Canberra didn’t build itself
One of the early atrocities of Canberra’s creation, which began 100 years ago today, was the official obliteration of much of its extraordinary history. It wasn’t only the the original inhabitants who for decades were written out of the histories by politicians and bureaucrats intent on overseeing a white imperial capital.
The people who built the place also were erased from the recorded past by the removal of buildings and facilities too humble for the grandness the planners wanted.
One consequence has been that Canberra has an artificial past lacking flesh and blood, which has made it easy for non-resident critics to poke fun. Actually, its history has a powerful thread of humanity quite removed from politicians and public servants who have come to represent the city.
The centenary celebrations of Australia’s most successful decentralisation projects will highlight that thread and add a dimension to Canberra for outsiders.
There is a steep hillside leading down to Lake Burley Griffin which starts just below the streets of embassies and large houses of Yarralumla. The Commonwealth Club, where knighted department chiefs used to literally look down on the slope, is just up the road.
A sign at the slope’s lip reads Westlake 1922-1965 Pop 1925 700.
Below it is a scrabbly stretch down to the lake, an area which once held a proud and busy community of families and workers, some of whom still live in the capital.
Westlake was where the Government housed the workers who built the city, from its temporary Parliament House to the tunnels that drained away its waste.
It was also a place where children were raised and went to school. (The extraordinary historian Ann Gugler, who arrived in Canberra in 1941, knows all).
The stretch of land, which is now largely covered by water and lies between the plush Hyatt Hotel and the Canberra Yacht Club, had addresses such as No3 Sewer Camp, and The Tradesmen’s Camp.
In 1925 those 700 people represented close to 16 per cent of Canberra’s then population, and almost all the hard physical work in making the city emerge from the Limestone Plains.
For 40 years the township was an active community of people from dozens of countries who saw the construction of the city through a depression and a world war, and whose creations are still in use today.
There were 62 wooden house built for families. But now only a few plaques at the top of the hill note their existence.
The hoses were dismantled in the 1960s. Most evidence of Westlake was hauled away or buried under the rubble from the building sites. There are some tracks still surviving in the hush and the concrete foundations of a toilet block. But the signs of the people of Westlake have gone.
Other work camp sites in the area - Eastlake, Russell Hill, Causeway for example—have been built over and remain as identifiable addresses. Westlake has simply disappeared, sent back to bush like a discarded.
Which is to the loss of Canberra and the rest of Australia.
There is a strange belief elsewhere in Australia that Canberra simply happened, as if it fell from the sky in final form, complete with clipped hedges and pampered inhabitants.
Thousands of people bent their backs to the task of carving Canberra from a group of farms. These people should be recognised because without them there would not be a centenary to celebrate.
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