Camden's Interwar Heritage 1919-1939
What is the significance of the interwar period in Camden's history? It is one of the hidden parts of the town's past between 1919 and 1939. It is all around the local community, yet few know much about it.
|Royal Hotel demolished in 1973 (CHS/E Kernohan)|
The interwar period in Camden was a time of economic development and material progress. The prosperity of the period was driven by the local dairy industry and the emerging coal industry.
The population of the town grew by over 35 per cent between the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Second, so that in 1939 the town was the centre of a district that covered 455 square miles (1180 square kilometres) and with a population of over 5000.
Camden was one of the most important commercial and administrative centres between Sydney and Goulburn. The town was the centre of the police district, it had the regional hospital, it was the largest population centre, and it was a transport node of a district which spread from Campbelltown to the lower Blue Mountains.
|The former Bank of New South Wales building at 121 Argyle Street Camden building in 1938 (I Willis 2009)|
During the interwar period, one of the most important economic arteries of the town was the Hume Highway (until 1928 the Great South Road). Most understood the value of the rail connection to Camden; most obviously because you heard it, smelt it and saw it.
Yet few understand the significance of the Hume. The highway had run up the town’s main street from colonial times, until 1973 when it was moved to the Camden Bypass, and then moved in 1980 to the freeway.
|Cook's Garage, 1936 on Hume Highway Camden, the height of modernism (Camden Images) |
Consumerism and Modernism
The highway and railway were the conduits that brought the international influences of modernism and consumerism to the town and the goods and services that supported them.
These forces influenced the development of the local motor industry, the establishment of the local cinemas, and the local airfield development. These were all important economic, social and cultural forces for the time.
‘Locals’ travelled to the city for higher-order retail goods, specialist services and entertainment, while the landed gentry escaped to the cosmopolitan centre of the British Empire, London. Conversely, the Sydney elite experienced the new gentlemanly pastime of flying at the Macquarie Grove Airfield.
|Camden Airfield 1930s Macquarie Grove Flying School (Camden Images)|
For a country town of its size, the town had modern facilities and was up-to-date with the latest technology.
The town had two weekly newspapers, Camden News and the Camden Advertiser, there was the opening of the telephone exchange (1910), the installation of reticulated gas (1912), electricity (1929), replacement of gas street lighting with electric lights (1932) and a sewerage system (1939), and by 1939 the population has increased to 2394.
The town’s prosperity allowed the Presbyterians built a new church (1938), while several ‘locals’ built solid brick cottages that reflected their confidence in the town’s future.
|Macaria is one of the most important Victorian buildings in the Camden town centre in John Street. (2017, Fairfax)|
Gentry Estates and Dairying
The interwar period's prosperity did not upset the situation where the town still dominated by the colonial gentry and their estates.
Apart from their convict labour in the early years, they established a class and social relations system that ordered daily life in the town from its foundation until after the Second World War.
While the townsmen dominated the early period of local government, by Federation the landed gentry had usurped their power and had imposed their political mantra of conservatism on the area.
The dominance of the Macarthur’s Camden Park over the local economy during the interwar period was characterised by the Camden Vale milk processing factory (1926) adjacent to the railway.
The company developed TB free milk and marketed it through the Camden Vale Milk Bar, a retail outlet on the Hume Highway (1939); complete with a drive-through.
The motor car
The interwar was a period of transition, and increasingly the motor car replaced the horse in town, and on the farm, the horse was replaced by the tractor, all of which supported the growing number of garages in the town.
The interwar landscape was characterised by personalised service, along with home and farm deliveries by both horse and cart and motor cars.
The layout and shape of interwar Camden have changed little from the 19th century, and the town centre has a certain bucolic charm and character that is the basis of the community’s identity and sense of place.
The strip shopping and mixed land use support the country feel that has become the basis of the modern ‘country town idyll’.
|The entrance to Camden at the northern end of town along Argyle Street (CC)|
In recent years, Camden has been targeted by the New South Wales government as one of the Sydney metropolitan area's growth centres. It has become part of Sydney’s exurbanistion on the rural-urban fringe.
City types move out of the city looking for places where ‘the country looks like the country’. This only re-enforced the duality of the love/hate relationship the community had with Sydney, which was part of the rural ideology of the area based on the city and country divide.
A country town idyll
For their part, the ‘locals’ have retreated to nostalgia in the form of an arcadian view of the world through a ‘country town idyll’.
The idyll's romance is based on the iconic imagery of Camden as a picturesque English village, with the church on the hill, surrounded by rural vistas.
The idyll has become a defence mechanism against the onslaught from Sydney’s urbanization and the interwar heritage that is part of its iconic landscape.
|Many of the stories about the interwar period are told in this book the Pictorial History of Camden and District.|
Updated 16 January 2021. Originally posted 12 September 2013.