About Canberra

Brona’s AusReadingMonth Bingo, November 2019 – [ACT]


My father died a few years ago aged 87. He was born in Queensland but was only 6 or 7 when his father got a job in Canberra in the Commonwealth Public Service as deputy head of the Pharmacy section in Health Patents (see Comments below), the position he held, with the same boss, for the next 20 something years, as the department grew under him.

As it happened, the War years, when much of the Government moved to Melbourne, coincided with Dad’s high school years and so when his parents moved back to Canberra, he stayed on in Victoria as a teacher. The important thing about the Holloways’ years in Melbourne were that they lived in Hawthorn – hence our football affiliation.

I’ve said earlier that I inherited Dad’s books, 30 boxes, and all the non-war ones are on shelves around my flat. I knew I had some relating to Canberra and had vaguely intended giving them to Sue/Whispering Gums when I finally caught up with her. When I pulled them out for Brona’s readathon – and here I must apologize to Sarah Dowse whose West Block I couldn’t immediately lay my hands on – I found:

Lionel Wigmore, The Long View: Australia’s National Capital (1963)
LF Fitzhardinge, St John’s Church and Canberra (1941, 2nd ed. 1959)
Lindsay Gardiner, Witness in Stone (1958)
P Luck & U White, Canberra Sketchbook (1968)
John Gale, Canberra: Its History and Legends (1927. Facsimile ed. 1991)

I also found Grandpa’s had a stroke which was apposite, Hugo’s Italian self-tuition in three months, which seems ambitious, and The Lake Condah Aboriginal Mission (1984) which I’ve said previously I knew nothing about when we lived nearby in the early 1960s.

So let’s start with the churches. Mum’s family was Cof E. Dad’s was Presbyterian but he was confirmed and became an Anglican lay preacher around 1962. Witness in Stone is the history of St Ninian’s Presbyterian church in North Canberra. I don’t know if it was my grandparents’ home church – an unreadable note from Nana appears to say “David, you might find this interesting”. The earliest Presbyterians around “Canberry or the Limestone Plains” were shepherds brought out from Scotland in the 1830s. There were Anglican and Presbyterian churches from that time, though St Ninians itself dates from 1881. I wonder whose spire it was that Miles Franklin’s characters could see as they galloped home across the plain.

St John’s is the church I remember, from the 3 or 4 times as a boy I went to midnight services there on Christmas Eve (and it is probably MF’s spire).

In 1836 Australia was separated from the Diocese of Calcutta, and William Grant Broughton was made the first, and only, Bishop of Australia.

Up to the 1820s with white settlement spreading out across the Southern Highlands and along the Murrumbidgee, the southernmost church had been Liverpool on the outskirts of Sydney, but under Broughton churches were established first at Sutton Forest then at Goulburn, Yass, Queanbeyan, and in 1841, Canberra. On Jan 1, 1911 the transfer of the new Australian Capital Territory (from NSW) was completed and “St Johns became the Mother Church of the National Capital”.

Some final words –

This little church in its quiet valley offers a microcosm of Australian history and indeed of the wider history of Empire.

No wonder John Howard converted.

Canberra Sketchbook is one of a number of such books based on the drawings of NZ born cartoonist Unk White (1900-1986). It contains 30 drawings each with a facing page of text.


To continue the church theme, the drawings include St Johns, All Saints and the Canberra Mosque, built in 1960 with $36,000 provided by the Indonesian, Malaysian and Pakistan governments; as well as some notable government buildings and old homesteads.

The Long View Dad got from Nana for his birthday in 1967. I can see she has written “I’m sorry this is so late… something  … something … I live in a kind of madhouse these days. Trust you like the book.” No “love from Mum” which says something about the kind of family we were.

It’s very well presented, with black and white photos incorporated into the text on nearly every page (including St John’s yet again, after a snowfall in 1929).

Canberra, national capital of Australia, had become before its fiftieth anniversary in 1963 the most populous of the Australian inland cities. The number of people living there more than trebled between 1947 and 1960.

Today, Canberra’s population at 410,000, while well below the 1-5 millions of the state capitals on the coast, is nearly 4 times greater than the nearest (in size) inland centres – Bendigo 121,000, Toowoomba 115,000, Ballarat 100,000 and Albury-Wodonga 95,000.

I wonder what the story is behind the lines:

Relationships appear to have been especially bad in 1826, to the extent that troops were sent from Sydney to disperse large numbers of aborigines [sic] congregated near Lake George and Inverary [Bungonia] …

“Disperse” in Australian histories is a word to hide any number of sins, including mass murder.

So, the author leads us through the story of the site, its selection as national capital, the Griffin plan – adopted, not adopted, mostly adopted – and construction, which was continuing of course as the book was being written, Lake Burley Griffin yet to be flooded and new Parliament House years in the future.

Canberra: Its History and Legends was first published in 1927 by the author, John Gale (1831-1929) who had founded the Queanbeyan Age in 1860 (for non-Australians, Queanbeyan is a few kilometres from Canberra and just outside the borders of the Australian Capital Territory). No one mentions the fact that Gale was 96 when the book came out and I can only imagine he had compiled it over a number of years.

The inscription in this book, numbered copy 964, is “David Holloway, 1992. Arrived in Canberra 19.01.1934”. I guess he was writing for his sons and grandchildren.

My associations with Canberra and the Queanbeyan district .. date back to 1855

Gale writes for his grandchildren and great grandchildren, with that lovely formal quality of the C19th.

Here, the native peoples hunted, battened and throve, here their men kind furbished their war weapons and trained and disciplined themselves for war with hostile tribes, and in the flarelight of their fires, with their gins and piccaninnies onlooking, danced their weird corroborees.

But they were soon ‘dispersed’, as Miles Franklin, amongst others, records, by the irresistible tide of white settlement.

The book is just a collection of stories and descriptions, culled from settler diaries, and no doubt from the Queanbeyan Age, with some linking text and filled out with the author’s reminisces from a lifetime in the district.

I forgot to note which book I read it in, but the Aboriginal meaning of ‘Canberra’ is said to be breasts, or cleavage, relating I think to Black Mountain and Mt Ainslie and the open area between them (someone will correct my geography, I’m sure). The people of Canberra are the Ngunnawal (here). They may be part of a larger group, perhaps taking in the mountains to the east and south. Their neighbours to the west are the Wiradjuri whose country encompasses much of central NSW.


see also: Miles Franklin, Canberra, the Griffins (here)
Books reviewed by Lisa/ANZLitLovers, set in Canberra (here)
Books reviewed by Sue/Whispering Gums, set in Canberra (here)

20 thoughts on “About Canberra

  1. As always, I love your thoughtful reflections. My undergraduate studies were in planning (most did town planning but I was in a breakaway greenie minority and did environmental planning. Nevertheless, the foundations for good ‘planning’ were there, and like all planners, I have a deep love and admiration for Canberra). I will be alerting my sister-in-law (also a planner and lives in Canberra), and a dear friend (another planner who has just moved from Canberra to NZ) to the Canberra sketchbook – I think they will both love it… coincidence that it was done by a NZ artist (I won’t bore you with my family’s Canberra and NZ connections!).

    I had a think about books I’ve read set in Canberra – the first that came to mind (and probably as a result of having just heard her speak) was Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation – it’s one I need to reread because I remember having a strong opinion at the time but now can’t recall what that opinion was!


    • Thank you! Canberra Sketchbook was published in 1968 by Rigby, more than half a century ago and it feels like yeterday. The Long View, published in 1963, was the more substantial and more interesting book, but I guess they’ll both pop up on a secondhand website from time to time.

      I probably have Joe Cinque’s Consolation somewhere on my shelves, I might have read it if I’d known it would count as ‘ACT’.


  2. Brother B3, wrote on Facebook: I always thought pop worked in the patents office. Me: I think I’m right. He: It doesn’t happen often but I get the chocolates. “Canberra … transferred to patents office, becoming examiner of patents grade 1 in 1939”.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Bill. An interesting post. I know that sketchbook series but have never seen the Canberra one. I know a little about Canberra’s early churches but not a lot.

    I have written quite a few posts about Canberra literary culture, but the one of most interest is – and I hope you don’t mind my giving you the link here – is one on novels set in Canberra: https://whisperinggums.com/2015/03/09/monday-musings-on-australian-literature-novels-set-in-canberra/

    There are many more but this gives a bit of an idea.


    • Happy to be given links – particularly when I’ve failed to look them up. Churches aren’t important these days though obviously they were at the centre of community during the early days of white settlement. I remember noting on another post that the Presbyterian community around Bathhurst imported a minister who only spoke Gaelic (Annabella Boswell’s Journal).


  4. My interest in Canberra has been piqued again this year now that B19 is living & working there whilst completing his uni degree. I haven’t spent much time there since my own uni days. I was in Wagga but one of my best friends was at ANU. I think I may have even gone to the very first Floriade festival with her in 1988 or 1989.
    I have one if those NewSouth city books about Canberra, that I should read before B19 becomes B21 and leaves!!


  5. Wait, so the Aborigines made a boob joke and it stuck? I love it.

    Also, this: “No ‘love from Mum’ which says something about the kind of family we were.” This is definitely how the men in my family are. The women always sign the card Love, [both names]. I think we’re improving, though, as my dad has started signing his own stuff.


    • A surprisingly number of white settlers made the effort to use Indigenous names. I suppose they had jokes played on them more than once.
      Nana was very uptight, never express your feelings, and Dad inherited that and imposed it on Mum. And on us boys.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Just adding to this. There is still no real certainty about our name, and there’s some uncertainty about the relationship between the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people – sometimes our acknowledgement of or welcome to country is a bit confused. There’s also the Ngarigo people just south, while the Wiradjuri are, as you say, sort of around the north, east and west of us.


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