John Macarthur

Camden Park: Home of Australian Agriculture

If Camden is the “Birthplace of Australian Agriculture” then Camden Park Estate, the 4,046 hectare estate of John and Elizabeth Macarthur, was its home. And the centrepiece is one of Australia’s oldest colonial homes.

The central two storey section of the palladian style.

The central two storey section of the Palladian style.

Designed in 1831 by architect John Verge, Camden Park House follows the Palladian principles popular in England at the time. This featured a middle double storey, with two single storey wings. The strict proportions of the exterior are contrasted on the inside, where the rooms are informally laid out. Although having a European design, the house has proved itself quite adept at coping with the Australian climate. The only major change to occur has been the addition of a second storey on the north west wing in 1880.

Early architectural drawings revealing the pallidan proportions.

Early architectural drawings revealing the Palladian proportions. Copyright: Camden Council Library Service.

As with Camelot and Macaria, the person who commissioned the house would not enjoy residence in the building, it being completed in 1835, the year after John Macathur passed away. During construction the Macarthurs resided in Belgenny Cottage, another notable building of Camden’s past that would go on to house many of its own stories.

Camden Park House with single storey wings

Camden Park House with pavilions on either side of the central double storey. Copyright: Camden Historical Society.

After John Macathur’s passing, Elizabeth lived at Elizabeth Farm in Parramatta, while James and William Macarthur stayed on the estate, continuing its agricultural enterprises and establishing the impressive gardens. The first task was selectively removing the eucalyptus woodland in which the house was set, providing views of Camden village, Mt Annan, and Mt Gilead. It also gave the house an “Arcadian setting”.

Label used on wine production from Camden Park Estate

Label used on wine production from Camden Park Estate

This was only the clearing of the canvas. From their travels in Europe they brought back various seedlings, cuttings, and vines. What started with vegetables, fruit, and ornamental tress in 1824 would lead, in combination with the skills in viticulture they learned overseas, to Australia’s first large scale commercial vineyard. For William this was only the beginning of the estates horticultural potential, and he would establish a rich, diverse garden, equally as famed as the house.

Rotolactor and cattle yards on Camden Park Estate at Menangle

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

The next 200 years saw many changes to the estate. Moving through the three Ws of Camden’s agricultural development it would eventually become the home of some of Camden’s famous dairy cows. This was thanks to the efforts by Elizabeth Macarthur-Onslow in the 1890s. A further development came in the 1950s with the Rotolactor, a large automatic milking building. Its round, glazed design added a modernist contrast to the classical geometry of the original house, while testifying to its pioneering agricultural heritage.

The glazed walls and discs of the Rotolactor.

The glazed walls and discs of the Rotolactor. Copyright: Camden Historical Society.

The bulk of the estate moved into third party ownership in the 1970s, but the house that formed the grand centre piece of the estate still accommodates the descendants of John and Elizabeth Macarthur. John and Edwina Macarthur-Stanham, the current residents, regularly open the house to the public, and actively undertake steps to ensure the lasting heritage of the building, the original home of Australian agriculture.

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.

References:

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.