wheat

Denbigh

Denbigh is something of an unsung landmark. Where Camden Park is linked with the history of Australian agriculture, and Camelot is the current star of A Place to Call Home, Denbigh has had a very intimate relationship with Camden’s history and is considered “one of the finest early colonial farmhouses in Australia, with important historical associations and an evocative atmosphere.”

Part of the Cobbity land grant between 1812 and 1819, Denbigh was allotted to Charles Hook. He, like all the grantees, had to clear and cultivate the land within 5 years. Between 1812 and 1819 Hook had between 3 and 9 convicts working the land. This was not necessarily an easy period with the 1814-1816 Cowpasture War in full effect and the land being well within the battlefields. But by 1819 Hook started building some form of residence, living first in Sydney and then in Macquarie Grove with Samuel Hassall, finally moving onto the property in 1820. The first buildings were defensive “siege-style” structures due to the Cowpasture Wars, but later he began constructing the main bungalow that still stands on the property. Like Camden Park House, it was based on a Georogian style, but ‘Denbigh’ was set lower with a simplified version of this English style, which suited it well to the Australian climate.

The front section was built by Charles Hook before 1826 and the two storey section by Thomas Hassall after he purchased Denbigh about 1826. Since renovated. Mrs Lesley McIntosh ( owner) standing on verandah. Copyright: Camden Historical Society.

The main bungalow. The front section was built by Charles Hook before 1826 and the two storey section by Thomas Hassall after he purchased Denbigh about 1826. Since renovated. Mrs Lesley McIntosh (owner) standing on verandah. Copyright: Camden Historical Society.

The property began to see considerable success and become self-sufficient. Livestock  increased with the notable addition of sheep, 400 of the 1,100 aces was cleared, and 60 acres was dedicated to growing the famous Camden wheat. Hook passed away in 1826, and the property was sold to Thomas Hassell the following year.

Hassell came from a family of churchmen, and his move to the area was due to his appointment as chaplain in the Cowpastures. Although already owning land in the area, ‘Denbigh’ offered many advancements over these other properties, both in agricultural terms and in its suitability as a parsonage. While Hook lived on the property only with his wife, never having children, and a handful of convicts, Hassell and his wife Anne had a growing family and undertook works to develop the property. These increased works called for more hands on the property, and Denbigh expanded from a self-sufficient farm to a scattered village, having everything from a blacksmith and carpenter to a shoemaker and schoolmaster.

From northern side showing the Hassall additions and the nineteenth century garden. Copyright: Camden Historical Society.

From the northern side showing the Hassall additions and the nineteenth century garden. Copyright: Camden Historical Society.

Hassell was considered a generous and benevolent landowner by many who came to work for him. Testament to this is that some would continue working on the property even after gaining their tickets of leave, some for as long as fifty years. The prosperity came to an end in the 1840s, largely due to factors within the colony as a whole. The end of transportation and the economic depression resulted in Thomas reducing his holdings, selling some of his properties and leasing considerable amounts of ‘Denbigh’. A further hit to the property came in the 1860s, when rust brought an end to the Camden wheat industry.

In 1868 Thomas Hassell passed away, and his wife Anne found a suitable lessee in Charles McIntosh, who would own the property eighteen years later, when Anne Hassell passed away in 1886. The McIntoshes continue to farm the land to the present day. The first generation with Charles saw the property develop from crop based agriculture to a greater reliance on livestock, in particular dairy cattle and breeding draught horses. It was a leading dairy farm for much of the 20th century, and also witnessed the mechanization of agriculture in Australia.

Jim at 2-3 years of age in a yard with cows at Denbigh, 1925. Copyright: Camden Historical Society.

Jim  McIntosh at 2-3 years of age in a yard with cows at Denbigh, 1925. Copyright: Camden Historical Society.

Denbigh is a unique property in the Camden Area, still maintaining many of its period features. Like the more famous Camden Park, it witnessed the changes and developments of the area. And with the current residents actively undertaking steps to conserve the property it remains a perfect, “intact example of a continuously functioning early farm complex.”

Drought and Deluge

Agricultural areas such as Camden have a mixed relationship with rain. It provides much needed relief and vitality to crops and livestock through the hot Australian summers, but, as with any good thing, too much is disastrous.

Thompson's Mill inundated by the flood of 1898. Copyright: Camden Historical Society.

Thompson’s Mill inundated by the flood of 1898. Copyright: Camden Historical Society.

Hazardous during the storms, the floods have inflicted damage on many notable Camden businesses. Thompson’s Mill, once the centre of Camden’s wheat industry, was heavily inundated by the 1898 flood. Thompson’s was by no means the only one that suffered damage, with many businesses and public buildings in the town, like the Crown Hotel, hit by the flood waters. It has also caused its fair share of havoc with travel in the area, most notably damaging Cowpasture Bridge on numerous occasions.

The Drill Hall and Crown Hotel inundated by the 1898 flood. Copyright: Camden Historical Society.

The Drill Hall and Crown Hotel inundated by the 1898 flood. Copyright: Camden Historical Society.

One unique record in the Local Studies collection are extracts from the Camden News and Sydney Morning Herald from 1873 and 1898 covering news of the floods during that time. Although prone to exaggeration (it often describes the winds as “hurricanes”) it does provide an interesting and detailed record of the floods that hit. It details crop and stock losses and damage to various residential properties while describing the series of events of the storm and flooding.

Homes in Edward Street at the mercy of the 1964 flood. Copyright: Camden Historical Society.

Homes in Edward Street at the mercy of the 1964 flood. Copyright: Camden Historical Society.

Although causing damage and difficulty for the residents of Camden, there is a certain affection towards the flooding rains. One of the most notable parts of Camden is actually called the Flood Plain. Located only a few blocks from Argyle Street and the centre of the town of Camden, it is regularly submerged by the overflow of the Nepean River. Despite being a regular site of flooding, the section of land has been home to many agricultural enterprises, including the Davies’ family dairy farm.

The Camden Flood plain. From Oxley Street on site of Camden Public School. Showing flood water over Showgrounds. Copyright: Camden Historical Society.

The Camden Flood Plain. From Oxley Street on site of Camden Public School. Showing flood water over Showgrounds. Copyright: Camden Historical Society.

Despite the strong association with flooding, drought often had similarly devastating effects. It was a drought that changed Camden’s primary industry from wool to wheat in the 1840s. The early part of the 21st century saw farmers experience a severe drought. It reached its peak in 2002, which also saw the price of cattle feed at its highest. It would continue for several more years, placing the local industry under severe strain. Tony Biffin, a local farmer, saw production drop 50 percent (Abrahams, 2006).

The wine industry has an especially mixed relationship with rain and flooding. The 2008 downpour that saw the end of the long drought caused havoc for local wine producers. Camden viticulturist Bruno Carmagnola lost around $150,000 worth of wine grapes due to the timing of the rain (Abrahams, 2008). Had it arrived a few weeks later it would have saved the crop, but instead it caused a fungus to develop, devastating the harvest. Other producers such as Eddie Galea who grows salads and brassicas, experienced a decline of the crop, although the filling of the dams ensured hope for the following year.

Not just a topic for small talk, the weather has been an integral part of life and prosperity throughout Camden’s history.

References:

Abrahams, L. (20/10/2006). “Drought hits hard”. The District Reporter.

Abrahams, L. (22/02/2008). “The good and bad of a deluge”. The District Reporter.

n.a. (n.d.) The Greatest Floods, 1873-1898: News Extracts from the Sydney Morning Herald & Camden News.