History of Canberra

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History of Australia

Australia before 1901
Federation of Australia
Australia since 1901
Constitutional history

State and territory

Western Australia

Capital city


The History of Canberra details Canberra's development from before white settlement to the first planning by the Chicago architect Walter Burley Griffin and subsequent development of the city to the present day.


Aboriginal presence

Prior to white settlement, the Canberra area was inhabited by the Ngunnawal and Walgalu tribes. A third tribe, the Ngarigo, lived south-east of the Canberra area. The Aboriginal numbers appeared to have been relatively small - as few as 500. This was in part to a strong pro-marital culture that existed in the tribes in this area. These tribes appear to have been present in the Canberra area since the 11th century.

They seem to have lived well on local wildlife and fish, with bogong moths and grubs being a particular speciality. Corroborrees and dancing were also a part of their culture.

They had at least two burial grounds, a northern limestone cave and a cave in what is now known as Mt Tennant. At least in some cases, dead aboriginals were buried in a sitting position.

European exploration and settlement

European exploration began in the Canberra area as early as the 1820s. Four successive expeditions whose routes took in the Canberra area were those of Charles Throsby Smith (1820), Charles Throsby (1821), Major John Ovens and Captain Mark Currie (1823) and Allan Cunningham (1824). All four expeditions explored the area of the Molonglo River that is now Lake Burley Griffin. Smith and Cunningham also went further south to what is now called the Tuggeranong Valley.

White settlement in the area can be said to have begun in 1824, when a homestead or station was built in what is now the Acton peninsula by stockmen employed by Joshua John Moore. He formally purchased the site in 1826, and named the property Canberry, or Canberra. But he never visited the site.

Other stations were built in turn by other settlers. Initially, these were owned by absentee landlords, but later families moved in. The first white child born in the area was a daughter born to the Macpherson family in 1830.

There were a number of these families that achieved status in the area. These included the Campbell family, the Ainslie family and the Palmer family. In the late 1820s and early 1830s, there was a conflict between two of these families - the Johnstons (descended from Major George Johnston who was involved in the Rum Rebellion) and the Martins - for the ownership and financial control of land which is now known as Weston Creek and Tuggeranong.

The Campbells, and their patriach, Robert Campbell, were particularly influential. The Campbells were Scottish and brought many other Scots to the district as workers. The land that they owned included Duntroon House that is now the Officers Mess at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Yarralumla and the Oaks Estate. The lattermost got its name from a mansion built there by Campbell called the Oaks. When the Campbell family later sold the land it was on for subdivision and development, it was on condition that the Oaks and the land that it was on remain intact and unrenamed respectively. There are still members of the Campbell family living in Canberra.

The European population in the Canberra area continued to slowly grow throughout the rest of the 19th century. One prominent building, the Anglican St John's Church, was consecrated and opened for use in 1845. This building still stands today. A schoolhouse was also attached to this building. By 1851, there were about 2500 people living in the area - a vast majority of which were stockmen. Some convict labour was also used in this area in the 1830s and 1840s.

The settlers dealt totally on agriculture, both crops and livestock, for survival. The weather there was said to be harsh, and drownings in rivers was a fairly common occurrence. Victims of drowning included the first rector of the St John's Church.

The private township of Hall and the town of Queanbeyan were established in the mid to late 19th century.

The Aboriginal population dwindled as the European presence increased, mainly from diseases such as smallpox and measles. Another reason was that their ability to hunt and therefore survive was impeded by homesteads being placed on their hunting grounds. By 1862, they had been largely reduced to half-castes. They held their last full corroboree by the Molonglo River in that year. By 1878, the Aboriginal culture and population had largely ceased to exist, with its members largely absorbed into European culture through half-caste marriages. The last full-blood Aboriginal, Nellie "Queen Nellie" Hamilton, died in Queanbeyan Hospital on January 1, 1897.

The name of Canberra, as well as several derivatives, continued to see some use throughout the 19th century to refer to what is now North Canberra. The local Aboriginals of this time also tended to refer to themselves as the "Kamberra" or "Kamberri" people.

Choice for capital city location

The district's change from a New South Wales rural area to the national capital began during debates over Federation in the early 20th century. At the time, Melbourne was easily Australia's largest city and the obvious place for the capital. The western colonies—Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria—supported Melbourne. However, NSW (the largest colony) and (to a lesser extent) Queensland, favoured Sydney—which was older than Melbourne and the only other large city in Australia. Perhaps one or another of the two colonial capitals might have eventually been acceptable to the smaller states, but the Sydney-Melbourne rivalry was such that neither city would ever agree to the other one becoming capital.

Eventually, a compromise was reached: Melbourne would be the capital on a temporary basis while a new capital was built somewhere between Sydney and Melbourne. Section 125 of the Constitution specified that it must be north of the Murray River (placing it in NSW rather than Victoria) but at least 100 miles from Sydney.

After an extensive search, the present site, about 300 kilometres south-west of Sydney in the foothills of the Australian Alps, was chosen in 1908 as a result of survey work done by Government Surveyor Charles Scrivener in that year. Two persons who campaigned strongly for the Federal capital to be in the Canberra area were John Gale, the publisher of the Queanbeyan Age and Federal politician King O'Malley. The choice of site was a disputed one, and narrowly beat Dalgety, a small town near the NSW/Victoria border.

The NSW government ceded the new Australian Capital Territory to the Commonwealth Government on January 1, 1910. In that same year, the ACT became an alcohol-free area as a result of legislation that the Minister for Home Affairs King O'Malley ran through Federal Parliament in Melbourne (Ironically, a pub named after King O'Malley was established in the city centre of Canberra during the 1990s).

An international competition was held in 1911 by O'Malley to select a plan for the new city. A variety of names were suggested for the capital, including Olympus, Paradise, Captain Cook, Shakespeare, Kangaremu, Eucalypta and Myola. The name of Canberra was eventually settled upon. At midday on March 12, 1913 the city was officially given this name by Lady Gertrude Denman the wife of the then Governor-General, at a ceremony on Kurrajong Hill (now known as Capital Hill) and building officially commenced. The city now commemorates this anniversary as "Canberra Day" each year.

Development and growth

Canberra's growth over the first few decades was slow, and Canberra was indeed far more a small country town than a capital before World War II. It was noted for being more trees and fields than houses. Cattle grazing near Parliament House was a common occurrence, something which amazed General Macarthur when he visited Canberra during World War II. However, the pace of development began to speed up after World War II.

Canberra's population also grew slowly throughout the 20th century, from 9,000 in 1930 to 13,000 in 1945, 39,000 in 1957, 146,000 in 1971, 270,000 in 1988 and 310,929 in 2000.

Early Years of Canberra

King O'Malley drove the first survey peg in the Canberra area on February 20, 1913 to mark commencement of work on the new city.

Building of the capital began in what is now North and South Canberra. The pace was slower than expected because of the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and a dispute between Griffin and Federal government bureaucrats. In 1917, a Royal Commission determined that these individuals had undermined Griffin's authority by supplying false data to him, which he had used in carrying out his work. Ultimately, Griffin resigned from the Canberra design project in 1920, when he discovered that several of these bureaucrats has been appointed to an agency that would oversee Canberra's construction.

Suburbs that slowly were built over the next several years included Parkes, Barton, Kingston, Manuka, Braddon and Reid. These suburbs often had other names - for instance, Kingston was originally known as Eastlakes - before a formal renaming procedure took place in 1928. They were built largely in accordance to Walter Burley Griffin's designs for Canberra. The men who constructed these suburbs lived in a series of worker's camps, which consisted of tents and some brick cottages. Building materials were obtained from quarries in the North Canberra area. A temporary railroad was used to shift materials.

The rail line between Canberra and Queanbeyan was constructed and opened for industrial use on May 25, 1914. It was later made available for public use in 1924. A formal foundation stone for the city was laid by the future Edward VIII on June 21, 1920. Government House in Yarralumla, the Prime Minister's Lodge, and what is now called the old Parliament House, were also built during this time.

An internment camp for German World War I prisoners-of-war was established in 1918 in Canberra's eastern outskirts, in what is now Fyshwick. However, the prisoners never arrived, and it instead became a worker's camp in 1920. Later, this was closed down, and the roads that were used to service the camp became the first streets in Fyshwick.

The first blocks of land for residential and business use were sold by auction in December 12, 1924. The residents of these buildings went through a gruelling start to their occupancy when a flood struck the Canberra area in February 1925. The flood came as the result of the Molonglo River bursting its banks. The flooding threatened or damaged many buildings, and some drownings resulted. However, the community recovered.

Canberra's first school, Telopea Park School, had already been opened in 1923. Public transport became available in July 1925 and two shopping areas were established at Manuka and Kingston in 1925.

1927 saw a movie theatre being opened at Manuka and a Territory police force established. Also in 1927, the city centre was officially established. It was meant to be called Civic Centre, but then Prime Minister Stanley Bruce vetoed the idea and it became officially known as City Centre. However, City Centre is still commonly referred to as "Civic".

But 1927's most significant event was the opening of the provisional Parliament House (now known as the old Parliament House) on May 9, 1927. On this date also, Melbourne ceased being the national capital and seat of government and Canberra assumed this role. Amongst the first legislation dealt with in the new parliament house was an act to repeal O'Malley's prohibition laws. This took effect in 1928.

Canberra's workforce did not escape the Depression when it arrived in 1929. In 1930, 1800 labour force workers and about one seventh of Public Service staff in Canberra were retrenched. In the early 1930s, its growth ground to a complete halt, with even the government agency supervising its development being abolished for a time.

However, the community continued to develop if not to grow, with the establishment of community facilities, such as a radio station (2CA) in 1931, which was initially run from a shop in the Kingston area. The planning and building of the Australian War Memorial under the supervision of war historian C.E.W Bean also began at this time. The memorial was eventually completed in 1941, and was opened on November 11 of that year.

For all this, Canberra remained a small country town prior to World War II, far more rural than urban in its nature and size, with little to mark it as Australia's capital other than its Parliament House and the developing War Memorial. Its social centre remained the Kingston/Manuka area.

Post World War II Growth

During and after World War II, Canberra began to grow more rapidly. The Australian War Memorial was opened in 1941, and the Australian National University in 1946.

Embassies and High Commissions began to establish themselves in Canberra during the 1940s, the first of which was the US Embassy in 1943. The only such establishment that had existed prior to that time was the UK High Commission, in 1936. Other countries, such as Sweden, followed soon afterwards.

Wartime conditions emphasied the need for an airport. On April 1, 1940, a military air base, RAAF Station Canberra, was established on a flat plain between Canberra and Queanbeyan. Later, this was renamed RAAF Fairbairn in memory of the Minister for Air, James V. Fairbairn, who was killed with a number of other ministers and officials when an aircraft crashed into a nearby hill in dense fog on 13 August 1940. Canberra Airport was constructed in the 1960s, the miltary base and commercial airport sharing the same runway.

New districts, such as Woden and Tuggeranong, were established and slowly developed throughout the 1960s and 1970s to accommodate a growing population. Griffin's plans did not include these particular suburbs, and thus it was possible to design them to take better advantage of the land contours. Woden was established in 1964, Belconnen in 1967 and Tuggeranong in 1973. These additional districts helped to encourage a massive population explosion between 1960 and 1975.

Lake Burley Griffin was filled in April 1964, constructed largely in accordance with Griffin's original designs. A move to name it Lake Menzies, after the then Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, was vetoed by Menzies himself.

Scrivener Dam, named after Charles Scrivener and located along what is now the western end of Lake Burley Griffin, had been completed in 1963, and its valves were closed on September 20, 1963, to allow the lake to form. However, the area was in drought at the time and the lake did not actually form until April 1964 when the drought broke. This allowed the first event scheduled for the lake, a rowing championship, to take place. In 1970, the Captain Cook Fountain/Memorial Jet was added, as part of the celebrations held that year to mark the bicentenarary of the discovery of Australia's east coast by Captain James Cook.

In 1978, Bruce Stadium was opened. The High Court was formally opened in 1980 and the National Gallery of Australia in 1982.

Parts of Canberra were the backdrop for Cold War espionage activity. One South Canberra park, Telopea Park, was a known drop-off point for KGB spies based at the nearby USSR Embassy. This embassy was constantly monitored by ASIO agents based in a hotel located across the street. In 1991, with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the building became the Russian Embassy.

In 9 May, 1988, a new larger Parliament House was opened on Capital Hill in State Circle, Parkes as part of Australia's bicentenary celebrations, and the Federal Parliament moved there from the provisional (60 years!) parliament house.

In December, 1988, the Australian Capital Territory was granted full self-government when an Act passed by Federal Parliament that made the Territory a body politic under the Crown was signed by Elizabeth II. On 11 May, 1989, following the elections earlier that year, a 17-member Legislative Assembly sat at its offices in London Circuit, Civic. The first government was led by the Chief Minister Rosemary Follett.

Recent years

In 2000, several Sydney 2000 soccer games were played at Bruce Stadium.

In 2001, the National Museum of Australia was opened. An unfortunate incident occurred in 1997 in which a local Canberra girl, Katie Bender, was killed by flying debris when the disused former Royal Canberra Hospital was demolished by explosion to make way for the new museum. A small memorial was erected to her memory at the spot at Lake Burley Griffin where she died.

On January 18, 2003, parts of Canberra were engulfed by a bushfire that destroyed over 500 homes. The suburb of Duffy was especially affected, with some 200 homes destroyed. Four people died in the flames.

On March 5, 2004, the Canberra Spatial plan was submitted to the press. Information can be found at the following link: Canberra spatial plan (http://www.actpla.act.gov.au/plandev/sp-intro/)

Canberra's population timeline

External links

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