Early Canberra

Scrivener's Plan Room

The photograph below is of Scrivener's Plan Room 2009.  This structure is probably the first permanent building in the Territory and the first concrete building.  The second was the Power House and Eastlake (now Kingston) and a later one was Beauchamp House (now Ian Potter House) in use from 1927.   The first dwelling in the territory to be completed was Canberra House that was ready for occupation in 1913 for the Administrator, Colonel Miller who moved in with his wife and family in January 1914.  This is a stone building.  When John Butters (first commissioner Federal Capital Territory) moved into the building in 1925 it was renovated for them.

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In March 1909 a group of surveyors and their visitors set up camp on Kurrajong Hill which was later renamed Capitol and Capital Hill.  The purpose was to commence surveying an area 76 square miles to mark the area of the city proper (this is the area of a parish).  Nearby was a creek that came down from Red Hill and meandered its way through the Gura Bung Dhaura (stony ground) hills on its way down to the Molonglo River.  This camp lasted only three weeks.

 In 1910 another camp was set up and work continued. 

Mr Sheaffe Retires 1948.

The Canberra Times Tuesday 28 September 1948 page 2



After forty-two years as a public servant Mr PL Sheaffe, Chief Survey and Property Officer of the Department of Interior, will retire this week.


Mr Sheaffe came to Canberra in 1910 and has watched the former sheep run develop into the most beautiful city in Australia.


In an interview yesterday he wistfully recalled old times in Canberra.


‘I am very glad I have been associated with Canberra because being the National Capital it should illustrate the culture of the Australian nation in town planning and architecture.  I thin and I hope that it will some day be a worthy city,’ he said.


Mr Sheaffe continued that he thought it was the duty of every public servant to render to the community his very best.  Every proposal put forward by the public should not be flatly rejected.  At all times, however, a public servant must be watchful that he is doing things for the best interests of the community.


‘We want the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker and the Press in Canberra.  We must have a well balanced community if Canberra is to prosper and become a well balanced city and a Christian democracy,’ he added.


Mr Sheaffe recalled that there were no motor cars when he first came to Canberra. A camp was established at the rear of West Block.[1]  Transport was obtained to and from Queanbeyan by a coach driven by Tom Sherd.


His first job was to prepare a plan of the site for the future capital.  This plan was circulated throughout the world and the Government invited designs.  Burleigh Griffin’s plan was accepted.


Mr Sheaffe was then ordered to make a survey of the Territory.  He commenced at Mt Coree, which is beyond Cotter.


He continued with this work for several years and was then recalled to commence a layout of the city.  He started at Parliament House.  In the meantime the Government had decided to proceed with the plan drawn up by the Departmental Board and Griffin’s plan was shelved for the time being.


There was controversy over the board plan and Griffin was invited to visit the site and make a practical application for his plant.


On the retirement of Charles George Scrivener, Mr Sheaffe took charge of land survey and stock under Colonel David Miller.


Mr Sheaffe well remembers the christening of Canberra by Lady Denman in 1913.


During World War 1 the Administrator (Col Miller) accepted a defence position and Mr Sheaffe was left in charge of all Canberra matters under Lt-Colonel Goodwin, who was stationed in Melbourne.


‘During the 1917 influenza epidemic I was in charge of all kinds of things and eventually found myself officer for infectious diseases,’ he added.


Smilingly Mr Sheaffe recalled the visit of the Prince of Wales to Canberra in 1921 (sic 1920).  Motor transport was scarce and conveyances had to be brought from Goulburn and surrounding towns for the official guests. The small railway line from Queanbeyan to Canberra was in operation, but there was no platform at the Canberra end.


‘A ceremony took place at Capital Hill.  The luncheon was held in marquees.  However our future capital was devoid of furniture in those days and the only armchair that could be obtained for the Prince was one from my own lounge suite.’


Commenting on the remains of the old railway line near Civic Centre, Mr Sheaffe said that it was constructed to convey bricks from the brickyards to the shopping centre construction. [2]  The line came from the brickworks past the American Embassy, Canadian Legation [Lord Casey’s House off State Circle] Parliament House and across the river below Scotts Crossing.


Mr Sheaffe continued that he helped to select the site of the Internment Camp at Molonglo during the last war (1914-1918). 


The job which he is the most proud, however, is the survey of the territory boundary.  He believes it is one of the most accurate in Australia.  The Canberra Pubic Cemetery [Woden] is also one of his designs.


Mr Sheaffe concluded by saying that he had enjoyed every minute of his work.  He loved Canberra dearly and would continue to reside here.  His first home was Acton House where the Canberra Hospital now stands. 


Mr Sheaffe has been a director of the Boys Grammar School since its inception and has been secretary of St John’s Church for more than 20 years.


‘I believe that some part of our leisure should be spent in assisting some community project,’ he concluded.


Both Percy Lemprier Sheaffe and his wife,  Catherine Erskine Sheaffe nee McKellar are buried in St John the Baptist Church Yard in Reid Canberra. Jean Salisbury in her book, St John’s Churchyard adds the following details:


Catherine Erskine was born in 1886 at Lake Cargellico daughter of Duncan and Jane McKellar. She married Percy Lemprier Sheaffe in 1913 and the couple had four children.  The family lived in their later years in 95 Stonehaven St Deakin.  She died 21 June 1962 aged 75 years. 


Percy Lemprier was born in Queensland in 1883, son of Roger Hale Sheaffe and Isabel Maria Sheaffe nee Robertson.  He died 24 January 1963 aged 79 years.


[1] Site of Scrivener’s Plan Room)

[2] There was a platform and remains of the rail line from Kingston across the Causeway to Civic and parts of it including the platform were still visible in the 1950s.  There was also a small rail line from the brickyards.

Scrivener's Plan Room - 1929

The Canberra Times 16 May 1929



The Editor, The Canberra Times

Sir.- In your leading article of the 10th inst headed above, it is stage: ‘close to the heart of the city still stands a shed near State Circle, and little more than a stone’s throw from Parliament House.  It was the first building which was raised in the Capital and was built at  the instigation of Colonel Owen to house the survey plans which were being commenced in the city area.’


It is not a fact that the shed referred to was the first to be erected in Canberra.  The first Government building to be erected in Canberra stood close to that referred to in your article. It was built for the use of the late Mr Scrivener, Chief Surveyor and his fellow surveyors who were camped on the site, which was generally known then and for years afterwards as ‘Surveyors’ Gulley.’  This building was erected by Mr John Murray (who by the way, conducted the first general business in Canberra commencing about the time or a little before the first survey camp was pitched in ‘Surveyors’ Gully,’ and continued till 1924 when the house and store was destroyed by fire).


At a later date the building was removed to a site at Acton a little west of the present police station, and I believe, it still stands there.


Yours etc,


E Murray


Uriarra-rd Canberra

May 15, 1929