For many years after Federation in 1901 deciding upon the site for the Federal Capital was a contentious issue. After much debate and some acrimony the Yass–Canberra area was chosen. An international competition was held to find a design for the city which was won by the American architect Walter Burley Griffin in 1912.
Once the design of the city had been decided upon and construction began, action turned to the construction of a Parliament House. Parliament could not move from Melbourne until it had a home.
The Government decided that an international competition would give access to the best architects in the world and deliver the best result. It was intended that Parliament House be a monumental building that would be the focus of the new capital. It was also an opportunity to set a new and unique architectural style for Australia. The competition was launched in the Australian press on 1 July 1914.
The Australian Government announces an international architectural competition for the purpose of selecting the architect of the Parliament House and possibly incidentally additional architect for other government structures of the new Federal Capital City, Canberra.
Only tentative outline sketch designs for the building are requested and eight (8) prizes are offered aggregating £6,000, the first being £2,000, in addition to commission for service at the scale of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
The designs may be submitted in either Melbourne or London in March, and will be judged by the following jury of architects:-
George T Poole of Australia
John J Burnet of London
Victor Laloux of Paris
Otto Wagner of Vienna
Louis H Sullivan of Chicago
whose decision will be final.
Programme will be issued to any practising architect on application to the High Commissioner for Australia in London, or any British Ambassador to whom copies are being forwarded.
The importance of this event is not to be measured by that of the foremost building of the Commonwealth but by the opportunity to establish an architectural standard not only for the future seat of Government in Australia, but for a great new Democracy of scope and scale and modern advantages, as well as of climatic conditions differing radically from any prototype in Europe or elsewhere.
NAA: A2911/4, 664/1914
A booklet entitled Federal Parliament House Architectural Competition was produced which advised entrants of the conditions and requirements.
Image 1: The Daily Telegraph news article for February 15
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Unfortunately, the competition was withdrawn almost immediately due to the outbreak of World War I in September 1914. During 1915 and 1916 the Government became concerned about delays in relocating the Seat of Government to Canberra and moved to have the competition revived.
The situation was complicated by the international disruptions of the war. Australia was now at war with countries whose citizens had previously been asked to take part in and even judge the competition. Several possible solutions were put forward:
The last two suggestions were vigorously opposed by Walter Burley Griffin who had helped prepare the original competition. He felt that the wish to change the conditions reflected on him personally and to limit or abandon the competition would damage Australia's international reputation.
The competition was resurrected in August 1916 with the original conditions but excluding enemy subjects. This immediately met with outrage from various institutions in particular the Royal Institute of British Architects. They explained that many young architects were unable to take part due to being on active service. Holding the competition during the war would unfairly benefit architects in neutral countries, particularly the USA. The thought of another non-British architect winning a competition was enough to make their British blood boil. Consequently, the competition was once again withdrawn.
Discussion dragged on for several years with various attempts to revive the competition. However, with a huge war debt hanging over the Government it was reluctant to take on the expense of a large permanent building. The establishment of the Seat of Government at Canberra was becoming pressing after the delays of the war years. The Government did not want to wait for the time it would take to conclude the competition and erect a monumental building. The search began for a quicker, cheaper solution.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works was charged with the task of reporting to the Government on the best solution. The committee recommended that although the competition for a permanent building should go ahead, construction should begin immediately on either the nucleus of a permanent building or a provisional building. After much debate, the proposal for a provisional building was accepted and financed by Parliament in August 1923.
If the Government thought it had finally settled the issue of the competition it was sadly mistaken. Many architects around the world had been working on their designs with some of them now ready to submit. Announcement of the postponement brought complaints and demands for compensation.
At this time a competition for the lay out and design of cottages for Canberra was proposed. However, the Federal Council of the Australian Institute of Architects informed the Minister that it would not recognise such competition until the government agreed to compensate the registered competitors of the original Parliament House competition.1
After some deliberation the Government decided that although there was no legal obligation to pay compensation, Australia's standing would be enhanced by an act of grace payment to deserving architects.
A board was convened and architects who had officially registered were invited to send in any work they had undertaken. Again the devastation of the war was obvious as many architects could not be located. Their work or their businesses or, in some cases, their lives had been lost. Compensation was paid according to the amount and quality of work done. Out of 217 registered entrants, 78 received compensation.
Although the Government had been reluctant to provide compensation, it proved a worthwhile move as architects responded with letters of appreciation. These letters show that architects considered fair dealing from competition organisers was not always forthcoming and receiving compensation was a welcome change. Appleton P. Clark of Washington wrote:
Architects suffer quite severe losses in competitions and I assure you it is refreshing to see some one with a spirit of fairness in such matters.2
It is ironic that 66 years after the launching of the original competition a design for a new and permanent Parliament House was eventually chosen through an international design competition. The original has faded from most people's memory but the events and personalities live on in the records.
Image 2: A steam shovel turning the first sod at Parliament House, 28 August 1923.
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The initial design for the Federal Capital was of a city 'having massive and monumental public buildings and works of an architectural character worthy to rank with those of older countries'.3
The design included a Capitol building for ceremonial purposes on top of Kurrajong Hill (now Capital Hill, the site of the new Parliament House). The Federal Parliament House would be below on Camp Hill. Other main government buildings were to be located on the terraces in front of Camp Hill.
However, in the wake of World War I this concept was revised because of the change in economic circumstances and the need to proceed with the establishment of the Federal Capital as soon as possible. The idea of a monumental city was shelved and the idea of Canberra as a garden city emerged.
As mentioned above, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works was charged to investigate and report on the question of the proposed erection of a provisional Parliament House. John Murdoch (Chief Architect, Department of Works and Railways) provided sketch plans for such a building.
The committee reported on 12 July 1923. Members felt that the competition should go ahead to decide the design for a permanent Parliament House but to expedite the move to Canberra some construction should begin immediately. The Government was presented with two choices:
Both suggestions had their enthusiastic supporters. The opponents of the nucleus of a permanent building stated that it would still be too expensive, take too long to build, present an unfinished appearance and cause too much disruption to Parliament when eventually expanded.
The opponents of a provisional building believed it would not serve its purpose successfully, would not be of sufficiently imposing appearance and would detract from the permanent building when it was finally constructed. Walter Burley Griffin was a vigorous opponent of the provisional building believing that it was an unwarranted variation to his design. He likened the concept to 'filling a front yard full of outhouses'.4
On 26 July 1923 the Minister for Works and Railways (Mr P G Stewart) moved in the House of Representatives 'That it is expedient to carry out the erection of Provisional Parliament House buildings at Canberra, a proposed work which has been investigated and reported upon by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works'. In support the Minister stated:
If ... in Canberra we are to have the world's most beautiful city ... in forty to fifty years' time, the work of building a Parliament House worthy of such a city is too big a job for us to tackle at the present time, and might well be left to posterity.
The Government desires that Canberra shall not be a sink for the pouring out of public money, but shall be run on business lines. It does not desire to overload the Federal City with a huge capital cost at the expense of the taxpayers.5
Image 3: This view of Parliament House from the north west shows the tramway laid to transport bricks to the site direct from the Yarralumla brickworks.
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After some debate where opponents of the provisional building mounted a final push for a permanent parliament house, the resolution was passed. To put this resolution into practice, a Loan Bill containing an amount for the Federal Territory was raised. This Bill passed through the House of Representatives on 17 August 1923. The Senate proved reluctant to approve the Bill. In a very lengthy debate on 24 August 1923 Senator Gardiner (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) stated that he wished:
… the Capital built as it was intended to be built, even if it takes ten years to do so, rather than have a smudge that would be of no value and would really be a disgrace to the nation … I shall never vote to waste £200,000 on a building which after all, would mar the original design of the gentleman who designed this great city.6
The Senate attempted to return the Bill to the House of Representatives with an amendment that would stop the provisional building going ahead. The House refused to accept this and the Senators in favour of a permanent building had to concede defeat. The debates about the provisional Parliament House can be followed in Hansard. Details of the debates on the original proposal and the Loan Bill are given in Appendix 3.
On 28 August 1923 the first sod was turned by the Minister for Works and Railways (P G Stewart). This was a modest ceremony attended by a small number of parliamentarians and approximately 2000 residents of the surrounding areas. In his speech the Minister said:
The Parliament House now being commenced will therefore be a provisional building, but it will in no way be a mean structure. While its design is on simple and economic lines, it will be substantially constructed in brick and will be of a commodious and comfortable character, presenting a good appearance architecturally … The design includes garden courts, and conforms to the general conception of Canberra in the first stage as a garden city.7
John Murdoch and the Department of Works and Railways could now throw themselves into preparing the final plans, incorporating changes suggested by the Public Works Standing Committee. Colonel P T Owen, Director-General of Works, was located in Canberra to supervise the construction while Murdoch was in Melbourne preparing the plans.
Work began immediately on the excavations. By November 1923 they were ready to start on the footings. A tramway had been laid from the Yarralumla brickworks and Owen was expecting the first half million bricks. Construction proceeded rapidly and in February 1924 Owen was writing to Murdoch 'We are getting nervous that we will overtake the drawings unless you can let us have something more to go on with next week'.8 This became a common theme over the next months with Owen bombarding Murdoch with demands for plans and drawings.
During the next four years of construction the plans were modified according to the development of the building and the wishes of those who would occupy the building. Choosing materials such as floor coverings, the sealing of the roof, the plastering of the chambers, the blinds and so on occupied many months. The extremes of Canberra's climate from freezing winter frosts to searing summers influenced the choice of materials. At times there was conflict between the idea of a provisional building and the need to keep costs down and the wish, particularly on Owen's part, to provide the best materials.
As the major construction work was completed, tenders for the furnishings and fittings were placed. Drawings of every detail of the building poured out of Murdoch's office. There were drawings for cornices, light fittings on the tables, library desks, press gallery chairs, ventilation grills and on and on.
In November 1925, John Butters (Chief Commissioner, Federal Capital Commission) was able to say, 'I was over at Parliament House this morning and find that everything is going well and that by Christmas the place will be looking quite respectable.'9
Through 1926 the work continued internally and members of Parliament started taking an interest in their accommodation. Discussion began on how space should be allocated within the building. By Anzac Day 1927 all tradesmen had moved out of the building and the exterior of the building and surrounding area were tidied and cleaned ready for the Opening Ceremony.
Image 4: Prime Minister Bruce welcoming the Duke and Duchess of York at Canberra Railway station, 8 May 1927.
NAA: A3560, 3135
The date of the opening of Parliament House had been announced on 26 May 1926. As with all issues decided by the Parliament there had been considerable debate about the most suitable date. 9 May was the anniversary of the opening of the first Federal Parliament in Melbourne in 1901. However, many favoured 26 January as being more appropriate. Although Parliament House could be ready by 26 January 1927, the infrastructure necessary for the Opening Ceremony and for the transfer of government departments from Melbourne could not be achieved by that date and so 9 May was confirmed.
On 12 July 1926 the Governor General sent a telegram to King George V to:
… most loyally and respectfully request Your Majesty to permit Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of York to visit Australia on the occasion of the official opening of Canberra in May, 1927, and to perform the opening ceremony.
In making this request we recall with pleasure and pride Your Majesty's own visit in 1901 when you graciously consented to open the first Federal Parliament.
We would regard it as singularly appropriate if your son were permitted to represent you at the establishment of the Federal Capital which marks another important phase in the development of this great British Commonwealth and is regarded by our people as an event of deep national significance and importance. We feel that the presence of His Royal Highness on such an occasion would evoke the strongest possible expressions of loyalty and enthusiasm and further strengthen the bonds which unite us to the Mother Country and to your Royal House.10
The reply was received on 16 July 1926.
It will give the Duke of York the greatest pride and pleasure to represent His Majesty at the opening ceremony and Their Royal Highnesses are eagerly looking forward to their visit to Australia for this purpose.11
Image 5: Decorations on J B Youngs store at Kingston to mark the opening of Parliament House, May 1927.
NAA: A3560, 3055
Although Australia had hosted royal visits before and the Parliament had been opened in Melbourne in 1901, this was the most significant event that the fledgling Federal Government had organised. The Government wished the opening to be a major international event reflecting glory upon Australia and the new federal capital.
Copies of the Canberra Community News12 show that Canberra with a population of approximately 6,00013 had an established, lively community. There were schools, churches, hotels and hostels and sporting groups. However, the infrastructure of what was to be a large city was still in the infant stage and the facilities for staging a grand international event were very limited.
Photographs from the Mildenhall collection14 demonstrate clearly that in 1927 Canberra was a collection of isolated buildings scattered across the plains around Parliament House. There were a few hotels and hostels, a smattering of residential homes and a small number of government buildings. These were widely separated, loosely joined by roads that seemed to begin and end nowhere. Although a massive afforestation program was underway, there were few mature trees. There was little public transport and only a small number of privately owned cars, buses and trucks. The majority of people organising the ceremony lived in Melbourne and most had never visited Canberra. The task of staging a major international event in such circumstances must have been daunting.
The Federal Capital Commission established a Royal Visit Section which appointed committees to deal with the various aspects of the visit and ceremony. John H Butters as Chief Commissioner of the Federal Capital Commission was in overall control. This Section liaised with the Royal Visit Cabinet Committee and Major-General Sir C B B White, Commonwealth Director, Royal Visit.
Image 6: The crowd awaiting the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of York.
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In the Federal Capital Commission's Third Annual Report there is an extensive summary of the Royal Visit and Opening Ceremony. It reflects the effort needed to organise an event of such magnitude.
The organization of the numerous activities associated with the Royal Visit and the functions connected with the Opening of Parliament House involved a very heavy burden on the Commission's staff at a time when it was also proceeding with a large constructional programme and developing its municipal organization.15
Accommodation was one of John Butters' biggest headaches. The several hotels (Hotel Canberra, Hotel Kurrajong and Hotel Ainslie) and guesthouses Blandfordia Guesthouse – later Hotel Wellington) could only provide 720 places. Even this was in doubt until the last minute as some guesthouses were under construction and were not finished until the day before the ceremony.
The selection of official guests caused much anguish. Whether wives and families would be able to accompany the guests was a vexed question. As well there was the press to consider and parliamentary staff. Most of the parliamentary staff slept in Parliament House. After much consideration slightly over 500 official guests were invited and around 50 press representatives. There are numerous letters requesting invitations or recommending people to be invited which had to be politely refused.
Image 7: The official program.
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The organising committees were also besieged by numerous offers of help and suggestions for what the ceremony should include. Citizens wrote giving ideas for music, flags, native dances, fireworks, sporting events and groups of people such as pioneers, limbless soldiers and children's groups that should be included in the ceremony. The occasion touched a chord with musical Australians with several offers of newly written songs including Welcome to the Duke and Duchess, Australia's Crowning Hour, Australia's Flag – Our Land's Delight and Canberra Moon. There was also the offer of an Australianised version of the National Anthem.
An extra 5000 tickets were distributed throughout Australia for organisations and individuals to use for access to outside stands. Provision was made for the parking of 30,000 cars. At one stage it was thought that up to 100,000 extra people might attend. All of these had to find their own accommodation or use the camping grounds set up by the Commission.
Concerts, dances and sporting events were arranged to keep the crowds occupied. Children from surrounding schools were organised to marshal at Telopea Park School and march to Parliament House. The Social Service Association established 'strong points' around Canberra where people could gather to see the royal couple.16 In the event the public did not attend in the numbers anticipated and much of the organising proved unnecessary. Several tons of food that had been provided by private caterers to supply large crowds had to be buried.
The small crowd was disappointing to the organisers. Anticipating huge crowds, the camping grounds and car parks had been set up at some distance from Parliament House and there were severe restrictions on the movement of people and vehicles. Also, the legendary freezing weather of Canberra received wide publicity. When it was realised that the large crowds would not eventuate, the regulations were relaxed. However, it was too late to change the situation.
Image 8: The Duke and Duchess outside Parliament House.
NAA: A3560, 3134
The ceremony was quite simple but dignified and impressive and must have been an extremely satisfying moment for all those who had worked on the development of Canberra for many years.
The Duke and Duchess of York (later to become King George VI and Queen Elizabeth) were greeted by a fanfare of bugles by eight Royal Marines who had accompanied the Royal Party in the HMS Renown and a 21-gun salute. The Duke reviewed the Guard of Honour. Four year old Gwen Pinner presented a bouquet to Her Royal Highness. Dame Nellie Melba at the age of 67 sang the National Anthem and was then joined by the crowd and the Canberra Philharmonic Society in a spirited repeat of the first verse.
Prime Minister Bruce and the Duke addressed the crowd and a large radio audience. They both spoke of the history of Australia and its progress since Federation and the strong links with Great Britain. The significance of this day as the beginning not just of a new city but also the opportunity to develop Australia as one of the great nations of the world was stressed.
In his address the Duke of York said:
It is impossible not to be moved by the significance of today's events as a great landmark in the story of Australia. I say this not only because today sees the opening of a new Parliament House and marks the inauguration of a new capital city, but more because one feels the stirrings of a new birth, a quickened national activity, of a fuller consciousness of your destiny as one of the great self-governing units of the British empire.17
The speeches were followed by the culminating moment for all involved. The Duke of York approached the glass-panelled doors and with a gold key made specially for the occasion formally opened the new Parliament building. After 27 years of indecision, delays, complaints and arguments the Federal Parliament of Australia finally could assemble in its own home.
Image 9: Ceremony inside the Senate Chamber.
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The royal couple and official guests moved inside the House where they assembled in the Senate Chamber after the unveiling of a statue of King George V in King's Hall. The Clerk of the Senate read the Commission of King George V empowering his son to open the sittings of the Federal Parliament in the Federal Capital.
The Duke rose from his position on a dais at the end of the chamber and delivered another speech and a message of goodwill and congratulations from the King.
Our thoughts are more than ever with you on this happy day of memories to me and to the Queen. On this occasion of signal importance in the history of Australia I ask you to assure the people of the Commonwealth of my heartfelt wishes for their continued happiness and progress. I share their pride in the new capital city and join in their prayers for its successful future.18
The end of the speech signalled the end of an historic ceremony. It was marked by further triumphant fanfares and the crash of guns.
The last formal part of proceedings was an investiture where honours were bestowed upon the Prime Minister, the President and Leader of the Senate and some officials who had been associated with the establishment of the Seat of Government and arrangements for the Royal Visit. The latter group included John Butters (Chief Commissioner) and John Murdoch (Chief Architect).
The Senate and House of Representatives met again at 5.00 pm to approve the adjournment of Parliament until a time when the administrative machinery of Government could be moved from Melbourne.
The more solemn events of the day being over, the Duke and Duchess enjoyed a short tour of Parliament House and a state luncheon.
The couple and official guests partook of turtle soup, poached schnapper, fillets of beef, roast chicken and ham, straw potatoes, green peas, Canberra pudding, fruit ices, coffee and cheese.19
Image 10: Following the opening of Parliament House a Royal Review was held in York Park. This view, looking south, shows a fly past by RAAF aircraft.
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In the afternoon everyone moved to York Park where a review of 2,000 troops was held. Various air squadrons carried out manoeuvres overhead. The plane of Flying Officer Francis Charles Ewen crashed during the display. He died later that night.
A reception was held that night in King's Hall by the Ministers of State for the representatives of other Dominions of the Empire (ie Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and India). A light supper was provided and a concert held in the Senate Chamber. The Duke and Duchess of York did not attend this reception.
The representatives presented messages of congratulation and goodwill from their governments. There was some criticism that this was an 'after thought reception' hastily arranged when the representatives complained that they were not to be given a place in the opening ceremony.20
The lure of monogrammed cutlery and hotel towels was as prevalent then as now. The Commission had to report that around £128-worth of equipment was lost from Parliament House and hotels during the two days. This included cutlery, plates, glasses, bed linen (including four quilts), dishcloths and towels.21
Image 11: Some of the press criticism of the arrangements.
NAA: CP325/6, bundle 1
The media published complaints that there 'was much bungling at Canberra',22 particularly over the provision of accommodation and public parking. There were also complaints that the arrangements for the public were too restrictive and actually prevented people from attending. The Minister for Agriculture, Mr Dunn was reported in the Labor Daily on 11 May 1927 as saying:
… that the whole business was confined to the brass hats, military and other officials and that not more than 6,000 of the general public got a look in.23
While criticism of any large event is inevitable that aimed at the Federal Capital Commission was perhaps unfair.
Undoubtedly, the Commission did something to deter visitors but the widespread accusations of a desire to reserve the occasion for officialdom were not fair. Nobody had any experience in coping with either crowds or ceremonies and the Commission faced the unprecedented problem of managing a major public occasion in an isolated and barely developed city with inadequate accommodation. In the circumstances, misjudgment on some points was probably inevitable.24
The organisers received glowing praise from some who attended the ceremony. The Belgian Consul-General wrote:
I wish also to join in the universal praise and congratulations upon the great achievement realised by the Royal Visit officers, the Federal Commission and all the organisers of the ceremonies, which have been a paramount success in every detail and in every point worthy of this historic occasion.25
Regardless of criticism or praise the building was open and the Seat of Government could finally be established at Canberra. However, the task of moving the Government and Public Service from Melbourne was an enormous one. Parliament did not meet again until 28 September 1927 and the working life of the building began.
The opening ceremony on 9 May 1927 was just the beginning for the provisional Parliament House. It served the Parliament and people of Australia until 9 May 1988 when the new and permanent Parliament House was opened on Capital Hill.
This guide does not identify series documenting the working life of Parliament House. However, the building itself and events associated with it are well documented in other records held by the National Archives.
Over the years the building was extended and refurbished several times. Wings were added on the east and west side in 1949 and further space added in 1965 and 1972.
The provisional Parliament House has been the stage for major events in Australian history. Activities on the front steps, in the chambers and on the lawns are familiar to all Australians. Some events that many can recall are:
All of these events are documented in records held by the National Archives. Records documenting events occurring over 30 years ago are in the 'open' period and most will be available for access. Records documenting events occurring less than 30 years ago are not generally available to the public. Reference staff can advise you about the appropriate agencies to contact should you wish to seek access to these records.
The original intention was that once a permanent Parliament House was built the provisional building would be removed. Happily, this has not happened and the provisional Parliament House remains. It does not detract from, but rather, complements the new building above and behind it. For many it is a building of great charm, reminiscent of a bygone age and redolent with the history of Australia.
The provisional Parliament House now houses exhibitions by the National Museum of Australia, the National Film and Sound Archive and the National Portrait Gallery. Tours are held not just of the two chambers but also behind the scenes into the House of Representatives and Senate rooms and the Prime Minister's office and Cabinet room.
It is fitting that a building that saw the unfolding of Australia's history as a Commonwealth and its changing society and culture should now be used to inform and entertain Australians about that history.
16 Certain locations along the route to be followed by the Duke and Duchess on 9 and 10 May were advertised by the organisers as places where people should gather to cheer and wave flags. It was thought this would give a better impression than having people strung out in small groups. These gathering points were called 'strong points'. As it turned out the route was changed and many of these people never saw the Duke and Duchess.