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Witness to Canberra's history

Date

Ian Warden

Hazel Merz, celebrating her 90th birthday, is a fifth generation Canberran.

Hazel Merz, celebrating her 90th birthday, is a fifth generation Canberran. Photo: Colleen Petch

People of this columnist's shonky generation lie about having been at Woodstock, but when Hazel Merz, 90, of Yarralumla, says she attended the 1927 official opening of the then new Parliament House, you know she is telling the truth. It is not only that as a fifth-generation local (she was born in Queanbeyan in 1922) she was living here on the right spot in 1927, but also that she still has mementoes and memories of the grand occasion.

Back to 1927 in a moment, but first to the fact that Hazel has just celebrated her birthday. On a visit to her home (she has lived in the same house since 1956) last week, some of the flowers with which she was bombarded on her birthday were still festooned around the rooms. She has a large family to do that kind of bombarding and, for example, is able to rejoice: ''I've got nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren and another one due in January.''

At her age, still not needing glasses and still driving her car, Hazel is a terrific advertisement for the early 20th century determination to build the new federal capital city in a place with a ''bracing'' climate that would encourage a race of hearty, long-lived souls. She has been breathing the invigorating local air since 1922, but her forebears on both her mother's side (with the name McInnes) and her father's side (with the name Rowley) arrived in this region in the 1830s and took up grants of land. The land-holding element was still strong in the family when she was born.

A copy photo from the album of Hazel Merz showing the opening of Old Parliament House, 1927.

A copy photo from the album of Hazel Merz showing the opening of Old Parliament House, 1927. Photo: Colleen Petch

''I was born in Queanbeyan, in Donald Road, in 1922. But we moved to Canberra because my father wanted to take up 400 acres of land where the suburbs of Chapman and Rivett are now and he couldn't buy it unless he lived in the ACT. So in 1927 we moved to one of the first houses at Telopea Park. I had three sisters, so we wanted to be near a school,'' Hazel recalls. ''Dad called the property Sentry Box because on the hill there was a great big rock.''

Later, her father sold that property, for £400, and bought the historic Avonleigh out on Majura Road.

Hazel's photographs and other mementoes (including photos of her wedding with her late husband Bruce) were spilled out and fossicked through on a table in her living room. They are very exciting for a history of Canberra geek.

Hazel Merz a picture of herself on her first day at school from 1928.

Hazel Merz a picture of herself on her first day at school from 1928. Photo: Colleen Petch

The story behind the photo of the family group massed around a large motor car, for example, is that the people are pictured on Clyde Mountain during a family excursion to the coast, circa 1926.

''I'm the smallest one, the little one,'' Hazel offers.

So many went on these excursions - sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles (she remembers them as ''the overflow family'' - in the one big roadster that they were a busload really, rather than a car load. There were so many of them plus the ''tucker box'' of food for them all and the camping gear, that, going back up the precipitous Clyde, half the family had to get out and walk because the poor car simply couldn't make it with them all aboard.

Look, Hazel points out, at how the road on the Clyde in those days was just a dirt track.

The photograph of a small, uniformed schoolgirl standing in an underdeveloped wilderness (''You can see there are no footpaths'') is Hazel in 1928, setting out for her first day at Telopea Park school.

Look closely, she advises, and you'll see a large white building in the background. It is the old Capitol Theatre at Manuka. It was new then (opened in 1927), and was bulldozed in 1980 (to great protests at the time). The present cinema complex at Manuka stands on the old Capitol's site.

Proof, not that we need it, that Hazel really was at the pomp-and-circumstance opening by the Duke and Duchess of York of the Parliament House in 1927 include a snapshot that her father took on the day, and the official program for the occasion that her parents picked up (it instructs, with the important word in capital letters, that Dame Nellie Melba will sing the first verse of the national anthem ALONE without any help from the lower orders).

Then there is Hazel's own crystal-clear recollection of how, because she was tiny and the crowds were dense, ''Dad picked me up and stood me on a truck so that I could see''. She is pretty sure he stood her on a milk truck, but doesn't rule out the possibility that she may have been plonked onto the vehicle in the photograph that we can see belonged to a local purveyor of ''aerated waters''.

We do not have enough room today to do Hazel Merz's peerless reminiscences full justice, and so in next Monday's column we plan to run a second instalment.

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