?
The newspaper is a second hand account of an event and the people who were at that event. The story is written by a journalist.
The journalist writes from their notes or their memories. How fixed are these details? Not as permanent as some would like.
So what are the facts? How accurate is the newspaper story.? Only as accurate as the writer remembers.
How accurate is the list of people at the event? Only as accurate as the writer recalls. How accurate is the story of the event, what happened and in what order? Only as accurate as the writer remembers or as good as their notes. Does the writer have any biases? Yes. What are they? Lots and they affect how the journalist writes the story.
What did the writer leave out of the story? Was the newspaper story a full, accurate and fair account of the event? How do we know 100 years after the event? We do not know and the facts are not as fixed in concrete as some would think.
So the local person I spoke to who only wanted the facts really did not understand what they were dealing with. Their facts are not as fixed as they thought they were.
At any public event everyone who attends is a witness to the proceedings. If you talk to 10 people from the event the following day they will give you 10 different versions.
So what were the facts? The facts will be the things that everyone agrees on. Maybe.
Try it sometime at your next family get together. Ask different family members to recall the event. They will all have a different version.
So what is the truth? What are the facts? Are they all telling lies? Did they all forget what you remembered? Is your version the only correct version? Is your version the truth?
Are you the only one who can remembers the facts? Or is it that your version is just one version of the truth? Or is it that your version is just one version of the facts?
So is everyone telling lies? Is everyone just making it up? Does everyone just forget all the facts according to you?
Is everything else just fake news.
So what is the truth? Not so easy to answer that one.
Everyone was there and they all witnessed the same thing.
Is everyone is telling the truth?
There are lots of versions of the truth. There are just lots of versions.
Everyone saw the event through different eyes. They all have a different story of the event.
All versions are correct. They are all correct. There is no wrong version. They are different interpretations of the same event.
But they all cannot be correct. As my local history contact told me he only wanted the facts. Everything else is just fake news.
There are lots of truths. There are lots of different views of the world. There is no black or white answer. Only shades of grey.
People like life to be simple. People like things to be right or wrong.
Life is not like that. There are all sorts of nuances to things. There is no one truth. There are lots of truths.
The lady at the museum. Who is she? What is her story? What is her history? Lots of interesting questions. So what is the truth?
Come and find out for yourself.
Find some of the truths of the Camden area by visiting the Camden Museum.