The Camden story is a collection of tales, memories, recollections, myths, legends, songs, poems and folklore about our local area. It is a history of Camden and its surrounding area. I have created one version of this in the form of a 1939 district map.
Camden storytelling is as old as humanity starting in the Dreamtime.
The Camden story is made up of dreamtime stories, family stories, community stories, settler stories, local stories, business stories, personal stories and a host of others.
These stories are created by the people and events that they were involved with over centuries of time up the present.
Since its 1997 inception History Week has been an opportunity to tell the Camden story.
What is the relevance of the Camden story?
The relevance of the Camden story explains who is the local community, what they stand for, what their values are, their attitudes, political allegiances, emotional preferences, desires, behaviour, and lots more.
The Camden story explains who we are, where we came from, what are we doing here, what are our values and attitudes, hopes and aspirations, dreams, losses and devastation, destruction, violence, mystery, emotions, feelings, and lots more. The Camden story allows us to understand ourselves and provide meaning to our existence.
Local businesses use the Camden story as one of their marketing tools to sell local residents lots of stuff. There is the use of images, logos, branding, slogans, objects, window displays, songs, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines and other marketing tools.
What is the use of the Camden story?
The Camden story allows us to see the past in a number of ways that can impact on our daily lives. They include:
the past is just as a series of events and people that do not impact on daily lives;
the past is the source of the values, attitudes and traditions by which we live our daily lives;
the past is a way of seeing the present and being critical of contemporary society that it is better or worse that the past;
the present is part of the patterns that have developed from the past over time – some things stay the same (continuity) and some things change.
History offers a different approach to a question.
Historical subjects often differ from our expectations, assumptions and hopes.
The Camden storyteller will decide which stories are considered important enough to tell. Which stories are marginalised or forgotten or ignored – silent stories from the past.
Just taking one of these component parts it is an interesting exercise to ask a question.
Does the Camden story contribute to making a strong community?
The Camden story assists building a strong and resilient community by providing stories about our community from past crises and disasters. These are examples that the community can draw on for examples and models of self-help.
A strong and resilient community is one that can bounce back and recover after a setback or disaster of some sort. It could be a natural disaster, market failure or social crisis.
A popular TV drama ‘A Place to Call Home’ on Channel 7 has been set in and around the Camden district. Amongst the characters is the fictional 1950s matriarch of the Bligh family, Elizabeth (Noni Hazlehurst). This figure has a number of striking parallels with Camden’s own 20th century female patrician figures.
Camden’s matriarchs, just like Elizabeth, were formidable figures in their own right and left their mark on the community. The fictional Elizabeth Bligh lives on the family estate Ash Park (Camelot, formerly Kirkham) in the country town of Inverness during the 1950s.
Frances Faithful Anderson
Kirkham’s own Elizabeth Bligh was Frances Faithful Anderson, who moved to the Camden area with her husband, William, in the 1890s. She renamed James White’s fairytale castle Kirkham, Camelot, in 1900 after being reminded of the opening verse of Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott. Frances (d. 1948) lived in the house, with her daughter Clarice, until her death. Both women were shy and retiring and stayed out public gaze in Camden, unlike the domineering fictional character of Elizabeth Bligh. The Anderson women were supporters of the Camden Red Cross, Women’s Voluntary Services, the Country Women’s Association, Camden District Hospital and the Camden Recreation Room during the Second World War (DR, 29/3/13). Clarice willed Camelot to the NSW National Trust, according to Jonathan Chancellor. The NSW Supreme Court rule in 1981 that her mother’s 1938 will took precedence. Frances wanted the house to become a convalescent home, but this clashed with zoning restrictions.
Camden’s Edwardian period was dominated by the figure of Elizabeth Macarthur Onslow of Camden Park. She took control of Camden Park in 1882 when her husband Arthur died. Under her skilful management the family estate was clear of debt by 1890 and she subsequently re-organised the estate. She established the pastoral company Camden Park Estate Pty Ltd, with her children as shareholders. Heritage consultant Chris Betteridge states that she organised the estates co-operative diary farms, built creameries at Camden and Menangle, orchards and a piggery. Elizabeth was a Victorian philanthropist, a Lady Bountiful figure, and according to Susanna De Vries was a strong supporter of a number of local community organisations including the fore-runner of the Camden Show Society, the Camden AH&I Society. She died on one of her many trips to England and has dropped out of Australian history.
Sibella Macarthur Onslow
Elizabeth’s daughter, Sibella, was a larger than life figure during Camden’s Inter-war period and was quite a formidable figure in her own right. She grew up at Camden Park and moved to Gilbulla in 1931, which had been the home of her sister-in-law, Enid Macarthur Onslow. Sibella never married and fulfilled the role of a powerful Camden patrician figure. She was a true female matriarch amongst her brothers who took public positions of power in the New South Wales business community. She was one of the most powerful female figures in New South Wales and her personal contact network included royalty, politicians and the wealthy elite of Sydney and London. Macarthur Onslow possessed strong conservative Christian values and was an active figure in the Sydney Anglican Archdiocese. She was a Victorian-style philanthropist and was president of the Camden Red Cross from 1927 until her death in 1943.
The power vacuum in Camden’s women’s affairs left by the death of Sibella Macarthur Onslow was filled by Rita Tucker of The Woodlands, at Theresa Park. She had a high community profile in 1950s Camden and was well remembered by those who dealt with her. She became president of the Camden Country Women’s Association in 1939 and held the position until her death in 1961. She was a journalist and part-time editor of the North West Courier at Narrabri before she moved to Camden with her husband Rupert in 1929. She was an active member of the Camden Liberal Party in the 1950s, holding a number of positions, and was New South Wales vice-president of the CWA between 1947 and 1951. She was an accomplished musician and played the organ at the Camden Presbyterian Church in the early 1940s.
A contemporary of Tucker was Zoe Crookston, the wife of Camden surgeon, Robert Crookston. A shy retiring type, she lived in grand Victorian mansion at the top of John Street and was the wartime president of the Women’s Voluntary Services. She was a Presbyterian, a liberal-conservative and an active committee member of the United Australia Party in the 1930s. According to her daughter Jacqueline, ‘her mother was a no-nonsense person who always liked to get on with the job at hand’. She was a foundation member of the Camden Red Cross and was actively involved until 1949. Other community organisations occupied her time including being on the committee of the Camden District Hospital Women’s Auxiliary from 1933 to 1945.
One of the largest tourist attractions to the local area in the mid-20th century was a local milking marvel known at the Rotolactor.
The Rotolactor was truly a scientific wonder that captured the imagination of people at a time when scientific marvels instilled excitement in the general public.
In these days of post-modernism and fake news this excitement seems hard to understand.
What was the Rotolactor?
The Rotolactor was an automated circular milking machine with a rotating platform introduced into the Camden Park operation in 1952 by Edward Macarthur Onslow from the USA.
The Rotolactor was part of the process of agricultural modernism that the Macarthur family had implemented on their colonial property of Camden Park Estate to improve their dairying operations in the mid-20th century.
The idea of a rotating milking platform was American and first introduced in New Jersey in the mid-1920s.
The 1940s manager of Camden Park Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Macarthur Onslow inspected an American Rotolactor while overseas on a business trip and returned to Australia full of enthusiasm to build one at Camden Park.
The Menangle Rotolactor was the first in Australia and only the third of its kind in the world.
The rotating dairy had a capacity to milk of 1,000 cows twice a day. It held 50 cows a time and were fed at as they were milked. The platform rotated about every 12 minutes.
The Rotolactor was a huge tourist attraction for the Menangle village and provided a large number of local jobs.
In 1953 it was attracting 600 visitors on a weekend in with up to 2000 visitors a week at its peak. (The Land, 1953Mar27)
Town planning disruption
In 1968 town planning disrupted things. The Askin state government released the Sydney Regional Outline Plan, followed by the 1973 the New Cities of Campbelltown, Camden and Appin Structure Plan, which later became the Macarthur Growth Centre in 1975.
The structure plan did recognise the importance of the Rotolactor and the cultural heritage of the Menangle village. (The State Planning Authority of New South Wales, 1973, p. 84)
These events combined with declining farming profits encouraged the Macarthur family to sell out of Camden Park including the Rotolactor and the private village of Menangle.
The Rotolactor continued operations until 1977 and then remained unused for several years. It was then purchased by Halfpenny dairy interests from Menangle who operated the facility until it finally closed in 1983. (Walsh 2016, pp.91-94)
Community festival celebrates the Rotolactor
In 2017 the Menangle Community Association organised a festival to celebrate the history of the Rotolactor. It was called the Menangle Milk-Shake Up and was a huge success.
The Festival exceeded all their expectations of the organisers from the Menangle Community Association when it attracted over 5000 of people to the village from all over Australia. (Wollondilly Advertiser, 18 Sept 2017)
The Menangle Community Association Facebook page described it this way:
‘A true country event like in the old days. So many visitors came dressed up in their original 50s clothes, and all those wonderful well selected stall holders. It was pure joy.’
Despite these sentiments the event just covered costs (Wollondilly Advertiser 5 April 2018)
The festival’s success was a double-edged sword for the organisers from the Menangle Community Association.
The festival’s success demonstrated to local development interests that Rotolactor nostalgia could be marketized and had considerable commercial potential.
The Menangle Community Association attempted to lift the memory of the Rotolator and use it as a weapon to protect the village from the forces of urban development and neo-liberalism
The success of the festival was also used by Menangle land developers to further their interests.
Developer Halfpenny made numerous public statements supporting the restoration of the Rotolactor as a function centre and celebrating its past. (The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 December 2017).
The newspaper article announced that the owner of the site, local developer Ernest Dupre of Souwest Developments, has pledged to build a micro brewery, distillery, two restaurants, a farmers market, children’s farm, vegetable garden, and a hotel with 30 rooms.
In 2017 the state government planning panel approved the re-zoning of the site for 350 houses and a tourist precinct. Housing construction will be completed by Mirvac.
Mr Dupre stated that he wanted to turned the derelict Rotolactor into a function with the adjoining Creamery building as a brewery, which is next to the Menangle Railway Station.
He expected the development to cost $15 million and take two years. The plan also includes an outdoor concert theatre for 8000 people and a lemon grove.
While I was visiting a historical contact at Menangle I was shown a framed photograph of a winning display in the district exhibition at the 1937 Camden Show. The photograph was bordered by the prize winning ribbon from the Camden AH&I Society awarded to the Menangle Agriculture Bureau. The photograph peaked my interest as I was not familiar with the local agricultural bureaux. A search in the archive files at the Camden Historical Society including those the Camden Show Society yielded light on the matter either.
So what happened at the 1937 Camden Show.
The Menangle Agricultural Bureau took out a first prize at the 1937 Camden Show in the district exhibit. The bureau had entered its agricultural display of fruit, vegetables and other produce. The Camden News reported the display was constructed with over 3000 apples. The Menangle Agricultural Bureau won against stiff competition from the Mount Hunter Agricultural Bureau. The only other competitor in that category.
So what is an agricultural bureau? When did they appear in the Camden district?
Agricultural bureaus were established in New South Wales in 1910 as an initiative of the New South Wales Department of Agriculture, according to the State Archives and Records of NSW.
The aims of the agricultural bureaux were to ‘connect with young rural people’. They were ‘to deliver lectures and demonstrations and special instructions to farmers, and to promote fellowship and social networks within rural communities’.
The bureaux appear to be one of a number of organisations that were part of an organised youth movement within the British Empire set up during the Edwardian period.
The State Archives maintains that the stated aims of the agricultural bureau movement fitted the general imperial youth movement of the time. In NSW ‘the main functions of the Bureau were to promote rural and adult education, to organise co-operative group effort to improve facilities, to train people in citizenship, leadership, and community responsibility’.
There was an anxiety amongst the ruling elites of the British Empire about the state of youth and there was a concerted campaign to inculcate the values of thrift, diligence and obedience. During the Edwardian period the youth movement spawned a number of youth organisations including Boy Scouts, Boys Brigade, Girl Guides, and a host of others. These organisations have been seen by some historians like Michael Childs Labour’s Apprentices as agents of patriotism, obedience and social passivity.
The agricultural bureaux were a farmer-controlled self-governing body which could received extension services from the NSW Department of Agriculture. They were apolitical and non-sectarian.
The state government kept firm control of the new organisation through the NSW Department of Agriculture initially provided lectures through the Department’s District Inspectors of Dairying and Agriculture. The state government went further and provided a subsidy to the bureaux members at the rate of 10/- per pound. In addition council members were reimbursed their expenses for attending meetings.
The activities of the early agricultural bureaus on the Camden district seem to indicate that the bureaus were less of a youth organisation and more of an adult farming group and included activities for the entire family.
One of the earliest agricultural bureaus to be established in the Camden area was at Orangeville around 1913.
The Camden News reported in April that members of the bureau were keen to gain all the scientific knowledge to develop their orchards. They had tried explosives in their orchards as a means of improving ‘sub-soiling’, initially under the trees and then next to the trees. The results of the experiment would not be known, it was reported, until the trees started to bare fruit.
In October 1913 the Orangeville Agriculture Bureau organised a picnic. Mr J Halliday organised the festivities for the ‘ladies and children’. There were 70 children present and prizes were organised for a number races and a competition amongst the ladies organised by Mr RH Taylor. The proceedings were livened up by Mr Joseph Dunbar on the gramophone. A tug-of-war was organised between the single and married men. Councillor CG Moore captained the married men and Mr AL Bennett ‘led the bachelors’. The married men won. Both men were candidates in the upcoming Nepean Shire elections. A short political address was given by Mr WG Watson, which was followed by games until sunset. Mr Taylor, the vice-chairman, thanked everyone for coming and stressed the advantages of becoming a member of the bureau.
A women’s extension service was organised within the body. The bureaus organised farmer training courses, while the women’s extension service organised domestic training courses. The agricultural bureaus were affiliated with a range of other rural organisations including the Bush Nursing Associations, The Rural Youth Organisation and a number of farming organisations.
The local agricultural bureaux disappeared after the Second World War, while the organisation carried on at a state level into the 1970s.
On the first Remembrance Day in Camden in 1946 the Camden News recorded the event with a poem.
They are not dead, that cannot be,
They’re part of you and part of me,
The smile, the nod, the steadfast look
Could never perish at Tobruk.
Nor could there fade on Bardia’s sand
The cheery voice, the friendly hand,
Though seas and lands and years divide,
The Anzac lives – he had not died.
It was written by ‘a Digger who had served in two World Wars’.
George Sidman, the editor of the News wrote:
‘The strongest of our emotions during this month will be the remembrance of those who have served and for who Remembrance Day has been set aside, and when you wear a Red Poppy, it will remind you at the sacrifice made by those gallant men. It will remind you of courage, of long patient effort and a final victory one’.
Local folk were reminded that poppies were sold throughout the British Empire to wear on Remembrance Day. The proceeds from the sale of the poppies in Camden was supervised by the Camden branch of the RSS&AILA (Returned Soldiers’, Sailors’ and Airmens’ Imperial League of Australia and later RSL). The Association promised that they would retain half of fund raised to ‘assist local cases’. In 1946 the Poppy Day was held on Friday 8 November.
The Cultural and Recreation Website of the Australian Government reminds all that:
Originally called Armistice Day, this day commemorated the end of the hostilities for the Great War (World War I), the signing of the armistice, which occurred on 11 November 1918 – the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Armistice Day was observed by the Allies as a way of remembering those who died, especially soldiers with ‘no known grave’.
On the first anniversary of the armistice, in 1919, one minute’s silence was instituted as part of the main commemorative ceremony. In London, in 1920, the commemoration was given added significance with the return of the remains of an unknown soldier from the battlefields of the Western Front.
The Flanders poppy became accepted throughout the allied nations as the flower of remembrance to be worn on Armistice Day. The red poppies were among the first plants that sprouted from the devastation of the battlefields of northern France and Belgium. ‘Soldiers’ folklore had it that the poppies were vivid red from having been nurtured in ground drenched with the blood of their comrades’.
The Camden first Remembrance Day in 1946 was held at the St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on the evening of the 10 November. Mr Buck, the minister, conducted the service and it was attended by the mayor and the aldermen from the council. There was also the local member, Mr Jeff Bate, members of the Camden sub-branch of the RSL, the Camden Red Cross, Voluntary Aids, and representatives from the Eastern Command Training School at Studley Park, Narellan. It was reported that:
The church was beautifully decorated with flowers, together with the Union Jack and Australian Flag on which was placed a laurel wreath, the tribute of the congregation of St Andrew’s to the Nation’s Fallen.
During the ceremony the mayor, Alderman HS Kelloway, read out all the names of local men who had killed in action in the First and Second World Wars.
Mr Buck’s spoke in his address of the solemn nature of the occasion and remarked:
‘Greater love hath no man than this, to-night we keep silence for those whom we can never forget – our own who gave their lives. With that gift no other gift compares. This service will have no meaning whatever for us unless – in Lincoln’s noble words “We highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain”.
Mr Buck concluded the service by adding:
May God help us all to highly, resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.
The squadron moved from Melville Island in January 1944, then moved to Queensland and was equipped with Boomerangs.
The squadron moved to Menangle in August 1944, where it was disbanded on 18 September 1945. (RAAF Museum)
RAAF No 1 Squadron
Alan Hick, former Observer Air Gunner and Wireless/Telegraph Operator, aged 24 years of age recalls that he spent about six weeks at Menangle Airfield around December 1943 as part of No 1 Squadron.
Hick arrived at Menangle from East Sale on 29 December 1943 as part of the air crew. What followed was a training period consisting of anti-submarine patrols off the Australian east coast.
Alan Hick’s Flying Log Book details the type of operations of the squadron while at Menangle RAAF. There was training flights in airmanship, formation training, night flights, high level bombing, low level bombing, formation flying, fighter co-operation, and medium level bombing.
The squadron leader while at Menangle was DW Campbell.
Alan Hick recalls:
This was our war training period, it consisted of anti-submarine patrols which were practice to us but actually was fair dinkum as we used to patrol up and down the coast. High and low level bombing practise, fighter co-operation with a fighter squadron based at Bankstown. Formation flying, day and night, strip landings for possible emergencies, then as a ‘finale’ we did a squadron formation trip to Mildura. I remember 4 flights of 3 aircraft in each flight. Next day on the way back each aircraft of each flight had to take their turn in leading the flight. It was during a changeover that two planes touched and ended with both planes crashing and burning. Killing all air crew members plus our squadron photographer. This is something I’ll never forget. I’ve never seen a squadron break up so quickly as this one did. We were ordered home to Menangle as soon as possible before two more ended up the same way. As far as we (the crew) were concerned the remainder of our training was trouble free.
Hick states that the squadron number around 150 personnel. He recalls:
The advance part of 10 left 3 weeks before we get the camp ready and each plane took 10 people including a crew of 4 which would make approximately 150 at Menangle. We were equipped with the later mode Beauforts designed for local level flying ideal for out job of sea reconnaissance and convoy work.
According to Alan Hick the airfield had a number of issues for aircraft. He recalls:
The land strips was not very long so whenever possible we always took off in a southerly direction particularly if it was a hot day. To the north was a hill which was hard to clear when the air was hot and thin. If this happened we often had to turn slightly to the right to avoid hitting the hill. North or south take-offs depended on the wind and weather.
The layout and operation of the airfield used the existing facilities of the trotting club. He stated:
The grandstand for used for ‘bludging’ when didn’t have anything to do. The lower portion was used for offices and storage space for anything else that needed protection from the weather.
Meals were prepared in the quarters in Station Street in Menangle village. Alan recalls:
Our lunch was brought down to us from the living quarters where the cookhouse was situated in one of the six houses built for the purpose. These houses had to be dismantled at the end of the war as they were only temporary buildings with no lining on walls or ceilings. They had the appearance of a small country village from the air. The general store received quite a bit of patronage from the ‘boys’. We were transported by truck between the village and the airfield.
Alan Hick recalls that he met his wife while he was on training at Maryborough in Queensland in December 1941. While the squadron was at Menangle his wife lived at Buxton with their one year old son and Alan was at home most nights.
The squadron moved on from Menangle RAAF to Charleville in Queensland on 20 February 1944.
While the No 15 Squadron was stationed at Menangle there was an air accident and the air crew of Beaufort A9-550 were killed. The accident occurred on the Mount Gilead property on the Appin Road. The report stated that the plane crashed
‘9 miles SE [of the] Menangle Strip at 0410 hours’ after take-off due to a port engine failure.
The members of the air crew who were killed were pilot F/Sgt HD Johnson, and the members of the crew who were F/O RW Durant, F/O HD Wheller, F/Sgt BA Herscher, and AC1 WH Bray. (RAAF Historical: Preliminary Accident Report 1 April 1944)
RAAF No 24 Squadron
Former Flight Sergeant Allan Hope recalls the six weeks he spent at Menangle in September 1944 as part of No 24 Squadron which was equipped with Vultee Vengeance Dive Bombers.
The squadron had moved from Bankstown Airfield to Menangle.
The unit was put up in barracks in Station Street Menangle.
Allan Hope states:
The barracks were build as houses and merged with the existing residences as a form of camouflage. Once inside the resemblance ended. There were no ceilings or wall linings and any framing inside was just a load bearer for the roof.
The squadron took over the runway that had been built across the trotting track in the mid-war years. The runway was parallel to the railway line.
The [trotting] club premises at Menangle Park houses the orderly room, store room and signals office.
The unit had 150 personnel and the main purpose of locating at Menangle was ‘as a staging camp for the squadron’.
The unit did not see active service at Menangle Park as Allan Hope does ‘not recall any Vultee landing there as they were diverted to New Guinea’.
While at Menangle things were fairly quiet and leave was granted to most men. He recalls:
Most men had friends or relatives in Sydney suburbs. They took every opportunity to visit them on weekends and during the week. They arrived back at camp at night about 4.00am. Once a week we could pile into a truck and go to the pictures in Campbelltown’
Allan Hope states that there was little interaction with the ‘locals’, although ‘the general story on the corner would have been sorry to see us go’.
Hope left for New Guinea in September 1944 with a ‘small advance party taking off from the racecourse in a American DC3’.
RAAF No 15 Squadron
No 15 Squadron was equipped with Beauforts and formed at Camden on 27 January 1944 and was located at Camden Airfield until March 1945.
The unit operated in the anti-submarine and convoy escort role off the Australian East Coast.
Former wireless operator and gunner David Symons recalls the squadron was at Camden from February 1944, then at Menangle in March 1944, Camden again in April 1944 to March 1945.
The squadron eventually moved to Kingaroy where it was disbanded on 23 March 1946. (RAAF Museum)
Information drawn from correspondence with former RAAF personnel by author.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.