Canberra 1913-1923 — 1st decade

Decade 1: 1913-1923
Foundation stone of city to first sod of Parliament House.
By Crispin Hull

In March 1913, Canberra was a desolate place. Colonel David Miller, the self-appointed resident administrator, initially occupied a new cottage in the married area. Most of the single men occupied tents. It was miserable accommodation for Canberra’s hot dry summers and cold winters. Miller had a large new house built for himself, and like a good bureaucrat began accumulating staff – several clerks and a typist. A group of wooden offices spawned below his residence to house the nascent administration: architect Henry Maitland Rolland who headed a five man Works Branch; six accounting officers; and Charles Scrivener’s Lands and Survey Branch.
Charles George Weston had established a nursery with several cottages for married staff and a barracks for singles.
The powerhouse project (complete in early 1914) was well under way with several hundred workers and the brickworks at Yarralumla were also under construction. It meant that Canberra in 1913 comprised two officially sanctioned shanty towns for workers created from hessian, pine boards and corrugated iron. Some workers preferred to live in Queanbeyan 20 kilometres away. It became increasingly difficult to recruit labour.
Bicycles and motor bikes were becoming more common, but motor cars were rarer than horse-drawn vehicles.
Nevertheless it was a start. Canberra was on its way.
But what sort of capital were they building?
Two years earlier the Federal Government had run a design competition for the new capital based on the surveys and contour maps produced by Scrivener in 1910.
The Royal Institute of British Architects boycotted the competition because the final decision was to be made by a lay person. A technical board was appointed to advise Home Minister King O’Malley on the entries. Its members were John Kirkpatrick (dropped from NSW Institute of Architects for non-payment of fees but still well regarded in some architectural quarters); James Alexander Smith president of the Victorian Institute of Engineers and John Montgomery Coane a fellow of the Victorian Institute of Surveyors — appointed by O’Malley as chair. Kirkpatrick and Smith joined in a majority decision for first three places. Entry No 29 by Walter Burley Griffin of Chicago first, Eliel Saarinen of Finland second and Alf Agache of France third. Coane picked three entirely different winners.
O’Malley went with the majority, but the bureaucrats charged with implementing the design argued that is was too extravagant and elaborate and therefore too expensive. O’Malley referred all the placegetters’ designs to a departmental board. The lack of unanimity at the competition stage was a weapon used by bureaucrats to argue against Griffin’s plan. The board said it could not endorse any of the plans. So it came up with its own hotch-potch of what it thought were the best elements of some of the plans and included a few ideas of its own. It was on the basis of this plan that the foundation stone was laid on March 12, 1913.
Within three months of the laying of the stone, the Fisher Labor Government and King O’Malley were gone. The new Liberal Government of Joseph Cook had a different view. It invited Griffin to come to Australia to work with the board, but soon they disagreed. This time Griffin won. The Government disbanded the board, cancelled its plan and made Griffin director of design and construction. Labor returned briefly in 1914 and the new bureaucracy fought with Griffin until Billy Hughes took over the Prime Ministership and O’Malley – now a Griffin supporter – was reappointed Minister for Home Affairs. In 1916, after a Royal Commission which castigated the bureaucracy for hindering Griffin’s vision, Griffin’s plan was formally approved so that significant changes would require an Act of Parliament.
But the triumph of vision over pusillanimity came to late. By then World War I was consuming Australian society, and it was nearly 40 years, a Depression, another world war and five Prime Ministers later before the cause of creating a national capital in line with Griffin’s vision was taken up with any enthusiasm or serious public money, with two notable exceptions — what was called the provisional Parliament House and the Australian War Memorial.
The war resulted in a desperate shortage of labour. That and the squabble of Griffin’s plan stopped the development of Canberra in its tracks. The place was made even more miserable by Home Minister King O’Malley’s insistence that the territory be dry.
He issued a ministerial order: “Any officer or employee found to have obtained, disposed of or to be using intoxicating liquor will be summarily dealt with. Stagger juice and efficient public business are absolutely incompatible and men feeling that they want to take strong drink ought to be honourable enough not to work here. My desire is that the Territory should be dry. Kindly draft the regulation to provide against intoxicating liquor being introduced into or being produced or used therein.’’
It meant a long trek to Queanbeyan to get a drink and a sly grog trade flourished. But many engineers working on the Cotter dam site lost their jobs through this folly.
A corrugated iron amusement hall opened at Acton and another at the powerhouse. A typical evening would see a hundred or so people listen to coronet or accordion solos, poetry and story recitations and songs. Later piano and violin music was added to the repertoire. It was enough to drive anyone to Queanbeyan.
Acton had a sportsground and a tennis court. Canberra had rugby league, cricket and Australian rules teams by 1914 and sporting events were often held as war fund-raisers.
After the war, powerful forces for and against Canberra’s development resurfaced. Against were the penny-pinchers. Victorian MP Robert Cook called for the transfer of the capital from Melbourne to Sydney for 20 years to save money being used on Canberra. A Tasmanian senator argued that air power meant the need for an inland capital away from sea attack was unnecessary. The Melbourne Age said transferring government to Canberra was wasteful and inconvenient. For Canberra were the NSW press and NSW MPs. The Daily Telegraph (now one of Canberra’s strongest critics) condemned devious delaying tactics of Victorians in creating the national capital.
In 1921 the Federal Government (dominated by NSW) formed a Federal Capital Advisory Committee (later the Federal Capital Commission) and the revival of Canberra began. Jealousy beat economy.
Among the first works recommended were a hostel (later Hotel Canberra) and the provisional Parliament House. And so, a decade after the formal naming and founding of Canberra the first sod was turned on the site of the provisional Parliament House – on August 28, 1923.

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