Decade 3: 1933-1943:
A capital to commemorate heroes
By Crispin Hull
In 1933 Canberra stood forlorn, forgotten and uncompleted. It was two small towns of neat cottages and gardens on tree-lines streets. One town centred on Civic with the Sydney Building and partly completed Melbourne Building and the other centred on the more complete Kingston Manuka. Between was the Molonglo flood plain upon which no building could be constructed because it awaited the creation of the lake in accordance with Griffin’s plan. It was to be 30 years before the dam was built to give cohesion to the city. Unemployment was high. There was no political vision for the city or its people. The politicians and tiny federal bureaucracy were there because they could go nowhere else.
Then world events caused change in Canberra. The growing menace of the dictators in Europe changed the intellectual climate and political outlook. Britain would no longer run Australia’s foreign relations. Australia needed its own Department of External Affairs. Further, defence became more important. In 1935 the Royal Military College returned from Sydney. Other military facilities followed: HMAS Harman and the military radio transmitter and receiver and quarters for more defence staff in 1939.
The population grew to 11,000 by the outbreak of war – still below the 1928 peak, but the trend was there.
In this decade a development pattern began that lasted for more than 40 years. Streets, schools, ovals and landscaping were done first and the houses followed.
Construction of the Australian War Memorial resumed and work began on the first National Library building (then more a parliamentary library than public one). Canberra High School was finished in 1939 to add to Telopea Park. The Capitol Theatre in Manuka and a cinema in Civic were opened in 1936. Radio 2CA expanded its two-hour nightly broadcasts which had begun in the middle of the depression.
But when the big test came as to whether Canberra could function as the nation’s capital in wartime, the city initially failed. The administration simply migrated back to Melbourne.
Prime Minister Robert Menzies said, “It would be ludicrously irresponsible to carry out the business of the War Cabinet at a distance of 500 mile from the Defence Department.’’
But Opposition Leader Labor’s John Curtin argued, “There is no reason why the seat of government should be changed from Canberra to Melbourne – and that is what the Government is doing. The cost of officers’ travelling and maintenance expenses from Canberra to Melbourne far outweighs the cost of Ministers and personal staffs doing their work in Canberra.’’
Menzies came from Melbourne and Curtin came from Perth.
But Western Australian Paul Hasluck wrote later, “Canberra itself was too small and in too early a stage of development to allow rapid wartime expansion.”
Perhaps Hasluck was right. A rapid expansion then might well has resulted in buildings being built on what is now the lake because of the area’s proximity to Parliament.
But Curtin had a point. If Ministers had not been required to do so much business in Melbourne, the disastrous air crash of August 13, 1940, might never have happened. On approach to Canberra a Hudson bomber carrying three Cabinet Ministers and the chief of the general staff, the pilot and some officials crashed, killing all on board.
It was not until Curtin took over the Prime Ministership after the Menzies’ United Australia Party Government was defeated on the floor of the House that Canberra again became at least the centre of government, if not the administration.
And the establishment of the Department of Post-war Reconstruction in 1942 saw the nucleus of a talented Public Service leadership which cemented Canberra in that role. People like H. C. Coombs, Allen Brown and John Crawford were all from that key department.
Labor, under External Affairs Minister Bert Evatt also pursued a more independent foreign policy and encouraged diplomatic missions to the capital – Canada, the US, Japan (briefly), the Netherlands and the USSR.
Though significant elements of the Public Service remained in Melbourne, by 1943 it was apparent that the centre of political and administrative gravity was swinging slowly (but not inevitably) to Canberra.
In this decade, perhaps the single most important event for the development of Canberra was the opening of the Australian War Memorial. The idea for it and the ideals behind it grew out of World War I. Those ideas were more powerful than the forces which arrested the growth of Canberra between the wars. The memorial was opened at one of the most threatening times of Australia’s history – November 1941. The second war made its significance greater and helped in later years put Canberra in the national consciousness and a place of national symbols.
And how did the ordinary resident fare in this decade?
Enlistment during the war went some way to balance the sexes in the capital which hitherto had many more males because of construction and public service transfers.
E. F. Frolich fled Austria and the Nazis to England and was shipped to Australia. He tells of sitting a test on his knowledge of optical systems – a rare skill — at an internment camp in Tatura, Victoria. The Mount Stromlo Observatory was going to be converted to manufacturing optical instruments for the forces. The director of the observatory secured his employment and Frolich was delivered on August 10, 1941, to the director under the police escort. Canberra greeted him with a “chilly but clear morning sky’ and he was in love with the city from the moment he saw it.
In this decade, Elizabeth Courtney Beaumont lived in Stokes Street, Griffith. “Our house was white painted brick with a large entry . . . . The style was pseudo South African Cottage. . . .Wood stove, of course, woodchip bathroom heater, cold water hand basin and wood-stoking laundry copper. No telephone or car. . . We had no piano at the time so entertainment was around the wireless sitting before the fire in winter. Accommodation was scarce so we took friends with a small daughter in and the lived in our converted dinning room. Many people did this over the war years.”
Marjorie Adams said, “I came to Canberra from Sydney in 1941 because my husband was in the Air Force here. The Government had built about 90 houses in Ainslie for the services. They were fibro with tiled roof. On looking back it was so primitive. No insulation, of course. The wind used to whistle down the hall. . . . We all did out cooking on a wood stove, and the first day I was left alone it took me till 4pm to get the kettle to boil. I was not very good at lighting fires or chopping wood but I certainly learned as all the washing had to be boiled in a copper. In the winter, I’d hang my husband’s shirts out and if they were left out overnight, in the morning you could walk them around by the arms as they were frozen stiff.”
The government – through the Department of the Interior – had to provide in those days because Canberra was so remote that private enterprise had yet to fill the void.
Marjorie Adams recalled, “It was possible to hire an electric bath heater and/or a sink heater from the Department of the Interior.’’
It would be decades before Canberra builders and planners woke up to the fact that Canberra was not Sydney. It was cold, and houses needed to be designed accordingly.
It was a long walk for many to shops which were expensive with a poor range of goods. In these years, Canberra was by no means a place of privilege and wealth.
Decade 3: 1933-1943: