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Canberra: Australia's capital city

You are on Ngunnawal land: Canberra

Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Canberra
Aboriginal Tent Embassy

For 21,000 years the Canberra region has been home to the Ngunnawal people. Evidence of their long occupation exists in archeological evidence found at Birrigai Rock Shelter at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, in rock paintings in Namadgi National Park and in other places throughout the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). When Europeans settled the area in the early 1820s hundreds of Aboriginals lived in the area, meeting regularly for corroborees and feasts and then breaking off into smaller bands.

The Aborigines moved about to take advantage of seasonal foods, such as bogong moths which arrived in their thousands during the summer months.

As elsewhere in Australia, European settlement disrupted Aboriginal patterns of land use and movement across the country, and many died from European-brought diseases like influenza, smallpox and tuberculosis.

At the opening of the Tharwa Bridge in 1895, the guest of honour, Ngunnawal woman Nellie Hamilton, said

"I no tink much of your law. You come here and take my land, kill my possum, my kangaroo; leave me starve. Only gib me rotten blanket. Me take calf or sheep, you been shoot me, or put me in jail. You bring your bad sickness 'mong us.
(Source: Canberra, the Guide, edited by Ken Taylor and David Headon, page 9)

Aborigines continued to live in the area, often working on sheep properties, their numbers diminished by illness and starvation, their culture and language in decline.

Canberra, a good sheep station spoiled
The first European settler in the district was Joshua John Moore who established a stock station called 'Canberry'. It's thought the name Canberry is based on an Aboriginal name for the area Kamberra or Kambery. The middle of Moore's property is approximately where Canberra's city centre is currently sited. In 1913 Canberra became the official name for the area.

Subsequent to Federation in 1901, the New South Wales Government commissioned a report suggesting possible locations for the seat of Government for the new Commonwealth of Australia. The report suggested three places, Bombala, Yass-Canberra, and Orange, which made it to a short list, and it suggested others which were rejected - Albury, Tumut, Cooma and Armidale all missed out.

The decision for the Yass-Canberra option was made in 1908 by the Commonwealth Parliament and shortly afterwards the Commonwealth surveyor, Charles Scrivener, was dispatched to choose a site. His instructions were to choose somewhere picturesque, distinctive, and with views.

In 1911 an international competition to design the new capital city of Australia was held. More than 130 entries were received in the competition and the winning entry was submitted by American architect Walter Burley Griffin and his partner and wife, Marion Mahony Griffin.

The Australian Capital Territory was declared on 1 January 1911. It became a self-governing territory in 1989.

Canberra Day is held on the third Monday in March each year, the culmination of a 10 day Celebrate Canberra festival where Canberrans are able to celebrate the physical beauty, and cultural diversity and vibrancy of their city. The Day commemorates and celebrates the official founding of Canberra on 12 March 1913. The Canberra Citizen of the Year is named at this time.

The development of modern Canberra
The Griffins, Walter Burley and Marion Mahony, had both spent considerable time working for Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago. Marion worked for him for 14 years and Walter for five.

Ceiling light, Capitol Theatre, Melbourne
Ceiling light, Capitol Theatre, Melbourne (circa 1924). Coloured glass, wood plaster and lead. The light's sophisticated and complex 'art deco' style indicates the Griffins' awareness of the latest European design trends, well before the style's popularity in Australia in the early 1930s. Powerhouse Museum 97/308/1

Walter Burley Griffin was influenced by the City Beautiful and Garden City movements which influenced town planning during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was also influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright's work, particularly in the development of the Prairie style, which included not just the design of a house, but the interiors as well, including stained glass, fabrics, carpet and other accessories.

The influence of the City Beautiful and Garden City movements is clear in Griffin's plans for Canberra - green bands surrounding areas of settlement, wide boulevards lined with large buildings, formal parks and water features.

There was considerable opposition to Burley Griffin's design for Canberra, the Argus newspaper reporting that "the federal government cannot afford to throw money away... the plan is that of a landscape artist rather than an engineer... it looks as though the author of this plan... had been carefully reading books upon town planning without having much more theoretical knowledge to go upon". (Sourced in 1999 from

King O'Malley, who was Minister for Home Affairs at the time, bowed to pressure and a Departmental Board made changes to Griffin's design. Walter Burley Griffin was sent a copy of the changes by the Departmental Board. Griffin wasn't happy with the changes and argued that he should be in Canberra to oversee the building.

Walter Burley Griffin
Walter Burley Griffin.
Photo courtesy of the National Library of Australia

The Griffins came to Australia and Walter was appointed Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction. However, like Jorn Utzon, designer of the Sydney Opera House years later, Burley Griffin had a hard time of it. Delays in construction led to a Royal Commission which, in 1917, supported Burley Griffin's position and his continued appointment supervising the work. But Griffin continued to be criticised and from 1920 he was no longer part of the development of Canberra.

He continued practising as an architect in Australia and was responsible for the design of the suburb of Castlecrag in Sydney, the towns of Leeton and Griffith in NSW and for other buildings such as Newton College at the University of Melbourne.

Marion Mahony Griffin's role has long been regarded as secondary. However, it was at her urging that Walter entered the design competition for the city of Canberra and it was she - the world's first licensed female architect - who was responsible for the drawings which won the competition. She was a renowned draughtswoman and a talented architect in her own right.

In 1935 the Griffins went to India and set up practice. Walter Burley Griffin died there a year later. Marion returned to the USA and lived to be 91.

World War 1 slowed progress on the development of Canberra as did the depression and World War 2. Griffin originally designed the city for a population of 75,000 people but in the boom following World War 2 Canberra grew and now contains a population of more than 300,000.

Canberra has become a hub for western NSW as well as major tourist destination for Australians wishing to visit the seat of federal government and visit major Australian cultural organisations and important cultural landmarks like the Australian War Memorial, the National Gallery of Australia, the High Court, Parliament House, Old Parliament House, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, and the National Library of Australia.

Old Parliament House Canberra, with sheep in foreground
Old Parliament House, Canberra, with sheep in foreground
Strangman, RC
Courtesy of Old Parliament House
Old Parliament House
Old Parliament House opened in 1927 and served as the home of Federal Parliament until 1988. In Canberra's early years the House was the social, geographic and political heart of the new Australian capital. Over time, this impressive building became synonymous with some of the country's most important moments including Australia's declaration of war in 1939 and the dismissal of Gough Whitlam's Labor Government in 1975.

The sixty years during which Old Parliament House served as a working parliament were a time of enormous change for Australia. The country grew from an Imperial Dominion to a nation in its own right. Over that time, Old Parliament House was the theatre in which the politics of the day were played out and momentous decisions made.

The significance of Old Parliament House today lies in its historical and social value to the Australian people. The House is a nationally significant 'museum of itself' and of Australia's political heritage - so, as well as being a popular tourist destination, it is also a precious place which needs conservation.



Marion Mahony Griffin
Photo taken in about 1930 of Marion Mahony Griffin, then about 60 years old, at Castlecrag, Sydney. Photo courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Marion Mahony Griffin

Walter Burley Griffin

Archival resources of the Griffins' work

Prairie school style


  • Canberra: the guide
    HarperCollins 1997
    Edited by Ken Taylor and David Headon
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