Conditions inside Canberra's Molonglo war camp revealed in century-old letters
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Conditions inside Canberra's Molonglo war camp revealed in century-old letters

One hundred years ago a Norwegian diplomat was told of harshly-treated prisoners living in squalor at a wartime internment camp on the outskirts of Canberra.

What the diplomat found when he was sent to inspect the camp was an almost idyllic community replete with two tennis courts, a hall for church and its own amateur orchestra.

Those living inside the camp could make use of two tennis courts and a concert hall.

Those living inside the camp could make use of two tennis courts and a concert hall.Credit:National Archives Australia

The diplomat's fascinating account of life inside the Molonglo Internment Camp is revealed in a series of letters recently released by the National Archives of Australia.

In September 1918, with an end to World War One in sight, a Norwegian diplomat called Olav Eduard Pauss was sent to inspect the treatment of German civilians inside Australia's internment camps.

A row of buildings inside the Molonglo Internment Camp.

A row of buildings inside the Molonglo Internment Camp.Credit:National Archives Australia

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"Kindly visit camp at Liverpool and other Australian internment camps and report regarding hygienic conditions, food and treatment of civilian prisoners which are alleged to urgently need improvement," Mr Pauss was instructed by the then-Imperial German Government.

Mr Pauss replied to this letter two months later in November 1918, describing an almost enjoyable existence for the "enemy aliens" held inside the camps he visited.

"I visited Liverpool, Molonglo and Berina camps. Generally speaking, internees looked in splendid condition and voluntarily indicated gradual camp improvements," he wrote.

During World War I the Australian government established at least nine long-term internment camps, according to the National Archives of Australia.

A cable sent following an inspection of Canberra's Molonglo Internment Camp.

A cable sent following an inspection of Canberra's Molonglo Internment Camp.Credit:Steven Trask

These camps, located in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and the ACT, were used to house citizens of the countries Australia was at war with.

The Molonglo Internment Camp was built in April 1918 in the industrial Canberra suburb now known as Fyshwick.

It was built to house German and Austrian nationals who were to be expelled from China, although these internees never arrived.

Instead, about 150 families from the internment camps of Bourke and Berrima in NSW were sent to Molonglo.

Although life inside the Molonglo camp could be tedious, Mr Pauss found most of the internees were thankful to live there.

"[The camp's] situation is an ideal one within the Federal Territory - selected as a site for the Commonwealth Capital, Canberra, on account of its elevated beautiful position in undulating country, surrounded by distant hills," he wrote.

"Some of the ladies have shown signs of nerve trouble, but everything is done to improve their conditions."

According to Mr Pauss, internees had access to a church hall, two tennis courts, had established a small orchestra, and ate as well as the guards and officers in charge.

"A hall is provided and fitted with a stage, and is used for church, dances, concerts and other social gatherings," he wrote.

"Ample grounds are available for walks and the river banks are planted with willows giving ample shade. School children are allowed out of the camp grounds when accompanied by teachers."

The Molonglo camp was closed in May 1919 and most of the internees were shipped off to Europe.

The head of the Australian National University's School of History, Professor Nicholas Brown, described the camp as a "bizarre" part of Canberra's early history.

"The impact of the first world war on Canberra was essentially to stop progress on the building of the national capital, so there's very little change or investment in Canberra from 1915 onwards," he said.

"Then in 1918 there was this plan to develop an internment camp.

"I think it's ironic that the two major projects that were envisioned for Canberra during the war were a munitions factory that was going to be built out near Tuggeranong, and the internment camp."

The impact of World War I was significant with regards to the plan envisioned for the national capital, Professor Brown said.

"If it hadn't been for the first world war, Canberra would have been built in a way that more closely resembled some aspects of Walter Burley Griffin's plan," he said.

"What went ahead happened at a very incremental level, creating a dispersed settlement. It was nothing like the coordinated vision that Burley Griffin had."

Professor Brown echoed the description of the camp as a relatively pleasant place for an educated group of settlers.

"The camps were very well set-up," he said.

"They were well established, well thought through, well organised and the conditions were very good. Many of those who were interned wanted to stay after the end of the war."