National Archives of Australia

Issue 9 January 2013

What a gem! Canberra’s grand beginnings


Front cover of the souvenir book ‘Canberra’. NAA: M4071, 48

Archives staff often unearth exciting or unusual records from among the millions of items held in the collection. The ‘What a gem!’ series showcases amazing finds from the Archives’ holdings. In this issue, researcher Amy Lay uncovers a souvenir of the grand beginnings of our national capital a century ago.

Among the personal papers of federal surveyor Percy Sheaffe is a large brown leather-bound book entitled simply ‘Canberra,’ in gold embossed letters. The cover doesn’t give much away, but a peek inside reveals a treasure of Canberra’s history.

The book is a souvenir publication of the ‘brilliant spectacle’ that is today celebrated as Canberra’s birthday: the laying of the foundation stones of the commencement column on Kurrajong Hill (later renamed Capital Hill and now the site of Parliament House) on 12 March 1913. The book features many photographs from the event, as well as the loquacious toasts to Canberra, Australia and Empire made on the day.

The commencement column was to be the ceremonial heart of the new city. It signified the Australian Federation and the states that created it, Australia’s place in the British Empire and the democratic ideals of the fledgling nation. Despite work having already started in the federal capital, this symbolic column marked the beginning of a symbolic city.

The ceremony involved the official laying of the foundation stones for the column, followed by the naming of the city by the Governor-General’s wife, Lady Denman, and concluded with a grand luncheon. The enormous foundation stones were laid by professionals, not by be-suited politicians. However, Governor-General Lord Denman, Prime Minister Andrew Fisher and Minister for Home Affairs King O’Malley were handed a golden trowel with which to each tap the stones and declare them ‘well and truly laid’.

King O’Malley, Minister for Home Affairs, ‘laying’ one of the foundation stones. NAA: M4071, 48

After this heroic effort, a plinth was placed across the stones so that the name of the capital could be revealed. Lady Denman announced the name ‘Canberra’, which was greeted by rapturous applause – it is harder to imagine such a positive reaction to some of the other suggestions such as ‘Syd-mel-per-adel-bris-ho’. According to Lord Denman, the name Canberra was chosen for its ‘euphonious’ sound, as well as it being the existing name of the area.

The beautifully bound book also includes the plan for the new city. The ill-fated departmental board plan was a mish-mash of Walter Burley Griffin’s plan and other ideas submitted to the 1911 Federal Capital City Design Competition. The plan was widely criticised and resulted in Griffin being brought to Australia to consult on developing the capital.

The departmental board plan for the Federal Capital. NAA: M4071, 48

Also hidden in the back of the book is a series of astronomic pictures taken from the new Oddie telescope built on Mount Stromlo, and – most importantly – a stocktake of how many head of livestock were present in the Federal Capital Territory: 1762 horses, 8412 cattle, 393 pigs and almost 225,000 sheep.

If you wander up Federation Mall today, you might be surprised at the low stone plinth that sits in front of Australian Parliament House. This plinth is all that was ever built of the vaunted commencement column. When spending slowed during the war years, the building of the column was delayed and eventually shelved. It was removed from Kurrajong Hill when the current Parliament House was built and kept in storage until it was repositioned further down the hill, easily overlooked despite the key part it played in Canberra’s history.

A drawing of what the completed commencement column would look like. NAA: M4071, 48

The plinth of the commencement column today. Photographer: Amy Lay

Want more?

View the souvenir publication

Find out more about Design 29: creating a capital, an Archives’ exhibition to celebrate Canberra’s centenary

Explore more online resources on Canberra

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