Saturday 16 January 2021

Camden dreamtime

Camden Dreamtime

The Camden Progress Association and a search for a utopia

Camden is like many country towns across Australia. The civic fathers from the town's foundation in 1840 sought progress and development for the community. There was a desire for constant improvement.

The Camden News had numerous references to the town's progress, and the civic fathers founded the Camden Progress Association.  The association held the first meeting in November 1896 with the aim of town improvements. The association was still active in the early 20th century.

The notion of progress assumes that you are going somewhere or working towards some type of endpoint, a goal. What were the Camden's civic fathers working towards in the 1890s? 

One view of the Camden Progress Association was that they searched for a desired or perfect state of their world. It could be argued that they were in search of mythical utopia where everything was in a perfect or desired state.

Nepean River at Camden at a spot called Little Sandy. (CIPP)

This view of the world dates from the time of the Enlightenment and assumes that time is linear and irreversible. Ancients thought differently about the world. The Ancient Greeks and others thought the time was cyclical based around decay and rebirth.

The Camden civic fathers were from a British cultural tradition that viewed time as a linear progression. In what became known as the Whig interpretation of history, especially in the Victorian and Edwardian times,  human history was seen as the progress from savagery and ignorance toward peace, prosperity, and science.

Wikipedia states:
Whig history (or Whig historiography) is an approach to historiography that presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. In general, Whig historians emphasize the rise of constitutional government, personal freedoms and scientific progress.

Underpinning these notions was an accompanying cultural tradition that that world was constructed in terms of binary oppositions, for example, good/evil, black/white, big/small, dark/light, on/off, hot/cold, ugly/beautiful, right/wrong, chaos/order, life/death, love/hate, male/female, hero/coward, young/old, confinement/freedom, and others. 

One of the first to argue over life in this fashion was ancient Greek philosopher Plato and much later in the 19th-century German philosopher GWF Hegel. Here is the concept was called dialectics.

All cultures have some version of binary opposition and in Chinese philosophy and religion yin is represented by negative, dark, feminine and yang by positive, bright, masculine. 

American historian Christopher Lasch that the ideological twin of progress was nostalgia. Nostalgia involves 'the pastoral' is an idea dating from the Ancient Greeks and in literature is relates to the idyll of rural life and usually involves shepherds herding flocks of sheep in open paddocks.

In his book Hunters and Collectors, Australian historian Tom Griffiths argues there have been nostalgia wave in Australia in the 1850s, 1890s, 1930s, 1970s prompted by 'loss, depression or disruption'. In each of these waves of nostalgia, people were searching for a past.

characterised by popular yearnings for the intimate world of early colonial beginnings for lost rural places.  (Griffiths: p.197

In the 1930s the Camden community searched for the Englishness of their past, as they were in the 1840s and 1890s. Nostalgia re-appeared in Camden in the 1980s when increased urbanisation sent the Camden community in search of their own lost rural Arcadia. 

 'A Country Town Idyll' at Camden

Sydney’s urban expansion into the local area has challenged the community’s identity and threatened to suffocate Camden’s sense of place. In the face of this onslaught, many in Camden yearn for a lost past when Sydney was further away, times were simpler, and life was slower. A type of rural Arcadia, which I have called ‘a country town idyll’.

Camden John Street with a view of St John Church in the 1890s. This view was taken by Charles Kerry (CIPP)

 The ‘country town idyll’ is an idealised version of a country town from an imagined past that uses history to construct imagery based on Camden’s heritage buildings and other material fabric.

At the heart of the idyll is the view that Camden should retain its iconic imagery of a picturesque country town with the church on the hill, surrounded by a rustic rural landscape made up of the landed estates of the colonial gentry.

Its supporters created the idyll to isolate Camden, like an island, in the sea of urbanisation and development that has enveloped the town.

Curran's Hill housing development in the 1990s (Camden Images)
 These are the values that the supporters of Camden’s ‘country town idyll’ have encouraged and then expressed in the language they used to describe it.

They talk about retaining Camden’s ‘country town atmosphere’, or retaining ‘Camden’s country charm’, or ‘country town character’. They describe the town as being ‘picturesque’, or having ‘charming cottages’.

Camden is a working country town’, or is simply ‘my country town’. These elements evoke an emotional attachment to a place that existed in the past when Camden was a small quiet country town that relied on farming for its existence.

Argyle Street Camden 1938 (Camden Images)

The origins of the country town idyll’ are to be found in the rural ethos that is drawn from within the nineteenth-century rural traditions brought from Great Britain, where there was a romantic view of the country, that had an ordered, stable, comfortable organic small community in harmony with the natural surroundings.

Elements of this rural culture have been variously described as 'countrymindedness', 'rural ideology', 'rural ethos', 'ruralism', and a 'rural idyll'. They have been a preoccupation of many scholars, including contemporary writers, like the Australian poet Les Murray.

Within this tradition, there is an Arcadian notion of a romantic view of rural life. There is a distinction drawn between the metropolis and the village, commonly known as the town/country divide.

This was the essence of pre-war Camden (a town of around 2000) where rural culture provided the stability of a closed community that was suspicious of outsiders, especially those from the city, with life ordered by social rank, personal contacts familial links. It was confined by conservatism, patriarchy and an Anglo-centric view of the world.

Updated 17 January 2021. Originally posted 18 November 2013.