From the dust, city arises

From the dust, city arises

100 years on, we revisit the day Australians found out that their capital would be called Canberra.

Almost the silliest thing Prime Minister Julia Gillard has ever said in a speech occurred when she spoke at the glittering launch of Canberra's program for its 2013 centenary. She said, tuning her voice to sincere mode, that the choice of an Aboriginal word ''Canberra'' as the name of the federal capital city had been ''an incredible act of reconciliation''. I gasped.

Back to this prime ministerial supergaffe in a moment.

First we note that on this day 100 years ago, hundreds of Canberrans and friends of Canberra had a big, and for a while suspenseful, day out.

From very early in the morning they began to wend their way, their various transports raising billows of ruddy-coloured dust, to Kurrajong Hill at the federal capital site. They just had to be there when, at noon, Gertrude, Lady Denman, wife of the governor-general, unleashed the well-kept secret of what the federal capital city was to be.

Lady Denman and entourage arrive at Kurrajong (Capital Hill) on March 12, 1913.

Lady Denman and entourage arrive at Kurrajong (Capital Hill) on March 12, 1913.Credit:Courtesy John and Judy Stevenson


''But wait!'' I hear the alert among you exclaim. ''It can't be correct to call these people Canberrans, since, until later that day when Lady Denman spoke the mystical word Canberra there were no such things as Canberrans.''

Ah, but you see the federal capital site had been called Canberra for a very long time. The dear old church there had within living memory always been the Canberra Church. For the locals this place already was Canberra. The prospect that it might have its name changed to anything, let alone to one of the horrors rumoured to be in the running, was upsetting.

But the Canberrans were, we know now, in for a frabjous day. Here is a description of it.

The site that people descended on for the day (VIPs coming on special trains from Sydney and Melbourne to Queanbeyan from whence they were taken on in a fleet of new-fangled horseless carriages) was totally pastoral. There were just 1700 people in the federal territory, hopelessly outnumbered by 320,000 sheep.

There were no roads and those coming and going (and 950 extra horses had been brought to the site by the Light Horse men there for the ceremonies) disturbed whirlwinds of muck. Sydney's Sun reported afterwards that ''it is doubtful whether so many people have ever had such a dusty ride''.

And yet the site was green-tinged. In the days before there had been terrific storms. The men of the Third Light Horse shivering in their hail-lashed tents said that their choice of the city's name was ''Antarctica''.

A grandstand had been erected for just 500 invited guests. Minister for home affairs and MC for the day, King O'Malley, had insisted on a manageably modest occasion.

Lord and Lady Denman shimmered to the ceremony site from their base at their ''vice-regal camp''. His excellency arrived, on his dust-creating charger, at 11.30am. Regimental bands tootled a brassy national anthem. The Union Jack was sent fluttering by the same breeze that frolicked in Lady Denman's plumes.

The few minutes of film of the day show the occasional dog ambling among very important ankles, lending informality to a whole day of unpretentious, knockabout pomp.

The grandstand was set around the foundation stones for a commencement column. The symbolic laying of these stones came first, the governor-general, prime minister Fisher and minister O'Malley cheerfully and blokeily laying a stone each with his own fabulous ivory-handled trowel made of Australian gold.

Then it was time for what everyone was there for.

Spine-tinglingly, the chosen name (chosen by cabinet) had not been leaked, partly because with no decision made until very late there had been nothing to leak. The public had deluged the Department of Home Affairs with 750 suggested names. Those there on Kurrajong Hill felt certain that some were words that could never pass Lady Denman's vice-regal lips (surely Eros, Cooee, Swindleville and Kangaremu had no chance). And yet one could imagine a government plumping for such suggestions as Federata, Parkes, Myola, or O'Malley's choice, Shakespeare.

Lady Denman walked out on to a platform that had been laid on top of the freshly-laid foundation stones. Now on an otherwise totally secular day unbothered by any God-bothering (O'Malley's doing), everyone sang the gladsome old hymn Old Hundredth (''All people that on earth do dwell'').

There was a flourish of trumpets. Her slender, young, Roman-nosed excellency stepped forward in her perfect, lime-green gown. Into her fashionably-gloved hands had been pressed a golden cigarette case, a thoughtful present acknowledging the unorthodox Gertrude's working-class vice.

She took a paper from this useful casket and in a clear voice exclaimed ''I name the capital of Australia, Canberra [emphasising the Can and not the berra, where bogans continue to put it.].''

Journalists saw how as the word spread among those who hadn't been within earshot there was true, deeply relieved delirium from the locals.

Cannons kaboomed, 21 times, a royal salute that announced to all that the future city now had a name.

In the end, home affairs boss of the time C.S. Daley was to recall, ''cabinet took a logical and unembarrassing way out of the difficulty [the plethora of suggested names] by choosing the existing place name, Canberra.''

Yes, it had nothing to do, Prime Minister, with anything so altruistic as reconciliation.

Where on earth did you get that idea from?

Now it was lunch time. Family parties and groups of friends, with skips in their steps now if they were locals, took their hampers to various pozzies beneath trees, where fireplaces and water had ben provided for picnickers.

The invited guests retired to a marquee where over luncheon there were toasts (notably to the King) and speeches galore. The governor-general said that ''To those who criticise the choice of locality [there were lots of them, the Canberra site had only beaten others by a platypus's whisker] I would recall this phrase: 'There are no points of the compass on the chart of true patriotism.' The time for doubt, misgiving and criticism, is past.' ''

Yes, how it would distress his excellency to know that even today there are some so lacking in true patriotism that they say unkind things about Canberra.

The occasion attracted some fine feats of journalism which included some pioneeringly fast telegraphic transmissions of news of the city's name to Australia's cities and then to the world, and some very lovely writing. For The Sydney Morning Herald, ''Viator'' contributed an enchanting overview of the day he'd just attended.

''Since early morning we had all been engaged in a stately and novel ceremony … but at long last, the day waning into a mellow, golden afternoon, the note of departure began, and people moved away in all kinds of vehicles, on horseback, on bicycles, and on foot, towards their several homes.

''And sitting down on a carpenter's trestle [I reflected] that in an hour or two peace and silence and loneliness would return and resume their own. What would become of this deserted landscape? Fox and dingo and possum and rabbit might come and lurk about all these deserted stones … under the red seats of the mighty, and around the empty flagstaffs. The sickle of a young moon would faintly light the darkness. All the [earlier] pomp and ceremony, all this life and all this echo of political energy, how soon lapsed again into the vast immobility of brooding night … But as great cities grow in an ample span of years, the City Beautiful and Elect will arise upon these hills, and by these streams, worthy of the nation.''