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IFHAA Perspectives on Australian History
Where They Lived 1910 -1959. An Overview of the Times.
An Essay about the Builders of Canberra

© 2000 - All Rights Reserved - Ann Gugler.
The Copyright of this essay is held by it's author Ann Gugler. Any requests for the use of this material must be directed to Ann. The use of this material without the authors permission will constitute a breach of Copyright.
Ann's home page can be found at http://members.dynamite.com.au/robina/ 


In March 1909 a small group of Commonwealth surveyors set up camp near a creek in Ngunawal land - known to Europeans as Klensendorlffe’s.[1]  Their purpose was to carry out preliminary survey work on an area of thirty-six square miles to define the city area of the proposed national capital.  They remained for three weeks.  The following year the surveyors returned and set up a base camp which consisted of in addition to their tents a few timber offices and a concrete plan room.  The plan room still stands.  It is on land now called Camp Hill off State Circle just below Parliament House.

By 1912  the surveyors had moved across the Molonglo River to a site near Acton House[2] (small old farm cottage).   Nearby workmen  constructed a number of substantial temporary timber buildings which included a bank,  post office, hospital, offices, cottages and single men’s barracks known as the Bachelors Quarters.  Acton thus became Canberra’s first suburb.   It was and remained for the next half century, the Administrative Centre of Canberra.

A world wide competition[3] was held to design the new city.  It was won by the American  Walter Burley Griffin.  The city proper was set within a circle of low hills. From the beginning Canberra was a garden city with buildings connected to a clean water supply, electricity and sewerage.  Canberra was designed with wide roads suitable for the new inventions - the motorised vehicles.[4]    

The date set for the ceremonies to mark the beginning of the city was 12 March, 1913.  In the morning hours of that day men and women wearing their

finery made their way by foot, sulky and horseless carriages over dusty paddocks to the chosen site on Capital Hill.  The official party and those of importance stood on a specially erected timber dais.  The ceremonies of the day included suitable patriotic songs and numerous speeches.   The military presence was supplied by  the 11th Light Horse of NSW Lancers, 28th Light Horse,  9th Mounted Rifles, two mounted bands and a guard of honour by RMC cadets from Duntroon.[5]   At the appropriate hour Lord Denman, the Governor General followed by Prime Minister Fisher and Minister for Home Affairs, King O’Malley, each armed with a silver trowel with ivory handle tapped one of the six foundation stones[6] to mark the official beginning of construction of the city.  At precisely mid-day Lady Denman opened a gold case[7] from which she took out the small card bearing the name of the city and said, I name the capital city of Australia, CANBERRA.[8]

The events of the grand and historical occasion were captured on film now held in the Film and Sound Archives, Canberra.  The man cranking the handle of the film making device took time off from the duties of the day to focus his lens on a lone dog  weaving back and forth through the chatting lines of cadets. 

The workmen who came to built the city moved into a number of segregated camps - married and single men’s.   They were established near work sites at Cotter River, Power House and Brickyards.[9]    Many of the single men rented tents from the Commonwealth for one shilling and sixpence (1/6d) per week plus another sixpence land rent.  Married men were expected to build their own cottages.  The majority used timber frames covered with iron on the roof and hessian on the walls.  Paper lined the interior of these cottages and many owners whitewashed the exteriors.  These houses had no electricity, no sewerage and no water.  

 On 8 August, 1912 David Miller was appointed the territory’s first administrator. Prior to then work on the city was organised and run from Melbourne by the Department of Home Affairs.  PT Owen and Charles Scrivener were in charge of work in the territory.  Distance created problems with communications.

 From the time when Walter Burley Griffin won the competition there was friction between those for and against the building of Canberra.  The department in charge designed one plan which was different to the one designed by Walter Burley Griffin.   Frederick Watson in his book, History of Canberra, described some of the troubles in the following manner:

In 1913 the departmental board itself was considering alterations in its own design...In July 1913, with the approval of cabinet, Kelly [newly appointed Minister for Home Affairs in charge of Canberra and the territory] arranged for Griffin to visit Australia, and to confer with the departmental board.  Kelly proposed that Griffin should have an opportunity of studying the actual site without the presence of the board; but, when he arrived at Canberra on the 19th August, and spent five days in an inspection of the site, Griffin was accompanied by three members of the board, D Miller, CR Scrivener and JS Murdoch.  At this early date there is evidence of some hostility towards Griffin by some members of the board.   In Melbourne, Kelly informed the board that he wished the members to consult with Griffin “on the basis of the original plan, with such recommendations for amendment as they could make.”  Kelly was then asked by a member of the board, “Does that mean, sir, that all our work is to go for nothing?” to which Kelly replied, “I expect from you absolute loyalty in carrying out my decision”.

 Kelly therefore reversed the decision of King O’Malley, his predecessor, rejected the departmental plan, and adopted Griffin’s premiated plan subject to amendments...

Several days were spent in Melbourne trying to come to an agreement but this failed with the result on 5 October 1913 Kelly sacked the board.  On 18 October Walter Burley Griffin was appointed federal capital director of design and construction.  Unfortunately the conflict of ideas did not cease. 

 Frederick Watson in his chapter The Griffin Plan sets out concisely the major differences between the departmental plan and Griffin’s.   He comments:

Within and without parliament, there was constant criticism of the respective merits of the Griffin and departmental plans, of alleged extravagance, of water supply from the Cotter river, and of the constant delays and alterations of Canberra.  These criticism arose from opponents to the selection of Canberra or  the establishment of any capital city, who desired to defeat the project by ridicule and from supporters of Canberra, who desired to see some definite realisation of their ideals...Passive opposition to WB Griffin as federal capital director of design and construction developed within the department of home affairs soon after his appointment; after his return from America in May 1914, this opposition became active.  An interminable series of differences or acts of wants of co-ordination between Griffin and departmental officials developed...Opposition even to the idea of Canberra existed; a member of a departmental board and an official in the department stated before the royal commissioner that he, “never had any desire to assist in building Canberra,” that he “hoped the whole proposal would be dropped,” and that he would “like to see the federal capital strangled for a hundred years”.

 However, work in the city did continue if but slowly. By the end of 1913  The Residency (Canberra House)[10] was completed, the Power House (on the site chosen by the department)[11] well under way, the Brickyards were up and running, the Oddie Telescope (Mt Stromlo) in use and the Royal Military College, Duntroon processing its first group cadets.  In November 1913 Kelly instructed Griffin to prepare draft conditions for a world wide competition for the design of a Parliament House.  After approval they were published 30 June, 1914.[12]  The competition was cancelled after the outbreak of World War I in August, 1914.  War also depleted the workforce as men left to don the uniforms of the armed services.

 During 1914 the hospital at Acton and the rail link between Queanbeyan and Canberra were completed,  and the main nursery established in Sheedy’s Paddock, Yarralumla. The go slow policy of the department continued with the result that no other large construction works were commenced in 1914.                                                                                             

 Work on the sewer began in 1915.  The following year financial restraints and lack of manpower caused major works in the city to grind to a halt.  The brickyards closed.   By the time peace was declared in 1918 completion of the city was again in doubt.  Not only was there a shortage of tradesmen to build the city, but worse still - a money shortage.

  A poem written in the Visitors’ Book in Yarralumla House (now Government House) in 1920 sums up the uncertainty of the times.

 Canberra’s National Anthem
Billy, Billy, Billy, my boy,
What are you waiting for now?
You promised us Canberra sometime last June, 
As did Ministers, Poynton and Groom,
All the Members Secs
Keep asking me,
Which day? What day?
We’ll get from Vic away.
Billy, Billy, Billy my boy.
What are you waiting for now!

Written, Composed and Sung by the Federal Members at  Canberra for the First time on Tuesday 12/2/1920.

 Billy was Billy Hughes, Prime Minister of Australia.  He like other dignitaries visiting Canberra before the Hotel Canberra opened in December, 1924, stayed at Yarralumla House.[13]  Griffin and Hughes did not see eye to eye.  Conflict between Billy Hughes and Walter Burley Griffin increased with the result that Walter Burley Griffin resigned and moved to Sydney.

 On 22 January, 1921 the Hughes government appointed the federal capital advisory committee [FCAC] “with a view to enabling the federal parliament to meet and the central administration of the Commonwealth to be carried out as early as practicable at Canberra on the basis of the acceptance of the plan of lay out of the federal capital city by Mr WB Griffin.[14]   Thus the decision was made to continue with the construction of the national capital but within the confines of a limited budget which permitted the construction of only the essential buildings necessary to move the Federal Parliament from Melbourne to Canberra.  Thus the original concept of grand public buildings was replaced with the reality of provisional rather than permanent - including the Parliament House. [15]

A group of five men, J Sulman - architect, EM de Burgh -  engineer, HE Ross - architect, PT Owen, Director General of Works in federal Dept of Works & Railways, & JHT Goodwin, C’wealth Surveyor General made up the FCAC.  John Sulman was appointed chairman.   In August 1923 the First Sod  of the Provisional Parliament House was turned and the following month the completed Telopea Park School opened for business with Mr Henry at its helm.  In December 1924 the first land auction was held and the first block in Eastlake Shopping Centre was bought by JB Young  Gradually the nucleus of roads, reservoirs, electric light poles, brick cottages etc emerged  on the surface of the paddocks and underground the sewer miners, who had returned to work in 1921, burrowed from Western Creek end towards the Parliament House.  The city was no longer just a dream on paper. 

 Accommodation for workmen was never a priority of those who held the purse strings.  However in 1921   the FCAC recognised that in order to attract  tradesmen from the building booms and comforts of the major cities it was necessary to provide some housing above the level of humpies.  One obvious solution pointed out by men such as JB Young[16]was to utilize the empty Internment Camp at Molonglo  (built in May 1918).  They saw the roughly made structures, with a bit of work, as an ideal self contained workmen’s suburb.[17]  It even had a gaol. The result - the remaining barracks not sold off at the end of the war were converted into 120 tenements (3-6 rooms each) and barrack’s accommodation for 150 single men.  The first tenants moved in towards the end of 1921 and shortly afterwards the Molonglo Primary School opened.  Its first headmaster was Mr Ivey.  The population of this settlement in 1925 was 760 - around one fifth of the population of the Territory.[18]

 Not all Molonglo buildings remained in the settlement.  Groups of usually around 10 - 15 were  moved by jinkers to sites near construction areas including Eastlake, Civic Centre, the Brickyards and the Arsenal.

 The FCAC also put money aside to erect a few small brick cottages.  They were in Section 64 Westridge (Yarralumla - 10 cottages), Braddon (20 cottages) and opposite the Power House (20 cottages).[19]  These cottages were occupied from late 1921.  In 1923 another 16 cottages were constructed at Forrest in Ducane and Franklin Streets.[20]  The next move by the FCAC was to build 51 small portable timber cottages in The Gap at Westlake.   They were ready for occupation from March, 1924.  In 1926 another 10 were built bringing the number in the suburb up to 61.   Westlake (now Stirling Park) was near the worksite of the Provisional Parliament House [21] and out of sight of permanent Canberra.

 In 1922 on the opposite side of the Creek to The Gap Cottages Contractor John Howie built 25 timber cottages for his married men and 18 or more timber huts for his single men (Hostel Camp).[22] Howie’s Cottages were the prototype of those designed by HM Rolland erected in The Gap.  In 1924 the FCAC built another 15 of this type of cottage at Acton  and in 1925/1926 the Federal Capital Commission (FCC) continued the building programme with  another 120 cottages at the Causeway[23].    

 At the beginning of 1925 control of construction work was taken over from the FCAC by the Federal Capital Commission (FCC).  John Butters who held the title of First Commissioner, headed the new body.  He along with his wife and family lived for a short time at the Hotel Canberra until a refurbished Canberra House and offices at Acton were made ready. His purpose was to  speed up the building programmes.   

John Butter’s priority was not accommodation for construction workers - a point of view he made quite clear at a meeting held in May 1925 to form a Social Service Association with the objective of improving the welfare of construction workers and their families.  Mr Leo O’Neill, AWU representative, made the point at the meeting that the most pressing welfare need for the builders and their families was decent housing.  Mr Butters informed the gathering that he would close the meeting if this line of discussion continued.  In fairness to Mr Butters it should be stated that he had a very tight budget to carry out the tasks required of him.[24]

The FCC did, however,  arrange for the building    of  a small number of permanent weatherboard cottages for artisans in Westridge and in the permanent suburb of Ainslie in Corroboree Park.   At Ainslie the weatherboards were segregated from the brick area.   A few of the public servants who began arriving from 1927 were offered some of these cottages. [25]

The few cottages built by the FCC for construction workers were insufficient and in an attempt to solve the housing problem made two sites available for married men to build their own dwellings. They were Riverbourne (on a site 3 miles from Queanbeyan Post Office on the southern bank of the Molonglo River - 1925-1927) and Russell Hill (site near Campbell Shops, 1926-1950s).   Russell Hill and Duntroon also had Primary Schools to cater for the needs of the numerous children.[26]  

 The FCC also had plans to remove all temporary suburbs and single men’s camps around 1929 and transfer the married men into brick cottages in the suburbs of Eastlake, Griffith, Ainslie and Barton.

A  few families did make the move, but many remained.   The rent charged for brick cottages was more than many could afford and by 1929 many had lost their jobs. 

The 1930s were depression years.  Major building work in Canberra once again slowed almost to a standstill and the workmen’s suburbs of Westlake, Causeway, Russell Hill and Oaks Estate remained along with single men’s camps at White City (removed early 1930s), Capitol Hill, Causeway, Brickyards, Duntroon, Parkes Barracks and Mt Ainslie.  Selwyn Wark recalled that from the late 1920s through the 1930s that in addition to the official camps,  there were little camps all over the place. People had to survive.

Hostel No 1 - also known as The Politician’s Hotel and Hotel Canberra opened in December 1924.  Until that time the only accommodation available for single officials was at Yarralumla House and the Bachelors Quarters at Acton.  The former was for men of importance and the latter for public servants of lower ranks.  The Bachelors Quarters was in use from December, 1912.

Until Hotel Ainslie[27]  was opened in 1925 there was no public accommodation available for single ladies employed in the public service in Canberra.[28]   In 1926 the Lady Hopetoun Club was founded.  Its purpose was to provide suitable accommodation for young girls of the domestic class.  The FCC provided the club with four houses in Blandfordia.  This club was disbanded when the YMCA moved into Canberra in 1929.

 In early 1926 the Hotel Kurrajong and Printers Quarters opened for business and in 1927 they were joined by Hotels Acton and Wellington along with Houses Brassey and  Beauchamp.  These hotels and houses were used to accommodate single men and women (segregated) and a few married couples with no children or a small family transferred to Canberra.

All hotels in the territory were dry.  The arrival of the  federal parliament in May 1927 highlighted this problem - a parliament without alcohol was unthinkable.[29]   King O’Malley, a non drinker, was the cause of the territory’s dry state.  He declared the sale of alcohol in the territory - forbidden.[30] In November 1928 the first electoral roll in the territory was compiled and the question of Yes or No to alcohol in the territory was put to the vote.  The result was an overwhelming Yes and the first deliveries of the alcoholic beverages were made in December 1928 to the hotels and cafes in Kingston, Manuka and Civic.

Permanent housing constructed from 1926 was built in the new suburbs of Ainslie, North Ainslie, South Ainslie, Eastlake (Kingston), Blandfordia (Forrest) Barton, Red Hill, Mugga Way, Manuka and Griffith.  Numerous documents found in the Australian Archives note that these houses in comparison to those available for the same rent or less in the State capital cities were smaller and less attractive dwellings.  To help compensate the newcomers each tenant transferred to Canberra was made a rent allowance.  Rent was based on a percentage of the cost of building (around 10%) per annum and a minimum covenant placed on cottages in each of the suburbs. For Ainslie it was seven hundred pounds and Mugga Way, fifteen hundred pounds.  The result was that the lower paid officials lived in Ainslie and less than a handful of  top public servants in Mugga Way.[31]  A similar class rental system was used in the hotels and boarding houses.  Hotel Canberra, for example, was out of the price range of the lady typistes who boarded in Gorman[32] and Beauchamp Houses. 

 People in the permanent cottages were encouraged to buy their houses.  A 10% of building cost deposit was required and the remainder of cost of building was repaid over a thirty year period for brick cottages and 25 year period for weatherboards at a small fixed interest rate.   Construction workers  living in the temporary cottages received no rent allowance and were not permitted to buy their cottages.

Front fences were banned in the permanent suburbs.  Instead hedges were grown and these were kept neatly trimmed by the men from the Parks & Gardens department. 

The Depression began in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) shortly after the opening of Parliament in May 1927.  In 1929 the whole country was affected and many Australians blamed its cause on the  folly of building a national capital.  Canberra was referred to as a great white elephant.[33]  

 A few major building projects were undertaken in the  1930s.  They included, The Swimming Pool (Manuka), the Institute of Anatomy (now Film & Sound Archives), Lord Casey’s house, Hotels Civic & Kingston, Civic Picture Theatre and Canberra High School and, in the following decade,  the Canberra Hospital, American Embassy and the War Memorial.

In early 1930 the FCC was replaced by Federal Capital Advisory Council which could advise the Commonwealth but not make laws.   Nearly a half century had to pass before the advent of self government in 1989.[34]  Decisions about local requirements were made by a Minister for the Interior appointed by the ruling party in the Commonwealth Government.  The man they selected never came from Canberra and therefore was not responsible to the people whom he ruled.

 During the early 1930s men at all levels were sacked, including architects, many of whom had made the city their home.  To help those without work an Unemployment Relief Committee was set up.  People in work contributed to the employment funds including public servants whose pays were reduced during the years of the depression.  The Commonwealth matched the money raised - pound for pound. 

The Committee consulted with the Commonwealth for suitable work for the few they could employ.  It was capital poor and  labour intensive and during this hard time many of the pine plantations were planted.[35]  Another project was the planting of Canberra’s streets under the guidance of Alexander Bruce who took over from Thomas Charles Weston, first Superintendent of Parks & Gardens.  Killing the rabbit population supplied work for others including one man who was selected for the job because he had a large family of nine children who could assist him.[36] Single men were employed for three day’s work in a six to seven week period and married men one weeks work in four.[37]

To be considered for employment in the territory men had to be registered on the electoral roll for the advisory council elections (early 1930s).   This means of identifying those living in the territory adversely affected men not of Australian or British birth who were not eligible to enrol.   Australian Archives contain many letters from such disenfranchised men begging for any kind of work.  One, an American, was an ANZAC and had lived in this part of the world for over twenty five years.

Those who came in search of work were given a fortnight’s respite in one of the camps such as Parkes Barracks for single men and Mt Ainslie Camp for married.  They received a handout of food which consisted of the basics of bread, butter, tea, sugar, jam, potatoes and meat.   Many of the men who walked the roads called into  farm houses, such as Kaye’s situated near the modern Lennox Park at the rear of the Hotel Canberra or Corkhill’s now covered by the Water Police buildings.  They were given a feed and a little tea to tide them over.

The policy of employing only those living in the territory began before the Great Depression.    This policy was in situ during the early 1920s and resulted in many who lived in Queanbeyan moving into the territory.  The majority moved to Russell Hill, Westlake, Causeway, Molonglo and  Oaks Estate.[38]  When work was tight another policy of employing returned soldiers first was also brought into force.  Married men before single was also the order of the day.

Some positives did occur in the thirties.  Ally Nish, one of the territory’s retrenched architects founded the first sports’ store and AJ Ryan established in his Kingston Store Canberra’s first radio station - 2CA.  It commenced operation on 14 November1931 and shortly afterwards was challenged by Mr Shakespeare, owner of The Canberra Times, who stated that Ryan had broken the conditions of his lease.  Ryan later moved to a new site near Molonglo Reservoir in present day Symonston and in 1940 into a new Art Deco style building in Mort Street, Civic Centre.  By this time Canberra’s second radio station, 2CY, was broadcasting. 

The first broadcast from the National Capital occurred 12 July 1926 from the Causeway Hall.  The Philharmonic Society performed. 

Jock Simmie was a successful local contractor. In the 1930s he built the Institute of Anatomy.[39]   A letter dated 12th June1925 from CS Daley, Acting Secretary to Secretary Home & Territories Department has the following to say about the proposed building and nearby land: 

I am directed to say that the semi-circular site between the University reservation and Civic Place marked on the map forwarded with your letter under reply is considered suitable for the purposes of a National Zoological Museum.  This area comprises five and half acres which it is thought will be sufficient for this purpose...With regard to the site of the proposed Park for the Accommodation of Live Specimens of  Australian Fauna, I am to say that the Commission raises no objections to the area coloured green - approximately 30 acres - being allotted for this purpose.  Until such time as the Lake Scheme is developed this area of the peninsula will, of course, be very much greater, approximately double.  I am to say, however, that it is considered that the term “National Park” should not be used in connection with this proposal.  A reference to the Griffin plan and his explanatory report will show that the original intention was to locate Zoological gardens on the north side of the Molonglo River between Commonwealth Avenue and Federal Avenue in association with the Botanical Gardens, Aquarium and various Galleries and Museums, and the Commission can at present see no reason to depart from this idea... 

The park was not built. However the Institute was and this venue was used for a number of national conferences including one on polio and another on cancer.  The building was also used as a morgue and held  Aboriginal artifacts along with numerous skeletons and Phar Lap’s heart. 

The Swimming Pool at Manuka was officially opened on 26 January 1931.  It unofficially opened on Christmas Day, 1930.  During the period when it was used unofficially mixed bathing was not permitted because at the time only one of the two dressing sheds was completed. The original idea for the pool included heating and enclosing the complex.  Monetary constraints put an end to this proposal.  

Prior to the opening of the Manuka Pool people used the Molonglo River.  Two pools had dressing sheds.  One was at Acton just down from the Bachelors Quarters.  This swimming hole was so deep that local swimmers recalled  that it was impossible to find the bottom.  Perhaps it was part of the Limestone Caves system in the area.  The other pool was near the Power House. 

On 11 November 1925 a Swimming & Life Saving Club was formed.  The President was Mr WE Potts, Vice President Mr Brackenreg, Hon Sec Mr Webb, Hon Treasurer Mr Sanders, Minute Secretary Miss Thwaite and Committee, Mrs Ashdown and Messrs Beer, Knox, Fizelle and O’Neill.  Their home pool was at Acton where two pools were set aside - one for non swimmers and beginners and the other for more experienced swimmers.  Cost of membership was 5/- for gentlemen and 2/6d for ladies and children under 16 free.  Perhaps one reason for the Club’s shortlived life was that many, such as the Westlake and Molonglo people had their own swimming holes where they swam from around September to March, gratis. 

In 1938 Lord and Lady Casey had an impressive red brick house built for them just off State Circle.[40]  Today it is called Casey House and it is one of the dwellings in the Embassy area of Canberra.  The second built in the area of Westlake was the American Embassy erected in the early 1940s.  It was followed in the late 1950s by the South African High Commission Residence and the French Embassy.[41]  

Nearby to the Patents Office in Kings Avenue was the first  National Library.  The former opened in 1940 and the latter in 1934.   The library, later replaced with a new building in the late sixties, was the equivalent of Aladdin’s Cave for those who loved books.  The stacks were open for browsers.  During these early years the only book store I recall was owned by Verity Hewitt which opened in 1938 in an upstairs shop in the Sydney Building in Civic Centre. 

In 1939 Australia was again at war.  This did not put an end to the Great Depression which continued on into the early 1940s. The digging of trenches and air raid shelters along with air raid drill and blackouts became a part of life.  The Service’s Club at Manuka was constructed and US servicemen replaced Australian enlisted men on the streets.  The RMC returned to Duntroon.  It moved to Sydney in the early 1930s because the Great War to end all wars meant that the RMC was  considered no longer necessary.  The second conflict saw a number of young ladies in uniform marching at Duntroon. 

The Australian War Memorial originally planned for construction in the late 1920s was built at last.  The contractor was Jock Simmie.  The architects were Messrs J Crust & El Sodersteen of Sydney. The grand opening was held on Armistice Day (11th November) 1941.   Between 1927 and 1942 the   main official Anzac Day Ceremony was held at Parliament House.   Following the opening of the War Memorial the ceremony moved to this site.

The War Memorial is a national memorial.   Canberra has no local public memorial to the men and women of the territory who served in the armed forces.  The names of those who enlisted from the territory are not on a local list.  There is none.  Those who fronted up to Vic Samuels at Acton to join are recorded on NSW lists. 

A loss to Canberra because of lack of support was the Canberra City Band which ceased to exist at the end of 1937.   The Queanbeyan City Band  played at the opening of the Australian War Memorial.  Amongst those who played on the day were Mr E Robertson of Oaks Estate (ACT) and Frank Foster.  The Secretary of the Band, Mr Lambert did not play.  He was in camp. 

Schools during the 1940s,[42] if not earlier  held ANZAC Day ceremonies.   These school ceremonies were always moving affairs because nearly everyone involved had a father, brother or other relation  away on active duty.   Dreaded was the arrival of the telegraph boy with the telegram announcing the death or missing in action of a loved one. 

Canberra High School opened in 1938.[43]  Here as in Telopea Park, School Cadet Units were formed.  Many of these young men later enlisted in the armed forces.  In 1947 Canberra High School held a ceremony to unveil a Memorial Plaque - an Honour Roll - on which the names of those who served and died for their country are listed.  Bob Parson was Guard of Honour at that ceremony and his schoolmate, Nigel Nielson was Guard Commander.  Bob recalled that between 280 and 290 ex students served and 42 died. 

During the war years and for many after it rationing was in place.  Australia also sent food to England to help out the motherland - included butter and eggs.[44]  During the war many young women joined the voluntary land army to take the place of the men who worked the land and provided Australia’s food. 

In Canberra a War Agricultural Committee was formed. Its address was PO  Box 10, Manuka and  Mr C Marriott, Esq was the Hon Secretary.  Each person who inquired was sent a form with a number of boxes and requested to tick the appropriate ones.  The headings were: Horse work, Tractor Work, Stack Building, Pitch Forking, Milking, Fencing, Crutching, Potato Digging, Weeding Vegetables, General Farm Work.  Days Available.  A further note added - Work will be paid for at correct wage.  People will be consulted about the type of work. 

Individuals and groups of people were also encouraged to turn vacant land into vegetable gardens and advice was given as to the best types of vegetables to grow etc. 

A number of civilian ladies were voluntary plane spotters.  They stood on the roof of the National Library in Kings Avenue to watch for the enemy which did not come. 

During the war years street signs were removed and blackouts enforced which resulted in the shops closing on Friday nights.  Friday night shopping returned to Canberra in the late 1950s.   The majority of  young Canberra men exchanged their suits for the  uniforms of the armed services and civilian men changed from double breasted to single breasted suits.  The war effort called for savings including material.   In the early 1940s members of  the Dutch and later the American air forces were stationed in Canberra and young Canberra children learnt the phrase Got any gum chum? 

From around 1939 until the late 1950s or early 1960s Canberra drinkers had to be out of the pubs by six o’clock on week days.   The pubs also opened on  Saturday  but not on Sundays.  Anyone who wanted to drink in a hotel on the Sabbath had to drive more than twenty miles from Canberra in order to be a bonafide travellor.   Many men after work headed for one of Canberra’s public bars - Civic in Northbourne Avenue; Kingo at Kingston, Wello at Forrest, Canberra in Commonwealth Avenue.   Ladies were relegated to the Ladies Lounge where alcohol was served through a small opening above a half door.  They paid more for their drinks than the men.[45] 

For those who liked milk shakes the only place available at Civic for many years was The Blue Moon Cafe.  On the south side were a number of cafes including Harry Notaras’s at Kingston and Gumley’s at Manuka.  Another food store at Manuka was Wilkies - well remembered by many old Canberrans for his pies. 

After the war life gradually began to return to normal.   Men returned home and the newly weds looked for any kind of accommodation but usually had to move in with family.   Very few houses were built during the Great Depression and war years.

The Brickyards closed during the war reopened in 1944 with a staff of 49 men and boys.[46] At the time some of the men required were working in Sydney and other places where they had been sent under the war time provisions to move manpower to places where it was needed.  Others necessary men such as Sappers R Oldfield,  JW Connelly,  H Quigg,  W Hawke, St/Sgt CE Riddle and Summerfield were in the army. Their early release was sought because of the urgent need to reopen the Canberra Brickyards. 

Production of bricks could not keep up to the post war demand and for many years after the war a brick house size was limited to eleven and a half squares.    Following the placing of an order, the builder often had to wait long periods before his order arrived - often in dribs and drabs. 

Building works in the city created a demand for tradesmen.  They came from all parts of Australia and overseas.[47]  A policy of immigration  (populate or perish) by the Commonwealth government also saw many New Australians arriving in Canberra.  Many were single men who were later followed by family members.  Some men were brought out by firms such as Jennings.  The public service too was expanded.  The influx of newcomers put a great strain on existing accommodation and to house the many a number of hostels were built for tradesmen and for blue/white collar workers.  To help the married a new temporary suburb of pre-fabs at was erected at Narrabundah and Tocumwal buildings were transported to Canberra and re-erected in O’Connor and Ainslie. 

Several hostels survived from the early years.  They included Duntroon, Capitol Hill, Causeway and a small one at the Brickyards.   Capitol Hill was updated and enlarged and new ones built to take the influx of newcomers.  Public servants were housed in Mulwala, Reid and Narellan and several permanent brick ones joined Barton House built in 1940.  They were Lawley House (1949) and Havelock House (1951).  Glebe House used in 1926 as a private school was converted into a boarding house.

The new temporary hostels built for the tradesmen   were Hillside (on Capital Hill),  Riverside (near the Power House), Eastlake (near the Railway Station), Mt Ainslie,  Turner,  tent Hostel  at Fairbairn and another out of town one near the Cotter.   

Another major housing problem which confronted the authorities in the early post war years was the fact that married couples from war torn Europe were often separated - the women moved into domestic jobs in the hostels and men into men-only hostels.  Human nature being what it is a number of the wives became pregnant which created major problems in that working women  could not be seen to be expecting and there was no where to send each lady in waiting.  Some couples were lucky enough to be able to rent a room or rooms from people who chose to do this.  Part of the understanding of the dilemma faced by people may be found in a letter written on 30 June1949 which in part reads: 

On 30.6.1949 Mrs Hawke, Manageress of Lawley House rang Miss Dobson in reference to Mrs Albolins, who was at the time 7 or 8 months pregnant.  Mrs Albolins was working at Mulwala but her parents were employed at Lawley House and as they thought their daughter would need to leave Canberra for a period before and after her confinement they intended to go with her and her husband to Bathurst or whatever city she could be accommodated.  Shortly after Mrs Hawke was in touch with the social worker, Miss Cole, Manageress of Hotel Kurrajong rang to advise that Mrs Silora, a member of her staff was seven months pregnant... Arrangements were made by the social worker with the co-operation of Miss Owens, Secretary of the YWCA Hostel for Mrs Silora and Mrs Albolins to be accommodated at the YWCA  Hostel... 

The YWCA did try to make additional  accommodation available for the women and  negotiated with Fairbairn for one of its barracks which could be moved to a site behind the YWCA buildings in Civic.  However this plan fell through because the barracks were already promised to married couples at Fairbairn. 

 Another solution to providing housing was the building of flats.  There were a few built in the 1930s such as those above the banks in Civic, others at Manuka Arcade and a few at Barton.  The number of flats built greatly increased from the 1950s and included the high rise in Currong Street Braddon, Bega & Allawah Flats Reid and blocks of flats in Northbourne Avenue.  

Even before sufficient accommodation was built to house the influx of people the death knell of the temporary suburbs was in the pipe line.  Evidence of this change of policy in Canberra may be found in  a speech given by Mr Shakespeare and recorded in the Minutes of the Advisory Council 14.1.1952 part of which reads as follows: 

We have come to the stage when all this waste of temporary establishments that will have to be scrapped in a few years should be stopped and the permanent city put on its proper foundations on which you can build without having to scrap this and bulge out here to put in another room as we have been doing for the last twenty-five years.  I feel that one of the greatest duties of this Council in the next twenty-five years is to put drive into the Canberra Development plan in the right direction, instead of allowing the authorities to take the line of least resistance by using all sorts of stop gap provisions that will never complete a city here and never get the real value for money that the taxpayers are putting into the city... 

From the mid 1950s cottages in the temporary suburbs were sold and moved to new sites as tenants left.  The last cottage to go at Westlake in 1965 was tenanted by George Sykes.  The exceptions were Causeway and Oaks Estate.  The former still exists with new brick veneer cottages replacing the old timber ones.  Oaks Estate, ignored by the authorities still survives with relatively few changes. 

In 1963 the damned waters of the Molonglo River swelled to create Lake Burley Griffin and it seemed from that time - almost overnight - that new suburbs sprang up in the paddocks surrounding the old Canberra.    

It used to be said that Canberra was a city without a soul.   Is this still true?  Canberra is still a city with a split personality.  It is both the national capital where the federal parliament meets and a city where ordinary people live.  Many Australians blame Canberra for the ills of the nation when they mean the Federal Politicians.  In this sense little has changed since 1927.  

Many perceive that Canberra is a city of wealth.  The new buildings, wide streets, well watered lawns and gardens give a false impression to those who do not look beneath the surface.  Canberra too still has its poor and homeless.  Perhaps one can trace this perception back to 1926/1927 at which time the public servants needed to work in the government departments transferred to Canberra.  They moved into new Canberra in the suburbs.   The men who came to the city to build it lived in the temporary suburbs and camps hidden out of sight.  Those who lived in the temporary cottages in the suburbs of Westlake, Westridge, Causeway, Molonglo and Oaks Estate were treated  as second class citizens.  Whenever they made requests for repairs to houses or improvements such as footpaths, lights and a bus service the usual answer was, It Cant Be Done Because it is only temporary!  

The history of the working classes who built the city and the early public servants who left the comforts of the cities and families is now being written.  Still neglected by history are the Ngunawal people on whose land Canberra stands.  They were removed from the territory around 1927. 

Also missing from the territory are our monuments.  Where is the one which marks the site of Acton House on Canberra property and where is the one which says that this land was once called Kambera?   Where are the monuments to our dead who fought in world conflicts?  Where are our local monuments?

During the last decade there has been an increasing interest in our history - that is the local history of the families whose children were born in this district.  I believe that it is important to know our past.  It is a part of knowing who we are.


[1] Klensendorffe bought the land from John Stephen and in March, 1839 - around a decade after it changed hands for money -William Klensendorffe was granted it.  In 1847 the land passed on to Peter William Plomer and in 1860 to George Campbell.  The land was usually referred to as Klensendorlffe’s.

[2] The name of the property was Canberry - taken from the Ngunawal name for the area - Kambera.  Both gave their name to the national city.

[3] The Competition for the design of Canberra was boycotted by the English establishment.

[4] Even in the 1920s typhoid was still a health problem in many unsewered areas including the Windsor/Richmond area near Sydney and it must be remembered that the Bubonic Plaque broke out in The Rocks area of Sydney around 1900.  Circular patterns used for roads confused many in the early years.  The standing joke was about the number of Bobby Byrnes statues in Canberra - people passed it so many times.

[5] Frederick Watson History of Canberra 1927.

[6] Representing the six states.  It was intended that these stones should a column to be erected some time later.  The stones are now in the grounds of the new parliament house - still not column.

[7] It has been told that the case was one for cigarettes as Lady Denman was a smoker.

[8] The quote is from Frederick Watson’s book, The History of Canberra.  The name, Canberra, was the name given to JJ Moore’s property at Acton and the Aboriginal name of the land - meaning Meeting Place.  It is somewhat ironical that no marker is placed at Acton to mark the site of Moore’s property - first European to settle the district and name given to the National Capital.

[9] Duntroon also had a camp established around 1910 when work on the RMC commenced.

[10] Constructed from brick - perhaps Canberra’s first permanent building. 

[11] The first reinforced concrete structure in Canberra - Beauchamp House (Ian Potter House) is also a concrete structure).

[12] Frederick Watson History of Canberra. 1927

[13] Following the opening of Hotel Canberra in December 1924 renovation work on Yarralumla House commenced in readiness for the arrival in May, 1927 of the Duke and Duchess of York.  The members of parliament and other officials stayed at the Hotel instead of Yarralumla House.

This residence then became the official Governor General’s residence.  A site in West Stirling Park had been put aside for a new Governor General’s residence, but this was not carried out.  Some mistakenly think that Stirling Park was the site chosen for a new Prime Minister’s Lodge.  In the 1970s some discussion about a new site for a PM’s Lodge was made with three possible sites under consideration - Collin’s Park, West Stirling Park and Attunga Point.  The last site was chosen but the whole project shelved when the then Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser decided that a new lodge was not needed at that time.

[14] Frederick Watson History of Canberra. 1927

[15] Frederick Watson states in his book History of Canberra that Provisional meant not temporary and not permanent - in between.

[16] Bought the first lease in Kingston Shopping Centre.  There is some argument whether he or Hayes & Russell were the first to open.

[17] The workmen did not see Molonglo as an ideal place.  It was bug ridden and the unlined buildings constructed from green timber allowed the wind to whistle through the gaps in the boards.  They had no fireplaces for warmth and lacked privacy.  They were better than tents.  The bathing and washing facilities were inadequate for the numbers requited to use them.

[18] Westlake (now Stirling Park) was next in line with a population of 700.  There were two workmen’s suburbs - The Gap Cottages, Howies Cottages and Hostel Camp and three government single men’s tent camps.

[19] Braddon cottages still stand as do the majority of those at the Brickyards - Yarralumla.  Those opposite the power house are now replaced with flats.

[20] At time of writing, 1991, 13 Ducane Street, one of the cottages erected in 1923 and tenanted by Brownless has been little altered.  It is painted white and is a well designed light and airy cottage.

[21] A total of 61 four roomed timber cottages were erected by the FCAC & FCC.  They were painted green to blend in with the landscape and were 24 feet x 24 with a lean-to type of bathroom/wash house/ WC at the back of the house.  They were occupied between 1924 and 1926.

[22] His men built the Hotel Canberra.  The Hostel Camp - a single men’s camp - was named after Hostel No 1 - the Hotel Canberra.  In their Mess Rooms the Burns Club was founded in 1924.

[23] A number of the cottages at Causeway were constructed from three cubicles - each 10 foot x 12 foot - combined together to form houses.  These would have been put up around late 1926.

[24] He was paternalistic in his decision making - evidence of which is contained in numerous letters and documents held in the Australian Archives and from the recollections of many of the old timers who worked in Canberra during Butters’ control.

[25] A few departments such as the Printers came in 1926.  The majority, however arrived from 1927 until around 1929 when the Great Depression put hold on the transfers.

[26] It should be mentioned that the majority of construction workers were Union members.  Several strikes were held - one in 1925 which brought the total workforce to a halt.  Some improvements to working conditions were won; including a five day working week which commenced after meetings held in January 1926 when all employed men voted openly.  The working week was condensed into five days instead of five and a half.  This enabled many of the “single” men to return home on some weekends to visit wives and families.

[27] In 1927 Hotel Ainslie was renamed Gorman House.

[28] Ladies with wealth could stay at the Hotel Canberra, but young lady public servants could not afford to stay there.

[29] I came across a document in the Australian Archives which stated just that!

[30] Queanbeyan businessmen - particularly the hotel owners - made a fortune from the thirsty of Canberra.

[31] Mugga Way with the exception of a few top paid officials was built by people not employed by the government.

[32] Gorman House was known as Hotel Ainslie until a new Hotel Ainslie was opened for business in 1927.

[33] The push to complete the city did not resume until the mid 1950s.  In 1957 the National Capital Planning Authority was formed to continue and complete the work to build the National Capital.

[34] At the Federal level in the House of Representatives Jim Fraser represented the people of the territory for many years - during the 1940s and 1950s. Later the ACT got its first senator.  However at the local level it was always a politician appointed by the Government who ruled the ACT.  This man was not local.

[35] Men were paid one penny per hole.

[36]  Married men received 5 day’s work in three/ four week periods and single men 3 day’s work in six/ seven week period.  In 1931 there were 286 married and 200 single men registered for work in the territory - the total population  in 1931 was 8,719. (Memorandum for Chief Clerk Dept Home Affairs)  Not all were given work.  In 1930 60 married & 15 single men were employed.

[37] During the Great Depression there was no dole.  Married men were given handouts of food and singlemen had to go out in search of work.

[38] Oaks Estate was part of Queanbeyan until the railway line was used as a border between NSW & ACT.

[39] Tom Robertson of Oaks Estate along with his father worked on the construction of the building and recalled during an interview that the marble in the building came from a site near the river.

[40] The first sod for the house was turned on 10.1.1938.  The builder was WJ Perry.  The house consisted of 7 bedrooms, 3 full bathrooms, study, day nursery, drawing room, reception & dining room. Lady Mae Casey chose all the interior fittings including door furniture, mantels for fireplaces, bathroom tiles etc.  The following year Lord Casey moved to Washington and the house was vacated.  From 1940 until 1973 the house was used by the Canadian High Commission; to 1979 used by Commonwealth and in 1979 it became the home of the Australian Heritage Commission.  They vacated a some years later and in 1999 the house is called Casey House.

[41] In the grounds of the South African High Commission residence and French Embassy there are Aboriginal scarred trees.  Another is on the same ridge off Forster Crescent and others on Stirling Ridge where there are also rock arrangements identified by Don Bell, Ngunawal elder.

[42] ANZAC Day ceremonies continued through the 1950s, 1960s into the 1970s.

[43] The students moved into the Canberra High School building in 1939.  Until then they remained at Telopea Park.

[44] I seem to recall that the Motherland got the butter and eggs cheaper than we in Australia. Exchange rate 10/- Aus = 5/- UK.

[45] The Civic & Kingston Pubs were built in the mid 1930s and after the second World War in the early 1960s the Hotel Canberra Rex in Northbourne Avenue.

[46] With the return of peace the need for bricks was urgent.  1946 list of public buildings under construction requiring bricks included Mothercraft Centre, West Block, Eastlake & Riverside Hostels, nurses quarters, Braddon & Barton Hostels, Telopea Park School, offices, American legation, 107 houses (+100 concrete houses) and numerous private house construction requests).  Concrete houses (25) were constructed in Blandfordia in 1926 by the Monolyte Co.

[47] To give some idea of population increases the numbers registered on the electoral rolls were: 1928 - 4,698; 1935 - 5,351; 1949 - 12,331 and 1959 - 22,142.  It should be noted that only people over the age of 21 and of British or Australian birth are on the rolls.  In 1959 there were large numbers of migrants from overseas not registered on the roll.


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