Memories of your suburb: Menangle

The name Menangle is accredited to the language of the Tharawal people and is thought to have been derived from the word Manangle meaning ‘place of swamps and lagoons’. The town was originally the village for the Macarthur family estate of Camden Park House. Prime farmland and the flowing Nepean River made the area rich for grazing and the Macarthurs established prosperous sheep and dairy industries in the region.

The Menangle Viaduct is the oldest railway bridge in New South Wales having opened in 1863. The original 1860 design was for a timber bridge however, following a terrible flood in the same year, new plans were made for a higher iron and stone bridge.

Menangle Railway Bridge across the Nepean River soon after its opening in 1863. Copyright: Camden Historical Society.

A Menangle tourist destination for many years was the Rotolactor. This rotating milking platform opened in 1952 and after some closures, ceased production completely in 1983. In its heyday, the Rotolactor was capable of milking up to 375 cows an hour, operating both day and night under fluorescent lights. Cows were milked in an efficient 8 – 12 minutes.

Menangle has several Heritage listed buildings including Camden Park House, Gilbulla, St James Anglican Church and St Patricks Catholic Church.

Rotolactor and cattle yards on Camden Park Estate at Menangle. Copyright: Camden Historical Society.


Memories of Your Suburb: Camden

Camden is one of Australia’s most historic towns, enclosed on three sides by a sweeping bend in the Nepean River on land originally home to the first inhabitants, the Dharawal people. Camden and its surrounds were originally known as The Cowpastures after missing cattle from the Sydney colony were eventually found in the area.

Agriculture was key to the prosperity of the district, with the Macarthur family establishing wool growing, dairying, wheat growing, vineyards and orchards on John Macarthur’s original 5,000 acre land grant, from 1806 onwards. The village of Camden was created following sales of land by the Macarthurs in 1841. The Macarthur family became synonymous with Camden, being responsible for the construction and establishment of landmarks such as Camden Park house, St John’s Church, Macarthur and Onslow Parks.

John Street Camden, c.1890. (Copyright: Camden Historical Society)

John Street Camden, c.1890. Copyright: Camden Historical Society

The Macarthur family’s agricultural enterprises also provided employment for immigrant workers, who came to the area under Governor Burke’s 1835 plan as tenant farmers. Many later obtained their own landholdings and established businesses in the area. Descendants of these families remain in Camden today.

Originally part of Nepean Shire, The Municipality of Camden was proclaimed in 1889. Camden township contains many historic buildings which were established during the 19th century to provide services such as the police, Court House, churches, schools, banks and School of Arts (now Library and Museum). The present day town reflects the layout of its earlier establishment in the 1840s, and some of the shopfronts and facades remain from the early decades of the 20th century.

Aside from agriculture, industries such as mining provided employment for the inhabitants. Mines situated in the outlying areas provided coal and silver ore, which was shipped by rail once the tramway was established in 1882. One of the locomotives, affectionately known as ‘Pansy’, travelled on the branch-line from Campbelltown, and in the 1940s had 24 weekday services which were a mixture of goods and passenger services. The line ceased operation in 1963 and was replaced by road transport when coal trucks were a familiar sight in Camden. Today there exists a mix of rural, retail, and light industrial activities in Camden, with many residents now employed outside the local area.

From a population of 242 in 1846 the Camden Local Government area has dramatically increased to include a population of 51,000 in 2006. This expansion follows the State Government’s Growth Centre Plan from the 1970’s and continues with current government plans for increased urbanisation and expansion. The geography of Camden township, with the surrounding flood plain, has allowed the township to retain much of its historic form, with development being concentrated in non-flood prone areas.
(Information provided by Camden Historical Society, Camden Council Library Service and Camden Council Community Profile)

Camden: the gateway to Utopia?

Many Camden residents and visitors will testify to the beauty of the area. Its lush pasture land, the beautiful summer sun, the changing autumn leaves. But even the most enthusiastic will not venture to say it is the gateway to Utopia. But so thought a handful in the early Sydney colony. In 1798 an expedition was undertaken by a ragtag group from Sydney deep into the surrounding ranges.

The expedition had a unique objective. Many convicts in the penal colony, desperate for freedom, created two myths about what lay beyond the bounds of the Sydney colony. The first and more plausible was that they could find a passage through to China. Although technically possible, the passage is not exclusively on land as they believed, and the supposed length of the journey, 150 miles, was optimistic at best (it is closer to 5000 miles). The second and more fanciful was the belief that beyond the bounds of the colony lived a free white indigenous settlement, where they would be emancipated and where life was easy. It was imagined as the land of Cockaigne, a place of luxury and plenty.

John Hunter (1737-1821), by William Mineard Bennett, c1812 National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an2272205

John Hunter (1737-1821), by William Mineard Bennett, c1812
National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an2272205

The expedition of 1798 was commissioned by Governor John Hunter as an “expedition of anti-discovery” (Levell, 2008, p.62), specifically to disprove and dispel the myths from persisting. He was not attempting to discover other new parts of Australia, although he kept up that pretense with his superiors, particularly in retrospect (Levell, 2008, p.71).

As striking as the tales are, the real world source is just as fascinating. Those who spread these tales were convicts within the Sydney colony, sick of the hard labour they endured and willing to make the journey into either of these safe havens. Many convicts had died after escaping or, if lucky, managed to find their way back. Dead convicts meant a reduced labour force, but more troubling for Governor Hunter, and Governor Philip before him, was the unrest stirred by the rumours.

Koala, London : Wyman & Sons, 188-?. National Library of Australia, an-9939719-1-v.

Koala, London : Wyman & Sons, 188-?. National Library of Australia, an-9939719-1-v.

Appropriately enough, the man selected to lead the expedition was himself an early settlement convict. John Wilson was convicted of stealing nine yards of velveret in England in 1785 and sentenced to seven years in Australia. He arrived aboard the ship Alexander with the First Fleet. After serving his term he became a “vagabond”, preferring to live “among the natives in the vicinity of the [Hawkesbury] River, to earning the wages of honest industry for settlers”, according to David Collins, deputy judge advocate and lieutenant-governor of the early colony. He did however develop a great knowledge of the Australian bush, and despite his “unsavoury” lifestyle choices, was often called on to partake in expeditions, that is, when they could locate him.

Within a short time most had already turned back, deciding that it was preferable to stay in the relative comfort of the colony than endure the often hostile Australian landscape. The three who continued, only one of which was a convict, faced incredible hardships including starvation numerous times. The only one who remained “well and hearty” was Wilson, with the rest collapsing as soon as they arrived home.

Lyre Birds by Neville Cayley, 1854-1903. National Library of Australia, an14534402-v.

Lyre Birds by Neville Cayley, 1854-1903. National Library of Australia, an14534402-v.

Although farcical in conception, the expedition did provide some unique finds. The one that generated the most excitement at the time was  the discovery of a supposed salt deposit that would have removed the need of costly imports into the colony. However, on a second expedition by Wilson, it was determined that the quality of the salt was unsuitable (Levell, 2008, p.70). There was also the first sighting by white people of a koala near Bargo, and the first sighting of a Lyrebird, which was described as a pheasant and resulted in the naming of the area Pheasants Nest. There was also the first recording of a Wombat, with Wilson pointing out the dung to one of his travel companions, although the creature was not actually seen on this expedition.

Although providing for some discoveries on this unique expedition, the main objective of dispelling the escape myths was short lived, with many convicts still attempting to flee the colony. Versions and variations of this paradise myth continued well into the 1820s and 30s, with even the likes of Charles Sturt believing that there was an inland sea in the heart of the Australian continent.


Cambage, R.H. ‘Exploration Beyond the Upper Nepean in 1798’. Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 6, part 1, 1920, pp 1-36.

Levell, D. (2008). Tour to Hell: Convict Australia’s Great Escape Myths. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press.

Australian Dictionary of Biography Online.

Camden Agriculture-Wool, Wheat and Wine

What is most striking about the development  currently occurring in the Camden area is the change of large expanses of open land to urbanized dwellings and town centres. It leads many to wonder what other changes occurred with land use in the area.  Numerous enterprises were attempted, and although some are considered the start of the Nation’s wealth, many have not continued in the Camden area.

Camden is known today primarily as a dairy producer, and although it was in the 1880s that dairy became the primary industry of Camden, it was about a century before that when cattle first came to the region. Cattle were brought in the early days of the settlement, but many escaped due to the lack of fencing, creating a population of wild cattle that would eventually wonder beyond the settlement. It was Governor John Hunter, after hearing reports of wild cattle around the Nepean, who decided to explore further in 1795. The area in which the cattle were found became known as “Cowpasture”.

The cattle became almost sacred, deemed the property of the Governor and protected. But this status did not last. The land grants to John Macarthur in Camden in 1803 and Major Henry Colden Antill in Picton in 1822 required the cattle to be rounded up and slaughtered, becoming the sacrificial calves of Australian agriculture. Part of the reason for the slaughter was the need for the land, but also because the wild cattle were not only uncontrollable, but, as Governor King described in 1801, “so vicious as to be not easily approachable”. Additionally, the meat and dairy they produced was deemed unsuitable.

Now clear of the wild cattle, the Macarthurs transformed Camden with the three enterprises that spelled the “Birthplace of the Nation’s Wealth”: wool, wheat and wine.

Copy of portrait in the library at Camden Park House.

Copy of portrait of John Macarthur in the library at Camden Park House.

Wool is the most famous of the three and was a significant success. By 1830 they  produced over 18,000 kg of wool that they shipped to England. This was not merely a bulk enterprise, with the wool being of a consistent high quality that encouraged “contemporary envy and grudging admiration” (Kerr, 1960). This came from Macarthur’s breeding of two stocks. His original flock was of Benghal sheep that he farmed on the small land grant of Elizabeth Farm in 1793. In 1797 he gained a flock of “Gordon” merinos and successfully bred the two. The flock produced the famed wool of high quality. It was at this point that Macarthur decided to breed sheep for wool rather than the meat the colony so desperately needed.

This gamble paid off when, in 1802, Macarthur went to London to face court martial charges.  The charges were dropped, but Macarthur utilized the trip to show samples of the wool produced by the flock and the industry had a booming start. Macarthur then secured the Cowpasture land to expand his enterprise. However, the land was not always welcoming to industry, and in 1840 a severe drought required the animals to be transported to greener pastures. The stock’s purity was retained by William Campbell in Victoria, with some of the sheep finding their way back to Camden in the 1880s. Although they returned, wool would never again be the primary industry of the area.

Descendants of the original Macarthur flock, now at the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute. 1980.

Descendants of the original Macarthur flock, now at the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute. 1980.

With large, empty portions of land available, Macarthur turned his attention to wheat. He divided the land into “clearing leases”. These required the lessee to clear and fence the land, build a dwelling and grow their won crops. Macarthur wheat had a strong reputation with one of Macarthur’s lessees, Thomas Dunk of Cawdor, winning the gold medal for “the best wheat in the world” at the Great London Exhibition of 1851 (Nixon, 2005). A similar medal was won by Henry Gumbleton at the Paris Exhibition in 1855 using the same strain.

The wheat was not only produced in Camden but also milled into flour. Henry Thompson operated a water powered mill in the 1840s, and the expansion of the industry required him to change to steam power to cope with the demand. His confidence in the industry’s longevity is evidenced by his building a brand new mill in 1858. The flour, like the wheat, had a strong reputation and was used extensively. Seemingly establishing the primary industry in the area, this, like the wool enterprise, was not to last. It was plagued by rust, with the first outbreak occurring as early as 1803. However, this did not halt the industry, but two severe outbreaks in 1861 and 1863 devastated the crops causing many farmers to seek ends meat elsewhere (Nixon, 1998; Robinson). The industry collapsed.

Thompson's Mill, inundated by flood of 1898.

Thompson’s Mill, inundated by flood of 1898.

The last of the Ws was wine. This did not have the runaway success of the wool or wheat industries, but it was considerably more stable. It was John Macarthur’s sons, James and William, who established the enterprise. The first successful wine maker in Australia was Gregory Blaxland, who made silver and gold medal winning wine from his Brush Farm near Eastwood in the early 1800s. It was around the time of his success that James and William made their first unsuccessful attempts. This changed when they gained a 20 acre property on the slopes of the Nepean River. The venture was a success in numerous fields. By 1827 they produced 100,000 litres per year and it was highly regarded both in Australia and abroad. What made their enterprise unique was the scale, with it being recognized as the first commercial vineyard in Australia and the Hawkesbury/Nepean region being considered the ‘cradle’ of the Australian wine industry (Penfold, 1989). The wine industry, unlike wool and wheat, has remained within the Macarthur region, although never becoming its primary industry.

The later part of the 19th century saw another industry establish itself in Camden, one that would remain well into the 21st century despite the changes. This was the dairy industry.


Kerr, Jill. (1960). Merchants and Merinos. R.A.H.S. Journal.

Nixon, R.E. (26.11.98). Camden’s Wheat Industry Blighted. Back Then. District Reporter.

Nixon, R.E. (4.3.05). When the Local Wheat was World Renowned. Back Then. District Reporter.

Penfold, Barry J. (1989). Wine Regions of New South Wales. Secret Wines of New South Wales. Kenthurst Kangaroo Press.

Robinson, Steve. (n.d.) Camden West.