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A field of dreams, the Camden district, 1840-1973

It is hard to imagine now but in days gone by the township of Camden was the centre of a large district. The Camden district   became the centre of people’s daily lives for well over a century and the basis of their sense of place and community identity.

 

The Camden district was a concept created by the links between peoples’ social, economic and cultural lives across the area. All joined together by a shared cultural identity and cultural heritage based on common traditions, commemorations, celebrations and rituals. These were re-enforced by personal contact and family kinship networks. The geographers would call this a functional region.

 

Map Camden District 1939[2]
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)

The Camden district ran from the Main Southern Railway around the estate village of Menangle into the gorges of the Burragorang Valley in the west. The southern boundary was the Razorback Ridge and in the north it faded out at Bringelly and Leppington.

 

The district grew to about 1200 square kilometre with a population of more than 5000 by the 1930s with farming and mining.  Farming started out with cereal cropping and sheep, which by the end of the 19th century had turned to dairying and mixed farming. Silver mining started in the late 1890s in the Burragorang Valley and coalmining from the 1930s.

 

burragorang-valley Sydney Water
Burragorang Valley (Sydneywater)

 

The district was centred on Camden and there were a number of villages including Cobbitty, Narellan, The Oaks, Oakdale, Yerranderie, Mt Hunter, Orangeville and Bringelly.  The region was made up of four local government areas – Camden Municipal Council, Wollondilly Shire Council, the southern end of Nepean Shire and the south-western edge of Campbelltown Municipality.

 

Cows and more

Before the Camden district was even an idea the area was the home for ancient Aboriginal culture based on dreamtime stories. The land of the Dharawal, Gundangara and the Dharug.

 

The Europeans turned up in their sailing ships. They brought new technologies, new ideas and new ways of doing things. The First Fleet cows did not think much of their new home in Sydney. They escaped and found heaven on the Indigenous managed pastures of the Nepean River floodplain.

 

1932_SMH_CowpastureCattle_map
Map of Cowpastures SMH 13 August 1932

 

On the discovery of the cows an inquisitive Governor Hunter visited the area and called it the Cow Pasture Plains. The Europeans seized the territory, allocated land grants for themselves and displaced the Indigenous occupants.  They created a new land in their own vision of the world.  A countryside made up of large pseudo-English-style-estates, an English-style common called The Cowpasture Reserve and English government men to work it called convicts. The foundations of the Camden district were set.

 

A river

The Nepean River was at the centre of the Cowpastures and the gatekeeper for the wild cattle.  The Nepean River, which has Aboriginal name of Yandha, was named by Governor Arthur Phillip in 1789 in honour of Evan Nepean, a British politician.

 

The Nepean River rises in the ancient sandstone country west of the Illawarra Escarpment and Mittagong Range around Robertson. The shallow V-shaped valleys were ideal locations for the dams of the Upper Nepean Scheme that were built on the tributaries to the Nepean, the Cordeaux, Avon, and Cataract.

 

Nepean River Cowpastures

 

The rivers catchment drains in a northerly direction and cuts through deep gorges in the  Douglas Park area. It then emerges out of sandstone country and onto the floodplain around the village of Menangle. The river continues in a northerly direction downstream  to Camden then Cobbitty before re-entering sandstone gorge country around Bents Basin, west of Bringelly.

 

The river floodplain and the surrounding hills provided ideal conditions for the woodland of ironbarks, grey box, wattles and a groundcover of native grasses and herbs.  The woodland ecology loved the clays of Wianamatta shales that are generally away from the floodplain.

 

The ever changing mood of the river has shaped the local landscape.  People forget that the river could be an angry raging flooded torrent, set on a destructive course. Flooding shaped the settlement pattern in the eastern part of the district.

 

Camden Airfield 1943 Flood Macquarie Grove168 [2]
The RAAF Base Camden was located on the Nepean River floodplain. One of the hazards was flooding as shown here in 1943. The town of Camden is shown on the far side of the flooded river. (Camden Museum)

A village is born

The river ford at the Nepean River crossing provided the location of the new village of Camden established by the Macarthur brothers, James and William. They planned the settlement on their estate of Camden Park in the 1830s and sold the first township lots in 1840. The village became the transport node for the district and developed into the main commercial and financial centre in the area.

 

Camden St Johns Vista from Mac Pk 1910 Postcard Camden Images
Vista of St Johns Church from the Nepean River Floodplain 1910 Postcard (Camden Images)

 

Rural activity was concentrated on the new village of Camden. There were weekly livestock auctions, the annual agricultural show and the provision of a wide range of services. The town was the centre of law enforcement, health, education, communications and other services.

 

The community voluntary sector started under the direction of mentor James Macarthur. His family also determined the moral tone of the village by sponsoring local churches and endowing the villagers with parkland.

 

Camden Mac Park
Camden’s Macarthur Park endowed to the residents of Camden by Sibella Macarthur Onslow in the early 20th century (I Willis, 2016)

 

Manufacturing had a presence with a milk factory, a timber mill and a tweed mill in Edward Street that burnt down.   Bakers and general merchants had customers as far away as the  Burragorang Valley, Picton and Leppington and the town was the publishing centre for weekly newspapers.

 

Macarthur Bridge View from Nepean River Floodplain 2015 IWillis
Macarthur Bridge View from Nepean River Floodplain 2015 IWillis

 

The Hume Highway, formerly the Great South Road, ran through the town from the 1920s and brought the outside forces of modernism, consumerism, motoring, movies and the new-fangled-flying machines at the airfield.  This re-enforced the centrality of the market town as the commercial capital of the district.

 

Burragorang Valley

In the western extremities of the district there were the rugged mountains that made up the picturesque Burragorang Valley. Its deep gorges carried the Coxes, Wollondilly and Warragamba Rivers.

 

Burragorang Valley Nattai Wollondilly River 1910 WHP
The majestic cliffs and Gothic beauty of the Burragorang Valley on the edges of the Wollondilly River in 1910 (WHP)

 

 

Access was always difficult from the time that the Europeans discovered its majestic beauty. The Jump Up at Nattai was infamous from the time of Macquarie’s visit in 1815.  The valley became an economic driver of the district supplying silver and coal that was hidden the dark recesses of the gorges. The Gothic landscape attracted tourists to sup the valley’s hypnotic beauty who stayed in one of the many guesthouses.

 

Burragorang V BVHouse 1920s TOHS
Guesthouses were very popular with tourists to the Burragorang Valley before the valley was flooded after the construction of Warragamba Dam. Here showing Burragorang Valley House in the 1920s (The Oaks Historical Society)

 

 

The outside world was linked to the valley through the Camden railhead and the daily Camden mail coach from the 1890s. Later replaced by a mail car and bus.

 

Romancing the landscape

The district landscape was romanticised over the decades by writers, artists, poets and others. The area’s Englishness  was first recognised in the 1820s.   The district was branded as a ‘Little England’ most famously during the 1927 visit of the Duchess of York when she compared the area to her home.

 

The valley was popular with writers. In the 1950s one old timer, an original Burragoranger, Claude N Lee wrote about the valley in ‘An Old-Timer at Burragorang Look-out’. He wrote:

Yes. this is a good lookout. mate,

What memories it recalls …

For all those miles of water.

Sure he doesn’t care a damn;

He sees the same old valley still,

Through eyes now moist and dim

The lovely fertile valley

That, for years, was home to him.

 

 

Camden John St (1)
St Johns Church at the top of John Street overlooking the village of Camden around 1895 C Kerry (Camden Images)

 

By the 1980s the Sydney urban octopus had started to strangle the country town and some yearned for the old days. They created a  country town idyll.  In 2007 local singer song-writer Jessie Fairweather penned  ‘Still My Country Home’. She wrote:

When I wake up,

I find myself at ease,

As I walk outside I hear the birds,

They’re singing in the trees.

Any then maybe

Just another day

But to me I can’t have it any other way,

Cause no matter when I roam

I know that Camden’s still my country home.

 

 

The end of a district and the birth of a region

The seeds of the destruction of the Camden district were laid as early as the 1940s with the decision to flood the valley with the construction of the Warragamba Dam. The Camden railhead was closed in the early 1960s and the Hume Highway moved out of the town centre in the early 1970s.

 

Macarthur regional tourist guide
Macarthur Regional Tourist Promotion by Camden and Campbelltown Councils

 

A new regionalism was born in the late 1940s with the creation of the  federal electorate of  Macarthur, then strengthened by a new regional weekly newspaper, The Macarthur Advertiser, in the 1950s.   The government sponsored and ill-fated Macarthur Growth Centre of the early 1970s aided regional growth and heralded the arrival of Sydney’s rural-urban fringe.

 

Today Macarthur regionalism is entrenched with government and  business branding in a area defined as by the Camden, Campbelltown and Wollondilly Local Government Areas.  The Camden district has become a distant memory with remnants dotting the landscape and reminding us of the past.

 

CoverBook[2]
Front Cover of Ian Willis’s Pictorial History of Camden and District (Kingsclear, 2015)
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Camden · Carrington Hospital · Cobbitty · Colonial Camden · Colonialism · Farming · Floods · history · Local History · Place making · Railway

Camden: Sydney’s best preserved country town

Dunk House, Argyle Street, Camden c.1937 (I Willis 2013)
Dunk House, Argyle Street, Camden c.1937 (I Willis 2013)

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.

Carrington Convalescent Hospital c1890s Camden Images
Carrington Convalescent Hospital c1890s Camden Images

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.

A free booklet can be obtained from Oxley Cottage (c1890), the Camden Visitor Information Centre, which is located on Camden Valley Way on the northern approaches to Camden. Oxley Cottage is a farmer’s cottage built on land that was granted to John Oxley in 1816.

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.

Stuckey Bros Building Bakers Argyle Street Camden c1941 (I Willis 2012)
Stuckey Bros Building Bakers Argyle Street Camden c1941 (I Willis 2012)

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.

Camden Library Museum in John Street Camden 2016 (I Willis)
Camden Library Museum in John Street Camden 2016 (I Willis)

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.

A 1915 view of Commercial Banking Co building at corner of Argyle and John Street Camden
A 1915 view of Commercial Banking Co building at corner of Argyle and John Street Camden (Camden Images)

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.

Pansy Nepean River Bridge 1900 Postcard Camden Images
Pansy Nepean River Bridge 1900 Postcard Camden Images

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.

Camden Airfield 1930s Camden Images
Camden Airfield 1930s Camden Images

The visitor can then relive the days when RAAF airmen (32 Squadron, 1943) flew out of the base chasing Japanese submarines on the South Coast, or when the RAF (1944) occupied the still existing hangers and runways flying transport missions to the South Pacific.

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.

View along Cobbitty Road in 1928
View along Cobbitty Road in 1928 (Camden Images)

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.

Previously published on Heritage Tourism at Camden: The best preserved country town on the Cumberland Plain NSW

Front Cover of Ian Willis's Pictorial History of Camden and District (Kingsclear, 2015)
Front Cover of Ian Willis’s Pictorial History of Camden and District (Kingsclear, 2015)
The last day of the Camden Campbelltown train running in 1963. Keen fans watching the train climb Kenny Hill at Campbelltown. (ARHS)
Rear Cover Ian Willis’s Pictorial History of Camden & District. The last day of the Camden Campbelltown train running in 1963. Keen fans watching the train climb Kenny Hill at Campbelltown. (ARHS)
Camden · Elderslie · Floods · Heritage · Local History · Macarthur · Transport · Uncategorized

Macarthur Bridge

Macarthur Bridge View from Nepean River Floodplain 2015 IWillis
Macarthur Bridge View from Nepean River Floodplain 2015 IWillis

One of the most important pieces of economic and social infrastructure in the Macarthur area is the Macarthur Bridge. The bridge is also one of the most significant pieces of engineering heritage in the Camden Local Government Area. The bridge provides a high-level flood free crossing of the Nepean River which can isolate the township of Camden when the numerous low-level bridges in the area are flooded – the Cowpasture Bridge (Camden), the Cobbitty Bridge and the Menangle Bridge.

History and Description

The Macarthur Bridge is named after one of the Camden district’s first land grantees John Macarthur and their pastoral holding of Camden Park, which the family still occupy. There are many descendants of the Macarthur family in the Camden district.

The naming of the bridge also co-incided with the establishment of the Macarthur Growth Centre at Campbelltown  by the Askin Liberal Government in 1973 and support from the new Whitlam Federal Government for the Macarthur Growth Region. These were originally part of the 1968 Sydney Region Outline Plan from which the 1973 New Cities Structure Plan for Campbeltown, Camden and Appin appeared. These were exciting plans that were developed at the time with the provision of extensive infrastructure across the new growth centre. Some of the infrastructure eventuated and many parts did not. The New Cities Plan turned into a developers dream and hastened Sydney’s urban sprawl into the southern reaches of the Cumberland Plan. The Macarthur Region is one of those legacies.

The New Cities Plan 1973
The New Cities Plan 1973

The Macarthur bridge guaranteed flood free access from the Burragorang Coalfields to the Main Southern Railway at Glenlee for American shipping magnate Daniel Ludwig’s Clutha Development Corporation.. This was particularly important given the defeat of the Askin Liberal Governments support for a proposal by Clutha for a rail link between the Burragorang Coalfields and the Illawarra coastline. The Askin government passed special enabling legislation and the issue turned into one of the first environmental disputes in the Sydney basin in the early 1970s.

The high level Macarthur Bridge allowed the diversion of coal trucks from the Burragorang Valley coalfields  away from Camden’s main street passing across the low-level Cowpasture Bridge from 1973. Coal trucks then travelled along Druitt Lane and over the Macarthur Bridge to the Glenlee Washery at Spring Farm.

The flooding by the Nepean River of the road access to the township of Camden at the low-level Cowpasture Bridge has been a perennial problem since the town’s foundation in 1840.

Cowpasture Nepean River Road Rail Bridge 1900 Postcard Camden Images
Cowpasture Nepean River Road Rail Bridge 1900 Postcard Camden Images

In 2002 the NSW Minister for Transport replied to a question from Dr Elizabeth Kernohan, Member for Camden, about the bridge. The Minister stated

I am advised that Macarthur Bridge was built in the early 1970’s on the basis that most of the long distance traffic would use the F5. I am advised that the primary function of the Macarthur Bridge was for use as a flood relief route. It was built parallel to the Cowpasture Bridge at Camden to take the full traffic load when the Cowpasture Bridge is impassable.

I am advised by the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) that the bridge referred to was not specifically designed to be widened at a later date. (NSW Parliament, 8 May 2002)

Specifications

The Macarthur Bridge has a 26-span, 3380 feet (approximately 1.12 km) long concrete structure that carries the Camden Bypass across the Nepean River and its flood plain. The bridge was built between 1971 and 1973, originally to carry Hume Highway traffic, on a flood-free alignment around Camden.

The Camden Bypass

The Camden Bypass is the former Hume Highway alignment between the localities of Cross Roads and Camden. It is marked as State Route 89. The proper route is from Cross Roads, skirting Camden via the Camden Bypass and ending at Remembrance Drive, another part of the former Hume Highway near Camden South.

The  Camden Bypass was in turn bypassed in December 1980 when the section of what was then called the South Western Freeway (route F5) from Campbelltown to Yerrinbool was opened. It has grown in importance as a major arterial road linking the Hume Motorway, WestLink M7 and M5 South Western Motorway interchange at Prestons, near Liverpool, with Camden.

Macarthur Bridge Approaches 2015 1Willis
Macarthur Bridge Northern Approaches from Camden Bypass 2015 1Willis

Open to traffic and construction details  

The official plaque on the bridge states:

Macarthur Bridge.

The bridge was designed by the staff of the Department of Main Roads and is the longest structure built by the Department since its inception in 1925. Length (Overall) 3380 feet comprising 26 spans each of 130 feet long. Width between kerbs 30 feet with one footway 5 feet wide. Piled foundations (max 90 feet deep) were constructed by the Department’s Bridge construction organisation. Piers and superstructure by contact by John Holland (Constructions) Pty Ltd. Total cost of bridge £2,600,000.

RJS Thomas Commissioner for Main Roads

AF Schmids Assistant Commissioner for Main Roads

GV Fawkner Engineer-in-Chief

FC Cook Engineer (Bridges)

Department of Main Roads, New South Wales

Open to traffic on 26 March 1973

 Read More

State Route 89 on Ozroads Website Click here

State Route 12 on Paul Rands Website Click here

Camden · Colonial Camden · community identity · Convicts · Cowpastures · Edwardian · Elderslie · Farming · First World War · Floods · Heritage · Historical consciousness · Historical Research · history · Interwar · Local History · Macarthur · Modernism · Place making · Red Cross · Second World War · sense of place · Settler colonialism · Urban growth · Volunteering · war

Pictorial History of Camden and District

Front Cover
Front Cover This image was taken by Charles Kerry a Sydney photographer c. 1890 in John Street looking towards St Johns Church on the hill. Kerry toured NSW taking photographs of country towns. (Camden Museum/John Kerry)

Sydney publisher Kingsclear Books recently released a new title about the Camden area. It was called Pictorial History Camden and District, written by local author Ian Willis. This is one of one of series of pictorial histories produced by Catherine Warne of Kingsclear Books over the last 32 years.

The history of the area is told in pictures and text. The images are another way to look into the past. They are a snapshot of a moment in time. They are full of meaning on a number of levels and provide a different perspective than just text. Pictorial histories satisfy a curiosity about local history and the way places and things change over time.

The book has the honour of a number of firsts. The book is the first time a complete of the local history of the Camden area has been attempted by any author. The book is the first time a collection of images like this has been put together on the local area.

Back Cover
Back Cover shows Pansy’s last run from Campbelltown to Camden in 1963. Hundreds of passengers were let off the train on Maryfields to walk up to the top of Kenny Hill and record Pansy’s last assault of the 1 in 19 grade. (Australian Railway Historical Society)

The images are primarily taken from the collection of the Camden Museum which is managed by the Camden Historical Society. Other images are drawn from the Camden Library, The Oaks Historical Society, State Library of NSW, Royal Australian Historical Society, National Library, Australian Railway Historical Society and elsewhere. A host of people assisted with the publication and they are listed in the acknowledgements.

The book has been received well locally and has met a need and a thirst by the community for a collection and story of the past of this type. The publisher has had trouble keeping up with sales during the run-up to Christmas and there is still strong demand. Congratulations of been coming in from a variety of quarters. The author have been told stories of a number of people walking away from sales outlets with up to five copies of the book.

The text of the Camden story starts with the First Australians then moves on the Cowpastures, the establishment of local villages and gentry properties, particularly the Macarthurs and Camden Park. The description follows the founding of Camden from estate village to market town, and the dairy revolution of the 1890s then into the 20th century when the story was rudely interrupted by the First World War. Modernism catches up with district in the Interwar period which is book ended with the Second World War. In the post war era coal is king, and the country town is eventually over-run by Sydney’s urban growth. All the while there has been the constancy of the river and its moods, particularly regularly its flooding.

The books is available from a number of local outlets including the Camden Museum.The good folk at the Camden Museum will supply a copy by post $24.95 plus $7 handling and postage. Contact the Camden Historical Society: secretary@camdenhistory.org.au or contact the publisher.

Camden · Cawdor · Cowpastures · Farming · Floods · Uncategorized

The Perkins family album of Cawdor

Harold Perkins father on horse drawn rake at Cawdor
A 1917 view of Harold Perkin’s father on horse drawn rake at Cawdor. Horses were commonly used on farms throughout the Camden District until after the Second World War. The growing of hay for stock feed was one of the more popular crops grown on local farms. It was sold on the Sydney market to stables to feed horses that were used around the city for deliveries and other activities. In this image the grass is cut and being raked into rows to dry. It will then be bailed up for sale or made into a haystack on the Perkin’s dairy farm, which would be used later as stock feed.
A 1917 view of horse drawn plough on Perkins dairy farm at Cawdor
A 1917 view of horse drawn plough on Perkins dairy farm at Cawdor

Harold E Perkins was a smallholder dairy farmer at Cawdor living on the family farm of Verdundale.  One of his pastimes was photography.
The family photograph album was donated to the Camden Historical Society by Eliza Adelia Pearl Perkins (nee Starr) who lived at Cawdor and later in Ettlesdale Road Elderslie.
The images range across the years from 1915 to 1928 and illustrate the many aspects of the daily life of the farmers in the Cawdor area. There are also images of parts of life in Camden with flooding of the Nepean River and other disruptions to the daily routine.
The images are full of life and a snapshot of the past. They evoke emotions that contemporary images fall to arouse.

Flood on Nepean River at Camden next to milk factory looking to Elderslie along Argyle Street
Flood on Nepean River at Camden in 1925 with view to Elderslie along Argyle Street outside milk factory
View along Cobbitty Road in 1928
View along Cobbitty Road in 1928

 

A 1926 view of Cawdor Creamery with deliveries of milk from local dairy farms
A 1926 view of Cawdor Creamery with deliveries of milk from local dairy farms

 

A 1915 view of Commercial Banking Co building at corner of Argyle and John Street Camden
A 1915 view of Commercial Banking Co building at corner of Argyle and John Street Camden with Anderson drinking fountain in front.

To view more of these images go to Camden Images.

Aesthetics · Attachment to place · British colonialism · Camden · Cobbitty · Colonial Camden · community identity · Cowpastures · Cultural Heritage · Cultural icon · Entertainment · Floods · Heritage · Historical consciousness · history · Landscape aesthetics · Leisure · Local History · Macarthur · Memory · Menangle · myths · Nepean River · Place making · Ruralism · Second World War · sense of place · Settler colonialism · Sydney's rural-urban fringe · Town planning · Urban growth · Urban Planning · urban sprawl · war · War at home · Water

Nepean River, more than a water view

The Nepean River is one of the most important waterways in the Sydney basin and has particular significance for Sydney’s southwestern rural-urban fringe.

Nepean River near Cobbitty 1900 (Camden Images)
Nepean River near Cobbitty 1900 (Camden Images)

 

The Nepean River catchment extends south and east of the Sydney Basin to take in areas near Robertson and Goulburn.

West of Wollongong the tributaries includng Cataract Creek, Avon River, Cordeaux River that flow north-west and then into the deep gorges of Pheasants Nest and Douglas Park.

The river opens up into a floodplain and flows past  Menangle and crosses the Cowpastures and southern Cumberland Plain past Camden and Cobbitty.

The river then flows north through the gorge adjacent to Wallacia  and enters Bents Basin before it is joined by the Warragamba River and changes its name to the Hawkesbury River.

The Nepean River is economically important to the Sydney Basin and is used for mining, irrigation, recreation and other activities. It is ecologically significant to the area and has a number of rare and endangered species of plants.

Cultural importance

The river  has an important meaning in terms of its intangible cultural heritage to the local landscape. The river and its surroundings had special meaning to the Indigenous Dharawal people of the Cowpastures area.

The river defines the landscape and the construction of place in the localities along the river including Menangle, Camden, and Cobbitty.

One locality of special significance is Little Sandy at Camden.

Little Sandy

Little Sandy on the Nepean River at Camden has been a popular spot with local Europeans for many decades for swimming, picnicking, boating and fishing. It is rich in the memories of local folk played out their childhoods, experienced the pangs of  youth and enjoyed time with their families.

Little Sandy has been an important part of Camden cultural heritage for generations. It is a locality with a strong sense of place and identity with people’s memories.

The site has layers of meaning that can be peeled back and reveal a landscape of diverse dimensions. Its story has meaning across the generations.

The site and the pondage was created on the Nepean River with the construction of the Camden Weir in 1907. It is a culturally created landscape.

Today thousands of local residents enjoy the same rituals at Little Sandy on their jaunts along the Nepean River bike path with the friends and family.

Little Sandy with footbridge across the Nepean River at Camden c.1950. Diving board in foreground. (Camden Images)
Little Sandy with footbridge across the Nepean River at Camden c.1950. Diving board in foreground. (Camden Images)

 

Swimming carnivals

Nepean River swimming carnival 1917 Little Sandy (Camden Images)
Nepean River swimming carnival 1917 Little Sandy (Camden Images)

 

In the early 20th century Little Sandy was a favourite swimming spot. In the 1920s the Camden Swimming Club built galvanised iron dressing sheds painted green in an area now known at Kings Bush Reserve.

Swimming became one of Elderslie’s earliest organised sporting activities, after the Nepean River was dammed in 1907 with the construction of the Camden Weir.

Water backed up behind the weir for four kilometres through the Elderslie area, and provided relatively deep water suitable for swimming.

The Camden Aquatic Sports carnival was organised in 1909 and attracted over 1000 spectators, and was the location of the Camden Swimming Club in the 1920s.

The area was divided into Big Sandy, which was a deep hole, near Kings Bush Reserve. About 100 metres upstream was Little Sandy where the water was shallower. Learn to swim classes where held for a short time and Boy Scouts would go swimming there, according to Milton Ray.

Len English says

“In the 1950s the area was used for swimming by pupils from Camden Public School’,  ‘The girls went with the female teachers to Little Sandy, while the male teachers and boys went downstream to Camden Weir.’

Olive McAleer says

‘Little Sandy was a popular spot for family picnics between the 1920s and 1940s’.

The river stopped being a swimming spot when it was condemned because of pollution by medical authorities in the early 1960s. It was replaced by Camden Memorial Swimming Pool in 1964. (P Mylrea, ‘Swimming in the Nepean River at Camden’, Camden History, March 2006)

Learn more @ Ian Willis, ‘Elderslie’, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008

 

Footbridge built 1943

Little Sandy footbridge over Nepean River at Camden in 1943 (Camden Images)
Little Sandy footbridge over Nepean River at Camden in 1943 (Camden Images)

 

In  1943 military authorities from the Narellan Military Camp were anxious to undertake a practical training exercise for engineers. In September they sought the view of Camden Municipal Council on erecting a footbridge and the council immediately agreed with the proposal.

The council  covered the cost of some of the timber so that the bridge remained the property of council. The  Australian Military Forces Engineers supplied the labour, supervision, transport vehicles and operators for the transport of stores and construction material.

The site at the bottom Chellaston Street connected two reserves on either side of the Nepean River. One on the Chellaston Street side and the other at River Road Elderslie.

In late September 1943 40 troops started building a wooden footbridge 120 feet long and 4 feet wide. Construction took around four weeks and was finished by 28 October.

Observers commented on a

‘fine piece of workmanship…that would be much appreciated’ by the local community.

(Camden News, 16 September 1943, 23 September 1943, 28 October 1943).

Nepean River 1900

Nepean River near Cowpasture Bridge 1900
Nepean River below Cowpasture Bridge 1900 (Camden Images/CA Poole)

 

This image of the Nepean River is taken in the vicinity of  the Camden Weir. It gives an indication of the degraded state of the river around 1900. There is evidence of  sedimentation and streambank erosion caused by hard-hoofed animals trampling river banks.

These issues were typical of Australia’s inland waterways in the late 19th century after extensive clearing of the catchments for forestry, farming and other activities.

Sue Rosen quotes from James Atkinson’s 1826  An Account of the State of Agriculture and Grazing in New South Wales  in her book on the environmental history of the Nepean River

Atkinson states that even by the mid-1820s the river banks were undermined and collapsing into the stream. There were deposits of sand in the river channel and clearing practices had caused increased run-off,  accelerated the degradation of the river channel and increased obstruction in the river bed. All evident in the 1900  photograph of the river channel at Camden.

Atkinson felt that the original European settlers had failed to ‘improve’ the land for farming and that its farming potential had been compromised. The settlers had in Atkinson’s terms failed to fulfil the original objectives of opening up the land and favoured, according to Rosen, ‘the cultivation of a landscape reminiscent of British romantic pastoral scenes’.

The earliest reports of the Nepean River date from 1795. David Collins wrote about his impression after a wet spring in his An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales (London, 1798). These impressions have been quoted in Alan Atkinson’s Camden where it states there were

large ponds, covered with ducks and the black swan, the margins of which were fringed with shrubs of the most delightful tints.

After a dry spell the river at Menangle was  reported by George Caley in his ‘Report of a Journey to the Cowpastures’ (1804, ML) to be ‘reduced to a small compass’ and the water having ‘the foul appearance of a pond in a farmyard’.

Learn more  

Sue Rosen Losing Ground An Environmental History of the Hawkesbury-Nepean Catchment, Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1995.

Alan Atkinson, Camden, Farm and Village Life in Early New South Wales, Melbourne, OUP, 1988.

 Camden Weir 1907

Camden Weir 1917
Picturesque scene at the Camden Weir on the Nepean River c.1917 (Camden Images)

 

The Camden Weir pondage created an aesthetic water feature that runs through the Camden township and took in the Little Sandy. The aesthetic has moral, experiential, spiritual and well-being aspects to it.

The Camden Weir was constructed by New South Wales Public Works Department after the completion of the Cataract Dam from 1907.

The compensation weir was one of number constructed along the Nepean River to safeguard the ‘riparian rights’ of landowners affected by the interruption of flow to the river, according to John Wrigley.

A riparian right is the ability to take water from the river. The water supply dams of the Upper Nepean  Scheme reduced the flow of the tributaries of the Nepean River, and the weirs were to ‘compensate’ for the loss of water flow.

The other weirs near Camden were at Menangle, Bergins, Thurns, Camden Sharpes and Cobbitty. The weirs were eventually transferred to the management to the Metropolitan Water Sewerage and Drainage Board as part of the Sydney Water Supply systerm.

Learn more @ John Wrigley,’ Nepean River Weirs’, The District Reporter 3 August 2001

 

Water has a calming effect on the mind and takes the mind to a quiet, tranquil and peaceful place.

Some say it has the ability to dim our internal chatter and calm some people.

Water provides a degree of serenity and the purifying effect it can have on the soul. Water can have a soothing meditative effect on some people.

People need to re-charge and re-vitalise in the tranquility of the environment provided by the tranquility and serenity of the pool provided by the weir.

For others, a visually pleasant water feature can also be a source of healing and relaxing in a man-mad environment.

Those that went swimming at Little Sandy had an experiential relationship the water. Water is used to nourish and replenish man after exertion.

Swimming carnivals were a time of community celebration and strengthening community resilience.

The pondage at Little Sandy also has a scientific value for the marine ecosystem it supports. It supports a range of life from eels, to perch, birds, reptiles and other life.

The Little Sandy pondage creates a pleasant water feature that circles the township. The beauty of the scene with the trees along the water’s edge framing the quiet of the pond.

People doing simple tasks like fishing, picnicking, walking and re-engaging with nature on the water’s edge.    The surface of the water is a mirror that reflects the images of the trees and bushes on the water’s edge.

At dawn on a cold frosty morning the vapours of steam rise of the water’s surface as the walkers feet crackle under the frozen grass on the water’s edge.  There is a splash as a kingfisher dives into the water after a fish, that breaks the silence of the space.

The world disappears momentarily as you sit on the water’s edge taking in the serine quiet surroundings of the pond.

A new footbridge

Little Sandy Footbridge after completion of work 2014 (I Willis)
Little Sandy Footbridge after completion of work 2014 (I Willis)

 

The Little Sandy footbridge was officially opened on 4 May 2014 with another community event.

The weather gods were kind, and while there was a cool breeze and an overcast start the sun came out and the crowd turned up with families of mums and dads and the kids.

Camden Council organised a family fun day in Chellaston Reserve where there were stalls, a free train ride along the bike track and information stands.

The day opened at 11.00am and wound up in the afternoon at 3.00pm. Camden Rotary provided a sausage sizzle which sold out early in the day.

An information stand was provided by Camden Historical Society which was staffed by volunteers John and Julie Wrigley, Bob Lester and Rene Rem, while others turned up later.

This was another community event that has been typical of the popularity of the site for the Camden community.

 Pre-cast concrete

The new pre-cast concrete 43 metre footbridge at Little Sandy on the Nepean River was completed in April 2014. Camden Council let contracts for the completion of  a new footbridge in September 2013.

The new structure replaced a wooden footbridge that was damaged in the a flood in 2012. The new footbridge was jointly funded by council and the state government.

The finished footbridge is part of the Nepean River cycleway that joins Camden with Elderslie, South Camden and Narellan. Local resident Kevin Browne stated in  2012 (Camden Narellan Advertiser 31 July) that:

the bridge was part of the unique attraction of living in a rural area [and] the availability of serene, natural beauty.

After the 2012 damage to the footbridge and its closure local residents started to campaign for its replacement.

This culminated in  a community meeting in the mayor’s office in August 2013 when 19 local residents attended an information session with the mayor, the Member for Camden,  and the council’s general manager and engineering staff.

The original footbridge was constructed in 1943 as a military training exercise by the AMF Engineering Corps stationed at Narellan Military Camp.

Camden Council agreed to fund the cost of the materials while the engineers provided the labour (40 men), supervision and vehicles. The original footbridge was 120 feet long and 4 feet wide.

Learn more @ The District Reporter 17 August 2012.

 

Kings Bush

King’s Bush is the reserve adjacent the river’s edge at Little Sandy and  is named after Cecil J King, the rector of St John’s Church between 1893 and 1927.

According to John Wrigley, King kept his horse in the paddock next to the river and swam at the same spot in the river.

Reverend King was a keen sports fan and played for the Camden Cricket Club and was the teams wicket keeper for a number of years. In 1927 he was the patron of the Camden Golf Club  and president of the Union and St John’s tennis club.

King was ordained at St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney in 1887 by the Bishop Barry of the Sydney Archdiocese. (Camden Advertiser 2 June 1949)

Learn more  @ John Wrigley, Place Names on the Camden Area, Camden, CHS, 2005.

 

Chellaston Street

Chellaston Street ends at the Nepean River in Chellaston Reserve in the vicinity of Little Sandy. Chellaston was a single storey brick residence at 38 Menangle Road built by Camden builder John Peat and used as his family home.

Chellaston Street was part of land releases on the south side of the township in the 1920s. There were a number of land releases in the area during the Inter-war period including Victory Ave and Gilbulla Ave that run off Menangle Road.

Learn more  @ John Wrigley, Place Names on the Camden Area, Camden, CHS, 2005.

 

Learn more

Many people have fond memories of Little Sandy at Camden
The Nepean River at Little Sandy is part of the Cumberland Woodland 
Not far from Little Sandy there are stands of the rare Elderslie Banksia Scrub
Read about the Camden White Gum which can be found on the banks of the Nepean River at Little Sandy