Miles Franklin, Canberra, the Griffins


Hand-annotated sketch plan submitted in the Federal Capital Design Competition 23 May 1912. Image produced by ferrogallic process, supplied by the National Archives of Australia and restored by Stephanie Dent, Bica Photographics; collection of the High Court of Australia.

Canberra for Miles Franklin (1879-1954) was home territory. She was brought up at Brindabella, on the southern boundary of what in 1912 became the Australian Capital Territory, until age 10 when her father moved his family to a small holding at Thornford, on the other side of the ACT, nearer to Goulburn. At that time Canberra was a small village which Franklin mentions in Ten Creeks Run, set in the 1890s, “Over the nearer rolling widths the spire of Canberra church came to view in its Plain, and Mount Ainslie”.

A week or so ago Lisa at ANZLitLovers reviewed Making Magic, The Marion Mahony Griffin Story, by Glenda Korporaal. In 1912 when Marion’s husband Walter Burley Griffin won the competition to design Australia’s new national capital Miles Franklin, like the Griffins, was living in Chicago and I was interested to know if they met. They did.

Australia became a nation, albeit still subject to British law, on 1 Jan 1901 (and why we went on celebrating Australia Day on the anniversary of the invasion of NSW by the British on 26 Jan 1788 I cannot imagine) and one of the first tasks of the Federal government was to select a site for the capital.  It being determined that the capital should be in NSW, between Melbourne and Sydney,  the plains around Canberra eventually won out over towns further south like Dalgetty and Bombala.

King O’Malley, from 1910 Home Affairs Minister in the Andrew Fisher led Labour government, called a world-wide competition to design the layout of the capital, and from 137 entries that of Griffin, the young American architect and town planner, was declared the winner, although O’Malley reserved the right to include elements of other plans as he saw fit.

O’Malley’s ambition for the new city was for it to be “… the Gotham of Australia … [which] in a few years will rival London in size, Athens in art and Paris in beauty” although his preferred name, of the hundreds suggested for the city, ‘Shakespeare’, was not accepted and “opinion gradually hardened that the best name was that which the place already had.”

Franklin had been in Chicago since 1907 working for the National Women’s Trade Union League of America in various capacities including Secretary of the stenographers union, personal assistant to NWTULA president Margaret Robins, and as deputy to fellow Australian Alice Henry, editor of the journal Life and Labor. In response to my enquiry, Lisa let me know that according to Korporaal, on hearing that Walter Burley Griffin was to design the new capital, Franklin and Henry called on the Griffins and wrote up a story for a Sydney newspaper.

I searched on Trove and found only one story that fitted the bill: THE MAKER OF CANBERRA. WHAT THE CAPITAL WILL BE “Most Beautiful in History.” Interview with Mr. W. B. Griffin. CHICAGO, June 18. In The Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954) Sunday 4 August 1912, p 13  (BY “THE SUN’S” TRAVELLING REPRESENTATIVE.) We have corrected the OCR-produced text (and by ‘we’ I mean Lisa) to make it more readable.

Jill Roe says that Franklin and the Griffins moved in similar circles in Chicago and may well have met prior to 1912. In any case they became friends and later Franklin would often visit them, at their new home in Castlecrag, Sydney, when she was in Australia.

In July 1913 MF wrote to her original mentor in Sydney, Rose Scott:

Just a line in a wild hurry to tell you that Walter Burley Griffin goes on the same boat as this and I have given him a letter to you and asked you to do anything you could to put him in touch with architects or law makers who would be useful to him.

He goes of course in respect to the plans for the Commonwealth Capital. His Wife is an architect also. I wish she could have gone too. They are friends of Miss Henry and mine and are of the very best people not merely in the social sense but in the ethical sense. They have ideals of honesty as well as professional skill and stand high in the profession. …

Mr Griffin is of the same stamp as some of the young idealists who used to seek your salon because of the presiding spirit, long ago, and I hope you will meet him and like him. He is inclined to be a little shy and doesn’t push himself forward at all…

When Walter Burley Griffin died in 1937, Miles wrote a tribute in the Bulletin which I’m unable to locate, but I have this quote from the blog of writer Nigel Featherstone (who is unhappy that not all of Griffin’s plans were carried out as he intended):

Novelist Miles Franklin paid tribute to her good friend Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marian Mahoney Griffin – possibly the brains of the duo – in a piece that appeared in the Bulletin in 1937:

“Never, they felt, had there been a better opportunity to create anew, free from the debris of old mistakes and the shackles of dead tradition, than in this wonderland with its forward-looking and independently-minded democracy.”

Franklin might have been impressed with Canberra (you would have been if you spent a childhood looking at it from the hazy blue heights of the Brindabellas and then racking off overseas), but City Hill in real life is just a mirror.  Perhaps it proves that if our efforts to plan and design don’t result in the creation of great places, we will fill our world with ordinariness.  Because at the core of our lives, at the centre of our communal existence, is mystery.  And we try to medicate our frustrations at this mystery with the most ignoble of acts.

City Hill hasn’t become what the Griffins dreamt.  No, not yet.

By coincidence, The Resident Judge has also just posted a review of an analysis (or a collection of analyses) of Marion Mahony Griffin’s work as an architect, and of her under-rated contributions to the work of her husband, Marion Mahony Reconsidered, by David van Zanten (ed.). Or if, like Sue of Whispering Gums, you are (a little, I’m only guessing) disappointed that the Griffins of the title pertains to the architects and not to the musical combo the Griffyns, you may see her many reviews here.


A.R. Hoyle, King O’Malley: The American Bounder, MacMillan, Melbourne, 1981

Jill Roe, Stella Miles Franklin, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2008

Jill Roe (ed.), My Congenials: Miles Franklin & Friends in Letters (vol.1), Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1993

For other Miles Franklin posts and reviews go to:

An overview of the Brent of Bin Bin series (here)
Miles Franklin page (here)



19 thoughts on “Miles Franklin, Canberra, the Griffins

  1. Thank you Bill for a wonderful post about ONC (Our Nation’s Capital). As a Planning graduate (which means instant love for Canberra, the most ‘planned’ city), I have thoroughly enjoyed this post and Lisa’s last week.

    Never knew that Shakespeare was touted as a possible name, and love the quote about London/ Paris/ Athens. In my previous fulltime working life (I was a public servant), I often had to visit Canberra. Sure, it’s a pain of a place to get around without a car, but I enjoyed my visits there, relishing the proportions of the public spaces and the majesty of the public buildings (again. looking at it through a town planners lens!).


    • King O’Malley was seriously weird, I think his second and third choices were ‘Burns’ and ‘Longfellow’. Given their popularity at the time you would think they might at least have been ‘Lawson’ and ‘Paterson’. And I can’t imagine where he thought 10 million people (the pop. of London) were going to come from.

      My grandfather was an early public servant and after the war lived in Turner in a little brick house with a big hedge (no fences!). I would play in the pine forest and later, do training runs to the top of Black Mountain. I remember Lake Burley Griffin when it was a paddock. So yes, I’m a fan too. Though in 1996 when I was there for the Masters Games it was bloody hard to find somewhere to get a drink.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Bill, are you taking part in Change the Date? It’s basically a campaign to boycott anything to do with AD on the invasion day date, and the organisers are hoping that actors, musicians will refuse to take part in any ceremonies as well as the rest of us just ignoring it. The idea is that politicians are all too scared to do anything about it even though they know that as a nation we should have a different day. So a grass roots movement needs to show them what we want, to give ’em the courage to find a better day.
    I don’t have a preference for any date, just not that one.


  3. Great post – I’m a Canberra-lover too. And, apropos of nothing, Rose Scott’s father knew and was mentored (when he first arrived in the colony in the 1820s) by John Macarthur. Yep, I need to get a life!


  4. Sorry I missed this post and your cheeky link to MY Griffyns Bill. Last week was my week of multiple events every day, followed by coming to Melbourne for husband’s aunt’s 90th on the weekend. We return home tomorrow… By which time my brother and family will have arrived from Tasmania. But I did enjoy your post. I did a bit of work on the Griffins for a Canberra centenary project back in 2012/13. A very interesting couple, and is great seeing Main staying to receive her due at last.

    I’m glad to hear that Lisa and you (?) did some Trove editing. That’s something else that often takes up my time. You start researching there and then feel obliged to do some fixing.


    • Even at the beginning Miles Franklin saw Marion as an important part of the team, but perhaps in a man’s world she couldn’t put herself forward officially. As for Trove, Lisa sent me a corrected text to proof read, but she did all the actual work. MF comes up again in a post I’m working on for next week as contributing to a magazine, presumably a short story in about 1904. I have her letters and her diary, now I’d like an anthology of all her short pieces. If I have to do it myself I had better get more familiar with Trove.
      Good luck with all your commitments, you’re still posting 1-2 times a week so you’re doing a good job of keeping we your loyal readers happy.


      • Yes, do get into Trove Bill, it’s a delight, but can be addictive. Must say it’s a little tricky keeping up with reading, posting, travelling, a bunch of family stuff, and getting Christmas together. Can’t wait for January.

        I have MF’S diaries… They are great aren’t they.


      • Lisa and I have discussed elsewhere that her diaries and her letters show MF saying some shocking things about other writers. Colin Roderick, in the bio which I have finally got round to (though may not review), says some pages had to be left blank when they were first released, presumably to protect the sensibilities of the writers discussed (including Roderick? I think she wrote some nasty things about him).


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