Decade 2: 1923-1933
1923-1933 From grand design to Great Depression
By Crispin Hull
The first sod of the provisional Parliament House was turned as Canberra entered its second decade.
It smacked of compromise, impermanence, political expediency and myopia incapable of seeing decades ahead.
The first Parliament House was plonked across one of Burley Griffin’s major axes instead of being at one of its apexes. It took 50 years to get it right. Nevertheless, after years of war, the city was on the move again driven by the basest and loftiest of ideals — the political jealousy of NSW and the determined vision of war correspondent Charles Bean who wished to see created in the national capital a memorial to those 60,000 Australians killed in the War to End All Wars.
Like the city itself, major buildings were put to competition. The architectural competition has been one of the great building blocks of Canberra – quite an irony for a city condemned by economists and others who worship competition.
A plan for temporary buildings to house public servants was put aside in favour of two permanent buildings which still house public servants. A competition was held for the design and construction of houses in Ainslie when it became apparent that the private sector would not undertake the risk of building houses in the national capital. Canberra boomed. The Government decided that instead of departments moving one by one, every department would move a nucleus to Canberra. Mount Stromlo, begun in 1911, was expanded.
The first land auction was held in December 1924. Twenty-two of 27 lots offered in Civic were passed in. Sites closer to Queanbeyan sold well. Cabinet met for the first time in Canberra in 1924 and momentum built in Parliament to move to Canberra as quickly as possible. A motion was passed to meet in Canberra by 1926. In fact Parliament first met in Canberra in May, 1927.
The new buildings were practical, leaving no room for the grandeur explicit in the Griffin plan and the drawings of his wife Marion Mahoney Griffin. But the layout of the city was not impossibly compromised. Indeed Canberra has benefited from the delay caused by World War I and the Great Depression. Without them, the boom of the 1920s might have begun earlier and ended later, and fatally compromising Griffin’s plan in the name of enterprise. The wars and depression put a brake on development allowing those with longer and wider vision time to create a great capital.
It was just as well Parliament met before the Great Depression struck. If not, the rumours and talk in the early 1930s of abandoning Canberra might have become reality. By 1927, however, it was too late to go back.
Another event also helped to cement Canberra’s position as the nation’s capital. In 1919, Charles Bean moved with his staff to Tuggeranong Homestead where he wrote the official history of Australia’s part in World War I. The task took 23 years. Bean was a champion of the idea of a war museum and/or memorial. He lobbied politicians. He urged the collection of records and relics and wrote about his idea. Ultimately it was adopted. The foundation stone of the Australian War Memorial was laid in 1929, but work stopped because of the Depression. But once the stone had been laid, there could be no going back and the national war memorial would have to be constructed in Canberra. Work was not renewed until 1933 and the memorial finally opened in November 1941 during the worst days of World War II. Ever since, it has made a major contribution to Canberra’s symbolic role as national capital.
As soon as Parliament was completed, the Canberra economy retracted. Men were laid off. The Depression came early to Canberra. Leases were surrendered when businesses failed to get expected returns.
There was very little voluntary immigration into Canberra by the employed. And those that were compulsorily transferred complained about transport, shopping and isolation, but made the best of it.
Val Emerton recalled her first home in Canberra as a child in the 1920s: “The houses of the 1920s and 30s had quite small windows and although they didn’t let in much light they did have the advantage of keeping out the winter chills and summer heat.” Her family took in boarders during the Depression.
Joyce Edwards remembers moving to Canberra with her parents in 1928. They got what was called a Type 3 house in Elimatta Street, Reid. It had the luxury of an inside toilet. Her parents lost heavily on being forced to sell their War Service home in Melbourne.
Meryl Hunter recalls the pipes freezing at her house on Flinders Way finished in 1931 and later men from “the Department” coming to clip the hedge.
Canberra was an isolated town. It took 20 hours to get to Melbourne. The Sydney connection was hardly any better. By the end of the decade it still took six hours to do the 100km journey by road to Goulburn.
But one trip was not taken as frequently out of Canberra after 1928 – the trip to the Queanbeyan drinking holes. In September 1928 a plebiscite voted 10-1 against continued prohibition. Initially the government sold liquor in “cafes” in the Wellington, Canberra and Acton Hotels, but then commercial licences were issued.
The Depression bought an influx of people who quite wrongly thought the city was awash with government money. Many walked from Sydney. In 1932, 655 single men and 17 married couples were on unemployment rations in a population of 7325 – an unemployment rate of more than 30 per cent. Canberra was not isolated from the Depression by any means.
Planned transfers from Melbourne were cancelled. Manuka swimming pool was begun as a make-work program and completed in January 1931.
Despite the Depression and rumours of abandoning the site, the population of Canberra had grown to 7000. It was home to Parliament and a nascent administration. And in 1931 Prime Minister James Scullin moved to begin a diplomatic corps by inviting the UK to post a diplomat here and the UK immigration officer took up residence in Canberra. The next major function of Canberra had begun.
Decade 2: 1923-1933