The claim is sometimes made that Canberra's first shopping centre was at Eastlake (now Kingston). As is often the case, the historical facts muddy what seems like a conveniently simple truth.
The first shopping centre planned for Canberra's south was the Manuka centre. In 1912, a decision was made by the departmental board to locate the 'Initial City' for government officials in the general area where Manuka is now. Walter Burley Griffin duly amended his plan of the new capital city. Nothing much happened until the federal capital advisory committee decided in May 1923 to locate a shopping centre in Manuka, and the federal cabinet formally approved it in August 1924.
Detailed plans for the Manuka Centre, drawn up by the department of works and railways in November, showed a thoughtfully designed Garden City shopping centre with good access through laneways and the Manuka Arcade. Beside most shops was a cottage for the shop keeper to live in, set back from the street with a small front garden and picket fence. This created a friendly village character.
In September 1924, barely two months before the very first auction of business and residential leases in the Federal Capital Territory, a late decision was made to locate a smaller shopping centre at Eastlake. There was little time to draw up the plans. This rushed decision could have been prompted by the demise, earlier that year, of Eastlake's first shop, the Co-operative Society store near the railway station and close to Canberra's then industrial and construction hub (now the Kingston Foreshore). The store had been operating from 1916. The Canberra Times of July 26, 1938, summarised the store's history thus: "Begun with high hopes, privileged by favoured circumstances and conducted in a decade of prosperity, the Canberra co-operative store plunged to disaster." The co-operative society went broke.
On December 12 1924, not long after the co-op's demise, the first business leases at Eastlake, Manuka and Civic were auctioned. The Eastlake leases were auctioned first and all 12 were sold with J.B. Young Ltd acquiring the first one with a bid of £2,050. They bought the block on the corner of Giles and Jardine streets now occupied by Winnings. All 23 business leases at Manuka were snapped up on the same day. Of the 28 Civic business lots auctioned, only six were sold.
The rushed job planning the Eastlake shops turned out to be to their owners' considerable advantage. The more carefully designed Manuka shopping centre meant that retailers were restricted by design controls limiting floor area and frontage. The same did not apply to Kingston, where the sites were given residential dimensions with no planning controls. The resulting large shops at Kingston started trading in July 1925 and dominated Canberra retailing for two decades. The chief planner, John Sulman, was overseas at the time and on return, was far from impressed with the fact that Kingston shops were too close to those at Manuka and lacked similar planning controls.
The first business to begin trading at the Eastlake centre was J.B. Young Ltd, albeit informally, on July 2, 1925, six months before their building was completed, and the shop formally opened on December 10, 1925.
Competitors Hayes and Russell Ltd, on the corner of Giles and Kennedy streets, had formally opened on November 12, 1925 and claimed to be "the First Complete Store to be erected on the Area" (Canberra Community News, November 11, 1925).
Meanwhile in Manuka, without the fanfare of the big traders, Bob Thornhill quietly opened a shop on Bougainville Street, and was definitely trading by November 1925 (Federal Capital Pioneer, November 20, 1925). The Canberra Times of November 16, 1942 reported that Thornhill's shop in Bougainville Street "was the first building completed in any of the shopping centres". The photograph is consistent with the likely location of the shop at 9 Bougainville Street on the corner of an unnamed laneway, as it was a 'lock up', meaning there was no attached cottage. The site is currently occupied by a manicurist shop.
At around the same time as Bob Thornhill began trading, it's very likely that the butcher James Kegan began trading from the shop Mr Gilday built for him at Franklin Street, Manuka. A stern reminder about health requirements was issued to Keegan by the federal capital commission in August 1925, so the opening of his business was probably imminent.
So what can we say about which was the first shopping centre in Canberra? The co-operative store at Eastlake opened around 1916, well before the Eastlake and Manuka centres were designed. All the business leases at Eastlake and Manuka were successfully auctioned on the same day December 12, 1924). J.B. Young was the first business to trade at the new Eastlake centre (July 2, 1925) and formally opened on December 10. It is a moot point whether Hayes and Russell Ltd (November 12, 1925), Thornhill's (possibly before November 1925) or Keegan's butchery formally opened first. The Eastlake shops certainly got off to a quicker start than Manuka, thanks to some serious planning errors. So did the Kingston or Manuka shops come first? I'll call it a dead heat.
Both shopping centres are an integral part of Canberra's Garden City heritage, and some time ago they were deservedly nominated for inclusion on the ACT Heritage Register. Their heritage contributes to them being a very pleasant destination to catch up with friends for a coffee, for shopping and for entertainment.