A Concise History of Canberra

As we are Canberrans, we felt it was good to jot down a concise history for those who do not know it. The owner of this blogsite first came to Canberra in 1964.

Canberra is an unique city. It is the capital of Australia, is well inland,  and is the closest western capital city to Central and East Asia, and yet has the convenience of a small population within one of the most beautiful garden cities in the world.

Canberra History, in Brief

Early Canberra as it began. It was an open slate to Architects and Town planners.

The first European settler in the Canberra district is thought to have been Joshua John Moore in early 1820. The land he took over covered the present Canberra city center. Moore called his station after the name given by the Ngunnawal people who had occupied the district for millennia. The newcomers wrote the name as ‘Canberry’ or ‘Kamberry’.

As explorers, drovers and pastoralists came to the Canberra district from the 1820s water sources were taken over for sheep, horses and cattle and their traditional lands taken from the Ngunnawal, Walgalu and Ngarigo.

On 7 December 1820 Charles Throsby Smith, Joseph Wild and James Vaughan become the first Europeans to visit the Limestone Plains – as the Canberra region was known. They were searching for the Murrumbidgee River (the ‘Big River’) but after climbing Black Mountain they returned home. In April 1881 Charles Throsby discovered the Murrumbidgee River near Pine Island in Tuggeranong.

In 1828 the ‘Terror of Argyle’, the bushranger John Tennant, was captured by James Ainslie and two others near the Murrumbidgee River in Tuggeranong. Tennant had been a convict assigned to Moore at Canberry. Mt Tennant, behind Tharwa, is named after him.

In 1832 Garrett Cotter, a ticket-of-leave man working near Lake George, was banished to live beyond the ‘limits of occupation’ – the area west of the Murrumbidgee – after becoming embroiled in a dispute between his employer and his employers’ neighbour. Cotter lived in the Cotter River valley, which is named after him, for five years with the help of friendly Aborigines before eventually being conditionally pardoned and moving to Michelago. On 12 March 1985 St John the Baptist Anglican Church was consecrated by Bishop Broughton.

Australian Federation and Canberra

In January 1899 it was decided that Australia would federate into one Australian national federation, and no longer be a series of states under the crown of England. A meeting of colonial premiers decided that the new federal capital should be within New South Wales but not near Sydney. In November 1899 the The New South Wales government issued a Royal Commission to Alexander Oliver to report on 45 sites proposed even before the Commonwealth was born.

In 11 June 1900 the Oliver Royal Commission on sites for the proposed federal capital took evidence at Queanbeyan in support of the Canberra area. On the 9 July 1900 The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 was enacted, whereby the Constitution would provide for a site for a capital city in New South Wales, but at least 100 miles from Sydney. The Constitution also provided that, like Washington, the territory for the new capital would have a minimum area of 100 square miles.

On 1 January 1901 the inauguration of the Federation of the six Australian colonies was the birthday of the Australian nation.

In July 1903 the report of the Capital Sites Inquiry Commissioners sited nine nominated sites, favouring Albury or Tumut. In 1904 Dalgety was named to be the national capital. However, in 1906 parliamentarians examined the Yass-Canberra district as a possible site for the Federal capital.

During October 1908 Yass-Canberra won a House of Representatives ballot on preferred sites for the national capital. The Senate then held another ballot, with Bombala and Yass–Canberra tied for first place. In 1908 Canberra was approved and New South Wales Government Surveyor Charles Scrivener surveyed the site as ‘in an amphitheater of hills with an outlook towards the north and north-east’ and noted the Molonglo River floodplain could form a central ornamental lake.

On the 24 May 1911 the Federal Capital Design Competition was opened.  In 1912 Chicago architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney Griffin were announced the winners of the competition to design the national capital.

After criticism of the winning design King O’Malley, Minister for Home Affairs in the Fisher Government, referred the three top entries in the competition to a Departmental Board and an amalgamated design was prepared.

On 12 March 1913 Canberra’s founding ceremony was held on Capital Hill. Governor-General Lord Denman, Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, and Minister for Home Affairs King O’Malley laid the foundation stones for a ‘Commencement Column’ and Lady Denman announced the name chosen for the city. 

In 1918 the Molonglo Internment Camp is built to house German nationals. After the war it is used as accommodation for workers and their families. It later becomes the industrial suburb of Fyshwick.

On 31 December 1921 Prime Minister Billy Hughes removed Walter Burley Griffin from his position directing the construction of Canberra.

On 9 May 1927 the provisional Parliament House was opened. As well as the Parliament House, The Lodge and Government House were completed as residences for the Prime Minister and the Governor-General, and the Hotel Canberra, and the Kurrajong Hotel housed parliamentarians.

On 3 December 1927 the Prime Minister, Stanley Bruce, officially opened Canberra’s city center. Despite Bruce’s opposition to the name, Walter Burley Griffin’s appellation ‘Civic Center’ or just ‘Civic’ is commonly adopted by Canberrans.

In 1928 the prohibition on the sale of liquor was lifted.

In February 1954 Queen Elizabeth II becomes the first reigning monarch to visit Australia. As well as opening Parliament she unveils the Australian-American Memorial at Russell. Her visit highlighted the ceremonial role of Canberra as the national capital.

On 25 February 1960 Australia signed an agreement with the USA allowing them to establish satellite tracking stations in the Australian Capital Territory, at Orroral Creek, Honeysuckle Creek and Tidbinbilla. In July 1969 Honeysuckle Creek transmitted to the world the first images and words of Neil Armstrong from the Moon.

In 1964 Lake Burley Griffin was officially opened in October by Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies. A key part of the Griffins’ design for Canberra, the Lake was formed by damming the Molonglo River. The first of a series of new towns, planned by the National Capital Development Commission, was opened at Woden, south-west of Canberra, with an exposition held in Hughes on 9 May. The second of the new towns planned for Canberra was inaugurated at Belconnen on 23 June 1966. Early designs allowed for 120 000 residents.

In 1971 a severe thunderstorm over Woden Valley on 26 January caused flash floods on Yarra Glen where seven people drowned.

The 1974 Legislative Assembly became a House of Assembly, dissolved in 1986 prior to the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act 1988, which established a Legislative Assembly with full powers to make laws for the ACT. This met for the first time in May 1989.

19 October 1979 the Australian Federal Police force was formed by combining the Commonwealth Police, the Australian Capital Territory Police, and the Federal Narcotics Bureau.

On 26 June 1980 The architectural firm of Mitchell, Giurgola and Thorp win the design competition for the new Parliament House. John Holland Constructions became the consulting contractor.

In 1984 the Namadgi National Park was formally declared, covering more than 106 000 hectares; about half of the ACT. A national park in the area was first proposed by William Farrer in 1901.

By 1986 Canberra’s population reached 250 000.

In 1988 The Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act 1988 established a Legislative Assembly with full powers to make laws for the ACT.

On 9 May 1988 the new Parliament House, constructed on Capital Hill, was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II.

By 1995 Canberra’s population reached 300 000 of which approximately 60 000 lived in Central Canberra, 34 000 in Woden Valley, 26 000 in Weston Creek, 88 000 in Belconnen, 85 000 in Tuggeranong and 7 000 in the rest of the ACT.

By 2009 the Canberra population has pushed past the 340,000 mark.

Walter Burley Griffin – Architect and Town Planner

Walter Burley Griffin

Walter Burley Griffin was a Chicago architect and town planner. He worked with contemporary notables, such as Frank Lloyd Wright. Canberra represented an architectural dream whereby one man could effect the future lives of millions.

The word architect comes from earlier Greek words, – tekton, meaning to build, and archi meaning chief or head. The word architect could then mean chief builder. Historically, the great architects of history, such as Christopher Wren of Saint Paul’s Cathedral fame in London, were in total charge of their constructions. Recent history gave architects more subservient role of being designers and documenters, a minor part of the major scheme of construction.

Walter on left and Marion on the right.

Walter Burley Griffin was married to Marion Mahoney Griffin, architect,
brilliant artist and technical draftsperson. Together they mapped out the future lifestyles of Canberrans. She and her husband were also commissioned for building designs in Sydney, as well as far away Lucknow in India. Griffin died in Lucknow in India, where he had a design office.

The prevailing architectural disciplines of the day were for cities to enable inhabitants to live ideal lifestyles within ideal cities. Some architects and town planners saw as their purpose to bring about a better world. Certainly, the Griffins achieved that.

Now, this Garden City includes many lakes, hills and mountains.

The garden-city concept engages tree-lined boulevards, parks and gardens, a far cry from the desolated limestone plains of early Canberra. Over a million trees were planted in the first 50 years of Canberra’s development. Griffin seems to have an interest in Egyptian and Peruvian architecture with regards Canberra. His beautiful Canberra layout appears based upon a pyramidal design as written briefly below.

Griffin later became engaged in more intellectual spiritual pursuits in India.


Canberra today is an exciting small city. It is home to over a hundred overseas embassies, commissions and missions. It is also home to many lobby groups, jostling to bask in the light of power.

The city is small enough to have fresh air, lakes and mountains within a moment’s reach. It has all the shops of any of the large Australian cities. 

The Canberra summer peaks over 40 degrees Celsius, while in winter ice can be on the road and snow in the mountains. In Canberra a spring is spring, an autumn is autumn, and summer and winter do not meld into one.

While Canberra is not a true tourist spot, it has parks, gardens and national monuments, plus its own water supply. It is a very natural resources conscious city. 

Canberra has some of Australia’ finest architecture. There is Parliament House, with its pyramid shape, on a pyramid Capital Hill, open to the public. Nearby is the National Library,  National Gallery, National Archives, Old Parliament House, the High Court of Australia and more. Around Lake Burley Griffin is the National Carillion, the National Capital Exhibition, the National Museum of Australia, the Captain Cook Memorial Water Jet, and a lake cruise for fun. Plus there is the Australian War Memorial.


Canberra’s design is an interesting design based on triangular shapes, not unlike Washington to a degree.

Interestingly there are four  triangles, each built upon the other. There is the upper triangle that has its base in front of Old Parliament House. Then there is an extended triangle which is what is termed the Parliamentary Precinct, accommodating the High Court of Australia, and other government identities. Next is the larger and more obvious large triangle that runs from London Circuit over to the US memorial column. 

This artistic grace was Marion’s winning entry for the design of Canberra.

The triangles can be perhaps seen as a pyramidal concept. At the apex of the pyramid above is the double ring, possibly symbolic of inner and outer knowledge. The diagram by Marion Griffin was the winning entry to the Canberra design competition held by the Federal government. (The diagram was submitted my Marion on its north-south axis, not as is shown here on its pyramidal base.) Parliament can be observed here as an all-seeing-eye. It is a very clever design.

The areal photograph below shows clearly the inner and outer rings of the eye, as well as the slightly raised pyramidal structure of Parliament House under construction. The pyramidal structure rises out of Capital Hill.

Parliament House – The Commonwealth of Australia

The Canberra eye is a traditional eye of providence type design, more famous on the American one-dollar bill. It has been used in art for many hundreds of years. The eye of providence, simply put, is the all-seeing eye of God. Similar earlier eye symbolism dates back thousands of years to the Egyptian eye of Horus (also the eye of Ra), used as a talisman to ward off evil and bring good fortune. In Buddhism, the same symbolism is the eye of the World. As is traditional with an eye of providence design, the Canberra eye is sited within a small pyramid. And as also in the US dollar bill, that small pyramid is situated within a larger pyramid. The symbolism in the Australian design is very clever.

The inner and outer rings have been suggested as possibly representing the two knowledges of the religions of Egypt, Greece and Rome, which predate Christianity. The outer ring of knowledge can represent those outside, such as the masses, who take their doctrine literally. The inner ring of knowledge might represent real knowledge, such as of the universe, available only to a select esoteric few.

Pyramids are found in Egypt, Peru and Central America and are said to align universal energies and promote positive growth.

Parliament House on Capital Hill follows the original shape envisioned by Griffin. Today lawn grows up most of the raised slopes, playing down a further pyramidal shape. Over the top of the building is a huge metal pyramidal frame, with a central flagpole. The flagpole points down, as though like an energy conductor from its high apex, to a small glass pyramid skylight below.

But do not ask about the said underground tunnels which only a select few may know about, or the Tesla-like constructions on Black Mountain (Telstra Tower) and Red Hill (the Carousel), or of the so called energies reportedly generated between these mountain tops and the parliament pyramidal spire lying between. Leave all that to more knowledgeable buffs.

So, for those who like mysteries, the symbolism of the Canberra layout can be intriguing.

If you bore with mysteries, but enjoy the fresh air, natural beauty, clear skies, the national museum, art gallery and war memorial. It’s all here.

And, for those who want to read a little about Scientology, please read this page: What is The Scientology Religion?

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