HISTORIANS - CANBERRA ... AND DISTRICT
the end of 1998 I went looking for postcard portraits of Walter Burley
Griffin and Marion Mahony to forward to the friend with whom I had
stayed in Chicago. Interested though he was in his city’s
architecture, he did not know about its Canberra connection. Postcards
of the Griffins or of their plans were not to be had, not even at the
visitors’ centre on Regatta Point, not at the Archives, not at the
This failure in shopping points up one half
of what I want to say. The prime responsibility of a local history
society is for its our backyard. Hence, I hope you will influence the
commercial card makers or institutions such as the National Library to
release postcards of Griffin, Mahony and their designs. In this vien,
your Society could also explain to the proprietor of the Maid Marian
which plies the Lake why his boat’s name should be Maid Marion. In
brief, one duty of the Canberra and District Historical Society is to
make the local visible to residents and visitors, to decipher ‘the
palimpsest of successive strata, one inscribed below another, of human
impression’, as Squire Urquhart instructs Wolf Solent in the 1929
eponymous novel by John Cowper Powys.
Urquhart desired a scandalous history of his
county - ‘for the sort of perspective on human occurrences that the
bed-posts in brothels must come to possess – and the counters of
bar-rooms – and the butlers’ pantries in old houses – and the
muddy ditches in long-frequented lovers’ lanes’. Those vantage
points not be to everyone’s taste, yet his fascination with the
prurient involves one strand in what makes us human, namely, our
attachment to places.
The train crash in the Blue Mountains earlier
this week was no worse than a thousand other multiple deaths across the
planet, yet it affects most Canberrans in ways that the news of a
capsized ferry in the Philippines with the loss of 600 lives can not.
The difference is not heartlessness but rather that our hearts are
nourished by the experience of places. News of the collision between a
commuter train from the Blue Mountains and the Indian-Pacific evoked
multiple memories for me. First, my mind leapt back to the 1977
Granville disaster which I still remember as leaving me shaken for a
couple of days. My thoughts then spread to trips to the Blue Mountains,
stays at the Carrington, a visit to Eleanor Dark in 1973, a one-way trip
on the trans-continental in 1987, and Streeton’s ‘“Fire’s
On”’, depicting a fatal accident to a worker on the Lapstone tunnel
in December 1891. Streeton’s letter to Tom Roberts voiced out bonding
to place as powerfully as did his painting: ‘a passing corpse does
chain your eyes & indeed all your senses just as strongly as
Behind this association of place with empathy
stands the historiography that Giambattista Vico advanced his New
Science in 1725 when he argued that, while only God could comprehend
the natural world because he had created it, humans could understand
social life because we had made that. The first of Vico’s
propositions, I would judge as too modest. We may never know the origins
of the universe, but we already know very much more than Vico thought
possible of the mind of god. The second half of Vico’s approach claims
too much. Yes, human beings can know about the dynamics and structures
of history because we have made our past, and have, in the process,
continuously remade ourselves. But we work those ends in particular
places and at specific trades. What we make is not the entirety of human
experience, but limited parts thereof. Hence, we gain self-awareness,
both as individuals and as a species, from our transformation of the
areas where we farm, mine, fabricate, build and breed.
Since my ears prick up at the mention of a
place where I have been no more than a day tripper, how much more must I
be made up from the localities where I have lived? In reading novels
about Canberra, from M. Barnard Eldershaw’s Plaque
with Laurel (1937) to Sara Dowse’s West
Block (1983), helps me
make sense of the thirty years I have lived here. The history of the
Manuka Pool, a few hundred metres from where I have lived since 1974,
connects my place to a time before I was born. The impulse behind family
history, in which I have no interest, finds another expression in a need
to know how the few hectares around which I stroll came to look the way
The writing of local history has proceeded far beyond the chronicle, far
beyond the scissors-and-paste by retired shire clerks of which Geoffrey
Blainey complained in 1960.
If local history is to be
done badly, it is best for it to be done as badly as possible. The
memorialist who reprints unedited slabs from newspapers and municipal
records provides re-usable primary sources, whereas the would-be
historian so muddies the information with prejudice and discretion as to
be of no use to the professional researcher, which doubles our loss when
original documents are destroyed.
Canberra and District Historical Society shares the responsibility for
preserving more than files and photographs. As repositories of knowledge
about what has been imagined and done here, your membership can inform
discussion of how the city should look and function in the future. That
aspect of your work involves more than preserving recent ruins. It
includes the protection of contemporary glories such as the new
Parliament House from the vandalism of occluding its sight-lines with
office blocks. As examples of barbarism, graffitists have nothing on the
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
far, I have talked about the Canberra part of your Society’s name
because, as I proceed to elaborate the meanings of ‘and District’, I
have no intention of reducing the importance of Canberra in your
activities. On the contrary, my aim is to enrich the significance of
Canberra through deepening our recognition of what ‘and District’
means, of how broad a scope that appellation acknowledges.
organisation’s name, Canberra and District Historical Society, gives
us a negative clue about the meaning of ‘and District’. The Society
is not called the Canberra District Historical Society. The insertion of
that ‘and’ requires a view beyond the backyard. Nor is your
organisation called the Australian Capital Territory Historical Society.
So, ‘and District’ is not determined by borders on a map.
name Canberra has associations with prior occupants, the Ngunawal and
Ngarigo peoples. The extent
of their country at the time of contact is quite unlike the shires set
up by the settlers, or the Territory ceded by New South Wales.
Nonetheless, for some essays into Canberra and District, those tribal
and clan zones will be essential markers for telling it how it really
was. More recently, Canberra has acquired a diverse population of
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who have come to work in
the public service. This mingling of tribal and language groups repeats
the experience of driving peoples together on reserves. The relations
between the Aborigines whose country this is and those from thousands of
miles away are topics for social scientists, but the historian will
perceive in these changes an extension of the term ‘Aborigine’
towards a continental experience so that the boundaries of country
acquire a new focus for all Aborigines.
a history of European Australia can be no more than the four hundred or
so years since the early maritime explorers, the history available to a
Canberra historical society is even more truncated because the national
capital was not proclaimed until 1908-11. Perhaps, the significance of
‘and District’ is not spatial but temporal, intended to gather in
what had happened on the lands now within the A.C.T.
during the ninety years between the first overland explorers left
Goulburn and the birth of the Territory. As Lyall Gillespie put it in
his opening volume on the history of Canberra:
Also included are details of the history of
Queanbeyan and other townships in the region. Although they do not form
part of the Australian Capital Territory, they are an integral part of a
modern urban region serving the domestic, commercial and industrial
needs of the capital city of the nation.
brush was less broad in the next two volumes.
The drawing of the A.C.T. borders had less
impact on the District than did the decision not to select one of the
existing towns as the capital city – Tumut or Delegate. One way of
telling the story of the District would be through the historiographical
method known as counter-factual condition analysis whereby the
researcher measures the impact of what did happen by taking it out of
the story. The most famous example of this approach was into the impact
of railroads on the US economy in the nineteenth century. Imagine that
the rail network had not been constructed and then calculate how the
National Product would have grown. In our case, what would have been the
impact on the Canberra District had the national capital been put at
town that would have been most affected had Canberra not been chosen is
Queanbeyan. Would it now be more than a stopover on the way to the
snowfields if Canberra were not here? I have more than once referred to
Queanbeyan as the Soweto of Canberra, a comment that a Canberra
Times journalist misread as a criticism of that city. If I were a
motorist, I would have moved to Queanbeyan and driven in to the National
Library. My shaft was aimed at Canberra’s administrators who have used
Queanbeyan as a reserve army of builders and cleaners without bearing
the social costs that fall on that community every time Canberra booms
and slumps. Schools and hospitals there are strained whenever Canberra
expands, and its caravan parks over-fill. Property values plummet when
the Department of Finance turns the tap off. In 1996, for example, a
flat could be bought in Queanbeyan for hardly more than a deposit on a
house in Canberra. The relation between Canberra’s affluence and
Queanbeyan’s squalor can be treated as a microcosm of the social
divisions within all of Australia. That juxtaposition spotlights the
difficulties that policy makers here have in realising that not everyone
lives as well as they do.
pleasure at speaking to Queanbeyan’s Historical Society, and my
enthusiasm for Susan Mary Withycombe’s history of its post-war
experience, ensure that I propose no imperialist designs on its history.
But neither side of the border can be understood outside the experience
of the other.
same applies to lesser extent to Bungendore, Yass, Cooma, Braidwood and
Goulburn. Each has its particular connection to the Canberra economy but
all are part of its constellation. One way to manage the ‘and
District’ aspect of your organisation, without forgetting your own
place and without stepping on toes, could be through joint issues of
journals and regional conferences on how the growth of Canberra has
affected Yass etc, and vice versa, published in joint issues of
Beyond those bipolar studies, a longer-term project, in the manner of Keith Hancock’s Discovering Monaro, but involving geographers and ecologists, could consider the networks that criss-cross all these communities. The South Coast as terminus for holiday-makers and retirees from Canberra have created Wanniassa-by-sea. How appropriate then that Jim Gibbney should have written both a volume of the history of Canberra and a history of the Eurobodalla shire.
If Canberrans need to be careful about the
sensitivities of the smaller neighbours, we can never forget that
Canberra is itself a tiny pond compared with Melbourne and Sydney. From
that perspective the meaning of ‘and District’ becomes
“Melbourne/Sydney and District’, where the appendix is Canberra.
Canberra started as a northern suburb of Melbourne as the Parliament and
later the Public Service moved up between the 1920s and 1970s. The
teaching part of the university began as a college of the University of
Melbourne. Yet, it is no longer a joke to say that we are one of the
western suburbs of Sydney, as our prime minister demonstrates by
commuting to work here. One sign of that refocussing is how the dominant
football code shifted from Australian Rules to League. If the very fast
train ever runs, the trip from Kingston to Central will be quicker than
the journey on public transport from Banks to Fraser.
The Internet promises
to make propinquity as obsolete as the typewriter. People can work from
home, we are told, designing in one hemisphere while manufacturing it in
another. Yet, if place has lost its prominence, why has Steve Jobs just
bought a helicopter to get to his office at Apple? The answer is that
computer whizzes cluster together in Silicon Valley because they still
need to talk their creativity through over a beer at the country club.
They appreciate that knowledge is absorbed and acted on through human
networks as much as via electronic ones. Technologies
are social practices as well as bits of machinery. Indeed, core centres such as Paris, Sydney and Tokyo are attracting
service industries, not shedding them.
Do those kilometres matter in the age of the Internet? Yes. Invention is not the same as its application. A friend, Paul Kuske, operates his firm, Digital Alchemy, out of a penthouse apartment in the Lakeside Towers. He misses out on jobs in Sydney because, as much as firms there admire his work, they want him to pack up his machines and move to an office around the corner from them in Chatswood. He tells these prospective customers that the materials can be e-mailed back and forth in seconds. Often as not, that fact does not reassure the clients who fear that they will lose control if the work is done in another city. This concern is not wholly irrational because detail and subtleties do get lost in the electronic transfer, as in a version of the schoolyard game, Chinese whispers. No doubt, the day will come when executives will be as at ease with virtual documents as they are with mobile phones. Meanwhile, Canberra will suffer from the tyranny of non-distances as imagined by retards in management.
As the National Capital, Canberra’s writ
runs clear across Australia, giving an alarming dimension to ‘and
District’. Political and administrative decisions here impact on lives
from Broome to Bruny Island. Conversely, parliamentarians and public
servants come from every State to shape Canberra ‘and District’,
choosing the site in the 1900s and finally agreeing to build the
permanent parliament on Capital Hill. Imagine post-war Canberra without
the Perth contingent of H. C. Coombs, Dorothy Tangley, Paul and
Alexandra Hasluck, Bob Hawke, Pat Troy, John Stone, John Dawkins, Peter
Walsh and Kim Beazley. Or, try to think of Canberra Rep without Ric
Throssell. Canberra is more a society of immigrants than is Australia as
a whole because we not only have ethnic diversity but the city remains a
magnet for the brightest and best from declining areas, such as
has become pivotal to Australia’s relations with the rest of the world
and thus its District reaches beyond these shores. Officers trained at
Duntroon landed at Gallipoli, with its first commandant, General
Bridges, killed there and buried here. ADFA today has its graduates in
East Timor. The line runs in reverse when the names on the walls of the
Australian War Memorial draw visitors from every street in the country.
history of every district in Australia makes sense only within the
contest of a succession of imperiums: the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch,
French, English, German, US and Japanese, and not just one by one but as
a focus for their shifting contests and alliances. These connections
were not just between Australia and the Mother Country, but linked parts
of the Empire, such as Tasmania and New Zealand, Perth and Durban.
Time was when the history of Australia was
lucky to feature as an optional tutorial in courses on the expansion of
Britain. Much as I welcome the ending of that bias, I worry that the
corrective has gone too far. The story of the planning of Canberra is
incomplete without Chicago and New Dehli. Brian Fitzpatrick was one of
the pioneers of Australian studies who never forgot that the story of
settlement was a global design as is obvious from his titles
British Imperialism and Australia and The
British Empire in Australia. Contexts are essential for
understanding. Our open the way to the biggest questions, as Manning
Clark revealed when the first volume of his history treated the village
of Sydney as a stage for the contest among the three great Ideas of
European civilisation - Roman Catholicism, the Protestant Ascendancy and
the Enlightenment. Comparable lines cross the history of Canberra and
District. To be accurate about this place, an historian can be neither
provincial nor parochial. That is why
the Bicentennial Committee to Report on Australian Studies in Tertiary Education, of
which I was a member, called our final report Windows onto Worlds.
Darwinians stress the connection between
regionalism and species differentiation, which supplies another reason
why a sense of place informs our self-awareness. The twentieth century
has seen the culmination of a rupturing of this way of living. As the
biologist Niles Eldredge puts it: ‘Taking control over production of
our own food supply, we became the
first species in the 3.5-billion year history of life to live outside
the confines of the local ecosystem’.
Hence, the import of ‘and District’ has been transformed for all
human beings. That biological change was made possible by social
changes, that is, by Vico’s history. We can draw our resources from
around the world because of the global pathways of commerce, such as the
air freighting of flowers from nurseries in Zimbabwe to auction houses
in Amsterdam and then over the Artic to households in Japan.
As a term, ‘globalisation’ is a public
relations make-over for imperialism, usually US Imperialism. But
globalisation also relates to changes within the cycles of production,
distribution and consumption. These changes are arriving at different
rates to each realm of the economy. A Canberran can order a book from
Amazon.com more readily than she can sell her house and move her family
to work for a publisher in Ottawa. The disjuncture was summed up by the
Spanish urban theorist Manuel Castells: ‘People live in places, power
rules through flows’. Historians have the
privilege and challenge of dealing with both time and space, with the
place and the flow, with the dynamic and the district.
 John Cowper Powys, Wolf Solent, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1929, pp. 50-1.
 Ann Galbally and Anne Gray (eds), Letters from Smike, OUP, Melbourne, 1989, p. 40.
 Humphrey McQueen, ‘No Baedeker for Australia, A Materialist Defence of Provincialism’, Praxis M, (Perth), 8, Autumn 1985, pp. 17-23.
 Blainey’s commissioned accounts of companies suffer from that very failing which his elegance as a writer cannot conceal. He shows no awareness of the development in business history around the work of Alfred D. Chandler, notably his The Visible Hand, Belknap Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1977.
 Lyall Gillespie, Canberra 1820-1913, AGPS, Canberra, 1991, p. xvi.
 Niles Eldredge, Dominion, Henry Holt, New York, 1995, p. xiv.
 Manuel Castels, The Informational City, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1989, p. 349.