ACT News


Box seats on March 12, 1913

Farmer Robert Peden of Bullamalita near Goulburn (''One historian told me 'Bullamalita' is an Aboriginal word meaning 'place of many butterflies','' he says) has made some momentous discoveries among family papers. He has his grandfather's official invitations to the Canberra events of March 12, 1913. Those events included Gertrude Lady Denman's pronouncement of what one reporter there called that ''mystical word'', the federal capital city's name. Those events are the peg on which we are hanging the coat of many colours of next year's Canberra centenary celebrations.

In 1913 Robert Peden's grandfather, Charles Peden, was a considerable landowner. He owned Wells Station (more correctly named Well Station, after the well there) where Gungahlin is now.

And so Charles and Mrs Peden, as local gentry, received official invitations to the day's occasions. There was an invitation to the laying of the foundation stones of the commencement column and to an afternoon reception in a plush marquee on the site. The latter invitation came with two tickets to admit them to this hallowed occasion. Robert Peden has the invitations and the tickets. He found them stored ''in a plastic container in a port''.

Of course, the fact of being there, invited, must have given the Pedens box seats for the most-anticipated passage of the day. Lady Denman's announcement of what one reporter called the ''mystical word'' of the city's name easily eclipsed in drama and importance the stuffier stuff her husband and other boys had just done to the foundation stones with their snazzy ceremonial trowels.

Robert Peden sounded, when Gang-Gang spoke with him, like a man of few words, and perhaps his grandfather was too, because Robert can't recall his grandfather reminiscing much about the day in 1913.

''No, he just said he was there.''


Not that Robert was unhelpful. When I asked the dates of his grandfather's birth and death he said that they were engraved on a memorial rock near the house. ''Just wait a minute,'' he obliged, ''and I'll put me boots on and go and have a look.''

He did that, and duly reported that Grandpa had been born in 1873 and had died in 1965 and that he had bought Bullamalita in 1923 or 1924. By then he would have sensed that Wells Station's days were numbered, the federal government having resumed it in 1915 (leasing it back for the time being) with a view to having the new city one day swarm over it. Today the Well Station homestead survives, miraculously, in a protected oasis in the suburb of Harrison.

How many of you, dear readers, have original invitations to the mystical shenanigans of 1913, and family stories that accompany them? This columnist is all ears.

Gang-Gang thanks Antony Dubber of the Goulburn Post for essential assistance with this story.

Memories of floods and work

Last Monday's column reported some of the sparklingly clear reminiscences of fifth-generation Canberran Hazel Merz (nee Rowley). Both sides of her family (a Rowley side and a McInnes side) were pioneers in this part of the world from the 1830s. She has just turned 90 and when I interviewed her at her Yarralumla home (where she's lived since 1956) she was still surrounded by lots of the flowers that she'd been bombarded with on her 90th birthday. Those doing the bombarding had included her nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Reminiscences reported last Monday included her remembering being there at the grand occasion of the Duke and Duchess-enriched official opening in 1927 of the new Parliament House. She had been small (born in 1922) and her dad had picked her up and plonked her on top of a milk truck so that she could see the pomp and pageantry of it all.

Here are a couple more reminiscences of hers there was no room for last Sunday. ''This,'' Hazel Merz explained holding up a sepia portrait of a matron in round spectacles, ''is my great-grandmother Sarah McInnes, wife of John McInnes. They had a property at Kowen [near Queanbeyan]. They were married in 1861 in Queanbeyan. She had 14 children and adopted four more!

''Later on they moved to Queanbeyan and their sons built a house near the river and when the flood came [it's not clear which one, for flood-prone Queanbeyan has had so many of them] the whole house went off the foundations and apparently the piano and everything were floating. And she had one of these big old chests of drawers and she had one of the drawers locked and with her sons' war medals in it. And they eventually found it [the chest of drawers] at Acton! It had gone right down the [Molonglo] river. And all the drawers were missing except the locked one. So she got her sons' medals back.''

During the Second World War and with rationing in force Hazel Merz worked at the Government Printing Office at Kingston. ''Everything was couponed in those days and the printing office printed the coupons.''

She remembers that coupons were like money, really, so that to work in a place that printed them was just like working at the Mint. Security was strict.

''I remember that every day at eight o'clock when we'd go to work the door would be locked behind us. We'd be locked in, for security, until they unlocked the door and let us out again for lunch, and then they'd lock us in again after lunch. And you couldn't take your handbag in. You had to leave it in a locker.''