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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 Reflects on Anzac Day 2017

Photo Essay of Camden Anzac Day 2017

IMG_7272[1]
Camden Anzac Day 2017 with sign of knitted poppies made by local folk (I Willis)
Camden Anzac Day 2017 window shopfront display in Argyle Street Camden (I Willis)

 

Camden Anzac Day 2017 cenotaph in Camden Bicentennial Park with wreaths (I Willis)

 

Camden Anzac Day 2017 wall of poppies at Camden RSL Memorial Rose Garden in Cawdor Road (I Willis)

 

Camden Anzac Day 2017 cenotaph in Camden RSL Memorial Rose Garden in Cawdor Road (I Willis)

 

Camden Anzac Day 2017 cenotaph in Macarthur Park Camden erected in 1922 by public subscription (I Willis)
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A space of memories and monuments

The CHN blogger was recently out and about and re-discovered a lovely urban space in central Goulburn on the New South Wales southern tablelands. Known as Belmore Park since the mid-19th century the park has a formal symmetrical layout. This is typical of many 19th century Victorian urban parks with paths crossing it on the diagonal for promenading and adding to the balance of the space. The park is abutted by lovingly conserved 19th century architecture and the Victorian designed railway station which all add to the ambience of the precinct in the town’s heritage centre.

Pleasant view across the picturesque Belmore Park Goulburn on a Sunday morning in March 2017 (IWillis)

The origin of urban parks has been traced to a number of sources. At its simplest is was an open space that became the  village green or they were grassed fields and stadia in Greek cities, or they were an open area with a grove of sacred trees. By the medieval period they were open grassed areas within or adjacent to a village where the lord allowed the common villagers to graze their animals. Some were royal hunting parks that date from ancient days  where the king walled off a section of forest to keep out poachers. From the 18th century French and British noblemen were aided by landscape designers like Capability Brown to design private parks and pleasure grounds. The Italians had their piazza, which was usually paved. In the UK the establishment of Birkenhead Park in 1843, Central Park in New York in the mid 1850s, Philadelphia’s urban park system in the 1860s and Sydney’s Governors’ Domain and Hyde Park all had an influence.

Market Square

Belmore Park was Goulburn’s Market Square from the 1830s, and renamed Belmore Square in 1869 in honor of the visit of Lord and Lady Belmore on the opening of the railway at Goulburn, and a picket fence was built around the square. In the early twentieth century it was the site of a small zoo, perhaps reflecting the zoo in the Sydney Botanic Gardens or the Botanic Gardens in Hobart, which was part of the notion of creating a ‘pleasure ground’. Belmore Square was re-dedicated as the Belmore Botanic Gardens in 1899. During the 20th century  the park became a landscape of monuments and memorials, similar to Hyde Park in Sydney, and other urban parks around Australia.

View of a rare Boer War Memorial to Goulburn veterans from the South African War. The monument was erected in 1904 and unveiled by the mayor WR Costley. It is one a handful of war memorials to the Boer War in Australia. 2017 (IWillis)

A landscape of monuments and memorials

Boer War Memorial in Belmore Park Goulburn. The memorial consists of three sections: a wide base of three Bundanoon sandstone steps; a square die with the dedication and inscriptions on marble plaques flanked by corner pilasters with ionic capitals; and a statue of a mounted trooper with rifle and bandolier built of Carrara marble and carved in Italy. 2017 (IWillis)
The band rotunda was built in 1897 to commemorate the reign of Queen Victoria. Band rotundas were a common park furniture in many urban parks throughout Australia. Banding was a popular pastime in the late 19th century and all self-respecting communities had a town band. Goulburn had a host of bands from the 1860s and the the Goulburn Model Brass Band performed in Belmore Park in 1891. The Goulburn City Band was formed in 1870 and was still performing in the First World War. This rotunda is High Victorian and designed by Goulburn architect EC Manfred. (Image 2017 IWillis)
This is the Knowlman Monument to commemorate Goulburn Mayor J Knowlman in 1910. He was mayor from 1899 to 1900. The column typifies uprightness, honour, eternity and rest. (Images 2017 IWillis)
This is a view of the Hollis Fountain erected in 1899 to Dr LT Hollis who was the MLA for Goulburn from 1891 to 1898. It is a highly decorative Victorian style concrete fountain that duplicates a similar fountain in St Leonards Park North Sydney that celebrates the Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (60th year of reign). Designed by FW Grant of Sydney firm Grant and Cocks. (Image 2017 IWillis)