Early Canberra

Early Canberra - a History website

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Early Canberra by Ann Gugler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at http://earlycanberra.webs.com/.


To see more information about early Canberra, click HERE to go to Hidden Canberra.  This web page in addition to having information about the camps and general times, has detailed information about Westlake which was the second major site established for construction workers in the 1920s.  The first was Molonglo, the second Westlake and the third Causeway.  There are also 19th century rolls for Canberra; the 1913 census and electoral rolls - 1916 (conscription); 1928 (liquor ordinance to allow alcohol to return to the territory for sale); 1935 (advisory council and 1949 onwards also federal); 1943; 1949; 1955 and 1967.  The 1959 is still to be added.  People are arranged  alphabetically in suburbs, streets and outside Canberra City etc includes Jervis Bay area.  Another site is Glimpses Early Canberrra which is being developed and Canberra Camps which has copy of my recent book, A Story of Capital Hill and drafts for revised edition of Builders of Canberra 1909-1929.

The photograph used in the heading is used courtesy of Marjie and Val Hawke.  It was taken around 1924 on the area now known as Stirling Ridge, Stirling Park, Yarralumla.  The men (Mr Hawke fourth from right) are sewer workers.  The Hawke men came to Canberra from Araluen where they worked as miners.  Instead of working on the sewer tunnels they were given work above ground.  No 3 Sewer Camp tents can be seen in the background and in the far background cottages of The Gap Settlement  later known as Westlake Settlement.

This web site includes numerous articles from local and other newspapers as well as articles written by me and concentrates on the period from 1909 through the twenties and thirties - the period when the Canberra was selected for the federal site and transition from paddocks to city.  Canberra 1913 contains numerous articles that tell of the finding of the site, departmental plan versus Walter Burley Griffin plan, naming of Canberra, visit of Prince of Wales and beginnings. 

The Camps List and Accommodation 1912-1930s refers to accommodation of the workers and early public servants.  It also includes stories about a number of our early public buildings and facilities such as the first public library at Acton and the construction of the National Library in Kings Avenue.  It was like, the nearby Patents' Office, pulled down.  The section People has a number of obituaries and other articles about some of the people who contributed to our people and city.  Dr Robert Boden heads the list and others include Dr Lewis Windamere Nott who was our first member of parliament - House of Representatives. Parliament adjurned so that members could attend his funeral.

The Great Depression and Unemployment Relief Fund are part of the hard times of our history.  Each of the headings hold parts of our history and following in this section is information about the major settlements from 1909 - 1930s.  In the photographs I have put a sections for areas and categories - Westlake, Maps - and others to be added.

Early Maps

Above is a detail of the 36 square miles surveyed in 1909 for the area of the city proper.  Note the survey mark sites -  GAP (above the A) and QUARRY above left of Gap.  The GAP is in Stirling Park, Yarralumla on Stirling Ridge on the end nearest the Canberra Mosque.  The QUARRY survey mark is on Attunga Point - former Quarry.   There are four other survey markers that I am aware of in Stirling Park.  These link our City of Canberra with its beginnings.  Also marked on this map is the proposed lake.  Scrivener's 1909 report  published in the Advertiser  31 May 1909 refers to the survey work of Yass-Canberra area that covered 'about 35 square miles being portions of the following holdings:- Duntroon, Acton, Jerrabomberra and Yarralumla. Duntroon estate at that time included the area still known as Klensendorlffe's  which was acquired by the Campbells of Duntroon in the 1860s and then became part of Duntroon Estate.  Klensendorlffe's grant included the area of Capital Hill and the main part of the city on the south side of the Molonglo River.

Below is a map of the 36 square miles of the city area. This was the area initially surveyed in the 1909 survey work. Several plans were drawn. The pencil notation on the bottom is the NAA file reference number.

The above map is early 1920s.  Capital Place (circle) is Capital Hill.

The history of construction era

Canberra the Federal City began in the teen years of the last century.  Following the choice of site a design competition was held to plan the federal city. It was won by Walter Burley Griffin who chose the tallest hill in the Gura Bung Dhaura range (Ngunawal meaning stony ground) as the centre of his city.  The hills, which were heavily timbered sat roughly in the centre of the almost treeless plain known to the locals as Canberra.  Surrounding the plain are wooded hills that include Black Mountain and Mount Ainslie on the north side of the Molonglo River.  These mountains were used by Walter Burley Griffin as points of the triangle that commences at Capital Hill - the central point of the city.

The men who came to build the city  lived in tents, humpies and a few old farm buildings.  In the early 1920s the authorities to house the men, some of whom brought their families with them, built around seventy small brick cottages, converted the barracks in the ex-Internment Camp at Molonglo into 120 cottages and barracks for tradesmen and constructed a few small temporary timber cottages at Westlake, Acton and Causeway. Single men continued to live under canvas with two men sharing each small tent in camps set up near work sites.  In 1925 the Federal Capital Commission (FCC) put aside 80 small areas at Riverbourne for men to again built humpies for their families and the following year they opened up a further 120 sites at Russell Hill for more humpies.  Oaks Estate, once a part of Queanbeyan, also became a construction workers' settlement. 

In 1925 a few semi-permanent single men's camps were erected - on the north side of the Molonglo River - White City (tents and later cubicles); centre of the city on Capitol Hill - Capitol Hill Camp - galvanised iron buildings and on the south side of the river at Causeway  (timber cubicles).  In 1926 a number of the tent camps had their dwellings replaced with small timber cubicles. 

Following are documents and photographs that tell part of their story.

Map presented to Prince of Wales 1920

Detail of a map given to The Prince of Wales 'on the occasion of laying the 'COMMEMORATION STONE' at the Capitol, Canberra June 14th 1920. (sic the date was 21 June 1920) 

Details on the map

The full map shows the entire area of the Federal Capital Territory and additional information:


'The Seat of Government Act' was passed on 14th December 1908.

The Seat of Government 'Acceptance Act' was assented to on 13th December, 1909.

On the 14th December, 1909, the Seat of Government Surrender Act was passed by the Govt of new South Wales.

The Seat of Government Acceptance Act was brought into force by Proclomation on 22nd January 1910.

The City was names CANBERRA by Her Excellency, Lady Denman, on 12th March, 1913


The area of the Federal Territory is approximately 900 square miles

The population on December 31st 1922 was 2220

The Average Annual Rainfall over the whole Territory is 25.5 inches

The Lowest Point in the Territory is about 1500 ft above sea level.

The Highest Point is Mt Bimberry, 6,262 feet.

The Maximum Shade Temperature recorded is 104 degrees fahr.

The Minimum Shade Temperature recorded is 11 degrees fahr.

The Geological formation is partly igneous, embracing granite, quartz, porphyrys etc and partly seimentary including slates, sandstone, shales, and limestone.  Granite towards the south only.  Canberra is situated in latitude 35' 15 S a longitude 149'13 E on the western side of the Main Dividing Range.  It is about 30 miles distance from that Range and about 75 miles in a direct line from the Eastern Coast of Australia.

Canberra is 204 miles from Sydney, 429 miles from Melbourne, 912 miles from Adelaide, 929 miles from Brisbane and 2607 miles from Perth.

Handwitten on the map is a reference to the dots marking the major settlement sites - also added by hand.  It contains the following information:

Area tinted Pink (not shown on this map) denotes an area of Police Patrol - abt 170 sq miles. Population abt 1650.

Population Centres

A.  Duntroon 600 approx

B. Civic Centre 100 "

C. Acton 100             "

D. Brickyards  150    "

E. Power House 100 "

F. Molonglo  250        "

1. Temporary Camp Cotter 100

2. Temporary Camp Sewer 200

3. Temporary Camp Ainslie 50

This map was from the National Australian Archives and the call no is A6/266/1 G27/4241 - some of the call numbers were changed when the Archives moved from Mitchell to their present building - the old Post Office - East Block - in Parkes.

[NB The Prince of Wales's stone marked the centre of Walter Burley Griffin's city plan. The pegs laid by O'Malley and another just  before the12 March 1913 naming ceremony and the commencement stones (for the column) all marked the centre of the Departmental plan.]

The teen year's camps


Above is the hut now known as the Surveyors' Hut.  I know it as Scrivener's Plan Room.  It was added to the Surveyors' Camp first established in 1909, in 1911.  When the men moved from this camp around the end of 1913 they were able to take the timber buildings and their tents, but this building constructed from concrete was left behind.  Photograph taken 2008 (Gugler) 

The first camp in Federal times was on Camp Hill, which when State Circle was completed became part of Capital Hill.  The surveyors who began to survey the city area lived in this camp.  Duntroon was next to Acton, the first major settlement - that became the Royal Military College.

Many of the early documents refer to Duntroon estate which be the time of the choice of the city  site included in the Duntroon Estate - the original site at Pialligo and Klensendorlle's land which is the grant on which the two Federal Parliament Houses stand - the Provisional and Permanent.

Above is a photograph of Acton  area circa 1913.  Photograph courtesy of Alison Neiberding. 

Above is a 1950s map of the Acton area.  The hospital bottom centre right was built in the 1940s.  The earlier hospital was a timber one in Blamey Crescent.  Acton Guest House is the former Bachelors Quarters.  The Acton workmen's cottages were above the Trades Hall in the section of the 'TO' of ACTON.  Below the A of ACTON is part of the Royal Canberra Golf Club greens on the north side of the Molonglo River. 



Around 1912  ACTON became the Administrative area of the city.  Here, the old Acton Farm House was used to accommodate officials and a number of timber dwellings erected for married men and barracks for the single men - the latter was named THE BACHELORS QUARTERS.  Married construction workers built their own humpies and the single men were housed under canvas.  By the end of 1913 a two storey concrete house - known as THE RESIDENCY and later CANBERRA HOUSE was completed and in January 1914 The Administrator,  Col Miller, and Mrs Miller moved into the house.

ACTON had offices built for the surveyors and also had the first bank - COMMONWEALTH - along with a small gaol and even in the 1950s Acton was the place to go to register births, deaths etc and make arrangements to be tested for a car licence etc.  It remained the administrative centre of Canberra for several decades after World War II.

Up on the hill the first Canberra Hospital was built. Today it is part of the Australian National University buildings.  In the early 1940s the Canberra Community Hospital was built on the area of land now covered with the buildings of the National Museum.

In 1913 a nursery was established.  This nursery continued to be used after the main nursery was established in 1914 at Yarralumla.


The Power House, now in Kingston, was commenced in 1914 and around that time the rail line from Queanbeyan was extended to Canberra and the line ended at the Power House.  The area near the Power House became the INDUSTRIAL AREA of Canberra.  A Single Men's tent camp was established near the Power House and a married quarters camp - known as THE SWAGGER CAMP was built nearby.   In the Post World War 1 period the camps were closed and new ones established at nearby Causeway.  The camps were in situ in 1912 or early 13.


The above map is a detail of one with a date 30.6.1913.  It shows the sites of the single men's camp and married quarters.  The marked tunnel was bult. On the opposite side of the river on the right the pumping station was built. [Ref NAA A657/1 DS14/1919 - on this map which is a long strip map are details of leased land areas.]

Work on Canberra's water supply needs began with the construction of the COTTER DAM in 1912.  The single men's tent camp was on land in the area of the Cotter Reserve opposite the restaurant.  Married men erected humpies for their families near the junction of the Cotter and Murrumbidgee Rivers.  In 1913 a tent school was opened to 'school' the children of the camp.  it closed in 1917.


In 1912 Fred Campbell's Ram paddock was chosen as a site for the brickyards.  His property was Yarralumla and following the takeover by the Commonwealth of his property his grand two storey house was used first for official visitors to the territory and in 1927, following renovations, for first the local place to accommodate the royal visitors who came to open parliament and later for the home of the Governor General.

By 1913 the brickyards were up and running producing the first bricks for the new city.  As with other sites there were two camps - single men lived under canvas and the married built their own humpies. 

In 1914 the main nursery was established and men moved to the area to work in the nursery. From 1917 the area was known as Westridge - name given by Walter Burley Griffin to avoid confusion with Yarralumla House, the former property of Frederick Campbell - now the Governor General's Residence.  In 1917 the post office was opened at Westridge.

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Top map shows the sites of a number of the humpies built by married men working on the construction of Duntroon and second photograph shows the single men's camp. 

Duntroon, the site of the Royal Military College, was area where the first major building work took place.   The married men's camp continued to be used into the 1950s. Details of this camp including names of residents is published in BUILDERS OF CANBERRA 1909-1929 Gugler. The site of the married quarters camp was in the area of the car park for the Australian Defence Force University.  A typical description of structures - galvanised iron roof and hessian walls 2/- per month  (rent).  A school was established for the children.  Other temporary schools established at Acton, Cotter and in the twenties - Russell Hill and Molonglo. 

Major post-World War settlements/centres

Following World War One, the Cotter Settlement, with the exception of a camp opposite the Pumping Station 1921-22 period (construction of the bridge) was gone.  The Power House Settlement was reduced to the Engineers' Mess and a Labourers Camp and new single men's caps were erected near to work sites.

The major semi-permanent settlements were:

MOLONGLO 1921-1950s - converted ex-interment camp - population 1925 - 750 !20 cottages and accommodation for 150 single men. 

During the early 1920s a number of Molonglo cottages were moved to new sites - Westridge in the area of modern Banks Street; Eastlake (below Rottenbury Hill where St Mark's Cross is established), Civic Centre and Arsenal site.

Below: Westlake cottages in The Gap, Westlake - 1924 - and below that No 1 Labourers Camp, Capitol Hill, Westlake circa 1926.

WESTLAKE - 1922-1965 -  south side of the Molonglo River below the West Lake area of the proposed Lake. It stretched back to Red Hill and from the Brickyards area (moved 1917 to Stirling Ridge) to and included Capitol Hill and part of Camp Hill. (Today the area not developed is Stirling Park Yarralumla which is a huge archealogical site). In 1925 the population of the area was700 - the people lived in two settlements  Howie's and The Gap Cotttages (later just known as Westlake) and three government tent camps.  On the lower slope of Red Hill there were at least two single men's tent camps.

CAUSEWAY - 1925-to present time.  The timber cottages were removed in the mid 1970s and replaced with small brick cottages.  Also had camps nearby - Eastlake and Causeway.

RIVERBOURNE - 1925-1927  3 miles from the Queanbeyan Post Office on south side of the Molonglo River. Sites for 80 build your own humpy sites.

RUSSELL HILL 1926-1950s - 120 sites allocated for men to build their own humpies.  Between 1926-1929 school provided for chidren.  The school building was Acton Masonic Hall built by Contractor John Howie. It was moved circa 1930 to Ainslie - Corroboree Park, where it still stands as the Ainslie Hall.

In addition there were three semi-permanent camps built in 1925 - north side White City Camp - site now School of Music near Civic Shops; Capitol Hill Camp on Capital Hill and Causeway Camp. There were numerous single men's camps - see camps section for full list.

Early settlements that continued


This centre which was the property taken over by the Commonwealth in 1911 developed as the as th Administrative Centre of Canberra.  This lasted into the 1960s when further development of Canberra after World War 2 continued.  The planned Lake, at this time became a reality (filled in 1963 - officially opened by Bob Menzies in 1964) and new suburbs and satelite cities were constructed - Belconnen, Woden, Tuggeranong etc. The Australian National University took over much of the old Acton area and the new hospital built in the 1940s was demolished in the 1990s and the National Museum sits on its site.


Above: F McKay outside ex-Molonglo single men's quarters, Westridge early 1920s (photograph courtesty R Newcombe) 


In 1917 the Brickworks was renamed WESTRIDGE by Walter Burley Griffin when the area received a post office.  This was to avoid confusion with the nearby Yarralulma House (now Govenor General's residence and used prior to 1927 when updated in readiness for the Duke and Duchess of York's arrival - as a place for visiting dignitaries to stay.  In December 1924 Hostel No 1 (Hotel Canberra) solved the important people accommodation needs.

In 1921-22 several new camps were erected at Westridge and 10 small brick cottages were erected in Section 64.  These were followed by a number of timber cottages erected in 1926 and so on.  New camps were built at brickyards in the mid 1920s. (see section on camps).


This former 'suburb' of Queanbeyan was separated from NSW when the rail line marked the edge of the Federal Capital Territory in that area.  Particularly in the 1920s this suburb developed as a workmen's area.  The land remained freehold until the post WW2 era and was generally neglected by the FCT authorities.  Mr CS Daley tried to have it pulled down, but did not succeed.

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1928 census numbers

The Canberra Times 12 July 1928


8,012 FOR FCT


A tentative statement of the result of the census of the Federal Capital Territory taken June 30 was made available yesterday by the Director of Federal Police (Major Jones). The census shows that the total population including figures for Jervis Bay, was 8,012 comprising 4,536 males and 2,763 females.  The differences is due mainly to the fact that the earlier census was taken at a holiday period when a large number of residents were absent from the Territory.

On the latest census the total number of people living in the city area, was 5,625, comprising 3,141 (or 3,111) males and 2,181 females.

Figures for other centres were:

Military College Duntroon – 238 males, 155 females: Total 393

Jervis Bay – 292 males, 129 females. Total 421

Cotter, Uriarra, Stromlo – 99 males, 40 females – Total 149

Majura, Kowen 24 males, 27 females: Total 51

Tuggranong, Kowen, Tharwa, Booroomba, Tidbinbilla,63 males, 56 females: Total 119

Gudgenby, Bobeyan, Wilamsdale, Royalla, 33 males, 34 females: Total 67

Hall, Ginninderra, Mulligan’s Flat, Weetangera 191 males, 157 females: Total 343

Molonglo Settlement, Oaks Estate (Queanbeyan) 384 males, 336 females. Total 720

Estimate cards to complete, 71 males, 48 females: Total 119

Canberra's population growth 1933-1961

30 June each year

The growth of Canberra is summarised in the figures (below). As the annual average increases show, the page of growth was increasing after 1954 compared with the period 1947-54 but most of the 99.6 increase in the intercensal period 1954-61 occurred after 1956, that is following the decision to establish the National Capital Development Commission and to complete the transfer of Defence Services and other departments to Canberra.  The increase of 20,622 persons in the four years ending June 1961 was by far the greates in Canberra's history, both in terms of numbers and in rate of increase, and implied or annual average growth of 5,131 persons. 

Year    Males         Females        Total

1933  3,839           3,486              7,325

1947   8,121           7,035            15,156

1954  15,076         13,201           28,277

1957  18,949         16,878            35,273

1961   29,463         26,296           56,449

The Defence moves began in January 1959 and by October 1961 1,507 Defence personnel had been moved to Canberra...  'Canberra The Next Decade'  Three Studies - Population by WD Borrie 1962


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