Why Canberra?

Should we reconsider our capital city? Why was Canberra chosen in the first place?

Two cities both alike in dignity, in fair-dinkum Australia where we lay our scene.

Sydney versus Melbourne, old rivals competing for the capital title.

Every year Aussies question why we named Canberra, a seemingly remote town in the middle of nowhere, our nation’s capital.

Why not sunny Sydney? Or picturesque Melbourne?

The truth, according to contemporary historians was that neither Melbourne nor Sydney were ever even considered for the capital crown.

Why? Because Melbourne and Sydney were too hot in summer.

The most significant reason, which all politicians agreed with at the time, was that whites could only really thrive and lead by living in a cold climate, says David Headon History Advisor for the ACT Government.

The general consensus from all the colonies was that the Capital shouldn’t be near the coast and shouldn’t have a major settlement.

“They couldn't have it on the coast because of the possibility of sea bombardment,” says David. “But also it was a very bad period for disease, particularly at sea level, so there was a double worry.”

In the end, the decision came down to Commonwealth surveyor Charles Scrivener who was asked to find a “beautiful city, occupying a commanding position.”

Scrivener had a choice between the Canberra district or Dalgety- a small town on the NSW/Victoria border. He settled on the Canberra-Yass district with railway access to Jervis Bay, unofficially naming the capital, Canberra (5 years before being officially named).

Even the origin of the name “Canberra” is a mystery and has been disputed for over a hundred years. Some historians suggest it derives from the Aboriginal name “Nganbra” meaning “meeting place.” David Headon believes it originated from the old European ‘Canberry’.

“However if we look at Lt. John Joshua Moore's 1826 application for a grant of land in an area he calls 'Canberry' – repeated in Thomas Mitchell's classic NSW survey of 1834-we see the beginnings of a clear European tradition built into the name.” he says.

By 1857 the European ‘Canberry’ and the Indigenous ‘Nganbra’ merged to create the name ‘Canberra’.

“What seems to have occurred, over a 30-year time frame, is a confluence of the languages and naming of two peoples,". "Thus we have a rather lovely and symbolic notion for the national capital – it was, from the earliest days of occupation and settlement, a meeting ground of two cultures. Together, they confirmed the perfect name."

The name Canberra was already in use by locals and government officials in 1908. “This must have been influential in the final decision-making process," Headon says.

But it wasn’t officially decided until 1913 after the Commonwealth government invited the general public to suggest names for the new capital.

We know that by 10 March 1913, two days prior to the big ceremonial day, exactly 764 suggestions had been logged by the Department of Home Affairs."

‘Austral city’, Eucalypta,' 'Kangaremu', 'Eros', 'Thirstyville', 'Cookaburra' and 'Sydmeladperbriho' were all suggested. The name ‘Canberra’ only received 12 votes.

Most of these names weren’t even considered. The only real contenders were ‘Myola’ and ‘Shakespeare’.

Lady Denman, wife of the Governor-General, was responsible for the naming of the new capital in a ceremony that took place on Capital Hill on the 12th March 1913.

The ceremony for the naming of Canberra in 1913Image: Wikimedia Commons. The ceremony for the naming of Canberra in 1913. Australian Prime Minister Andrew Fisher is standing, centre, in dark suit. To his right is the Governor-General of Australia, Lord Denman, and to his left, Lady Denman, wife of the Governor-General.

Now Every year on the second Monday of March the city commemorates the naming of Canberra- “Canberra Day” while the rest of Australia (mainly rivals Melbourne and Sydney) remain bewildered by the choice to name a town in the middle of no-where our capital.

Have your say. If we had the chance, would you change our capital city?

Header: National Library of Australia, [Lord Denman, Governor-General of Australia, and members of the official party standing by the foundation stone, Naming of Canberra ceremony, 12 March 1913]

Related Articles

Discuss this article


Never miss a Nat Geo moment

Your email address
We use our own and third-party cookies to improve our services, personalise your advertising and remember your preferences. If you continue browsing, or click on the accept button on this banner, we understand that you accept the use of cookies on our website. For more information visit our Cookies Policy AcceptClose cookie policy overlay