Canberra Accommodation

History of Canberra

Canberra lies in Ngunnawal country. The Ngunnawal people have lived in the region for at least 20,000 years - and possibly for much longer – during which time they developed an intimate knowledge of and compatibility with their environment. Their neighbours are the Gundunggurra to the north, the Ngarigo to the south, the Yuin on the coast the east,and the Wiradjuri inland to the west.

The Ngunnawal found an important source of protein in the bogong moth (Agrotis infusa), which swarms in the spring to caves in the Snowy Mountains for aestivation. The edible tubers and bulbs of the indigenous Yam Daisy (Microseris lanceolata) also provided staple food for the aboriginal people. The seasonal nature of these resources meant that the people gathered not only to collect the food, but to celebrate with corroborees, arrange marriages, swap family news, trade goods and decorate rock shelters with their art.

The arrival of Europeans in the early part of the nineteenth century restricted the Ngunnawal and other peoples' movement, and so an essential element of their culture – the nomadic search for food – was prevented. However, the Bogong moth was so sought after during summer in the rocky crevices and caves of the Snowies that thousands of people continued to gather here.

Eventually though, the graziers and settlers won out, and the Ngunnawal who survived took jobs as stockmen and domestic servants on the newly-established sheep and cattle stations. The Ngunnawal, in common with aboriginal people all over Australia, have a strong connection with their ancestral lands, and are still evident in the general community, in which they are becoming increasingly involved.

Although Canberra's history as a city is short, it's perhaps one of the most interesting for having been the result of a political and social dream rather than evolution. During the 1880s, when the six colonies of Australia became more integrated as a result of telegraph and railway links, Sir Henry Parkes proposed that a federal government be set up to deal with matters affecting all the states. The new federal government would need a new capital. This decision was the easy part: the difficulty lay in deciding where the new city would be located.

In 1901 Australia achieved federation through an act of the British Parliament and the urgency for a new capital increased. After much wrangling and disagreement over several years, the New South Wales district surveyor, Charles Scrivener, was given the brief of finding a site, and he settled on Canberra. He wrote at the time:

“ ... the capital would properly lie in an amphitheatre of hills with an outlook towards the north and north-east, well sheltered from both southerly and westerly winds.”

The Federal Capital Territory came into being ten years after federation, on 1.1.1911, and an international competition was launched later that year for the design of the city. A staggering 137 entries were received, mostly from overseas, from which three – those of Alfred Agache, Eliel Saarinen and Walter Burley Griffin – were shortlisted. Again there was disagreement as to choice of design, with the ludicrous outcome of a departmental committee making their own design incorporating elements of all three entries.

Fortunately, sanity prevailed after a change of government, and the young Chicago architect Walter Burley Griffin's design was given the go-ahead. Burley Griffin was ably assisted by his wife, Marion Mahoney Griffin, also an architect, and who prepared the beautiful hand-coloured plans and drawings for the submission.

Finally, Canberra was formally named in March 1913, and work began. It was by no means plain sailing, however, as funds and labour dried up during World War I and then the Great Depression ravaged the economy. By 1939 the population of the city was only 10,000, and then World War II had a further deleterious effect on progress. Meanwhile, Australia's federal government sat in Melbourne.

After the war, frustrated politicians and public servants formed the National Capital Development Committee, headed by town planner John Overall, and things finally got moving. The Scrivener Dam, named for the NSW surveyor who identified the city's site, and Lake Burley Griffin, named for the city's designer, were completed in 1964. At last, Canberra could hold its head up.

Quick Find

Visitor Information

Holiday Packages

*Prices are per person, twin share

Overseas Getaways