On 8 October 1908, the capital of Australia was chosen, settling a feud between rivals Melbourne and Sydney.
Before European settlement, the area in which Canberra would eventually be constructed was seasonally inhabited by Indigenous Australians.
Anthropologist Norman Tindale suggested the principal group occupying the region were the Ngunnawal people, while the Ngarigo lived immediately to the south of the ACT, the Wandandian to the east, the Walgulu also to the south, Gandangara people to the north and Wiradjuri to the north-west.
Archaeological evidence of settlement in the region includes inhabited rock shelters, rock paintings and engravings, burial places, camps and quarry sites as well as stone tools and arrangements. Artefacts suggests early human activity occurred at some point in the area 21,000 years previously.
European exploration and settlement started in the Canberra area as early as the 1820s. There were four expeditions between 1820 and 1824.
European settlement of the area probably dates from 1823, when a homestead was built on what is now the Acton Peninsula by stockmen employed by Joshua John Moore. He formally applied to purchase the site on 16 December 1826 and named the property “Canberry”.
On 30 April 1827, Moore was told by letter that he could retain possession of 1,000 acres (405 ha) at Canberry.
The Anglican Church of St John the Baptist, in the suburb of Reid, was consecrated in 1845 and is now the oldest surviving public building in the city. St John’s churchyard contains the earliest graves in the district. It has been described as a “sanctuary in the city”, remaining a small English village-style church even as the capital grew around it.
Canberra’s first school, St John’s School (now a museum), was situated next to the church and opened in the same year of 1845. It was built to educate local settlers children, including the Blundell children who lived in nearby Blundell’s Cottage.
The European population in the Canberra area continued to grow slowly throughout the 19th century. Among them was the Campbell family of “Duntroon”; their imposing stone house is now the officers’ mess of the Royal Military College, Duntroon.
The Campbells sponsored settlement by other farmer families to work their land, such as the Southwells of “Weetangera”.
Other notable early settlers included the inter-related Murray and Gibbes families, who owned the Yarralumla estate —now the site of the official residence of the Governor-General of Australia — from the 1830s through to 1881. Associated with the Yarralumla Estate and Government House is the adjoining Yarralumla Woolshed.
As the European presence increased, the indigenous population dwindled largely due to introduced diseases such as smallpox and measles.
Creation of the nation’s capital
The district’s change from a rural area in New South Wales to the national capital started during debates over federation in the late 19th century.
Following a long dispute over whether Sydney or Melbourne should be the national capital, a compromise was reached: the new capital would be built in New South Wales, so long as it was at least 100 miles (160 km) from Sydney, with Melbourne to be the temporary seat of government while the new capital was built.
A survey was conducted across several sites in New South Wales with Bombala, Monaro, Orange, Yass, Albury, Tamworth, Armidale, Tumut and Dalgety all discussed.
Dalgety was chosen by the federal parliament and it passed the Seat of Government Act 1904 confirming Dalgety as the site of the nation’s capital. However, the New South Wales government refused to cede the required territory as they did not accept the site.
In 1906, the New South Wales Government finally agreed to cede sufficient land provided that it was in the Yass-Canberra region as this site was closer to Sydney.
Newspaper proprietor John Gale circulated a pamphlet titled ‘Dalgety or Canberra: Which?’ advocating Canberra to every member of the Commonwealth’s seven state and federal parliaments. By many accounts, it was decisive in the selection of Canberra as the site in 1908 as was a result of survey work done by the government surveyor Charles Scrivener.
The NSW government ceded the district to the federal government in 1911 and the Federal Capital Territory was established.
An international design competition was launched by the Department of Home Affairs on 30 April 1911, closing on 31 January 1912.
The competition was boycotted by the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Institution of Civil Engineers and their affiliated bodies throughout the British Empire because the Minister for Home Affairs King O’Malley insisted that the final decision was for him to make rather than an expert in city planning.
A total of 137 valid entries were received. O’Malley appointed a three-member board to advise him but they could not reach unanimity. On 24 May 1911, O’Malley came down on the side of the majority of the board with the design by Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin of Chicago, Illinois, United States, being declared the winner.
Second was Eliel Saarinen of Finland and third was Alfred Agache of Brazil but resident in Paris, France. O’Malley then appointed a six-member board to advise him on the implementation of the winning design.
On 25 November 1912, the board advised that it could not support Griffin’s plan in its entirety and suggested an alternative plan of its own devising. This plan incorporated the best features of the three place-getting designs as well as of a fourth design by H. Caswell, R.C.G. Coulter and W. Scott-Griffiths of Sydney, the rights to which it had purchased.
It was this composite plan that was endorsed by Parliament and given formal approval by O’Malley on 10 January 1913.
In 1913, Griffin was appointed Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction and construction began. On 23 February, King O’Malley drove the first peg in the construction of the future capital city.
In 1912, the government invited suggestions from the public as to the name of the future city. Almost 750 names were suggested.
At midday on 12 March 1913, Lady Denman, the wife of Governor-General Lord Denman, announced that the city would be named “Canberra” at a ceremony at Kurrajong Hill, which has since become Capital Hill and the site of the present Parliament House.
Canberra Day is a public holiday observed in the ACT on the second Monday in March to celebrate the founding of Canberra.
Griffin’s relationship with the Australian authorities was strained and a lack of funding meant that by the time he was fired in 1920, little work had been done. By this time, Griffin had revised his plan, overseen the earthworks of major avenues and established the Glenloch Cork Plantation.
The Commonwealth government purchased the pastoral property of Yarralumla in 1913 to provide an official residence for the Governor-General of Australia in the new capital. Renovations began in 1925 to enlarge and modernise the property.
In 1927, the property was official dubbed Government House. On 9 May that year, the Commonwealth parliament moved to Canberra with the opening of the Provisional Parliament House. The Prime Minister Stanley Bruce had officially taken up residence in The Lodge a few days earlier.
In 2014, Canberra was named the best city to live in the world by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and was named the third best city to visit in the world by Lonely Planet in 2017.