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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)
Second World War · Uncategorized

The Yanks at Camden Airfield in 1942

What is little known in Camden is the interest the US Air Force took in Camden Airfield in November 1942 and again in February 1944. On both occasions the 5th US Air Force completed secret reports, now declassified and held by the National Archives of Australia, on the readiness of Camden Airfield to accommodate US aircraft and personnel.

The US 5th Air Force, part of the US Army Air Force, provided the aerial spearhead for General Douglas MacArthur’s island hopping campaign in 1942 and 1943. It provided an air umbrella for MacArthur and was an integral part of the successful campaign to retake New Guinea, the Philippines and eventually Okinawa. The US 5th Air Force, was originally part of the Far East Air Force which was largely destroyed in the December 1941 when Japanese forces attacked the Philippines, hours after attacking Pearl Harbour. The unit retreated to Australia’s Top End in December 1941 (Darwin), re-designated as the US 5th Air Force and headquarter in Brisbane for a time (September 1942).

The initial Camden Airfield report was conducted by the US Army Services of Supply and the 5th Air Force in 1942 when the unit was based in Brisbane. The reports summarised the readiness of the airfield to accommodate aircraft and personnel.

In 1942 the Camden airfield was only considered a minor installation, with a limited capacity and a number of aircraft hazards. The airfield’s main runway was 5,400 feet long and 150 wide while the remainder of the field was grass, had natural drainage and became boggy in the wet.

The airfield was located in a basin surrounded by hills up to one mile away, with the hills ranging in height from 100 feet to 200 feet in height. The field was equipped to only handle occasional night landings with ‘obstruction’ warning lighting on the hangars, camp buildings and the St John’s church spire, which was 450 feet high.

There was 7 Bellman hangars and one smaller hangar, and the only maintenance provisions were for Lockheed Hudson aircraft. There were two underground fuel tanks of 10,000 gallons, one of 18,000 gallons and one of 13,000 gallons.

Communications at the airfield were limited to one telephone line and a telegraph line linked to headquarters in Sydney. The airfield was manned from 0600 hours to 2000 hours with no prior notice needed to call up the airfield. The airfield contact was by telegraph with a call sign of VNCD. The field had no weather station and had to rely on information from Richmond. The climatic conditions noted that the field was subject to daily fogs in July, up to 10 days per year.

Airfield access by an all weather road to Camden and a bridge over the Nepean River, at Macquarie Grove, at the entrance to the airfield ‘capable of carrying heavy loads’.

The 1942 report concluded that there were provisions for eleven dispersal bays in the northern part of the field and five bays at southern end. The field was considered suitable for fighters, and with upgrade suitable for heavier aircraft. At the time of the 1942 assessment the field was occupied by one General Reconnaissance Flying Boat Squadron.

The 1942 report concluded that there was sufficient accommodation for 1000 service personnel in the Camden area with 800 men garrisoned at the airfield, with another 200 men to be accommodated in Camden’s ‘modern hotels’.

If the US Air Force had decided to occupy Camden airfield under National Security Regulations the Americans had the right to do anything they felt was ‘necessary in relation to the airfield for military purposes’.

Over the next two years wartime conditions prompted activity at Camden airfield. By 1944 the field had undergone major improvements and after a re-assessment by the American authorities it was classified as a major airfield.

Improvements included extensions to the E-W runway beyond the airfield boundary, although it was noted that were still deficient with no anti-aircraft defensive installations.

The airfield had an improved ability to service a variety of aircraft, while doing only minor repairs, and there has been flood lighting of the St John’s spire. The field have become equipped with a sick quarters with 15 beds, the runways had become all weather with gravel taxiways and the base had a 24 hour weather service. The improvements amounted to $184,000.

After having completed the two reports, the 5th US Air Force was never based at Camden Airfield. Given the impact of American forces elsewhere in Australia Camden probably had a lucky escape not hosting ‘the Yanks’.

The presence of over 1000 American servicemen at the airfield would have changed Camden from a sleepy little rural village into a garrison town. While many Camden locals would have welcomed the American presence, particularly local businesses, there would have been significant negative effects, given what happened in other localities such as Brisbane and Townsville.

As the war played out the Camden community had very cordial relations with RAAF and RAF personnel stationed at the airfield between 1940 and 1946, mainly because the town was not overwhelmed by large number of troops. There were dances, afternoon tea parties, invitations to local homes, dates with local girls and lots of other interactions with the defence personnel including a number of marriages to local girls.

If the Yanks had come to town it would have been an unforgettable experience.

Uncategorized

Camden War Cemetery

Camden War Cemetery
Camden War Cemetery

Camden War Cemetery

Camden war cemetery is located on the corner of Burragorang and Cawdor Roads, three kilometres south of Camden Post Office. The cemetery is on slight rise above the Nepean River floodplain, with a northerly aspect at an elevation of 75 metres. The vista to the north provides a picturesque view across the floodplain and is dominated by the town with the spire of St John’s Church in the background. It is not hard to imagine the scene that met these servicemen when they arrived in Camden during wartime over 60 years ago.

There were thousands of servicemen who passed through the Camden area between 1939 and 1946 at the various defence facilities. The major major military establishments were the Narellan Military Camp on the Northern Road at Narellan, and the Eastern Command Training School at Studley Park, Narellan. Many army units also undertook manoeuvres throughout the area and there were temporary encampments in a number of other locations including Camden Showground, Smeaton Grange and Menangle Paceway. The principal RAAF establishment was located at Camden aerodrome, with a secondary airfields at The Oaks and Menangle Paceway. As well, there were a number emergency runways constructed throughout the local area. The RAF also had a number of squadrons based at Camden airfield between 1944 and 1946.

When the visitor approaches the cemetery, they do so from the east. They advance along a paved walkway lined with low hedgerows. The walkway is dominated by a flag pole in the centre of the path. The visitor then walks through a gate into the cemetery proper, and they are immediately struck by the serenity of the site. The cemetery contains the bodies twenty-three servicemen who were stationed in the Camden area during the Second World War. These men fit within the long military tradition of the Camden area, when local men went off to the Boer War and later the First World War. The names of the latter group are listed on the memorial gates to Macarthur Park, Menangle Rd, Camden.

The cemetery contains the graves of seventeen RAAF servicemen, four army personnel and two RAF servicemen. The headstones are lined up in a N-S configeration, with the graves facing E-W. The graves are surrounded by a border of oleanders and bottlebrush and dominated by a single majestic tea tree. The cemetery is well kept and has a pleasant outlook.

Royal Australian Air Force

There are five airmen who were killed in Hudson A16-152, which was part of 32 Squadron. The aircraft crashed south-west of Camden on 26 January 1943 while on a cross-country training flight. The aircraft was based at Camden airfield. The pilot and the four man crew were killed.
Pilot:
F/Sgt SK Scott (402996), aged 25 years.
Crew:
Navigator F/Sgt HBL Johns (407122), aged 27 years.
W/T Operator Sgt BCJ Pearson (402978), aged 25 years.
Sgt GD Voyzey (402930), aged 24 years.
Sgt GT Lawson (412545), 30 years.

Sgt SW Smethurst (418014), aged 20 years, crashed his Kittyhawk A29-455 at The Oaks airfield on 30 September 1943 while on a training exercise strafing the airfield. This exercise was in conjunction with the 54th Australian Anti-Aircraft Regiment which erected gun positions adjacent to the airfield. The aircraft splurged at the bottom of a shallow dive and struck the ground.

There are five airmen who were killed on 18 November 1943 in Beaufort A9-350, which was part of 32 Squadron. The aircraft crashed on a night cross country exercise training exercise, while based at Camden airfield. The pilot and crew were killed.
Pilot:
F/Sgt RC Christie (410630), aged 23 years.
Crew:
Navigator Sgt DR James (418721), aged 20 years.
WOAG Sgt FN Fanning (419465), aged 20 years.
Sgt RA Sharples (419226), aged 23 years.
F/S HSJ Terrill (419426), a passenger from 73 Squadron, aged 20 years.

Corporal JP Kerrigan (62397) was an electrical mechanic and was killed in a car accident in Sydney on 11 December 1943, aged 29 years.

There are five airmen who were killed on 29 March 1944 in Beaufort A9-550, which was part of 15 Squadron. The aircraft was based at the Menangle Paceway airfield. The aircraft crashed after take-off when the port engine failed.
Pilot:
F/Sgt HB Johnston (420024), aged 26 years.
Crew:
2nd Pilot F/O RW Durrant (422555), aged 24 years.
Navigator F/O HD Wheller (426409), aged 21 years.
W/T Operator F/Sgt RAC Hoscher (412535), aged 23 years.
AC1 WH Bray (141632), aged 22 years.

Royal Air Force

LAC A Mullen (RAF) 1526778 was involved in a fatal accident on the Camden airfield tarmac on 12 October 1945, aged 23 years.

WOFF FS Biggs (RAF) 365157 from the Servicing Wing, RAF Station, Camden, was killed in a car accident in Sydney on 25 November 1945, aged 36 years..

Australian Army

Private Leonard Charles Walker (V235527) enlisted in the Australian Citizen’s Military Forces at Ballarat, Victorian on 8 October 1941. He was born in Ballarat on 28 June 1923. He served in the:
46th Australian Infantry Battalion,
29/46th Australian Infantry Battalion.
He died at Menangle on 18 July 1945 aged 22 years.

Warrant Officer Class Two John Gow Alcorn (NX148530) enlisted in the Australian Citizen’s Military Forces at Sydney on 28 May 1934. He was born in Glasgow, Scotland on 19 January 1900. He transferred to the 2/AIF on 26 February 1943. He served in the:
Sydney University Regiment,
110th Australian Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment,
41st Australian Infantry Battalion,
41/2nd Australian Infantry Battalion.
He died of illness 31 March 1944, aged 44 years.

Warrant Officer Class Two Harry George Grinstead (NX126686) enlisted in the Australian Militia Forces at Sydney on 17 February 1930. He was born in London on14 August 1910. He initially transferred to the Australian Citizen Military Forces on 17 February 1940, and then to the 2/AIF on 15 August 1942. He served in the:
9th Australian Field Regiment.
He died on 15 August 1944 as the result injuries sustained in a railway accident, aged 34 years.

Craftsmen Elwyn Sidney Hoole (NX97717) enlisted in the 2/AIF on Paddington on 11 August 1942. He was born at Walcha, New South Wales, on 12 October 1908. He served in the:
1st Australian Ordinance Workshops Company,
308th Australian Light Aide Detachment.
He died on 6 June 1944, aged 35 years.

Sources

RAAF Historical Section, Department of Defence, Air Force Office, Canberra.
Correspondence,
Accident Reports.

Central Army Records, Melbourne.
Correspondence.

For more information on the service of Camden servicemen and women see Camden Remembers  click here