Early Canberra

The Tradesmen's Camps 1921-c1929 - Page ONE


Following the resumption of construction work in 1921 the single men who were placed in segregated camps. The lowest on the social scale were the Labourers, then Pug (Horse & Dray) and at the top – the Tradesmen. Robert C Jones in his article Toilers of the Territory published in the Christmas 1925 issue of Canberra Illustrated referred to this practice and the lack of decent accommodation for construction workers. Part of his article states …But still, the main consideration in man’s social well-being is the manner in which he is housed, and if the standard of a workman’s habitation has not passed the calico tent stage it is futile to expect his mentality to be at a stage to assimilate say, a lecture on “Art” as applied to the home.

On enquiry it is found that huts ten feet by twelve feet, with fire place, (an absolute necessity, unless we can breed hibernating – not Hibernian – navies), window and door could be built at a low cost. These rented at a shilling per week would give a handsome return per annum above interest and depreciation…Even under present conditions tradesmen are entitled to better accommodation than the labourers, thus fostering that spirit of snobbishness which is to be deplored.

Not that they ought not to have better quarters, for the labourers’ camps are only different from the abos in that bags and calico are used instead of bark and boughs. Even if a labourer wanted to build a humpy for himself he is so bound by restrictions and red tape that the job becomes too formidable…

The Gleaner [Lasseter] who wrote regular articles for the Canberra Community News also spoke out about camp conditions and their segregation according to occupation. He wrote in mid 1926:

To separate the unskilled from the skilled workers in the various camps appears an unwise move. This is a democratic country you know. [he continued] St Valentine must have the city under his special care - there was no dust blowing on that Saint's day. [The strong winds, open plains and raw earth opened by construction work, made dust a big problem.] The postal arrangements at the various camps are most unsatisfactory. At present it costs about six pence a letter. [5cents a letter -at this time men's wages were around $8 to $10 per week.] Could not the Commission arrange with the postal officials to deliver mail to each camp in care of the camp steward, thereby obviating the necessity of the camp steward being absent when he should be guarding the property from fire and other loss, especially in canvas towns.

Canberra's camps were usually erected as close as possible to work sites and wherever possible out of sight of permanent buildings.

The following is a typed copy of a document found in National Archives of Australia that sets out the requirements for sanitation in camps. 

Workmen's Camp Sites & Sanitation

1.     When choosing a campsite bear in mind the length of time the occupation is likely to last, elevation, aspect, the neighbourhood of storm water, and convenience to the works; carefully select accordingly. If the water supply is to be taken from either a surface streams of well, no person should be allowed to camp above or within 100 yards of the point from which water is to be taken. Intercepting or diverting drains should, if necessary, be made to prevent the contamination of the water supply.

2.     Avoid campsites that have been recently occupied. High ground and the slope of a hill with grass are the best. Clay should be avoided and gravel or sand chosen. Although the neighbourhood of trees is desirable, avoid thick undergrowth. Rank vegetation indicates dampness of soil. River beds, ravines, depression, tilled or made ground should be avoided.

3.     Ground should be prepared before pitching tents, and long grass, stones, and rubbish should be removed. Long grass and bushes within the camp harbour insects, hide refuse, and make it difficult to detect the fouling of the ground. The surface of the ground might be hardened by using all ashes from kitchen fires.

4.     The form of the camp depends upon the space available, but in every case the tents should be arranged in an orderly manner. Enough space should be allowed to make it possible to occasionally shift every tent forward or to the side and thus allow ground covered by the tent to occasionally be exposed to the sun.

5.     Whether the camp is to be occupied for a short or a long time, it is essential that the ground it covers should be kept clean, and this is materially aided by keeping the surface dry; in all camps channels should be cut to drain the ground, and to carry off rainwater from the trenches surrounding the tents.

6.     Nothing should be allowed to foul the surfaces; it commonly happens that refuse from tents, such as meat-tins, bones, washings from the men’s mess-tins &c, are thrown on the ground outside the tents and at night the men will urinate there, especially if the urine trenches are far away, and there is a want of supervision. All these cause fouling of the surface of the ground, and may become a grave source of disease.

7.     There should be night urinals close to the lines, and men should be discharged for breaking the camp regulations. It may be necessary to dig special trenches; but wherever possible pans or tubs, one for each ten men, should be provided. A very useful urinal for night use can be made by filling a wheat sack with sawdust. This can be used without emptying for several weeks.

8.     In standing camps an ablution place, for all washing, with proper gutters or drains and concrete floors, are necessary.

9.     Kitchen refuse and grease readily decompose and become offensive. Rubbish bins must be used at all kitchens. Refuse must be burned or buried each day, care being taken that such method of disposal does not contaminate the water supply. Apply fire to all refuse. Burn everything that will burn; bury what the fire leaves.

10.  Latrine should not be closer than 100 yards from the tents on the leeward side, and as far from the kitchens as possible to avoid the danger of flies passing from the latrines to the food. Ample chloride of lime or quicklime is needed for latrines and urinals to prevent contamination. Blue oil freely sprinkled over the trench contents daily is useful for the development of flies. Enforce the use of deodorants to be provided for latrines. If closet pans are used in the latrines, the contents must be buried 9” below ground level outside the lines of the camp, but if the cesspit method be adopted the pits must be filled in on the breaking up of camp, or as soon as the contents come within 9 inches of the surface of the ground.

11.  The ground around latrines should be covered with cement concrete or ashes laid down as often as available.

 12.   Horse stalls or tethered ground must be kept very clean and horse dung removed daily, otherwise it will bread flies and get blown about into food and water. If the horse dung or litter cannot be removed daily right away from the camp for manurial purposes, it should be burned or buried.


The Tradesmen's Camps

From archival documents and other contemporary sources such as The Canberra Community News, one becomes aware that there were more than one Tradesmen’s Camp. The one established at Westlake for men working on the Provisional Parliament House is referred to as the OLD TRADESMEN’S camp. This particular camp may have had its beginnings in 1921 when one of the barracks at the ex-Molonglo internment camp was converted into rooms for 150 single tradesmen.

Another early Tradesmen’s tent camp was established in 1922 at Blandfordia (Forrest).The population of this camp in May 1924 was 94. Oral histories place this camp near the Forrest Bowling Club (corner National Circuit & Canberra Avenue, Forrest). It is possible that this site was chosen to be near the construction work of 16 small brick cottages erected in 1923 in Franklin and Ducane Streets, Blandfordia [Forrest] for blue collar workers. This site is also close to the Hotel Kurrajong that opened 12 December 1926.

Northbourne Camp in Haig Park near Northbourne Avenue was probably another Tradesmen’s Camp. It was established in March 1926 and was moved in 1927 to a Mt. Ainslie site near an earlier camp. One of the men in this Northbourne Camp was HLB Lasetter who worked as a carpenter in the territory. The new Mt Ainslie Camp was a cubicle camp and the site was near the corner of Ebden and Chisholm Streets Ainslie. This camp officially closed in 1928, but was used by married men with families moving through the territory during the Great Depression. Some evidence of this camp is still found on Mt Ainslie.

A letter dated 10 January 1927 by Chas A Scott, Secretary Mt Ainslie Camp, Ainslie to Mr Honeysette indicates that the men had moved into the new camp by that date. The letter reads:

Dear Sir, At a meeting of the Welfare Society held here tonight, I was instructed by the members present to write to you in reference to the recreation hall which the Commission has granted us.

The only feature before submitting your requisition to the commission, is that the recreation Hall carry a fireplace in brick. [Tin fireplaces allowed the heat to escape]

Another thing we would like you to do for us is to hurry on the electric lighting, also in our request we are asking for timber for seats and tables for recreation Hall, also site for Hall… [National Archives of Australia CP698/9 8/3 Bundle 1]


Westlake - Old Tradesmen's Camp

The importance of this camp is that it was constructed on the hillside opposite Lotus Bay in what is now Stirling Park, Yarralumla. Because no development has taken place in the area of the park the remains of the camp’s drainage systems and sites of timber buildings are still clearly visible and provide us with information about the 1920s construction camps. Some details about the work carried out on this site are detailed in the Appendix section of this chapter.

This camp was established at Westlake in 1924. It differed to other camps in two respects. The tents of this camp had wooden floors and sides and the men formed a co-­operative and employed their own mess caterer.

Correspondence from the FCC to A Britton, Secretary of the Co-operative Mess have the address – Perth Avenue and Westlake. Perth Avenue was not constructed at the time of the camp. However, the use of Perth Avenue suggests that this camp may also be the one referred to as the Avenue Camp. The other contender for this description is No 1Labourers Camp that was erected near Commonwealth Avenue.

The men who lived in the Westlake Tradesmen’s Camp worked on the construction of the Provisional Parliament House and nearby administrative buildings. Following the completion of the work on this site in 1927 the tradesmen of the Westlake camp were moved to Parkes Barracks. Evidence of their work site is found in the numerous bricks used in the drainage systems that bear the same frog markings as the bricks used in the construction of the Provisional Parliament House.

A letter with the heading FEDERAL CAPITAL COMMISSION date 2 November 1927 to Mr A Britton, Old Tradesmen’s Mess, WESTLAKE, FEDERAL TERRITORY from J McDowell, Industrial Officer Federal Capital Commission informs of the men of the Westlake camp about the proposed closure of their camp and the transfer of the men to other camps. This letter does not mention Parkes Barracks where many if not most of the men did move. The letter reads as follows:

Dear Sir,

You will recall sometime ago that I informed you verbally that it was the intention of the Commission to abolish the Old Tradesmen’s Mess and to transfer the employees living therein to Capitol Hill Barracks.

I have now to inform you that the proposed transfer will take effect from the 23rd November 1927, this date coinciding with the end of the tradesmen’s pay period.

As the proposed extensions to Capitol Hill Barracks will not be finished for sometime, the transfer will be effected as follows:

All employees of the Federal Capital Commission will be accommodated at Capitol Hill Barracks.

Until such time as the extension to Capitol Hill Barracks is completed, contractors employees will be accommodated in the Tradesmen’s Mess either at Molonglo or Mount Ainslie, and endeavours will be made as far as possible to allot them to these Messes in accordance with the location of their employment.

Lists are now being prepared and when completed will be posted in the dining room of the Old Tradesmen’s Mess to enable men living there at present to ascertain where they are being transferred to… [A1/1 34/4662 National Archives of Australia]

Parkes Barracks was a cubicle camp erected on the site of the former No 4 Sewer Camp. It was situated on the southern bank of the Molonglo River opposite the Provisional Parliament House. An inventory of Parkes Barracks is available in National Archives of Australia. It notes that the Timber buildings were a Mess 16ft x 31ft; Kitchen 16ft x 27 ft; Drying Rook, 4 Store Rooms and one room 16ft x 12 ft used by the cooks; 8 lavatories; 3 showers; 3 baths and a laundry with three sets of troughs. There were 43 cubicles on the site – each shared by two men.

When the tradesmen left this camp is not known but it was sometime in 1929. Some men moved to the Causeway Camp.

From February1931 the former Parkes Barracks was used for accommodation for single men passing through the territory in search of work. Here the unemployed men, who were not allowed to work in the territory, were provided with two weeks respite before being moved on. They were given a basic ration of 3 pounds meat, 4 ounces tea, quarter pound butter or margarine, 3 loaves bread, 12 pounds potatoes, 12 ounces jam, 1 pound sugar and one bar of soap. The camp closed sometime in the 1930s. 


Westlake - Old Tradesmen's Camp - The Site

The site of the Westlake camp is on the hillside opposite Lotus Bay Yarralumla on Section 128, Block 3 Stirling Park and it probable that this camp extended up the hill onto the sites now occupied by the Singapore High Commission, Brazilian and French Embassies in Forster Crescent. The quagmire marked the western end of the camp and it was next to this natural drainage system that the camp’s laundry, lavatories, bathing buildings were placed. The quagmire formed a natural boundary between the camp and Howie’s Settlement (1922-1931).

Cutting across the hillside through the camp site is an old road that is probably the one referred to by Moriarty in his 1912 descriptions of properties. The road was constructed in 1890 and linked Briar Farm to a gate near the site of Hotel Canberra.

The camp site was an excellent one. It was above the tree line and sheltered in the curve of the rocky hill where it was protected from the strong winds that swept the open paddocks of the territory.  The camp faced north to received the benefit of the morning sun and the old tracks and roads in the area provided good access to work sites.


The above photograph shows the camp taken from the hillside above it looking towards Black Mountain in the distance. Note the rocky nature of the terrain and the ditch that cuts across the hill below the road. This ditch is still in situ. 


Camp Population

The numbers in this camp varied according to work needs and whether or not the married men in the camp were lucky enough to be allocated one of the cottages constructed for their class. A Memorandum to the Transport Officer from the Federal Capital Commission dated 11.5,1925 noted the population numbers in the various settlements and camps. (National Archives of Australia A6266/1 G27/4505) The population of Westlake (Stirling Park) was:

51 Portable Cottages 250 [10 more cottages erected in 1926]

Hotel Camp single men 50 [Hotel Camp was also known as Hostel Camp –constructed by John Howie for his single men]

Contractor Howies 20 families 80 [25 cottages erected in 1922 – down to 20 in1925 and by 1926 the numbers were further reduced to 13]

Tradesmen’s Mess 110 [55 tents]

No 1 Daniels Mess:  150 [Herbert Daniel was the Mess Caterer for No. 1 labourers]

No. 3 Sewer Camp Men’s Labourers on top of Gap: 100 [Stirling Ridge]

Say 700

The 27th July 1927 the Sanitation Report noted that the population of the Tradesmen’s Camp had dropped to 85. Part of the report reads:

OLD TRADES CAMP, WESTLAKE Being demolished and accommodation being provided at Capitol Hill. 44 tents raised on wooden sides, upper canvas portions not in good repair, floors of wood in sections, litter under some floors, bins provided but lids not used. Mess Room and kitchen provided and run on co-operative lines instead of usual contracting caterer…


1.     Rake under huts where necessary and keep garbage receptacles covered.

2.     Kitchen – improve natural lighting if demolition delayed also rejoint kitchen benches.

3.     Sanitary blocks – drainage to long quagmire to be shortened and directed to shallow trenched patches – used alternatively.

4.     Earth closets – institute portable boxes with lids for pans in lieu of fixed uncovered seats if conveniences remain.  

A recently (2009) found article in The Canberra Times in early November 1927 noted that both No 1 and the Tradesmen's Camp Westlake were about to be dismantled.


Oral History

The names of a few of the men who lived in the camp are known because family members contributed to the Westlake stories published in True Tales from Canberra’s Vanished Suburbs of Westlake, Westridge and Acton. One man, Frank [Francis] Clowry, Foreman Carpenter on the Parliament House job lived in the Tradesmen’s Camp until a Westlake cottage in the nearby Gap became available in 1924. There is a well-told Clowry story. Frank rode his pushbike home every fortnight to visit his family who lived in a small village near Braidwood. On his way home on a particularly windy day he was offered a lift by a chap driving a T model Ford. Mr Clowry replied in his usual gentle way -No thank you kindly, I'm in a bit of hurry. Since the driver was likely to stop at various spots for a drop or two of the amber liquid Mr Clowry was probably wise in his decision to continue on.  


Above left is a photograph of Ken Dinnerville (on the left) taken at school during the time that he lived with his father. Next to him is Jack Dorman who lived at Acton Cottages. The photograph loaned by Jene Baker (nee Saunders). Right is a cartoon showing Frank Clowry -  from Canberra Illustrated Christmas 1925 issue.

Ken Dinnerville lived with his father at the Tradesmen’s Camp. Part of his story is recorded in Past Images, Present Voices by Val Emerton. Ken’s father, Charles Dinnerville, was an ex-serviceman whose wife died whilst he was away on active service. Part of Ken’s story follows:

I was only ten when my father brought me here from Sydney. We arrived in Queanbeyan at 3am and drove to Canberra in Dad's horse and sulky in what I think was the biggest frost and fog I have ever struck. My first home was in the Tradesmen's Mess at the Westlake camp, which was all tents. The tents had wooden floors and were quite warm and comfortable but I found it very cold in Canberra. My bed was made of two corn bags stuffed with straw in between two shafts. The camp was pretty wild and woolly then. The men used to play two-up - it was illegal, but they still played…[his aunts because they were concerned about the youngster staying in the camps took him back to Sydney. Ken’s father wanted him back] so he left the camp and built us a one bedroom house near John Howie's Cottages using left-over materials -the best of Pacific maple. When he finished he called it the "Ut". The front garden beds were edged with empty beer bottles - there were plenty of them around at the time…

Charlie Law, another Westlake lad, also recalled in his story in True Tales from Canberra's Vanished Suburbs of Westlake, Westridge & Acton that his father lived at the Tradesmen's Camp until a Westlake house became available. He too told about the arrival of the family and that their large dining room table did not fit into the Westlake cottage. Mr Law, a carpenter, took out his trusty saw and cut a section out of the middle of the table. Mrs Law was not amused. This family also has a story about the glue for the Speaker's Chair (Parliament House). It was kept in liquid form by sitting it at the back of the wood fired stove. Its aroma left much to be desired. 


Westlake Cottages

Below is a 1924 photograph loaned by a member of the Todd family who lived in number 18 Westlake (far left). These temporary workmen’s cottages were built in The Gap at Westlake (Stirling Park) for married tradesmen. 



Above is a 1990s photograph of one of the iris flowers growing on the Tradesmen’s Ablution site.