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Notable women in Camden

International Women’s Day 2019

On International Women’s Day in 2019 it is worthwhile reflecting on some of Camden’s prominent women over the decades. Camden elite women were formidable figures and matriarchs in their own right and left their mark on the community.

Kirkham’s own  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 (The District Reporter, 29 March 2013). 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.

 

Elizabeth Macarthur Onslow Portrait lowres
(Eliza) Elizabeth Macarthur Onslow of Camden Park NSW (L Abraham)

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.

 

rosa sibella macarthur onslow
Sibella Macarthur Onslow (CPH)

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.

 

Rita_Tucker1
Wartime president of the Camden branch of the Country Women’s Association Mrs Rita Tucker. (J Tucker)

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.

 

1935_Murch Susan Crookston_Portrtait
This portrait is of Zoe Crookston’s daughter Miss Suzanne Crookston painted by Arthur Murch of Sydney in 1935 (AGNSW)

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. She was married to Camden medical practitioner Robert Crookston, and had two daughter Suzanne and Jaqueline.

A more recent woman of note was Elizabeth Kernohan.  Elizabeth (Liz) Kernohan was the first woman in Camden to be elected as an alderman on council (1973), to the hospital board (1974) and subsequently as deputy mayor (1974), mayor (1980) and finally as a member of parliament (1991). She was a popular local identity until her death in 2004.

Elizabeth Kernohan 1994 Camden Images
Elizabeth Kernohan 1994 (Camden Images)

Kernohan, like earlier Camden women (Sibella Macarthur Onslow and Rita Tucker), combined female agency and active citizenship, and developed a ‘parallel path’ for herself where she acquired considerable social, moral and political authority. She combined her conservatism with civic duty and an ethic of selfless service.

Kernohan’s political success was based on her aggressive use of localist politics in an area that was proud of its rural traditions and heritage.  She was plain speaking to the point where ‘What you see is what you get…(and) I call a spade a bloody shovel’. An approach that endeared her to the local community.

Kernohan was a fierce advocate of Camden’s rural identity in the face of the New Cities Plan (1973) which planned massive urban growth  on the metropolitan fringe.  She maintained in 1981 that Camden should become the ‘Double Bay of Sydney’s southwest’, an exclusivity that is still recognizable in the area’s identity and sense of place. This identity of difference drove her popularity and appealed to the ‘aspirationals’ who moved to the area from the ‘burbs’. The new arrivals were looking for a place where the ‘country still looked like the country’ and were ready converts to her cause.  Above all she proved that all politics is local, to the detriment of her career.

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Camden CWA leads way in wartime

The Camden community was galvanised by the emergency created by the entry of Japan into the Pacific War on 7 December 1941 and the US declaration of war on 8 December.

Wardens and Air Raid Precautions

Stan Kelloway, Camden’s chief warden and mayor, called a public meeting which was held on Tuesday night at the town hall, 18 December 1941. He made an urgent appeal for wardens and volunteers for air raid precaution work in the town area.

CamNetMaking_AWM007671
Australian women making camouflage nets during the Second World War. These volunteering efforts greatly assisted the war effort. (AWM007671) cc

 

Camden women held a joint emergency meeting on the same night at the Camden CWA Rooms in Murray Street. The meeting was chaired by Rita Tucker, with Grace Moore, the secretary of the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) acting as the meeting’s secretary.

 

The Camden District Hospital Women’s Auxiliary was represented by its president, Emma Furner, and the CWA Younger Set by Mary Sparkes and Anita Rapley. Apologies were received from Zoe Crookston, Mary Davies, Albine Terry and Hilda Moore. Mary Davies was the treasurer of the Camden Red Cross and the vice-president of the Camden Hospital Women’s Auxiliary, Albine Terry, Camden WVS treasurer and Camden Hospital Women’s Auxiliary vice-president, and Hilda Moore, the secretary of the Camden Red Cross.

Camouflages Nets

There was much discussion at the meeting and a decision was taken to concentrate on making camouflage nets. The CWA and Women’s Voluntary Service, which were conducting separate camouflage netting meetings, decided to combine their separate netting efforts. The combined effort would be located at the CWA rooms on Monday and Tuesday nights, and Friday afternoons.

 

These arrangements were organised so that they did not conflict with existing service commitments, particularly the WVS and Red Cross sewing circles at the town hall. Camden volunteers were requested to bring ‘a hank of string for practice’. The Camden press maintained in December 1941 that ‘anyone who possibl[y] can is urged to take this opportunity of rendering national service in a time of crisis’. The meeting also asked volunteers to fill out forms for the Women’s Voluntary National Register and to cooperate with local wardens of the National Emergency Services.

National Emergency Services

The Camden press maintained in December that the ‘National Emergency Services can provide a job for practically every woman’, and forms for the Women’s Voluntary National Register were obtainable from Nancy Freestone, the assistant secretary of the WVS, at the town hall library.

 

The Women’s Voluntary National Register was established in New South Wales in early 1939. It was part of a federal government scheme to determine how many women would be able to provide ‘manpower’ and national service, if required, when the nation went to war.

 

The most efficient means of doing this was to tap into the pre-existing network of women’s clubs and organizations, and call upon their membership to provide the information. Clubs that affiliated with the register would collect the details of (eligible) volunteers from within their membership base and forward that information to the central register. Women would then be classified according to the type of work available, and the type of work they were suited to do.

 

Women, according to the Australian Women’s Register, who weren’t members of an organization could still volunteer through the state council headquarters, but clearly, ‘outsourcing’ much of the work to the organizations was a cost and time efficient method of operation.

An affair at the CWA

From December 1941 the manufacture of netting in Camden turned into a CWA affair. Reports on netting production from the Camden centre were sent to the state CWA Handicrafts Committee in Sydney, which co-ordinated the state netting effort for the CWA and received all the completed nets from the Camden centre.

 

The central CWA netting centre co-ordinated all organisational details, issued instructions to branches on the packing, despatched nets to Sydney and acted as a clearinghouse for the Army, which supplied all the twine and collected all the finished nets.

Countrywoman of NSW 1941 July CWA Sheepskin Vests
The Countrywoman in New South Wales for July 1941 which was a special handicraft issue with patterns and designs for making soldier comforts. The Countrywoman had lots of advice on wartime activities including instructions on making camouflage nets by local branches. Sheepskin vests were made for servicemen during the winter cold of Europe. (CWA)

 

The New South Wales CWA journal The Countrywoman in New South Wales reported that by January 1942 the handicraft committee was supplying 230 country branches and over 100 suburban circles with twine for making nets.

 

When compared to netting efforts in some other country towns Camden’s output was relatively small. Between February 1941 and February 1944 the Camden netting centre made 578 nets. Una Swan acted as netting secretary and roped all nets, while Mary Poole acted as demonstrator.

 

At Nowra netting centre, which was a joint effort between Nowra CWA and Red Cross, and made 1,320 nets in the 2½ years that their centre was operational from mid-1941 to December 1943. Camden netting centre was never able to sustain the same effort as Nowra.

 

To the end of 1942 the Nowra centre had made 875 nets, while Camden’s centre had manufactured 489 nets. While at the Quirindi CWA local women made 14 camouflage nets in one week in March 1942 and by the end of the war had sent away 565 nets. Most country towns had similar voluntary patriotic projects.

 

The Camden centre was kept abreast of statewide netting activity by the Countrywoman, which issued monthly tallies of nets supplied to the Sydney CWA depot by netting centres, as well as reporting other related, netting information.

Learn more

Read more about the CWA and other conservative women’s organisations in wartime Camden @ UOW research