Information about work, life and play in Regional Australia

Friday, July 11, 2008

Visiting Canberra - history

Photo: Opening of Australia's new Parliament House, May 1927. The pictures and historical material in this post are drawn from the Wikipedia article on the history of Canberra.

For the benefit of international readers, when the Australian colonies came together to form the new Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney meant that neither city could become capital of the new Federation.

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 new Constitution specified that the capital must be placed in a Commonwealth territory within New South Wales, but at least 100 miles from Sydney.

After an extensive search, a site was chosen in 1908 in the foothills of the Australian Alps some 300 kilometres south east of Sydney. In 1910, the NSW Government formally ceded the area to the Commonwealth of Australia to form the Australian Capital Territory. The following year after an international competition, the American architect Walter Burley Griffin was selected to design the new capital city.

Various names were considered for the new city. Finally, at midday on March 12, 1913, the city to be was was officially given the name Canberra by Lady Denman the wife of the then Governor-General, at a ceremony on Kurrajong Hill (now known as Capital Hill) and building officially commenced.

Neither ministers nor public servants were keen to leave the comfort of Melbourne for the isolation of the new bush capital. While a new Parliament House was opened in May 1927, development of the city remained slow and sporadic, coming to an effective halt during the depression.

Development continued during the war, then accelerated rapidly in the late 1950s and 1960s as the headquarters of various agencies shifted to Canberra. The effect of this can be seen in Canberra's population timeline.

Both my wife and I worked in Canberra. When I first joined the Commonwealth Public Service, the city's population was around 70,000. By the time we left Canberra, it had grown to 250,000. Today it is over 300,000. If the satellite cities and settlements that have grown across the border in NSW such as Queanbeyan and Yass are added in, the population of greater Canberra is now over 400,000.

This growth has had profound effects on the surrounding regions, drawing them into Canberra's growing sphere of economic and social influence.

While we had visited Canberra many times since our departure, this trip we were going as tourists to look at the changes that had taken place through the prism set by our past experiences.


For two somewhat nostalgic views of Canberra's past see:

For the opening post in this series see here.

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