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The cheers that rang out when Lady Gertrude Denman announced that ‘Canberra’ was to be the name of the new federal capital city resounded throughout 1913. The year was marked by major milestones towards Australia’s expectations of a glorious future. The western end of the railway that would finally link the nation was begun; measures to ensure water security for agricultural expansion and population growth were undertaken; the Commonwealth’s first series of stamps and banknotes were produced; and Australia’s place at the heart of Empire was secured with the laying of the foundation stone for Australia House in central London.
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Official ticket and booklet for the naming ceremony and the laying of foundation stones at the federal capital site, 12 March 1913. National Museum of Australia.
CABLE TO HIS MAJESTY. NEWS OF THE CEREMONY.
After the naming of the Capital a cable message was despatched to the King by the Governor-General as follows:–
I desire to convey greetings from the people of Australia to Your Majesty, and to announce that I have to-day laid the foundation-stone of the Federal Capital City, and that Lady Denman has named it 'Canberra.' – Denman.
Kalgoorlie Miner, 13 March 1913, p. 5. Read the full article in Trove
The ceremony to name and inaugurate the federal capital city on 13 March 1913 was hailed as ‘an occasion of the utmost historic significance for the future of Australia’. Here was a chance to set aside state rivalries and unite in the building of an ideal city for the ideal society Australia aspired to be.
Central to the day’s proceedings was the laying of foundation stones for a proposed ‘Commencement Column’, designed to rise eight metres and represent, in choice of materials and symbolism, the fusion of the new nation and its place in the British Empire.
The ceremony was attended by close to 400 invited guests, who each received a ticket, a program and a booklet outlining transport arrangements, and who later attended a banquet.
Gold-tipped walking stick presented to Australian High Commissioner, Sir George Reid, by King George V, 1913. National Museum of Australia.
AUSTRALIA HOUSE. FOUNDATION-STONE LAID. In reply [to Sir George Reid’s address], the King said:– 'It gives the Queen and myself much pleasure to be present on this interesting occasion, and to congratulate the Commonwealth organisation. The noble structure on this splendid site will take its place as a worthy and welcome addition to the buildings adorning the centre of the Empire, and call to the minds of passers-by the immense opportunities and limitless resources of the great continent under the Southern Cross.'
Adelaide Advertiser, 25 July 1913, p. 9. Read the full text in Trove
Gift from the King
King George V presented this walking stick to Sir George Reid on the laying of the foundation stone of Australia’s high commission in London. The gift was not purely ceremonial. Often caricatured over his rotund stature, Reid relied on a walking stick, and this one bears signs of wear.
Lawyer, politician and statesman, Reid played a significant role in the federation of the Australian colonies. In 1910, he was appointed Australia’s first high commissioner in London, a position he held until 1916, when he won a seat in the British House of Commons and became the only Australian to sit in the colonial, Commonwealth and Imperial parliaments.
As high commissioner, Reid was responsible for the construction of Australia’s first high commission. A dream of the newly federated Australian nation, it was expected to both promote the Australian Government’s aspirations and to confirm Australia’s place within London, the Empire and the world. Reid chose the name ‘Australia House’ because, he explained, ‘the word “House” carries with it the idea of a “home” for Australia in London’.
Reid was eager to acquire a building ‘over which the flag of the Southern Cross and the Union Jack would fly proudly’. The ceremonial laying of the foundation stone of Australia House in July 1913 provided an opportunity for the simultaneous affirmation of these loyalties. Crowded with an estimated 1500 people, London’s Strand was bathed in what has been frequently termed ‘Australian’ sunshine. Accompanied by a flourish of trumpets, the King declared the stone ‘well and truly laid’ and, at Reid’s instigation, the crowd responded with cheers and a smattering of cooees. If a breach in court etiquette, the ardent applause and shouts were reportedly none the less welcome. Reid cabled excitedly that ‘the proceedings passed off without a single drawback, and were marked by a degree of enthusiasm on the part of the spectators, which, it was quite evident, delighted both Their Majesties’.
Preparations for the construction of the building were soon underway, and the attempt to shape diverse aspirations into material form commenced. In August 1918, long before Parliament House opened in Canberra, Australia House stood proudly in the Strand.
Reid lived just long enough to see it. The walking stick remained with his family until his granddaughter Mrs Anne Fairbairn donated it to the National Museum of Australia in 1992.
Wattle badge sellers with a locomotive decorated for Wattle Day, Adelaide, about 1913. State Library of South Australia, PRG 280/1/7/249.
WHAT IS THE BRITISH EMPIRE?
Some lucky people … do not have to turn to newspaper or map to get an idea of the British Empire … They are the people who were in London in 1897, who saw the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria … Men owning British rule came from every part of the world … white men who had come home from every corner of the earth, black men from Africa, brown men from India, yellow men from the Far East … They saw for themselves how many different kinds of people lived under the British flag.
School Paper, Grades V and VI, Education Department of Victoria, 1 May 1913
Native flora and fauna, and flags of nation and Empire featured in public celebrations in 1913, and sentiment towards such unifying national symbols was fostered. Author and illustrator May Gibbs, whose characters inspired by the Australian bush gained immediate and enduring popularity, registered copyright for the first time in 1913.
‘Empire Day’ and ‘Wattle Day’ were intended to encourage patriotism, especially among schoolchildren. Queen Victoria’s birthday, 24 May, marked Empire Day, and Wattle Day was celebrated throughout early spring as the plant bloomed in different climates across the country.
Native to every state, wattle was favoured as a national symbol, and it adorned most official occasions. On Wattle Day, boughs decorated public spaces, and women and children sold sprigs and badges for charity.
10-shilling banknote, 1913. The illustration on the reverse of the note shows the Goulburn Weir in Victoria. National Museum of Australia.
FINANCES OF THE COMMONWEALTH.
'Next month I hope to see the new Australian Note Issue printed in the Commonwealth. When the ten-shilling note is issued I believe it will be very popular, and probably will add about £1.000.000 to the circulation, and it will also be a great convenience to the public. They are beautiful notes of Australian design, and I feel sure that when the people see them they will appreciate them from an artistic, as well as a currency, point of view.'
Interview with Prime Minister Fisher, published in the West Australian, 19 February 1913, p. 7. Read the full article in Trove
Australia’s first banknotes
Australia’s first banknote was stamped with its serial number at a ceremony on 1 May 1913 – one of several nation-building events at which Prime Minister Andrew Fisher officiated in the lead-up to the election on 31 May. Fisher presented the first three 10-shilling notes to the Governor-General, Lord Denman, his daughter Judith, who numbered the first note, and son Thomas. The notes, bearing a design of the Australian coat of arms on the front and an image of Goulburn Weir on the back, were the first government-issued 10-shilling notes printed in the world, and were intended to replace the half-sovereign gold coin.
At Federation, nearly 90 per cent of currency in circulation in Australia comprised British coins. In 1910, Prime Minister Alfred Deakin had four denominations of silver coins struck by the Royal Mint to replace the British coins. The remaining 10 per cent of circulating currency was in the form of banknotes issued by private banks. As long as the issuing bank’s assets were believed to be sufficient to cover the value of the notes it printed, the notes would be honoured. When there was a panic, banks would fail and take the assets of their depositors with them. There were bank collapses in most decades of the 19th century; the most serious occurring in 1893 in Victoria when, in the space of six weeks, 12 banks – accounting for two-thirds of all banking assets in Australia – closed their doors.
The Australian Notes Act of 1910 transferred the authority to print paper money to the Australian Government, which, from 1911 to 1913, circulated the old private banknotes overprinted by Treasury with the words ‘Australian Note’. These repurposed notes, dubbed ‘Fisher’s Flimsies’, initially raised fears about the value of paper currency. The 31 December 1911 issue of Perth’s Sunday Times newspaper carried the headline, ‘Will “Fisher’s Flimsies” depreciate?’
Between 1913 and 1915 other denominations of currency notes, ranging from £1 to £1000, were printed. With the Australian economy heavily reliant on mining and rural production – gold and wool accounting for 60 per cent of all exports – each of the new notes featured designs of the industries and infrastructure that would build the nation’s wealth. The notes also carried the words: ‘The Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia promises to pay the Bearer in gold coin on Demand at the Commonwealth Treasury at the Seat of Government’, words intended to still fears of depreciation.
The 10-shilling notes of 1913 represent both a significant stage in the establishment of Australia’s financial security and a symbol of the promotion of a sense of national identity.
Michelle Hetherington, Senior Curator, National Museum of Australia
The Nile of Australia – the Murray River
Irrigating a young orchard at Yanco, New South Wales, 1913. This image was published in The Opportunity in Australia, a handbook supporting immigration, published by HS Gullett in 1914. National Museum of Australia.
RIVER MURRAY SETTLEMENTS
The successful results which have so far followed the intelligent cultivation of the irrigated soil along the Murray banks justify the confident belief that the policy now being pursued will in due course greatly swell the volume of our national assets and become a perennially productive source of wealth to the community.
Adelaide Advertiser, 28 January 1913, p. 8. Read the full article in Trove
Australia’s dream of ‘national development’ included the idea of harnessing and managing the continent’s most scarce resource – water. In 1913 the country was deep in drought. Many saw the exploitation of the inland rivers, specially ‘the Nile of Australia’, the Murray River, and the Great Artesian Basin as ways of overcoming the uncertainties of the natural cycle.
Idealists, engineers, scientists and propagandists argued about how best to manage and allocate water resources. State governments clashed over water rights, with South Australia fearful that upstream states were reducing the Murray to ‘a mere trickle’.
The Report of the First Interstate Conference on Artesian Water, 1912, published after a conference in Sydney, called for a complete survey, and the adoption of uniform legislation for the control of the country’s finite artesian water reserves.
Railway construction workers in the desert, 1911-13. State Library of Western Australia, BA628/13.
THE TRANS-AUSTRALIAN RAILWAY
The hesitancy, parochialism, and delay that have marked and marred the history of the trans-Australian railway movement are happily things of the past. They did not redound to the credit of the national Legislature nor support the claim that Australians are a progressive people. The first essentials to the safety and adequate development of the Commonwealth are steel tracks traversing the length and breadth of the Continent, from west to east and north to south.
West Australian, 13 February 1913, p. 6. Read the full article in Trove
One of the inducements offered to Western Australia to join the Commonwealth was the promise of a federally funded railway linking the continent from east to west. Legislation authorising the construction of a rail route from Port Augusta, via Tarcoola, South Australia, to the goldmining town of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, was passed in December 1911, with more than 1600 kilometres of standard-gauge line projected to cost £4,045,000.
Work began on 14 September 1912 in Port Augusta and on 12 February 1913 in Kalgoorlie. The outbreak of war in 1914 delayed the delivery of materials, but the two halves of the line finally met at Ooldea, South Australia, on 17 October 1917.