26 August 2016

Canberrans on the Home Front

During the London Blitz in World War II, when bombing raids caused the loss of over one million homes and forty thousand lives, a local woman was asked how the civilians of the country were coping. She replied simply, ‘There are no civilians.’

Parliament House staff doing an inspection  of air raid tranches 27 March 1942
Parliament House staff doing an inspection  of air raid tranches 27 March 1942
Image source: Fitzgerald, 1977, pp 118
While these days war might feel quiet separate from civilian life, the Second World War affected all of Australian society, Canberra included. The passing of the National Security Act in 1939 allowed the government to make laws over an unprecedented amount of day-to-day life. Blackouts were imposed, car headlights were dimmed and air raid trenches were dug around buildings like Parliament House, the Causeway, the Sydney and Melbourne Buildings and Telopea Park School. The threat and fear of invasion was very real.

Leslie Lott, who came to Canberra to build Parliament House, spent the war working as a Special Commonwealth Peace Officer, providing dedicated security at critical government locations.

Leslie Lott's Peace Officer Card
Leslie Lott's Peace Officer Card
Source: ACT Heritage Library Manuscript Collection HMSS 0140 Lott Family Collection

Possibly the biggest effect on day-to-day life was heralded by the advent of identity cards, which required every citizen over sixteen to be nationally registered. First printed in March 1942, identity cards had to be carried at all times, and bore the name, signature and address of the individual. This particular identity card belonged to Olive Lott, who lived in Forrest with her husband Leslie.

Olive Lott's Identity Card
Olive Lott's Identity Card
Source: ACT Heritage Library Manuscript Collection HMSS 0140 Lott Family Collection
There were heavy penalties for losing, destroying or forging an identity card. The Minister for Labour and National Service, Eddie Ward, once said that he ‘could see no difference between sabotage of the county’s war effort and the sabotage of the register by illegal use of identity cards.’  While this piece of plain brown card is remarkably unassuming, it soon became one of the most vital things a person could have.

The reverse side of Olive Lott's Identity Card
The reverse side of Olive Lott's Identity Card
Source: ACT Heritage Library Manuscript Collection HMSS 0140 Lott Family Collection

Just three months after the introduction of the identity card, rationing was introduced across the country. Due to the war, production focused on guns and aeroplanes, rather than food or clothing, and rationing was a way to ensure that limited necessities could be shared around evenly. Identity cards were the key to obtaining the ration books needed to keep yourself and your family clothed, warm and fed. About Between twelve thousand and fourteen thousand ration books were issued across the ACT, from places like Ainslie Public School, Friendly Society Hall in Kingston, Westridge Hall and other centres. The cost of the war was felt by everyone.

Canberrans celebrating the end of World War 11  before the official cessation 10 August 1945
Canberrans celebrating the end of World War 11  before the official cessation 10 August 1945
Image source: Fitzgerald, 1977, pp 
The war did eventually end, and rationing was abolished by Prime Minister Ben Chifley in November 1945. Olive and Leslie survived the war, having both contributed in their own way to the war effort. Leslie was especially commended for managing to find the nearly unavailable chemicals needed to keep Manuka Pool open, despite wartime conditions.

The full papers of the Lott family are available for reference at HMSS 0140 Lott Family Collection. Olive’s identity card is currently on display in our Reading Room.

Fitzgerald A., 1977, ‘Historic Canberra; A Pictorial Record,’ Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, pp 118-120

1942 'RATION CARDS FORGED', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 19 May, p. 2. , viewed 11 Aug 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2572168

19 August 2016

Wrapping Up Canberra

With the forecast of a cold snap heading our way, many of us will want to be indoors, and if we’re lucky, under a nice blanket with a good book, or even doing some knitting. Canberra winters are pretty (in)famous but there are some things, like woollen blankets, that can make it a bit more bearable.

After the terrible events of the 18 January 2003, when bushfires ripped across the Canberra region, hundreds of people were left without their homes or possessions. Many people from across Australia were shocked by what had happened and were keen to do something practical to help. As the weather became colder, a group of friends came together to form the group Wrap Up Canberra. Harnessing the power of the community, Wrap Up Canberra aimed to knit about 500 woollen patchwork blankets to give to bushfire victims. The blankets had a practical benefit, but were also meant to be a physical symbol of community sympathy and support. As one journalist phrased it the knitters were ‘patching up Canberra with woolly hugs.’

Handmade label on a Wrap Up Canberra blanket. Each blanket was disturbed with a similar label.
Handmade label on a Wrap Up Canberra blanket. Each blanket was distributed with a similar label.
Instructions were developed and sent out and knitters everywhere united to create patchwork blankets. The instructions were simple: "using woollen 8 ply yarn, knit or crochet 18 cm squares". 

Around 60 or so squares were then sewed together to form a blanket 160 x 125 cm in size, just right for a throw blanket on the couch. The first rugs were finished on 18th July, exactly six months after the bushfires.

Knitted squares on a Wrap Up Canberra blanket
Knitted squares on a Wrap Up Canberra blanket
In the end, over 2,500 knitters from around the globe, some as far away as Canada and Switzerland, created approximately 45,000 squares, enough for more than 800 blankets, far surpassing the original goal. Some blankets were even displayed at Parliament House for a short while, before being distributed by the ACT Bushfire Recovery Centre.

The ACT Heritage Library has an example of a Wrap Up Canberra blanket, knitted in cheery colours, currently on exhibition in our Reading Room. For the full story of this remarkable example of community spirit and generosity, including letters from recipients and photographs, see HMSS 0238 Wrap Up Canberra Records in our manuscript collection.   

A Wrap Up Canberra blanket
A Wrap Up Canberra blanket

12 August 2016

Used postcards - clues to the past, people and places

Postcard of Old Parliament House
Postcard of Old Parliament House
When is a fairly common postcard of Old Parliament House really a portal into migration history, family alliances, daring tales of wartime escapes, Prime Ministers, political ambition and pioneering social justice campaigns?  When the staff at the ACT Heritage Library get their deerstalkers on and start following leads.

The ACT Heritage Library is fortunate to receive many donations that help illustrate the rich history of the Canberra region. Sometimes donated material requires a little extra digging before it reveals its true worth. One recent example is a postcard of Old Parliament House which came to us in an envelope with few details beyond what was on the card itself. As it is important to place items in their context, we put on our deerstalkers and began the hunt.

We focused first on the image itself; looking for clues about the photographer and the time period the photograph was taken. Cross-referencing it with an item in our collection established that the image was taken by R.C. Strangman, a well known Canberra photographer whose work was frequently sold as postcards. Given that the statue of King George V was in front of  Old Parliament House (it was later moved to the side), suggested that the photograph was perhaps taken sometime in the 1950s. While we now had an artist and an approximate date, we did not stop there. The postcard had more to tell us.

Most interesting, was the message that had been written on the reverse of the postcard. The style of writing provided a snapshot of language at the time; there was a fond reference to ‘Comrade Ashkanasy,’ the same last name that was on the envelope's rather indistinct return address. Thankfully, the name is not a common one. We were able to locate and contact the donors, to get both further information and their formal consent to obtain ownership of the material.

Correspondence from Alec Breckler to Heather Ashkanasy
Correspondence from Alec Breckler to Heather Ashkanasy 
  Transcription of Correspondence:
Dear Heather,
We have had a wonderful
trip to date and enjoying it very much.
Have just been right thro’ Parliament House -
it is really worth seeing. Tell Comrade
Ashkanasy we saw the Chamber today & have
reserved the most comfortable seat near the
fire & right alongside the tea buffet for him.
We are now on our way to Beauchamp House
& dinner. Hope the baby is alright. Regards
from Alec. Love from Joy &
The donors turned out to be the son and daughter-in-law of Maurice Ashkanasy, a prominant Jewish community leader and barrister from Melbourne. The postcard was sent to Maurice’s wife, Heather, from Alec Breckler, whose family owned the shoe company Betts Group (formerly Betts and Betts). Joy and Han were Alec's wife and daughter. The reference to the Ashkanasy baby towards the end of the correspondence was a stepping stone to providing a clearer date for the postcard. Our initial date of mid-1950s proved incorrect. Research showed the youngest Ashkanasy baby, Neal, was born in 1945.  So the photograph had to have been taken in 1945 or earlier.

So at this point we have successfully solved much that was mysterious about this item. All the important features and persons have been identified. While Alec joked about ‘reserving the most comfortable seat’ for Maurice in Parliament House, Maurice was unsuccessful when he ran for Labor in both the 1946 and 1958 elections, and neither he nor Alec ever lived in the Canberra region. However, their influence can certainly be seen across our city.

Maurice has a street named after him in Evatt, and a bust at the National Portrait Gallery. Alec’s family’s stores are scattered across Canberra. Ex-Governor-General and Canberra Citizen of the Year, Sir Zelman Cowen also wrote about the significance of Maurice’s life in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

The postcard is symbolic of how one small, seemingly insignificant item can provide a network of discoveries. Want to know what other connections this postcard has made including a daring escape from Singapore as it fell to the Japanese in World War 2? Browse the Ashkanasy Postcard finding aid in our Manuscripts Collection.

25 July 2016

Ninety year on, but the the ghosts still linger at Hotel Kurrajong

On the weekend just passed, Hotel Kurrajong celebrated an illustrious milestone – its 90th birthday. While now one of Canberra’s premier hotels, it has had its share of drama, politics and death.

Hotel Kurrajong under construction 1926
Hotel Kurrajong under construction 1926
Image Source: ACT Heritage Library Manuscript Collection HMSS 0415 Brackenberg Family Photographs
Originally designed as the second of two hostels for politicians and statesmen during Parliamentary sitting weeks, Hotel Kurrajong was opened in 1926. It was designed by Commonwealth Architect, John Smith Murdoch, who also designed Old Parliament House, and named after Kurrajong Hill, now known as Capital Hill.

From its opening, the hotel has had an impressive guest list for functions, dinners, conferences and special events. Many members of the press, as well as Commonwealth and State officials stayed there for the opening of  Old Parliament House in May 1927. It was favoured by Labor politicians (Liberal politicians tended to stay at Hostel No. 1, now the Hyatt Hotel).

One evening, after a Labor electoral victory, non-partisan guests complained about the exuberant singing of ‘The Red Flag,’ in the hotels rooms. Hotel Kurrajong was so favoured by well known party members that Caucus meetings could have been held during mealtimes.

Hotel Kurrajong in the 1930s
Hotel Kurrajong in the 1930s
Image Source: ACT Heritage Library image 003635
However, it was one particular Labor politician that gave the hotel its most notorious incident. Ben Chifley lived at Hotel Kurrajong in Room 205 for eleven years. When he became Prime Minister in 1945, he refused to live in the Lodge, despite it being the official residence, and instead continued to live in his room. He was often spotted on the porch of the Hotel, filling his pipe and smoking. He walked to and from Old Parliament House every day. 

Chifley was known for skipping his meals, so much so, that during the war, John Curtin once issued a mock National Security Regulation to 'eat one plate of soup, one helping of meat and vegetables and one dessert nightly at the Hotel Kurrajong’ (Purchase et al. p. 60).

Hotel Kurrajong Dinner Menu 1 January 1927
Hotel Kurrajong Dinner Menu 1 January 1927
Source: ACT Heritage Library Manuscript Collection  HMSS 0009 Hilda Jackson Papers
Chifley stayed in the Kurrajong in Room 205 until his fatal heart attack on 13 July 1951. That evening, instead of attending the Golden Jubilee Ball at the then Parliament House, he stayed behind to work in his hotel room. There have been claims his ghost can sometimes be seen in the hotel, dressed in a grey suit, pointing towards Old Parliament House.
Hotel Kurrajong, March 1951
Hotel Kurrajong, March 1951
Source: ACT Heritage Library image 009218
Hotel Kurrajong was staffed by locals from the Canberra district, and became home to a wide variety of people. Due to housing shortages, many incoming families stayed in Hotel Kurrajong before more permanent homes could be built. Some children, including Doug Anthony (future Deputy Prime Minister), were babysat by hotel staff, and recollect having snow fights in the grounds and playing hockey in the hallways. 

Brochure advertising the Kurrajong Hotel in the 1960s
Brochure advertising the Kurrajong Hotel in the 1960s
Source: ACT Heritage Library Collection
The hotel went into a period of decline in the 1970’s due to risings costs, lower patronage and inflation. It closed in 1978, but was leased by the ACT government in 1993 for refurbishment. Room 205 was restored to what it had been during Chifley’s lifetime. 

The Kurrajong is now in private hands as a functioning hotel.

For additional history of the Hotel Kurrajong, why not visit the ACT Heritage library and peruse some of the books in the collection that  include political machinations and accounts by Canberra locals. We suggest Canberra’s Early Hotels: A Pint-sized History by Shirley Purchase (ed.); The Ghost Poetry Project by Nathan Curnow; and The Memories Linger On by Alan Foskett. 

Suggested books containing information about Hotel Kurrajong
Suggested books containing information about Hotel Kurrajong

Historical photographs can be found through Images ACT 

Visit Canberra - worth commenting about

With the new Canberra and Region Visitors Centre opening at Regatta Point this week, staff at the ACT Heritage Library thought it be a great opportunity to look back on past tourist experiences in this city.

Before social media comments, online forums and digital surveys, visitors' comments books were the easiest way to record how visitors felt about their trip to Canberra.
Visitors' Comments Books
Visitors' Comments Books
The ACT Heritage Library has two comments books covering 1987 to 1991. They were originally held at the former Canberra Visitors Centre on Northboune Avenue, where visitors could stop by, get information about what to see and do and write what was on their mind. The contents offer a plethora of observations about Canberra. While many tourists had only positive things to write, some less-than-happy comments may still ring true for people today.

Sample of Comments from the Visitors' Comments Book 08/09/1987 – 30/10/1991

Comments from the Visitors' Comments Book 08/09/1987 – 30/10/1991
Samples of Comments from the Visitors' Comments Books
We will leave it up to you to decide which, if any, reflect your own experience of Canberra. If you want to know more about the comments books, you can visit our Manuscripts Collection .

21 July 2016

Farewell to Robert Foster

It is with sadness that we learn of the death of local artist Robert Foster, who died on the morning of Wednesday 13 July 2016, after a traffic collision on Kings Highway. Known for his work in contemporary design and silver-smithing, his distinctive Fink jugs were an icon found in many restaurants and galleries around Canberra, and indeed the world.

Robert Foster with his renowned Fink jug
Robert Foster with his renowned Fink jug
Born in Victoria, Foster came to Canberra in 1981 when he enrolled in the Canberra School of Art at ANU to study gold and silver-smithing. In 1988, just two years after finishing his studies, his first work was purchased by the recently opened National Gallery of Australia.

That first jug, created from aluminium and using a sleek modern shape, was typical of Foster’s work, and it became a design icon. In 1993, Foster also created the design and manufacturing company Fink and co. which has been producing usable art ever since.

'Ossolites' at ActewAGL House
'Ossolites' at ActewAGL House
Using both traditional and experimental techniques, Foster often made jugs, lamps, teapots, coffee pots, platters and vases, as well as larger sculptures, such as ‘Ossolites’ in the foyer of the ActewAGL House in Civic. Each piece he made is imbued with a distinctive personality and movement; objects ‘that might, Nutcracker-suite style, come to life as the owner sleeps.’

He frequently exhibited at locations around Canberra, included the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Museum and Galley and Craft ACT.

 Fink and co. brochure
Fink and co. brochure
He once wrote that ‘the predominate driving force whilst making is to discover an object that expresses a story, an emotion, or a sense of meaning.’ Many people who have seen his work can express their appreciation for the years he spent creating beautiful objects for everyday use.

For an in-depth examination of his work see Robert Foster: Critical Play, edited by Merryn Gates, available for reference from the ACT Heritage Library. Quotes in this blog were also taken from this publication.

27 May 2016

Discovering Canberra through comics, graphic novels, newsletters and magazines

Have you ever thought about how Canberra is represented in other modes of literature besides books? Could we piece together Canberra's rich cultural and historical activities through other literature such as comics, magazines, newsletters and graphic novels?

The answer is: Absolutely!

The ACT Heritage Library holds an eclectic range of magazines and newsletters that represent local organisations and activities from the Canberra region over time. They can be found by searching the Libraries ACT CatalogueThese types of material often provide a snapshot of thoughts and attitudes within the content, whether it be City News, Canberra Cannons magazine, The Good Companion or any other title.

The Local Author Showcase at Civic Library reflects the ACT’s vibrant, active and diverse writing and publishing scene. It contains copies of recent books, graphic novels and comics by local authors and are available for borrowing. Our most recent comics in the showcase are Issue 5 of the Battle of the Blood Moon by Holly Hunt and Cthulu Williams by Tim Stiles.

Literature stays in the Local Author Showcase for two years from date of publication.  Using the Local Author Showcase webpage, you can click on an author's name to see which books are available.

The ACT Heritage Library also holds original manuscript collections. The collection contains the records of  local individuals, businesses and organisations, including the hand painted and drawn manuscript of a graphic novel titled The Invisible Planet by Julia Hart .

Hand painted and drawn illustrations of the novel 'The Invisible Planet' by Julia Hart

Discovering and learning about Canberra can be done in so many ways - what literature will you use next?

Want to learn more about our collection? Visit the ACT Heritage Library website. 

20 May 2016

Romaldo Giurgola's architecture is forever etched on the landscape of Canberra

While many of us are familiar with, and have probably visited, the ‘House on the Hill,’ we might not know that the remarkable design of Parliament House is by architect Romaldo Giurgola, who sadly passed away this week. 

Construction of the new Parliament House, February 1985
Image Source: ACT Heritage Library image 000731
Giurgola designed Parliament House to be incorporated and subsumed by the hill; a symbol of democracy that was not towering over the people like a fortress – but one that the people themselves could wander over and through. 

Giurgola had a deep and lifelong relationship with the city of Canberra, calling it ‘the splendid place’. Born in Italy in 1920, Giurgola was an admirer of Walter Burley Griffin’s plan for Canberra from his student days. Much later, when working in the US, he was asked to judge the winning design for Australia's new Parliament House. He declined the offer to judge, instead leaping at the chance to put his own entry forward. Giurgola loved Canberra from arrival in 1980 as winner of the competition over 329 other entries.  

In  his 1982 Walter Burley Griffin Memorial lecture, Giurgola spoke at length of the brilliance of Griffin’s design, as well as the importance of continuing to honour the uniquely Canberran integration of natural and built landscapes within the design of the new Parliament House. 

After the completion of the House, Giurgola designed the highly regarded St Thomas Aquinas Church in Charnwood, and built a weekend getaway home on the shores of Lake Bathurst, near Tarago. He became an Australian citizen on Australia Day, 2000 - the ceremony was held at Regatta Point, in full view of the House.

Giurgola permanently settled in Canberra in 1988, the year the House was opened, where he remained until his death on 16 May 2016.

The ACT Heritage Library holds the Walter Burley Griffin Memorial lecture that Giurgola spoke at as well as an array of publications about Parliament house from conception to construction. They can be found by searching the Libraries ACT Catalogue

Articles in local newspapers regarding the life of Romaldo Giurgola can be located using the library’s Newspaper Holdings webpage.


Giurgola, Romaldo.  1982, A place for everything and everything in its place . F.A.I.A., Walter Burley Griffin Memorial lecture, 8 September 1982, Canberra

04 May 2016

Waltons Quest of Quests Beauty Contest of 1979

The Australian department store chain Waltons' sponsored a number of Quest of Quest Beauty contests including the 1979 Quest of Quests final in Canberra, at Albert Hall, on 19 September. The event was attended by then Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser and his wife, Tamie Fraser; the Governor General Sir Zelman Cowen and his wife, Lady Cowen; and some two hundred guests.

The competition, made up of twelve finalists, was won by Jodie Day, aged seventeen, of Brisbane. Day won entry into the Miss World competition in London as Australia’s representative, a new car and $1,000. Other winners included Lorraine McGrady, winner of Miss Asia Australia title; Joanne Bacon, winner of Miss Young International title; and Debbie Newsome, winner of Miss International title.

The controversy generated by the Miss World pageant, particularly for its promotion of the bikini, affected the event at Albert Hall. It was objected to by several women’s organisations, such as the Women’s Electoral Lobby. Some particularly objected to the event being held in Canberra, a place for the recognition of serious national achievement. However The Canberra Times report of the final being televised focused on the boost to tourism with the then Minister for the Capital Territory, Mr Ellicott, reported saying "having the finals in Canberra was a very good promotion for the ACT". The article further adds that the finalists would be shown visiting tourist venues in the ACT during the televised program.

The ACT Heritage Library holds a number of colour photographs capturing how Albert Hall was set up to accommodate the event, a number of significant guests who attended and proceedings of the event, including the winning competitors. 

Articles in local newspapers of the event can be located using the ACT Heritage Library's Newspaper Holdings webpage.


1979, ‘Three million to watch quest final,’ The Canberra Times, 19 September, p. 9.

Rees, J.  1979, ‘Jodie Day is off to seek the world title,’ The Australian Women’s Weekly,  10 October 1979, p. 14-15.

Waltons (department store), 9 March 2016, Wikipedia, URL:

02 May 2016

Talking about trees - what ACT Forestry workers had to say in the mid 90s

In 1994 and 1995, historian Brendan O’Keefe conducted ten oral history interviews for a project titled A Social and Economic History of Forestry within the ACT.

Aerial view of cleaning in Hall’s Block, Uriarra Forest, 17/10/1951.
Image Source:
ACT Heritage Library image 009386

The interview subjects were men who had who had worked at ACT Forestry and the project was supported by funding from the
ACT Heritage Grants Program. These interviews give a fascinating and informative insight into the history of forests and forestry in the ACT.

Among the interview subjects is Bill Bates, a former Forestry Overseer at Uriarra Forest, who clocked up nearly 50 years services with ACT Forests.

Professor Lindsay Pryor, a former student of the Australian Forestry School in Canberra, was also interviewed. Professor Pryor was appointed Foundation Professor of Botany at the Australian National University (ANU) in 1958 and made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1983 for Services to Botanical Science.

Australian Forestry School, corner of Banks and Schlich Streets, Yarralumla, 1951.
Image Source:
ACT Heritage Library image 009132

It was believed that the original recordings of the interviews were lost in the 2003 Canberra bushfires; however, the interview transcripts were recently lodged with the ACT Heritage Library and are now available to be viewed by the public.

Researchers and interested members of the public can access these transcripts by visiting the ACT Heritage Library. Alternatively, they are available as PDF files for download via the Social and Economic History of Forestry within the ACT collection on the ACT Heritage Library website.

Want to know more about the history of forestry in the ACT? The ACT Heritage Library holds a number of interesting items, including