Do you know how Canberra came to be our capital? Time for a history lesson!
Canberra’s fascinating story begins with Aboriginal tribes, later European settlement and a heightened interest in a relatively unknown space of land that was chosen to become our capital as the fight for the title between Melbourne and Sydney finally came to an end.
Aboriginal tribes, the Ngunnawal people and Walgalu tribes, have history and presence in the area dating back some 21,000 years.
European exploration of the area began in the 1820’s with the first homestead settled in today’s Acton precinct by Joshua John Moore. He purchased the land and formally named it Canberra. The name came from several derivatives including from the word Kambera said to have come from the Ngunnawal language meaning ‘meeting place’. As more explorers moved and settled in the area, influential families such as the Campbell’s and the Ainslie’s gained prominence through building and progressing the town, bringing attention to the now settled Canberra.
In the newly federated Australia at the beginning of the 20th century, a large debate was brewing over which city should become the capital. As Melbourne was the largest city, the Melbournites and Western Australians believed it was the clear choice, while the Queenslanders and the New South Welshmen believed Sydney to be the obvious pick as it was settled first.
At last, a compromise was reached; Melbourne would be our capital until a new site evenly distanced between the two cities was selected and built. The search was on. In 1908, explorers along with expert Surveyor, Charles Scrivener, decided on Canberra and a bid was put forward to the Commonwealth to create the Australian Capital Territory.
The first step was finding the perfect design for this important city and only the best would do. A worldwide campaign, The Federal Capital Design Competition, was launched with entries coming in from across the globe. Some designs resembled long-lost ancient cities or ones from mythical stories while others included exact replicas of existing towns reborn in a new place.
The winners, Chicago architects Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahoney Griffin were selected in 1911 and plans were made to bring their carefully organised, lined and drawn design to life. In 1913, prominent politician King O’Malley drove the first survey peg into the ground to mark the commencement of building the capital.
*Fun fact – popular Irish pub King O’Malley’s in Civic is a tongue-in-cheek homage to the politician’s alcohol ban placed on Canberra in its early days as he deemed it necessary for the ‘serious’ capital city.*
Throughout the many struggles with construction, ultimately ending in the Griffins’ resignation from the project, Canberra was built by the mid 1920’s with further additions made to the original design of the proposed North and South Canberra; resulting in new and expanded suburbs.
The Griffins’ meticulous planning and efforts that went into the design are what you see today as the strategically placed town centres that leave just enough space between one another for bushland to remain and wildlife to flourish.
As a relatively small town surrounded by such bushland, Canberra has since been struggling to move away from its moniker of a ‘big country town’. After the Second World War, Canberra become more well-known and more people moved to the area with the help of the newly-opened Australian War Memorial and Canberra Airport, resulting in great development and further suburb creation.
So, what’s next for this ‘big country town’? Well for starters, we won’t be called a ‘big country town’ for much longer. Construction across Canberra increases every year as more people make the move to the capital. Receiving great reviews as a city including the New York Times article naming Canberra the safest and best place to live in the world against a long list of criteria doesn’t hurt either! We were chosen for a reason.
Projects such as the City to the Lake, the light rail and innovative ideas like the container village along Commonwealth Avenue are putting Canberra on the map and into the eyes of the non-believers.
With new homes, restaurant precincts, bars, parks, and open spaces opening up regularly, we’ll soon be taking the title of the ‘coolest little capital’ right from under Wellington’s (New Zealand) nose!