History of Canberra

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Canberra's name comes from the Aboriginal word "Kamberra", meaning 'meeting place', apt for the city that became the nation's capital as a solution to the dispute between rivals Melbourne and Sydney.

Following the federation of Australia in 1901, years went by in the search for the future site of Australia's capital. Finally, in 1908, Federal Parliament declared that the capital would be in the Yass/Canberra district.

For over 21,000 years, this region had been home to the Ngunnawal aboriginal people. As part of their nomadic migrations, they regularly visited the area for corroborees and feasts. Archaeological evidence of their occupation can be found at Birrigai Rock shelter at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, at the Axe Grinding Grooves, at Tuggeranong Creek as rock paintings in Namadgi National Park and at other sites throughout the Australian Capital Territory.

European settlement, beginning in the 1820s, disrupted the thriving Aboriginal life-style. While much of their culture was lost, many continued to live in the area taking work on sheep stations.

Canberra derives its name from the first European settler's property, "Canberry", based on the aboriginal name for the area. The city centre of modern Canberra lies over the middle of this property.

The New South Wales Government Surveyor at the time, Charles Scrivener, selected this site for the future capital due to its commanding position within an amphitheatre of hills. His vision was that the flood plain of the Molonglo River could form an ornamental lake in the centre of the city site. This was ratified in 1909, and on 1 January 1911 the Australian Capital Territory came into existence. At this stage there were only 1714 persons living in the Territory, outnumbered slightly by horses, greatly by the 224,764 sheep, not to mention the kangaroos!

The international competition to design Canberra was launched on 24 May later that year and, from some 137 entries, Walter Burley Griffin's design was awarded first prize.

On 12 March 1913, the wife of the Governor General, Lady Denman, officially named Canberra as the capital of Australia and three foundation stones were laid into place at the base of the commencement column: they can still be seen in the lawn of Parliament House.

Later that year Griffin came out to Australia to implement his design. His plan placed Capital Hill at the centre of Canberra with wide tree-lined avenues radiating from it, each named after an Australian State capital and pointing in the direction of that city. His plan related the structure and geometry of the city to the natural terrain of the site and was based on three axes that form a Great Triangle. The land axis linked Mount Ainslie to Capital Hill. The water axis ran from Black Mountain through to Lake Burley Griffin, the lake formed by damming the Molonglo River. The third axis - the Municipal axis (now Constitution Avenue) - ran parallel to the water axis from City Hill to Russell Hill.

But delays in constructing the capital ensued due to lack of funds and the outbreak of the First World War. It was not until 1926 that Federal Parliament was to meet in Canberra and then in a "provisional" Parliament House (Old Parliament House), which was built on a flatter area than that according to Griffin's plan. This building was officially opened on 9 May 1927. At this stage the infant capital consisted of two government office buildings, a Prime Minister's residence, the Lodge, several hotels and guest houses, a railway connection to Queanbeyan and hence Sydney, the Royal Military College, Duntroon, a hospital, a dam, a powerhouse, brickworks, a construction camp for workers and a nucleus of inner suburbs - Kingston, Yarralumla, Ainslie, Reid and Forrest. Some public servants had by this time begun to move to Canberra from Melbourne.

Then, the Great Depression hit and construction of the nation's capital halted again. With a population of 7000, Canberra went into hibernation. Work had scarcely begun on the Australian War Memorial and the National Library when the Second World War halted progress. It was not till after the war that development of the city really began.

In 1954, as Canberra (now with a population of 39,000) was hit with a housing shortage, a Senate Select Committee was established to inquire into the development of the city. It recommended a single well-funded organisation to implement construction and development. The Griffin plan was reviewed and the Lake formed and inaugurated in 1964. The concept of the Parliamentary Triangle was realised by construction of bridges and avenues radiating from Capital Hill. New town centres to the north and southwest of Griffin's Canberra were commenced with residents moving into the first new town, Woden, in 1964, followed by the establishment of Belconnen to the north in 1967, and Tuggeranong in the south in 1973.

More public servants were moved from Sydney and Melbourne, and a large defence office complex was constructed at Russell Hill on one of the corners of the National Triangle. The Royal Australian Mint was completed and other government buildings were built in town centres to generate retail and services development. New embassies were established reflecting Australia's growth and international links. The National Library, the High Court of Australia, the Australian National Gallery and the National Science and Technology Centre were built within the Parliamentary Triangle. And finally after ten years in the building, to mark the Bicentenary of European settlement, and following another international competition, the new permanent Parliament House was opened on 9 May 1988.

As the seat of federal government and home to diplomatic embassies of over 60 countries, Canberra is a diverse and cultured city with all the amenities of a modern city but none of the disadvantages. It has taken a long time but the vision of Walter Burley Griffin has now been realised.