Canberry Tales — a great read

By September 13, 2012Books, Climate Change, History

Allen Mawer, a friend since the days of the Dawkins changes, has become a fine historian, and his book on the history of one little spot in our national capital (the Acton peninsula where sits the National Museum of Australia) is a fine read. He asked me to launch the book at the National Library, and I did so with pleasure. The first settler called the spot Canberry Station, after what he assumed was the Aboriginal name for the creek or the area (there is still uncertainty). The name, slightly altered, was later used to define the parish of the church of St John the Baptist, which was next door to his run, and later still, of course, to define the name of the national capital itself.  If the test of a good history is its capacity to make us feel that we now know what it must have been like to be alive then, Canberry Tales passes that test with honours.

Why was the place chosen? Well, it possessed a deep waterhole in the Molonglo River that survived even the most severe droughts, and it was also close to a usually accessible river crossing. Those interested in climate change will learn from Allen’s book of the droughts and floods that affected those who lived in the area; the biggest recorded flood was a long time ago, and so, I would think, has been the severest drought.

I read some of the book on my computer, and the rest of it in one hit, when the hard copy arrived. I had a real interest in it, first because I had done a similar kind of research on early Tenterfield in New South Wales, for my first book — so I understood both Allen’s fascination in engaging in such research and the delicious discoveries you make in reading early records. Second, I grew up in Canberra as a boy during the war and after it, so some of what he says in the book caused my memories to revive.

Canberry Station comprised about three square miles, mostly in a long rectangle up around Sullivan’s Creek towards Lyneham. Its eastern boundary was roughly where I lived in Currong Street, Reid, arriving in late 1942. So some of what Allen describes I can remember. Ainslie School still possessed air-raid trenches, covered in maroon netting; our house had an air-raid shelter, too, but we were not allowed to play in it. In my class at Ainslie was also my friend John James, whose father was Dr John James, the medical superintendent of the Acton Hospital and the man after whom the John James Memorial Hospital is named. I recall the heterogenous collection of wooden buildings on Acton Peninsula once you had passed Lennox Crossing. I recall catching yabbies in various of the ponds that were within a few hundred yards of where we lived. Below Glebe House, once the home of the vicar of St John’s, but a boarding house during our time in Reid, were the stables, close to the river, and Dad and I would sometimes wander down in the weekend and retrieve horse poo for our vegetable garden. To get to the stables you crossed the permanent way of the old branch railway line that went to Civic, the station later serving as the R&R Dry Cleaners building. Temporary hostels were filling up vacant land. One of them, Reid House, was placed behind Glebe House. I saw it go up.

My parents had arrived in Canberra in 1929, each posted to Telopea Park School, my mother in languages, my father in maths and science. My mother’s Aunty Ollie had come even earlier, in 1923, and Mum had stayed with her for a week or two while she was a university student. We bought apples from Sackett’s orchard, which was a long way away, on what we now call Hindmarsh Drive. I think the dairy in Yarralumla was still operating then. The whole city had a population of about 15,000, and in many respects was a country town.  Some would say it still is. Later I went to Canberra High School for a year, and near that was another heterogeneous collection of wartime and even older buildings that Allen describes as the headquarters of the Federal Capital Commission in the 1920s. Later still, as a PhD student at the ANU, I had an office in the old Nursery of the first Canberra Hospital and another office in another part of that scattered institution. I had caddied for my father on the Royal Canberra Golf Course, whose 15th hole required an accurate drive across the Molonglo. Boys dived for lost golf balls there, but I was not one of them. I remember the great flood of 1948, which filled the Molonglo flood plain and showed what Burley Griffin had in mind for his ornamental lake.

So much of all that has gone, and my memories, though they flooded back as I was reading the book, go back no further than 1943, really. So Allen’s book, with its evocation of these times, and those much earlier, is an important source for anyone who wants to know what is was all like before the national capital came, and what the national capital’s early years were like, too. There are many great stories in the book. Here are two of them.

The first is a bushranging yarn that is less bloody than some. Tennant is the bushranger, with Rix as his sidekick, while Cowan is the occupier. Cowan has barricaded himself in his bark hut and is refusing to come out.

Tennant: ‘Come out. I will not hurt a hair on your head.’

Cowan: ‘No. I will defend this hut to the last.’

Tennant: ‘If you do not open the door and come out I will pull down the hut. There are 14 of us.’

Cowan: ‘There are only two of you.’

Tennant: ‘Yes and by Jesus we are two good ones. If you don’t come out of the hut I will burn you out. (To Rix) Stand by the door and if any bugger comes out, shoot him.’

Rix: ‘Fire in, what signifies the life of one or two?’

Tennant: ‘If you don’t come out I will burn the hut. [He tries but fails — the bark is wet.] Will you come out?’

Cowan: ‘No.’ [Tennant tries again and still fails to burn the hut.]

One of Tennant’s men, Leahy, calls out: ‘Don’t do that, Tennant. Mr Cowan never did you any harm.’

Tennant: ‘Well, I will not burn the hut, but if anyone, Scotch, Irish or English, comes after us I will have his life.’

Tennant then scarpered, but was tracked down, convicted and sent to Norfolk Island. He survived that experience.

The second is closer to our time, and concerns a certain Dr Nott, whose name at least I remember. Dr Nott, a medico, politician, and inveterate stirrer, was involved in a Hospital Board meeting where he was defeated in a vote. The formal proceedings finished, whereat Dr Nott, said to the others, ‘’You chaps should have your heads read for allowing such an article to be published in the Queanbeyan Age’.

Frank Green, who was the Clerk of the House of Representatives, as well as another Board member, retorted, ‘If we were going to get our heads read we wouldn’t go to you, Nott!’

Nott responded quickly,  ‘With ears like yours you should go to Mackay the vet.!’

It was a line worthy of Paul Keating. Allen Mawer writes well, with an easy and unpretentious style that keeps you turning the pages, and his book is worth reading even by people who have no interest in the national capital. These are Australian stories, relevant to us all.

(G. A. Mawer, Canberry Tales. An Informal History, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2012, vii + 248pp,




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