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History Week 2021 – “History - From the ground up”

Camden Library Services presents an online exhibition: -

Camden’s Grass Roots – people and places

We are all familiar with the “famous” and important people of our local community’s past. These are the names we find on street signs and buildings. But what about the layers of ordinary, everyday folk who put in the hard work, transforming bush terrain into villages and townships? They are the people behind the ploughing, planting and constructing the built environment of today.

The Camden area was virgin bushland. It was home to the Tharawal, Dharug and Gundungurra people whose traditional country and landscapes have evolved into today’s rapidly changing environment. European settlers ranged from convicts to rich landowners. There were also skilled craftsmen and migrants brought to this area for specific purposes.

Camden had to be built “from the ground up”. The photographs in this exhibition give a glimpse of the types of structure needed from the Camden’s pioneers to establish all aspects of everyday living.

The original village of Camden was constructed on land released by John Macarthur’s sons, James and William. In 1840, 100 half acre lots of land were made available for purchase.


Plan of Camden 1841, courtesy of Camden Historical Society

They were also instrumental in bringing in experienced wine dressers from Germany to establish a vineyard and wine production. One of these “Original Six” was Johann Stein who brought the first Riesling cuttings to Australia. The Camden Park winery shared vine cuttings as far afield as the Hunter Valley and Barossa Valley in South Australia. Many early families in Camden established vineyards on their properties. There was wine production at Maryland in Bringelly and also at the Denbigh Estate in Cobbitty. Wine from Camden Park and Denbigh won prestigeous awards. There was a vineyard and cellars at Gledswood, planted by James Chisholm in 1830. He also brought out wine dressers from Germany in 1847.


Farming at Denbigh, Cobbitty 1900s, courtesy of Camden Historical Society

Convict labour resulted in land clearance and fences being built. It is estimated that there were 430 convicts in the Camden area in 1924. They were assigned to 29 landholders, most of whom did not live on their properties. With the introduction of dairying at Camden Park in 1826, 14 female convicts became dairymaids. Farming was hard work and there were ongoing battles with drought and fire. Convict labour was used for shepherding, fencing and other necessary tasks. They helped built the roads out to Camden, such as The Great South Road. Another convict achievement was the construction of the first Cowpasture Bridge, under the supervision of Samuel Wainwright who had been sent to the colonies on The Neptune.



Cowpasture Bridge c. 1898, courtesy of Camden Historical Society

With the establishment of the new village and surrounding construction came the need for infrastructure. Many of the new township’s pioneers settled in Camden to satisfy the needs of wealthy or influential landholders. One example of a pioneer resident was Mr Thomas Whiteman who, with his wife settled at Macquarie Grove in 1828. He had been brought in as head overseer for Rowland Hassall on this estate that covered 400 acres of land.



Macquarie Grove House, courtesy of Camden Historical Society

The Whiteman family stayed in Camden establishing a well-known produce store which was relocated to the current site of Whiteman’s arcade in Argyle Street Camden. Their hard work saw the family held in high esteem in the community with six generations of the family worked in the family business. Members of the family also served on Camden Council including in the office of Mayor.



Whiteman’s Store, 1890s, courtesy of Camden Historical Society

The original Whiteman store closed in 2000, however the building evolved into the current day configuration of smaller shops and arcade. Unfortunately, the building is undergoing extensive repairs due to damage caused by a devastating fire in September 2020.


Whiteman’s Store, 1970s courtesy of Camden Historical Society

With the growth of a community comes the need for law and order to be available in the area. The first policeman to reside in the Camden area was Constable Connors. The first police station was an old hut located halfway between Hill street and John Street. The timber lockup and policeman’s residence that was built around 1844 was later replaced in 1878 by a fine brick building. However, it was closed in August 2011 when the modern Police Station at Narellan was opened.


Camden Police Station, courtesy of Camden Historical Society

In the early years of settlement, wealthy landowners set up their estates to be pretty much self sufficient where possible. Farming involved growing as much of the food as possible for the residents. Often the estate had its own supply store that sold essentials, such as flour and tea back to its workers. It was common to find carpenters and blacksmiths employed on the estates.


Farming Camden c. early 1900s, courtesy of Camden Historical Society

Feed was required for livestock and water was sometimes a precious commodity. The proximity of the Nepean River provided this much needed resource. It also resulted in major flooding after heavy rain regularly resulting in Camden being “cut off” from surrounding area. The Upper Canal collects some of its water from the Nepean and uses a gravity-based system to transport water to Prospect Reservoir. It is considered a major feat in engineering for its day. It was built between 1880 and 1888.


Water Canal Menangle 1880s, courtesy of Camden Library Services

Produce for sale needed to be transported. The construction of a tramway system nicknamed “Pansy” helped transport milk and other products from Camden and Campbelltown. A milk depot was constructed in Camden. Camden Park Estate had been producing butter for sale since the 1830s.The dairy industry provided much employment to local members of the community.


Butter Factory at Menangle c. 1900, courtesy of Camden Library Services

Churches and schools were necessary institutions. Some early churches were sponsored and subsidised by local landowners. James and William Macarthur sold 2.4 hectares of land to the Church of England for the construction of St John’s in Camden. A grant was also received from the NSW Government towards the erection of church, minister’s residence and cemetery. It was consecrated in 1849. A Catholic Church had been built in 1845 but was outgrown and replaced in 1859. The first Methodist service was held in 1817 with its first church opening in 1859. These are just a few of the places of worship established in Camden’s early years to satisfy the needs of the growing community.


Methodist’s Church Camden, c. 1889, courtesy of Camden Historical Society

Private schools were established such as an early one on the Camden Park Estate in the 1840s for the children of estate workers. In 1849 the first Camden Public School was opened in the cottage belonging to Mrs Doust and probably located in John Street on the old Camden High School site. In 1851 school buildings were completed. There were other schools in the area such as the Church of England School and several other private schools. Local public schools were also being established throughout the Camden area. Bringelly Public School opened in 1878. Cawdor and Narellan were among the townships with early public schools. Cobbitty Public School was opened in 1882.


Cobbitty Public School c. 1906, courtesy of Camden Historical Society

Camden continues to grow and evolve with the changing needs of its community. The extensive establishment and development of new housing estates, schools and shopping centres along with necessary infrastructure means that Camden continues to grow “from the ground up".