On the first day of January 1901, the colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania joined together in a new Commonwealth of Australia. Both before and after Federation, there was much public bickering about what and where a federal territory and Seat of Government should be. The Constitution said that the Parliament must choose a site at least one hundred miles (160km) from Sydney and that the Parliament would sit in Melbourne until a new parliament house was built in the new capital.
More than 60 country centres in New South Wales were promoted as sites for the capital because of their bracing climate, the purity of their water supplies and an abundance of stone and timber for building. Many were rejected as being too close or too far from Sydney and Melbourne.
Finally, a site at Yass-Canberra emerged as an acceptable compromise. This large district was almost exactly a ‘hundred miles’ (160km) from Sydney and offered clean air, a good water supply and an invigorating climate.
Surveyor Charles Scrivener was instructed to find an attractive setting for ‘a beautiful city … embracing distinctive features … worthy of the object, not only for the present but for all time’. In a bold move, the Government conducted an international competition for the design of the capital which entrants were told would be the ‘official and social centre of Australia’.
In 1913, when the Canberra area was no more than an outback sheep station divided by the Molonglo River, a ceremony was held to name the city. ‘Canberra’, as a new name for the capital, was a sentimental favourite and logical choice.
On the morning of Wednesday 12 March 1913, 500 invited guests, over 700 mounted and artillery troops and a public crowd of over 3000 locals came to witness the formal naming of Canberra. Foundation stones were laid by Governor-General Lord Thomas Denman, Prime Minister Andrew Fisher and the Minister for Home Affairs, King O’Malley. The national anthem was played and Lady Gertrude Denman announced the chosen name for the newborn federal capital. And so Canberra’s life officially began…
Lady Denman announced the name of Australia’s capital city at midday on March 12, 1913. The etymology of the word Canberra comes from the language of the Ngunnawal people (the traditional Indigenous people of the region), and means ‘meeting place’.
The winning design of Chicago architect Walter Burley Griffin was truly a magnificent plan for a city in the country. It was said that Griffin’s design would create ‘the only really modern city in the world’. When the Federal Parliament sat for the first time in Canberra in 1927, Canberra was seen as the ‘modern and the picturesque blended into a composite and harmonious whole, cradled in a setting that for its purpose can have no peer’.
When the ‘legendary’ King O’Malley, penned the introduction to a book he had commissioned, in late 1913, he searched for just the right sequence of characteristically lofty, even visionary phrases. After all, as the Minister of Home Affairs in the progressive Labor government of Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, he had responsibility for establishing the new Australian nation’s capital city. Vigorous promotion of the idea, he knew, was essential.
So, at the beginning of a book entitled Canberra: Capital City of the Commonwealth of Australia, telling the story of the milestone ‘foundation stones’ and ‘naming’ ceremonies that took place in Canberra, on 12 March 1913, O’Malley declared for posterity that ‘Such an opportunity as this, the Commonwealth selecting a site for its national city in almost virgin country, comes to few nations, and comes but once in a history’.
This grand foundation narrative of Canberra—with its abundance of aspiration, ambition, high-mindedness, courage and curiosities—is still not well-enough known today. The city did not begin as a compromise between a feuding Sydney and Melbourne. Its roots comprise a far, far, better yarn than that. Unlike many major cities of the world, it was not created because of war, because of a revolution, disease, natural disaster or even to establish a convict settlement.
Rather, a nation lucky enough to be looking for a capital city at the beginning of a new century knuckled down to the task with creativity and diligence. The federation founders knew they had been blessed. Globally, the ‘science’ of town planning (as it was first called) had only recently emerged, and those directly involved in construction of the Australian capital wanted to take full advantage of the most sophisticated design and planning expertise on offer, from any source. It was a unique opportunity. The discussion soon focused on a city shaped organically, within the landscape, not one plonked down, in the words of the first Member for Eden–Monaro, Sir Austin Chapman, ‘like a tent’.
What’s in a Name?
In Canberra, there is a fascinating file called “Suggested names for Federal Capital (CRS A110, item 12/388). It contains the 764 public suggestions made between December 1910 and January 1913 for a name for the new national capital.
Some dreamy souls expected quite a deal from their new capital, prompting them to propose such names as Camelot (by M J P O’Reilly), Venus (F J Brooks), Utopia (Mrs I E Reid), The Holy City (W R Samers) and Parradise (A McKenzie).
Others opted for an Australian link, suggesting Cooeeton (B W Lee), Southern Cross (A Conner, Kangaremu (C A McLaughlin) and Boomerang City (Chas Fisher).
A number of people married letters of the State capitals to form odd conjunctions like Sydmebpha, Hampsby, Spamb and Bamphsua.
The influence of the mother country was also strong with lots of Anglo-proposals like Cromwell, St George, Victoria Cross, New Westminster, New London, Piccadilly and Brit-Cambria.
A few of the more unusual suggestions included The Planet (S Speakman), Wheatwoolgold (C Browning), Bardealynturestton (R Kelly), Labor (D Temple), Victoria Deferenda Defender ( G Haines) and plain old Olive (M Costello).
The eventual choice of Canberra was popular with Australians, being a word of Aboriginal derivation which had been used by settlers in the area since the 1820s. It was favoured over two other names on the government’s shortlist – Myola and Shakespeare.