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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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Menangle ‘Little England’ says Duchess of York

‘This is like home, like England’, proclaimed the Duchess of York  in 1927 on her visit to Menangle. She and her husband the Duke of York visited Camden Park as part of their royal visit of Australia, which involved the opening of the provisional Parliament House in Canberra in May.[1]

 

The Duke and Duchess of York Sydney 1927 (NLA)
The Duke and Duchess of York Sydney 1927 (NLA)

 

The Duke and Duchess of York had left England of their royal tour  of dominions in January 1927 on board the Royal Navy battleship HMS Renown, travelled through New Zealand in February and arrived in Australia in March. The Royals departed from Australia in late May after visiting all states. The Duke and Duchess later came to the thrown as George VI and Queen Elizabeth on the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936.

 

At Menangle the Duke and Duchess were guests of Brigadier-General JW Macarthur Onslow and Mrs Enid Macarthur Onslow (of Gilbulla) for a weekend in April, in the absence of Sibella Macarthur Onslow who was in England at the time. The Royals travelled by railway from Sydney by steam train.

 

The royal entourage and the royal trains made quite an impact on a young  Fred Seers, a local Campbelltown milk boy. He witnessed the royal trains pass through the Dumaresq railway gates where he was joined by a small group of enthusiastic flag waving Campbelltown locals. He recalls gatekeeper Bill Flanagan felt the occasion called for some degree of formality and dressed up in white shirt and tie.

Camden Park 1906 (Camden Images)
Camden Park 1906 (Camden Images)

Fred vividly remembers the three ‘shiny black’ 36 class steam locomotives that ‘sparkled’ as they roared through the locked gates in a fog of steam and smoke. The first of three steam engines painted in royal blue gave a blast on its high pitched whistle as it approached adorned with two crossed Union Jacks on the front. This was followed by another steam engine pulling four carriages, presumably with the Duke and Duchess on board, then the third steam engine.[2]

 

The Duke and Duchess had left Sydney early and arrived at Menangle Railway Station around 1.00pm and were met by a crowd of 200 people. Mr Bell the Menangle stationmaster and his staff had spruced up the platform with flags and bunting and rolled out a red carpet for the visitors. [3]  The Duchess was presented with a bouquet of carnations and heather by ‘little Quinton Stanham’.[4]

 

The Royals stayed with the Macarthurs at Camden Park  house, one of Australia’s finest Georgian Regency country homesteads designed by John Verge and built in 1835. Verge’s design was based on Palladian principles in a central two storey central block constructed stuccoed sandstock brick on sandstone foundations.

 

On Saturday afternoon the Duke went horse riding across Camden Park Estate, one of the earliest colonial grants in Australia allocated to John Macarthur in 1805.  On ‘a whim’ the Duke and his riding companions decided to ride to the Camden Show, which was first held in 1886. The Duke created much excitement to the surprised show-goers by cantering onto the showground in front of the large crowd of around 7000 people and received a ‘tumultuous welcome’.[5] The riding party included Miss Elizabeth Macarthur Onslow and her sister, Mrs Helen Stanham, who had recently arrived back from England for a few months, Brigadier-General JW and Brigadier-General GM, and their brother  Arthur Macarthur Onslow.[6]

The Duke and Duchess of York Opening Provisional Parliament House Canberra 1927 (NLA)
The Duke and Duchess of York Opening Provisional Parliament House Canberra 1927 (NLA)

On Sunday afternoon the royal couple  motored in a 1926 Rolls Royce to Gilbulla for  afternoon tea. [7]  Gilbulla, an example of a Federation Arts and Crafts mansion designed by Sydney architects Sulman and Power and built in 1899 by JW Macarthur Onslow. Gilbulla is a fine example of an Edwardian gentleman’s country residence for a family of power and distinction, while not out-doing the Georgian grandeur of Camden Park house itself.  Gilbulla housekeeper Mima Mahoney  served the Royals, who served the Royals afternoon tea, was the mother of local Campbelltown resident Basil Mahoney.[8]

 

The royal entourage arrived ‘a few minutes before 5 o’clock’ at Menangle and boarded their train, which  according to Fred Seers, had gone to Picton to fill up with water and coal, and turn around.[9] Before leaving the Duke and Duchess inspect a guard of honour of Camden Boy Scouts and Girl Guides under the direction of their leaders, RD Stuckey and Miss Senior.[10]

 

The Menangle visit of the Duke and Duchess of York was widely reported in the Australian press.  The themes of the stories revolved around the Englishness of the Menangle countryside and the Royals taking a well-earned rest from their hectic tour.

 

The Brisbane Courier ran a story under the headline, ‘Like Home, Beauty of Camden Park, Royal Party’s Quiet Weekend’.[11]  Readers were assured by the newspaper that the Royals had had a good time and stated:

The Duke and Duchess of York were both delighted with the loveliness of their week end at Camden Park… While the Duke went riding across country with the rain beating exhilaratingly in his face, and filled in a little spare time with a tennis racket on the soaked court at Gilbulla, the Duchess went driving with Miss Onslow in a sulky turnout. Both were delightfully surprised with the sylvan beauty of the surrounding, the Duchess being enraptured by an unattended stroll through the grounds along the Nepean River, which flows through the whole length of Camden Park Estate on which are great coppices of gnarled old English trees.[12]

 

The Melbourne Argus reported that the Duke and Duchess had a ‘restful weekend’ at the ‘beautiful country estate of the Macarthur Onslow family’. The Duchess ‘walked unattended in the old gardens under English oaks and elms’.[13]

 

The Launceston Examiner in Tasmania ran a story with the heading ‘A Happy Week End, Royals Guest in Country’ and assured its readers that the Duke and Duchess enjoyed the English style countryside of Camden Park, Menangle and the Nepean River. The Examiner went on that the Royals walked ‘beneath these spreading boughs’ of ‘gnarled old English trees, with ‘the rain pattering overhead, and the river providing an obligato to Nature’s music’. [14]

 

There were similar reports in the newspaper across the country. In Queensland the Warwick Daily News ran the headline ‘Royal Couple Spend Quiet Weekend’ while the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin ran the story under a banner headline ‘Royal Visitors Quiet Weekend’.

 

The Hobart Mercery  ran a story under the heading ‘The Royal Tour Week-end in Country Free from Engagements, Delightful Time Spent’ and assured readers:

The Duke and Duchess were both delighted with the loveliness of their week-end at Camden-park and Menangle – a respite from official engagements that was so deliciously free that even the intermittent rain that fell did not disturb the enthusiasm of the Royal visitors.

In the west Perth’s West Australian reported that the Duke and Duchess ‘were delightfully surprised with the sylvan beauty of the surroundings’ in a story titled ‘The Royal Visitors. Week-End In Country. Respite from Engagements.’[15]

 

The Camden News placed an article about the royal visit on the front page in the middle its story that reported on the 1927 Camden Show. Perhaps illustrating centrality of the royal drop-in to whole show event. On the other hand down at Picton the Picton Post placed the report of the royal visit on page two at the end of a story about the Camden Show. The snub was just a reflection of the  parochialism of both Camden and Picton and the long term rivalry between both communities. The accusation was that the Camden community thought that they were better than Picton. More to the point this snobbishness was more of reflection of the omnipotence of the Macarthurs of Camden Park in the whole district and the colonial history of New South Wales in general.[16]

 

The official records of the visit of the Duke and Duchess of York are located in the National Archives in Canberra.

[1] The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Monday 4 April 1927, page 11

[2] Fred Seers, ‘Passage of the Royal Train Through Campbelltown To Menangle 1927’, Grist Mills, February 1993, Vol 6, no 5. Pp21-22.

[3] Fred Seers, ‘Passage of the Royal Train Through Campbelltown To Menangle 1927’, Grist Mills, February 1993, Vol 6, no 5. Pp21-22.

[4] The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Monday 4 April 1927, page 11

[5] Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954), Sunday 3 April 1927, page 2. The Camden News, 7 April 1927, page 1.

[6] The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Monday 4 April 1927, page 11. Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Friday 1 April 1927, page 4.

[7] Fred Seers, ‘Passage of the Royal Train Through Campbelltown To Menangle 1927’, Grist Mills, February 1993, Vol 6, no 5. Pp21-22. The Camden News, 7 April 1927.

[8] Fred Seers, ‘Passage of the Royal Train Through Campbelltown To Menangle 1927’, Grist Mills, February 1993, Vol 6, no 5. Pp21-22.

[9] Fred Seers, ‘Passage of the Royal Train Through Campbelltown To Menangle 1927’, Grist Mills, February 1993, Vol 6, no 5. Pp21-22.

[10] The Camden News, 7 April 1927, page 1.

[11] Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), Monday 4 April 1927, page 15

[12] Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), Monday 4 April 1927, page 15

[13] Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), Monday 4 April 1927, page 19

[14] Examiner (Launceston, Tas. : 1900 – 1954), Monday 4 April 1927, page 5

[15] Warwick Daily News (Qld. : 1919 -1954), Monday 4 April 1927, page 5. Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1878 – 1954), Monday 4 April 1927, page 10. Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954), Monday 4 April 1927, page 7. West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954), Monday 4 April 1927, page 8.

[16] The Camden News, 7 April 1927, page 1. Picton Post (NSW : 1907 – 1954), Wednesday 6 April 1927, page 2.