Camden Park Estate

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Coordinates: 34°5′23.12″S 150°43′13.81″E / 34.0897556°S 150.7205028°E / -34.0897556; 150.7205028

Camden Park House

Camden Park was a large sheep station established by John Macarthur south of Sydney near present-day Camden, New South Wales, Australia. Today, part of the original estate contains the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute. The remnants of Camden Park Estate are of social, historic, scientific and aesthetic significance to New South Wales and Australia and are listed on the Register of the National Estate as well as State and local heritage registers.[1]


John Macarthur, who had arrived in the colony of New South Wales in 1790 had quarrelled with successive Governors. He was forced to return to England to face trial for duelling (the charges were dismissed). While he was there, he gained the patronage of, among others, the Colonial Secretary, Lord Camden. Camden supported Macarthur and ordered Governor King to grant Macarthur 5,000 acres (20 km²) at a location of his own choosing. In 1805 when Macarthur returned to Sydney he choose the fertile 'Cowpastures', which was the first area beyond the Nepean River to be settled. King grudgingly acceded to Lord Camden's wishes, and the grant was verified in 1806. Macarthur named his new property 'Camden Park' in honour of his patron.

Amongst the first structures to be built at Camden Park was a slab and bark hut, referred to as the 'miserable hut' by Governor Macquarie. Located to the immediate North of the Belgenny Farm complex, the area thought to have been the site of this and other huts was the subject of an archaeological dig in 2009.

From 1809 to 1817, John Macarthur left Australia as a result of his pivotal involvement in the revolt that overthrew Governor William Bligh, the so-called Rum Rebellion. His wife Elizabeth managed his extensive pastoral interests in his absence. While in Europe, Macarthur studied agriculture and viticulture, and toured on foot throughout France with his sons James and William. John Macarthur was allowed to return to the colony in 1817 on condition that he no longer participate in public affairs. He turned his attentions to developing his considerable estates, and the merino flocks which he had moved to Camden Park.

Belgenny; the Camden Park 'Home farm'[edit]

In 1821 the Macarthurs built Belgenny Farm House, a timber 'cottage ornée' designed by Henry Kitchen. Kitchen also designed Hambledon Cottage at Elizabeth Farm, the family's estate at Parramatta, and a series of unbuilt mansions for their Pyrmont estate and Camden Park itself. The original cottage was later demolished and replaced by a poorly configured structure that led several architectural historians to mistakenly decry Kitchen's capacity as an architect. This later structure and the original related outbuildings, known as the 'Camden Park Home Farm', form one of the oldest surviving groups of farm structures in Australia. In 1832, after Macarthur had finally decided to make Camden the 'family seat', he commissioned architect John Verge to design a house of a stature suitable for one of the colony's leading and wealthiest families; previous designers employed by Macarthur included Edward Smith and Henry Cooper. The house was completed in 1835, shortly after John Macarthur's death in 1834. Sons James and William Macarthur took up occupancy in the new house, while their mother Elizabeth continued to reside at Elizabeth Farm at Parramatta, in which she had a life interest.

Architectural features[edit]

Camden Park house is a two-storey Palladian Revival structure with single-storey pavilions to either side of a two storeyed central block. It is built of stuccoed sandstock brick, with window and door architraves and other detailing of locally cut stone, including Marulan mudstone. The roof is of slate, while the service wings had the first documented use of corrugated iron in the colony. The house has a colonnaded verandah to its eastern garden front, and sandstone Tuscan portico to its eastern, principal front. The dining room has a finely detailed arched apsial end, and there is a large drawing room, library and breakfast room connected 'en fillade' with views to the gardens and landscape beyond. The 'geometric' staircase is to one side, not centrally placed, perhaps reflecting its rural nature. The service wings stretch to the northern side, rather than the rear as is often the convention with colonial houses, and have a central courtyard beneath which are large cisterns. The wings originally had no external windows or doors, only a strong gate at the North end, reflecting the secure nature of the house. A second, larger service court with stables and blacksmith extended further northwards, though this was demolished later in the century. A curved brick wall at the north east corner of the house is all that remains of this section. A separate, larger stable block was also built at this time. Large cellars stretch the entire length and width of the main block of the house, and were partly used for storing the estate's considerable wine production.

Gardens and vineyard[edit]

Wine label of James and William Macarthur — used for wine produced at Camden Park Estate.

The extensive vineyards were later destroyed during the international phylloxera outbreak of the 1870s.[2] On a hill directly facing the front of the house is the family mausoleum where John and Elizabeth Macarthur and most of their children are buried; a painting by Conrad Martens in the house collection depicts the structure. Members of the family in the direct line are still buried here. The graveyard is an excellent example of colonial arcadian landscaping, with exotic Chinese elms dominating the planting.

Illustration of Erythrina ×bidwillii 'Camdeni' — a cultivar developed at Camden Park.

The gardens surrounding Camden Park are the largest and most intact Australian early colonial garden in existence. They are largely the creation of Sir William Macarthur, who was a keen botanist and horticulturalist and operated a sizeable commercial nursery from the estate. Old catalogues of plants for sale from the Camden Nursery provide an idea as to the contents of colonial gardens. Many trees date from the 19th century, including a bauhinia planted by Ludwig Leichhardt, the oldest camellia in the country - the 'anemoniflora' or 'waratah' camellia (Camellia japonica var. anemoniflora),[3] a Queensland 'bottle tree' and unusual jubaea palms (Jubaea chilensis). Camden Park has always been associated with camellias, William having produced the first Australian camellia cultivar here, the 'Aspasia macarthur'.

The gardens and landscape are a combination of the colonial picturesque - which in the Cowpastures area had a decidedly 'arcadian' quality - and the gardenesque. Vistas from the house stretch out to nearby Mount Annan, Mount Gilead, the church spire of St John's at Camden, and the family cemetery. The location of St Johns was carefully surveyed by Sir Thomas Mitchell; from the house carriage loop the spire is symmetrically framed by the distant Mountains Hunter and Taurus, earning the church the local quip 'built to the glory of God and to enhance the view of the Macarthurs'.

Later years[edit]

Many of the furnishings still seen in the house at Camden Park were acquired by James Macarthur on a subsequent trip to England, where he met his wife Emily Stone. Their only child Elizabeth was to inherit the estate. She later married Captain Arthur Onslow, and through that marriage their son James Macarthur-Onslow was to inherit both Camden Park and Elizabeth Bay House (the Onslows being related to the Macleay family) in Sydney. Portraits of the principal family members hang in the house's dining and drawing rooms.

6 years after the death of her husband in 1882, Elizabeth Onslow took her children to England. While the children were at school, Elizabeth studied dairy farming and on returning to Camden in 1889 she founded a dairy farming complex, the Camden Vale Milk Co., which eventually merged with the Dairy Farmers' Co-operative Milk Co in 1928. Dairy Farmer's 'gold top' milk, known by its gold foil bottle top, was sourced from Camden Park. The property is still a working dairy farm.

It is likely that Camden Park is the oldest post-1788 property still owned and occupied by descendants of its original family, the present owners being the Macarthur-Stanham family. The house and garden are open each year on the second last full weekend of September.

Camden Park appearances in film[edit]

An iconic colonial house with large gardens and intact interiors, Camden Park has appeared several times in film and advertising. It appeared in the 'Smiley' films (1956, 1958) which starred Chips Rafferty and Ralph Richardson, scenes from which were also filmed in the Camden area. It was used as Five Bob Downs, the house of Harry Beecham, in the 1970 adaptation of Australian novelist Miles Franklin's 1901 novel My Brilliant Career. Notable scenes that feature the house and its contents include a formal dinner in the large dining room and a pillow fight between the central character Sybylla Melvyn, played by Judy Davis, and her potential husband Harry (Sam Neill) that proceeds down the house's main staircase, through the garden and along a long arbour known as the 'clivia walk', finishing on a grassed section below the rear lawn known as 'Blarney Bank'. Both exterior and interior scenes of Julia Leigh's film Sleeping Beauty (2011), starring Emily Browning, were filmed at the house, notably in the library and along the entrance drive where tall hedges of plumbago and bay create a shaded theatrical contrast to the brightly lit western front of the house with its Tuscan portico.

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ "Camden Park". NSW Government. Retrieved 2013-04-12. 
  2. ^ ""The Blight" and the Camden Vineyards". Retrieved 2013-04-12. 
  3. ^ "Camellia japonica 'Anemoniflora'". Retrieved 2013-04-12. 

External links[edit]