09 May 2017

Opening of Parliament House - looking back 90 years

Before the War Memorial was built, before the National Library or the Carillion or any other Canberra monument, there was Old Parliament House. As the ninetieth anniversary of its opening approaches, it’s good to look back at how the famous Canberra icon came to be.

The controversial construction of a provisional Parliament House, or as it’s more commonly known, Old Parliament House, was particularly distasteful to Walter Burley Griffin, who said it was like ‘filling a front yard full of outhouses' (Glover, 1927). Despite Griffin’s indignation, a temporary building designed by John Murdoch was given the go ahead and was officially opened on the 9 May 1927 by the Duke of York. The events of the day, full of ups and downs, survive in the accounts of William (Bill) Glover, the papers of Alexander Bruce and contemporary newspapers.

Despite expectations of nearly one hundred thousand visitors, no more than six thousand of the general public attended. Most people were put off by the lack of facilities and rumours of cold Canberra mornings. The small crowd disappointed organisers, as well as Queanbeyan pub owners who had banked on a thirsty crowd. The catering firm Sargents, who had quite literally prepared enough provisions to feed an army, ended up having to bury over four tonnes of uneaten food.
Locals who attend the opeing included George Blundell of Blundell’s Cottage and Alexander Bruce. The Lotts were among the lucky few officially invited to the ceremony. The only reported Aboriginal person to attend was also from the region. Contemporary accounts call him either ‘King Billy’ or ‘Marvellous’, the nicknames of two separate but well known personalities from the Canberra district.

Official invitation to Leslie Lott, 9 May 1927
Official invitation to Leslie Lott, 9 May 1927
Source: ACT Heritage Library Collection, HMSS 0140 Lott Family Collection
The formal events started with the arrival of parliamentarians, royals and other VIPS. Unfortunately, Bill and his regiment had to line the route for the Duke and Duchess of York and as such ‘that was about all we saw of the ceremony’ (Glover, 1927).  But Alexander’s program sheds light on the rest of the day. Dame Nellie Melba led the national anthem, accompanied by the Canberra Symphonic Orchestra. There were grand speeches by politicians and the Duke of York, a hymn and lots of pageantry. Then the Duke unlocked the doors of Parliament House with a gold key and everyone (including the Griffins and John Murdoch, who by all accounts were still not speaking to each other) was able to officially go inside. Parliament in all its glory sat for one day in the new, specially built House.

Inside left of official invitation to Leslie Lott, 9 May 1927
Inside left of official invitation to Leslie Lott, 9 May 1927
Source: ACT Heritage Library Collection, HMSS 0140 Lott Family Collection

Inside right of official invitation to Leslie Lott, 9 May 1927
Inside right of official invitation to Leslie Lott, 9 May 1927
Source: ACT Heritage Library Collection, HMSS 0140 Lott Family Collection
The ceremony finished with a military review and display from the assembled units. Tragically, Flying Officer F. E. Ewen of the RAAF, a Duntroon cadet originally from Eden, crashed in front of Parliament House in full view of everyone watching. He later died in Canberra Hospital. Bill, who participated in the review with his regiment, remembers that Ewen ‘had a feeling that something was going to happen' (Glover 1927) and went round saying goodbye to all his friends in the camp. The day closed and people went home, while parliament was left with the job of moving the whole administration up to Canberra. They would not sit again until September.

Despite the crash, the cold and the low turnout, the press were mightily impressed with the building and ceremony. Ever since its opening, Old Parliament House has featured prominently in tourist photographs and memorabilia, like postcards and Iris Millington's silk scarf from the 1960s. It has often been a symbol for Canberra.

Parliament House, Canberra, front facade looking southeast, Circa 1930s
Parliament House, Canberra, front facade looking southeast, Circa 1930s
Source: ACT Heritage Library Collection, HMSS 0250 Commercial Postcards of the Australian Capital Territory Collection, Image No. 1930/003

Silk scarf, designed by Iris Millington, Circa 1960s
Silk scarf, designed by Iris Millington, Circa 1960s
Source: ACT Heritage Library Collection, HMSS 0399 Canberra Souvenir Scarf 
Even though there have been several renovations, including the hasty addition of female toilets to accommodate the first women in Parliament, the House became cramped and aged. It was decided that a new house needed to be built just up the hill, in honour of Griffin’s original design.

After the new house was opened, Old Parliament House was at a bit of a loose end. Despite original predictions about ‘outhouses,’ no one really wanted to destroy the building and it was still a highly popular tourist destination. After much deliberation it became the Museum of Australian Democracy, a fitting purpose for a building that saw major national events like the formation of Aboriginal Tent Embassy and the dismissal of the Whitlam government. It remains standing today, as Bill mentioned all those years ago, sitting in its planned gardens and parkland, ‘a beautiful building in the centre of what will indeed be a garden city (Gover, 1927).

Federal Parliament House, Canberra, from Senate side, hand coloured, Circa 1930s
Federal Parliament House, Canberra, from Senate side, hand coloured, Circa 1930s
Source: ACT Heritage Library Collection, HMSS 0250 Commercial Postcards of the Australian Capital Territory Collection, Image No. 1930/039
The ACT Heritage Library has significant holdings relating to Old Parliament House, including original maps and plans, HMSS 0271 William Glover Letter from Canberra 1927, HMSS 0406 AE Bruce Collection, HMSS 0140 Lott Family Collection and a large range of photographs on Images ACT and publications in the library catalogue.

Bibliography

1927 'Aeroplane Crash.', The Federal Capital Pioneer Magazine (Canberra, ACT : 1926 - 1927) , 20 May, p. 26. , viewed 22 Sep 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article66351153

1927 'The Canberra Air Crash.', The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1889 - 1931), 11 May, p. 14. , viewed 22 Sep 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article43574665

200? ‘Self-guided tour : Old Parliament House : 45 Minutes’, Old Parliament House, Canberra

Anglin, L, 1988. Adaptive re-use: Provisional Parliament House, Canberra, Australia. Thesis. Sydney: University of Sydney

Coulthard-Clark, C. D."The Aborigine Who Came to the Opening of Parliament House." Canberra Historical Journal, No.21, March 1988

Dick, G. 1977, ‘Parliament House Canberra: Golden Jubilee,’ Australian Government Publishing Services for Joint House Department, Canberra

Hogan, H. c. 1997, ‘Parliament House Canberra, 1927 : records relating to the design, construction and opening of the provisional Parliament House,’ National Archives of Australia, Canberra

National Capital Development Commission, 1988, ‘Sites of significance in the A.C.T.,’ NCDC, Canberra

HMSS 0271 William Glover Letter from Canberra 1927

HMSS 0250 Commercial Postcards of the Australian Captial Territory Collection

HMSS 0399 Canberra Souvenir Scarf